Monday, February 29, 2016

An Apology for Rossini

Gioachino Rossini, who was born 224 years ago in Pesaro, turns 54 today. The explanation is simple, albeit paradoxical.

Now, this is as good a time as any to review the reasons why Rossini was a godly composer. I don’t want to argue that he was the greatest opera composer of the nineteenth century: that title is reserved to Wagner, who wrote with far greater gravity, and with a wildness that has never been surpassed. Nor was he the most beautiful: that laurel is for Donizetti, whose melodies are more lingering and touching. Nor the most exquisite: that was the mournful Bellini.

But he was a son of the gods nonetheless. I’ve reached this conclusion by a back door. First it’s necessary to concede the most serious charge of Rossini’s critics: that his music is bubbly and frivolous. That is, of course, true. All of his music is a dance; there is nothing in it—even in a tragedy like Otello or Tancredi—that is mournful, or even somber. Rossini at his slowest and most plaintive is still tinged with joy. Joyce diDonato, for example, once made me tear up with the opening cavatina in La Donna del Lago. This song is melancholy on the surface. But the reason I went misty-eyed was that, for some reason, it filled me with untellable happiness. This is one of Rossini’s magic tricks: under a screen of wistfulness, he whispers things of tremendous mirth. Here he does it again:

This isn’t deep music, but it’s lovely and delightful music. It is endlessly sweet, even though it never reaches the bottom of your soul.

The sheer copiousness of Rossini’s music is part of this lightness. Music flowed incredibly easily through Rossini: he wrote dozens of operas, and countless cantatas, songs, masses, etc. Rossini supposedly said that he could set a laundry list to music; this is barely hyperbole. Rossini’s prolific revelry is exactly what Erasmus describes in his book On Abundance: it displays an ease of variation, an extemporized eloquence, that resists the ordinary gravity of nature and spins in the higher realms of human invention. Music like Rossini’s, just like Erasmus’ (or Luther’s) rhetoric, can only be composed quickly. Pause to think, and the product is liable to be mired in gloom.

This rapid lightness is the stuff of happiness. And his happiness is what sets Rossini apart. Almost all the Romantic opera-composers wrote with thorns in their souls: as I’ve written before, Donizetti wasted with nostalgic madness, and Bellini and Wagner were on fire with longing. Something similar is true of Verdi, Beethoven and Weber. Only Rossini was sanguine and joyful. Everything about him, from his whimsical birthday to his ruddy cheeks, expressed a chuckling approach to life. He refutes singlehandedly the superstition that the artist must suffer. Unlike any of the composers who sit with him in the pantheon, he was, to the core, healthy.

Health is an extremely underrated virtue. Lots of art—Caravaggio’s paintings, for example, or Swinburne’s poetry—is ravishingly beautiful, but passionate and horribly sick. You can only contemplate it for so long before its somber emotion infects you. The temptation to feverishness in art is great: the extreme passions are, after all, the surest guides to beauty. Only someone so strong as Rossini was able to resist this temptation, which has seduced many better artists than him. He remained hale in body, mind, and music throughout his life.

Now, back to what I said about Rossini being a godlike man. I mean this in the Greek, not the Hebrew sense. He was serene and joyful, untouched by gloom, and immune to the fires of death. Like the Greek gods, he lacked a certain sense of gravity; life as expressed in his music is a thin and colorful tissue. (Wagner, by contrast, took up the mortal and terrified Norse gods as his models.) Olympian godliness is blithe. Mortals find the sight of the gods terrible, and they are driven to madness by them; the gods themselves, though, are relaxed and happy. Rossini, buttery and superficial as he was, joined their number.

This jollity is why we like to be scornful of Rossini. Most of us do suffer terribly, and his lightheartedness seems false as a result. I myself usually prefer Wagner to Rossini: I’m often morose and pessimistic enough to need the former’s angry wildness. Or Bellini’s sad languor, or Mozart’s mysticism. But to every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. Trivial joyfulness has its own days, and I think the twenty-ninth of February is one of them. On these days, we can bring ourselves under the spell of joy—the spark of the gods—and convince ourselves that mirth is what really goes deep, and sorrow just a foggy illusion.

Thanks to our calendar, Rossini is as long-lived as a demigod too. Wagner is in his decrepit 130s; Mozart is an ancient 223. At fifty-four, Rossini is still in the summer of life.

