Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Difficult Time of Year

This is the time of year when we reflect on the past months and identify those things for which we are thankful.  In fact, today is the day that formalizes this process. While I have many things for which to be thankful, my reflections of this year are at best painful and at worst soul killing. The men I have most admired, one of whom's death we observed this week, seem to have been forgotten and their great achievements lost in the selfishness of the present. The events of this year 2015 make my life and the things of which I am most proud seem wasted and useless.

My country seems to be divided as deeply as it was at the time of the Civil War of the 1860s. Hatred and distrust seem to have filtered their way back into public consciousness.The lessons that John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us now seem like distant dreams.  I have been fortunate enough to spend time with some of the "greats" of my lifetime. A brief five minutes with Candidate Kennedy in 1960, years with Marshall McLuhan and Morse Peckham, and I had the privilege of working with Dr. King, though most of his followers would not remember me.  Of these men, Dr. King probably had the greatest influence on me.  We were from different worlds, as different as different could possibly be, yet something between us allowed us to work together, and we hoped, make a difference.

My country is now at war. It is at war with a philosophy, just as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. My efforts at that time in the anti-war efforts caused much discomfort to many, but the hope was that those efforts would change America, America's way of thinking, America's dependence on the military-industrial complex that seems to prosper from building the machinery of mass death. Dr. King is remembered for his civil rights work, but we must never forget his advocacy of peace, something that probably led to his assassination more than his civil rights work.  Here is a link to his speech for which I did some of the research:
As an atheist, sitting in the church listening to his speech was difficult, but his words show the power of Dr. King to be more than that of a ideologue, a demagogue, or a empty idealist. He was motivated by his faith, a Pauline Christianity that irritated me as much as I am sure that my Kant-Schopenhauer view of the world did him.  The point is that we saw each other not as members of groups, but as individuals, individuals with unique traits and personalities and qualities.  Dr. King realized, even as he spoke on behalf of the poor, the African Americans, the dismissed of society, that while it is easy to hate a stereotype, it is difficult to hate an individual if one takes the time to know that person. We were individuals who admired and respected each other.  Our efforts, I am sure, helped to eventually bring an end to America's involvement in that ugly war, and I had hoped taught America a lesson about killing people over philosophies.  Now I know our hopes were nothing more that dreams. Not only is my country in a war, but  also we are killing not only the combatants in the war but also their victims. "Killing" is a strong word, but what else can one call it, when a Country turns its back on those fleeing the "enemy" and delivers them up to the ideologues and religious bigots no better than Nazis.

As a freedom rider I endured many hardships so that my country could have racial equality and harmony. What has gone wrong?  Why do we have to have a "Black Lives Matter" movement? What has disappeared in our moral fabric that we do not value everyone.  To those who say, "All lives matter," I would respond that yes they do; however, it seems that only African Americans are dying of gunshot wounds on almost every new newscast. We need a voice to appear who can lead us to Dr. King's dream.  Wordsworth asked for Milton to return. Paul Lawrence Dunbar asked Frederick Douglass to return. I ask Dr. King to return. We need your guidance, your conscience, your wisdom, and your voice.

Privilege has forever been a cause of vice. A university in my own backyard is now the home of a "White Student Union," something designed to protect "white rights." The very idea makes me cringe with shame.  That young, white adults--the most privileged people on earth--are ignorant enough to think that they are abused bewilders and saddens me. This is not just a step backwards--it is ten giant steps backwards and transmits a message that is horrifying and dispiriting. We see the stereotypes and not the individuals.  We have become cavemen fearing anyone from a different tribe. Schopenhauer said that to injure someone in the phenomenal world is to injure ourselves in the noumenal world.  Where is that idea now?

This holiday has always been a favorite of mine.  Sadly, the turkey will leave a bitter taste in my mouth today.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Pruning and Preening

Pruning and Preening, Virtue and Desire:
From Sydney to Milton to Tolkien via Wagner

In a century that witnessed the publication of masterpieces by Faulkner, Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce, Rushde, and other creative geniuses, the work that many award the sobriquet of “most important,” “greatest,” or “most significant” is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Agree or not, Tolkien’s quest epic, in which innumerable critics have traced the expression of the author’s Catholic faith, certainly has influenced each successive generation since its publication.

