Saturday, February 17, 2018

Il Trovatore

Il Trovatore - The Troubadour – was not Verdi’s original title for this opera – apparently he wanted to call it The Gypsy Woman – and it is two Gypsy women – a mother and a daughter - who drive the craziness in this very crazy opera.  It just so happens that I am in New York with a mother/daughter combo – the reluctant wife and stepdaughter.  I am going to the annual psychoanalytic conference – and they are here to look at a possible college.  We decided to take in an opera to round things out, and what an opera we chose!

Things got rolling long before the current action starts.  A gypsy woman was seen in the count’s infant son’s room.  The count was concerned about this and chased her out.  Then the son became ill, and the count was convinced that the gypsy had put a spell on his son, so had her burned at the stake.  Her daughter is traumatized by seeing her mother burned alive (the aria where she sings about remembering this brings the terror back to life – and has the potential to traumatize those who are listening – including the guy who thinks he is her son – more on that later).  She seeks revenge by throwing the count’s infant son into the fire that consumed her mother.  But, oops, she threw her own son in instead.  Realizing her mistake, she steals the count’s son (whom most everyone – except his older brother, who becomes Count Ferando when his father dies of grief – believe was consumed by the fire).  She raises this boy as her own child and, when the opera begins, he is the troubadour, Manrico – singing to Leonora, the beautiful woman that Count Ferando is obsessed with.  Count Ferando has mustered all of his guards to keep the unknown troubadour away from Leonora, but his song wafts her way anyway.

To complicate things a bit, Manrico is not just the Troubadour, but the leader of the force rebelling against the Count.  Unaware that they are brothers, they are rivals in both love and war.  Manrico, despite being the rebel and leading a ragtag group of gypsies and other outsiders seems to have the upper hand in part because Leonora is, in fact, in love with him.  When Manrico goes to her, Ferando interrupts them, and he and Manrico have a duel.  Manrico gains the upper and was about to kill Feraldo when he felt restrained by an unknown force and runs off into the night.  We find out about this after he has been injured in battle and he is being nursed back to health by the gypsy whom he believes to be his mother.  In return for his telling his story, she now recounts the burning of her mother and then the burning of the infant, which confuses Manrico because the gypsy mentions that she burned her son – and yet here he is…  She passes it off – but we – and surely Manrico – are confused by her rendition of the story.

Manrico returns to the fight – he is able to get Leonora out of the clutches of Ferando, who had interrupted Leonora’s sacred vows to become a nun when she mistakenly believed Manrico was dead and she did not want to be forced into a marriage to Ferando.  She is safely in a defensible castle with Manrico, when his “mother”- that darn gypsy - is caught by Ferando.  When Manrico hears that Ferando is going to burn his mother, he leaves the safety of his castle to attack Ferando, but he is captured and Ferando intends to put him to death.  Leonora can’t bear this, so she intervenes.  She takes a slow acting poison and then promises herself to Ferando in exchange for sparing Manrico.  When Ferando agrees and she takes the news to Manrico, who is imprisoned with his mother, Manrico reacts by becoming furious because he she is not being true to him.  She confesses that she has taken poison, which sobers Manrico up and he can recognize what a fool he’s been, but all this dithering has kept Manrico from escaping, as Leonora has been imploring him to do, and Ferando shows up to discover that Leonora has double crossed him by taking poison, and orders the execution of Manrico at which point the gypsy wakes up and decelares that she is happy because she has gotten her revenge on the count by having one of his sons kill the other – and the curtain comes down…

Wow.  What a tale of trauma and revenge!  The Count’s revenge on the mother for her having, supposedly, put a spell on his son, turns into the gypsy daughter being put into double hell – losing her mother to the count and her son to her own hand.  She then raises someone and, despite nursing him and caring for him, is exultant at his death.  She has used him as an instrument of revenge!  How cold and crazy must she be?  Well, this feels like a pretty crazy gypsy – and, given that Verdi intended to name the opera after her, this is a pretty crazy opera.  As an opera of trauma and revenge, and with the gypsy at the center of it – it speaks to the craziness that harming each other creates.

If we see the gypsy as the hero of this opera – as the central tragic figure – I think it hangs together much better than if we see Manrico – the Troubadour - as the tragic figure.  Manrico, after all, is just pushed around.  He doesn’t know his parentage – even when he is essentially told about it by his “mother” he doesn’t really get a clue.  He loves Leonora, but that is a pretty thin love – he disparages her savagely for saving his life.  He is kept from killing his brother by an unseen force.  Both brothers thus have a sense that something is amiss, but ultimately they end up being pawns in the gypsy’s game of revenge on the long dead Count – father of the current Count.

And yet she is an odd tragic hero.  She seems to randomly introduce chaos into every scene that she shows up in.  She all but tells her “son” that he is not her son in the first scene she is in, but then takes it back.  She ruins things for her “son” in the second scene when she becomes his brother’s captive.  In the final scene, she is trying to go to sleep before her “son’s” (and her own) execution and she sings a lullaby to herself after he agrees to stand watch and then she is not awakened by a series of interactions between her “son”, Leonora and then Ferando, only to wake up after her “son” has left to be killed – and her joy at this impending death is, to put it mildly, a surprise.

