Die Zauberflote, “Overture”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 21, “Overture”
London Symphony Orchestra
Truth Be Told
The Princess Sabra Led to the Dragon (Rescued by St. George)
The music suggests the mythical and the magical. Mozart’s Magic Flute has Masonic mysteries (I am told) at its heart and a good bit of magic and wizardry. Mendelssohn’s music was composed to accompany Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play is a comic variation, at least the centerpiece of the play is, on the beauty and the beast story. The Queen of the fairies, Titania, falls in love with a man, Bottom, given the head of a donkey. Of course everything happens by magic, the falling in love, the donkey’s head, the romancing in the enchanted forest. Eventually all is set right and everyone goes about their regular business, just as Papageno and Papagena are restored to each other and live happily ever after in the opera. In the opera it is the “beauties” that save the young Tomino, the handsome prince in the story, from the beast. There are all the characters of the traditional beauty and the beast story; they just do not play their traditional roles. The Queen of the Night, whose ladies were the beauties that saved Tomino from the dragon, instructs him to restore to her her daughter. Tomino is given Papageno as company, and both are given magical instruments, Tomino a flute and Papageno bells, to aid them in their task as well as three childlike spirits to watch over them.
The painting also tells a beauty and the beast story, that of the Princess Sabra, a dragon, and St. George. The princess has drawn the lot condemning her to be the dragon’s next victim. I think the faces in this painting are very revealing. The guard seems relatively unconcerned; the ladies following the princess look sad and wistful, perhaps thankful, for the moment, that someone else drew the short straw. But the Princess Sabra’s face reveals her fear, her sadness, and her resignation to her fate. Her hands that clutch at her garments reinforce the emotions her face reveals. Unlike Shakespeare’s play, there is nothing comic about this scene, and unlike Mozart’s opera, there is nothing and no one, man, woman, or spirit, that can offer her any hope or consolation. The story does, though, have a happy ending. St. George kills the dragon and peace and harmony are restored.
The painting below captures the beauty and the beast tale that is most likely to come to mind when we think of beauty and the beast stories. They come in a number of guises, the ones mentioned above and the one below. But there are other variations where the woman is the beast and it is the man that is the beast’s victim. My favorite of these stories is Gawain and the Loathly Lady. It revolves around a man in trouble, Gawain, who is helped by a very ugly and bestial lady. The ending is not that different from the story we usually think of, except the roles are reversed. The story of the Loathly Lady is also told, a bit more crudely, by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. It seems people have always been attracted to stories about beautiful people being pursued by monstrous and terrifying creatures.
Beauty and the Beast
There were a couple of articles recently about the power of myth and folk tales, “Once Upon a Time” and “Chasing rainbows: why myths matter,” that reflect on the power of these stories and the contribution they make to helping us all live a healthy and psychologically balanced life. “Once Upon a Time” addresses the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. These stories have enchanted adults and children (pretty much in that order) from their first appearance in print. Most of us are used to the sanitized versions of these stories found in films by Walt Disney and others. We think of them with warm and fuzzy feelings of childhood. But the stories are terrifying, they are cruel, and they are incredibly violent, often in ways that offers few if any redeeming features to mitigate or soften the violence. The article concludes that one scholar of these stories, Jack Zipe, likes them because they offer hope and a sense that justice can prevail in the world. But the author of the article, Joan Acocella, thinks differently; she thinks they validate what is, the world as it really works. She concludes the article by saying, “Though Wilhelm tried to Christianize the tales, they still invoke nature, more than God, as life’s driving force, and nature is not kind.” The stories would seem to support this view, but, on the other hand, in stories like Cinderella, characters do find justice and the villains, whether they be stepsisters or stepmothers, are more than adequately punished. Sometimes there is justice, but it is a very rough justice and perhaps what is missing most is not justice, but mercy or redemption. Of course there are other stories in the Grimm collection that offer neither comfort, nor justice, nor hope. But, as the article suggests, the stories were written in a time when the world was cruel and violent and harsh and that what the stories portray is life as it is, with a little magic thrown in. Unfortunately the magic often does not take sides.
“Chasing rainbows: why myths matter” on the other hand takes a more positive view towards myth and folklore. Damien Walker points out that yes, those, Richard Dawkins particularly, that tells us the myths aren’t real are telling us the truth but they miss the point. Stories, especially mythic stories, function in the realm of metaphor. It does not much matter whether the world was created in six days or not, what matters is that it was created. They teach us lessons about who we are and how we best survive in the world; how we live productively and wholly/holy in the world. Literally interpreting myth is not really helpful. What they help us with is finding our courage, helping us deal with loss, helping us get in touch with our inner self, our spirit, our ethos. As is often true with poetry, we feel the message of the myth before we fully understand it.
