To the Unknown Helper #24: reflections on Mahler


The inauthentic Chinese element, sketched with extreme discretion, plays a similar part to that of the folk song earlier: a pseudomorph that does not take itself literally but grows eloquent through inauthenticity. But by replacing the Austrian folk song by the remote, an Orient approved as a stylistic means, he divests himself of the hope for a collective cover for what is his own…Mahler’s exoticism was a prelude to emigration.

TW Adorno, Mahler: a Musical Physiognomy

That is: Mahler was not an Orientalist composer, nor had he any special interest in China: the texts he used for his symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde were at best remote pastiches of Li Bai (Li Po’s) poems.

Instead, he had a completely negative reaction to the post-Wagner music business which was preparing itself (through Wagner’s use of the leit-motive and commodification of Bayreuth) to become the Pop music “scene” of today which incorporates classical music in a ghetto.

He went to America without having any special attraction to America even as Adorno split to America, knowing only that he could not work in Germany and that Britain sucked, for him. This was a negative logic:

In this dirty old part of the city
Where the sun refused to shine
People tell me there ain’t no use in tryin’

Now my girl you’re so young and pretty
And one thing I know is true
You’ll be dead before your time is due, I know

Watch my daddy in bed a-dyin’
Watched his hair been turnin’ grey
He’s been workin’ and slavin’ his life away
Oh yes I know it

He’s been workin’ so hard, yeah
I’ve been workin’ too, baby, yeah
Every night and day, yeah

We gotta get out of this place
If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
Cause girl, there’s a better life for me and you

(The Animals, 1965)

My life here in China contains a lot of objective “suffering”: heat, pollution, tricky employers, and millions of Chinese characters…people, whose self-restraint and politeness make the commute just bearable.

But anything is better than the USA, covered as it is by a grey goo of free market ideology and victim blaming that is qualitatively different from East Asia…despite the interesting fact that East Asia does capitalism better. In the USA the grey goo covers even intimate and family relations.

It’s not your fault if you are “maladjusted”. We were designed to hunt the black boar and to dance until dawn but industrial civilization demands paper pushers. According to Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn it by design renders us dull, numb and without compassion because our leaders know only our negative capabilities. We need not shine.

Curb your enthusiasm.

But that kills us of cancer and heart disease, right? Right.

Therefore I do art and other stuff, beating against the current at all times. It’s basic survival at this time. And I start with grey goo, grisaille. My paintings circa 1970, now lost, were done at the School of the Art Institute in monochrome and my therapist at the time turned me on to Goya’s “black paintings”, paintings in monochrome with which Goya covered the walls of his house after the disasters of the Ibero-British war against Napoleon.

And then in 1973, when it became clear I wasn’t going to be sent to Vietnam, I decided to glaze colors on the monochrome. The result was so great, I thought, that I invited my neighbor and his girlfriend (in the old Howard Street “jungle” on the far north side of Chicago) for a look-see. Now I do this on wordpress and on Facebook. The painting was called “Shannon” after an electrical engineer, and in it he was being confronted with an angel.

Edward G. Nilges, “To the Unknown Helper State as of 31 July 2010”, acrylic grisaille on canvas, 50 * 60 cm.

EGN, “Detail of the Unknown Helper State as of 31 July 2010”, computer-modified photo of detail of above using Windows Office Picture Manager.

EGN, “Variations and Fugue on the Unknown Helper State as of 31 July 2010”, computer modified assemblage of details of above using Windows Office Picture Manager and Microsoft Paint.

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