Sunday, January 31, 2016

The non-apocalypse

In an age of nuclear anxiety, terrorist phobia, and zombie apocalypses we attempt to project our own insecurities and nightmares onto works whose zeitgeist originates in another era.  In our egotism, we often attempt to "modernize" these works, assuming that contemporaneity will clarify for us what the author or composer really had in mind in his own day.  We desperately desire to impose modern values, fears, and anxieties on these works to make them "relevant" to contemporary readers or viewers. One particular example illustrates the adage that attempting to clarify a corner only unfocuses the center. 

Wagner's Parsifal in modern productions is often stripped of the setting implicit in Wagner's stage directions.  Instead, we are regaled with a postapocalyptic wasteland or a desolate industrial ghost town--places no swan in its right mind would approach.  Such settings steal the magic and the mysticism that unites all living things through the spiritual life force represented by the Grail.  Wagner's Grail realm exists in two dimensions--the physical and the ideal: the living forest and meadow transform beyond space and time into the Grail hall--the physical into the ideal.We, of course, associate this with Schopenhauer and the concept of the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The protagonist is sent--he is the chosen one--to open the realms to each other, which allows the one to restore the other with vitality, vigor, and voluminous wonder.  To present the opera in any other way is to misread the Romantic ideal of sacrifice.  Sacrifice, one must note, is for the benefit of others--not for one's own gain.

This misreading of sacrifice is what dooms Klingsor,  his selfish hopes, dreams, and desires.  Klingsor's actions are motivated by the desire for selfish power-- Power with which he seeks to rule, to force his will upon others, to control the lives and deeds of everyone else.  Yes, he sacrifices to attain these goals, but to ultimately succeed, he must acquire the Grail.  This ultimate goal, however, is beyond his reach. His necromancy is based upon his own selfish thoughts--thoughts he attributes to everyone else as well.  He seduces many of the knights away from the Grail, away from the pruned and kept forest to his rank and foully overgrown garden of flower maidens.  He uses Kundry to seduce Amfortas, who in his pride has taken on a role not meant for him in order to be a heilge helde.  

With Amfortas's fall the mistake of many modern producers begins.  This is their justification for their apocalyptic view turning the Grail realm into Mad Max's desert. Wagner gives no hint of this desolation in the libretto.  Wagner tells us that only those who are called can truly enter the realm.  Klingsor lost his calling.  He sacrifices not for the good of others but for his own selfish desires.  He mutilates himself mistaking this for a selfless sacrifice.  He is doomed because this sacrifice only intensifies his selfish longings. For it, Titurel cast him out.  Once the Grail turns against him, no longer calls him to service, Klingsor's hopes are doomed.  The Grail calls the chosen one--the pure fool.  When Parsifal fulfills the first part of his destiny, we see the futility of Klingsor's efforts.  The sacred spear, the weapon he has succeeded in acquiring from the selfish Amfortas, the weapon upon which he based his hope of overcoming the Grail realm, deserts him the first time he tries to use it as it comes to Parsifal's hand in midair like a lost dog returning to its true owner.  In the erlorser's hand, the spear redeems the fallen land.

Parsifal must learn the meaning of sacrifice, so he wanders for 10 years under Kundry's curse until the Grail recalls them both.  The Grail forest and meadow are still intact--No decay, no apocalypse, no deterioration. Amfortas has put himself above the good of the others as he seeks death by denying the Grail to himself and the others. In his pride he dooms Titurel to death. Parsifal arrives with the dawn of a new day.  The holy spring is there to provide the cleansing water of rebirth. At the height of the day (mitt wok), the Grail calls him to it. The Grail has used the Spear to protect itself, and in Parsifal's hands (the King's hands are the hands of a healer) Amfortas is healed and the two dimensions of the Grail realm are reunited. Kundry is given release. The sacrifice of Parsifal in the wasteland has made him worthy of his calling. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Robert Hayden, Love, and Sacrifice

One hundred and two years ago yesterday my father entered the world; he was a New Year's baby.  We always asked him what time of the day he was born; he always replied that he was very young then, so he didn't remember. I can never think about him without recalling Robert Hayden's beautiful poem that exquisitely delineates the meanings of sacrifice and love.

