Touchdowns and Doctor Atomic

As I am writing this, it is the Monday morning after Superbowl Sunday here in America.  I had an odd experience on Saturday, the day before the big game.  I was at the market in the afternoon, and as I walked up to the butcher counter I recognized I had stepped into a “man-zone”.  Men stood in a group in front of the counter, admiring and pointing at pieces of beef, and strangers were engaged in animated discussion about the players and teams in the Super Bowl.  The butchers were chatting up the customers, who were well versed in each teams strengths.  I have to admit that I don’t follow sports very much.  I am a man’s man, and usually glean enough from the headlines to say something acceptable in these situations, but this time around I didn’t even know the teams involved in the big game.  I was as out of place at the meat counter, as was the basket I carried, full of oranges, apples and bananas for a fruit smoothie to be made later.  

ColosseumFor a long time I didn’t understand the group psychology of the rabid sports fan.  I am such a private hermit, stuck in my own mind too often, with a nose in a book or earphones on listening to music.  I engage in lots of individual experiences, connecting with the author or characters of a book, sharing musical experiences with the composer and performers of a work.  The sports experience seems to be much more a communal cultural event.  People come together to root for their team, wear team logos, connect with other fans and feel themselves like winners when their team is victorious.  Sports champions are idolized, and as a culture, we seem to value the communal sports event greatly, at least to the extent that there is a great deal of money involved.

Confession time.  I held a lot of resentment for how much importance our culture places on sports.  My field of study in school (music) falls into the humanities side of university life, and the humanities have not been valued very much since the end of World War II.  Science, technology, and mathematics have been king, queen and emperor in the most recent past, along with professional and vocational tracks.  There is a great deal of emphasis on the economic merit of your schooling, i.e. what job are you training for.  I had a great deal of resentment for how athletes or students of the sciences seemingly never had to justify what they were doing.  Students and scholars in the humanities seem to ALWAYS feel like they have to prove why what they do has some value.  I struggled greatly with the idea of why it was important to study music.  Likewise, I think the student of English, philosophy, art, literature, theater or any other humanity is constantly facing the question of why they are spending time with their subject.  “What are you going to do with a degree in that?”

For the most part, I grew weary of the question and became even more private with my musical activities.  Some musicians just surround themselves with other musicians, and only run in circles where the question of “Why Music?” just isn’t asked.  The inherent value of musical activity is assumed, but not articulated.  It is self-evident, and time is spent on music making rather than justifying musical activity.  I turned inward and began to listen, read, write and compose simply for myself and the desk drawer.  I’m a little like Henry David Thoreau, without the pond, just doing my own thing and not caring what anyone thinks.  I haven’t tried to articulate why music (or the arts and humanities) is of valuable importance in a very long time.  

The usual thought for someone advocating the Great Books or Western Canon, the “classics” that I have been touching upon in my previous two posts, is that the Great Books teach us principles that have an everlasting pertinence to all people everywhere.  Principles of what it is to be human, in any time and any place.  (The Great Books people have been accused of many things, but rarely accused of humility.)  But even such a brilliant man as Harold Bloom is reduced to empty vacuous pieties when responding to the question of why read Shakespeare, his favorite author.  “The answer to the question ‘Why Shakespeare’ must be ‘Who else is there?’”,  writes Bloom in his giant volume titled “Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human”.  A little later on in the introduction he writes, “He is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go”, and “If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare”.  All high praise, but not very effective in answering the question of “Why?”.  

Six SongsIn music, there seems to be a universal presence of music making activities in all known cultures and civilizations.  In the Daniel Levitin book “The World in Six Songs”, he points out that “There is no known culture now or anytime in the past that lacks it [music], and some of the oldest human-made artifacts found at archaeological sites are musical instruments.”  Levitin goes on to present his ideas on how there are basically six kinds of songs that humans create, songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love.  He has some very interesting, and perhaps radical things to say in his book, and certainly shows some of the ways human culture use music.  Elena Mannes points out in her book “The Power of Music”, that “We humans know instinctively that music has primal power.”  She points out that “Archaeologist in Slovenia recently unearthed a flute that had been fashioned from the femur of a bear by our Neanderthal cousins.”, a flute that is 36,000 years old and more than twice as old as the cave paintings in Lascaux, France.  So people have seemingly always made music, and used it for lots of stuff, but I still don’t have a satisfactory answer to the question of “Why?”.  

The several arguments that are the usual defense of the humanities.  One is to say that the humanities are a study of the meaning making practices of a culture.  People express meaning through their art/literature/music etc.  Another argument for the study of the humanities is that they contribute in some way to the individual and collective happiness of humans.  A way of working out the issues, inner conflicts, and inner struggles of what it means to be human.  A third argument is one that is often presented to government agencies when searching for funding for the arts.  That argument is that democracy needs the humanities, because they teach us a range of ways of understanding what a society is, how human beings live and work together. What the underlying values are, what we mean by justice or the human good, in ways that are not defined simply by economic worth. The fourth common argument in support of the humanities says simply that they have intrinsic value, which is little more than saying they are important because they are important.  This thought plays well among artists, writers, actors, musicians, and philosophers who already believe what they are doing has value, and does little to convince someone who doesn’t see the value of the humanities of what that intrinsic value is.  

