“The power of the black earth”: Mussorgsky’s “Khovanschina”

It’s a fairly uncontroversial contention that Verdi and Wagner were the two towering opera composers of the nineteenth century – especially in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Even those allergic to either of these composers (and there are many who deeply dislike one or the other, or even both) will concede their importance. I certainly don’t dispute this, but there are times when I think the greatest operas of that era were neither by Verdi nor by Wagner, but by a Russian civil servant with no formal training in music – Modest Mussorgsky. And last night’s concert performance at the Proms of Khovanschina was as memorable an operatic evening as I think I have ever experienced.

Both Mussorgsky’s two major operas are problematic. Boris Godunov exists in two very different versions, which are usually conflated: this practice of conflation is understandable, as fixing on one or other of these versions necessitates the omission of some of the finest scenes in all opera; but a conflation is not what Mussorgsky himself ever envisaged, and it certainly weakens the drama. As for Khovanschina, it was left in a sadly unfinished state when, in 1881, Mussorgsky died aged only 42, as a consequence of severe alcoholism. The textual issues surrounding this opera are immense, and I am certainly no expert, but, from what I understand, Mussorgsky had orchestrated a few parts, left piano versions of most of the rest, but had left the endings of the second and fifth acts uncomposed.

After Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov prepared his own version on Khovanschina, and re-orchestrated the whole of Boris Godunov, to make Mussorgsky’s own highly idiosyncratic orchestrations more palatable. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestrations are brilliant, and it is perhaps to be regretted that, in our authenticity-fixated times, they are going out of fashion. However, there is no doubt that these orchestrations, brilliant though they are, are not what Mussorgsky had himself intended; and, given that our ears have now become so accustomed to strange sounds and harmonies that Mussorgsky’s sound-world no longer seems particularly odd, there is no reason not to return to his original intentions in Boris Godunov. This leaves the problem of Khovanschina, which was left in such an incomplete state that we do not often know what Mussorgsky’s original intentions were. Now that Rimsky-Korsakov’s re-imagining of Mussorgsky no longer seems acceptable, what do we use?

Most performances nowadays use the version prepared in the late 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich, with whatever modification the conductor in question may see fit. And, it has to be said, Shostakovich’s version is quite splendid. However, this is not always the best solution either. Shostakovich was working in the era of Soviet Communism, after all, and belief in progress was not merely taken for granted, but routinely extolled. And, in this most political of operas, that puts a slant on matters that Mussorgsky himself would most likely not have gone along with. In a recording made of a live performance from the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Claudio Abbado (to my mind, one of the greatest recordings ever made of any music), Shostakovich’s version (judiciously edited) is used for the main part, but, for the final chorus, it is Stravinsky’s version that is preferred. Stravinsky’s quiet ending, which can be seen as imparting a mood either of serenity or, as Simon Morrison’s programme notes of last night’s Proms performance puts it, of “quiet desperation”, is very different from the thrilling blaze of sound that Shostakovich provides; and, maybe because I am so used to hearing Abbado’s recording, it is Stravinsky’s ending that seems to me just right. But Shostakovich’s ending is worth hearing as well: there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

The problem with Khovanschina is not merely textual: there is the matter of the content also. Heaven knows how many times I have heard this opera (mainly in recordings, and, last night, for the first time ever, also live in concert) – I still cannot follow the damn thing. If anyone were to ask me to summarise the plot, I’d be all over the place. This is not because the plot is “silly” – as opera plots are supposed to be, according to a not-very-accurate cliché – but because it is so complex. Various characters seem to move in and out of the action, and it’s hard to say what exactly lies at the centre: indeed, it seems at times that there is no centre. It’s not really about a principal character, or even a group of principal characters: it is about an entire nation in the throes of upheaval – social, political, religious. The scale is as vast as can be imagined: epics don’t really come much more epic than this. Even Wagner’s Götterdämmerung only ends with the end of the world.

The historical upheavals depicted in this opera took place in the late 17th century, when the young Czar Peter, later known as “Peter the Great”, ruthlessly consolidated his power. The political landscape of the time was hugely convoluted, with various factions fighting each other for power with untrammelled brutality. There were various factions of the aristocracy – princes and boyars; there were the modernisers, who looked towards the West; there were the Old Believers, the faction of the Russian Orthodox Church who bitterly opposed the church reforms of the mid-17th century, and maintained their adherence to the old rituals and practices. There were, nominally, two Czars – the young Peter, and his half-brother Ivan, who appeared to have had what, in modern parlance, we’d describe as “learning difficulties”. Since both were essentially children, Ivan’s sister, Sophia, acted as Regent. With the various factions contending against each other, and, sometimes, amongst themselves, the nation was in utter turmoil: violence and brutality were everyday things, hardly worthy to be commented upon. It was out of this turmoil that Peter, the liberal reformer, emerged with absolute power, and created what in Mussorgsky’s time would have been recognised as “modern Russia”. A triumph of Enlightenment, some may say. And, indeed, that is the impression one might get from the famous prelude, depicting dawn over the River Moscow – the emergence of light to banish the darkness.

