Mike Bartlett’s monarchist vision: A review of Charles III

If all conservatives are, in some sense, Anglophiles, then every snob and reactionary in all these former colonies will delight in the High Tory verse-drama King Charles III, written by the young playwright Mike Bartlett. As the name suggests, it is a speculative piece about the first months of the reign of the current Prince of Wales, with the first scene taking place just after Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Because the main characters of the play are real, still-living people, one must overcome some amount of voyeuristic discomfort, but this is easily done, partly because the iambic pentameter helps to separate the characters from their real-life counterparts, and also because it quickly becomes clear that the William and Kate, or Charles, or Camilla of the play are fictional constructions—that Bartlett has taken considerable liberty with their personalities.

The play’s verse is purposely understated. At several points one has to consciously scan the lines because they are so conversational, for example “of course| whate|ver sub|ject you |would like.But this only serves to highlight by comparison important moments when the language becomes elevated, as in Charles’s first major speech:

My life has been a ling’ring for the throne:
Sometimes I do confess I ‘magined if
My mother hap’d to die before her time—
A helicopter crash, a rare disease
So at an early age I’d be in charge.

One cannot help but hear an echo of Shakespeare in this soliloquy with its dropped syllables. The Shakespearean echoes sometimes fall flat. Much like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, the ghost of Princess Diana shows up a few times early in the play to tell Prince William that he will be “the greatest King we ever had.” (Cue eyeroll here.) This is a bit of far-fetched foreshadowing, and at the same time not strange enough to be effective; William is, after all, the heir apparent. Diana’s ghost only meaningfully appears just one other time (to Charles) and then is never heard from again.

The play also follows a more important but no less odious subplot (in prose, mercifully!) about Prince Harry’s love affair with a radical activist who urges him to give up his birthright. It’s not that we don’t want to care about their romance—indeed we do—it’s just that we are given very little reason to care. We are told repeatedly that Harry is in love, but we’re never shown it, and are left wondering why his “love for Jessica comes first.”

But these are minor quibbles. The power of the play is found in the way it essentially rehearses the half-millennium struggle between King and Parliament, showing how the Crown is a safeguard, rather than a hindrance, to freedom. Even Charles’ inauspicious name calls to mind the execution by Parliament of Charles I. When Charles III ascends the throne, there is a Labour government in place. The Prime Minister, Mr. Evans, secretly longs for a British Republic. After Charles refuses to give royal assent to a bill that would censor the free press, Evans brings a bill before the Commons that would completely curtail any remaining power of the Monarchy. As the bill is being debated, on the advice of Mr. Stevens, the  opposition leader, Charles dramatically enters the chamber, pounding the floor with his scepter, and in one of the best speeches of the play dissolves Parliament:

Unlike you all, I’m born and raised to rule
I do not choose, but like an Albion oak
I’m sown in British soil, and grown not for
Myself but reared with single purpose meant.
Whilst you have small constituency support
Which gusts and falls as does the wind
My cells and organs constitute this land
Devoted to entire populace
Of now, of then, and those still to come.

It is refreshing that Bartlett does not feel constrained to write in an overly colloquial idiom, as do some contemporary poets who write in meter. This, surely, is not everyday speech, even for a king, and that is precisely from where much of the pleasure is derived. The play’s exalted language is much like the majesty of the Crown itself. Charles’ words bring to mind Edmund Burke’s insistence, against the French revolutionaries and their British sympathizers, that legitimate authority is hereditary. Parliamentarians come and go, but the monarch transcends time and space. He rules, not just over a “small constituency,” and with the same authority with which every sovereign from Alfred to Elizabeth II has reigned, and that authority is unavoidably divine. In this speech, one is almost tempted to hear an echo of Louis the Fourteenth’s absolutist maxim—L’estat c’est moi—but here Charles argues that the British monarchy is not a despotism; the King is the servant of all his people after the model of Christ. And we see his protection of his people in his refusal to sign the censorship bill, a bill that would, no doubt, benefit the king’s person. Or, as Mr. Stevens puts it, there never would be

“A Nazi party making British laws
Because the reigning monarch then would stand
His ground and being Head of State refuse
To sign.”

One can imagine any number of despotic laws being passed by any parliament. It is the king who provides stability.

The irony of Charles’ self-understanding is that he is perfectly willing to be a modern king. He believes in democracy and only asks Mr. Evans that the House debate the bill again, implying he would sign if it came to him a second time. But the ambitious Prime Minister takes this opportunity to affect the monarchy’s demise. However, Parliament, having been dissolved, cannot vote to strip away the King’s power. Charles, no doubt, would have been content to have a quiet reign, to be, as he says near the play’s tragic end, an old man who “potters round/ And talks to plants and chuckles to himself.” But this is not possible. Because Charles was heir to the throne for over sixty years,his sense of duty is too strong to neglect;it is this sense of duty, over a comparatively small issue, which brings him down.

