If you can’t take the heat… once more with feeling

If you can’t take the heat… once more with feeling September 6, 2012

Can I interest you in a musical theatre illustration of my point from earlier today?

I’m quite fond of the song “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” from Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, and I’ve embedded a nice performance of it below.

Here, as in most cases when I’ve seen the song performed, the actress ends the song in a place of vulnerability.  The last line “Cause, after all, I’m not afraid” is pretty clearly a lie, and the character is at least a little aware it’s a lie.  It’s a reversal from the bright, careless beginning of the song.

In the alternate world where I get to direct things, I really wanted to take end of this song in the exact opposite direction.  The audience already gets to see vulnerability and the character’s recognition of vulnerability in the bridge when she admits that her lover is afraid of her.  I wanted to use the last part of the song to start suggesting how she’ll react to that epiphany.

We think we’re watching her succumb in the conventional staging because she crumples and looks weak.  I wanted to stage it with her actually giving in to the temptation to feel stronger.  If I got to stage it (and when I sing it in the shower), I want to see the fear turn to anger and contempt as she hits the “I am sure to win with anyone at all / I’m not afraid of anyone / Not a soul alive can get behind this wall.” But by the time she gets up to the conclusion (“So let them call / And watch them fall / ‘Cause after all / I’m not afraid”) I’d like her to be calm and controlled and safe-feeling. Not as careless at the beginning, but conscious of her strength and comfortable in it.

I think this would be nice and scary, if I could pull it off.  A lot of the time, when we talk about the “glamour of evil,” we mean it in a moustache-twirling, cape-swooshing kind of way.  It’s rakish — attractive because there’s something off about it.  But I want to highlight the way falling back on the wrong kind of strength or the wrong kind of comfort can do much more violence to us than the thing that makes discomfits us and makes us feel weak.


The other musical I’ve really wanted to do this in is Cabaret.  In the movie, the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (below) opens the show.  It starts off pastoral and becomes jingoistic and dangerous.  The audience gets swept up in the song, and then sickened by where it ends up.

It’s a nice effect, but I’m not sure the audience’s feelings of culpability are merited.  The song makes a pretty big tonal shift, and most people recoil in time.  But, in the stage musical, it’s sung for the first time at a holiday party.  When I saw it at college, one of the dancers at the cabaret sings it along with an up-to-then jovial Nazi.  In the production I saw, the cabaret dancer was a blowsy drunk, and her lack of control contrasted with the polish and refinement of the Nazi.

But that difference stayed constant through the song.  If I were staging the show, I would have had the dancer draw strength from martial tones of the song.  She might start out disheveled and comical, but I’d like to see force of the strong straighten her back, until, just as the song becomes most off-putting, she seems to have been imbued with more dignity and beauty than we’ve seen from her before.

Here, we can see that the dancer, and by extension, the Germans, are being tempted by a good — we do wish that comfort and loveliness for the dancer — but she’s gone to the wrong source for her strength and it will destroy and corrupt her and her country.


Strength and peace are to be desired, but they’re the side effects of something else.  We can’t take them as the ends in themselves, or we’ll be too tempted to take the shortcut of disassociation (like the girl in the first song and me) from the things that make us feel weak, instead of acknowledging and engaging with that vulnerability or the cheat of subsuming ourselves in some ideology (like the cabaret dancer) that let’s us feel strong for some other property than that within us that actually merits dignity.

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  • I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and recently, a religious Jewish friend of mine and I were discussing our responsibilities to other people. She felt that her job was to be the best she could be (kind, ungossiping, cheery, obedient to god’s law) regardless of what other people were doing. It reminded me of your discussion of a solipsistic stoicism, though she claims that the lack of relevance of the actions of others comes not from their unimportance but rather her inability to understand their motivations and beliefs as thoroughly as she did her own. So I ask you, in reference to these last few posts, what claims can a virtue ethicist make about the decisions of other people, not always knowing where their journey is? Is it only catholicism/religion/god that stops the otherwise inevitable solipsism?

    • leahlibresco

      Can you get a little more specific? I make claims about the decisions of other people because I think morality is universal, but I could still make claims about other people’s oughts if I were a deontologist or a consequentialist.

    • Ted Seeber

      Any religion can defeat solipsism. But very few seem to reach the age necessary to have the body of scholarly work needed to do so rationally.

      Science isn’t there yet. The grand majority of Christian denominations are not there yet. Some sects of Hinduism are. Some sects of Buddhism are. And Catholicism, including the Eastern Orthodox rites that are no longer in communion with the Pope, seems to have finally reached that level in the last 50 years or so. Too bad reaching that level meant having to give up the superstition of clericalism, and there are many people still struggling with that one, but it was necessary.

      • Acn

        Science is not a religion.

        • Ted Seeber

          It is for those who treat it as the only path to Truth.

          • ACN

            Is that a smarmy way of saying “it is a religion unless you’re otherwise religious”?