Surprisingly, a significant portion of Tolkien’s work is most easily understood, not by tracing the latent Catholicism, but by tracing a series of image trains developed in the English Renaissance and transferred through and fully embroidered through the successive centuries until incorporated into his works by Tolkien 500 years later. The appropriate question is phrased thusly: How did a counter-Renaissance Puritan modify the Renaissance ideas in a way that they would impact the war-weary, Catholic, medievalist scholar of the mid-twentieth century, since ideas expressed in the great epics of John Milton find expression in Lord of the Rings.

To appreciate and to comprehend the Renaissance roots of the ideas and how Milton himself inherited them in the context I propose, it is necessary to look at one of their clearest expressions in English Renaissance poetry.  In or around 1590, Sir Philip Sydney composed an intricately clever sonnet that provides us with insight into one of the sources of what 400 years later would open the threshold to the Romantics’ beloved concept of sacrifice growing out of caritas and controlling or suppressing the ego and which 500 years later Tolkien would weave into the fabric of The Lord of the Rings.  In true sonnet fashion, it is the volta between lines 8 and 9 that reveals the germ of the ideas we are exploring.

Thou blind man's mark, thou fool's self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy's scum, and dregs of scattered thought ;
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care ;
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought ;
Desire, desire !  I have too dearly bought,
With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware ;
Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare.

But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought ;
In vain thou madest me to vain things aspire ;
In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire ;
For virtue hath this better lesson taught,—
Within myself to seek my only hire,
Desiring nought but how to kill desire.
In the octave of the sonnet, the despairing speaker uses epithets to brand the personified “desire” as a slave master and web weaver who captures those foolish enough to seek external gratification while blinded by the “smokey fire” of the seven deadly sins. After the volta, Sidney puns on the word “vain” to illuminate and illustrate the distinction between virtue and ego.  Desire’s efforts have been “in vain” or unsuccessful when “he” sought to appeal to the speaker’s vanity. Another personified quality, “virtue,” has taught our sufferer another “lesson”—to seek rewards within himself, since virtue is its own reward.  The concept of seeking rewards within oneself plays an important role in Milton’s works, as we will see. Further, it is a key to understanding The Lord of the Rings and its most intriguing character, Sam Gamgee, the humble gardener.

Clearly, in this polarized view of the world portrayed in the sonnet, desire sits at one pole and virtue at the other. Consider the seven deadly sins: Pride, the desire to be superior; wrath, the desire to be right; sloth, the desire to be spiritually apathetic; lust, the desire for fleshy pleasure; avarice, the desire for wealth and goods; gluttony, the desire for excessive indulgence; envy, the desire for that of others. Clearly, desire is at the root of each, and each is motivated by the ego seeking something beyond or external. At the other pole are the seven heavenly virtues: faith, the internal fortitude to believe; hope, the internal acceptance of the best; charity; the internal motive to give love (this is the modern translation of caritas); fortitude, the internal bravery to carry on; justice, the internal concept of fairness; temperance, the internal acceptance of what is needed; prudence, the internal use of wisdom and care. Notice how each of the virtues is found “within myself,” as Sydney tells us.