The play ends in something of an anticlimax. Britain is nearing civil war, the stock market has crashed, and there are daily riots in the streets. (The stage directions have an assaulted monarchist protester dressed, appropriately, all in tweed.) Just as tensions are at their zenith, the tanks parked outside Buckingham Palace simply drive away. It’s as if Bartlett, having written this far, did not know how he was going to end it. Granted, William and Kate’s treachery was fairly heavily foreshadowed, but they affect it in a banal family ultimatum, which, from what we now know about Charles, we are unwilling to believe he’ll accept. And yet he does. He abdicates the throne, choosing personal relationships over what he’d so powerfully argued was his sacred duty.

Perhaps this ending, unsatisfying as it is, is appropriate. In the final act,  Charles III loses its Shakespearean echo and becomes a distinctly modern artifact. Charles could not go down like Henry VI or Richard III, not in the 21st century, and we are reminded of Eliot’s famous prognosis of the modern condition: “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Featured image “HRH The Prince of Wales” by Tom Wood, photograph by Flickr user thelostgallery (CC BY 2.0)

Is there a pro-life case for Hillary Clinton?

While many conservatives are unwilling to back Donald Trump, few conservatives of any stripe are willing to openly support Hillary Clinton.

Enter Rachel Held Evans, a pro-life Christian, ex-evangelical and current Episcopalian. (As are a number of us here at The Hipster Conservative.) As a popular blogger, Ms. Held Evans made a name for herself as an in-house cultural critic of evangelical Christianity. Now she takes up the unenviable task of making a pro-life case for Hillary Clinton.

Her case is simple and clever, if ultimately unconvincing. She argues that to be pro-life is to have a consistent life ethic. Therefore, she says, we must not simply outlaw abortion but also, “. . . create a culture with fewer unwanted pregnancies to begin with.”  So far, so good. She argues progressive policies are more likely to create this culture. Ms. Clinton is more progressive than Mr. Trump, ergo Clinton is the more pro-life of the two candidates. Lastly, she claims that outlawing abortion would simply be a Pyrrhic victory, the GOP is really just being cynical in its attempts at abolition, and that Democrats are actually the better choice if your goal is fewer abortions.

Whew. That’s a heady brew. Where to start?

Do Progressive Policies Help?

A big part of the essay is based on the assumption that progressive policies exclusively help the poor. While neither Ms. Held Evans nor I are economists, I’m far less willing to pretend that the economic debate is closed. For starters there is decent evidence that progressive taxation and welfare policies have a negative,  not positive, impact on economic inequality and poverty. Even in Scandinavia, long honored by American progressives as a social democratic paradise, has a persistent inequality problem.

Further it’s extremely arguable that Democratic education policies hold back the education of poor children in the inner city, arguably one of the most direct causes of urban poverty  and misery. The most direct is probably our government’s disastrous war on drugs, in which Ms. Clinton was a fervent soldier.

Ms. Held Evans’ strongest case probably comes from the expansion of birth control and how it reduces the overall abortion rate. However in this she assumes too much. While it is true that abortion rates have decreased during the Obama administration, her piece leads you to assume that this decline began during Mr. Obama’s years in office. It did not. The abortion rate has dropped consistently since its peak in 1980. Lastly, she forgets that Republicans are the ones who propose making contraception available over the counter, which would probably be the single largest barrier reduction to contraception since the 1960s.  Bizarrely, it’s largely been the left who opposes OTC contraception.

Ms. Held Evans believes the GOP is foolish to pursue an end to abortion (she even implies that this is a merely cynical position). She provides studies on how abolition can increase abortion-related deaths but fails to mention on how all of these studies are of developing countries without widespread access to quality healthcare, not a nation like the U.S.

Ms. Held Evans is a progressive Christian, both politically and theologically. That’s fine, but too often her piece seems to assume that a panel of experts in white coats somewhere has ruled that progressivism just works and the intellectual debate is over. It’s not over, and Ms. Clinton’s policies are not some kind of pro-life panacea.

Can a Pro-Life Person Vote for Clinton?

Ms. Held Evans spends a lot of time arguing that Donald Trump isn’t pro-life, either respecting abortion or, really, anything else. This is almost certainly true, but it doesn’t exculpate Clinton either.

Which takes us to the crux of the matter. I take Ms. Held Evans at her word that she’s pro-life (though she engages in some ridiculous, “Who am I to force my beliefs on someone?” sophistry). Let’s really back it up and ask, “What is abortion to a person who is pro-life?” That’s very simple.

