Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Ode to Joy

When, towards the end of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn, staring full into the abyss, declares he will take back the 9th symphony, we don’t need to ask whose 9th symphony he is referring to – Schubert’s, Dvořák’s, Bruckner’s, or Mahler’s. And neither do we need to ask what Leverkühn means by saying that he wants to take it back. Beethoven’s 9th symphony stood then, as it stands now, for all those ideals and values that, for all the lessons of history, still stir the blood – freedom, liberty, love, brotherhood, comradeship, joy.

Ibsen had warned us, in Brand and in The Wild Duck, against the Claims of the Ideal. No matter how noble the ideal, no matter how heroic and self-sacrificing the idealist, “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”. (That quote, a quick Google search tells me, is from Kant. It was a favourite of Isaiah Berlin’s, who titled one of his collections of essays The Crooked Timber of Humanity: the undesirability of even trying to attain Utopia here on earth was a theme that much exercised him.) Dostoyevsky too had known that straightening crooked humanity to make it fit for a utopia can only be achieved through violence: the Grand Inquisitor may indeed be correcting Christ’s work for the greater happiness of mankind, but burning heretics in an autoda is, presumably, a price that needs to be paid for that universal utopian happiness.

All this the history of the last centuries has taught us, all this we know. Or, at least, should know. And yet, even knowing this, Beethoven’s 9th symphony continues to thrill. And it thrills not merely by the power of the music, but also by the message it explicitly gives us – that of universal love and brotherhood, of ideals, out of which, some still believe, a Utopia may still be built, right here on earth. How can we remain still in thrall to this message? Could it be that even with the knowledge of the dangers of Utopia, even with all the bitter experience of history, we cannot still inside us that longing for a heaven here on earth? And could the message of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and the great, noble feelings it still arouses in us, actually be dangerous?

At this point, it’s as well to pause a while to reflect. Did Beethoven, whom we often tend to refer to as a “visionary”, really lack the vision to perceive what is now so obvious to us all? Lewis Lockwood, in his splendid book on Beethoven, reminds us that when he was composing the 9th symphony, these ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity had already failed, and were in retreat: Beethoven had lived through the times when these lofty ideals had given way to the Terror; he had seen Napoleon (whom he had initially admired, and about whom he continued to harbour conflicting and ambivalent feelings) unleash the most horrific warfare across Europe; and, most recently, he had seen the settlements reached in the Congress of Vienna plunge Europe back again to the most ruthless reactionary despotisms. Beethoven’s assertion of the ideals of freedom and of brotherly love, far from being triumphalist, is better seen as a sort of rearguard action.

So, maybe, he wasn’t advocating a utopia; maybe he wasn’t advocating building Jerusalem on England’s or anyone else’s green and pleasant land. The lines he set of Schiller nowhere imply – as Blake’s famous lines do – striving to build anything at all: it is an assertion, a celebration, of human love for its own sake. And I think it is right that this very idea is something that should thrill us, fill us with joy. I can speak from personal experience on this: it’s over a decade now that I came out of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, having heard Sir Charles Mackerras conduct this symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra (a recording of this remarkable live performance is, happily, still available), my head spinning with … well, spinning with joy, I suppose. To this day I have never heard anything quite so joyful, quite so thrilling. This symphony does what it says on the label.

Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Your magic binds again
What convention strictly divides;
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

(Anonymous translation copied & pasted from Wikipedia.)

“What conventions strictly divides” – all those divisions of wealth and of social status, and also of ethnicity and of gender and of sexuality, all those divisions that so many modern strands of thought passing themselves off as “liberal” seek to reinforce rather than overcome… Beethoven’s symphony is, amongst other things, an ecstatic rejection of such pettiness: it urges us all to look higher.

In a conversation book of 1820, Beethoven had written: “The moral law within us, the starry skies above us.” This is a simplified version of a passage from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.

