Shattering Wholes: Creatively Subverting the University and Other Mobs–Another Fragment

“You see, it’s easy for the musicians to feel as if they were serving the conductor. They even call their rehearsals and performances ‘services.’ The very physical structure of the organization—with the orchestra radiating out from a central raised platform and the conductor standing over them—promotes that dynamic. In this kind of an environment, many orchestral musicians feel disconnected.”

“Yes,” I said, nodding. “It’s a perfect setup for ‘Shut up, and do what you’re told.’”

“Exactly. The very context of an orchestra fosters a culture in which the players don’t own the work; the conductor does.”

–Roger Nierenberg


There is a difference between trusting someone as a leader, and being dependent on someone. Leadership depends upon trust. What depends upon dependency is something else, however. It is tyranny. Leaders build trust in those they lead. Tyrants build insecurity.

The approach to conducting that Roger Nierenberg models in his Music Paradigm program—as embodied in his novel Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening (Portfolio, 2009), from early in which (page 20) the citation above is taken—provides a fine example of genuine leadership. As the citation suggests, the exercise of such leadership may well require working against the grain of the very organizational or institutional setting within which it takes place. That is especially the case whenever that setting is both built upon and designed to foster dependency rather than trust.

Nierenberg makes the connection between leadership—at least the sort he models—and trust explicit in an even earlier passage, near the very start of the novel (page 5). The fictional narrator, a business executive facing a downturn in company business, comes home from work one day and overhears a conversation between his daughter and Robert, her music teacher, about the new conductor in the orchestra to which he belongs. His interest perked by what he hears, the narrator asks Robert what is so special about the new conductor. Robert replies: “When he’s on the podium it’s as if the differences between us [various musicians in the orchestra] somehow magically disappear, which in turn promotes trust and confidence.” “Trust in him?” the narrator asks. After hesitation, Robert replies: “I guess so. But I think we get the feeling that he trusts us. Somehow that makes us work together so much better. It never seems as if he’s dictating. You always feel like you’re contributing toward something bigger than yourself.”

As Nierenberg depicts his sorts of conductors, they, too, are guided by a vision of something bigger than themselves. In the later parts of the brief novel, the maestro of the title repeatedly points to how the good conductor must always be guided by such a vision. In the case of conductors, it is an auditory vision, as it were. That is: a vision of how the score being played here and now by this given orchestra, with all of its diverse parts with diverse talents and degrees of accomplishment, can sound, if all the diverse musician that make up the orchestra can indeed be brought fully to trust themselves and one another, and give themselves over to the piece.

The “eyes” that can see such visions—regardless of whether they be eyes or ears or whatever other organs—are the eyes of love. Leadership guided by such visions, and in turn guiding others to share them, is a loving leadership.   It is creative: it brings into being.

Such leadership is magical.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Mentioning magic, at one point in his book-length analysis of the Harry Potter films, published just this last spring (Harry Potter: À l’école des sciences morales et politique, PUF, 2014, page 51), Jean-Claude Milner remarks that “one might define magic as an integrally anti-capitalist enterprise. Because it can transform objects without labor and without machines, it makes the material base of capitalism, which is to say surplus value and the power of labor, disappear.”

So conceived, magic—as celebrated not only in the Harry Potter novels and films, which might, because their lack of significant Christian references, be accused of blasphemy by those defensive about their Christianity,* but also in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and other hobbit” narratives, and even in C. S. Lewis’s blatantly Christian Chronicles of Narnia—is inherently subversive of the ruling power of our endless day. Yet magic, of course, has a power of its own, one that can all too easily be made to undergo a completely non-magical transformation into the snakiest imaginable servant of what the better angels of its nature would have it subvert.