Friday, February 12, 2016

In Defense of Bubbles

The bubble of college: it’s denounced everywhere, or at least lovingly mocked. Bowdoin isn’t real life, I’m told. It’s just a small town in the middle of Maine, where you go to be comfortably insulated from the difficulties of the wider world in order to focus on academics, hobbies, and lovemaking.

I don’t want to dispute this picture of a small liberal arts college. By and large their inhabitants are free from the ordinary worries of people who work for a living. These students are surrounded by hundreds of like-minded people, and they run across their dozens of friends daily without having to make plans. They are surrounded by mossy woods and hills. They get up late, and drink with company on a Wednesday. There are neither taxes nor death.

Is this a bubble? Of course! I only propose that there is really nothing wrong with living in it if you can. And I don’t just mean college. “Bubble” usually gets used to describe a university, a summer camp, or some similar institution, but what I’m describing can exist outside of those places. Anywhere, that is, where you’re ensconced in a comfortable circle of people whom you know intimately and love. Geography is important too: a bubbled-in life is usually lived in woods, streets, or fields that you love as an extension of your own self.

One of the best examples of a bubble is a family. Not a modern family, whose scattered members live in Cincinnati, Seattle, and Toronto, but the sort of family you’d have lived in before the industrial revolution: you lived next door to your grandparents, all your cousins and second cousins, and your nieces and nephews. Your ancestors lived in your house, and your neighbors’ ancestors in theirs. If you ever had to leave, you’d think bitterly about what you’d lost for the rest of your life. These are the conditions for meaning in life: not finding the solution to some abstract philosophical riddle, but finding yourself among human beings to whom you’re bound by love and nature.

I don’t just want to say that bubbles are better than no bubbles. That’s obvious. I also want to rebut the bizarre idea that what’s inside a bubble is somehow fake, and that what’s outside is the ‘real world,’ whatever that is.

E. M. Forster, who’s just about taught me how to live, is the one to listen to on this point:
“Where is the great world?”... exclaimed Ansell, rising from his couch in violent excitement. “Where is it? How do you set about finding it? How long does it take to get there? What does it think? What does it do? What does it want? Oblige me with specimens of its art and literature.” Silence. “Till you do, my opinions will be as follows: There is no great world at all, only a little earth, for ever isolated from the rest of the little solar system. The earth is full of tiny societies, and Cambridge is one of them. All the societies are narrow, but some are good and some are bad—just as one house is beautiful inside and another ugly. Observe the metaphor of the houses: I am coming back to it. The good societies say, `I tell you to do this because I am Cambridge.’ The bad ones say, ‘I tell you to do that because I am the great world, not because I am ‘Peckham,’ or ‘Billingsgate,’ or ‘Park Lane,’ but ‘because I am the great world.’ They lie. And fools like you listen to them, and believe that they are a thing which does not exist and never has existed, and confuse ‘great,’ which has no meaning whatever, with ‘good,’ which means salvation. Look at this great wreath: it’ll be dead tomorrow. Look at that good flower: it’ll come up again next year. Now for the other metaphor. To compare the world to Cambridge is like comparing the outsides of houses with the inside of a house. No intellectual effort is needed, no moral result is attained. You only have to say, ‘Oh, what a difference!’ and then come indoors again and exhibit your broadened mind.” 
 —The Longest Journey, one page or another
There is real wisdom here. One speaks of ‘the real world’ as if it were a place you could enter immediately upon leaving the fantasy of the bubble you happen to be in at the moment. But it’s a mirage. You won’t go to the real world when you leave Bowdoin: you might go down to Boston to work for a consulting firm there, but Boston has no deeper claim on reality than Bowdoin. It’s gray, it suffers, and it’s filled with hundreds of thousands of strangers, but those things don’t amount to reality. That is a tempting lie. They do mean that Boston is not a bubble; if you do live in Boston, happiness requires making a bubble of your own. Otherwise you can’t breathe.

After all, what is real human life? It is spent in the company of a few people you understand, and who understand you. It is spent in a world that cares about you, and which you care about. It cannot be lived adrift in an ocean of people and places that you don’t know.

