Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Modern Wilderness?

I wonder if anyone else out there feels like a voice in the wilderness. The experiences of the past couple of decades would seem to have increased our number. The collapse of communism, the Internet making our lives more virtual and alienated, AIDs, the rise of the neo-cons and their Machiavellian manufacturing of the Iraq war, migration on a massive scale, the spectre of apocalyptic disaster from climate change, the burgeoning of cities with their swelling ranks of urban loners and their increasingly fluid, insecure and dog-eat-dog job markets: all this and more have engendered a more or less constant state of isolated shock.

But is any of this really new? Sure, some things can be said to be unprecedented - the sheer scale of this latest population explosion, the democratization of instant global communication, a dazzling range of scientific and intellectual advancements. Yet before any kind of distinctive 21st century wilderness might have come into being, there were plenty of others no less formidable. Who's to say that they were any less traumatic? You only have to think back half a century, when the world was pondering deeply on whether humankind would ever recover from the ethical and spiritual catastrophe of the Holocaust.

Moreover, the assumption that we've really got most of it figured out, that all these technological advancements have somehow solved a slew of age-old problems, seems to me to be a fundamental mistake. A few hours ago, I was listening to the radio, and heard a university professor argue a case for genetic engineering. If a little tweak of the genes - just a little tiny one - would improve learning skills and otherwise advance social cohesion in a way that might reduce or even eliminate a plethora of society's ills, he said, then we should go ahead and do it.

How could you possibly believe such a thing? I cried in the wilderness. It would be such an obvious mistake. You have no idea what you are destroying when you manipulate genes. And are you not suggesting that we should destroy the wilderness itself - that pesky repository of the incomprehensible? Imagine a world without wilderness, without mystery, as the professor wants us to do. Go ahead. I don't think I could bear to.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Night at the Opera

O du, mein holder Abendstern,
wohl grüßt ich immer dich so gern:
von Herzen, das sie nie verriet,
grüße sie, wenn sie vorbei dir zieht,
wenn sie entschwebt dem Tal der Erden,
ein sel'ger Engel dort zu werden!

O you my glowing evening star
It is always so good to look up and see you shining
I beg you from a heart that's been loyal and true
Give her your light when she passes by
As she rises up from this blasted earth
To become an angel beyond the beyond

Richard Wagner, Tannhäuser, Act III Scene II (my production-influenced translation)

Hear it here

On Sunday I saw Tannhäuser at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. Here's a collection of impressions, in no particular order.

Tannhäuser is a typical Wagnerian hero. He starts off impulsive, wild-eyed and in trouble. He's a sucker for the charms of a woman, be she innocent or duplicitous. He's dimly aware of the quest on which he is about to embark, and dimly unaware of what kind of shenanigans his spiritually bankrupt elders are hatching behind his back, which will be hastening his death soon enough. He's hopeless in social situations, but his energy and brazenness unfailingly get the oestrogen pumping in the lonely, chaste heroine.

Tannhäuser, the flawed artist. Doesn't know how good he is, but also doesn't really care. Only truly comes to life in the world of the imagination and the romantic ideal. He does so painfully and awkwardly, and we watch him with a sense of gathering doom. Put him in a court of nobles and he will duly scandalize with an escalation of faux pas, which emanate from a sheer inability to rein in his ample inheritance of full-blooded yearnings.

We first see him lying on a geometric patch of mottled dark green, half watching, half imagining Venus' retinue: a group of naked love worshippers painted white and dancing in a slow trance, led by an equally naked, golden, crouching, bald ringleader-cum-satyr. The ringlear's penis points straight down at the large crumbling concrete piano on which he towers above his clan. The piano perhaps an incarnation of Tannhäuser's fading prospects for musical/artistic glory.

We're not in Kansas any more. I am quietly thrilled about this fact.

The orchestra is small but lucid, the pacing of the performance secure. The singers shade their acting with nuanced emotions that build up, layer by layer, to infuse the final act climax with a sense of transcendent cartharsis - a journey to the proverbial still point of the turning world.

(I feel privileged to be hearing a great Wagner opera sung in a great German opera house, performed by artists in their native tongue. A deeper experience than hearing Wagner in London or New York or Seattle, where the singing may have been more sensational and the staging on a grander scale, yet the link to the collective subconscious of German opera more tenuous)

Ostracised from the court of public opinion, Tannhäuser embarks on an ill-fated journey imposed on him by the status quo. He returns to a waste land, wiser yet disillusioned, his spirit leeched as dry as the parched earth. The chorus is stumbling off as he approaches, laid low by the curse they have brought upon themselves, dressed in sombre clothes and carrying suitcases as if abandoning a town decimated by global warming. Only in death and transfiguration can the original promise be fulfilled. The good woman denied love turns into a star, the flawed artist into a blossom of green leaves on the blasted heath.

Kind of made me want to start life all over again.