Friday, May 29, 2015

Blood and Water: To the Spring of Bandusia

Horace III.xiii

O Bandusian spring, gleaming brighter than glass,
fit for unwatered wine, not without blooming wreaths,
you’ll get a goat in the morning
whose head, bulging with coming horns,

makes him ready for love and for a lustful fight
vainly. Slaughtered, he’ll bleed into your icy stream,
staining water with red blood;
once the son of the playful herd.

Summer’s savagest heat, though it might scorch the earth
cannot touch you. You give oxen a soothing drink
as they kneel under plowshares,
and to wandering, thirsty sheep.

You’ll be numbered among all of the noble springs,
as I sing to the oak up on its lofty perch
on the hollowed-out boulders
from whom surges your speaking flood.

Anyone have a spare goat for a Sunday in Central Park?

O fons Bandusiæ, splendidior vitro,
dulci digne mero non sine floribus,
cras donaberis hædo
cui frons turgida cornibus

primis et venerem et prœlia destinat
frustra: nam gelidos inficiet tibi
rubro sanguine rivos
lascivi suboles gregis.

Te flagrantis atrox hora Caniculæ
nescit tangere, tu frigus amabile
fessis vomere tauris
præbes et pecori vago.

Fies nobilium tu quoque fontium,
me dicente cavis impositam ilicem
saxis, unde loquaces
lymphæ desiliunt tuæ.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Long Live Sarastro!

The opera is our loveliest possession, a shaft of light that pours into the prison of mortal life. Which is why the urban left’s treatment of it is among its most ridiculous absurdities. If you go to an American or European opera house, you’ll see Fernando and Guglielemo singing così fan tutte to each other while they stand at urinals. You’ll see, as I just did, Tannhäuser set in war-torn Ukraine. You’ll see Don Giovanni as a shirtless heroin addict. And if you’re spared all that, you’ll see an “updated” production of Rigoletto in which the Duke says, “My sights are set on a swingin’ girl, so hop on, baby, let’s take that whirl!” Or at best everyone will be dressed in suits for some reason. In making these changes, the directors have poured sewage into Diana’s bath, seemingly unaware of her naked body. I am therefore fully aware of the danger of what I am going to say. I want to make a change to the sublimest opera of all: the Magic Flute.

If you’re unlucky enough to have never seen it, the story goes like this: Tamino is given a sacred mission by the Queen of the Night to rescue and marry her daughter, Pamina, who is a prisoner of the evil sun-king Sarastro. He goes, and reaches her with startling ease—only to realize that Sarastro is a good and Enlightened king, and that the Queen is treacherous, superstitious and evil. Tamino and Pamina together undergo a trial by fire and water, are found modest and pure, and in the end the powers of light and reason banish inky night. (Fun fact: the tune of O Canada is plagiarized from Act II. Only fair, since parts of the opera are themselves plagiarized from the Seraphim.)

There’s also a subplot about Papageno, Tamino’s sidekick, who seems to be half bird. Papageno is alone in the world. There are apparently no birdwomen to love him, so he is understandably driven to a lonely suicide. “Good night, you false world,” he sings, after counting to three in the vain hope that the world will take pity on him. But just then, a miracle happens: A trio of boys appears with a magic Glockenspiel, which summons a Papagena for Papageno. Merriment follows.

This is the part that I object to. The entire thrust of the opera, written in 1791 during the full flowering of the Enlightenment, is the triumph of reason over mystery and darkness. And if it will triumph, then let reason be triumphant. We should be shown a world in which all magic spells are broken at the dawn of a new, sunlit age. The world should be ruled by common sense and a reliance on the witness of our senses. And obviously, there are no miracles of this sort: we call fairy tales tales for a reason. So Papageno should die with a whimper just before the final defeat of the Queen, and the opera should be renamed The Flute.

For when we can see clearly by the light of the modern sun, flutes are just flutes. In the same way water’s just water, even if we call it blessed by God and sprinkle it on a congregation. Wafers are just wafers. Saturday—or the Day of Atonement itself—is just another orbit of a rock around a star. Finally, Papageno is just a silly man wearing a bird costume for some reason, strutting for his hour upon the stage. He can frolic all he wants, but the hard world will not be sympathetic to him by any friendly magic. This is the evil wrought by Sarastro.

