Conservatism and progress

Near the end of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, the eldest brother Dmitri is wrongly accused of his father Fyodor’s murder. Spectators at the trial had mostly assumed Dmitri’s guilt, and many in the crowd felt that Dmitri’s personal wrongs against them were being avenged. Only the reader has witnessed the scene in which Dmitri, seething with rage at his wretched adulterer of a father, grasps a pestle in his pocket—and then, mastering himself, swallows his anger and backs out of his plan to kill his forebear. Only the reader has seen Fyodor’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov admit to the murder.

The Brothers Karamozov concludes, some months after Dmitri’s trial, with the funeral of a peasant boy named Ilyusha. Earlier, Dmitri had learned that Ilyusha’s impoverished father, the “Captain,” was involved in Fyodor Karamozov’s illicit business dealings. Dmitri, who had been swindled by the Captain, exacted a humiliating revenge, dragging him through the street by his beard as his son and neighbors looked on. Ilyusha’s schoolmates teased him violently for the incident, throwing stones that hit him hard in his chest. Ilyusha died from his wounds two days after Dmitri was found guilty for a murder he did not commit.

No court could ever convict Dmitri for Ilyusha’s death. The legal system can only sentence the person immediately responsible for a murder. But Dostoevsky’s genius shines a floodlight on the intricate and thorny web of moral cause and effect. Continue reading Conservatism and progress

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.

Unsustainable Romance: Lana Del Rey in the Age of “Video Games”

Painting by Edward Burne-Jones: Love Leading the Pilgrim
Edward Burne-Jones: Love Leading the Pilgrim

Because “death by porn” might be the coroner’s verdict on our cultural corpse. —Holgrave

Countless editorials and books assert that the twenty-first century West does not look bright for men or women, with boyhood, manhood, girlhood, and womanhood all placed in mutual jeopardy by cult-like devotion to youth, the extension of adolescence, and certain waves of feminism. The rise of the electric image adds to the confusion: videos, photos, and a plethora of internet resources flood into our daily lives. Reality and unreality clash and, for all too many, seamlessly interweave. This has served global plutocrats well—for now. Included in this class, no doubt, are power-suit sporting feminists of various stripes, “unsexed things they are,” to steal a phrase from arch-anti-progressive Louisa McCord. But what has happened to romance and to youth? Things have not fared so well for those less committed to complete sexual equality.

Enter Lana Del Rey’s hit “Video Games.” In spite of her critics (and, geez, are there many), I think her husky voice sings a tragically beautiful dirge for the death of romance. Craving love and appreciation, Del Rey’s singer comes with pet-like obedience to her boyfriend as he is “whistling my name.” She lives only to please him, and the only way to please him, it seems, is physically: “I’m in his favorite sun dress/Watching me get undressed/Take that body downtown/I say you the bestest/Lean in for a big kiss/Put his favorite perfume on.” However, instead of pouring affection upon her, the beau gobbles up these offerings faster than Doritos and sets himself in front of the screen to play video games. Fast forward to the next verse to see the nightly party scene, where “He holds me in his big arms/drunk and I am seeing stars/this is all I think of.” Empty existence—AWESOME.

Moreover, the girl’s boyfriend seems to be a pornhead and philanderer: “Tell me all the things you want to do/I heard you like the bad girls/Honey, is that true?” This manipulative dastard controls her like a marionette. The deluded girl believes the boyfriend irreplaceable in her vision of the good life, declaring, “Heaven is a place on earth with you.” Why? “They say the world was built for two/Only worth living if somebody is loving you.” Yet it seems the sexual act is her only point of reference: “Baby, now you do.” After the boyfriend’s lust is satisfied, he quickly changes gears: he plays a video game, giving more attention to the actions of a screen than to incarnate human interaction.

I don’t know if my interpretation is definitive or if it’s worth attacking Del Rey’s tenuous indie cred. I can confirm that I think that she’s on to something. Notice it’s “take that body downtown;” the human body is a machine whose primary function is pleasure-extraction. The less assertive of the fair sex are sadly reduced to desperation and abuse. This is not a universal result, but the fleeting sex-n-drugs culture of the American youth (which continues on into the thirties these days) takes a terrifying toll on womankind.

