Saturday, May 9, 2009

La Commedia

It's harder to be funny than it is to be tragic. Wit requires intelligence, timing and a sense of the absurd which implies, I suppose, a sort of distance from the matter at hand. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect comic opera. There is cross-dressing, mistaken identities, role reversals, servants smarter than their masters, and endless plots and tricks woven by almost all the characters for the purpose of, at the very end, illuminating the truth of things. As in King Lear, a fool or a clown can challenge even a King. And there's no fool like love's fool, yes?

And so, the primary agent of chaos in the opera is Cherubino, a young man, probably 13 or 14, who is in love with love. He is a “pants” role—a male role sung by a woman—and while he is not involved in either of the main plots, he is a catalyst. He is here, he is there, always disrupting things, concealed at first (underneath a cloak, behind a chair, in a closet), then revealed (or barely escaping being revealed). Events change course because of his presence. He is obviously Eros, the young, winged god of love, upsetting everyone’s settled expectations.

We first meet Cherubino after he has been discovered by his patron Count Almaviva, the philanderer, messing around with a gypsy girl, Barbarina. The Count is jealous of all the women under his eye, even though he is not faithful to his wife. He orders Cherubino to leave. Cherubino runs to the Countess Almaviva’s lady-in-waiting (and Figaro’s fiancée), Susannah, in the hopes of getting the Countess to intercede on his behalf. The Countess is his godmother and he has a mad crush on her. He sings his famous aria “Non so più” which begins:

I don’t know any more what I am,
what I’m doing.
Now I’m fire, now I’m ice…

He tells Susannah that all he can do is sing about love—to the air, to the trees—and if no one’s there he sings about love [dramatic pause in the music] to himself! The Count is heard approaching and Susannah hides Cherubino behind a chair. The Count wants Susannah. Susannah is faithful to Figaro and pointedly suggests the Count look elsewhere. While avoiding his roving hands, she is also keeping an eye on the concealed Cherubino, screeching or fainting away dramatically, when the boy attempts an unwise escape.

From that moment, Cherubino seems always to be around. Even the Count notices this and sings, “is that brat everywhere?” He is, of course, because he’s Love, although he himself does not know this. The god has taken him unawares. His second famous aria is “Voi che sapete,” in which he asks Susannah and the Countess if what he is feeling is love. He’s not sure. He sighs, he trembles, more fire, more ice and then the wonderful line, “But still I rather enjoy languishing this way.” He swears to the Countess that a piece of her ribbon that he stole from Susannah has the power to heal wounds. He throws himself at her feet. He sighs some more.

Because this is a comedy, gender bending is encouraged. Susannah and the Countess come up with a plot to catch the Count out in unfaithfulness which, because it is now exposed, will return him to her. They decide to dress Cherubino as Susannah and have him meet the Count as a woman. Both ladies sing about the whiteness of Cherubino’s skin, his smooth hands, his clear voice. Susannah even sings, “You snake! Stop being so beautiful.” That plot doesn’t come off for various reasons, but Cherubino later disguises himself as a woman to be with Barbarina. He is, of course, revealed and the Count chases him away.

The opera closes at night, in the Count’s garden, with a set of tricks and mistaken identities that follow one after the other in dizzying tempo. Cherubino is not involved, but he is around, flitting across the stage with Barbarina or alone, singing a few words to whomever is there and then running off again. The opera ends with everyone unmasked. Three pairs of lovers confront the Count and he sees the error of his ways. Earlier, the Count had sung about how this day—Figaro and Susannah’s wedding day—had been sent to him straight from Hell. The only remedy to the plots and tricks and hellish confusion is, of course, love.

The Marriage of Figaro is not an opera that can be modernized. The class relationships are meaningless now, but because Mozart and da Ponte were pretty much geniuses, it doesn’t matter. Everyone recognizes love and longing. Everyone laughs (and winces) at the confusion brought on by a young boy in the first flush of adolescent love, and an older man who has forgotten what love is. And, I think, everyone recognizes the insistent, androgynous voice of desire that refuses to stop singing, even when we would really rather it shut the hell up and leave us alone.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

St. Ruby Apolline

Six years ago, I read Carol Flinders’ Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics, and decided to be a nun. I am not nor was I raised Catholic or Christian. I am, apparently, quite susceptible to the Christian ethos in its mystical form, particularly the deep longing for union with the body of the Christ.

The metaphysical significance of the Christ’s death is without parallel. In allowing himself to be murdered, this being—a man, a father-god and a son-god—commits suicide, parricide, infanticide and deicide in a single event. To my knowledge, there is no similar death in any of the world’s mythologies. Through this single act of complete annihilation, the Christ enables the world to begin again.