(Translated by Lewis White Beck)

Both the moral law and the starry skies seem to find their place in the great finale of the 9th symphony. This finale opens with a depiction of chaos, with a wild and discordant cascade of notes. This is followed by a sort of orchestral recitative, which appears to be searching for something. Each of the previous three movements is briefly reprised, and each rejected: no, this is not what we are searching for. Only when the now well-known “Ode to Joy” theme emerges does the recitative seem to express approval. And then the orchestra plays it, first low in the bass, then in a higher register, and finally, triumphantly, with the full orchestra. So when the initial music of chaos re-enters, it can be rejected once and  for all. This is where the human voice enters: “No more of these sounds!” it declares. And we move into what we all know now as the Ode to Joy – three verses from Schiller’s poem, sung by the soloists. It may be argued that the tune itself is rather banal, and the truth is, yes, it is [but see addendum below]: the point is to create an anthem that may be sung by all. After the third verse, the music becomes, possibly, more banal still, with a tenor solo above a “Turkish march”. But, even as the music is in danger of sinking into triviality, Beethoven introduces a quite fabulous fugal passage, followed by an ecstatic choral restatement, supported  by the full orchestra, of the Ode to Joy theme. What Beethoven could achieve with a merely banal theme still defies belief.

This is where the symphony may well have ended. The noise of chaos is banished, and human voices have declared that joy has bound all that custom had separated. What more can there be to say? But what follows is, for me, perhaps the most extraordinary thing in the symphony: we may have heard the joyful expression of the moral law within us, but Beethoven wants us also to wonder at the starry skies above. And if the Ode to Joy we had heard was intended to be so simple that anyone could sing it, what follows taxes even the finest of solo singers and choirs. No music I know fills me with such a sense of wonder, of awe. Even after all these years of familiarity, a good performance, like the one I heard in Edinburgh all those years ago, can still leave me enraptured. And towards the end of this symphony, a variation of the Ode to Joy theme returns, and combines with the music that expresses this sense of wonder.  For, in Beethoven’s vision, the moral law within and the starry skies above are not two separate entities, divorced from each other: our place in the vast, incomprehensible universe does not render us insignificant, for what is within us is as glorious and as mysterious as what is without.

This, at least, is what this symphony means to me; and that we are still capable of responding to such a vision fills me, despite everything, with hope. For Adrian Leverkühn didn’t really need to take back the 9th: Gustav Mahler had done that already with his 6th, symphony, which is the antithesis of everything that Beethoven’s 9th expresses. (And I have heard also a very great performance of Mahler’s 6th symphony at the Edinburgh Festival once, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez – but that’s another story.) But even with the knowledge of something so implacably nihilistic as Mahler’s 6th, somehow, beyond anything that could be reasonably expressed, we continue to respond to Beethoven’s 9th. And that in itself is something of a wonder.

 

ADDENDUM (added 16th May, 2018)
The perils of writing about things one knows nothing about is that one is likely to get pulled up by someone who is, shall we say, a bit more knowledgeable.

I had described the “Ode to Joy” theme as “banal”. A good friend of mine, who, unlike me, actually has a good understanding of music, kindly wrote to disabuse me. I quote from his e-mail, with permission:

The theme is certainly deceptively simple, but that, to coin a phrase, is simply deceptive. Over 24 bars it makes do with just five notes, encompassing a fifth, (as does the mysterious opening of the first movement, which is a bare fifth).  Be that as it may, the theme, ostensibly in D Major, starts on the third note of the triad, F sharp, and that note (and not the tonic D) remains the centre of the theme, constantly and immensely subtly repeated and reaffirmed. Indeed, around a quarter of the theme is nothing but the note F sharp. If you sing the theme through, you will easily hear how it revolves around that opening F sharp, and not the tonic D.

Now the effect that Beethoven achieves comes about because the F sharp is treated as a leading note, leading to the G a semitone higher, followed in turn by the A. In other words, the opening of the theme could easily be in the Phrygian mode (there is no tonal certainty as the theme is unisono and so initially has no harmonic foundation), and the D, when it eventually arrives in bar 3, sounds less like the tonic and more like the sixth note of the Phrygian mode. Even when in bar 8 the tonic D is more firmly sounded, it then acts as a kind of elastic buffer, pushing on the flow of the music, rather than acting as a caesura, as the tonic is mostly expected to.

