Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An Operatic Insight

Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas.  Blaise Pascal 
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.  (John 1:9)

            For most of my adult life I have been conducting a search, so far in vain, for a satisfactory “convergence theory” true to my own life experience, in which things keep nearly coming together in tantalizing ways.  Lord knows the theories are there, though expressed by geniuses whose thought I can master only in small portions.  From Max Weber I grasp the historical determinism born of bureaucratic structures.  Arthur Koestler’s Roots of Coincidence, of which I have written before, suggestively hints at another kind of “sociological” explanation.  Actually, neither of them seems an unequivocal advance over Hamlet--
                        There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
                        Rough-hew them how we will—
not that I pretend to understand him entirely either.
            My good friend and fellow dawn swimmer T. K. Chu presented us with two tickets to a Westminster Choir College production of Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta, which we attended on Friday night.  T. K. had seen the Thursday performance and liked it so much that he got tickets for the next night as well.  But animated by habitual charity he offered them to me with the slightly cryptic comment that whereas most operas deal with the problems of immorality, this one deals with the problem of morality.
            I am no opera expert.  Not merely had I never seen Iolanta, I had never heard of it.  On the assumption that at least some of my readers might share my recent ignorance, I offer the following brief synopsis.  The opera is a charming medieval fairy tale, involving some historical personages of the fifteenth century, apparently re-invented by Peter Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modeste, after a play by the Danish poet Henrik Hertz (1845).  Iolanta (Yolande), the lovely daughter of King René of Provence, was born blind.  But her protective father has made extraordinary precautions to keep her from the knowledge of her blindness.  She lives in a kind of Bower of Bliss surrounded by cascades of flowers of floods of birdsong.  Though she suffers a vague sense of incompleteness, her relatives, keepers, and friends have expunged from their vocabularies all references to sight, light, color, and so forth.  A ferocious “Keep Out” sign threatens death to any intruders.

            Nonetheless intruders arrive.  One of them is the Burgundian knight Vaudémont (Frederick II of Lorraine).  He falls head over heels in reciprocated love with Iolanta, all the while unaware of her blindness.  Another is a Muslim physician, Ibn-Hakia, your updated Magus from the East, a man reputed capable of healing blindness—but only when the blind person really wants to see.  Thus is achieved the suturing of vision and love.  Naturally, complications occur.  René has already engaged his daughter to Somebody Else.  Somebody Else has meantime fallen in love with a female Somebody Else.  Vaudémont in a heroic attempt to do the Right Thing inadvertently introduces the concept of sight to Iolanta—so that both lovers simultaneously tumble to the reality of her blindness.  Vaudémont now falls beneath King René’s sentence of capital punishment.
            It may be a fairy-tale landscape, but quite serious moral and philosophical issues now strew its ground.  To understand this essay you must also know a couple of things about my current life circumstances.  I am in the midst of teaching an Evergreen Forum course on the materials of my most recent book—meaning, roughly, the occult dimension of the period of the Enlightenment.  Next, on the day before the opera I had undergone surgery to remove an occluding cataract from my right eye.  Hence my mind had naturally been much occupied with sight and insight, with the light and the dark, with blindness and vision, with what is readily manifest and what is occult.
            The relations among the five senses and their claims to philosophical priority were topics dear to the heart of such Enlightenment heavyweights as Condillac, Diderot, and Rousseau.  So Tchaikovsky’s opera presents us with some wonderful Enlightenment conundrums, just as life presents me personally with a no less riddling convergence.  It is indeed a story about Enlightenment
            One standard English translation of the opening sentence of Kant’s famous essay “What Is Enlightenment?” is this:  Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage [Unmündigkeit].  “Nonage” is not a word in common use these days, and I don’t think we torture Kant’s sense if we think of a “self-imposed limitation of vision.”  When I was a child, I thought as a child…But whose fault is blindness?  Iolanta is laced with scriptural allusions that, I suspect, are unlikely to be noticed by today’s audience.  In particular King René in a very disturbed mood speculates that the cause of his daughter’s blindness is his own sin.  This is obviously taken from the episode of the man born blind in the ninth chapter of John’s gospel. “And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Those who know the passage will know also the answer to the question: “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
            Tchaikovsky does not merely take up some choice themes of the Age of Reason; he also criticizes the tendency of some of the enlightened toward mechanistic materialism.  It was Pascal who had said "The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing" and William Blake in his poem “Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau” who made the claim that “…Newton's Particles of Light
are sands upon the Red Sea shore.”
            The choral resolution of Iolanta, like most choral resolutions, is something of a cliché.   What makes it a little unusual is that it is a religious cliché: God is light.  The classic statement is probably in the prologue to John’s gospel, taken thence into the Nicene Creed itself.  Tchaikovsky’s version in the final chorus is “Thou art the brilliant light of truth”*.  Even here there is unsettling convergence.  Earlier in the week the board of the Oxford University Press accepted a proposal for a book I had submitted.  Presuming that I now actually write it, this will be my first venture with this venerable and prolific press.

*Ty sveta istiny sijan'e