But if only things were that simple. Mussorgsky, unlike Vladimir Stasov (who had helped him put together the libretto from historical sources), did not believe in progress. The liberal progressive, Peter the Great, who had dragged feudal Russia kicking and screaming into modern times, had, after all, used the most ruthless and cruel of means to achieve his ends: his liberalism had cost the nation uncountable lives and immense suffering. In the earlier Boris Godunov, the Fool – the Holy Fool – had famously lamented that whoever rules, whoever has power, the people go on suffering: mere dumb, animal suffering, and nothing more. And this seems to have been Mussorgsky’s view also, although, given the unfinished state of Khovanschina, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely what Mussorgsky himself thought of these matters.

But we have a guide, I think, in a letter Mussorgsky wrote to Stasov while putting the libretto together. This letter is quoted in just about every piece of writing I have come across on Khovanschina, so I might as well quote it too:

The power of the black earth will manifest itself when you plough it to the very bottom. It is possible to plough the black earth with tools wrought of alien materials. And at the end of the 17th century they ploughed Mother Russia with just such tools, so that she did not immediately realise what they were ploughing with, and, like the black earth, she opened up and began to breathe. And she, our beloved, received the various state bureaucrats, who never gave her, the long-suffering one, time to collect herself and to think, “Where are you pushing me?” The ignorant and confused were executed: force! … But the times are out of joint: the state bureaucrats are not letting the black earth breathe.

“We’ve gone forward” – you lie! We haven’t moved! Paper, books have gone forward! – we haven’t moved. So long as the people cannot verify with their own eyes what is being cooked out of them – until then, we haven’t moved! Public benefactors of every kind will seek to glorify themselves, with buttress their glory with documents, but people groan and, so as not to groan, they drink like the devil, and groan worse than ever: we haven’t moved!

 

  • (I have quoted this from the programme notes from last night’s concert. Since no translator is credited, I assume that the writer of the notes, Prof. Simon Morrison, has translated this himself.)

 

Mussorgsky’s image is perhaps a bit laboured, and his articulation clumsy, but what he is saying seems clear enough: Russia has its own deeply rooted traditions (symbolised by the “black earth”), and foreign ideas (“tools wrought of foreign materials”) implemented by force will not better the people’s lot: whatever happens, the people, as predicted by the Holy Fool in Boris Godunov, will go on suffering.

This is far from Stasov’s faith in progress. And indeed, this is a hard and bitter pill to swallow for someone like myself, believing firmly as I do that certain principles – human rights, freedom, democracy, and so on – are of universal value. But can these values that we may consider “universal” be imposed upon a recalcitrant people, emotionally wedded to their own traditions? Can it be done without “force”? And even more pressing perhaps than the question “Can it be done” is “Should it be done?” If works of art pose difficult and troubling questions, I know of none that is more difficult and more troubling than this.

Mussorgsky, like Conrad, seemed to have had no faith in any political solution. In Nostromo, Conrad rejected one by one all possible political solutions: all are found wanting; all are corrupt, or become corrupted; and those that become corrupted do so because corruption lies latent in the very foundations. So where are we to turn? In Under Western Eyes, written some eight years after Nostromo, Conrad faces precisely this question. There, the protagonist, Razumov, becomes embroiled in political and moral complications despite his best efforts to keep aloof from it all; and he declares to Privy Councillor Mikulin his intention to “retire”. Privy Councillor Mikulin’s response is as simple as it is unanswerable:

“Where to?” asked Councillor Mikulin softly.

One has to stand somewhere. But where?

Mussorgsky’s opera ends spectacularly with the Old Believers declaring quite unambiguously where they stand: they immolate themselves en masse. This was no invention on Mussorgsky’s part: many Old Believers, in shockingly large numbers, had done just this after their sect had been proscribed. From our enlightened liberal viewpoint, we may look on this with horror, as we do on any mass suicide of religious cults (e.g. the horrific incident of mass-suicide in Jonestown). And indeed, it is horrific: it cannot be anything other than horrific. But this is the Old Believers’ answer to Mikulin’s seemingly innocent question: “Where to?” The Old Believers choose eternity rather than the corrupted here-and-now, and, unlike enlightened liberals like ourselves, they had the strength of their faith to embrace their choice.