The truth! cries Pamina at the end of Act I. The truth! even if it is a crime! She is right: the truth is a scandal. There is a tremendous payoff in the opera itself for speaking truth to superstition, and Pamina’s line is in fact the most thrilling snatch of music that I know. But she betrays her mother—and human happiness—when she sings it out.

So as it stands, the plot of The Magic Flute is deceitful. It wants us to believe that we can have both knowledge and magic; that continued enchantment is compatible with the destruction of our bogeymen. People like Moses Mendelssohn fell straight into this illusion: he believed that we could preserve the truth of the Jewish religion even after peeling away the blinders of blind superstition. But there’s no such thing as a free enlightenment. We pay for our cosmopolitan comfort, empiricism, and egalitarianism by being ejected from the Eden of a magical and sympathetic cosmos. Should we take the bargain? Absolutely, not least because we have no choice. But we should not pretend that the price does not exist. In the absence of magic, we can reach human mediocrity, and nothing higher.

The Lord of the Rings is about the same thing. The Ring is fated to be destroyed, and with it Sauron’s power will be broken. But Galadriel and Lothlórien will disappear too, and the elves will all go to the West. You can choose between enchantment and disenchantment: you cannot, though, destroy Sauron without destroying the elves.

Real life is about the same thing too. Europeans cut down their huge forests at the end of the Middle Ages, and though they enjoyed undreamt-of urban prosperity as a result, they emptied their world of much of its strangeness and color. The ecological process was completed seventy years ago with the bombing of the German cities: the continent was successfully purged of Nazism, but turned into a mass of economically productive concrete. In the realm of religion, something similar happened to the Catholic mass: in the process of pulling up centuries of Jew-hatred, elitism, and anti-eglitarianism, the Church undid much of what was authoritative and mysterious in its sacred rites. Few people pray for the “perfidious Jews” anymore. But now the mysteries of the faith often occur under fluorescent light, propped up by English commentary, devoid of incense, and accompanied by a guitar.

Sarastro’s real-life victory over the Queen of the Night is probably unstoppable. His victory is so total, meanwhile, that we all—including me—must stay on his side if we want to be good and right-thinking people. We should not forget, moreover, that The Flute is a comedy. But there is still something sad in enlightenment.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Bagels Alone

A few weeks ago I took a trip to New Haven to visit my brother. I took the Metro North back home to New York, which had its usual effect on me: I was out like a light the moment the train started rolling. When the train pulled into the last station before Grand Central, I was jolted awake by a noise from the seat in front of me: a five-year-old boy had leapt into his startled father’s lap. Groggy, I sat up and picked my book off the floor. It was Alan Kors’ Atheism in France, 1659–1729. The woman in the seat next to me, probably in her seventies, immediately turned to me.

“Do you like that book?”

“Very much. It’s the best study we have of the roots of modern atheism,” I said, holding my breath for the next question.

“Are you an atheist?”

Because I am a sinner, I resorted to the defensive impersonality that I’ve perfected on countless American airplane flights. “Well, this is just for my work as a historian. So I try not to let my personal beliefs get involved. I want to know what other people thought and wrote in the past, that’s all.”


The conversation then moved into safer waters. I told her that I had just left the University of Chicago, that I had been to New Haven, that I had grown up in New York. She told me she was from Colorado, that she had come to New York because her daughter, the mother of the little boy in front of me, had suddenly died.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “That’s terrible, and incredibly unfair.”

“That’s why I asked you earlier if you were an atheist. I don’t know whether I can believe. Last week I asked my rabbi: if there’s a loving God, why did he let this happen? Do you want to know what he said?”

I nodded.

“He said, ‘shit happens.’”

“We don’t have any real reason to mourn,” one of my Catholic friends told me the other day. “If you take our theology seriously, there’s nothing we should feel at a funeral but happiness.” He meant that the Catholic religion gives us a way of making sense of earthly suffering. We suffer on this earth for our allotted span, but our life here soon gives way to an eternal, incorrupt life. And insofar as we can live righteously for now, we can have some communion with God’s unearthly realm. That’s not to say that God’s grace is invisible on earth—in Padua last month, for instance, I saw St. Anthony’s unrotted tongue—but it is to say that the painful slog of earthly life is just a screen in front of a higher just order. (Take a break at this point to read G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.)

