January 27th

Every so often the accidents of the calendar bring together remarkably contrasting occasions. This is a day of such cognitive dissonance. Weep with me. Gasp in pleasure and delight with me.

First, today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, in 1945, an event that serves as a symbol of the Holocaust — the Shoah — that wiped out around six million Jews (and a number of others) and caused untold suffering.

But then today is also the birthday of two people whose works have brought pleasure to millions: the astonishingly prolific composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (born in 1756) and the mathematician-turned-comic-writer Charles Lutwidge Dodson, who wrote the Alice books and a number of remarkable nonsense poems under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll (born in 1832).

The Holocaust. Around a million people were exterminated at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone. It’s hard to grasp death at such a scale; mass starvations at this level were instigated by both Stalin and Mao but were never properly appreciated by outsiders, because they were spread over large areas and had no identifiable individual perpetrators. But the death camps assembled large numbers of victims in relatively small spaces and then people devoted to this purpose killed them, primarily by poison gas. When the death camps were liberated, the not-quite-dead appeared before us as crowds of specters, and piles of the remnants of the dead — their eyeglasses, their shoes, their hair, their teeth — were brought to view.

It was appalling, apparently incomprehensibly evil, but in fact it was distressingly ordinary: the scapegoating of some groups (about the Jews, from my grade-school playmates in a working-class neighborhood that banned both Jews and blacks: they killed our Christ) as responsible for social ills, and the demonization of the Others. Then carried to fanatic ends.

From the imaginative literature of the Holocaust, just one thing: Art Spiegelman’s Maus, an extraordinary graphic novel of the Holocaust told as fables of Jewish mice and Nazi cats:

(#1) Cover of the complete work — first published in comics, then in two volumes (in 1986 and 1991)

Mozart. Born on a cold January day in 1756, died on a bitter-cold day in December 1791. Two things from his operas: the remarkably beautiful — and amazingly constructed — trio “Soave sia il vento” (“May the wind be gentle”) from Così fan tutte (1790); and Papageno’s charming comic aria “Der Vogelfanger bin Ich ja” (“I am the birdcatcher, I am”) from Die Zauberflöte (1791).

Recordings and videos of these two songs are easy to find. Here I give you the first page of the score, for “Soave sia il vento”:


And a photo of Nathan Gunn singing Papageno’s birdcatcher aria in the Julie Taymor production of The Magic Flute (available on video):

(#3) Papageno and his magic bells (Tamino has the magic flute)

Lewis Carroll. From Alice in Wonderland, ch. VII: A Mad Tea-Party:

(#4) (left to right) Alice, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Mad Hatter (illustration by John Tenniel)

This is the scene that gives us the profoundly silly song parody that I committed to memory when I was, oh, 7:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky.

Facing death. Confronted with hard truths of the Holocaust, of course we grieve. And we rage against the perpetrators, vowing Never Again. But it’s also natural to stave off being overwhelmed by death, to deny its power over us, by laughter (Papageno faces death several times).

In my family, there’s a category of films we characterize as Movies to Watch When the Dog Dies — from an actual occasion, when the decedent was our beloved Shvani, and The In-Laws supplied the balm of laughter we needed — but then dire occasions piled up, and now it’s a whole big genre. There is even a movie to watch in the face of the Holocaust: Mel Brooks’s The Producers. (Alas, just mentioning the movie traps me in the coils of a “Springtime for Hitler” earworm. This is happening right now.)

I began writing this posting in the dark of night (I start my day early); recollecting my first experience (age 7 or 8) of the death-camp liberations and how I was undone then by sheer evil left me just sitting at my computer, weeping. And then today’s Wayno / Piraro Bizarro appeared in my comics feed, shook me into laughter, and put me back on course to look at Mozart and Lewis Carroll. Here it is, a bit of dyslexic drama:

(#5) FILM NOIR / FILM NORI (noun nori: a Japanese edible seaweed eaten either fresh or dried (NOAD) — used in making sushi rolls); if you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page

Wayno’s title, “The Maltese Mackerel”, is a play on the title of a specific film noir, The Maltese Falcon, with an allusion to saba sushi, made from mackeral.

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