The entire theme is 24 (3 x 8) bars long, not the 32 one might expect, two lots of 2 x 8, and thus, as it were, dispenses with eight bars by cleverly nesting the ‘missing’ bars in the central section of the theme. And all this using precisely and merely five consecutive notes, mostly in scalar form, plus an octave A, over said 24 bars.

The effect of this ‘leading note as quasi-tonic’ F sharp which is resolved upwards, as one would expect of a leading note, but then continuing to the dominant A (not stopping at the tonic) and then back again, gives the theme a sense of, as Everton football club claims, onwards and upwards. The theme is restless, constantly moving forwards, while yet revolving around itself, and it is the working out of these thematic characteristics (there are plenty more, but more technical) which makes up the tremendous variations which are the rest of the movement. The Turkish march, far from being banal, is of a visceral excitement.

I could actually follow that analysis since I can still give a mean performance of that tune on a descant recorder.

I have made, as Bertie Wooster would say, a “bloomer”. But if after each bloomer comes such enlightenment, may I carry on making yet more such bloomers!

 

Advertisements

“Spontaneous overflow”

About a year or so ago, after visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris – a gallery crammed to the brim with masterpieces – I found myself writing, despite my lack of anything resembling qualification or expertise on the matter, on Manet’s L’Olympia. The post turned out to be quite a jokey one. There was another post I wanted to write on another of the masterpieces in that gallery, but, after the first few drafts, I gave up on it: the nature of this painting is such that it demands from the viewer, and from the commentator, a serious engagement with the deepest and the most unvarnished of human emotions, and I felt I wasn’t up to it. Jokey posts are fairly easy to write, but serious writing on intense, naked emotions I find far more difficult: when I read over my early drafts, they appeared to me merely mawkish, and insincere. However, a year later, I thought it was time for another attempt. So if this post too, dear reader, appears mawkish or insincere, do please put it down to my lack of skill as a writer, and to nothing else.

The painting in question is Monet’s painting of his wife, Camille, on her deathbed. It was painted in 1879, when he was 39, and his dying wife merely 32. Monet painted it even as his beloved wife lay there, breathing her last. Many years later, Monet himself had wondered how he could have done it. How could he have been so callous? How could he have focussed on colours, on light, on composition, on brush-strokes, on all those things that artists concern themselves with, when his beloved wife was dying right in front of him?

monet

“Camille Monet on her deathbed”, by Claude Monet, 1879, courtesy Musée d’Orsay in Paris

And yet he wasn’t callous. For people like me, lacking all artistic talent, it is impossible to know just what goes on in those minds possessed not merely of talent, but of genius. But I would hazard a guess that Monet painted his dying wife because he had to. It is merely the dilettante who first feels, and then sets out to give expression to what they had felt: for someone like Monet, I’d conjecture that the distance between the feeling and the expression of that feeling is much shorter: possibly, it doesn’t exist at all.

There are other examples of this sort of thing – the sort of thing that to the rest of us may well appear callous and unfeeling. Bach, I gather, composed the aria “Schlummert Ein” (from the cantata Ich Habe Genug) while the corpse of his son was lying cold in the next room. Janáček, who has claims to being the finest composer of operas of the 20th century, was fascinated by speech patterns and intonations, and had developed his own means of notating these; and, when his beloved daughter was dying, he found himself at her bedside, notating her groans and her cries of pain. All these examples sound callous, but I wonder whether they are. I have heard it said, for instance, that Tchaikovsky couldn’t have been tearing his hair out when he composed his emotionally distraught 6th symphony, as he wouldn’t be able to work out the harmonies and the counterpoint while tearing his hair out; but maybe, just maybe, working out these harmonies and counterpoint was his way of tearing his hair out. And so, Bach’s aria, Janáček’s notations, Monet’s painting, are not, for these artists, expressions of their grief so much as the thing itself: this is how these people tore their hair out.

All this is, I appreciate, conjecture. I will never be privileged enough to know what it is exactly that goes on in the mind of a genius.