Understanding two words from a single root will help to distinguish the concepts expressed here. The words are “preen” and “prune,” which until Milton’s time were synonyms.  During the middle 1600s the words acquired their present connotations. “Preen” became the effort to improve one’s appearance to satisfy the selfish desires of vanity. Prune became the unselfish act of caring for in order to aid the weak to become stronger and more productive. In Milton’s lines “pruning” is the link to the original garden, where Milton connected Adam and Eve to all the gardeners and workers of the fields throughout history. Of all the holy places on earth, three stand out—the shepherd’s field, harbors, and gardens. The garden is a mythic place in many cultures both occidental and oriental. In books 4 and 9 of Paradise Lost Milton informs us that in that original garden, the job of Adam and Eve was to “prune” and to care for their realm. It is Satan who inspires Eve to “preen” herself in order to lead Adam astray. The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil teaches them “desire,” the selfish trait, the source of evil. Joshua Scodel summarized the virtue described above as “self-restraint,” as he notes, “Unfallen Adam and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost discover in self-restraint both a moral discipline and the source of truest pleasure. Pleasurable restraint defines their mutual conversation—their shared garden labors, rests and repasts, prayers, love-making, separations and reunion” (189)(“Paradise Lost and Classical Ideas of Pleasurable Restraint.” Comparative Literature. 48(3) Summer 1996. P.189-236). But in Milton’s own words we can hear how that one bite of the fruit introduced the sins of “desire” into Eden--“What sin can be named, which was not included in this one act?  It comprehended at once distrust in the divine veracity, and a proportionate credulity in the assurances of Satan; unbelief; ingratitude; disobedience; gluttony; in the man excessive uxoriousness, in the woman a want of proper regard for her husband, in both an insensibility to the welfare of their offspring, and that offspring the whole human race; parricide; theft, invasion of the rights of others, sacrilege, deceit, presumption in aspiring to divine attributes[pride], fraud in the means employed to attain the object, pride and arrogance.”  Here are the all of sins inspired by “Desire.” The quotation is from De doctrina chr.1, ch.11, footnoted in the great A.O. Lovejoy’s “Milton and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall,” ELH. Vol 4,no 3 (Sep, 1937) pp.161-179.

Scodel tries to fit Milton into a strictly Puritan context (which is fine) and traces the ideas back to Aristotle and Plato through Ovid, then attempts to show how Milton altered them.  Whether Milton’s Christian Paradise is a sanitized version of the classical Arcadia is really irrelevant.  The poetic tradition of shepherds and sheep runs as deeply in Christian imagery as in Classical.  It appears in Renaissance pastoral poetry (Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd”). The argument is a cogent one but misses the ideas in the air at the time, which must also have influenced Milton. The shepherd keeps the greedy wolf at bay as he protects and guides his flocks.  No wonder that became the Christian symbol of the Good Shepherd. Titurel passed on this role to Amfortas, but this proud shepherd failed in his task and the sheep fell prey to the wolf Klingsor.  It took the promised Good Sherphed, Parsifal, to retake the fallen shepherd’s staff (or crook), rid the flock of the wolf, and bring safety through virtue. The shepherd’s other role is to prune the sheep, shear their wool. Then two images—the shepherd’s field and the garden—merge, and clearly, pruning in the garden is connected closely to the concept of virtue and self control.

Lovejoy’s exploration of the popular idea of the “Fortunate Fall,”—Adam’s sin and fall being punished, then rewarded by being an excuse for the coming of the Christ—also significantly impacts works of later centuries. Certainly Parsifal parodies this motif. At the end of Paradise Lost we are left as “the heirs of endless woe until God the father did interpose, and soon a promise did run that He would redeem us by his son” (Vaughn-Williams). Here we observe how fortunate Adam’s fall from grace was, for without Adam’s error, there would have been no reason for a Savior or an explanation of what is virtuous. In Paradise Regained Milton punctuates the connections of these ideas. Satan tempts Christ with each of the seven deadly sins, the sins of desire, and Christ replies with Sydney’s Virtue—“Yet he who reigns within himself, and rules
Passions, Desires, and Fears, is more a King;
Which every wise and vertuous man attains:” and with this thought Christ vanquishes Satan, and of course, through his eventual selfless sacrifice saves humanity, the sons and daughters of Adam.

