Thursday, November 26, 2009

The pen is mightier than the sword?

According to Wikipedia, the word "athame" (referring to a knife used in ritual magic) is a corruption of "artavus," a quill knife ("a small knife used for sharpening the pens of scribes" -- "cultellus acuendis calamis scriptorii," as found in early editions of the Key of Solomon).  Of course the use of such knives in ritual magic has changed over the years and has been subject to fanciful interpretation and outright invention.  However, the subtle meaning (as I see it) is that the pen is equivalent to the knife or sword: a tool that cuts between good and evil.  Truly writing is a "Scheidekunst," though I see that word not as Novalis sees it (as a perverse artificial separation of philosophia into separate scientific fields that do not inform one another), but as "the art of decision."  Surgeons wield the scalpel to access diseased tissue and remove it; critics wield the pen to reveal disorders of thought and excise them.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Vermouth straight: "Trouble in Tahiti"

Over breakfast this morning, I caught a scene from a movie adaptation of Leonard Bernstein's opera "Trouble in Tahiti":  after walking out of a particularly cheesy movie, Dinah works her way through the liquor cabinet in a fit of 1950s confined-housewife-with-selfish-husband misery, singing the whole while.  The staging in a suburban home of the time was full of artifacts and colors of the time (I'm always struck by how enthusiastically 1950s families covered their counters with the latest in kitchen technology).  Amidst all the richness, though, a tiny point stood out:  after Dinah had already drunkenly poured herself a few, the last pour was from a bottle of Vermouth.  That was such a subtle point in the staging, but it meant so much: the only reason for a 1950s American household to keep a bottle of Vermouth around is for martinis, and if she is drinking Vermouth straight, it means she has already exhausted the gin supply and is desperate to continue her drinking binge.  Even though it's a sad, ironic moment, one still appreciates the aesthetic sense, the historical awareness, and the thought that went into the staging.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Consensus: chant and community

This Sunday morning, our schola was joined by a professional singer with expertise in early music -- Gregorian chant, pre-Bach polyphony, and the like.  Different scholae sing chant very differently, and I could tell during rehearsal that she was feeling her way around, trying to figure out how our director and our schola interpret various musical directions.  This led to an interesting discussion between our director and her about how a schola decides on a musical interpretation of chant -- of a particular piece and of a whole style of chant (Gregorian, Mozarabic, Ambrosian, etc.).  It was fun to listen in and talk about the way I learned to sing chant.

During the warmups before Mass, I was assuming the professional singer would remark on the interpretation method.  When she asked a question about interpretation, I remarked that we do "parish Solesmes" (referring to the French monks who revived Gregorian chant in the West in the 19th century), meaning that we interpret vaguely according to Solesmes rules, bending them either to make the music easier for amateurs or to make it more musical.  In the discussion after Mass, though, it came out that she was thinking of something entirely different than a set of rules.  The word she used was "consensus":  guided by the text, the melodic line, and by historical investigation, the schola members gradually come to agree together on the subtleties of interpretation.  She contrasted this with a director imposing rules upon a choir that must learn them.  Consensus is most often not a conscious verbal act; it emerges as a group phenomenon from individuals, who both have unique characters and seek unity and agreement. 

Consensus involves an interesting balance between individual leadership and submission to the group.  Individuals have to have an opinion, and lead -- otherwise the director just ends up imposing a rule, and dragging everyone else along, like a string of five-year-olds on a class outing.  However, people have to compromise on strict interpretations if they realize that the choir just isn't going along.  Everyone has horror stories of that one stubborn person whose rigidity precipitated open conflict.

What I like especially about consensus is that it makes each group unique.  It evolves out of practice -- out of common practice, together -- and thus it shows progress towards forming a real community.  Of course it makes trouble for singers who have to learn all those subtle, unwritten cues when they have to work outside their normal group, but to me that lends so much character to the art of sacred music.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Knowing he is God, he stripped down and washed their feet

Tonight is Maundy Thursday -- Maundy coming from "Mandatum," for Jesus commands tonight in the Gospel reading: 