On a medical, scientific level abortion is the process of ending the life of a living individual, genetically distinct, member of the species homo sapiens. We end these lives by killing them with chemicals, dismemberment, and lethal injection.

To the pro-life person, whether secular or devout, this practice is infanticide. To put it simply we kill the most physically vulnerable class of human beings by poisoning them and cutting them to pieces. To the pro-life person like myself or Ms. Held Evans this is a monstrous injustice. For this to happen to just one child would be grossly wrong. In the United States, where it is firmly legal, it occurs more than a million times, each and every year.

The legality of this practice is one that Ms. Clinton strongly defends, though she claims to takes umbrage at the occasional exculpatory circumstances such as some late-term or sex-selective abortions in the People’s Republic of China (no word on the American girls who find themselves so unneeded).

Ms. Held Evans’ chosen candidate not only backs the legality of this practice, but openly calls for the use of Medicaid funding to directly subsidize it. Her candidate’s party’s platform functionally opposes any limits on the practice.

Let’s sum this up. In the United States, every year, over a million human beings are eliminated, usually by physically traumatic and violent methods, the vast majority of whom are Latino or black. Ms. Clinton not only wishes to allow this practice to continue legally, but perversely defends using funds designated for the poor to subsidize the death of their children.

Much of Ms. Held Evans’ essay rightfully highlights her passionate concern for social justice, a concept too often reserved to the secular left.  She spends a good deal of time discussing her concerns that Donald Trump’s candidacy reflects a threat to marginalized populations. No doubt, if Mr. Trump openly called for the violent liquidation of Muslims, Hispanics, immigrants, and the disabled, she would recoil in horror. She would extend this horror if Trump floated the idea that, while he himself wouldn’t pursue such a policy, he would be loathe to use the power of the government to keep others from murdering them. Even if Trump simply winked at such a future, no doubt she would find a Trump vote to be morally unthinkable.

Yet she has no such qualms about using her voice to endorse Ms. Clinton.

To the pro-life there can’t be a difference. A pro-life person, opposed to the practice of killing human beings in utero, can’t distinguish between human beings in or out of the womb.

I think part of Ms. Held Evans’ disconnect is due to the banality of evil. Hillary Clinton isn’t some grotesque. She isn’t even a crass, demagogic buffoon. She looks like a respectable, boring, American politician. In another life, she looks like she would’ve made a typical PTA president. This doesn’t make her policies any less unjust. One  wonders if Held Evans’ belief in Clinton’s pro-life life ethic extends to those killed at wedding parties struck by American drones, dead Libyans, or Syrians. Another part of her disconnect likely comes from the ease with which our mind can gloss over mass violence. A good (though imperfect) comparison can be made to the judgement in the Einsatzgruppen trial.

That verdict is asobering reminder of evil and our limitations;

[O]ne million is but an abstract number. One cannot grasp the full cumulative terror of murder one million times repeated. It is only when this grotesque total is broken down into units capable of mental assimilation that one can understand the monstrousness of the things we are in this trial contemplating. One must visualize not one million people but only ten persons falling before the executioner . . . . If one million is divided by ten, this scene must happen one hundred thousand times, and as one visualizes the repetitious horror, one begins to understand the meaning of the prosecution’s words, ‘It is with sorrow and with hope that we here disclose the deliberate slaughter of more than a million innocent and defenseless . . . children.’

If one describes oneself as pro-life, if one believes that the poisoning and dismembering of human beings in utero is unjust, then we cannot give our votes to those on the Right or Left who wink at those who engage in such practices and at those who wish to use public funds to directly subsidize them. To do so it to be complicit in a great evil, no matter how banal and boring it appears. I’ll let C.H. Spurgeon, a more eloquent Christian than either Ms. Held Evans or myself, play us out:

This is one of the most specious of those arguments by which good men are held in the bonds of evil. As an argument, it is rotten to the core. We have no right to do wrong, from any motive whatever. To do evil that good may come is no doctrine of Christ, but of the devil.

Black Bodies in Space

In a recent Washington Post column (in the Lifestyles section, to be sure, but a column nonetheless), Lonnae O’Neal complains that Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not give John Boyega a sufficiently heroic role to atone for Hollywood’s past misapprehensions about “the direction this country is really going in.” She quotes a Washington writer, Tim Gordon, who observes that “every time [Finn] picks up a lightsaber, he’s getting beat down and the lightsaber is getting taken from him.” That Boyega’s character is not an annoyingly flawless, Superman-like character seems to O’Neal and Gordon sufficient evidence that the creators of Star Wars are still mired in the racist past, although they admit that the film’s casting represents about as much progress as might be expected given the persistence of reactionary elements in the highest echelons of American filmmaking.

