Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Modern Sad Castration Of Operatic Comedies

I didn't see it at the Met, I just thought this poster by Chagall was too cool not to use.
I went to the opera, and I saw The Magic Flute.  Of course it was great.  It's a Mozart comedy.  What's not to like? 

At the same time, I gotta say that staging-wise, I got issues.  My complaint is this.  Going to modern productions of operatic comedies, you'd think that somehow irrationality, sex, sexism, and sexual inappropriateness were, like, so over that the audience would be mystified by their appearance.  Everything weird and difficult and touchy about sex gets staged in a way to make it completely ... completely foreign.  Like silly.  Like, not comico-serious, as these things were clearly intended, but just comical.

In The Magic Flute, the comico-serious elements include:  the idea that trusting women gets you into trouble, because women are irrational and lie; the idea that learning to become a full male adult means learning how to be cold and cruel to your girlfriend, the idea that some people are unlucky enough to never have love and sex and that's just the way it is, and the possibility that some of those unlucky people will, like the "lustful slave" Monostato, force others to have sex with them.

Can we all agree that these are all difficult and troubling things?  Can we also agree that they're not at all irrelevant to modern life? 

Like all great works of art, The Magic Flute doesn't tell you what to think about any of these things; it just puts them into a certain kind of context so you see them and have to think about them in a certain way. 

But the production I saw just short-circuited all of that by making it unreal.  In this case the unreality effect was achieved by staging the action of the opera as if it were a play-within-a-play, a cute play at an eighteenth century garden party.  We're not watching Monostato; we're watching some nice young man play at being Monostato.

This way, the troubling things aren't real at all; they're rendered completely distanced from us and harmless.  Now the story isn't, "Yikes, Love And Sex Make People Crazy," instead, as my friend said, the story is more like "Oh, Those Eighteenth Century People Were So Weird, Isn't It Cute And Funny?"

Right.  Because now that we've had feminism and the sexual revolution everything's like hunky dory and men and women just come together with perfect understanding and part with perfect peace and nobody feels left out of the sexual lottery. Uh-huh. 

Obviously I know that the distancing isn't really because people think that but probably has to do with things like "Oh, people going to the opera want a Nice Evening Out and for most people nowadays A Nice Evening Out is incompatible with thinking about things like the rape of a young beautiful woman by an ugly, unloved, and unwanted man. 

Sure.  But that can't be the whole story, because the operatic tragedies don't seem to run into this problem, only the comedies do.  We have no problem, it seems, with the other big themes in opera. I went to see Aida last fall and it was staged in such a way as to heighten the tension about war and enslavement.  

Violence is OK; it's sex we seem to be upset about.  It's funny, here we are, willing to post our sex lives and love lives on Facebook and share the most intimate details, but we can't manage a post-adolescent engagement on the operatic stage.

I guess it just means in three hundred years people will be saying "Oh Those Twentyfirst Century People Were So Weird, Isn't It Cute and Funny?"  Plus ça change and all that, I guess, but it seems a little sad.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I Like Human Frailties

From Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  These guys are cute too, don't you think?

I like human frailties.  There are certain aspects of people that we sometimes treat as weaknesses, but that from a certain point of view are really endlessly endearing.  It's like, if we were the pets of some super-advanced race from another planet, these are the qualities they'd see in us and say "Awww.  Isn't that sweet?"

I don't know if it's because I  have a more extraterrestrial outlook than your average person, but I have that feeling about people a lot.  They act, and I think, OK, dumb, partial, not far-seeing, but  ... somehow really sweet and endearing in their humanness.

Humans -- at least the humans we live among right now -- are obsessed with self-improvement.  We're all about breaking bad habits, eating more fruits and vegetables, wasting less time on the internet.  We're pretty bad at it though.  Resolutions fail; self-help books don't help; a couple of months and we back in the candy drawer, munching on the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups while we look at Cute Cat Pictures on the web.

I guess there's a sense in which this is bad or discouraging, but there's also something so nice and reassuring about it.  I think what's nice about it is that the reason we keep going back to these things is that we really like them.  Our love of sweets, of lounging on the sofa, of cocktails, of YouTube -- it's obviously deep and profound.