I was an only child, spoiled and selfish without realizing it. Looking back now, I am pained at the self-centered demands that I made and egocentric treatment that I expected. My family was nothing like Hayden's, who endured the insanity of his mother, the brutality of his grandmother, and the hostility of his Detroit neighborhood. Yet, his poem illuminates with crystal clarity the inattention and incomprehension that a child pays to the subtle sacrifice and love of a parent.  Some days the poem is almost too painful to read.

Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden, 1913 - 1980

 Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

I try to teach this poem to students in Florida. How do I make Floridians understand winter--winter cold--winter so cold that the dryness cracks the skin.  Whether the "blueblack" refers to the cold darkness in the house or to what the cold does to the skin as the blood seeks the warmth of the center of the body, the concept--never experienced--is meaningless to them.  Nor, since none of them have had to do hard labor outside in harsh conditions, do they understand the sacrifice made here of getting up on his one day of rest.  The image of the "fire bringer" also escapes them, since they no longer even have to push buttons to regulate their programmable thermostats.  My efforts to explain the great fireboxes in the basement into which people shoveled coal and kept lit so that heat from the fire in the great cast iron dragon would rise into the upper levels of the house draw only puzzled stares.  As millennials, they no longer take time to bank their campfires should they camp out, so the line in the poem about unbanking the coal escapes them.  I try to make the point by playing part of "The Very Last Goon Show," in which Eccles is discovered in the dark in the basement by Neddy. Neddy asks who he is, and Eccles replies that he is the coal man. He came down the shoot with the coal. When Neddy tells him he should have let go of the sack, Eccles replies that they told him they were giving him the sack  There is no reaction from the students. The concept is beyond their experience and understanding. The pun is meaningless to them. However, when Hayden points out "No one ever thanked him" my heart often breaks. This heroic figure of a man striving through his labor to support the family until he is injured and sore, yet brings the heat and light Apollo-like, and no one even says thank you.  It reminds me in a strange way of another poem by Li-young Lee--"A Story."  Here a desperate father tries to find a new story to tell his son. When he draws a blank, he screams to himself
"Are you a god,
the man screams, that I sit mute before you?
Am I a god that I should never disappoint?"

What is the role of the god--to be praised and worshipped or to provide for his believers all that they need?  In Hayden's poem, clearly it is the latter.

The second stanza of Hayden's poem is easily accepted by my students, although they cannot imagine the cold being so strong that it can splinter and snap plant material (or even the family tree where the cold refers to the quality of the relationships as much as the temperature outside). Some of them come from dysfunctional families, so they do understand the "chronic angers" of the house.  I try to build on that point, but the third stanza evades them.

In the third stanza, Hayden once again calls on the heroic image of the fire bringer--I thought it archetypal, but my students do not understand it.  And since none of them wear dress shoes that require polishing, the humbling of the father to the level of a bootblack or a servant also escapes them.  Since most of them are intolerantly religious (without attending an organized service), they almost comprehend why the dress shoes are needed on Sunday, but since none of them have ever polished shoes or embedded the polish into the prints of their fingers, they cannot envision the mess, the dirt, the misery that comes from such efforts.  My attempt to tie the misery and lowness to young Dickens' misery while pasting labels onto shoe blacking bottles falls on deaf ears.  They simply cannot understand the humiliating circumstances equating this Black father to that a Black Man reduced to shining shoes on the street corner would reflect. The social statement means nothing to them.  That one would humble him or herself out of love and sacrifice ascends beyond their reach.

To the speaker of the poem, however, and to the sensitive reader, this sacrifice means the world in reflection. The repetition of the line "What did I know?' emphasizes the boy's recognition through recall and reflection the sacrifice made for him, and the nostalgic respect grows.  The very last line defines the concept of love through sacrifice--"love's austere and lonely offices." These were the gifts my father gave to me those many, long years ago.  Happy Birthday Father.  Thank you; Now I understand.








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.