It’s not my intention to defend Star Wars to the hilt, or to offer a blanket condemnation of O’Neal’s style of socially conscious film criticism; movies certainly exercise an outsized influence on the American imagination and understanding their subliminal messages is a worthy project. But in fact O’Neal and Gordon’s criticism is a fascinating testament to the hollowness of the atheist approach to anti-racism that’s evidently been gaining ground of late in contemporary civil rights activism. Continue reading Black Bodies in Space

Otiose criticism

A drawback of the Internet is that it provides an easy platform for the uninformed and malformed to broadcast their opinions to the world-at-large. Such writers forget that they have a duty both to their subject and to their readers: the duty to be informed and to understand. Lacking a coherent understanding of tradition or western civilization, these authors tend merely to emote their subjective responses rather than artfully critique shortfallings. For criticism to be of any benefit to the reader, the critic must demonstrate both an understanding of the tradition in which a particular work stands as well as an understanding of the work itself. Anything less becomes a mere expression of the critic’s preferences at best, but more likely a misleading attack on a straw man of another writer’s work. T.S. Eliot makes this point in his essay “The Perfect Critic”:

The vast accumulations of knowledge—or at least of information . . . have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.

To illustrate this point, I turn to a lecture presented by Dr. Roger Scruton Continue reading Otiose criticism

Not a Cold Eye

The works of Flannery O’Connor are not for everyone. A fair number of fellow readers that I’ve encountered have been repulsed by her violent style, her grotesque images, and her gothic setting. This is fair enough, I suppose. Some of these readers, though, are discerning enough to recognize her virtues even while not preferring them for themselves. This latter group tend to be religious and literary.

Marilynne Robinson (AP)
Marilynne Robinson (AP)

It was especially disappointing to me, though, to read Marilynne Robinson’s rather cutting remarks towards St. Flannery in her New York Times interview. Frankly, I was shocked that a writer like her—who very much occupies the categories of “religious” and “literary”—should so flatly misunderstand O’Connor. Continue reading Not a Cold Eye

Conservatism and the End of the World

This week in The New Inquiry William Osterweil explores the recently prevalent “Ancient Apocalypse” film and TV genre. From Gladiator to Apocalypto to Noah to an endless shambling parade of zombie films, an Ancient Apocalypse doesn’t depict the literal end of the world, but situates its heroes at the end of an age, the downfall of a quasi-historical civilization. Osterweil explains:

There is a subnational social group: a tribe, city-state or family, living, if not happily, at least in stability and relative peace. That group receives a prophecy of a coming apocalypse. The prophecy proves true almost immediately, though it refers to the end of the world only insofar as it is the end of the group as currently constituted, the end of the group’s forms of life, the group’s world. This end is violent, sudden, and comes from the outside, in the form of natural disaster, foreign hordes, or rival groups with better technology—although its effects are exacerbated by internal decadence, corruption, weakness, willful ignorance, and/or betrayal.

At first blush, these apocalyptic fantasies may seem to promote conservative values. They feature strong heroic individuals who win survival or glory against all odds in the burning debris of a collapsed civilization. Continue reading Conservatism and the End of the World

C.S. Lewis on movie adaptations; also my Hobbit review

My wife and I went to see the second Hobbit film this afternoon. In many ways it was a fun movie, but it lacked, shall we say, the wonder of Tolkien’s imagination. It reminded my wife of this excellent bit from C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” in which he reflects on the problems involved in adapting literary adventure to the screen.

I was once taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. Of its many sins—not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went—only one here concerns us. At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not ‘cinematic’ and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined. Ruined, at least, for me. No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase of dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death)–the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard’s effect is quite as ‘crude’ or ‘vulgar’ or ‘sensational’ as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of the nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one’s experience. The trap I remember for ever: how they got out I have long since forgotten.

The female elf-warrior of the movie does not quite fit Lewis’s description of the “totally irrelevant woman in shorts,” but that whole action sequence, along with the overworked one involving molten gold under the mountain, seems to have been invented to fill hours that might have been better spent in enjoying Beorn’s hospitality or even observing the councils of the High Elves, who were entirely missing from this episode.

Image of Bilbo Baggins looking above the Mirkwood canopy surrounded by butterflies in the evening light
The Hobbit needed more of this, less pinball physics (credit: OneRing.net)

All that said, the second Hobbit was probably better than other recent action movies and not a terrible way to spend a few hours, so you might as well go see it.

Gnostic Love in Tristan und Ysolde

Last weekend my wife and I went with another couple to see Wagner’s Tristan und Ysolde. This opera is in many ways the quintessential modern re-telling of the medieval tale of two doomed lovers, vexed by duty, misunderstanding, and jealousy, and toiling under a magical enchantment.