And somehow it seems to me really touching and nice and sweet that among our deep and profound loves are things like foods, and idleness, and just playing around at nothing.  That humans, for you: loving, pursuing, and even being made happy by, the very simplest things.  It's like the sweetness of dogs when they understand they're about to go for a walk.  A walk? We're going for a walk?!  That is adorable, and it's nice, rather than the opposite, that we're a little like that too.  It's like the way people can't stay off their cell phones.  Sure, annoying, but hey -- people really really want to talk to other people, a lot.  Which is sweet.

I was reminded of this reading the New York Review of Books recently.  There was a review of a book by William Dalrymple called Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.  The reviewer, David Shulman, says one theme of the book is that among all the weird kitschy parts of religious practice in India there is also a lot of genuine, non-kitschy, religious devotion.

To illustrate, he tells a story of his own, of visiting a conference of veteran Yogis in Hyderabad.  He finds that these men, who he expects to have profound insights, instead obsess over the reception of various worldly honors and go on and on like chatterboxes with their own favorite platitudes.  He then says there is one exception, an old man who speaks with long silences between sentences, "as if, after all these years, he was still searching intensely for an important truth, which he may have glimpsed once or twice." He is really disappointed and saddened by the group and their worldly behavior.

I have to say, I had pretty much the opposite reaction to this story -- at least as it was told.  I'm thrilled to hear that when they get together, people who spend all their time reflecting have the same human qualities we all have -- craving love and recognition, liking to hear our own voices.  It's like, Yogis, they're just like us!  That's so much more life-affirming than knowing that someone who reflects a lot has to speak with long sentences in between, which in turn sounds just pompous and annoying.

So next time you're being irritated by some member of humanity who can't seem to get it together, try to take the extraterrestrial view.  Humans:  maybe annoying, but where would we be without them? It would be so lonely and sad.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Andy Rooney Hour, Platitudes Edition

You know what I hate?  Platitudes about how to live your life.  I especially hate it when people spout platitudes that they obviously don't even really believe in. 

Some platitudes are kind of OK because they function as a kind of anaesthetic when bad things happen.  When people say, "Well, really it's for the best," it's often not true, but I'm willing to cut them a little slack, because what they really saying is "there's no use getting all upset about it now" -- something that is true but can sound so cold when you come right out and say it.

No, the platitudes that piss me off are ones like "Live every day as if it's your last" or "Follow your bliss" or "Live in the present."  Because here's the thing.  The people who really do those things and don't worry about how it turns out -- they're a real problem.  It's only the people who do those things and make it work that we admire.  It's just a lot of hypocrisy.

Think about it.  The people who really follow their bliss and don't worry about where it ends up are the ones who never help clean up, who insist on the most impractical ways of doing things, who don't cooperate or take other people's feelings into account.  They're the ones that when you call them because you need a ride home, they're busy at Pilates and can't help you out.

But when people imagine following their bliss, they don't imagine being a jerk, or "just a child" like Harold Skimpole.  What they imagine is more along the lines of an opera diva.  You know, someone who does what they love all day, and, because they're successful at it, can pay others to take care of the practical side of life.  Because they're successful, you don't notice how unhelpful they are.  But without success, they'd just be annoying self-centered jerks.

Now, now, lest you think me overly dark and cynical, of course it's nice to do something in life that makes you happy.  But as I've gone on about before, there is more to life than happiness.  Many things we value, like caring for children, are proven to make us less happy.  So can't we have a little moderation?  The platitudes are always expressed as if, you know, the more the better.  Gee, if a little doing what you like is good, then more of doing what you like must be better!

Obviously doesn't follow.  And interestingly, the fact that it doesn't is borne out in another platitude:  the importance of work-life balance.  The same people who tell you to find a job that follows your bliss are the ones that will tell you how important it is to have work life balance.  It doesn't make any sense.  If the work is the bliss, why would you want to balance it with something else?