          • David J. White

            Science requires acts of faith similar, in some ways, to thise required of religious believers. Most people do not have the time, expertise, or equipment to conduct their own experiments to ascertain the truth of claims made by science. I certainly didn’t conduct my own astronomical observations to determine for myself that the earth moves around the sun rather than vice versa; I know it because I was taught it in school and read it in books, and I accept the authority of the teachers and books from which I learned it. I think the same is true for most people who accept things that science has established about the world. At some point one has to accept that certain authorities are reliable, that what they say can be trusted. And, at the end of the day, that is an act of faith in an authority similar to that made by religious believers. For that matter, science rests on even more basic acts of faith: that our senses give us a picture of the world that is essentially accurate and reliable, that most people perceive things in pretty much the same way, that the functioning of the material world is, by and large, comprehensible, and that the scientific method is a reliable way of developing and testing hypotheses. And, of course, one has to have faith that scientists are basically honest people who don’t fudge, cut corners, or falsify their results. (I’m not suggesting that they aren’t; but, at the end of the day, this is an act of faith.)

      • Joe

        Ted, not to be mean but, these scriptures have always been a big help for me when in blog forums like this.
        Proverbs 17:28
        Proverbs 18:2

        • Brandon B

          Leah may correct me if she would prefer a different policy, but I think that, if you are going to criticism someone here, you should make your criticism explicit, and not subtle. Further, you should state your criticism in a way that will encourage the subject to improve, rather than simply insulting the subject.

          To relieve everyone of the burden of using Google, here are the verses you referenced:
          Proverbs 17:28: “Even fools, keeping silent, are considered wise; if they keep their lips closed, intelligent.”
          Proverbs 18:2: “Fools take no delight in understanding, but only in displaying what they think.”

          So your point seems to be that Ted’s comment contained no information, and didn’t help anyone’s understanding, and perhaps he should carefully consider whether he has something to say before saying it. These proverbs may be good advice, but when you use them this way they are a serious criticism, and I invite you to have the courage to make your criticisms in a more obvious manner.

          In this case, it seems that he is responding to the last line of Chana’s post,

          Is it only catholicism/religion/god that stops the otherwise inevitable solipsism?

          If you believe his comment is factually incorrect, or logically flawed, would you do us the favor of explaining how?

          • Ted Seeber

            “So your point seems to be that Ted’s comment contained no information, and didn’t help anyone’s understanding, and perhaps he should carefully consider whether he has something to say before saying it. These proverbs may be good advice, but when you use them this way they are a serious criticism, and I invite you to have the courage to make your criticisms in a more obvious manner.”

            Hmm…No information? Maybe to an scientific modernist or a Protestant. But in response to the question, maybe I was too subtle. There is a huge difference to be between a philosophy/religion that was proposed in the last 200 years and has not been fully tried, vs a philosophy/religion that was proposed a couple of thousand years ago, has had multiple cultural experiences over many human lifetimes upon which to draw empirical data. Catholicism, Buddhism, and Hinduism fit that bill, depending somewhat on the sect. Confucius can, but since the fall of imperial China, few practice it. Tribal shamanism has the history but doesn’t record it in such a way that it can actually be studied; it’s an 80 year window of modernity into a 40,000 year history. Atheism specifically denies the evidence of atheists and other religions previous to the modern age as irrelevant.

            And thus, I agree with Brandon’s final question:
            If you believe his comment is factually incorrect, or logically flawed, would you do us the favor of explaining how?

            And would add:
            If you believe this is off topic, would you mind explaining how?

        • Ted Seeber

          Heh, I’ve often said the difference between a low functioning autistic and a high functioning one, is that the low functioning ones, lacking communication, are thus more wise.

        • Ted Seeber

          2nd reply: I see your Proverbs 18:2, and raise you 1 Corinthians 4:10.

          • Joe

            I have no doubt that you are filled with a huge amount of accurate information and that you understand a great deal of philosophy. Please don’t be too hurt, I am not trying to be mean, but handing a chimp a loaded gun does not make him a sharpshooter. In Leah’s comment policy post I tried to relay some advice my spiritual director gave me. He said “You think that by much talking you are winning friends, but in reality you are just revealing the ugliness of you’re character”. I thought it was explicit enough but it is your right to ignore it. Your comments would pack more punch if they were fewer and further between. Oremus pro invicem!!!

  • Leah, I really, really liked this post. For some reason it spoke to me much more eloquently than many of the elaborately argued or theologically complex ones have, though obviously it’s about the same issues of reason and right-thinking and right action. Maybe I just do better with concrete examples than esoteric theology 🙂

    I absolutely agree that the risk of taking a shortcut to confidence or problem-solving is a real and very dangerous one. It’s far too easy to short-circuit the reasoning process in favor of a crutch, to derive your “I feel better” from something external rather than from confronting and defeating your own weakness. Admitting you have a weakness is the first step towards (correctly) identifying it and (hopefully) remedying it. If you don’t do that, but instead turn to sound bites or a reassuring simplistic ideology as a shortcut, not only do you not solve the underlying issues, more often than not you create new ones!

    That second clip from Cabaret literally made my stomach go all queasy (I hate to admit it but until this moment I had no idea that’s what Cabaret was about, I thought it was just a bunch of show tunes! Now I really want to see it…). Your idea of how to stage it is great, though undoubtedly a lot of people would miss the subtlety and see it as some sort of pro-Nazi or pro-fascist interpretation…

    • Skittle

      Oh, I’m so excited that you hadn’t seen Caberet before, and your first experience was that song! I love love love how that song is played (notwithstanding Leah’s preferred direction), and you should definitely watch the film. That combination of getting caught up in the high emotion, and then the reveal, is just so effective at showing how people would have been tempted by Nazism. Gives me shivers.