Monet’s painting of his dying wife, even if we did not know the circumstances in which it was painted, is heart-rending. It is a painting of a parting, a final parting. The face, now seemingly unaware even of the presence of the viewer, seems already beyond human reach, disappearing fast into an ever-thickening, impenetrable mist. “Il y a un moment, dans les séparations, où la personne aimée n’est déjà plus avec nous,” Flaubert had written in L’Education Sentimentale (“There comes a moment in parting when the person we love is no longer with us”). Monet has captured here this very moment. The face is becoming at this moment a mere lifeless object, like the pillow upon which her head rests, and which Monet has painted as if it were a snow-covered hill.

This is certainly not the “emotion recollected in tranquillity” of Wordsworth’s formulation. It is, however, worth considering these well-known words in their proper context:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on…

  • William Wordsworth, from the preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth is clearly not suggesting that poetry should be created while in a state of tranquillity: quite the contrary – he says that it should be created when the poet in an emotional state similar to (“kindred to”) the emotions being depicted. The point of recollecting “in tranquillity” is to produce again in the poet’s mind emotions similar to those the poet is setting out to depict.  For only then can the overflow of powerful feelings, which Wordsworth contends is the very essence of poetry, be spontaneous. So if Tchaikovsky, say, is depicting emotional states of mind that are tormented and turbulent, he must, even while composing it, even while working out the harmonies and the counterpoint, be feeling something that is at least kindred to that torment and that turbulence. Otherwise, how can that overflow of powerful feelings be spontaneous?

Wordsworth does, however, qualify his formulation with the word “generally”: “In this mood successful composition generally begins…” (my italics). And I wonder, in view of Bach’s aria, in view of Monet’s painting, whether, in some cases, that spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings can occur not as a consequence of recollecting afterwards in tranquillity emotions previously felt, but even at the very moment the artist is feeling these emotions for the first time.

I don’t know. These are merely conjectures on my part, as the workings of creative minds remain a mystery to me. But, given that Monet himself had wondered how he could have painted his dying wife even as she lay dying, it could be that these things are mysteries to artists also.

Posted without comment

“If we’re asking our children to read filth such as Shakespeare in school, and turning a blind eye to the content because it has been deemed by the gatekeepers of literary imperialism, known as ‘the canon’, as beyond moral reproach and contemporary social responsibility, then we cannot blame Eminem for corrupting the minds of our youths.”

You can, if you must, read the full article here.

Cities with no ‘a’

This came up on my Facebook timeline:

“Name a city that doesn’t have the letter ‘a’ in it. Bet you can’t!”

Of course, I instantly thought “Amsterdam”. But – would you believe it? – that had the letter A in it. Damn!

My next attempt was even worse – Aachen.

I’ve been trying to solve this conundrum for some time now, but without success. Athens, Aberdeen, Adelaide, Atlanta, Addis Ababa, Asunción … Mumbai, Kinshasa, Vancouver …

There must be some city somewhere that doesn’t have the letter ‘a’ in it. Could someone help me out, please?

The “Ibsen Cycle”, and the search for an -ism

It’s not easy to pinpoint the exact date when artists, writers and composers all decided they’d had enough of being Renaissance, and it was high time they changed to being Baroque. Although, it’s fair to say, the change wasn’t quite so clear cut: some took a detour through Mannerism, but that didn’t really last too long.

Fair enough, my sarcasm above is a bit heavy-handed, but I really do not decry labelling. However different, say, Bach, Handel and Telemann are from each other, it is clear that they are closer to each other than any of them is to, say, Tallis or Palestrina, and labels can be useful in signposting such matters – as long as we take the labelling to be no more than rough guides, and do not insist upon them dogmatically. (I say this rather ruefully, as I am rather given myself to crude generalisations, and have, quite rightly, been picked up before on the matter.)

But even overviews come a cropper when it comes to western literature of the 19th century. Or, more precisely perhaps, of the mid- to late- 19th century. When it comes to composers of that era, we may safely say that Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, etc., different though they all are from each other, are Romantics. In art, we have a useful catch-all term – “impressionism” – to cover most of the major artists of that era. (And for a slightly later generation of artists who don’t quite fit the term – Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat – we have ingeniously thought up the term “post-impressionist”.) So that’s the artists covered. But what do we make of the major writers of that era? – of Tolstoy, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Flaubert, Dickens (the later Dickens at least), Baudelaire, Ibsen, and the like? Caught between Romanticism before them and Modernism after, there seems to be no -ism into which they seem comfortably to fit.

