Beethoven's Mask: Notes on My Life and Times

by George Jonas
415 pages,
ISBN: 1552637107

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Jonas's Masque
by David Solway

In the Preface to his memoirs, novelist and political columnist George Jonas quotes his wit-dispensing and oracular father, a professional baritone reminiscing about his role in Verdi's Un Ballo In Maschera. The world reminds him of a masked ball. Europe in particular is a Venetian carnival, "with assassins dressed up as lyric poets. Butchers lurk in ducal palaces, wearing Beethoven's mask. The mask is Beethoven's, but the voice is Beria's." European civilisation is an abattoir with the imposing fatade of an opera house in which masked figures strut and promenade, plying the recitative of violence and coercion. But now the voice is not only Beria's, for "waiting in the wings" of this feral and ludicrousłbut also fascinatingłperformance Jonas is "noting" with his own analogical score, is the newest member of the cast, "a muezzin with a loudspeaker, calling suicide bombers to prayer." So begins Beethoven's Mask: Notes on My Life and Times: the author steps forward as protagonist in a kind of modern masque or mixed opera with its multiple plot lines, catchy melodies, intricate figurations, and, as is often the case, menacing backdrop, finding as he sets it all down that the "the story [is]. . . absurd" but "the music irresistible."
Jonas is not averse to the mask per se, and indeed comes equipped with his own elaborate panoply of expository guises: adventurer, lover, philosopher, political analyst, poet, prodigal son, wandering Jew, lay theologian, everyday Beethoven, librettist par excellence. As he warms to his subject, Jonas introduces us to his high school music teacher in postwar Budapest, with the cumbrous nickname of Chief Cow and "the forbidding features of a Beethoven death mask."Among the pedagogue's various obligations was the practical duty of distributing milk to his students, which accounted for his sobriquet. This, too, is one of the masks Jonas wearsłthe mask of the preceptor who nourishes us with a lifetime's learning and tested wisdom. But there is one mask that Jonas adamantly refuses to wear, the "mask of justice behind which political fashions and ideological agendas regularly hide." There will be no dissembling here. Instead, Jonas puts on an entertaining but wholly candid performance, switching from one key to another, oscillating between the poles of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, singing arias, reciting poems, cracking jokes, telling stories, but also offering an acid critique of contemporary mores and a reminder that, in the last analysis, we do not live in a simulacrum or an allegory. The murders that take place on the world's stage, lurid or flamboyant, leave real corpses behind.
The structuring metaphor is a complex one and cuts in several directions, since the mask may function as both a deception and a disclosure, a form of camouflage and the presumable expression of character. Or perhaps it is not simply a question of one or the other but of the dialectical interplay between mask and face, with Jonasłand, by implication, the larger culturełresembling the phantom of the opera (Gaston Leroux is mentioned in text), with only half-mask cloaking partial disfigurement and making lush Webberian music to carry the improbable plot. Whatever way we parse these involutions, the issue here is really one of identityłof the unstable amalgam of good and evil, humour and portentousness, probity and folly, laboured truth and facile delusion, rooted ancestry and windborne autonomy, the authentic and the imaginaryłthat constitutes what we call "personality", from the Latin root persona, or mask.
These are questions that Jonas has clearly considered. In writing his memoirs, he composes his "self" by trying onłthat is, narratingła series of apt and congenial correlates or masks. But in doing so, the essential features of that fugitive modality begin to emerge, those of the picaro-of-letters, antic philosopher, and savvy chronicler of the modern age.
And so, in glittering prose and with coruscating wit, he proceeds to construct not only a sprightly autobiography but a sober historical document. The miscellany of personal episodes he regales us with (the "Life") are both amusing and poignantłthe gallery of memorable relatives, the narrow escapes under the Nazis and the Communists, the ladies, the jobs, the eccentric friends and mentors, the passion for motorcycle racing. But the real substance of the book (the "Times") comprises a set of somber reflections on the century we have just survived and the century we may not. Thus, we are given an astute political analysis of the organizing principles around which countries, commonwealths, and supranational entities cohere, with a view to explaining both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the long-term fragility of the European Union. (If you want to know why the new united Europe will probably not fly as long as Jonas, an amateur pilot, has, this book is as incisive as it is indispensable.) Closer to home, there follows a devastating