Greta Thunberg’s four-minute jeremiad at the United Nations this past Monday was delivered not standing behind a pulpit or kneeling on rocky ground. With perfect posture she perched at the front of a bright white modernist chair that made her magenta raiment appear as angry as victim’s blood. The chair was an oddly clinical prop for a martyr’s castigation: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be in school on the other side of the ocean.” The saint doesn’t chose her path to righteousness. She is chosen.
Tears welled up in her eyes but her holy indignation would not allow them to escape. It was as if invisible tongues of flame vaporized them before they could streak down her cheeks. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. Yet you come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”
Her words took on the melodious rhythm of English spoken by a Swede, but with a harrowing vehemence that stressed the last word of her short sentences like final notes of chanted curses.
After this withering antiphon came the psalm-like recitation of statistics on temperature rise and the grim odds of survival. Hers was music by the numbers sung from a psaltery prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which Thunberg referred to by the acronym IPCC. Did those four letters stand for the climate curia or a recent addition to the Trinity?
Her incantation had an autonomous quality to it. Thunberg did not need to be warmed—nor could she be—by the congregation. Before she began, the panel’s moderator asked her what her message to world leaders would be. “We will be watching you,” she answered, her eyes burning through all barriers. The audience laughed. She did not. A mystic who can see the future with absolute clarity, she ended on a visionary note: “Change is coming whether you like it or not.” The audience applauded, but she did nothing to acknowledge their approval.
Much has been made of Thunberg’s Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that is held by her and her followers to be a gift. Some believe that Joan of Arc had autism. The Pharisees at Fox News promptly dismissed Thunberg as mentally ill and pilloried her alleged exploiters among the climate “fanatics.”
However Thunberg’s performance affected you—and it affected me deeply, in spite of my skepticism towards crusaders, mystical or scientific—, her condemnation of the “fantasies of unlimited growth” indulged in by world leaders and the harrowing visions she conjured of “the collapse of entire ecosystems” were lashes of truth that have left lasting marks. You feel them when you get in a car, drink that carbon-soaked wine and coffee, think about the next plane trip or dare to get on one.
In older liturgies, Thunberg’s ritual cadence might have provided comfort in its regularity. But a fierce and fearless child chanting doom is a vision that can keep you up at night.
During one of those spells of wakefulness I was plagued by that scene from The Sound of Music when the von Trapp kids, frightened by the sound of thunderstorm, come piling into Maria’s bed. Maria tells them that “Whenever I’m unhappy, I just try to think of nice things.” She then breaks into “My Favorite Things” with its litany of wondrous and comforting images, from warm mittens to geese flying in the moonlight.
The passing storm causes a passing childhood fright that is allayed by the assurances of the young governess and soon-to-be stepmother.
No such experience can apparently be enjoyed by Thunberg, her childhood having been stolen by adults: she, not a stern naval hero of a father, is the taskmaster. Thunder is now a manifestation of extreme weather spawning existential fears that even a warm bed and a hug cannot allay.
That same movie rain had driven Liesl von Trapp happily into a nearby gazebo with her young Nazi admirer, Rolf, for the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” The Liesl of the film is the same age as Greta Thunberg is now, the latter deprived, it would seem, of any possibility of romance.
As most of the planet knows, “My Favorite Things” was vaulted earlier this year from alpine idyll on the cusp of war into the consumer apocalypse with Ariana Grande’s adaptation of it as “7 Rings.”The song debuted in January at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The various video versions are approaching one billion hits.
In “7 Rings” Grande updates the benign wish-list of the Rodgers and Hammerstein original with its “brown paper packages tied up with string” to the Amazon Prime Age of instant, unbounded gratification: “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems / Must not have had enough money to solve ’em.” The melody once sung by chaste Liesl now passes the glossed lips of Grande on all fours on a marble kitchen countertop trussed up in a diamond collar and diamond lingerie. There are no limits to her desire. Grande is not interested in “some” of her favorite things: “Buy myself all of my favorite things.” Unlike the original, there is no mention of the natural world in “7 Rings.” The ruthless application of electronic production technologies stamps out any residual humanity in her voice, the last the vestige of nature’s song.
One doesn’t know whether to laugh with the blasphemous Grande or try to cry with Saint Greta.
A possible antidote to both versions of “My Favorite Things” is offered up by another mystic: John Coltrane. In a 1965 concert performance in Belgium two years before his death, Coltrane stamps out the beat and his quartet launches into a vamp, the song stripped down to a stark modal simplicity, paradoxically static yet driven ahead by pianist McCoy Tyner’s chordal hammer blows, drummer Elvin Jones’s relentless four limbs, and bassist Jimmy Garrison’s unswerving foundation below Coltrane’s shrieks and shouts.
Philip Larkin infamously lambasted Coltrane’s ”reedy, catarrhal tone sawing backwards and forwards for 10 minutes between a couple of chords.” Larkin heard this as the product of an “insolent egotism,” but that is perhaps what prophecy always sounds like to those who don’t believe. In spite of his claims to the contrary, Coltrane does not offer love or comfort here. Rather, Nature’s voice surges up through the man-made artefacts of music, his saxophone a conduit to a frightening truth. After his moment of revelation in 1957, Coltrane came to believe that his mission “was to make people happy through music.” The sounds of this music is not happiness or even consolation, but sublime, ecstatic terror. If Greta played the saxophone it might sound like this. Cherish your favorite things. Guard them if you can.