Sunday, September 15, 2013

800 Words: The Tragicomedy of Onegin

My first experience of Eugene Onegin was nearly ten years ago. As a college student, I sneakily bought tickets to Tchaikovsky’s operatic version it for me to go with a slightly older opera singer with whom I was head-over-heals in love - or so I thought. Knowing that 100 other nerdy men were competing for her at any given time, I wisely absented myself from any competition and simply contented myself with her company - for I had enough problems in that area to give myself any more.

I knew the basic outline of the opera, or at least well enough that I should have known better than to take her to it - or perhaps I unconsciously bought the tickets knowing that basically our situation was almost a mirror image of the opera - with her as the older, world-weary Onegin and I as the puppy-love-stricken Tatiana. I have no idea if she squirmed in her seat, but I certainly did for virtually the whole of the first two acts - watching Tatyana’s heartache mirror my own so closely. At the time, it was truly awful, and felt like my heart was being rent in two-times-two, both by the obvious parallels of our situation and by the fact that they were playing out right in front of us. It was horrible. Ten years later,... it’s pretty funny.

Ten years later, I’m finally within striking distance of finishing Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in an online translation that’s truly excellent (reading-wise, I have no idea as to its accuracy). As I draw near its completion, I can’t help but wonder if this is not the greatest poem I’ve ever read of any length, any nationality, or any era. The tone of it is so perfect - conversational, light-hearted, and funny, until it suddenly comes upon a passage so unbelievably heartrending that the shock of it stabs you like a knife. This novel in verse may become one of my favorite things in the world.

The Tchaikovsky opera is extraordinary - an opera which clearly owes everything to Schumann. It is one of the most beautiful, profoundly moving pieces of music you’ll ever hear. There are so many passages within it that I can barely get through without tears forming in my eyes. But it’s also a deeply flawed opera, switching from painful beauty to musical freneticness without warning in ways that seem rather tacked on. The sense of elegiac misery can seem almost oppressive - much closer to Chekhov than Pushkin but almost completely without Chekhov’s comedy to offset it. There’s only a little bit of tragic in the book, but beneath all the bubbliness it is one of the most profoundly sad books you’ll ever read - friendships souring into enmity, love’s opportunities missed, and the creeping realization that life is little but a series of disappointments. There is little of real suffering here - certainly not on the level of Dostoevsky or Chekhov, but the suffering of a sheltered existence is still suffering, even if it’s the suffering of mere misery instead of horror.

But there is also that sense that only one thing exists to combat the suffering we all must undergo - and that is the extreme fundamental unseriousness of our lives. The tragedies in Onegin are funny when seen from a certain angle, as they must sometimes be in life if we’re to get out of bed every morning. Everything in life depends on how seriously you take it, and if you’re blessed with the ability to view life unseriously, then even the saddest or most horrific events can be funny. We laugh so that we may not cry, and the funnier life seems, the more capable we are of bearing it.

Personally, I have no use for consuming things that don’t radiate that tragicomic serious non-seriousness. If comedy is not sad, bleak, brutal, it just isn’t funny to me. If tragedy doesn’t have that lightness of character that warns us it doesn’t matter at all, it’s either unintentionally hilarious or just unpleasant. My worldview involves equal parts compassion and contempt - a view which pities us our foibles, but never excuses us for them. Chekhov and Kafka are tragicomic, Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann are not. Mozart and Schubert are tragicomic, Wagner and Schoenberg are not. The Simpsons and The Sopranos are tragicomic, 24 and Game of Thrones are not. Jean Renoir and Hitchcock are tragicomic, Kurosawa and Kubrick are not. The Beatles and Randy Newman are tragicomic, Bob Dylan and The Doors are not. The Orioles and the Red Sox are tragicomic, the Ravens and the Yankees are not. Judaism is tragicomic, Christianity is not. Value pluralism is tragicomic, heroic materialism is not. Tragicomedy shows us the ultimate lesson: life matters, but not too much.

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