etiology of "the Canadian sickness," the disease of "third wave statism . . . which could accomplish precisely what Fascism and Communism failed to achieve." In Jonas's estimation, Canada, with its central planning, social engineering, and command economy, is "the glossiest, the most sophisticated, and the most up-to-date version of the illiberal state," modern Europe's transatlantic outpost. His description of the fine Canadian art of fence-sitting is equally trenchant. "Since the 1960s Canada has tried to achieve moral leadership by observing strict neutrality between good and evil." And his put-down of the CBC, where he spent much of his salaried life, should be read by anyone who still believes in the competence, relevance, and impartiality of the national broadcaster.
He subsequently turns his attention to what has been called "the Jewish question," which is central to his understanding of self and thus occupies a major portion of the text. For a Jew who, until his marriage to Barbara Amiel in 1974, had never seen the inside of a synagogue, the issues of Jewish continuity and identity have come to acquire a belated importance. Jonas acknowledges that his Jewish wedding may have "corresponded with something felt, deeply if dimly, in my otherwise secular being," but concludes, "I ponder these contradictions . . . this too is Jewish continuity, I suppose." His construal of the malignant phenomenon of anti-Semitism and the puzzle of Jewish identity is also worth reading as yet another contribution to the literary and diagnostic attempt to shed light on such tortuous dilemmas. These passages are reminiscent of earlier self-questioning in the work of Jewish thinkers like Peter Gay, Hans Mayer (a.k.a. Jean AmTry), Alain Finkielkraut, and Eric Hobsbawm. In Weimar Culture, for example, Gay writes that "some Germans . . . discovered themselves to be Jews because the Nazi government told them that is what they were." Mayer, in At The Mind's Limits, recounts that he found out he was a Jew with the passing of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935. Finkielkraut, reflecting on his experience in France, entitles one of his books Le juif imaginaire, and Hobsbawm, about as non-Jewish a Jew as one can hope to find, comments in his memoir, Interesting Times, "though entirely unobservant, we nevertheless knew that we were, and could not get away from, being Jews." Similarly, Jonas writes that his Jewishness "was not defined by dietary laws, Friday candles, or Hebrew phrases in a prayer book. It was defined by a yellow star sewn to my lapel by my mother, in my native Budapest, as required by Nazi law." The question becomes: Is the inside, so to speak, determined by the outside? Is the kaleidoscope shaken by an external hand to create a pattern or the semblance of a pattern, so that an identity is projected upon the Jew by a world for which the many conflicting aspects of Judaism, its multiplicity of competing practices and convictions, and the perplexity of the individual postulant are of no account whatsoever? As the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, wrote in his founding pamphlet, The Jewish State, the Jews were "one peoplełour enemies have made us one."
The issue of external reification notwithstanding, the mystery of Jewish identity and self-definition persists. In seeking a solution to this conundrum, Jonas dismisses, perhaps a little too casually, the factors of nation, faith, and cultural derivation, which leaves only "tribal affiliation, coupled with a cultural choice . . . You were a Jew precisely if you were of Jewish descent, and continued to define yourself as Jewish." The notion of Jewish descent, however, merely begs the question, since it does not specify what actually does the descending. But the idea of choice, of self-election, may serve as a partial though significant determinant. The elusiveness of a metaphysical identity-core does not preclude the possibility of acceding to a historical option, of voluntary self-identification as a Jew in one's own as well as the world's eyes. Freud himself, in the Preface to the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo, claimed that he grasped his own Jewishness "in its very essence," although he "could not now express that essence clearly in words." The Jew remains a Jewłand I believe Jonas would concurłbecause he cannot validly discard nearly 80 generations of quasi-nucleic substance that creates a feeling of collective belonging, even if he cannot say with assurance precisely what he belongs to, and because at some level he intuits that the world will not tolerate indefinitely the ruses of self-evasion or the assumption of secularity he is tempted to embrace.