At this point, we tell ourselves that labels don’t matter, shrug our shoulders, and move on. But I never was one for moving on. Not that I necessarily want to find a handy label: I do recognise that such labelling is pretty pointless. But I recognise also that, by the end of the century, something had changed from the heady days of Romanticism – that it would not have been possible to have produced the novels of Zola or of Hardy in the same age that had produced the odes of Keats or the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley. But what precisely had changed is not so easy to put one’s finger on – at least, not without making the kind of crude generalisations that I had promised myself not to make again.

But let’s make a few anyway, and see if they hold.

The first crude generalisation is that the mid- to late- 19th century was an era of “realism” in fiction – that is, writers of fiction aimed for verisimilitude, and attempted to produce narratives that the reader could believe might have taken place in the real world. But almost instantly we run into problems. Are not the plot and the characters of an 18th century novel such as Richardson’s Clarissa, say, also believable? And conversely, is there anyone who could believe that the characters populating novels so heavily stylised as Dead Souls, Little Dorrit or The Idiot could conceivably have existed as described? Or that the events that take place in those novels might conceivably have happened in reality? All right, let us take these instances as exceptions rather than the rule (although, it must be conceded, these are pretty big exceptions). But it still won’t do: the more one thinks about it, the more such exceptions crowd the mind – novels preceding the mid-19th century that are very realistic in nature (“realistic” as described above, that is), and novels of the mid 19th century that don’t even aim for surface realism. So no, I really don’t think that appealing to “realism” will do.

Neither would it do, I think, to claim that writers of the mid-to-late 19th century were more aware of social and economic pressures. There is no shortage of social and economic awareness in the works of Austen (who wrote when most of the poets we class as “Romantic” were active); or in the works of Fielding or Richardson. Or, going back even further, in the novels of Defoe (see Moll Flanders, for instance, or Roxana). Conversely, Henry James, who was very active towards the end of the 19th century, often made his characters so wealthy that they did not have to worry about economic pressures. So no, that one won’t do either.

But one thing that may, possibly, be said – though I say it rather gingerly – is that it became more difficult to create big characters – heaven-storming characters, characters who aspire to the level of gods; characters who fill the page (or the stage), who fill our imaginations with their bigness. Such characters are familiar in epic poems and plays of the classic age, and beyond – godlike Achilles; Odysseus, the man of twists and turns; Electra and Medea, Othello and Macbeth, Milton’s Satan. And Romanticism allowed for this bigness as well: indeed, with its emphasis on the individual self, it positively invited it – Goethe’s Faust, Shelley’s Prometheus, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. But in the mid-to-late 19th century, this became more difficult. When the Phaedra of Euripides or the Phèdre of Racine lusts guiltily for a younger man, their passions are huge, they shake the very earth: when Natalya Petrovna similarly lusts guiltily for a younger man (in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country), she is simply an insignificant wife of an insignificant provincial landowner – a sympathetic figure, certainly, but rather small and pathetic in a way the creations of Euripides or of Racine aren’t. When authors of the post-Romantic era do produce big figures, they have to be removed from everyday life and its quotidian concerns (Captain Ahab); or these quotidian concerns are simply ignored (Heathcliff and Cathy). We cannot, after all, have Milton’s Satan or Shelley’s Prometheus worrying about paying their bills.

And, just as it became more difficult to present these big characters, it became easier to present humans as mere ants teeming in an anthill – whether they be the slum-dwellers of Zola’s L’Assommoir, the rotten bourgeoisie of Zola’s Pot Bouille, or the brutal peasantry of Zola’s La Terre. Of course, these novels could not have been written in the Romantic age as the social and economic environments presented by Zola were very much of their own time; but putting that aside, this view of humanity itself as something that is small, of individuality as something that is paltry, submerged in some wider, impersonal collective, seems to me very alien to the Romantic sensibility. Where the Romantics enjoined us to strive, now, the very idea of striving seems absurd. Even those who are dissatisfied with their present do not know what to strive for, or how: Emma Bovary’s rebellion is just as petty and as stupid as that that she is rebelling against.