I am certainly not claiming to have a well articulated, all-persuasive argument for why music or any of the humanities is valuable.  In 1997 Don Campbell wrote a stupid, stupid book titled “The Mozart Effect”, discussing the theory that listening to Mozart may temporarily raise a person’s IQ and have other beneficial mental effects.  This was based on a misunderstanding and bastardization of a 1993 study published in Nature about what effect listening to some music by Mozart had on a specific test of spatial reasoning.  This led to a sequel book entitled “The Mozart Effect for Children” and an entire line of musical recording that hopeful parents were supposed to play for their toddlers to make them smart and have higher IQ scores.   I call it “stupid” because it reduces the importance of Mozart, and by extension music, to how it can make kids perform better in science, math and technology.  Humanities are again subservient to the ever present technocracy that has existed since World War II.  

Mozart, Andante from Piano Concerto 21

J. Robert Oppenheimer
J. Robert Oppenheimer

I think the tortured figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer reveals some of the ways that the sciences and humanities might interact and be equally important to human life and culture.  Oppenheimer became known as the “father of the atomic bomb”, for his role in the Manhattan Project which created the first nuclear weapons.  He was deeply troubled by the technology with which he worked, physics that could be used for a peaceful, plentiful energy source or also used to created the most destructive weapons that have ever existed.  Once it was clear that a weapon was technically feasible, for Oppenheimer “The issues became purely the military, the political and the humane problems of what you were going to do about it once you had it.”  He was said to have thought to himself “”I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, after the first successful nuclear explosion test.  During the development of the atomic bomb, he was an invaluable adviser to the highest levels of the American military and government.  After WWII ended, he fell out of favor. Oppenheimer was hounded by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, called up to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949, and ultimately stripped of his security clearance for potential communist sympathies.  


Doctor AtomicOppenheimer’s story has been dealt with in the Heinar Kipphardt’s play In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer as well as the play Oppenheimer by Tom Morton-Smith.   A biography entitled American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005) by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin won a Pulitzer Prize.  Of all the treatments of Oppenheimer’s story, I am most familiar with the 2005 John Adams opera, Doctor Atomic.  The theme that is most prominent is the question of the scientist’s’ responsibility toward humanity, and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s struggle with those questions.  Not just the scientific achievement of what we CAN do, but the questions of what SHOULD we do.  These are questions of values,  judgement, of what is good and what is right.  These questions are wrestled with in the area of the Humanities.  Questions about science and it’s capabilities, and man’s ego,  were central to the story in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Dr. Frankenstein messes around with creating life and creates a monster.  The early Japanese Godzilla films started as a similar cautionary tale of an enormous, violent, prehistoric sea monster awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation, a monster that was a metaphor for the destructive power of the nuclear bomb before it was a pop icon.  The German legend of Faust has a scholar selling his soul to the devil for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.  Even in the Biblical Garden of Eden, the fruit that gets Adam and Eve into the trouble that causes them to be kicked out of paradise is from the tree of Knowledge.  Oppenheimer’s is a real life story that fights with the issues of how the atomic fruit of the technical knowledge he worked on has kicked humanity out of the Eden of the Pre-Nuclear age.  

I still may not be able to clearly articulate what the intrinsic value of studying the humanities really is, but it is clear that the values, questions, ethics, and human qualities that are being worked out in all of the various subjects in the humanities are real, relevant and unavoidable.  

John Adams, Doctor Atomic, “Batter My Heart”

John Adams, Doctor Atomic, “Am I Your Light?”


9 thoughts on “Touchdowns and Doctor Atomic

Add yours

  1. I love this! Humanities and music are forever intertwined. I write often about music in my classroom, and your view and voice will add to my pathways of teaching and writing. Thank you!

  2. My first posting on this site focused on Oppenheimer. The man was so caught up in the competitive thrill of beating the Germans in the atomic race, his reaction was one of ambivalent confusion when his team actually achieved that goal. And when the goal was achieved, Oppenheimer assumed his Pandora’s box would be used as a threat to intimidate the Japanese and quickly put an end to the War. Little did he realize the box would not only be opened, but put to full catastrophic use.

  3. I never wanted to go to college and study music. I was in a rock band, and that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life! Ah, the foolish dreams of youth…and all the time my poor Dad just saying things like “maybe some business training might HELP you in the music biz…” How I wish I would have listened. But I did go to college, where I learned many things. Some knowledge is still as automatic as breathing, some has been long forgotten. But I have never had what most consider a “real” job since I was 22 years old. But when the movers and shakers of the business and tech world need to let down their hair(so to speak!) and have a good time, my gig as Musician/entertainment expert is about as “real” a job as it gets. What I do is not taught by professors in classrooms. It is learned through years of observation,failures, and triumphs,trial and error(lots of it!) in country club ballrooms and dingy barrooms, from luxurious cruise ships to broken down pianos in broken down saloons for broken down drunks. I’ve had two educations;one in the classroom, and one in the street. Sometimes I don’t know which I value more, but I’ve needed them both. And I never planned to do this, it just happened. And I don’t regret a minute of it. Most of the time…

  4. My favourite post of yours. Really intelligent grappling with a hugely familiar debate. The humanities are well-named. They deal with what it means to be human. I believe that it will become clear in future years that without art, humans cannot function at all. But at present, like art, that is just a feeling. Feelings are not valued in our culture. They are female. Emotional intelligence is rarely admired. When asked, during the Second World War what was the point of saving artwork at risk of destruction, Churchill apparently answered “what are we fighting for then?”

  5. To quote something that Winston Churchill may or may not have said;

    “If we were to cut funding to the arts in order to pay for Britain’s war then what would we be fighting for?”


    Not to get too political here but we have lost sight of that kind of priority. Our wars are about other things now. Keep composing & teaching music. Thank you for your posting. Dr Atomic is one of those librettos I definitely plan on studying.

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