The gypsy belongs to a marginalized group – those who wander without a set home.  She is rendered motherless in a horrific manner.  Her description of watching her mother burn is disorienting to the listener – and clearly was to her – she ended up confusing her son with the son of the count.  But she also kept clear in her mind the distinction through decades of carrying for the boy she stole.  The tie between a parent a child is the most powerful tie I know – much stronger than that between lovers.  I am told by my friends who have adopted that the strength of this tie is powerful when raising an adoptive child as well.  But the gypsy manages to keep this child at a distance – to not let him into her heart – to hold him, at least in part, as an object – as the hated spawn of her arch enemy and thus as someone she will use to hurt that enemy, long after he is dead and gone.

So I am struck that this is what Verdi is doing to us – he is wreaking some weird kind of vengeance on us.  That’s not quite right of course.  We weren’t born when he was writing – nor were our great grandparents – but none the less, he has decided to bring something to our attention, something horrific and destabilizing.  He wants us to feel – deeply and powerfully – in the way that only music can help us do – what another person feels.  This person is ostensibly the gypsy, but isn’t she also he?

Does this mean that Verdi is a trauma survivor?  Does this mean that he is dissociative in the ways that it seems she must be?  I don’t think so.  Nor do I think that the labels I have provided to describe the Gypsy’s experience actually capture her or her experience.  I think the music does a better job of doing that than any diagnostic label.  And Verdi has the capacity to convey feeling – to make us feel deep and powerful feelings with the music he creates.  He can wreak havoc in us – and the plot and libretto of this opera give him a vehicle to do just that.  He is the gypsy working on keeping us off balance – keeping us from feeling secure – from feeling that we have been loved for who he are – while we hear what it would feel like to be loved like that from the woman who has the power to do that.  Is Verdi, then, fickle?  I think so.  I think that he realizes that this powerful tool that he wields disrupts us – and he revels in that.

As these things do, I experienced the meetings as helping me to understand Verdi better.  One of the presenters talked about psychoanalysis as something that exposes those parts of our affective lives that we would prefer stay under wraps.  And Mark Solms today clarified that the brain spends most of its time on auto pilot – it is only when there is something that we have no program for that we have to wake up and be conscious.  Verdi wants to wake us up – the gypsy’s lullaby was only for her – she keeps everyone around her wide awake with her shenanigans – just as Verdi’s opera reveals those feelings that we all have access too, but would rather keep under wraps – feelings that we need to access when we want to rework something that has been problematic for us – and feelings that – in the context of a narrative that veers all over the place, but ultimately stays on the rails enough for us to observe, to feel, and to walk away – as from a dream – from the performance – with a sense of it having been as if we had lived through all that craziness – but without actually having done it.  We are at Verdi’s mercy – but we ultimately applaud him and the musicians who have brought his feelings to life in us – because we have been able to feel them in the safety of the opera house – and not in the confines of our own home.

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Don DeLillo’s Zero K – Do Billionaires Die Too?

The Reluctant Son has headed off to college and we were talking about a philosophy course he is taking.  This class is filled with books about death, Plato’s Apology, Phaedo, and Euthyphro were the leadoff hitters, and a book I had not heard of – a novel by Don Delillo – Zero K followed.  My son was in the midst of reading it and said that he didn’t really enjoy reading it, but that he thought it was a profound book, and he wondered if I might read it too so that we could talk about it.  Is there better chum he might have put in the water?  Not for this guy!

So, having read it, as we discussed it, I was curious about his experience of knowing that he was going to die.  I let him know that I first experienced the sense that I was mortal on a visceral level during Freshman year in college, when I was confronted by some of the same readings from Plato – and a bunch of deaths in the Iliad and the Odyssey.  I wonder if I also became viscerally aware of my own mortality in the context of being away from home for an extended period for the first time as well.  In any case, that was my moment and I wondered if this was his.

“Dad,” he said, “I first had that experience when I was seven or eight.”  He said there were multiple occasions where he – generally in the evening – perhaps right before going to sleep – realized that he would not always be here.  He said it wasn’t so much a thought as a realization and that it was deeply and profoundly unsettling – though it wasn’t particularly anxiety provoking or worrisome – it was just a realization that this is how it is.  He went on to say that he would reflect on these moments the next day and realize – again not very verbally but deeply – that this was indeed what he had been aware of and that he was still aware of it and he was unsettled by it.

“Wow,” I thought – and probably said.  I was somewhat puzzled that this had never come up before between us.  He said he didn’t feel any need to talk about it at the time – and it was the case, in a very fundamental way, that neither his mother nor I could have changed things.  And, despite being unsettled, he was not overwhelmed by the idea – just aware of it.  Not exactly sad, but different as a result of having had it.  He was certain that, as they say, death, like taxes, is a sure thing.