The women in Flinders’ book join with the Christ in ecstatic prayer and meditation. Their writings are frank and frankly fantastic, in the original sense. Although they experience actual pain when, for example, the Christ pierces them with a sword of light, it is with a mystical, rather than a physical, body. Because it is mystical, it can transform; it is a space of change. St. Catherine of Sienna, as I recall, wrote of a visions in which the Christ had female breasts that nursed her.

Well, I thought, that sounds good.

So I made up a story about how I would say good-bye to my family and enter my contemplative, ecstatic life.

I would see them for the last time in a small Gothic cathedral, with angels carved in the buttresses, and statues of my female saints half-shadowed. There would be a priest and a nun waiting behind a set of iron scrollwork doors. I would kiss my family good bye, turn and open the doors. I would hear them clang shut behind me, hear the nun or the priest turn a key in the lock.

Of course there would be music playing. I selected the alto/countertenor solo Cum dederit delectis suis somnum from Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 127 (Nisi Dominus, “Unless the Lord”) and listened to it over and over, as the sound of metal against metal echoed in that cathedral. I cried. It would be so beautiful.

Except I don’t speak Latin:

When he has given sleep/to those he loves
Behold, children are an inheritance/of the Lord
A reward, the fruit of the womb.

Fructus ventris sounds gorgeous, and the solo is mournful, desperately so, which is why I love it. But even a heathen like me knows that nuns aren’t supposed to have children.

I encountered further difficulties during the chapter about St. Teresa of Ávila, who is the subject of Bernini’s famous sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” My problem was that her father was a converso—a Jew who had converted to Catholicism. Her grandfather was also a converso, eventually condemned by the Inquisition for returning to Judaism. Times being what they were, it is almost certain that her grandmother and mother were blood Jews. This means that under Jewish law, St. Teresa was Jewish. As am I.

I read this and my dramatic farewell scene fell to pieces. A Jew! One of two women Doctors of the Church! What the hell?

I’m still not sure why; I only know that when I looked up from the book, I was no longer in my pretty little cathedral turning away from this world to live in another. Thank whatever gods there may be that I waited until after reading this chapter to call my mom.

You never know how Jewish your not-really-Jewish-actually-more-of-an-atheist-than-you-are-mother is until you tell her you’ve been considering going over to the Dark Side. And not only the Dark Side, but the Big C Dark Side, the full-on-Jew-killing-too-bad-about-those-Nazis Dark Side. My mom has hung in with me through Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, generic neo-paganism and tarot cards, but I should have remembered that the Big C was an absolute no-no.

I dated a Catholic when I was in high school. He gave me a pretty rosary, as a sort of love trinket, with a pamphlet explaining how to use it. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing; the “Hail Mary” is a beautiful prayer. I never prayed with it, but I hung the rosary on my wall. One day, my mother noticed.


So I did.

Identity is a strange thing. Above all, I am an aesthete. I love and believe in things to the extent that they are beautiful. It’s the life of an outsider, though. I am always apart, watching. I love beauty and I’m afraid of it, because each time I find it, it annihilates me and I have to start all over again, remember some fragment of who I was, rebuild something like a Self until the next painting or play destroys me.

Gods. My poor mother!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In Defense of the Trashy Novel

If a mind like G. K. Chesterton’s can produce an essay in defense of the detective story as a legitimate art form, then who am I to argue? Chesterton intrigues me; he is the definition of a polymath. Along with the seminal biography of Charles Dickens and several significant works of literary criticism, he wrote theology, detective stories featuring the wily priest Father Brown, a handful of standalone mysteries, biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas that are still respected by scholars in the area, novels, a little poetry and a lot of drawing.

I grew up on genre fiction, but I only recently learned this phrase. My parents supplied me with lots of nonfiction (biographies, mostly, Queen Elizabeth, George Washington Carver, Maria Mitchell, Mozart) but my fiction tastes were decidedly low to middlebrow. I read Stephen King , Dean Koontz (uck), Clive Barker, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and a little John le Carré. My mom is a Trekkie, so I read several of the novels inspired by the original TV series, some of which were very good.

Of course I read “literary” fiction in school and loved it (except for Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; I longed for the moment when Werther finally shot himself), but it didn’t occur to me to start reading it on my own until I met a few literary snobs in college and graduate school. I am late to the world’s great works of literature, and I have never lost the taste for my beloved horror, spy and mystery novels.

After being exposed to, say, Don Quixote or The Magic Mountain, it does get harder to find trashy novels that aren’t so poorly written I can’t stand them. Fortunately, a new sub-genre has arisen of late, which is referred to as the “Mediterranean cerebral detective/mystery novel” or “beach reading for smart people,” on the backs of a couple books. In other words, Umberto Eco, Arturo Perez-Reverte and a few others. I place Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy in this class, although much more “noir” than Eco or Reverte. His novels are of literary caliber; I’m sure he is genre because there are some policemen, a little bit of organized crime, lots of boozing, and a few dead bodies.