The medieval legend, as told by Malory, is straightforwardly melodramatic. As the earnest of a peace treaty, the Lady Iseult of Ireland is to marry King Mark of Cornwall. Mark’s nephew and knight, Sir Tristram, is given the task of escorting Iseult across the Irish Sea in safe passage to Mark. Iseult bitterly hates Tristram, since she alone knows that he is responsible for the death of her brother in a contest of arms. While on the ship, the two enemies mistakenly drink a love-philtre intended to cement the union of Mark and Iseult, with tragic consequences. Eventually Tristram is discovered in Iseult’s bedchamber and slain by a jealous Mark, and Iseult, overcome by grief, falls down dead over Tristram’s body.

Wagner raises the story to a higher degree of tragedy. Fate plays a much larger role in Tristan and Ysolde’s downfall, especially since Mark eventually relents and releases the lovers to be together. As in any good tragedy, this news comes to the lovers too late, since Tristan is already dead, but it would not have made a difference. The love of Wagner’s Tristan and Ysolde is not the natural affection of spouses, nor even the star-crossed passion of ill-fated lovers, but a particular kind of fatal enchantment.

Ysolde’s Revenge

In the early part of the opera, Ysolde tells her maid Branganë of her hatred for Tristan, how as an enemy of her people Tristan came to her under an assumed name for healing after a battle, and how she discovered through the notch in his sword that he was the killer of her betrothed. Nevertheless, she did not exact revenge on him or reveal his identity to her relatives. This strays not too far from the medieval legend, in which Iseult begins to love Tristan against her will.

In Wagner’s telling, Ysolde’s mother, a renowned sorceress, has prepared various potions for her use: some for healing, one for undying love, and one for death and oblivion. Ysolde tells Branganë that she will drink the death-draught with Tristan, and so avenge both her love and her honor, which was compromised when she refrained from killing him. Branganë pleads with her not to do this, and instead of the death-draught, gives them the love-philtre to drink. Tristan, suspecting foul play, drinks it for the sake of honor, and is confirmed in his suspicions when Ysolde snatches the half-drunk cup and finishes it, exulting that she has atoned for both her lover’s death and her own dishonor.

The Love-Philtre

As the potion takes effect, both expecting to meet death, they realize that they have come under a spell more subtle but no less awful. They become possessed of a heedless, consuming passion for one another. The irony of the “love-draught” is that the “love” it instills is identified with death. Tristan comes to see himself as fated for death; the love between him and Ysolde is the love of a “death-devoted heart.” In the love scene in Act II, Tristan curses “daylight’s lies,” singing that he is a child of the night. Not the moonlit night of romance, though, but the black night that is the opposite of day; the absence of being and personality; nothingness. The love-philtre makes him reject the real world in favor of a spiritual void in which, somehow, everything about him and Ysolde is obliterated except for their transcendent “love.” Ysolde at first protests, but by the end of the duet she too is devoted to this eternal love that is an absence of personality.

In this way, Ysolde’s hatred of Tristan and of herself, the doom of death she planned to carry out, is fulfilled in a more terrible way than she imagined, as the lovers renounce life and earthly happiness in favor of death. Wagner himself called this duet “Liebestod” or “love-death,” although most apply this term to Ysolde’s final aria, which Wagner himself, fittingly, called “Transfiguration.”

Gnostic Love

This idea of a disembodied spiritual “love” clearly fits the Gnostic mold. Gnosticism teaches that people are fragments of the Divine Spirit that have been imprisoned in the “evil” material world. Gnostics try to escape the influence of the body and all other aspects of the material world, to become once again pure “spirit.” This directly contradicts the Biblical tradition in which human beings are a unity of body and spirit, created to live in the physical world as their natural home. Christianity adds to this the belief that the son of God took on the nature of humankind. Many early Christian heretics were Gnostics who attempted to deny, in some way or another, that Jesus was indeed fully human and fully divine, because they thought that for God to be truly incarnate would diminish the glory of the Divine.

The Christian and Western understanding of love and marriage stems from the knowledge of human beings as rightly incarnate souls. Human marriage is a “one flesh” union encompassing souls and bodies, and integrating a couple within the world through children and family ties. By contrast, the ‘love’ that Tristan and Ysolde experience as a result of the enchantment is strongly gnostic in its character, demanding total separation from the world and abandonment of the lovers’ own physical existence and individual personalities. But I think it would be wrong to say that Wagner is unreservedly advocating this kind of love.