There is a scene towards the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I—which came out in 2010, the first of the two-part finale to the Harry Potter films—that serves well as a counter-model to the leadership exemplified by Nierenberg’s “maestro.” Voldemort, the Dark Lord of the films, has returned, literally from the other side of the grave, to grasp a second time for unchallenged power over wizards, witches, and “Muggles” (i.e., ordinary mortals) alike. He has called all the heads of the old sorcerer families that supported his return together at one of their castles, and at one point during the proceedings he subjects the entire assembly to a demonstration of his power, and of what awaits any of them who may for whatever reason run afoul of it. Voldemort floats the paralyzed but very much still living and conscious body of Charity Burbage, Professor of Muggle Studies at the Hogwarts school of sorcery who has made the mistake of teaching the equality of Muggles and sorcerers and the legitimacy of marriage between them, above the table where they are all seated. “Dinner!” says Voldemort after speaking a few apt words, therewith unleashing Nagini, the magical snake who is his irreplaceable supporting companion, to devour her as they watch.

The lesson is clear, as Milner notes in his book on the Harry Potter films when he discusses the scene. By his act, writes Milner (pages 107-108), Voldemort lets those who have thought to serve themselves by serving him “see a close-up of what they had chosen to ignore: the power they have worked to put in place accepts no limits to its own exercise.” Such a power will exercise itself, regardless of consequences. By its very nature, it is cruel, such that “even if a cruelty shows itself to have no utility [on its own], that will be no reason not to pursue it to the extreme.” Indeed, “to the contrary,” since the whole point of such egregious acts of cruelty is precisely to display the unlimited nature of the claim to power so exercised. What those who are made to witness such displays have thrust upon their attention is their own impotence in the face of such power. “In a general way,” what Voldemort’s act of wanton cruelty makes clear is that, under such a sovereign power as his, “rational politics will never have the last word, because the last word comes back to Voldemort’s pleasure.”

Milner calls attention to the parallels between the fictional character of Voldemort and the historical one of Hitler. In the case at hand, the parallel is between the “old families” of wizards and witches who help Voldemort rise to power in the story of Harry Potter, on the one hand, and the rich industrialists and other “conservative” elements of German society who did the same for Hitler in the 1930s, on the other. The “old families” in the Potter narratives are enamored of themselves because of what they perceive as the “superiority” their magic powers give them over the Muggles, and protective of the privileges that accrues to them through those magic powers. Just like the rich under the Weimar Republic, merely replacing “magic” with “money” and “Muggles” with “hoi polloi.”

Unfortunately, a sense of superiority easily follows upon the recognition that one has been given special powers, whether those powers be magical, mental, or musical. In turn, that sense of superiority brings in its own train defensiveness against anything perceived as challenging it. Thus, as Milner is quick to point out, the sense of superiority that goes with the recognition that one has unusual talents or gifts is nearly always accompanied by the fear of inferiority—of somehow not being worthy of having the very powers one finds oneself to have.

That is especially so when the special powers at issue are dispensed randomly, without their recipients having done or been anything special to deserve them.   However, that is exactly how it is with most talents, gifts, and powers, of course. They come to those to whom they come by accident, not as a reward for merit.

For instance, in the Harry Potter story Harry’s basic magical capacities—what makes him different from the Muggles who raise him after his parents have been killed during his infancy—are nothing he sought and acquired through his own efforts. He is born with them, inheriting them from his parents. Similarly, physical beauty, musical or other artistic talent, physical prowess, and the intelligence measured by IQ tests, are all based on natural gifts dispensed without regard to antecedent individual merit.

For that matter, so are most of the conditions that account for some individuals becoming aware of their special talents and capacities, whereas others never even come to know they have such talents.   Furthermore, even if circumstances conspire to let one become aware that one has some special gift, they must also conspire to grant one the opportunity to develop that gift. By accident, for instance, a child may learn she has a talent and taste for playing the cello, as our own daughter learned when she was 11. But then it is no less by accident that the same child may be provided with the resources needed to develop that talent and taste—as was, once again, our own daughter, who, when she found she had both a desire and a gift for playing the cello, also found herself living in a reasonably well-funded school system and with a set of reasonably well-paid parents, so that she could be provided the material and educational means to pursue that desire and develop that gift.