I find it frankly difficult to know what to make of this ending. Wagner’s Götterdämmerung – which received its first performance while Mussorgsky was still busy at work on Khovanschina – had also ended with an act of self-immolation: there, Brünnhilde threw herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre, and this act of sacrifice destroyed the entire world, and brought down heaven itself;  and then,  after the destruction of this inevitably corrupt and irredeemably compromised world, the work ended with a radiant reprise of a theme we had heard in Die Walküre, an earlier work in the Ring Cycle – a beautiful theme representing hope that a new world, free from the corruption both of humans and of gods, may be able to rise again from the ashes. But the libretto Mussorgsky left behind offers no comparable cosmic vision: he is dealing with history, not creating mythology, as Wagner had done. And it isn’t easy to figure out how Mussorgsky would have finished it. Shostakovich’s ending offers us splendid spectacle (this is the ending conductor Semyon Bychkov used in the Proms concert last night, although he stripped out the Dawn theme from the start of the opera that Shostakovich brought back at the very end); and, undeniably thrilling though this ending is, I remain unconvinced that it offers an adequate resolution to what had gone before. In Stravinsky’s ending, the chants of the Old Believers merely fade away into silence, and we are left to make of that what we will.

Whatever text we use, whatever pick’n’mix approach we may take regarding the various orchestrations, Khovanschina, vast and unwieldy though it is, is a masterpiece. This, and Boris Godunov, are, for me at least, among the highest of peaks in the operatic repertoire. Music criticism is not my line, and proper reviews by proper music critics can, I am sure, be found at the touch of a search engine, but the performance I heard last night, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra hugely expanded, with no less than three different choirs joining forces (the people, as represented by these choirs, are perhaps the most important protagonists of all in this opera), and a cast of soloists one really can’t imagine being improved upon, offered a musical and dramatic experience of exceptional quality.  If you are reading this post within 29 days of my posting it, and have some four and a half hours to spare, I can warmly recommend hearing the broadcast of the performance on the BBC website.

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Portrait of Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin, courtesy State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Mussorgsky himself, of course, died untimely, with Khovanschina in a sadly incomplete state. A few days before he died, Ilya Repin painted a famous portrait of him. It is a striking image. At one level, we may think of it as comic: with that madly unkempt hair and beard, and the glazed expression of the eyes, it is hard to imagine anyone looking more drunk, and drunks are always good for a laugh. But it is also a deeply tragic portrait: it is the portrait of a visionary, a dramatist and a composer of genius, but sunk to a state that he could not help sinking to. The portrait itself, I think, is a masterpiece: it is painted with a realism and unsentimentality that is almost brutal, but also with an immense compassion.

That we can hear at all Mussorgsky’s great uncompleted work is something of a miracle. We owe an immense debt of thanks, first of all to Rimsky-Korsakov for helping keep Khovanschina in the repertoire for so many decades, and to Stravinsky and to Shostakovich for presenting to us at least something of what Mussorgsky himself might have gone on to achieve.

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A confrontation with Manet’s Olympia

Manet’s Olympia predictably scandalised the public when it was first exhibited in 1863, and it’s not hard to see why. Even now, in our more enlightened times, there’s something about that painting I find curiously disconcerting. I always find myself uncomfortable standing before it, or even when I see it in reproduction. And, when I stood before it again last week at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I found myself disconcerted all over again.

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“Olympia” by Edouard Manet, courtesy Musée d’Orsay, Paris

 

It is not the nudity that is disconcerting. Art lovers are hardly unused to nudity: they were familiar with it even in the mid nineteenth century. The same year that Manet exhibited Olympia, Alexandre Cabanel, a respected and respectable artist, exhibited The Birth of Venus, in which Venus is forced into a tortuous pose so as to reveal as much of her nude female form as is possible. It is a painting that seems almost to salivate over the female form in a most lascivious manner. And yet, it created no shock, no scandal: indeed the painting was actually bought by Napoleon III himself. And yet, the same society that had no difficulty with the flagrant titillation of Cabanel’s painting found itself shocked by Manet’s. Whatever the reason for the shock, it was not the nudity.

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“The Birth of Venus” by Alexandre Cabanel, courtesy Musée de Louvre, Paris

 

Of course, as any basic primer will tell you, Manet and various other artists of his generation, known collectively (though not really very helpfully) as the “Impressionists”, rebelled against the accepted norms of the time, and changed the face of Western art. (Or something like that.) It is also fairly well-known that these artists only challenged the norms of the time, but were fully aware of, and, indeed, respected, the older traditions of Western art. Manet’s outrageous Olympia, for instance, clearly references Titian’s Venus of Urbino, in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the comparisons between the two masterpieces are fascinating.