It is shown throughout the opera that Tristan and Ysolde are both psychologically troubled. Tristan’s death-fixation seems to be the result of being born an orphan. He feels that he has been marked by death from the beginning. This seems very Freudian, although it predates Freud. Ysolde also explicitly embraces death in her morbid hatred of Tristan, even before they drink the love-philtre. To what extent did the potion cause this gnostic equivocation between love and death, and to what extent was it the result of the lovers’ unresolved neuroses?

Surrealist painting "Tristram and Isolde" by Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali, “Tristram and Isolde” (1944)

Fatal Passion in Context

The other characters in the opera are normals, apparently designed to offset the morbidity of the lovers. Branganë, Ysolde’s maid, and Kurwenal, Tristan’s bodyguard, typify common sense and conventional notions about life and love. When Ysolde orders her to pour the death-draught, Branganë substitutes the love-philtre instead, presumably out of a belief that even a dangerous, inconvenient, forbidden love is better than death. For Tristan and Ysolde, though, love and death are precisely the same thing. Branganë operates in the mode of melodrama suggested by the medieval legend, while Ysolde is seeing things in an opposite light. In Act II, Branganë reasonably fears a trap and urges Ysolde not to signal Tristan to come to her chamber, while Ysolde recklessly extinguishes the warning torch. As the lovers sing of love and death, Branganë’s voice breaks in, warning of the dawn and the return of the king: “Take care! Take care!” Wagner’s musical contrast between the lovers and the maidservant is breathtakingly sublime, as the music perfectly reflects the contrast between the opposite worldviews.

Similarly, Kurwenal acts out the conventions of the faithful friend. While in Act I Tristan retreats in a mist of doubt and doom, Kurwenal jauntily boasts of his master’s prowess to Branganë, inflaming Ysolde’s wrath. In Act III, Kurwenal carries the wounded Tristan back to his ancestral home and nurses him, summoning Ysolde to come and work her healing arts. Tristan, though, still “death-devoted,” ruins his servant’s hopes. When he sees Ysolde’s ship landing he rips off his bandages and dies just as she arrives, achieving (as he believes) the unity of love and death.

Finally, King Marke, the jealous, churlish villain of the medieval legend, is transformed in Wagner’s rendering into a truly noble and sympathetic character. He is deeply grieved by Tristan’s betrayal in Act II, yet refrains from violence. Instead, Tristan is betrayed and stabbed by Melot, an envious friend who Wagner seems to have invented just for the purpose. Marke, by contrast, goes so far as to pardon Tristan and Ysolde in the final act, releasing them to be together (although Tristan already lies dead). Marke’s brief aria would place the opera in the sublime realm of classical tragedy, and in a conventional opera he or the chorus would have the final word. Here, though, Ysolde steals the final scene. Still under the influence of the love-philtre, she now recapitulates the themes of the love-duet and ends in a triumphant musical climax, joining Tristan in death as the curtain falls.

How to Listen to Tristan und Ysolde

When experiencing this opera, it is a good idea to be aware of the use of leitmotifs, tunes and musical phrases which reference specific ideas. Wagner uses leitmotifs to great effect in Tristan, achieving a unity of music, words, and ideas. Leitmotifs allow Wagner to shade the sung text with meanings beyond those expressed in words, and create subtle or even bold effects of foreshadowing and fate. For instance, the motif for death appears when Ysolde is singing of the love-philtre, reminding the listener that the distinction between the two potions is less clear than it might seem.

The Glorious Counter-Revolutionary Les Mis

les-miserables-glorious-cou

My grandmother was raised Roman Catholic in the 1930s. One of the first things she did when she married my grandfather, an Episcopalian, was to read, for the first time, Victor Hugo’s great love-letter to Paris, Les Misérables. During her childhood it had been on the list of books good Catholics were supposed to avoid. Today it is hard to imagine what the Catholic Church found so wrong in Hugo’s expansive novel of social injustice. The movie version of the musical has reminded us again of this great story, and it is the movie musical which I refer to in this essay. A number of insightful critics (cf. hereherehere, and here) have referred to the figure of Javert, the police inspector, as representing along with the protagonist Jean Valjean the contrast and conflict between Law and Grace. Law pursues with punishment; Grace redeems and forgives. Javert—rather like Mrs. Clennam in Dickens’ Little Dorrit—is driven by his idea of what is right, what is properly speaking legal, in conformity with the code. Everyone is defined in his mind by their relation to this law. People do not change. There are good people and lawbreakers; there can be no forgiveness, no reconciliation, no rehabilitation. Indeed, this seems at first to be the case with Jean Valjean, who at the beginning of the movie is a sullen convict, wishing to escape further punishment but without any real opportunity to become a better man.