Four hundred years later Richard Wagner incorporates the motifs of the garden and Virtue to illustrate the struggles of Parsifal and the Knights of the Grail. The Knights tend the sacred realm, the forest, protecting its flora and fauna. Klingsor out of his pride, envy, anger, lust—in short, out of the sins of desire—as Gurnemanz recites:
The wilderness he made into a garden of bliss,
Wherein there grow women of devilish grace;
There he awaits the Knight of the Grail,
With evil intent and horrors of hell:
Whom he entices is won:
Many already he has ruined for us.
When Titurel, stricken in years,
Gave his realm to his son,
Amfortas, illcontent,
Dared to end the witching plague.
What happened then, you know:
The Spear is now in Klingsor's hand;
With that, even saints he can wound,
Already he thinks the Grail is torn from us!

The Grail, the vessel of “virtue” is under siege, but fortunately “ill-contented” Amfortas’ fall from grace (proudly seeking to be a hero) opens the opportunity for the fulfillment of a godly promise, the arrival of an innocent savior. The parody of the fortunate fall is obvious.  But to reach that point, Parsifal must inform us of the allure of desire—it comes as an epiphany with the kiss of Kundry:
Amfortas! The wound! The wound!
It burns in my side! Oh wailing! wailing!
A terrible wailing
Cries from the depths of my heart.
Oh! Oh wretch! Most miserable!
The wound I saw bleeding,
And now it bleeds in me!
Here here!
No! No! 'Tis not the wound.
May its blood pour forth in streams!
Here! Here, the torch in my heart!
The longing, the terrible longing
That seizes me in all my being and compels!
Oh torment of love! How everything shudders,
Quakes and twitches in sinful desires!

The “longing, the terrible longing/that seizes me in all my being…sinful desires,” the “fond fancy” of “worthless wares.”  The cost is a “mangled mind,” as Sydney’s sonnet singer tells us.  To find virtue again, Parsifal endures the sacrifice of 10 years of wandering and the curse of Kundry.  When she returns to the Grail Realm, he can too. He brings with him the staff to help tend the flock as a redeemer. After the ritual of purification, selflessly Parsifal purifies Kundry, then compares the tended forest of the Grail with Klingsor’s Garden of temptation—

How very beautiful the meadow seems today!
I have come upon magic flowers
Which sickly twined about me to my head;
Yet ne'er have I seen such soft and tender
Stalks, blossoms, flowers,
Nor has anything smelled so childlike sweet
Or spoken so dearly to me.

Klingsor’s flowers, like “desire,” become the “web of will,” the “self-chosen snare” of Sydney’s sonnet. The preening/pruning contrast and the concept of virtue as self-control merge again.  Clearly Parsifal must not be divorced from the wild: the forest and the garden; these are motifs that reinforce the theme of the opera

Not quite one hundred years later, Tolkien, the medievalist and Catholic, did not hesitate to embrace the motifs of shepherding, pruning, and virtue, which cast their seeds out of the English Renaissance to grow plants in later centuries.  The Lord of the Rings tells the story of the war between desire and virtue—Sauron and followers of Illuvatur.  It begins chronologically in the midst of hope at Sauron’s first defeat when desire corrupts Isildur as he takes the Ring of Power (the source of all desire) as “weregild for my father.”  The keepsake of the family turns into “Isildur’s bane,” as it betrays him (as selfish desires do) and hides itself until its true Master is ready for it.  The corruption of the Ring’s temptation, of the “desire” for power affects nearly everyone in the novel.  Only the shepherds and the gardener are immune.

Tom Bombadil is the oldest of the old, and as the gardener of the Old Forest makes his rounds keeping things pruned (in their place).  He understands the concept that Scodel calls “pleasureable restraint,” not wandering beyond the borders of his realm, finding peace and contentment through his service to Goldberry and his trees and animals.  Unmovtiaved by the evils of desire, the Ring holds no power over him.  He sees Frodo when the Hobbit puts on the Ring and Tom does not disappear when the Ring is on his own finger. Here is one with no external desires; he is a being who finds his “hire” (reward) within himself.

Treebeard Fangorn is nearly as ancient as Tom Bombadil. Never tested by the Ring, we suspect this shepherd of the trees would also be immune from its power. His inaction until Pippin and Merry reveal that as a shepherd he has a duty to his flock and must prune out the wolf that has been ravishing his tree flock illustrates is inner trust and lack of desire.