Depressing as it is, how does this sort of teenage wasteland relationship qualify as “unsustainable”?

It’s unsustainable since it cannot be fruitful and is incapable of adoration. It can never lead to matrimony and its fulfillment: procreation. Granted, there might possibly be a child, but no father united with his family. There is no union because there is only consumer and victim. It’s dystopia without a preceding apocalypse. The “strong” (video gamers included) prey upon the “weak” (depressed girls who needs love).

Contrast this with the old idea of adoration, in which the lover finds delight in the lover even without physical contact. Dante captured this idea with Beatrice in the Divine Comedy. Here, love can draw one toward the Divine Light. In the famous Canto XXXI of the Paradiso, Dante extols Beatrice when he exclaims

O lady in whom my hope shall ever soar
and who for my salvation suffered even
to set your feet upon Hell’s broken floor;

through your power and your excellence alone
have I recognized the goodness and the grace
inherent in the things I have been shown.

You have led me from my bondage and set me free
by all those roads, by all those loving means
that lay within your power and charity.

Grant me your magnificence that my soul
which you have healed, may please you when it slips
the bonds of flesh and rises to its goal.”

In loving Beatrice, Dante comes to love God. More pertinently, throughout the entire Comedy, Dante never reaches out and touches his beloved. He is in too much awe of her loveliness to invade, to conquer.

For the progressive, this is a nightmare. With all this courtliness and religion and purity nonsense, no one can have any fun. Happiness eludes, since immediate carnality is fine as long as l“no one gets hurt.” Throw off all this romantic nonsense, they say, and let kids have their fun. Once the fuddy-duddy limits of chastity are gone, we’ll be healthy, wealthy, and wise due to widespread, mutually-consented sex.

But are we? From the tone of Del Rey and others, we’re actually quite frustrated and downright bored. In the romance of “Video Games,” the boy is bored and the girl is exploited; in Dante, both man and woman draw one another to infinite bliss. The contrast is radical and jarring—too much so, perhaps. On the other hand, isn’t this the problem?


The Meaning of “Patriotism”

Painting: "Flags, Columbus Circle" by Childe Hassam, 1918
Childe Hassam, Flags, Columbus Circle, 1918

On the Fourth of July, the United States of America will complete 236 years as a sovereign nation; patriots, true and self-identified, will celebrate and remember. Patriotism, while a duty, is easily misunderstood and, as history demonstrates, once misunderstood is easily used for perverse ends. The anniversary of the founding of our nation presents the perfect opportunity for the examination of one’s patriotism.

The words “patriot” and “patriotism” find their roots in Greek and in the political conceptions of the Greek city states. Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon defines πατριώτης as a “fellow countryman: property of barbarians who only had a common πατρίς [fatherland, of one’s fathers].” They continue, “πολϊται being used of Greeks who had a common πόλις.” The Greeks, as MacIntyre notes in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, saw their loyalty as tied to their particular city-state, not to some notion of “Greece.” Rome ignored the slightly pejorative nature of the word and adopted the concept of fatherland in the Latin word, patria, derived from patrius – of a father, fatherly, paternal; hereditary; ancestral; native. Patriota, or patriot, retained the meaning of  πατριώτης -fellow countryman. Both languages incorporate themes of community and inheritance into their understandings of who a patriot is and what patriotism entails. The Greeks clearly thought the polis to be the appropriate size for a vibrant patriotism; the Romans eventually turned their patria into an empire.

The American patriot inherits a patria more akin to an empire than to a polis, stretching “from sea to shining sea” and encompassing diverse cultures, geographies, and even languages. Because of this expanse, the temptation to make patriotism into an abstraction is large; with this abstraction comes the temptation to use patriotism, and even the patria itself, as a tool for domination. Affection, the root of true patriotism, involves the patriot in participation with his compatriots and with the past, as well as the present, of the patria. Affection recognizes that the fatherland is an inheritance and seeks to preserve it through proper use. Continue reading Patriotism