There’s one obvious objection: am I not excluding the possibility of adventure? Doesn’t a bubble quickly become stale and confined? Exactly the opposite! There is nothing wrong with leaving a bubble to go on an adventure. An adventure, after all, is only an adventure if it’s an expedition from some known land into the unknown waste. The adventurer sees strange-eyed constellations and wild rivers. He roves all over the earth, and then he returns home. But here’s the key: adventures are only possible if there is a home to return to. Otherwise you’re not adventuring: you’re wandering. If you have no green England to return to, then all constellations are strange, and every country is equally alien, equally unreal. Bubbles give adventures their point, just like adventures give bubbles theirs.

But the basic point is this: the wide world is the unreal world, because there is no love there. Only bubbles are real. Life, when it comes down to it, can really only be lived in them; outside we die for lack of love and warmth.

We will all have to leave a bubble for the wide world eventually: the bubble is life, and the wide world is darkness in the grave. Until that happens, it’s better to live and breathe while we can on the warm earth, bound up in little brotherhoods, which some slanderers have called a fiction.

The best example.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Killing a Bull

When I was seventeen, I somehow found myself at one of the last bullfights ever put on in Catalonia. I was wandering on my own in northern Spain, and when I got to Barcelona, I decided it would be good for my education to buy a cheap ticket at the Monumental bullring in the sun. This was in July 2010: at the end of that month, in an effort to wash Catalonia clean of Spanish culture, the Generalitat voted to ban bullfighting. 

The billed matador that day was Julián López Escobar, better known as El Juli, who is considered the best matador in the world. Here he is at the Falles, a March fire-festival in Valencia:

Spanish bullfighting is a gory and tribal spectacle. When I saw it in 2010, I was shocked by everything that was alien to my urban and Jewish childhood: blaring music, a flamboyant parade, a shouting crowd, shimmering clothing, and dark streams of blood that stained the sand.

Most people who’ve never seen a bullfight imagine something like this: a bull leaps lustily into the ring, and the colorful matador stands there tranquilly. Then the bull charges to kill him, and he stands there until the last second, finally dodging with a swish of his cape. The procedure happens a few times over, and finally the matador stabs the bull, who dies instantly.

That’s not what happens at all. When he’s first released, the bull is first surrounded by picadors on horseback, who plunge lances into his neck to weaken its muscles. In the beginning, the bull is filled with enthusiastic rage, charging all the horses indiscriminately. But as he gets weakened by pain, he slows down and charges them one by one. Black blood pours down his back, which is quickly soaked. Before the late 1920s, the bull often killed the picadors’ horses during this process. Now the horses are fitted with a thick screen called a peto, which makes it nearly impossible for the bull to inflict any real damage.

When the picadors retire, the banderilleros emerge, each holding a pair of flowery stakes. As the bull is taunted with pink-and-gold capes, each banderillero plants his stakes elegantly into the bull’s neck, and then runs like hell to escape. They, too, are protected from real danger, hiding in wooden paddocks on the side of the arena.

By the time the matador enters the ring, the bull is already tired and weak. The dance with the matador is nonetheless the most beautiful part of the fight. The bull is usually still angry and dangerous all the way to the matador’s killing stroke. When that happens, the bull doesn’t usually die right away, but lies down dizzily before being finished off with a discreet coup de grâce. Then his carcass is dragged out of the ring by mules.

Since at least Hemingway, it’s been a commonplace that bullfighting is a tragic representation of human life, with the bull playing the part of humanity. This commonplace is true. Bullfighting is a beautiful display of the inevitability of death. The bull cannot avoid pain and extinction, but he still struggles proudly. So as spectators at a bullfight, human beings get to see their own ghastly fate acted out elaborately. Instead of being the victims of fate, this time they get to cheer her on for a change. This is one way of coming to terms with the harsh universe: you cannot escape her harshness, but you can treat it as something gleeful and resplendent for a few hours.

A poetic tragedy like the Iliad is something similar. It is one of the goriest and saddest poems in the Western canon. (That usually shocks first-time readers.) But its descriptions of pain and death are rendered in regular, noble hexameter verses, and you’re left with an odd impression of combined horror and aesthetic delight. In fact, the only two occasions I’ve had that feeling have been reading the Iliad in Greek, and standing in the bullring in Barcelona.