Image of Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables
Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables

After this, of course, Valjean experiences a transformative act of grace when instead of turning him in as a thief, the hospitable Bishop gives him the means to establish a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine. (Madeleine is a form of Magdalene, the name of the woman from whom Jesus cast out seven devils.) As the story plays out, Javert, as Law, continues to perversely pursue the redeemed Valjean, almost thwarting his efforts to bring grace to others. Ultimately, grace wins and spreads to others through Valjean’s acts of personal sacrifice, and Javert is driven to suicide by his own obsession with the law. That is a wonderful theological point to bring out of Les Miserables, but while watching the movie I realized that there is an idea that is even more fully embraced by this story, and in particular by Tom Hooper’s cinematic staging of the musical. It is the idea of hope, which is best explained with referring to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 encyclical letter Spe Salvi, which is based on Romans 8:24, “For we are saved by hope.”

Hope in Spe Salvi

Hope is one of the three great Christian virtues: Faith (fides), Hope (spes), and Love (caritas). Benedict immediately moves to understand what differentiates Hope from Faith, when Paul writes that “we are saved by hope.” It is also said that faith saves us, so what is the difference between faith and hope? In many contexts, hope is identified with faith; i.e., it is through faith in Christ that we have hope. Hope is entered into by entering into faith in Christ, as Paul exhorts the Colossians to  “…continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel…” (Col. 1:23). Faith and hope are not the same thing. Faith is an act, a disposition, an entering in, a taking hold of. Through faith, we enter into hope. Hope is something outside of a person that is in some way both anticipated in the future and taken hold of now. “Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well” (Spe Salvi §2). An extremely important characteristic of this hope is that it is not merely a belief in future happiness which in some way allows us to change our outlook on life. It is more real than that. Benedict explains this with reference to Hebrews 11 (the “By faith…” chapter) in which faith is associated with the hope of the saints. The key verse for Benedict is verse 1:

In the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (v. 1) we find a kind of definition of faith which closely links this virtue with hope. Ever since the Reformation there has been a dispute among exegetes over the central word of this phrase, but today a way towards a common interpretation seems to be opening up once more. For the time being I shall leave this central word untranslated. The sentence therefore reads as follows: “Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen”. For the Fathers and for the theologians of the Middle Ages, it was clear that the Greek word hypostasis was to be rendered in Latin with the term substantia. (§7)

This sense is lost in many modern translations but is preserved in the KJV, which for some reason is always the translation of this verse that has stuck in my mind: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Other renderings of this verse significantly alter the sense, as in the NIV—”. . . being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”—or the ESV—”. . . the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” These modern translations subjectify hypostasis so that it becomes only a conviction of the individual. Benedict argues that faith is more than mere belief, because hope (what faith is the substance of) is more than a confident expectation. So what is it? Benedict expands by way of Thomas Aquinas:

[F]aith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of “substance” is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say “in embryo”—and thus according to the “substance”—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this “thing” which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not “appear”), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence. (§7)

In other words, we not only look forward to the coming of the kingdom of God, the seed of it is already planted in our hearts through faith. This seed is hope, and it grows and bears fruit in us.

Hope in Les Mis

The characters in Hooper’s Les Mis can be divided into two groups: Those who have hope, and those who reject the gift of hope. In the first number, “Look Down,” we see Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Neither of them have hope, or are even aware that there is such a thing. Javert in fact seeks self-salvation through the law, which is a false hope. Valjean and his fellow convicts wish, vainly, for compassion from society.

After his release, however, Valjean is arrested by hope through the kindness of the Bishop. With this hope living in his heart, he takes a new name—a baptismal name, if you will—and begins to live a new life marked by the reality of this hope. We next see him as the mayor of M— sur M—, where he offers hope to the women of his town in the form of honest work. In the movie, however, these women benefit from his benevolence but are not transformed, as in the sequence when, on learning that their co-worker Fantine has a child, they chase her out of the factory.

The lecherous overseer also plays a part in Fantine’s humiliation, driving her out into the street. Sin, in this way, pursues and catches hold of Fantine through the exploitation and hatred of those who are “without hope and without God in the world” (1 Thess. 2:12). In despair (lack of hope) she sells herself on the streets to support her daughter and is dying of pneumonia. In “I Dreamed a Dream” Fantine laments the loss of her hope of a happy life. As she is about to be arrested for prostitution, Valjean appears, takes her to a hospital, and promises to bring her daughter. Fantine dies, but her despair has been replaced by the hope of seeing her daughter in heaven, activated by Valjean’s promise. When Javert discovers his new identity, Valjean is forced to flee, but he is able to locate Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, who is living with the fraudster Thenardiers. They extort a large sum for her supposed keep, but Valjean manages to get away with Cosette, with Javert on his heels. The two seek refuge in a convent.