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“Venus of Urbino” by Titian, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

 

The title of Titian’s painting refers to the goddess Venus, but the person we see is clearly a courtesan. Or, more plainly, a prostitute, though, admittedly, a high-class one. The two ladies adopt almost an identical pose, but with some significant variations. While Titian’s courtesan slightly inclines her head, Manet’s holds her head up straight. They both look directly at the viewer, but the expression on the face of Titian’s courtesan is gentle, and welcoming: the expression in Manet’s painting is bold, direct, even, perhaps, confrontational. The flower in the hair and the ribbon round the neck are clearly intended to be seductive, but there’s nothing seductive about the utterly unembarrassed and challenging look she directs at the viewer. If anything, it is we who wither in the spotlight of her gaze. (Cabanel’s Venus, in contrast, does not show her face at all: she is merely a body, and nothing more.)

And the left hand. Titian’s courtesan places her left hand gently upon her pudenda, pretending coyly to hide the very part of her body she is drawing attention to. In Manet’s painting, the left hand is placed upon her privates palm downwards, as if it has been slapped down. Titian’s courtesan is long-limbed and graceful: Manet’s is short-limbed; indeed, were it not for the fully developed breasts, she could easily be mistaken for a child.

It is no wonder Manet’s painting shocked. And I find myself shocked still. Well, if not perhaps shocked – for it is very bad form these days to admit to being shocked by mere works of art – I find myself feeling very uncomfortable. For Manet’s painting does, indeed, speak to me. That brazen figure, so unashamed of her nudity, is saying something. And what she seems to be saying is:

“Have you paid yet?”

Oresteia redux: “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill

This post is going to be a short one. I know I’m a bit loquacious: when I’m writing about a book, I rarely post less than a thousand or so words, even when I have little to say. But this one, I promise, will be short: Eugene O’Neill has, after all, written Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that for many years now has resonated with me most powerfully; and it is frankly painful to have to say anything too detrimental about a writer one of of whose works, at least, has meant to me so much over so many years. So I’ll keep this one short.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a trilogy of plays set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and is based upon the three surviving Oresteia plays of Aeschylus. Of course, these great myths are capable of renewing themselves for different generations, but the problem here is that O’Neill doesn’t renew anything at all: he merely takes the outline of the story, and dresses it in modern clothes. He dutifully plods through the major events – a general returning triumphantly from war murdered by his adulterous wife, his son and daughter revenging their father’s death, and so on – but, apart from a rather lumbering Oedipal relationship between mother and son, he adds nothing at all. The psychology is crude, the drama plot-driven, the dialogue lumbering and, at times, ludicrously sensational and melodramatic … and it all leaves me shaking my head and wondering how a writer who could have produced that infinitely moving and poetic masterpiece that is Long Day’s Journey Into Night could even conceive of something so ham-fisted as this.

The above paragraph contains merely assertions: I have provided, I am aware, no analysis. The purpose of this post is merely to record my reactions rather than to account for them. I could, I suppose, spend some time analysing these three plays, but such an exercise would, I fear, prove too depressing. I haven’t yet read all of O’Neill’s plays, but of what I have read, The Iceman Cometh seemed to me a fine (though highly idiosyncratic) work; Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a play of searing intensity and of emotions almost too raw to be expressed, but also the work of a profound poetic sensibility; and the rest I have found unremarkable. This trilogy of plays seemed to me even less than merely unremarkable: it is so depressingly ordinary and uninspired – especially given the lofty dramas of Aeschylus that inspired them, if “inspired” is really the word I’m looking for here – that I really can’t see myself returning to them. Not even to check if I have been mistaken.

But Long Day’s Journey Into Night remains as fine a monument as any literary artist could hope to leave behind. It is a work that moves me beyond words. So why dwell on the rest?

“Smoke” by Ivan Turgenev

Smoke by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Michael Pursgove, published by Alma Classics

*** SPOILER WARNING: This post inevitably reveals some details of the plot ***

I actually remember well the first time I read Turgenev’s Smoke: it was shortly before the UK release of Woody Allen’s Manhattan in 1980. I remember watching he film and being struck by how similar the storylines were. In both, there’s a male protagonist (aged around thirty in the novel, but a bit older in the film); a very young lady to whom he is attached; and a far more sophisticated lady, who is closer to his own age, with whom he falls in love, and for whose sake he turns his back on his younger love. And the storylines develop in much the same way. I suppose it is a fairly standard storyline, and I am certainly not accusing anyone of plagiarism. And it is the sort of storyline one comes to expect from Turgenev: the flowering of love, innocence betrayed, the vagaries of the heart, regret, missed opportunities, sorrow, unhappiness brought upon one’s own self by one’s foolishness and lack of moral purpose … it’s all present and correct. What matters, of course, is not the storyline as such, but what is made of it.