Having special powers does not make one somebody special. They do not make those who have them superior to those who don’t. Nevertheless, those so endowed are subject to the temptation to become, as Milner puts it (page 112), “bearers of an ideology of superiority.” The specially gifted “can be seduced, not despite their exceptional talents, but by reason of those talents. Especially if they are ignored or mistreated by their entourage,” as those with special talents often are—again, not despite, but because of, those same talents, we might add, since any gift that makes someone “different” can easily evoke such defensive reactions from those around them, those not so gifted.

Once seduced to such an ideology of superiority, those with special powers can, like Voldemort, also easily succumb to the temptation to exercise those powers over others. They can, like him, come to take pleasure in imposing their will upon others, in the process convincing themselves of their right so to enslave those to whom they have come to consider themselves superior.

However, the underlying, ever-present doubt of their own superiority and their defensiveness about it, grounded in their awareness of having been and done nothing special to deserve their special gifts, continues to carry “a germ of vulnerability” even in the midst of wanton displays of “brutality and terror.” That sense of continuing, inescapable vulnerability sets up such self-styled masters, who delight in subjecting others to their will, to subject themselves in turn to yet others claiming mastery, and indeed to find relief and solace in such submission. For example, Milner writes (p. 113): “Let us suppose that an admired thinker, taken as the greatest of his generation, rallies to an ignorant, belching, hysterical tribune. [Think Heidegger and Hitler, of course!**] Simple folks are astonished; but on the contrary nothing is more normal: this thinker is doubtful of the admiration he knows surrounds him, until it confirms itself in the admiration of which he discovers himself capable.” Thus, imagined superiority doesn’t just lead one to enslave those one takes to be inferior to oneself, it also leads one to let oneself be enslaved in turn.

Against such temptations and perversions of gifts, talents, and powers, Milner suggests, only humility offers any real, final defense. Humility alone would accept gifts as just that—gifts: things for which thanks are be offered.

Humility is not that easy a thing to come by, however.  It is itself a gift, in fact.

What is more, if that gift of humility itself is given, it is also no easy thing truly to give thanks for such a gift. There is a strong, constant tendency to turn thanks for the gift of humility into its very opposite, making of it no more than an exercise in even greater arrogance—the arrogance of thinking oneself humble, like the righteous man at the back of the temple thanking God for making him so superior to the disgusting tax collector beating his chest and weeping in the profession of his guilt down at the altar.

Above all, the way that one properly gives thanks for a gift by accepting and using it. However, just what are the uses of humility? Perhaps Harry Potter can show us something of that, as well. At least it may be worth briefly reflecting upon what Milner calls “the Potterian narrative” with that in mind.

Although that is a direction of reflection that Milner himself does not explicitly pursue, what he says provides good clues. That is especially true of a line in the Potter films to which Milner calls his reader’s attention, one that occurs in more than one of the films and is spoken by more than one of the character, about Harry and to him: “You have your mother’s eyes.”   In explanation of that remark, Milner cites (on page 33) what one of the characters in the narrative says about Harry’s mother Lily Potter’s eyes, which is that they had the power to see the beauty in others, most especially when they weren’t able to see any themselves.

The use of humility is to open eyes like Harry’s mother’s, eyes that in turn open others, calling forth—which is to say creating—the beauty that is in them. The gift of humility is given not for the good of the humble themselves, at least not directly. It is given for the good of others. To give proper thanks for such a gift is to use it by practicing seeing through eyes like Lily Potter’s.***

Such eyes are simply the eyes of love—which brings me back to where I started this fragment, and which is also a good place to end it.

* On page 28 of his Harry Potter book, Milner says that so far he is unaware of any such charges being leveled against the Harry Potter stories, but then adds sarcastically that he “does not despair of learning one day that the Potterian narrative has been banned in part for blasphemy.” In these benighted United States, of course, at least a few such charges and such efforts have indeed been made.

** And appropriately so, at least by one reading of Heidegger’s relationship to Hitler and the Nazis—though not the only reading possible, nor necessarily the one finally to be preferred.

*** Lest one think that is an easy thing to do, one might want to go back and watch the Harry Potter films again. Or read Roger Nierenberg’s Maestro.


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