Izzo’s trilogy reminds me of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea) in which a city is a central character. Durrell’s Quartet is phenomenal, and better than Izzo’s books, but it also has mystery, spies, mass alcohol consumption, dead people and a few hangdog policemen. Durrell also wrote a less vaunted but quite enjoyable spy thriller called White Eagles Over Serbia.

Georges Simenon is another crossover hit—his Inspector Maigret police procedurals are beautifully written—and he also undertook more “serious” existential novels (none of which I have read, too depressing). Some big names (T. S. Eliot comes to mind) consider him a better writer than Camus, but Simenon’s popularity and output denied him a place as a writer of literary fiction.

Aside from the Star Trek novels, I was never really into science fiction until my mom bought me Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land one year for Christmas. Excellent book, and I learned that even (or especially?) weird geeks can produce novels of ideas that are wicked fun to read. I moved on to Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (less good) and through the Dune series (first three are great, the rest suck). Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon was a revelation, as were William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition and Idoru. I would put Idoru and Stephenson’s Snow Crash and The Diamond Age up against any modern literary fiction on any axis of assessment. I am still digesting Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, after finishing it a few days ago, which means it’s got to be good.

It’s possible I am attempting to create an aesthetic or critical theory to justify my own tastes, but the categorization of fiction bothers me. Without even reaching the issue of sidelining brown writers into “African-American Fiction,” or “Native American Fiction,” or the nomination of “chick lit” as a new genre, I would like to add my voice to those who protest these divisions as based on a tired critical literary establishment that needs to justify its own existence.

But the “paranormal romance” sub-genre? That’s just weird.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lessons Learned: Week of March 15

1. Lifting weights and rolling around on the floor with balls and whatnot at the gymnahsium has practical benefits beyond Vanity, namely, one can engage in two four hour sessions of brutal housecleaning in a single day without serious injury. Rearranging furniture, vacuuming everything, scrubbing floors on hands and knees—it can all be done with an ease heretofore unknown.

2. Genetics are a powerful force. My little sister, 14 years my junior, visited for a few days. We live in different cities and have done so since she was eight years old. I lived outside the house for the majority of her earlier years. We resemble each other a little around the eyes, we have the same small faces with little pointy chins and are built roughly the same. The strangest thing is how she has developed what I thought were Ruby® Mannerisms and what I now realize must be floating around the Apolline genome commons somewhere. She cocks her head at the same angle I do, makes my hand gestures and shrugs. She raises her eyebrow the same way I do and in response to similar comments; we both bite our fingernails; she is restless in the same way I am; pouts just like I do, etc. Bizarre.

My mother has identified one of our looks as coming directly from my father, namely, the Apolline Scowl. When my father, brother, sister and I are reading or observing something that is confusing, irritating or otherwise uncool, we scowl at it and crinkle our mouths. Bad thing! You should make more sense!

3. Thanks to Little Sister, my love of Italian women continues unabated. Sophia Loren, Monica Bellucci and now 1960’s Italian pop/café jazz singer Mina Brava. Try “Tintarella di Luna,” or “Brava.” On YouTube. Of course.

4. I like a Beyoncé song. There. I said it. Actually, it’s more the video, but I also like the song. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” You can find it on YouTube. One of the dancers is a man. Apparently, great dancing, a guy in drag and a fun pop beat are all it takes to overcome my post-modern radical feminist objections to media that strengthen capitalist cultural discourse about the ideal state of compulsory heterosexual monogamy leading to marriage via the barter of sex (woman) for ring (man).

5. On a related point, at first I thought it was odd to play music videos at the gym with the sound turned down so people could watch while harnessed to various torture devices. Then I saw Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” video. It’s quite awesome, although nothing I’ve seen can compare with The KLF’s “Justified and Ancient (Stand By the Jams) (featuring Tammy Wynette)” video. However, I have questions. Are the red-robed, single-horned guitar players ambassadors from MuMu Land or are they adventurers to MuMu Land? Do the Justified and Ancient live in MuMu Land or are they leaving our land to travel to MuMu Land? Anyway, they drive an ice cream van, so that’s nice.

6. Lady Gaga interests me. I watched another couple videos, including “LoveGame.” Both the latter and the “Poker Face” videos feature Lady Gaga in a series of metallic ensembles evoking a Playboy Bunny/Borg crossbreed, surrounded by a retinue of very attractive male dancers in various states of undress. As they say, what’s not to like?

In addition, Lady Gaga has invented the most creative term for “penis” I have encountered. It is in the chorus of “LoveGame:”

Let’s have some fun
This beat is sick
I wanna take a ride
on your disco stick.
(emphasis added)

7. A gentleman with whom I work has a granddaughter named Mignon. This is beyond annoying.