The painting above is of a character from Russian folklore, Vasilisa. The part of the story the painting captures seems, to me, horrifying. Vasilisa is holding a human skull that functions as a lantern. When she needs light, light pours out of the eye sockets of the skull and when she does not need light, the eye sockets are dark. This “lamp” is given to her by a witch who demands that Vasilisa leave. She gives Vasilisa the skull on a stick to light her way. I am not sure what the correct interpretation of this story is, but I think it is true that wisdom and direction are often given to us by our ancestors, often dead ancestors through the stories they have passed along and the stories that have been told about them. Vasilisa, unlike many women in folk tales, is very resourceful and courageous. She is fearless, or perhaps it would be better to say that she has her fear under control; it is not that she does not experience fear but that she does not let that fear debilitate her. This is a message of folklore and myth, we are pursued by our fears, we all must overcome them if we are to act, perhaps it is more precise to say that we need the wisdom to distinguish between those fears that keep us from harm and those fears that keeping us from doing what must be done. The same fear that keeps us from running in front of a speeding automobile keeps us from standing up to wickedness. The fear tells us that wickedness is powerful and it is important that we understand that, but it is also important that we resist it and perhaps the proper office of fear is not to make us powerless but to help us use our power properly, to understand what that proper use is, to use it with wisdom and discretion.
Frederic Edwin Church
The paintings above and below capture the sublime. They are beautiful but they are capture scenes that are powerful, they capture scenes that depict nature’s power, the first in the form of an erupting volcano and the second in the form of a treacherous mountain path. I think of the “Fellowship of the Ring” trying to get over the mountains on their way to Mordor. This is the nature of the sublime. It is powerful, awesomely so and it is not always pretty. Church did an earlier painting of this same place, Cotopaxi, but it was bucolic and peaceful and the mountain in the background was silent. Both paintings are beautiful, but the later is sublime as well. There was an article in The New Republic, “Art Over Biology,” about art and its evolutionary origins. What does art contribute to our survival, what has caused the “art” gene to survive and be passed along from generation to generation? The article points out that art often acts as a cultural catalyst, that is, it becomes one of those things that tie a culture together, that makes a people a “People.” But where this is a real benefit to the culture it is often of little benefit to the artist. I am not sure that Adam Kirsch’s conclusions actually happen the way he describes them, especially those concerning the artist and children. He points to evidence that suggests that artists are private people who often do not do well in social situations and therefore are not in the best position to procreate. And there is much to suggest that there is truth to this assertion, but it is also true that artists often have families, some have large families. Granted they may be terrible spouses and terrible parents, but they do produce children to carry their genes forward.
The Passage of the St. Gothard
J. M. W. Turner
But of course the larger issue is why do we produce art? There is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “Poetry Is a Destructive Force” that seems to suggest that this desire to produce art, poetry, novels, is not a pleasant desire to live with, it is to be “like a man / In the body of a violent beast.” It is to be entirely under the control of some other. According to the evidence that Kirsch cites it is to be, often, terribly alone and misunderstood. Of course the rewards of those that succeed are often very satisfying. The successful artist often receives a lot praise and attention, something that humans seem to crave and often these are accompanied with prosperity and comfort. Perhaps these are rewards enough to make the less pleasant aspects of the life of the artist more acceptable. But in the end the article suggests there are no satisfying evolutionary answers to explain how art came to be. But the article goes further to suggest that an evolutionary answer, were one to be found, would not change much because with art it is not the why that is really important. For a Darwinian explanation to have value, it must be “useful” and “it is hard to see how it would change the way we experience art, any more than knowing the mechanics of the eye makes a difference to the avidity of our sight.” Just as knowing how the eye works does not change the way we see and experience sight so knowing how art came to be, though it may satisfy some bits of our curiosity, does not affect our appreciation or understanding of the work of art itself.
Kakinomoto no hitomaro
The painting is of a prominent 8th century Japanese poet, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. An article in the Boston Review, “Poetry Changed the World,” looks at another contribution of art, especially literary art. Reflecting on a new book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Elaine Perry, the author of the article, considers how the written word has made humans more peaceful, empathetic, and nurturing creatures. She has problems with Pinker’s conclusions and how they are reached, but she agrees that when we look at how people have changed over time that reading has had a civilizing effect on people; that as books became more readily available and as more and more people were taught how to read them, people have become less brutal. Perry points out two ways that reading has changed us. One relates to the poetry itself. Early poetry often presented their themes in the form of debates. The article points to poems in different cultures in different parts of the world and at different times that present arguments for and against various issues. Often they function like Plato’s dialogues. She points out how different poetic forms, like the eclogue and the sonnet, are structurally suited to debate. In this way poetry encouraged deliberation over hasty action.