Now, before you all regale me with notable exceptions to all this, let me suggest a couple myself: Brand, and Peer Gynt. Ibsen created these huge characters in the mid-1860s, in two verse dramas, epic in conception, and vast in scope. But then, his art took a strange turn, and I am still not sure why he felt this turn had to be taken. Having written Emperor and Galilean (which I won’t be posting about here, as I don’t think I understand it very well), and The League of Youth (which I won’t be posting about either, as it seems to me rather slight), he turned, quite deliberately, away from all that bigness, all that grandeur, and fixed his gaze upon those little ants teeming in the anthills. No, not quite Zola-esque, perhaps, but certainly little figures – smug bourgeoisie, small-time businessmen, bank managers, bored housewives, and the like. It’s like stepping deliberately from Racine’s Phèdre to Turgenev’s Natalya Petrovna.

Why did he do it? Could he on this fair mountain leave to feed and batten on this moor?

The first of these plays is The Pillars of Society (which I hope to be blogging about shortly). Without wishing to anticipate, it does seem a bit of a come-down from the granitic magnificence of Brand, or the riotous exuberance of Peer Gynt. But this is what Ibsen wanted. Towards the end of his life, some twenty-five years later, Ibsen himself described the twelve plays from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken as a “cycle”; and the eminent Ibsenian critic, Brian Johnston, takes Ibsen at his word. But did Ibsen know from the start what this cycle would develop into? Did he, indeed, envisage it as a cycle at all? To judge from Michael Meyer’s biography, I think the answer appears to be “no”. At least, there exists no evidence that he did.

But had he indeed looked forward to the plays towards the end of this cycle, he would have known that even restricting himself to prose (and to everyday prose at that), even confining himself to milieux that are, on the surface at least, “realistic”, he would, by the end, create characters every bit as big as anything achieved by writers of the past. Bernard Shaw, a man not given to flights of fancy, said of the protagonists of Ibsen’s late plays that there’s not one of them who is not touched by the Holy Ghost. And by the end of his last play, When We Dead Awaken, we seem back once again to the poetic and imaginative world of Brand. Ibsen had come full cycle. But that journey back to where he had started is long, and tortuous; and also utterly fascinating.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

When I had decided to blog about the major Ibsen plays, I thought I would do it one play at a time, and not anticipate what lies ahead. But reading The Pillars of Society, I think that would not be very advisable.  The connections not only with plays already written, but with plays yet to be written, are too important to ignore.

Some agnostic musings on Good Friday

96620058-092B-467A-ACB0-79DFC55685F6

Michelangelo’s Pieta, courtesy of the Duomo Museum Florence

Even those who claim not to be Christian, or not to be religious, often find themselves listening to Bach’s passion music on Good Friday. And, further, find themselves moved by it. I am among them. I do not profess to be religious; I do not identify myself by any religious affiliation; and indeed, I was not even born into a Christian family (my parents were Hindus, though not practising Hindus). And yet, I shall shortly be putting on CDs of Bach’s Matthew Passion, and fully expect to be in tears by the end.

I make shamefaced excuses for this. It’s the quality of the music, I say. Well, yes, it is. But it is not entirely the abstract nature of the music that moves me so. It is the story itself that the music narrates

This, for many, is what is known as a “gotcha!” moment. “Gotcha!” they say. “So you are religious after all! And a sentimentalist to boot!” And sometimes I think, well, maybe I am. And what if I was? But then, I think a bit more and realise that I find myself moved by Othello and King Lear also, and don’t for a minute believe in the literal truth of Desdemona or of Cordelia. So my militant agnostic status, I submit m’lud, remains on solid ground.

Of course, in speaking of the undoubted sublimity of the story of the Passion, we shouldn’t overlook its occasionally less savoury aspects. A Jewish friend of mine jokes that, much though he loves Bach, every time the Evangelist sings of “Das Juden”, he can’t help thinking to himself “‘Ere, ‘old on, mate! It warn’t me wot killed yer Messiah!” But even he concedes the power of the story.

