Archive for March 17th, 2013

All is but toys

We live in godless times. I don’t mean the mess the BBC made of the sublime Blandings stories, although I am sure that this too can be put into the balance with all the other evidence. No – I mean our refusal to concede that life is, at heart, a rather serious matter, and that gravitas, or even reverence, is not necessarily indicative either of pomposity or of pretentiousness. And even if it were, even the pompous and the pretentious may be right: failings of character are not, after all, refutations of points of view.

On my Facebook page recently, I have had posted two items from Decca, the once respected classical label that boasts in its back catalogue, amongst other riches, recordings of Benjamin Britten performing his own works, and the first studio recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. But the album they were advertising on my Facebook page was called “Sleep”. “Want to get a great night’s sleep?” the posting asked. “Here are some great classical tracks to help you unwind, relax, and prepare for bedtime…” Well, one gets used to the constant trivialisation of that which is precious; one even learns not to mind too much: it’s only Facebook, after all. Facebook is a good way of keeping in touch with people one might otherwise lose touch with, but it’s foolish taking it too seriously. So I let it go. But today, those awfully nice marketing people at Decca were back with this: “Are you finding the frantic pace of modern life getting you down? Take a break with 101 of the greatest pieces of music ever written.” And in between these two, another unsolicited post on Facebook informed me “’Liking’ Mozart on Facebook makes you clever”. Well, I never! And the music of Mozart should, apparently, be played to babies: people actually take music of this stature, and, instead of listening to it, play it to their babies because some idiot somewhere reckons it will make the babies more intelligent? What is the matter with people?

Yes, yes, I know, it’s all commerce, it all advertising-speak. Mustn’t take it seriously, and all that. But advertisers would not promote this sort of piss-a-bed gibberish were there not a large section of the public prepared to respond to it. And no matter how hard I try not to take this seriously, it is hard not to be irked when centuries of so profound and so enriching a musical tradition are reduced merely to sounds to fall asleep to. Must everything be reduced thus? Can we not accept an essential seriousness in anything?

The Hell where nothing really matters very much: it is a sort of Hell that even Dante had not envisaged in his survey of the various types of damnation that humans engineer for themselves. Shakespeare, though, knew of this Hell: this is the Hell into which Macbeth damns himself.

After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go their own separate ways to their damnation. Lady Macbeth soon realises that:

‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

Not that she dwells in any kind of joy, doubtful or otherwise. She is crushed by a burden of guilt so terrible, that her mind soon buckles under the strain. Even sleep brings no respite, as she re-lives, over and over and over again, that fatal night when she lost her soul for ever.

But Macbeth’s route to damnation is different. Shortly after the murder, he realises that the only way he can live with the knowledge of what he has done is to convince himself that it doesn’t matter. And if even this doesn’t matter, then nothing matters:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There ‘s nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys

But a life in which all is but toys, in which nothing matters because there is nothing serious in mortality, is also a Hell. And in this Hell, Macbeth might as well carry on – because it makes not a blind bit of difference what he does:

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er

Whether he kills more or whether he kills no more, it’s all the same, it’s all equally tedious. Life itself is merely “a tale told by an idiot”: it’s all mere sound and fury, and it signifies nothing. Trying to avoid the Hell of Guilt to which his wife is damned, Macbeth backs instead into a rather different but equally potent Hell – the Hell of Tedium.

Of course, one cannot miss what one does not acknowledge. But there is a part of Macbeth’s soul that does acknowledge, that does understand what it is that he has lost: he has lost all sense of seriousness. All that matters most, all that is most serious, “honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,” he cannot hope to have. And that is his tragedy. Not his death, but the meaningless, trivial rigmarole his life has become.

Well, at least Macbeth had his reasons for forcing himself to believe that all is but toys. But what possible reason can the rest of us have, I wonder? What excuse can we have for reducing the music of Mozart or of Debussy to the level of aural valium? How can we justify the insistence that even Tolstoy’s War and Peace is but a soap opera? The Hell of Triviality is, rather paradoxically, as serious a form of damnation as any other.