Bilbo found the Ring when he was in need [the forces at work here require deeper examination and lead to a discussion of heavenly fate, predisposition, and conflicting wills], but his actions are motivated by charity and pity, the internal virtues, so Tolkien explains the power of the Ring is softened in its effect over him.  More importantly, with Gandalf’s help, Bilbo is the only one capable of willingly disowning the Ring. Here is a character to whom Virtue has taught the stronger lesson.

Gandalf brings Sam into the reverse quest by pulling him in through Fordo’s window. The image of the gardener pruning is attached to him at this point:  “Well, well, bless my beard! Said Gandalf. “Sam Gamgee is it?  Now what may you be doing?”
“Lor bless you, Mr. Gandalf, sir!”said Sam. “Nothing! Leastways I was just trimming the grass border under the window, if you follow me.”   Sam is often identified as the “little gardener” throughout the story. He too will be seen to have the inner strength that gardening and virtue provide.

Perhaps the most unique expression of “pruning” is provided by Gimli as his friendship with Legolas grows after the battle at Helmsdeep. Gimli attempts to explain the beauty that he has seen in the caverns and chooses gardening including “pruning” to make his point: “None of Durin’s race would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there [no avarice here]. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood?  We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them.  With cautious skill, tap by tap—a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day—so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, and display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock.”  Obviously Tolkien is using the motif of gardening and pruning to reflect the positive traits of the remaining members of the Fellowship.

The shepherd motif establishes the character of Aragorn. He tells the Hobbits at Butterbur’s Inn how the Rangers guard the frontier attempting to keep out the “wolves” that would devour the “sheep” grazing in their peaceful innocence. The poem that goes with his name bears a prediction, but Aragorn  has waited for the time to be right.  At 80 years of age Aragorn proves “the old that is strong does not wither/Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”  He is the one who will repair his grandsire’s sin of desire, the King will return to mend the Kingdom.

However, without the little gardener, all would have been lost.  After Shelob stings Frodo to what appears to be death, Sam takes up the Ring, Sting, and the light of Earendil’s star, to continue the quest.  When he learns that Frodo is not dead and has been captured, Sam returns to the rescue.  Here Tolkien harkens back to Sydney and to Milton as he show us that the Ring has no power over this gardener:

His though turned to the Ring, but there was no comfort there, only dread and danger..As Sam stood there, even though the Ring was not on him but hanging by its chain about his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Morder. He flet that he had from now on only two choices: to forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and the chanllenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows.  Already the Ring tempeted him, gnawing at his will and reason.  Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Baradur. Then then all the clous rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of lowers and trees brought forth fruit.  He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his won, and all this could be.
In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.
The echo of Paradise Regained sounds through the end of the passage— Yet he who reigns within himself, and rules
Passions, Desires, and Fears, is more a King;
Which every wise and vertuous man attains:  Sam too, willing gives up the Ring Frodo demands it.

Finally, as all of the Ringbearers leave Middle Earth as that age of the world comes to an end, Sam is left—the only one—to heal the world as best he can.  The little gardener takes his gift from the Lady Galadriel and uses its magic to restore what others’ desires have ruined:
“Throw it in the air on a breezy day and let it do its work!” said Pippin.
“On what?” said Sam.
“Choose one spot as a nursery, and see what happens to the plants there,” said Merry.
“But I am sure the Lady would not like me to keep it all for my own garden, now so many folk have suffered,” said Sam….
So Sam planted saplings in all the places where specially beautiful or beloved trees had been destroyed, and he put a grain of the precious durst in the soil at the root of each.  He went up and down the Shire in this labor; but if he paid special attention to Hobbiton and Bywater no one blamed him. And at the end he found that he still a a little of the dust left; so he went to the Three Farthing Stone, which is a near the centre of the Shire as no matter, and cast it in the air with his blessing.
Sam has become the gardener and the shepherd of the Shire.  In the end, he did what Frodo could not do.

