Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Magic Flute in the Age of Obama (part II)

Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress—to assist the work
Which then was going forward in her name!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
(As at some moment might not be unfelt
Among the bowers of paradise itself )
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
What temper at the prospect did not wake
To happiness unthought of? The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!
They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,
The playfellows of fancy, who had made
All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength
Their ministers,—who in lordly wise had stirred
Among the grandest objects of the sense,
And dealt with whatsoever they found there
As if they had within some lurking right
To wield it;—they, too, who, of gentle mood,
Had watched all gentle motions, and to these
Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more wild,
And in the region of their peaceful selves;—
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Wcre called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

- William Wordsworth. From "The Prelude."

("Let's sing of liberty")

There are those brief periods in history, and invariably they are mercilessly brief, in which history seems to be edging towards its end. War dies down, the yoke of oppression looks to have been casted off, and mankind looks poised to finally trust in one another and dwell in the perfect peace for which so many died to achieve. And yet, these years of peace and hope invariably look to be followed on their heals by history's most bloody epochs. The French revolution was followed by the reign of terror and afterward by Napoleon. The Russian Revolution by the Russian Civil War and afterward came the rise of Fascism and the Stalinist Purges. The Chinese Revolution (itself unspeakably bloody) was followed shortly thereafter by the Red Guards and the Great Leap Forward. Revolutions are rarely achieved without the terrible bloodshed. And regardless of how great the hope for peace which follows them, revolutions are rarely enforced without bloodshed far more terrible. No doubt there are exceptions to these rules of thumb, whether in America after 1776, or in Eastern Europe after 1989, or in Latin America in the 80's and 90's. But such exceptions are only achieved because each these regions had already achieved a basic standard of living still unknown in so many places throughout the world. It would seem that the tendency toward hate, murder and mayhem is an unchangeable, most horrific part of human nature. In its way, it is as integral a mysterious part of the human makeup as erotic desire and love.

It is that horrific realization about human nature that makes us wish so badly for human beings not to be as we are. The desire for there to be no neither-regions of the soul is nearly as great, and sometimes as dangerous, as the temptation to yield to them. Yet history - personal history, interpersonal history, cultural history, political history - is littered with the turmoil of every one of us trying to free ourselves from our own bonds. Each of us is brought into this world without our consent, each person is given unique qualities and circumstances without consent, and each person leaves the world in due course with or without their consent. Each of us must cope with these facts as best we can, and too often the happiness of one conflicts with the other.


There are some works of art that have a simple, inexplicable ability to make people weep. I remember sitting in the Kennedy Center opera house during a production of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, and before I knew what I was doing I found myself openly weeping during the Act I finale, 'Sunday.' I looked down the row, and I found that most of the people in my row were doing precisely the same thing. Martin Amis once wrote of a similar experience when he saw 'ET', and I can recall a similar experience of that movie with my own family when I was 11 or 12. As a teenager I remember a performance Leon Fleischer gave of Brahms's transcription of the Bach Chaccone that caused a few people in the hall to helplessly sob. And a few years ago I went to a screening of Pan's Labyrinth in which the lights emerged on two friends of mine and I, grown men all, and our eyes were red from tears. There are moments in art, more moments than we realize, that tap into our deepest longings. Whether it is the longing of our inner child for a benevolent universe, or the longing of our inner aesthete for art that sustains us, or the longing for a music that expresses emotions beyond our understanding, or the longing of us all to know that the horrors of our world serve a greater purpose, each of these tap into things we can only wish we knew to be true.

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