The Vulgarity of the Ascetic, Rewarded: Massenet’s Thais and Barlam and Iosaphat


From here.

Massenet’s Thaïs, perhaps better known, to some of you, from Hroswitha’s play “Paphnutius,” features our holy harlot staring into her mirror, feeling her beauty fade, and wishing it were otherwise:

Dis-moi que je suis belle
Et que je serai belle éternellement!
Que rien ne flétrira les roses de mes lèvres,
Que rien ne ternira l’or pur de mes cheveux!
Dis-le moi! Dis-le moi!

[Tell me that I am beautiful and that I will be beautiful eternally. That nothing of the rose of my lips will fade, that nothing of the pure gold of my hair will tarnish. Tell me! Tell me!]

Hope will find a way! Thaïs goes Christian (inadvertently corrupting her evangelist), and, as she dies, she sees the heavens open, and the angels and saints all smiling, with hands full of flowers: “Le son des harpes d’or m’enchante! – de suaves perfums me pénètrent! … Je sens—une exquise beatitude” [the sound of golden harps enchants me! Soft perfumes penetrate me. I sense an exquisite beatitude!]. Here she gets her eternal beauty, here, the luxury to which she, as Alexandria’s priciest harlot, had become accustomed, but now perfected, with no fear of loss. She has not abandoned her material desires, her delight in pleasures of the body, but has rather had them perfected by the greatest client of all.

So too in the Middle English Barlam and Iosaphat. This Christianized Life of the Buddha has recently been done for Penguin, from Gui de Cambrai’s version, by Peggy McCracken (whose In Search of the Christian Buddha joins my 2015 must-read list). Halfway through the Middle English, I’m bored and fascinated at once, as only a scholar of this stuff can be. What we have is usual medieval asceticism, with a run-through of standard Christian beliefs, notable, I think, only for omitting any reference (so far) to the Eucharist. Mostly, it calls on us to abandon “þe vanyte and þe vnstabylnes of þe world” [70; the vanity and the unstableness of the world] for the unchanging delights of the next life.

Éternellement ! Éternellement !

One exemplum teaches the lesson neatly. You won’t find it in many places: it shows up in Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum Historiale, naturally enough in his version of Barlam and Iosaphat, and then, scrubbed of any hint of asceticism, as the story of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, mildly famous as a Shakespeare footnote, printed first in Richard Johnson’s 1612 Crown Garden of Goulden Roses, next by Richard Percy, flourishing thereafter as a weedy crop of nineteenth-century poetry and painting, and so on, at least, up to Pretty Woman or Maid in Manhattan.

In our medieval tale, a wise young man was wedded to a beautiful, rich woman, but when his father “tolde hym many þyngis þat longid to weddynge, and tolde hym how he sholde do” (70; told him the many things that were proper to being wed, and told him how he should do them), he fled, disgusted. He came upon the house of an old man, whose daughter sat in the doorway working away with her hands, praising god. To the wondering young man she explained that worldly goods cause worry, and that as a human having “knowynge and resoun before al oþer beestis” (71; knowing and reason above all other beasts), she knows she cannot thank God enough for his gifts, however small they may seem. The young man immediately declares his intention to wed her, which her father grants, on two conditions: that his daughter not be taken away from home, and that the young man join his new family in their poverty. He agrees and submits to the father’s last interrogation. Finding him sincere, the father lets him marry, and so they lived forever, in noble poverty, knowing that riches are the desire of the weak-hearted, the impious, the insincere, loved best by creeps and monsters like the Koch brothers or Jeffrey Epstein .