Now, a bullfight understood correctly is a truer representation of human suffering than most literary tragedies. Classical tragedies like Oedipus are closer to the popular misconception of a bullfight. Their heroes are felled by a single awful catastrophe, careening off the edge of life with an operatic yell. But the tragedy of a bullfight is slow and gradual. It probably involves just as much confusion and nausea for the bull as pain. And the bull’s pain comes more from an accumulation of little pricks than from a single blow. He tries to ward off each new blow, but only inflicts new pain on himself by doing so. He can’t really win, and nowadays he can’t even gore the horses.

A bullfight, like the Iliad, is a successful attempt to make that suffering into something exquisite. This, I propose, is what makes a bullfight immoral, if we’re to consider it immoral at all. It’s not that the bull dies per se: it’s probably more miserable for the animal to die in a slaughterhouse than in a bullring. It’s that suffering is distilled to its essence, and then made into something glorious. Suffering human beings have many good reasons for wanting to do this. But it still seems like an abuse of our dignity and power. Isn’t it forbidden to be glad and dignified next to suffering? Isn’t fear and disgust the only appropriate reaction? Maybe I’m speaking as a prejudiced Jew, horrified by the strangeness of uncircumcised gentiles. Nevertheless, my vote is against nihilist tragedy and in favor of zealous gentleness.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Sherlock Holmes Solves my Case

Something disturbing happened to me last month, shaking my belief in the consistency of nature, and exposing me briefly to realms of reality that I’d never suspected were there. I had spent the day in the library, and came home tired at seven o’clock to my room in college. I unlocked the door, walked inside, and walked across my room to open the window. But as I crossed the room, I noticed something in the corner of my eye: a brown shape on the ground. I picked it up. It was a half-eaten cheeseburger.

This was really odd: Jew as I am, I don’t eat cheeseburgers, let alone leave them on the floor. There was really no way it could have gotten there. My second-floor window had been shut and my door had been locked. I hadn’t had a guest for a few days. And I’ve never drunk enough in my life to be able to do anything without remembering it later.

In The Sign of the Four, Sherlock Holmes says that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This statement gets mocked by rationalists for being wildly unprobabilistic. In its original context, though, it makes perfect sense. Holmes is explaining to Watson how a one-legged man got into the room:
“How came he, then?” I reiterated. “The door is locked, the window is inaccessible. Was it through the chimney?”
“The grate is much too small,” [Holmes] answered. “I had already considered that possibility.”
“How then?” I persisted.
“You will not apply my precept,” he said, shaking his head. “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains,
however improbable, must be the truth? We know that he did not come through the door, the window, or the chimney. We also know that he could not have been concealed in the room, as there is no concealment possible. Whence, then, did he come?”
“He came through the hole in the roof,” I cried.
My own case bore an odd resemblance to Sherlock’s. He was wondering how a man got into the room, and I was wondering about a half-eaten cheeseburger. Applying just about the same evidence as me, he concluded that his suspect couldn’t have gotten into the room except through the hole in the roof.

But I have no hole in my roof. What am I supposed to think? The door and the window are impossible. The improbable remaining possibility is goblins.

There are obviously no good spirits in the world. There are no happy elves under the grassy hill, nor terrifying fairies revelling in palaces that melt away at dawn. But what if there are goblins here and there? Scheming, lecherous, mean-spirited goblins? That would be the cruelest joke that the universe could play on our materialist century. Perhaps there is a supernatural realm, but it’s even pettier than our own. God doesn’t exist, but Puck does, and he assigned his little thralls to leave a cheeseburger in Staircase U, room 5.

*     *     *

I almost ended the post there. But reviewing what I’d written, I thought a second time about the excerpt from Holmes, and noticed something. He decides that the one-legged man could not have come through the window, the chimney, or the door. I had unconsciously dismissed the possibility of a chimney in my own case, because I don’t have one.

Then I realised: in fact, I do have a chimney! Its fireplace was boarded up in the seventies and filled with a radiator:

It looks completely sealed, but there is a little slit at the bottom, which opens up into a hollow chimney. It could be that someone climbing on the roof dropped her burger into the chimney, through which it fell at just the right angle to bounce and land intact on my floor. Sherlock was right to exclude the possibility of a man coming down the shaft, but a cheeseburger is smaller than a man. It’s improbable—extremely improbable actually, but happily more likely than goblins. One day I’ll admit the existence of other realms, but not today.