We talked a little bit about this.  These thoughts occurred before a series of significant losses of two grandfathers and a number of favorite great-uncles.  It occurred after his mother and I divorced, which certainly introduced ideas about endings into his life.  But there wasn’t, at least as far as he could recall, a proximal stimulus for the thought.  Unlike Plato, who argues in the readings he is doing that the soul is immortal – and that the philosopher, whose life has been devoted to attending to the soul, prepares himself for his soul and body to part ways at death, the reluctant son was just beginning to go to church and didn’t have a strong sense of religious or spiritual immortality.

In Zero K, death as an issue descends upon the narrator’s father – the billionaire in the story – in the wake of the billionaire’s second wife contracting a terminal disease.  He married this woman after leaving the narrator and his mother without much of a thought or look backward and while amassing what would be his considerable fortune by writing programs that predict the stock market.  The book opens with the narrator arriving at a facility that is located precisely and approximately in the middle of nowhere at a large institution that is largely underground to participate in this woman’s (she is hardly a stepmother, though she is a lovely person and the son has more affection for her than he has for his father) preparation to be preserved at a very low temperature (not quite zero K, but that is the reference for the title) until such time as her condition can be repaired, at which point she will be awakened and returned to health.

This set of circumstances, over the arc of the book, precipitates an existential crisis on the part of the father who seeks to determine whether he should be “preserved” even though he is in adequate health and does not “need” to be preserved until such time as a cure is available.  The son is drawn into this in a variety of ways and meanwhile, life goes on.  The son takes up with a girlfriend and her son who is adopted from the Ukraine.  His girlfriend’s adopted son gets drawn into the Ukrainian conflict – and meanwhile our protagonist is drawn more deeply into his life.  He, and we, almost forget the odd and dreamlike experience of being at the Convergence – the name of the preservation facility that feels like a Kafka created space.  When he returns to the Convergence a second time at his father’s behest, it becomes even more dreamlike, with all kinds of manikins and bodies in various poses, but also, at times just jumbled together.  These images seem to underscore the contrast with Plato’s idea of immortality being a quality of the soul – this culture is interested in the preservation of the body.

The reluctant son let me know that the novel was taught in an interesting way.  The professor encouraged his students to pick a sentence – either one they found important or even one at random – and to read it.  The class would then discuss it.  His experience was that each sentence served as a spring board to a new and interesting way to put the book together.  I don’t think that would work for just any work, but this one, a dense but still wonderful read, seems almost constructed for such an approach.  There are feints and changes in direction.  This is a meditation on death – and on the technological promise that seems to be just over the horizon – at least for billionaires (and partially being currently funded by living breathing billionaires) that the lives of our bodies can be extended and, perhaps, those bodies can be preserved for later use.  Will we wake up with a new language installed in our brains?  Will our brains and other organs be preserved outside of our bodies – as the Egyptians did it?  Will we travel to the next life on an elevator that travels not up or down or sideways but at an angle more and more deeply into the earth?  To offer an overall interpretation to a work like this that is simultaneously deep, complex and so readable seems impossible.

The reluctant son and I talked about his dislike of the narrator.  There were quirks that the narrator engaged in – naming people that he didn’t know – that put the reluctant son off.  To me, they were aspects of his character that both made him human – they were ways that in a story told from the first person I could connect with him and live through his eyes – and that made him particular – other – I think in the way the reluctant son experienced him as not just other but difficultly other – peculiar in an off putting way.

I’m not sure that I helped him navigate this story (hopefully the philosophy professor did) any more usefully than I have helped the reader of this post do that.  Dealing with the finality of death is difficult enough – but what if we could live forever?  Would we want to?  One of the answers that is buried in this book – buried with the billionaire’s second wife – is the idea that life is worth living when we are living with people that we love.  The billionaire did not love his first wife – and this complicates things, I believe, for the son.  The ways in which I loved – and failed to love my own son’s mother – have certainly complicated things for him.  I think a theme is that in this world which DeLillo is depicting – one that, like my family, has deep schisms in it, there is still the possibility of love – of loving others and of loving life – even in its temporally constrained original version – the one where we don’t have to wonder if we will awaken in a future where we will be different but one in which we know that the world that we know here and now will, in fact, cease to exist.

Perhaps the sense of a circumscribed life as a place that creates a space in which joy can be experienced will help my son and the class deal with another meditation on death that is headed their way – Freud’s Future of an Illusion.  In this book, Freud maintains that Plato’s (and the Christian Church’s) belief in an afterlife is a defense against the realization that my son had at a very tender age – that we will one day die.  The uncertainty that we have with an afterlife – it is unclear in Zero K that the technology currently exists to awaken those who have been preserved – or whether we are hoping that this, too, will be invented in the future, without knowing that this will happen, is still, as of this writing, one of the great mysteries of life.  The question is how we go on living without knowing how the story will turn out – how we move from that realization that we will one day cease to be in this current incarnation – and the entire universe as we know it will be wiped out.  How, then, do we embrace that universe while it is accessible to us?  What of it do we value and how do we celebrate it?

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