But the more powerful change is the one produced by novels. When reading a novel the reader enters into the experiences of the characters in the stories and begins to see the world through the eyes of these characters. This can have a profound effect upon readers; it takes readers out of their own mind, experience, and point of view and places them in the mind, experience, and point of view of the characters in the story. C. S. Lewis once said that in reading he became a thousand other men but remained himself. This ability to become thousands of other people develops empathy for others on the part of the reader, by expanding their understanding of others. Instead of judging people and events from our own perspective, reading stories encourages us to look for other ways of understanding what is happening around us, so that we do not look solely at the effect events taking place around us have on us alone, we start to look at how these events effect others, giving us a larger perspective, enabling us to understand not just how we are affected, but how the culture as a whole in which we live is affected.
From The Thief of Bagdad
Douglas Fairbanks Pictures
The film, The Thief of Bagdad, captures the spirit of the 1001 Arabian Knights. These stories illustrate the power of story upon the imagination. These stories have influenced the literature of cultures all over the world to the point that we cannot know for sure which came first Odysseus or Sinbad, for example, or if there were a third voyager, now lost, that inspired both stories. There was an article in Times Literary Supplement, “The magic of the Nights,” about the impact of these stories on world culture. The book is specifically addressing the stories of the 1001 Nights but it contributes to the discussion found in other articles about the power of stories, the power they have over us, the power they have to color how we interpret the world around us. The stories themselves are of uncertain origin, some come from Persia, some from Arabia, some had their origins in Sanskrit, but no one is quite certain where the stories found in this book first appeared. The book as it has come down to us is not even from a single collection of stories. The first of the Arabian Nights stories I encountered as a child was the film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Looking at the film as an adult it is difficult to understand what was so appealing to my childhood imagination, but appealing it was. But Ali Baba was not one of the stories that made up the “original” Arabian Nights; it was added to the collection by editors trying to account for all one thousand and one nights. Sinbad and Aladdin were also absent from the earliest editions of the Nights. Any modern editor that tries to assemble a more “authentic” version of the tales by limiting their edition to only those stories found in the earliest, most authentic editions is eventually forced, we are told, to add the missing stories. We know them too well and they have touched us too deeply.
The Flying Carpet
One story that has included elements of the Arabian Night is Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels. In the second voyage the bird that takes Gulliver from Bobdingnag and drops him out to sea is instantly identified as the Roc that Sinbad encountered, instantly identified by anyone familiar with the stories that is. The Yahoos Gulliver encounters on his last voyage also have antecedents in the 1001 Nights. There was an article in The New Atlantis, “The Truth About Human Nature” that applies the lessons Gulliver takes from his various voyages, especially his last voyage, to our common human experience. The thrust of the article is that we cannot live entirely in a rational world; that as admirable as the Houyhnhnms may be to Gulliver, they are missing something, they are not, to state the obvious, human and where a life governed entirely by reason may be ideal for horses and other animals, it is not ideal for the human animal. The article suggests that what the Houyhnhnms lack that humans need is imagination. Gulliver is standing in front of them, he was brought to their island on a ship, but the Houyhnhnms cannot conceive of a ship, they do not have the imagination for it. And this is something that stories provoke and provide that makes the human experience richer and more profound. The article also tells us that the Houyhnhnm is not capable of telling a lie. This I think is not true. The master Houyhnhnm has in him the “milk of human kindness” in that he will not reveal the true nature of Gulliver’s appearance, that the clothes Gulliver wears are not his skin. The Master Houyhnhnm does not tell overt lies to conceal this fact about Gulliver; he just does not correct the misimpressions those around him have formed concerning Gulliver. This raises another issue, the issue of what constitutes a lie and is a lie always spoken or can a lie be told by saying nothing. I think the Master Houyhnhnm says the thing that is not when he says nothing at all about Gulliver’s clothes. He is perpetrating a lie and it is a humane lie, it shows compassion and a desire to protect a friend, something Houyhnhnms as rule do not do. Perhaps the stories that Gulliver has told his master Houyhnhnm has humanized the Horse, has done for the horse what Elaine Perry suggests the novel has done for us, it has given him a larger view of the world.
Illustration from Gulliver’s Travles