The answer of course is that the work isn't bliss, at least for the vast majority of us.  Some work has fun aspects but most jobs are things you get paid for because they have aspects that are annoying and difficult.  If they didn't have annoying difficult aspects people would just do them for free and for fun. 

I'd go on about "Live every day as if it's your last" but isn't that a little like shooting fish in a barrel?  "As if it's my last, you say?  Bartender! Martinis for everyone, on me!"

I don't hate all platitudes.  Almost once a week I say to myself, "First world problems, I have them."  Great platitude.  Reminds me that as crisis inducing it may feel when the internet doesn't work, the bus is late, or my favorite sweater is at the cleaners -- really, these are the problems of an almost utopian existence.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why Don't We Have Better Designer Drugs?

Just one of the millions of cool pictures of pills you find when you google images of pills.  I got the image here but I don't know where they got it from or what it means.
Do we, or do we not, live in the most advanced consumer culture ever?  We do.

Has there ever been a world so focused on, and so successful at, meeting the immediate desires of its citizens?  There has not.

So why, exactly, am I still relying on caffeine and white wine as my go-to recreational drugs?

It's weird.  In most domains we have far transcended the idea that for something to be worth buying it has to solve some problem.  No one thinks shoes are just for keeping your feet from the ground; no one thinks cake is pointless because it's empty calories; no one thinks that "having a high quality TV" means you can't buy a higher quality, HD TV.  We make and buy stuff that we expect to enhance our well-being, not just treat our difficulties.

But in the drug domain, we don't use this approach at all.  Instead, you got two kinds of drugs:  those to treat medical conditions, and those that are illegal.  OK, we have three kinds of drugs:  treatment, illegal and "alcohol and caffeine."

What is surprising is that the taboo against recreational drugs persists even in the face of a tidal wave of free-market, desire-satisfaction, if-it's-something-you-are-willing-to-pay-for-someone-will-make-it  commodity approach to virtually everything else.  I mean, you're telling me it's less weird to pay someone to carry your baby than it is to pay someone to develop some feel-good drugs?

I think the prohibition is really a lingering effect of some kind of puritanical you-shouldn't-be-having-too-much-fun kind of thinking.  But there are two kinds of arguments that get trotted out for why people shouldn't take relatively harmless drugs.  The first is that they're bad for you:  they're addictive, they have side-effects, they'll hurt you in the long run.  The second is that being fucked up is, like, somehow "letting other people down" and "not being there for them."

I hope it's obvious that the first kind of argument isn't an argument against recreational drug use, it's an argument for better recreational drugs.  It's true that a lot of drugs -- recreational and therapeutic -- can be addictive and harmful, but clearly this means we need more research and better recreational drugs, ones that aren't bad for you.  It's funny.  I mean, in this past week's New Yorker there's a story about saving the banana from some huge blight by genetic engineering, like putting the genes of some animals and other plants into bananas so that they don't respond to the virus by killing themselves.  And I'm thinking, You mean, we can put worm genes into bananas but we can't come up with an anti-depressant that doesn't cause a page of fine print conditions like decreased libido?  Very strange.

The second kind of argument -- that you're letting people down -- is more complicated.  Sometimes it's a sensible thing to say, like if someone is zonked out on some narcotic all day, then it's probably true that they're not really cutting it as a parent or sibling or friend or even pet owner.  Even a dog can't live with someone who is out of it all the time.  But here, of course, we're just back at point one, because if there were subtler recreational drugs we could feel good without being all zonked out.

Other times it's a less sensible thing to say, like when people make the claim that there's something wrong with having four glasses of wine on the weekend because gee, if something happened you wouldn't be able to drive someone somewhere, like, to the hospital.  I'm sorry but that is a really weak argument.  For one thing, it actually is possible to live where you don't have to drive.  And secondly, Hello, You're supposed to call 911 in an emergency, not try to drive.  The idea that we have to be in driving condition all the time is like driving-mania taken to an absurd extreme.  Forget drug addition; that is like driving addiction.

Anyway, I was thinking about our need for better recreational drugs just the other day, when I woke feeling really tired, and also kind of sad.  And on thinking it over, I realized that the reason I felt kind of sad was that I was so tired.  I'm a person who really likes being involved in projects and doing stuff, and when I don't have the energy to get all involved in things, I start to muse on the pointlessness of life, and then I get depressed. 

I think on this given day, I just had a bit of a cold.  But it was a powerful reminder of how much a mood or feeling depends on physical elements of the body.  I mean, you may be feeling sad, but maybe you're just physically worn down.

And if that's true, then wouldn't a harmless pick me up drug be a wonderful thing?  You could have a whole day of being happy instead of unhappy.

Most of the recreational drugs consumer culture needs are familiar, because people have wanted them for a long time:

1.  We need a kind of caffeine-like drug that has a higher quality high and doesn't make you feel bad when it wears off.

2.  We need a drug that mimics the effect of alcohol but doesn't have any calories or bad health effects.  Preferably one that doesn't make you feel bad or hungover when it wears off.

3.  We need a kind of Adderall-for-everyone drug.  A drug that makes you concentrate better, but doesn't have bad effects and doesn't make you feel bad when it wears off.

4.  We need a good aphrodisiac.  Don't we?  Am I wrong?  Preferably one that doesn't make you feel bad when it wears off.

5.  How about something like nicotine?  Almost perfect as is, except for the bad health effects.  Oh, and the addictiveness.  And make sure it doesn't make you feel bad when it wears off.

The common theme, of course, is that we need the upsides of drugs without the downsides.  Shouldn't that be possible?  I mean, we can put a man on the moon, yada yada yada, surely I can have my cake and eat it too?

Can't I?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Remembering The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

When I was in high school, my teacher played us a record of T. S. Eliot reading his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  It made a big impression on me.  I'm not a poetry person.  But there was something about it.

If I'm remembering correctly, I interpreted the poem as being about getting old, and about sex.  As a sixteen year old girl, I was much concerned with both of these topics.  I remember feeling acutely the sense that sense that as a girl, I would only really be youthful and attractive for a few more years.  I remember the feeling every adolescent has, of how it can not be horrible to become an adult, being boring, losing one's hair, knowing one has lost the vitality of youth.  How could that not be the worst thing in the world?

And I also remember identifying, to some extent, with the women in the poem, who "come and go," and with whom Prufrock has such a complex relationship, wanting their attention but somehow dismissive of them at the same time.  It was one of those moments of girlhood when one is reminded of the ways in which being a woman can mean having something men want, even by doing nothing but existing, which is weird when you're young and stays weird as you get older.

I don't remember what, if anything, the teacher taught us about the poem.  But I do remember vividly the sadness the poem made me feel, and the way "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" seemed the bleakest and saddest thing ever. "Well," I thought, "that's no way to live."  A message reinforced by other art experience, and of course, by rock and roll music.

But of course, now that I'm older, I know that there really is no other way of living.  Even Keith Richards has stopped taking drugs and lives a quiet orderly life.  Because eventually the opposite of a quiet orderly life isn't fun, it's poverty and chaos.  Worse, as they say, than the alternatives.

This way of seeing things, of course, makes the poem seem even bleaker and sadder than I found it when I was young. 

In the interest of science, in preparing to write this post, I checked out what other people think the poem is about, and of course it turns out there's all this complicated stuff about modernity and living the self-conscious existence of modern life that I hadn't understood at all, and about how Prufrock can't be a hero because he's worried about what other people will think of him.  Which is all fine, but as usual seems to me such a guy point of view.  I mean, people who don't care what others think about them aren't heroes, they're assholes, and people who aren't self-conscious around others don't know the first thing about love and infatuation.  A life without the intense self-consciousness and anxiety of a crush?  No life at all. 

Probably I am oversimplifying something elegant and complex, and probably this is what my teacher was trying to talk about while I was daydreaming the class away imagining the women with their bare arms and bracelets and thinking about the old man walking on the beach in his cotton trousers and brooding on the tragedy that we couldn't all stay sixteen forever.

A tragedy, by the way, that I still haven't gotten over.  How the rest of you are so easy-going about it, I don't understand.