My kingdom is not of this world, said Jesus. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Suffering here, that is, is completely compatible with the existence of a higher just order. It makes perfect sense that the righteous go hungry: since they are of God, spiritual food is enough for them. And because it did not belong to him, God himself suffered from this world as much as any miserable human being.

The classic Jewish response is to say, with an air of superiority, that our God’s kingdom is of this world; at least of this world as it’s meant to be. The Christian solution of looking beyond the world is dismissed as an escapist rejection of any gritty responsibility for our circumstances. But I think that’s wrongheaded. The world is a slaughterhouse of the human spirit, and it is often completely out of our power to do anything about it. So if you keep your attention on this world, you will find no comfort at all for a person whose life is filled with unceasing, unfair torment. If there’s an earthquake in Nepal that kills a man’s entire family, there is nothing on heaven or earth to make it better. So a this-worldy religion is in trouble once it becomes clear that God sends rain on the just and unjust alike.

Nor does modern Judaism have any clear teaching of life beyond the grave. Not by nature, but because of history: Jews, since they are generally urban and secular, have stopped believing in the afterlife. This should not be discussed with a smirk. It poses a grave problem. God has abandoned us on earth, and he has done so below the earth too. The psalmist got it right: The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence.

Some say that we’re then left with following commandments for their own sake. “I’m glad that there’s no afterlife,” I once heard a Jew say. “It means that I can be good without having to be selfish.” This is probably the thinnest fare that spiritual life can possibly be sustained on. I find it revolting and unfit for human consumption. But thankfully, few have the stomach for such intellectual asceticism.

So in sum, I do not think that very many Jews at all can share the consolation of my Catholic friend. There’s darkness below, and up here under the sun, our people have been driven like tired cattle across the earth. Last century, we were slaughtered en masse with truck exhaust, bullets, and cyanide. Later we were thrown out of every Arab country. What are we supposed to do? Praise God for his tender love? Jewish belief in heavenly comfort has withered as a result. At most shivas on the Upper West Side, it would be a misstep to comfort a mourner with a promise that he will see his mother again. The odds are that he doesn’t believe that he will, so discussing resurrection is like holding water just below Tantalus’ parched lips.

This is a religious problem, by which I mean a problem with the religion. The woman on the train’s rabbi, despite how callous he sounds, really had no alternative. There was no comforting doctrine to impart; no readily available reassurance from the modern Jewish tradition. He likely sensed that any of that would have sounded hollow and emptily pious. He could have stayed silent, of course. That might have been the only appropriate answer to my fellow passenger. But that would have meant denying this woman the only thing she had come to ask from him: an explanation. She could have had silence sitting in her living room.

My only recommendation to him is that he should not be a rabbi.

To finish up. The Jewish religion, except in some of its minority Orthodox forms, has stopped giving a comforting or even meaningful world-picture to its adherents. Few believe the myths anymore, and no one except a fringe can unironically speak about heavenly care for humankind. All of this is in principle fine: it is perfectly well to live a comfortable life without thinking of heaven. It is not perfectly well to live a painful life that way.

So it is evil—unexplained suffering—that puts weight on the integrity of the Jewish intellectual tradition, revealing the decay that has made it rotten and soft. Perhaps you’ll say that Judaism was never an intellectual religion anyway; that it focused on practice, not faith. Nonsense. Jews, just like everyone else, used to believe in angels and demons, miracles, sacred history, and resurrection. Without basic faith in these things—without faith in God himself—the practice becomes heavy, inarticulate, pointless. Judaism’s body will sit up gibbering for maybe centuries to come—we will have Jews, Jewish-inspired social justice, Medieval texts about the cleanliness of pots, Israel, klezmer. Its mind has already lost its alertness and its sensitivity to spiritual problems. The poor woman on the train saw this firsthand. Man does not live by bagels alone, which means that the Jews are liable to starve.