Let's get critical

Julian Baggini on why the art of having a moan is essential to public life

The political animal doesn't need telling that complaint is a good thing. To complain is to stand up and say that things are not as they ought to be: global trade rules, the under-taxation of aviation, or whatever. It is unfortunate that complaint is more usually associated with moans that there's nothing on the telly or the weather is crap.

However, political complaint can be as futile as railing against the rain. If a complaint is to have constructive purpose, it has to be about things that can or should be changed. That might seem obvious, but some of the gravest political errors have been made by people who have, usually unwittingly, ignored these rules. For example, many are concerned by the competitive, egotistical and materialistic nature of contemporary culture. It seems to me to be a legitimate complaint, that we should not just let this go without challenge and should think of ways that public policy might do something to counter the trend.

Yet complaints are rarely constructive when they are too general. We need some specificity, and this is where we can either hit the nail on the head or go horribly awry. For instance, many have said that the corrupting nature of advanced capitalist society is wholly to blame for the status-driven selfishness of our age. If that is our complaint, then we are wrong, dangerously wrong. One of the gravest errors of the socialist revolutions of the 20th century was that they often assumed that people would be good and kind once liberated from the malign influence of capitalism. In fact, competition and greed simply re-emerged in different forms, and the common good was not enough to motivate most people to do their best. While it is absurd to say that human nature is completely fixed and immutable, it is equally ridiculous to suppose that it is infinitely malleable. Equal and opposite mistakes are made by those who say that human beings are essentially wicked or fundamentally good.

Right complaint, in contrast, takes a realistic view of what can be changed and has more chance of leading to positive developments. It is neither fatalistic nor utopian, but says that things needn't go this far, and that we can set up social structures that nurture our better selves.

This is just one example of how important it is to be precise about what you're complaining about and to check whether your vision of how things ought to be is achievable. There are many more such wrong complaints: those that assume the state has more power than it does or should have, those that seek to deny cultural difference while apparently celebrating it, those that ignore the trauma of major social upheavals.

We are too often told to stop moaning and get on with things. Such advice is wrong. Without complaint, no positive change would ever arise. We need to complain not less, but better.

Julian Baggini's "Complaint" is published by Profile Books (£10.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis