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Diary 2-22-15

February 24, 2015

Sunday Feb 22 ’15

Dear Diary,

It’s Spring in Seattle, with daffodils and flowering cherry trees, while most of the continent still suffers the long winter shock.

My friend T and I went to l’opera this afternoon. Semele. Music by George Frideric Handel, lyrics by William Congreve (The Way of the World, The Double-Dealer) but originally for an earlier opera. The best of the music, written on the heels of the highly successful Messiah, was trillingly beautiful, in a literary tone that was appropriate for it’s secular subject.

Had a very nice time. But you know how I am, dear diary, when the music was over I came away with two main thoughts (plus T), sexism and dualism.

I thought Act One was blah, Act Two was glorious, and Act Three disappointingly anti-climactic, in spite of an incineration of the heroine by full revelation of the God of Gods. But in all fairness, it’s hard to top Act Two, when Semele is given a vision that seemed to me to be the Age of Reason’s take on the Oneness of Being.

In the Christian Messianic mythology, God incarnates via an immaculate concept of the cleanest of female vessels, birthing a divine Man who redeems anyone who believeth in His promise of an eternal life together in heaven.

In the neoclassical mythological fantasy of divine copulation, Jove incarnates himself as an irresistibly virile lover who courts an attractive woman with His promise of a heavenly high, above the conventions of society.  This head-strong woman, daughter of a powerful ruler, refuses to obey him and marry the wimp he has chosen for her and who carries society’s stamp of approval. It seems to me that she will not keep in her place, because she has a vision of a grander power fused with (carnal) love. And indeed the well-groomed, neoclassical, lightly wooded pasture of shepherd and his shepherdess proving their love is exalted to a heavenly pleasure palace of ecstatic love-making (including wonderful singing in the jove-sized bed), without pain.  I suspect that we suspect it can’t last.

Indeed such a state of ecstasy on the part of a woman is intolerable, and a socially sophisticated, matronly Juno (home and hearth fire) reasserts decorum by tricking the young woman into craving immortality. Double-dealing Juno gives Semele the rationalist’s approach to a vision of the cosmos, the heavenly spheres, but then transforms Semele’s love and desire for power, now deemed “excess” (in a man it could be tragic hubris), into a narcissism that immolates her in vengeful revelation of prohibition. Lesson learned. (Not convinced.)

Shall silence drown in ecstasies of sound, / Or sound in ecstasies of silence drown?

That’s a near-quote (in heroic couplet—except there’s gotta be a caesura in there, somewhere) of lines that I wonder if Congreve actually wrote. To me it seems more like baroque fun and games. The sound of silence is paradoxical only from the point of view of dualism. In practice it’s the experiential presence of Being in us, giving us presence, making us present to both suffering and joy. Sound and silence are simultaneous in holistic attentiveness.

Well, luckily, Semele’s ashes were reconstituted as the divine Bacchus. We had a good red wine with dinner. There’s some consolation in that liquefied fire and depressive ecstasy; but how ya gonna keep a poor shepherdess down in pastoral artifice, now that she’s seen Par-ee?

Was Congreve asking (could Handel ask) how a woman can integrate personal, passionate love, with power and standing in society?

From → diary

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