What Turgenev makes of it seems to me a gentle, charming love story, nostalgic and melancholy, and aching with wistfulness. Yes, we’ve all been there before. Possibly, after the greater depths broached in his previous novel Fathers and Sons, we may have been entitled to expect something a bit more thematically ambitious. But, then again, art is not to be judged on its novelty alone: there’s always room for yet another wistful love story.

But what surprises nowadays is that a novel so seemingly inoffensive as this should, at the time, have caused such a political storm. Fathers and Sons had done the same, of course, but there, many of the themes had been explicitly political. How is it, one wonders, that a book so apparently innocuous, written by a writer who insistently aligned himself with moderation in all things – moderation not out of indecisiveness or pusillanimity, but because he felt it his moral duty to avoid extremes of all sorts – should have caused such controversy? Perhaps my inability to answer that question indicates my inability to understand adequately the Russian mind of the nineteenth century, and the fury of the entrenched battle lines then drawn between West-looking liberalism, and the Slavophilism that rejected the West, and looked for salvation within the traditions of the Mother Russia. No-one seemed to deny that salvation, of some sort of other, was needed: but there was no agreement on where it was to be found. Turgenev’s gigantic contemporaries, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, went their own extreme ways: Dostoyevsky rejected the idea of a brotherhood imposed from above, and seemed to favour a brotherhood that could only spring spontaneously from below, in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church – although, given the multiplicity of voices to be found in his novels, no single idea seems able to keep its shape intact for very long; Tolstoy, meanwhile, seemed to turn towards a sort of Christian anarchism. Both geniuses were touched with madness. In contrast, Turgenev seems the most level-headed of them all – no mean feat given the untrammelled lunacy all around him. Perhaps this is the very reason why his works attracted such opprobrium.

But what seems particularly strange, given the intense controversy of the time, is how small a part politics seems to play in Smoke in the first place. In Fathers and Sons, the whole thing did turn on the conflict between different perspectives on the world, and, by implication, different politics: but here, even that seems to be absent. Turgenev does, it is true, introduce some reactionary aristocrats, and satirises them; but he introduces a group of radicals also, and similarly satirises them. These are not, frankly, the most memorable sections of the novel: Turgenev’s gifts for satire, certainly compared to, say, that of Gogol or Dostoyevsky, seem distinctly limited. And, indeed, so little a part do these scenes play in the novel, and so far are they from what I take to be its central themes, one can’t help wondering whether it would have been better without these scenes. For Turgenev was at his best, it seems to me, with smaller canvases – in his short stories and novellas: why expand the size of the canvas for no particular reason?

For the central themes of this novel is neither liberalism nor conservatism: indeed, it is not politics at all. It is about the mistakes one makes in life; it is about being led astray by one’s emotions, by the weakness of one’s moral purpose, by the inability to perceive matters truly, as they are. And with these themes, which I used in my Dostoyevsky-and-Tolstoy-obsessed youth to dismiss as slight, Turgenev was very much on home ground: no other author has ever conveyed with such delicacy and lyricism the sadness of it all. Of course, Turgenev had dealt with themes before, and, in his late novella, The Torrents of Spring, he addressed them again: but, despite what I may have thought in my youth, these themes are not slight, and are worth revisiting. We do not, after all, criticise Monet for painting those waterlilies so endlessly.

The action takes place in a spa town in Germany, and the drama is played out amongst expatriates. The protagonist, Litvinov, is betrothed to Tatyana, a name that to any educated Russian would instantly conjure up Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. And, like Pushkin’s Tatyana, Turgenev’s Tatyana is young and inexperienced, but also perceptive and intelligent, and possessed of a moral purpose that Litvinov clearly lacks. The third point of this triangle is Irina, whom Litvinov had loved some ten years earlier, but who had been married off to a wealthy aristocrat. (As ever, Turgenev fills us in on the past with a quite leisurely flashback.) Irina is still married, to a husband she does not care for, and, despite his feelings for Tatyana, Litivinov’s old love for Irina again wells up. Turgenev, as ever, conveys these subtleties of the heart with the most delicate of touches. He introduces another character, Potugin: he, too, is in love with Irina, but he is resigned to his passion remaining unfulfilled; and he follows round Irina and her husband wherever they go, asking for nothing, and receiving nothing. He is, I suppose, an image of what Litvinov may himself one day become: no matter how much we may extol love, there is no reason or logic in human passion, and it could, Turgenev knew, be deeply humiliating.