If only! Instead, finding him sincere, the father:

Arose vp and toke hym by þe honed, and ledde hym into a chamber, and þere he shewde hym grete riches and grete sommes of money, þat þe ʒonge man sawe neuer so moche before þat tyme, and seide to hym: ‘Sonne, all þis Y ʒeve þe, because þat þou hast chose my douʒtere, and þou shalt be myn eyre.’ And whan þe ʒonge man had þis he passed al þe ryche men þat were in þe londe. (72)

[got up and took him by the hand and led him to a chamber and there he showed him great riches and great sums of money, more than the young man had ever seen before, and he said to him, ‘Son, I give you all of this, because you have chosen my daughter, and you will be my heir.’ And when the young man had this, he surpassed all the rich men that were in the land [in Vincent of Beauvais’ compact Latin, ille omnes supergressus est gloriosos terra et divites]

The young man should have fled again, found another old man and another daughter, and fled again, until finally, one imagines, he would become the Grouchy Walter of Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, fed up with marriage and out for revenge on poor virtuous women everywhere (Hollywood, get on this origin tale right away!). Instead, we get the same vulgar reward we find in Massenet: give up on the cool things of this world, because God will give you the same cool things in the afterlife, but even better!

What I want from a great ascetic text like Barlaam and Iosaphat, and from the asceticism of medieval Christianity more generally, is what modern American Christianity mostly lacks: unending contempt for the rich and for their tastes and pleasures. I don’t want delayed gratification, but rather a transvaluation of all values, not for the sake of a Nietzschean vitality, but rather, if it could be imagined, for an asceticism lived for its own sake, with no hope or reward or repose, an asceticism worth something in itself, because the values of this world and its mighty really do suck.

Anyhow, May the Wind Be Gentle

I may be the very last one to recognize the genius in Mozart offhandedly giving his most beautiful song to two sincerely anxious fiancées and to one smug, insincere joker, who, remember, finishes his song with a wink and a cheery “what a good actor I am!”

It’s easy enough to say that the presence of the joker means the song sends up our pretensions of perfect beauty: there’s always going to be a stain, a broken crank, a monster. Forgetting that, we imagine, is being complicit with happiness and the status quo more generally. The habits of critique.

I prefer to think it means this, though: regardless of our stupid plans, regardless of our own stupid psyche and tics, we still might end up doing something wonderful. We won’t always know we did it, but we might do it anyway. There’s beauty here despite our efforts. And not always beauty.

Soave sia il vento,
Tranquilla sia l’onda,
Ed ogni elemento
Benigno risponda
Ai nostri {vostri) desir.

[May the wind be gentle,
may the wave(s) be calm,
and may every one of the elements
warmly fulfil our (your) wishes.]

(translation from here)

Let Us Know We are Steeped in Blood: Macbeth and Ourselves as Documents of Barbarism

Verdi_MacBethI’ve seen a fair amount of Macbeth in the last few months. I finally got around to seeing Throne of Blood, I followed this up with the Trevor Nunn Macbeth (with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen), then I saw–this is sounding a bit like an apocalypse, no?–the Verdi Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera (see the photo to the left), and, just yesterday, I saw an excellent and scary * Macbeth at BAM with Patrick Stewart (who’s surprisingly spry and quick for someone who’s very nearly 70 years old).

Barring the Kurosawa, all my recent Macbeths occur in a militarized Europe c. 1925-1955. While none is quite so strenuously and particularly set in this milieu as the 1995 Richard III film, while the Nunn is set so minimally that I’d hesitate to identify it as anything but Macbeth, and while the Metropolitan Opera has certain features from the Balkans of the 90s, all nonetheless have in common men with slick-backed hair, jackboots, khaki, and, depending on the production, jodhpurs, assault rifles and pistols, camouflage, and, for the women, evening gowns cut from the 30s.