Perhaps the most critically penetrating aspect of this book is Jonas's prolonged examination of the New Left. One might regard it as a study of the intellectual malady of being wrong about nearly everything while claiming ideological infallibility and the moral high ground. Jonas does not mince words. This infirmity, he asserts, affects "mainly individuals of above-average learning, intellect, and moral preoccupation (or conceit) . . . Certain errors require high IQs." The prevalence of intellectual error also entails a broad community of assent, the approval of those who have been "educated . . . beyond their intellectual means" and who provide support for the left-liberal ethos that dominates the contemporary sensibility. It is not always easy to tell whether the rot starts at the top or the bottom, among the intellectual class or, as Jonas puts it, among illiterates who have been taught to read and write, that social echelon of "cultural consumers without culture" who suffer from mass curriculitis. (Many will reproach him as arrogant and overweening, though, having spent half my life in the pedagogical trenches, I suspect Jonas may be on to something.) Does the top reflect the bottom or is the bottom contaminated from above? Clearly, the top bears a greater responsibility for the spread of the syndrome, in virtue of its didactic authority, its access to research materials, its enjoyment of privileged time for scholarship, and ultimately, its capacity to produce what counts as a profane Vulgate.
Jonas freely admits that his political allegiance is a neoconservative one, but observes that the currently pejorative term "neoconservative" is really a misapplied synonym for "classical liberal". (Or as political columnist Daniel Johnson has remarked, "a neoconservative today is a liberal who has been bombed.") As such, Jonas does not scruple to indict the Left for a veritable blizzard of fallacies and misconceptions, including its protracted love affair with the Soviet Union, its embrace of the Arab states which were Moscow's political clients, its adopting the cause of the Palestinian resistance, which (as he writes in Vengeance) had itself "resolved by the late 1960s to make common cause with international Communism," its rejection of Israel which it sees as a colonial beachhead of the United States, its retention of Marxist principles even after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the evident bankruptcy of Communism as a worldwide salvific movement, its inability or unwillingness to confront the theocratic and totalitarian forces abroad in the world, and its craven tendency to call a spade a spud, huddling behind the language of political correctness that prevents the West from identifying the enemy who schemes its destruction and the real nature of events impinging upon it with ever-increasing ferocity. For Jonas, the ideology that now governs the academy, the trade unions, the media, and our political elites, with their markdown ideas and baleful influence on public opinion, may well be the most insidious threat we face.
At the conclusion of these memoirs, resembling at one and the same time classical masque, beggar's opera, and tragic oratorio, Beethoven's mask reappears as a "framed drawing on my wall," a death mask of the composer sketched by the author's mother as an art class assignment, and dated 9/11, 1920. The date is, of course, eerily premonitory, heralding not the end of history, as some have claimed, but the end of history as most of us have known it. The death mask hanging on the wall, strangely evocative of Browning's lines, "That's my last duchess painted on the wall, /looking as if she were alive," bears the lineaments of a great civilization in all its operatic magnitude that now seems effectively moribund, witlessly colluding with its own demise. The music composed by Beethoven is conducted by Clio, the Muse of History, who has another grand finale in mind, transforming a classical harmonic into an Islamic nuba. We come back to the muezzin we met in the first scene or movement. The kettledrums can still be heard, but the notes have been drawn and quartered.
Beethoven's Mask is in many ways an extraordinary performance, rich in pageantry and orchestration, its timbre gradually deepening as it approaches its denouement. For what begins as a collection of reminiscences, obiter dicta, anecdotes, cultural analytics, and assorted commentaries on this and that ends up sounding very much like a requiem for a civilisation. It recalls in some ways Beethoven's opera Fidelio, which contains great and resonating musicłthe Leonora 3 overture and the memorable Prisoners' Chorusłand repeated trumpet calls from offstage, mingled with a considerable amount of Singspiel, proliferating subplots, disguises, and comic flourishes. The mode is distinctly playful, at least initially, but there is a solemn turn toward the introduction of serious and weighty musical themes, so that a certain inconsistency of tone seems to permeate the score. And yet, as in Fidelio, we know that in Beethoven's Mask, for all its tonal and thematic syncopations, we are in the presence of a complex and substantial work which will continue to reverberate on a far larger stage than the merely personal. Jonas has assumed his proper identity as a cultural historian of credential with a powerful creative impulse, having earned the right to wear the composer's mask whose voice is entirely his own. ņ

David Solway's The Big Lie: Reflections on Terror, Anti-Semitism and Identity will appear in early 2007.

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