From Sydney in the English Renaissance through Milton to Tolkien, we see that the Seven Deadly Sins used by Desire to ensare us must be defeated by those close to the earth who find virtue within the selves and express it through selfless love.  That is the sacrifice that saves the world.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Wagner's Romantic Dilemma

Wagner’s Romantic Dilemma
As I approach a score short of being a Centenarian, I am appalled by my minimal contributions to our society and culture. I have associated with social lions and colossal scholars, but in comparison with them, I have produced little of consequence.  My “adventures” in the service of Martin Luther King, Junior, seem to have been erased by the resurgent ignorance and prejudice that like the hydra, grows new heads for each one that is lopped off.  As a young pup working as a research assistant for Marshall McLuhan, my contributions were trivial, and sadly, now, no one remembers or understands what this genius predicted and explained about our new present—a media-driven culture that to many of us seems to be spiraling out of control, tied as we are to the cold medium of print.

When I met Morse Peckham in the mid1950s, he was still defending his 1951 PMLA article “Towards a Theory of Romanticism.”  Threading together the concepts of Kant, Schopenhauer, Fichte, and Schelling in and through the observations of A.O. Lovejoy and Rene Wellek, Peckham produced a work that clarified and crystalized my own meager understanding of what attracted me to the nineteenth century. As a novice in the academic world at the time, I suspect my opinions influenced the great man very little as his crew attempted to answer the criticism of delivering a “schizoid” theory that split the movement in half.  Since I had already adopted the concept of  “sacrifice” and was intoxicated by the ideas of Schopenhauer, I had no problem with “positive” and “negative” Romanticism—the difference being that the positive Romantics accepted killing off the Ego to serve the greater good while the selfish negative Romantics worshipped their ego and glorified in it (the Byronic Hero).  Peckham, over his lifetime, wrote three more attempts to clarify his ideas and answer the attacks.

I have written elsewhere about the ideas in the air during the nineteenth century (which linger into the present) and the role of sacrifice as a means of understanding Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and, of course, Wagner, among others. One of the chief critics of the literature of sacrifice was the Italian critic Mario Praz. He described the culture after Carlyle as Beidermeier—lacking greatness.  He was both right and wrong. Wrong because he allowed his heroic prejudice to cloud his view of the merits of sacrifice.  He was right because—as I should have helped Peckham to take off the blindfold of his theory—sacrifice often subverts the heroic.  What we overlooked or did not take into account was the Pauline Christianity that mixed with Hindu and Buddhist concepts to eliminate the Classical heroic values. The Greeks, the Romans, even the Pagan Anglo-Saxons told of “larger-than-life” heroes, whose strength, cunning, and intelligence won them victories that brought them glory, wealth, and power. Beowulf’s death is not a sacrifice. It is a last battle for glory. Wiglaf does not sacrifice himself for Beowulf; he fights, as it turns out, to inherit Beowulf’s power.  The gold that two win for killing the dragon does not go to the good of the people; rather, it is sealed up in Beowulf’s tomb. The story would have ended very differently if written after Carlyle.

This brings us to the dilemma faced by Richard Wagner. The composer breathed in the air of the nineteenth century. He came to the same concepts Schopenhauer delivered. In work after work, we see heroes and heroines sacrifice themselves for the salvation of others—Senta for the Dutchman, Elizabeth for Tannhauser, Sachs for Eva. Yet, from early in Wagner's career, the idea of Siegfried’s Tod preyed upon him. Obviously, he was enraptured by the notion of a hero, but as he developed his ideas for the opera, he kept running into roadblocks.  In the end, Wagner had to write four operas (I know—three plus a prologue) to have Siegfried’s Tod make sense—the whole story had to be told. In the end, the Ring becomes a story of sacrifice, but it is not Wagner’s chosen hero who makes the sacrifice. Sadly, Siegfried is sacrificed.