Once we strip away the politics from this novel – and it is easily stripped away – what remains is another sad and gentle love story. It would be easy to mistake this as slight, as I did once, but it isn’t. The vagaries of the human heart are always important, and always worth revisiting.

 

 

Why I blog

When I am asked why I write a blog, the ready answer – and, for once, an honest answer – is “pure egotism”. How can one not be thrilled by the thought that there are people whom I do not know, from, literally, all round the world, who actually read what I have written? Even if – as is more than likely – their response on having read my posts is “What a load of shite!”?

I recently submitted myself, not too unwillingly, I must admit, to a period of extended navel-gazing about this blog. It has been going for over seven years now. I have spent on it more hours than I care to think of. And, in recent months, I have been so physically tired that writing even casual posts has been proving difficult. I have even wondered whether I should stop now.

Other than egotism, I really am not sure why I do it. To share my enthusiasms? To let off steam? To come into contact with like-minded people, with whom I can talk about matters other than football? Yes, all of these, I suppose. But one motive I disclaim is the pedagogic: I do not pretend to know or to understand any of the works I write about to anywhere near an adequate level. All I think I am doing is setting out my own thoughts and reactions to what I read. These thoughts may occasionally hit the mark; at other times, they may be wildly off target. But, for better or worse, they are my thoughts at time of writing. And since every individual human is different, every individual’s reaction to a major work of literature – for only major works may be validly viewed from different perspectives – is different also.

And, I argue with myself, recording my own perspective – one perspective among many, obviously – may be worthwhile, even with works such as, say, Hamlet or Don Quixote, where it is not humanly possible even in an entire lifetime to read all that has been written about them. It is highly unlikely, to say the least, that I have anything to say about these works that hasn’t been said before, that I have thoughts about these works that haven’t been thought before. But so what? Does that mean we must stay silent?

I think there are really two main reasons why I blog. The first is that I feel the need to let off steam when I get angry about something. In this blog, what tends to rile me is the intrusion into literature – or into anything else, for that matter – of identity politics. I tend to lose my temper also when the sense of transcendence that the arts can induce is denied, or is denigrated. I realise that a quick temper is not the particularly conducive to cohesion either of thought or of expression, but, as the Earl of Kent said, anger hath a privilege. (Mind you, he was put in the stocks shortly afterwards.)

The second, and, I like to think, the more important reason is that I really do find it hard to contain my enthusiasm. I don’t really care that I have no new insights on Hamlet or on Don Quixote. I am not aiming to impart fresh new insights in the first place. I merely want to record my experience of reading – explain what I felt and what I thought while I was reading; or, sometimes, what aftertaste the book leaves behind. Of course, I try to make my writing as readable and as entertaining as I can: it is true that I write this blog primarily for myself, but I do want others to read it as well! I try also to say a bit more than “I liked it” or “I didn’t” (or, in contemporary parlance, “It was awesome!” or “It sucked!”). For, with the possible exception of supporting the Scotland football team (another of my vices), there’s nothing more boring than that.

In defiance of many modes of thought currently fashionable, I believe that there is such a thing as intrinsic quality, that everything isn’t merely “a matter of opinion”. Nowadays, “it’s just my opinion” is usually said with the intention ending a dialogue, rather than starting one. That is not to say that opinion (or personal taste) does not exist, or isn’t important: but we are not trapped inside our own minds – it is possible to take a leap of the imagination and look beyond our own personal perspective, and, in the course of doing so, broaden it.

For if there were no such thing as intrinsic quality, dialogue can get no further than a mere exchange of opinions. (And, to judge by so much I see online, dialogue usually doesn’t get further than that: it is very depressing.) But the corollary is that if there is such a thing as intrinsic quality; if Hamlet and Don Quixote are indeed great works, irrespective of how we may personally view them; then dialogue becomes not merely possible, but also important. Not just dialogue between learned academics, but also between ordinary readers like myself. For how else can we look beyond our own personal perspectives but by getting to know the perspectives of others? Now, more than ever, we need dialogue that goes a few steps beyond “It was awesome!” or “It sucked!”

And this, I think, is why I blog: I want to be part of this dialogue. I am not always very good at responding to others (especially these days, when the spirit is still willing but the flesh is even weaker than before), but I do feel it important to read and to absorb what other readers make of their reading. This kind of dialogue I don’t get, I’m afraid, from Goodreads or from Amazon “reviews”: but I do from many a blog I could name.

