Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Beautiful Tale of Love and Death

            We just got back from a quick trip to the opera—Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Lyric Theater in Chicago.  Occasional extravagances of that sort are an unanticipated possibility of retirement, but even so we should hardly have indulged were the opera not a pretext for meeting up with Tamara, a very old and dear friend, recently widowed, who lives in Michigan.  We had been “young marrieds” together nearly a half century ago.  Charles and I spent several years together as junior faculty colleagues before the goddess Fortuna sent us our differing ways.  Death, the definitive separation, is of a different order.  Any sensitive person will probably have an empathetic sense of widowhood, but the long-married are likely to intuit it with a particular poignancy.

I recently read that divorce rates in America have been in noticeable decline, but even before I was able to register a silent, inward satisfaction at the news the next paragraph was upon me with its disquieting explanation.  The reason fewer people have been filing for divorce is that so few people have been getting married in the first place.  There is comparatively little difficulty in putting asunder those whom God has never joined.

“The iconic American family, with mom, dad and kids under one roof, is fading” says another statistical essay in a recent Economist.  “In every state the numbers of unmarried couples, childless households and single-person households are growing faster than those comprised of married people with children, finds the 2010 census. The latter accounted for 43% of households in 1950; they now account for just 20%. And the trend has a potent class dimension. Traditional marriage has evolved from a near-universal rite to a luxury for the educated and affluent.”

            A “luxury for the educated and affluent”—perhaps rather like flying trips to Chicago to attend the opera?  Our great literature has principally concerned itself with three things, two of which are God and marriage, frequently enough in combination.  English professors used to spend a lot of time worrying about “the decline of the novel.”  I think what they were really worrying about—either without realizing it or without being willing to realize it—was the decline of God.  The basis for the greatness of Moby Dick and Les Misérables and The Brothers Karamazov is actually the God-question.  Take that away, and artistic grandeur is an uphill struggle.

God’s literary disappearance still left us with marriage.   Marriage resolves complication, restores order.  The comic (meaning optimistic or happy) template of our literature is the so-called marriage plot: the “Knight’s Tale”, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, almost anything by Jane Austen.  The Marriage Plot, indeed, is the title of a novel, currently much admired, by Jeffrey Eugenides.  And it’s a really great title.  So it is more than a little alarming, simply in literary terms, to face the possibility that narrative fiction may soon lose marriage as well.  “Thus they split, and lived uncommitedly ever after.”  That seems a little lame.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

That is not the problem with Lucia di Lammermoor.  Donizetti’s opera (1835) is based in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), and like most of Scott’s great tales this one was based in “real life”.  Our modern fetish for individual autonomy hardly prepares us for that old world (or most of our modern one outside the industrialized West) in which social relations are familial before they are personal.  If marriage can lead to comic fulfillment, the prohibition of marriage can lead to tragic destruction.  Hence according to the unfortunate comparative principle touched upon in my last post, Lucia di Lammermoor inevitably became “the Scottish Romeo and Juliet”.  
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)

Yet things are worse even than that.  To forbid Lucy Ashton from marrying Mr. Right (Edgardo Ravenswood) would have been bad enough even without forcing her to marry Mr. Wrong (Arturo Bucklaw).  The sinister combination of oppressions means, in terms of a fine old essay on Scott’s novel by Andrew Lang, that Lucy is both Juliet and Ophelia: “for Lucy, in her soft and fragile beauty, her dutifulness to parental authority, and her final madness, corresponds to Ophelia with some closeness.”  Here are the ingredients for disaster, and on Saturday night in Chicago at least three geniuses—Scott, Donizetti, and the Alabaman soprano Susanna Phillips—made of it a disaster not soon to be forgotten.

Susanna Phillips as Lucia di Lammermoor
All art is determined by both its form and its content.  The very concept of bel canto opera is that the beauty of the singing matches the splendor of the dramaturgy and the moral dignity of the narrative content.  I had never before seen this opera, and I had read the Scott story so long ago that I could remember nothing more than the basic narrative situation.  But it hardly matters.  I have discovered that works of art are like Heraclitus’s river.  You never can step into the same river twice.  The intellectual and spiritual experiences of one’s seventies are not those of one’s fifties, let alone those of one’s twenties.  In some miraculous way the old is also new.  The word re-reading is thus inexact.

Still, in art as in life the complement of change is continuity.  The origins of our romance tradition are sometimes traced to the opening words of the medieval story of Tristan and Iseult: “My lords, would you hear a beautiful tale of love and death?...”  That might be called the bel canto of the eternal human experience.

“My lords, would you hear a beautiful tale of love and death?...”