With all the power at my disposal, which is to say: none, I declare this particular setting a cliché and thus call for a moratorium. Set your Macbeths elsewhere please. Let them be set in Abu Ghraib, perhaps, with Macbeth or better yet the weird sisters played by German Shepherds; let them be set in a hamburger stand in Pennsylvania; let them be set in academia, on the steppes, in the hallways of KBR or Blackwater, at Balad AFB, but please avoid setting them in postcolonial sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s why this cliché is a cliché that demands it be verboten. The setting’s an easy out; it’s the theatrical equivalent of a Godwin’s Law violation; it appeals to our sense of self-satisfaction and relief at not being fascists, totalitarians, or victims and/or apparatchiks of such regimes. I might call this setting the opposite of Brecht’s alienation device: it’s a satisfaction device. We recognize Macbeth‘s horror elsewhere, not in or with ourselves; through this, we attain the self-satisfaction of the original English audiences, pleased to see the rough Scots finally transformed from Thanes into Earls (“My thanes and kinsmen, / Henceforce be earls, the first that ever Scotland / In such an honor nam’d” V.ix.28-30). If not Democracy, then benevolence has come, with the repulsive, oleaginous Malcolm as the voice of our better conscience. How, then, to accuse us of the horror? How to brush ourselves against the grain with Macbeth?

* Excellent and scary except for the embarrassing industrial-techno-chant of the witches cauldron speech, which sounded like muddled, low-grade Test Dept. or Laibach.

Opera’s Second Death, Slavoj Žižek

1051885My only serious complaint is that the book doesn’t treat Massenet’s Thaïs. Imagine what Žižek and Dolar could have done with this?! My only other complaint: in the chapter “Run, Isolde, Run!,” there’s a consideration of other possible ending to Tristan and Isolde, which betrays no awareness of the varient endings already available in the medieval tradition. There’s an Italian ballad, I believe, where Mark shows up and Tristan kills him. For example.

Essentially a long commentary on the Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, with extended considerations of Wagner’s Parsifal, AND the trial of Joan of Arc, this is perhaps the most “medieval” or “medievalist” of Žižek’s books. It’s strange, then, that it doesn’t get cited in Cinematic Illuminations, given that book’s attention to the grail as an ‘anamorphic blot’ disturbing the screen in, for example, Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois, and Syberberg’s Parsifal.

If you’ve stopped halfway through, keep at it: the Žižek clichéd jokes and mapping of Hegelian/Lacanian triads (here he is on Joan for instance, “Do we not encounter hear, yet again, the Lacanian triad of the Real-Imaginary-Symbolic: the Real of the hallucinated voices, the Imaginary of the dress, the Symbolic of the ecclesiastic institution?”), in other words, the Žižekian automatism, gives way, shockingly, to close (and accurate?) readings of the above operas plus a few others, including Rosenkavalier, Cosi fan Tutte, Fidelio, more Wagner, Turendot (“a monstrously perverted version of a Kantian ethical machine, whose message to us is “You can, because you must!”), and a few obscure atonal modernist pieces. Also surprising: the book’s feminist critique of Wagner’s idealized attachment to the Feminine Thing (which means the sacrifice of actual women), its sympathy with Derrida and with Butler on Antigone (“Antigone is a “living dead” not in the sense (which Butler attributes to Lacan) of entering the mysterious domain of ate, of going to the limit of the Law; she is a “living dead” in the sense of publicly assuming an uninhabitable position, a position for which there is no place in the public space”).

One of my favorite bits is their reading of the opening of Der Rosenkavalier: “This anti- (or, rather, post-) Wagnerian thrust is nicely rendered in the opposition between Octavian and the Marschallin in the very first scene: while, in a mockingly Wagnerian mood, Octavian babbles about the dissolution of the frontier between Me and You in the love act, about his wish to remain immersed in the night and avoid the day,” the Marschallin just says, here, hide behind this screen. To read this opening as an extension/subversion of Tristan and Isolde! Brilliant!

..and here’s a typical moment: “e have here four attitudes towards sexual love: the Wagnerian deadly immersion into the unremitting jouissance of the Night; the Meistersinger-Rosenkavalier resigned “wisdom,” acceptance that time passes, rendered in a “half-imaginary, half-real” dreamy Mozartean mode; Shostakovich’s brutal naturalism of the vulgar daily life – “just the story of an ordinary quiet Russian family whose members beat and poison each other,” as Shostakovich himself put it sarcastically; and, finally, Schulhoff’s assertion of the “undead” spectral compulsion as the ultimate dimension of sexual love.”