Throughout the movie, we see two recurring images: The hardness and mercilessness of society at every level, and the literally liberating and healing character of the Church. Valjean is rescued from the clutch of the law by a Bishop. When Fantine is dying, nuns care for her. Nuns, again, welcome Valjean and Cosette into their convent, as a place of refuge which even the strength of the law cannot violate. The Church is thus shown to be, almost universally, the source of true hope and redemption.

There seems to be an exception to this tendency, however, in the group of young revolutionaries we meet in the next act. Mostly from prosperous homes, they are humanitarians appalled by the destitution of the poor and the callousness of the rich and powerful. They also believe that by sparking a new French Revolution they can usher in a more just society. Marius, one of the young revolutionaries, has renounced his wealthy but cold-hearted grandfather to make common cause with the revolutionaries. Cosette, now a young woman, passes Marius in the street and they instantly fall in love. This is another instance of the mysterious advent of hope in the world, but the revolutionaries see love as a threat to their serious humanitarian endeavor, and fear it will distract Marius from his single-minded commitment to their plan. The revolutionary leader Enjolras invokes their “higher call” against which “our little lives don’t count at all.” This platitude contrasts strikingly with the nature of the story itself, which is driven by characters, not mass movements or even ideas. Each little life is a dynamic universe; each soul has a towering significance.

The Revolutionary Society
The Revolutionary Society

Valjean, on hearing of Marius and Cosette’s love, is torn between his desire for Cosette’s happiness and his fear of danger and change. However, he remains true to hope, and ventures out at personal risk to find Marius. The new French Revolution fails. In the end, the little band of revolutionaries is never reinforced by the hordes of sympathetic Parisians they hoped would join them, and they are slaughtered by the regulars. Marius alone escapes, rescued by Valjean just as Javert and the army are closing in.

Marius and Cosette marry, and Marius is reconciled to his grandfather, who is also transformed by hope when he sees their love. Valjean, however, unaware that Javert has committed suicide, fears exposure and flees once again to the convent, where at the point of death he is consoled by the shade of Fantine. As the distinction between Heaven and earth becomes blurry, Valjean takes leave of Marius and Cosette and, greeted once again by the Bishop, enters paradise.

In the finale, we see a kind of typological double-exposure. Paris, the city of lights, has become the City of God, and the larger-than-life barricade evokes the Mountain of God—both images referring to the New Jerusalem. Atop the great barricade we see once again the revolutionaries, who failed to change the political order. But with them we see also a huge crowd representing all the people of Paris who did not come to the revolutionaries’ aid, and even perhaps the soldiers with whom they fought. This is an image, not of the triumph of the revolution, but the true kingdom of triumphant hope—the kingdom of God. With this in mind, it is instructive to consider who fails to appear on the final barricade. It is all those who rejected or defiled hope on earth. The Thénardiers (except for their daughter Éponine, who is with the revolutionaries), the textile workers, the pimps and prostitutes, and Javert do not appear. The closing song describes, not a post-revolutionary state, but the eternal blessedness of the children of hope.

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword

Revolution does not beget peace and justice, but perpetuates the cycle of violence. Valjean’s story, though, shows how grace, mercy, and sacrifice can lift people up in a way that revolutionary violence cannot. The Bishop, then, who opens and closes the story of Valjean’s redemption, is the true revolutionary. His church is the permanent revolution, always opposed to the spirit of the age, whether that be Javert’s cold tyrannical legalism or the sanguine revolutionary spirit. This is why I call Hooper’s Les Misérables a “counter-revolutionary” film. It is a story of despair and hopelessness conquered by the one true hope through one man’s life.

Game of Moans

A review of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and the suggestion of a better book.

Painting: "Battle of the Scythians with the Slavs" by Viktor Vasnetsov
Viktor Vasnetsov, Battle of the Scythians with the Slavs

I recently finished reading George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (just the first book, mind you, not the entire series).  First, let me admit:  it was entertaining.  It was not imaginative.  It was not breathtaking.  But it was a page-turner; that much must be admitted by rights.

It was not, however, a good book, and it does not deserve the accolades it has received.  It suffers from many of the problems which the fantasy genre has suffered after the advent of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  Let’s start with a nod to the ladies.

I do not frequently repeat this most shrill of charges, but the author does warrant the accusation of sexism.  He considers, apparently, narrating from the mind of a woman an insufferably uninteresting setting, so he instead resorts to narrating between her legs.  Inevitably, the worst writing takes place in this location.  There are, as far as I can recall, three types of women in Martin’s first book:  those who care about breeding, those who use sex as a tool (and are generally perverted in some way), and those women who are really just men with breasts.  He reminds you about the breasts.  Allow me to share some of the gems. Continue reading Game of Moans