Wednesday, May 16, 2012
I have noticed in the national press that the temporary suspension of a newspaper column is generally announced with the chaste editorial note that “Benjamin Blogger is on vacation.” But what if the editor was on vacation too?
On the second of June in the year of grace one thousand, nine hundred, and sixty-two, in the Lady Chapel of Trinity Church in Princeton, New Jersey, your bloguiste married Joan Elizabeth Newman. Though even at the time it seemed a momentous event, I realize in retrospect that I had but the vaguest idea of just how momentous. To be sure we have been a little casual about celebrating our anniversaries. On more than one occasion, if truth must out, we both forgot the date altogether. We forgive ourselves according to the possibly spurious principle that it is more important to live life than to memorialize it. But things got better before too long, as our children reached the age of sentience and began reminding us out of self-imposed filial duty.
A fiftieth wedding anniversary, however, is an event of sufficient solemnity to command our undivided attention. We decided some time ago that we would celebrate it by making it the occasion of a trip to some attractive place we had never been but always wanted to go. We swiftly agreed on the most desirable venue. On Friday Joan and I are flying to Istanbul. We shall spend the better part of three weeks in Turkey, visiting especially classical and early Christian archaeological sites, but allowing for plenty of time simply to wander about the countryside—and the cityscape of Constantine’s ancient capital, now a treasury of beautiful Ottoman mosques.
We are hoping to travel light. In particular this is not the kind of journey likely to be enhanced by schlepping around my customary impedimenta: a pile of ungraded papers, proofsheets, manuscripts edited or unedited, or even the most portable of portable computers. So in its continuing pursuit of a more perfect union, “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche” grants its readers a temporary remission until the first week of June, when bloguiste and editor may very well return to take up a fifty-first year of collaboration.
"The Golden Horn" by Alice Schille (1869–1955).
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Rhine Maidens on a slippery slope
Only during the brief period of heedless youth, when most people unconsciously assume an attitude of immortality, do we really think we are likely to achieve all our “goals.” As serious age advances the realization of life’s impossibilities becomes articulate and acute. That is one of the several not so nice things about aging. It is all the more wonderful to discover, therefore, that among all the things you hoped to do but never will there turn out to be a fair number of delightful experiences for which you never before had the time, money, or opportunity to explore. One such, which I will touch upon next week, will interrupt the thus-far reasonably disciplined schedule of this blog. A second will provide this week’s subject: Richard Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung.
As I write we are half way through it. The Rheingold was on Saturday. Last night’s performance of The Valkyries (part two of the four of the whole work) has three acts, each a mini-opera of its own. The Metropolitan’s production began at 6:30. We were still applauding the singers at twenty minutes before midnight. If you can imagine an experience that combines the leg pain of a tourist class flight to Heathrow and the tachycardia of a long Alpine ski slope with the ethical exaltation of Paradise Lost—well, if you can do that, you can do more than I can do. I have a day to recover before Siegfried (tonight) and then, on Saturday, the marathon finale of The Twilight of the Gods.
You almost certainly know more about Wagner’s Ring cycle than I do, and if you don’t, I could never offer even my infant appreciation in a few hundred words. It has to be among the most audacious artistic creations the human spirit has yet attempted. The excess is staggering. The length is daunting. It calls for dramaturgical resources unavailable in Wagner’s day. It requires a vocal range and stamina that surely only a few singers in any generation can command. Its narrative vehicle is an arcane phantasmagoria of early Germanic mythology and heroic legend. Most grand opera goes over the top at cardinal moments. The Ring begins there and hardly descends, except when the Valkyries came galloping, as over the crest of the globe, on their equine planks.
The Valkyries ride the rails
The old theology, though prehistoric, is almost post-modern. The gods have created the human race; but the destiny of divinity is to be supplanted by its creature. The ethic—far from being Hitlerian or Nietzschean as I have been endlessly told by cultural historians—is classical, humanistic, indeed Christian. It is a plea for the superiority of the spiritual over the material.
Chaucer’s Pardoner preached always on a single biblical text: Radix malorum est cupiditas. That’s the one translated in the Authorized Version as “The love of money is the root of all evil.” An inordinate lust for the golden ring of the Niebelung, and by extension for the power the possession of gold wields, animates the hugeness of the entire tragedy. Whether beneath the waters of the Rhine, as in Wagner, or beneath the earth’s surface, as in the Boethian tradition, gold is naturally hellish.
“Let none admire [writes Milton in Paradise Lost]
That riches grow in Hell; that soil may best
Deserve the precious bane”
That is a great old English word, bane. It means a thing or person that kills. Radix malorum est cupiditas.
Naturally I was generally familiar with the Ring as an item of cultural literacy, but its concentrated viewing is something else. The current Met production is directed by Robert Lepage, the founder of Ex Machina, a production company made up chiefly of Quebecois cybergeniuses who specialize in transforming the proscenium arch into a computer game field. I thought it was fabulous, but it is evident that controversy swirls about Wagnerian opera when presented with the production values of Star Wars. Traditionalists groan. Our own tickets became available for purchase only because some friends of friends who had them by subscription were preemptively disgusted by the very idea. Yet however numerous, the naysayers, having voted with their feet, left the field to the majoritarian enthusiasts. In the half hour before the curtain rises the large plaza in front of the Met rather resembles the pit of the Stock Exchange, as musical junkies, gesticulating like bond brokers, desperately search for a seller among the surging throng. I saw no takers and, within the hall, no empty seats.