And so, for the moment at least, I think I shall carry on blogging. And all those readers from around the world who flatter my ego by adding to my blog stats can continue reading my posts, and saying to themselves: “What a load of shite!”

Art and morality: some reflections on a Twitter spat

As social media spats go, this one hardly registers on the Richter scale, but, largely because it refers to works rather close to my heart, it caught my attention.

It came in the wake of Royal Opera’s live cinecast of Verdi’s Otello. Both this opera, and the play by Shakespeare which sparked the imaginations of Verdi and of his librettist Boito, are very dear to me. I have spoken about these two works often enough on my blog (see note at foot of this post), so this time, I’ll give that a miss. I’ll also refrain from reviewing the performance: being entirely uneducated in musical matters, I make a rather poor music critic, I fear, although, for what it’s worth, I thought the whole thing quite magnificent. But I would like to comment on a series of exchanges that followed soon afterward on Twitter. Not having either the time, nor the energy, nor even the inclination to become involved in Twitter spats, I refrained from joining, but followed it all nonetheless with some interest.

It started with a lady putting up a series of tweets saying that this opera depicted domestic violence and honour killing (which it certainly does); that it glorifies these things (which I don’t think it does); and that, with these matters still distressingly very real, we should either not perform this work any more, or re-write the ending. Ether way, we should “move on”. She used the hashtag #haditsday.

I shall not argue against these contentions, since, I imagine, few would agree with her. (Certainly, no-one on Twitter came to her support.) And neither shall I link to these tweets, as it is not the purpose of this blog to name and shame private individuals. In any case, there were a fair number of dissenting responses to her tweets – some debating her points reasonably, others sarcastic and mocking. To her credit, she responded to her critics without resorting to the sort of personal abuse these social media tweets all too often descend into. But she stuck to her guns: whether it is Shakespeare’s Othello or Verdi’s Otello, either work has #haditsday.

While her conclusions may be wrong-headed, and her understanding of the nature of the arts, based, at least, on these tweets, questionable, her stance should not, I can’t help feeling, be dismissed out of hand. For her reaction to the work, the reaction which led to these conclusions, is authentic. She was shocked and disturbed by the opera. And that is correct: Otello is indeed shocking and disturbing, and it is quite right to be shocked and disturbed. It is those of us who have allowed years of familiarity to inure us to this sense of shock who should question our reactions.

And when she refers to Otello’s killing of Desdemona, one of the most earth-shattering scenes in all stage drama, as “domestic violence”, and an “honour killing”, she is absolutely right on both points. It’s those of us who habitually refer to Otello (or Othello) as “noble” who should be questioning ourselves. In real life, a man who does what Otello does will deserve no pity at all, no compassion, regardless of whatever back-story there may be. We would not consider any mitigating factor for a crime so horrendous, and we would be right not to do so. And yet, this is not what we feel when we experience Shakespeare’s play, or Verdi’s opera, and it is at least worthwhile asking “why?”. Why is it we endlessly debate and consider so deeply the state of Otello’s soul, or go so far as to refer to him as “noble”, when we would not even think of doing either for such a person in real life?

Some will say that art has nothing to do with morality, and that moral judgement plays no part in our appreciation of a work of art, but I don’t entirely buy that. If we see Othello or hear Otello, and fail to see Desdemona as good and Iago as evil, then we have rather missed the point. But the fact remains – and I find it a disquieting fact – that we can, up to a very significant point, suspend our moral judgement on Otello – or on the Macbeths, or on Raskolnikov, or on Humbert Humbert – when, in real life, we would have no hesitation whatever in passing moral judgement. And I am not sure why this is. I am not even sure that there exists a satisfactory answer to this.

So no, of course I do not think that either Othello or Otello has #haditsday, and that we should either stop performing them, or change the ending (although the latter option does involve some rather interesting possibilities!) But this lady’s tweets do bring to mind – well, to my mind at least – certain questions that I cannot really answer, but which strike me as rather intriguing. And, in an age when so many of us have become so blasé to art; when so many, indeed, see the arts but as a currency of lifestyle, or as an adjunct to an image of the self that one would like to project; I find it salutary to be reminded just how directly powerful and soul-shattering these works can still be.

 

NOTE: I have previously written about Shakespeare’s Othello here and here. I wrote a brief post here comparing Shakespeare’s play to Verdi’s opera. And I wrote a more detailed post here on what Verdi took from Shakespeare.

“Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably, the following gives away some details of the plot ***

 

As we sophisticated readers know, literature, and, indeed, the arts in general, have nothing to do with the propagation of moral values. Perhaps we should qualify that a bit: we wouldn’t want to exclude Aesop’s fables, after all. So let us say that literature does not necessarily have to propagate moral values. For, after all, given the bewildering complexity of human life, moral issues are rarely clear-cut, and any work attempting unambiguously to affirm certain codes of conduct, or to reject others, must either ignore the complexity of human affairs, or address only those affairs that are sufficiently straight-forward to allow for clarity. And, unless one is writing simple moral fables, neither of these options seems very promising.

All this we know. And yet, we continue to feel uneasy in the presence of works in which moral judgement seems required, but is withheld. This sense of unease is often deliberate. Lolita is a prime example: Nabokov does not, it is true, endorse his protagonist, who is a predatory paedophile, but in withholding explicit condemnation, and, indeed, daring the reader to empathise with his protagonist, he creates a literary experience that leaves even the most sophisticated of readers feeling uneasy. Lolita is among the finest of all novels, but it is unlikely, I think, to be anyone’s comfort read.

Melville’s short novel Benito Cereno leaves us similarly uneasy, and, I think, for similar reasons: the story Melville tells us seems to demand moral judgement, but he refuses to give us any. Worse than that: the story, though written in the third person, is filtered through the perceptions and the judgement of a Captain Delano, whose perceptions, and, as a consequence, moral judgement, are highly suspect. This is not because Captain Delano is an evil man, as such: he clearly isn’t. Indeed, within his own admittedly limited horizons, he is a good man. But his horizons are fatally limited. One may even describe him as “innocent” – in the sense that those unaware of the true nature of evil may be termed “innocent” – but to Melville, this innocence is itself the problem. As he says in his later novel Billy Budd, Sailor:

And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.

Captain Delano is innocent because he is unintelligent: his judgement is not to be trusted. He boards the slave ship San Dominick, and things seem to him a bit strange; but he does not enquire very deeply into the strangeness, and nor does he draw the obvious conclusion that even the first-time reader may quite easily draw – that the slaves on this ship have revolted, and are now in charge. In a sense, it is Captain Delano’s innocence that saves him: had he figured out what really should have been obvious, he would have been killed instantly. But he is incapable of perceiving either the evil of the rebellion (accompanied, as we later find out, by horrendous atrocities); and neither is he capable of perceiving the evil of what the rebel slaves are rebelling against. Slavery is something that is accepted in the society that Captain Delano inhabits, and he has neither the intelligence, nor the imagination, nor even the capacity for empathy required, to understand the nature of this monstrosity.

Melville places this utter innocent – an innocent whose innocence is far from admirable – in the midst of what can only be described as an explosion of evil. At the centre of this narrative is a long, meticulously described scene where the deposed captain of the slave ship, Don Benito Cereno, is being shaved by, seemingly, one of the slaves. Captain Cereno has to maintain the fiction that he is still in charge of the ship: any slip on his part, and both he and the hapless Captain Delano would be killed. Cereno, demoralised by the loss of his ship, and by the slaughter of so many of his crew, has a hard time maintaining the façade, but Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up. Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up.

Only on leaving the ship does Captain Delano realise what has been obvious to us, the readers, from almost the start. And then, as a good man who carries out his duty, he does what he has to do: he gives chase to the rebel ship, captures the rebels, and hands them over to “justice”. And justice is indeed carried out. With as much shocking brutality and violence as the atrocities being avenged.

All of this seems to cry out for some sort of moral guidance, but Melville refuses to provide any. Captain Delano’s perceptions, and his moral judgement, clearly do not provide any kind of moral framework that may help the reader negotiate these deep waters as these. So how is the reader to interpret this?  There seems to be a wide range of possible interpretations, each entirely justified by the text, but none, in itself, at all satisfactory. We may take the view that the rebel slaves are evil; that Captain Delano, though slow of thought, carried out his duty as an honourable man; and that the punishment meted out to the rebels, horrific though they are, are entirely justified. There is nothing in the text to invalidate such an interpretation. Or we could look below the surface, detect the various ironies, and conclude that it is the rebellion of the slaves that is morally justified; that the violence the slaves commit in the course of that rebellion, though horrific, is unavoidable; and that, further, the failure of this rebellion is the failure to defeat the greatest evil of all. The text could support such an interpretation also. But this does not seem satisfactory either. And neither does any balancing position between these two extremes. When there is so much evil on all sides, where can one turn for certainty?

Melville does not guide us. He leaves us floundering. All is so dark, so murky, we cannot even turn to innocence to shield us from it all, for in Melville’s world, innocence itself is morally weak, and is culpable. Perhaps no other author, not even Dostoyevsky or Kafka, presents us with quite so bleak and desolate a vision of our human state.