In the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of Philip Glass’s new opera, Satyagraha, raises a number of interesting issues about the relationships between language and narrative and ethics. Of course, I no doubt think they are particularly good because I’ve puzzled over them before. Also a few of you know that my Batman alter-ego is an operatic tenor (No, seriously. You laugh? Why does everyone laugh? What, pray tell, is laughable about an English professor who sings opera? And not in the shower. When I was a kid I told my Dad I was going to be President of the United States and play pro basketball at night. Now my dream life is to be a college professor by day and a member of Met chorus–at least my fantasies are vaguely realistic–by the light of the full moon. Hint, that’s not me in the photo).
Anyway, back to Mendelsohn:
Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas. Like the Greek tragedies that the sixteenth-century Venetian inventors of opera sought to recreate, Western musical drama has tended to be preoccupied with the darker extremes of human emotions: excessive passion and wild jealousy, smoldering resentment and implacable rage. These, after all, are the emotions that spark the kinds of actions—adultery, betrayal, revenge, murder—that make for gripping drama. Unpleasant as they may be in real life, such actions are essential to the Western idea of theater itself, in which the very notion of plot is deeply connected to difficulties, problems, disasters. Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to plot as a knot tied by the author (he calls it a dêsis, a “binding up”) out of the manifold strands representing competing wills or desires or ideologies; an ugly and worrisome knot that will, in due course, ultimately come undone in a climactic moment of loosening or release of tension (the lysis, or “undoing”)—a concept that survives in our term “dénouement.”
There can, that is to say, be no theater unless bad things happen, unless there are terrible problems, insoluble knots; without them, there would be nothing for the characters to do. That “doing” gives us the very word by which we refer to what happens on stage: “drama” comes from the Greek drân, “to do” or “to act.” When we go to the theater, we want to see characters doing things. Bad things, preferably.
I’ve pointed out to my students that for those of us who love literature, Augustine’s felix culpa/felix peccatum is the only possible game in town. Without sin there is no story, there is no conflict, there is no drama–of redemption or anything else.
Apparently Tolkien thought something similar. According to Verlyn Flieger in her (his?) book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World.
“Tolkien felt that the Separation, the Fall, was tragic and that the splintering of light and language were the result of the Fall. But he surely felt, too, with Augustine, the possibilities for beauty that derived from the felix peccatum Adae, the fortunate sin of Adam. Given light and language, it is our right to ‘make still by that law in which we’re made’ and by making to ‘assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.’ He felt just as surely also with Barfield that in the hands of th epoets, the makers, the ‘disease of mythology’ called language will be the instrument whereby sub-creation will finally reunite humanity with the Maker.
Well, I don’t know about all of this, but a lot of it I love. One might say that our imperfection is the condition of our creativity. Death is the Mother of all beauty, as Stevens says and I’ve noted.
And thus, as Philip Glass’s opera apparently explores in evoking the life of Mahatma Ghandi, the very difficult process of trying to create narrative art about virtue. The Romantics complained that Milton’s God is not only autocratic and oppressive of individual initiative, he’s much worse than that from the artists point of view. He’s boring. The evil man flailing against the imperturbable stone face of goodness at least gives us something to hang our aesthetic hat on. Or at least the imperturbable stone face of something. Think Ahab and Moby Dick. Milton himself tried his hand at dramatizing goodness in Paradise Regained, showing that the essence of Jesus righteousness in the desert–indeed the root of his triumph over evil–is that he avoids doing anything in the face of temptation. Not so far from the traditional Christian vision of redemptive suffering which triumphs over evil not by striking it down, but by taking it upon oneself. This idea leads to the theological disputes as to whether the Christian God is impassive. If he can be moved to change–by suffering or by desire–can he be God.
Mendelsohn makes the case that Glass dramatizes Ghandi’s goodness through a kind of meditative stasis, the use of tonal repetitions mimicking the practices of meditation in a way that transcends time–a kind of act, even a kind of drama, overcoming time, but one that can’t be represented narratively. In this view of things, the essence of goodness is achronic, in time but not of it, perhaps (You can hear some clips at amazon.com here). As Mendelsohn puts it,
If, indeed, what Satyagraha aims at, in both its text and its music, is a kind of meditative state of spiritual elevation that allows us to think clearly about Gandhi’s goodness and its effects rather than to get wrapped up in his “drama,” the use of these incantatory texts only enhances our sense that we’re participating in a kind of exalting ritual, rather than spending a couple of hours at the theatre. Many New Yorkers I know, opera lovers, balked at the idea of “sitting through four hours of Sanskrit”; but those same people would happpily sit through a Te Deum (or bar mitzvah) while understanding little of the text. It’s when you see Satyagraha as a symbolic action that you can begin to appreciate it.
Side note: for some time I’ve been mulling over the idea that the experience of opera–singing as well as listening–is not unlike the experience of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues found in pentecostal churches. Understanding, in any traditional sense, is not entirely the point since God could just as well speak to us in words we do understand. So why the idea that we need a language that is other. Somehow it is the experience of language that does not mean for us that is at the center of this experience. Similarly, I think people who think opera would be more popular if they understood the language are only half correct. There is something about the fact of words that one does not experience as words but as sounds that have the shape of words that lends opera its transcendent moment for listener and singer alike.
One of my colleagues has objected vehemently to the idea that evil is necessary to literature and has insisted on the importance of lyric poetry as a means of representing it. This well could be, though I think the choice is itself interesting. Lyric is literature out of time and, to my mind, essentially non-dramatic, again like glossolalia. Almost, again, as if goodness can only be imagined and experienced in a world other than the narrative world of longing and loss that we live in.