But I myself must eschew an excess of Arnoldian high seriousness of my own. The Ring Cycle may be a masterpiece of musical high thinking, but it would appear no less to be the Rocky Horror Picture Show of the aesthetic classes. This is an opera with fans. Our own excellent friend Susan, through whom we got our tickets, was seeing the cycle for the fifth time. Opera is exhibition, and over-the-top opera enthusiasts at times do not stop short of exhibitionism.There were around us in the dress circle a few hard-core fans who had complemented their glitzy attire of tuxedo or ball gown with those horned helmets that since the nineteenth century have become the headgear de rigueur for most imaginary medieval warriors north of the Olive Oil Line.* The idea that a man in his mid-seventies can come upon this for the first time with the freshness of a child is rather thrilling.
*On this topic I recommend the indispensable article of my learned friend Professor Roberta Frank, “The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet”.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Though in retirement I have left behind many of the professional activities of my old professional life, I have been surprised to find that one feature of that life—invitations to give lectures, informal talks, or after dinner speeches—has not gone away. And since I enjoy talking to people, I accept whenever possible. Thus it was that I found myself last Friday evening offering informal remarks to the annual dinner of something called the New Jersey Society of the Cincinnati. My supposed topic was “The Uses of History” or some such, but it was I who received tuition on that topic.
Like many Americans, I have become rather casual, if not actually cynical, concerning the greatness of our nation’s founders, beginning with George Washington. Yet to examine almost any aspect of Washington is to reveal greatness of a kind sadly unimaginable in our current political leaders and aspirants. His role as first General President of the Societies of the Cincinnati is but one small feather in a lavishly plumed cap.
The eighteenth-century squirearchy loved reading classical literature, and imitated classical history whenever possible. Thomas Jefferson for a time tried to use Virgil’s Georgics as a practical handbook of animal husbandry. The great seal of the State of Virginia bears the motto Sic semper tyrannis—words supposedly uttered by Brutus as he stabbed Julius Cæsar and actually uttered by John Wilkes Booth as he shot Lincoln. (Instances of the bad uses of history greatly outnumber the good.)
Among the heroes of legendary Roman history was the farmer Cincinnatus. He was plowing a field when a delegation of importunate citizens arrived to beg him to assume the dictatorship of the infant city, then threatened by hostile neighbors. Though he much preferred his agrarian life, he submitted to duty’s demands, left his farm, assumed the leadership of the city, organized its defense, and defeated its enemies. But the biographical punch line is what he did next—resigned the dictatorship, went back to his farm, and continued plowing.
For the American revolutionaries Cincinnatus was the perfect historical model for so much of the officer corps of the Continental Army, and most obviously for its supreme general officer, Washington. For modern Washington—the city as metonymy for the congressional body and its whirling satellites—Cincinnatus is an historical indictment of career politicians. The Society of the Cincinnati, founded in 1783, was a group of former army officers committed to the “immutable principles” of the fellowship that had given the Society birth. Needless to say these do not include the one immutable principle of our contemporary political class—the acquisition and retention of political office by any means possible.
There are actually fourteen affiliated societies—one for each of the original states, and one for France. These were the allies who had prevailed against a great—perhaps the greatest—European military power. New Jersey was not then a ganglion of superhighways, but the battlefield of such decisive action as that at Trenton, Princeton, and Monmouth. The founding of the Society was contemporaneous with the establishment of a promising settlement on the Ohio River, which was given its name by a proud veteran. Membership now is by lineal descent, and is parsimoniously granted.
I knew none of this when I agreed to give my little talk. On the same day I gave it, a squabble broke out in our capital city concerning bragging rights for assassinating Osama bin Laden. This episode began in unseemliness, and has not become more salubrious as days have passed. I expect soon to hear from one of the candidates not only that he did or certainly would have done it, but that it would have been a good idea to attach Osama’s body to a Chevy Volt and drag it seven times around CIA headquarters.
They built in marble; we continue in cinder block. Everybody knows that. For that first crucial decade of our Republic we survived not only without an FCC or a Securities and Exchange Commission, we survived without an army or a police force! What protected us in our extraordinary vulnerabilities were certain ideas about citizenship, not yet turned to irony, inhabiting the hearts and minds of certain idealists.
As we enter a presidential campaign likely to excite discouragement and perhaps even revulsion in the minds of thoughtful citizens, we can perhaps turn again to antique history and classical myth in hopes of finding at least aesthetic comfort. Various ancient authorities report the existence of a monstrous race called the Pygmaei, a tribe of very little people who lived—and here the authorities vary—either in little subterranean burrows or in houses made of eggshells. The Pygmies lived in the back of beyond, on the edge of nowhere. Periodically they did battle with their ancestral enemies, a race of birds of approximately their own stature, usually identified as storks. The dubious battle betwixt Pygmies and Storks is a not infrequent subject in classical art. The grotesquerie of it all must have been considered diverting. Indeed it does seems a more amusing pairing than donkeys and elephants.