In fact, only in the opera Siegfried does the hero fit the classic definition, doing the heroic acts of freeing himself, defeating the dragon to win the Ring and Tarnhelm, overcoming the god, and waking the sleeping beauty. In short, Wagner does write an opera about a hero, but it is not the opera he originally thought he was writing.  When he does write that opera, the hero becomes the victim.  He does not sacrifice himself, but he is the sacrifice as Wotan allows his grandson to die so that the Ring is free and his daughter to sacrifice herself to return the Ring to the Rhine.  Wotan through the Cycle is the Perfect Peckham Postive Romantic as in the beginning he seeks in his ego to take the Ring only to discover that he has broken the codes that he himself established, and so he kills off his ego allowing the string of fate to play out as he sacrifices himself and all he hoped for to allow the world a rebirth. Clearly Wagner could not escape his age, and his attempt to write of a hero was his dilemma.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Wagner's Vixens and Old Men

Wagner reached a point in his struggling years when he felt pulled in too many directions. His letters to several friends describe the torment of multiple, diverse musical themes pulling his creativity in diverse directions.  He decided to halt the composition of Siegfried almost in the middle of the Second Act to allow the growing theme of Tristan to develop. However, he wrote to Liszt's more than friend Marie Wittgenstein that Siegfried would not leave him, so he went back to the composition and completed the Second Act, freeing the hero and himself from the captivity of the dwarves and the dragon.  Yet, he says, "Tristan would give him no peace..." while he was working on Siegfried reaching the point of following the forest bird. At this point the opera Siegfried becomes a set of bookends inside of which Wagner wrote and composed Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersingers, and the Paris version of Tannhauser.

Interestingly enough, the two new operas are variations on the sacrifice theme that Wagner ubiquitously used throughout his creative works, only in these two works we discover the sacrifice is not made by a loving woman; rather, the sacrifices are those of older men who sacrifice their personal feelings for the sake of others. Schopenhauer and the Eastern philosophies echoed through Wagner's works at this time--the idea of unbridled will causing misery finds expression in both operas.  Hans Sachs expresses Wagner's view of this quite clearly in the "Wahn, Wahn" monologue, which occurs the morning after the brawl between David and Beckmesser the night before.
Sachs realizes that only by killing off the ego, killing off the "phenomenal" will can one find peace.

In Tristan und Isolde, as Ernest Newman points out, the "love potion" is the excuse for Tristan and Isolde to let out their true, sublimated feelings for each other.  This is the "will" of youth that Sachs laments in the next opera. In Tristan King Marke feels the betrayal of his loyal knight, but when the truth is revealed by Brangaene, the King, as Newman paraphrases it, "straightway hurried over the sea to yield Isolde up to Tristan..." and accepts a measure of the blame for what has happened: "A richer harvest reaped by death:/more woe I blindly have wrought!"  Marke's sacrifice at this point in the opera is, of course, overshadowed by the result of the raging wills of the hero and heroine, as Isolde and Tristan are transfigured in their love-death.

Wagner had to lighten the tone to teach his lesson.  He did that in the following opera. Hans Sachs even cites King Marke as the example that he must avoid:
Wagner underlines the statement by including a motif from Tristan. Here is the sacrifice, here is the destruction of the ego for the good of others, here is the secret of Wagner. Here is the death of Schopenhauer's "will."

It would be crass to suggest that Wagner might have been telling Otto Wessendonk or Hans von Bulow how they should react to Wagner's affairs with their wives.

The point is, rather, that having gotten this statement of sacrifice out of his head, Wagner could return to Siegfried and the Ring operas, in which the ultimate sacrifice is made by an older man--Wotan--who gives up his sons, daughters, and the world. The final statement is made when Parsifal through his sacrifice redeems us all including the vixen.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The American Taliban

IThe startling revelation this week that Mullah Omar is dead--and has been for two years--brought feelings of relief to many of us.  Those of us familiar with The Kite Runner know of the racism, hatred, and bigotry that grew from the holier-than-thou self-righteousness of the Taliban. Pashtun elitists submersed in fundamentalist Islam, the Taliban have earned the disrespect of most of the world for their hatred of women, their hatred of intellectuals, their hatred of their own minorities, their hatred of world culture. Mullah Omar engineered the government that denied women the right to education, denied minorities the right to their own beliefs, and denied the Afghan people the right to see, enjoy, and study the great works of art and history that belonged not only to the Afghans but also to the world--Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of the Buddha of Bamiyan statues, which had stood for 1700 years.  Such self-righteous behavior always seems to produce actions motivated by fear and trepidation of those who do not share the superstitions of the theocratic elite.