Artists, composers, and poets have all been drawn to this story – not necessarily because the churches were among the major patrons of the arts and demanded works on religious themes, but because they found in this story a focus for some of their most profound thoughts and feelings about everything that matters most – betrayal, guilt, atonement, evil, cruelty, suffering, grief, love, compassion, and, of course, death. And, for the believers, resurrection. Or, even for those of us who do not believe, that tantalising promise. In the final scene of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare dramatises this promise of the Resurrection, and I have never been quite able to work out quite why, despite my not believing, I find that scene so ineffably moving.

But I am not speculating on the matter any further: I am quite happy leaving my unanswerable questions unanswered. It is true I was born into an Indian Hindu family, but Christianity is so deeply imbued into Western culture that it is simply not possible to absorb one without also absorbing the other.

Nearly thirty years ago now, when I knew so little of Renaissance art (even less than I do now), I remember standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà that is now in the Cathedral Museum in Florence, and I gasped. I felt that same sense of solemn wonder as I do when faced with the mystery that is Bach’s Matthew Passion. This Pietà is a late work: Michelangelo had been working on it till the very end of his long life. He had left it in a vandalised state: in some divine fit of dissatisfaction, he had taken a hammer to it, and had smashed Christ’s left arm, and his left leg. (The arm has been reconstructed from the fragments, but the left leg is still missing.) The sculpture is also unfinished: the figure under Christ’s right arm was sculpted after Michelangelo’s death, and it shows. Though undoubtedly competent, it’s the only part of the entire group that, as even my inexpert eyes could tell, is lacking in expression. And this figure throws into relief the almost unbearably intense and profound expression of the rest of the group.

There is much that may legitimately be said against religious belief. And yes, I know well the vast sufferings that have been caused, and continue to be caused, in the name of religion. But I must confess I find it hard to regret a culture that has given us a meditation so profound as this on suffering, on death, on grief and on compassion, and on love. On everything, in short, that most matters.

 

The “nunnery scene”

In a recent post, I found myself focussing on what seems to me one of the most complex scene in the entire Shakespearean canon – Act 3, Scene1 of Hamlet. I barely scratched the surface: there is such complexity in this scene that I rarely read it the same way twice. Everything seems to be happening at the same time, and it becomes virtually impossible to keep track. No performance, not even the finest, could hope to capture all the subtleties and nuances.

This scene is often known as the “nunnery scene”. It starts with a bit of scene-setting with Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia (Ophelia is to be the bait, as it were, to get Hamlet talking, while Claudius and Polonius spy on him); then Hamlet comes in, and delivers the famous soliloquy that we can all reel off, word for word; and then he sees Ophelia, rants and raves at her for a bit; and then he storms off. And during all that ranting and raving, he tells her to go to a “nunnery”. At which point we all snigger like schoolkids because a “nunnery”, as we all know, was slang for “brothel”.

But does Hamlet tell Ophelia to go to a brothel? Yes, “nunnery” was sometimes used ironically to refer to a brothel, and this secondary meaning may well have added a bitter undercurrent to the proceedings. But even if it were a widespread piece of slang in Shakespeare’s day (and I honestly have no idea how widespread it was), the brothel is still a secondary meaning, not the primary one. And I do get the impression that we are so taken with this secondary meaning, we allow it to drown out the significance of the primary one. As a consequence, we lose much not only of the subtlety of this scene, but also the pathos, and the deep poignancy.

The context is clear. Hamlet, in his soliloquy, questions why we go on living when life is so full of suffering and pain, and concludes that we only do so because we are too frightened of death. It is a natural step to move from this to thinking that it is best not to have been born in the first place. Why bring yet more people into the world?

Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

Hamlet is here telling Ophelia not to bear children, not to bring yet more people into this life, in which all any of us can do is merely sin and suffer. And as he says this, he expresses a quite startling degree of self-disgust:

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.

And this is why Ophelia should go to a nunnery. We owe it to our unborn children not to bring them into life.

By allowing a possible secondary meaning to swamp what is undoubtedly the primary meaning is to do this extraordinarily tragic and moving scene a great disservice. It is to replace a profound lament for life with merely a cynical guffaw.