America too has its Taliban.  The roots go back to the arch-Calvinist groups who sought to purify the Church of England. Some were expelled from Shakespeare's England for their radicalism--this is the group that Americans fondly call the Pilgrim Fathers forgetting the intolerance and superstitious blindness of this group.  If this group had stayed in England, they would have eventually taken power and enjoyed the "wonderful realm" of the Puritans--the wonderfully benevolent group who desecrated all of the statues on the island and closed the theaters and despite the pleas of Milton, censored what was written and published.  But the Pilgrims and the Puritans who immigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony were more extreme than Cromwell's crowd, who were content to persecute the heathen, Catholic Irish.  The self-righteous American Puritans, in their fear and paranoia, began to feed upon themselves, ferreting out Witches and others who had made covenants with the Devil.  Secular Art or anything that might make for a pleasurable life was forbidden.  The infighting between rival sects trying to be the holiest led to the expulsion of two groups and the birth of two new colonies as Massachusetts split off Connecticut and Rhode Island. The "Puritan Ethic" born in Antinomianism still exists in a strain of Americanism.  Thankfully, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Delaware were the home of men and women of the Enlightenment, who counterbalanced the fundamentalist radicals of New England.  Franklin may have been born in Boston, but he was at home in Pennsylvania and the cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia. His enlightenment voice aided the Virginians Washington, Jefferson, and Madison in the founding of the country.

Time has passed, and the American Taliban has re-emerged.  The American fundamentalist Christian movement cries out now that it is being discriminated against, forced by the government and degenerate groups to betray their faith.  Just as the Taliban, these fundamentalist Christians seek to use their religious superstitions to deny others their rights.  No one has closed any churches. No one has prohibited worship. No one has demanded that any one must sponsor or participate in any activity he or she does not believe in.  They have been asked not to use their beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against others.

Dr. King startled me one evening when we were discussing some charges against him.  He told our small group that he knew people accused him of being a Communist. Then he added that if people would only look closely and use their common sense, they would see "that I am really a Capitalist Activist. I am trying to make everyone richer, to live a richer life, to get them to see that the 'invisible hand" of the market is being stifled by their prejudice. Everyone wants his business to grow and prosper, but how can the person do that by shutting out a part of the market, by not considering hiring all of the candidates who might make the business more profitable, by denying the seller the top price for a home by not being willing to sell to part of the market."  Dr. King knew that prejudice, fear, hatred, and superstition hurt the persecutors as well as the persecuted.   Dr. King was motivated by his Pauline Christian outlook. One only needs to read The Letter from the Birmingham Jail to see the depth of his knowledge of the faith as well as the depth of his intellectual prowess.  He was fighting discrimination by trying to make things better for everyone.  He wanted those without rights to have them, but not at the expense of anyone else's rights.  He sought to make everyone's life better by expanding markets and competition--the very essence of Capitalism.

Today's fundamentalist Christians are as nefarious as the Taliban.  They seek to invoke their beliefs to deprive others from the freedoms and rights that have been hard earned.  They played a big role in the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s. They have denied women their rights by blocking legal abortions; they endanger all of us by standing against stem cell research. Now, they are denying themselves income by refusing to serve members of the LGBT community.  No one is asking them to endorse anything or to behave any differently in their own lives, but all of us are asking them to not use their narrow beliefs to discriminate against others.  After Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans, a spokesman for the Religious Right Jerry Falwell announced that this was God's punishment for a city of evil. How can we ever hope the self-righteous, holier than thou to see the world without looking through their superstitious glasses and seeing a world painted by their own narrow-mindedness, fear, and trepidation. We must all beware. The Taliban are here.