Si ergo ego lavi pedes vestros, Dominus et Magister: et vos debetis alter alterius lavare pedes.  Exemplum enim dedi vobis, ut, quemadmodum ego feci vobis, ita et voc faciatis (John 13).
"If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, then you also ought to wash one another's feet.  For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also."  What struck me from tonight's Gospel reading, though, was not so much the familiar command, but John's introduction:

Before the festival day of the Pasch, Jesus, knowing that his hour was come, that he should pass out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them unto the end.  And when supper was done (the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray him), knowing that the Father had given him all things into his hands and that he came from God and was going to God: he rose from supper and laid aside his garments and, having taken a towel, girded himself.
I have to quote the whole introduction to the chapter to get the grand effect.  John reiterates Jesus' unbearable foreknowledge, his sense of purpose and intense love and fully willful, unconstrained and unforced self-sacrifice, and then -- Jesus strips down and puts on a towel.  It's a strange letdown: the language sets you up for a grand, heroic gesture -- perhaps a second, more impressive ritual to follow the first Eucharist, or a revelation of a great new teaching -- and then Jesus does something completely humiliating and weird, something that not even a slave would be asked to do.

In some sense, this act encapsulates the Incarnation:  it's a completely weird thing that such a grand and infinite God could want to be so close to Creation as to become part of it.  Earlier today I saw an article discussing the symbolism of the four-petal jasmine flower that appears on the image of the Lady of Guadalupe.  For the Aztecs of the time, the flower represented the four directions of the universe -- and thus, universal authority, along the same pattern as the circle-cross or spherical scepter topped with a cross.  It symbolized Ometeotl, the Twofold God, "Owner of the Near and Far," "Lord of heaven and earth," "Creator of people," "Inventor of Himself" -- an abstract god without a cult of worship or a temple, a god too grand, high, and remote to have an interest in human affairs.  And yet -- the Fourfold Flower appears engraven on the womb of the Mother of God.  The Lady comes bearing God, the same God that was or that seemed completely inaccessible, yet here appears tiny and weak and helpless, wrapped in swaddling clothes or a towel or a burial cloth.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Covering the statues

Today is Passion Sunday in the traditional Latin Rite, and I noticed that our parish follows the venerable tradition of covering the representations of the Crucifix, of Jesus and of other holy figures with a purple cloth, from today until the Easter Vigil.  It seems contradictory at first to conceal the signs of the Passion during the very time in which we commemorate it, not only in the liturgy but also in devotional practices, such as watching Passion plays and films, or praying the Stations of the Cross. Of course, it makes sense to remind ourselves that Jesus was "taken from us," that human power and fear occulted God.  Jesus himself experienced that occultation; as a churchgoer described to me today, bearing the full burden of sin on his human body brought about such a deep contradiction between the divine and human natures that it could only mean death for the One bearing it.  In covering the statues, we remind ourselves that the "real" Passion was as much about the inner experience of abandonment and spiritual deprivation, as it was about physical suffering and death.

Every year, Lent is a great burden to me.  Perhaps this is because I wore myself out from many years of harsh devotional practices and unreflected beliefs when I was younger.  Even then, my "hard on myself" wasn't really:  I couldn't take fasting without getting dizzy and fainting, for example.  But in some sense, this kind of Lent -- fasts and haircloth and vigils and "let's increase our self-hatred by watching Jesus getting beaten up" -- is like the statues before they are covered.  It's a way to "do something," to make oneself feel holy.  Like jogging or going on a diet is healthy for one's body, ascetic and devotional practices can be healthy and good for the soul.  Nevertheless, just as healthy diet doesn't always prevent illness, prayer and self-deprivation don't always protect one from the "shadow of death" (today's Tract was from Ps. 23), that is, the experience of separation from God.  Just as sickness is more painful for a generally healthy person, deprivation of Divine light is yet more painful for someone who once knew God, or felt as if she had known God.  How much easier it would be if one had no experience of God whatsoever!  But this is not how things are. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Carrying them"

I recall one of the meaner Dilbert strips:  an administrative assistant mentions to the epinonymous engineer in passing, "My son is failing all his classes.  I'd like him to get a career in computers."  Dilbert answers unwisely, "What -- carrying them?"  His dejected look on the third panel seems to convey a mixture of guilt at his careless remark, and the sad realization of its truth.

"Carrying them" is something an engineer might say at a party to his nerdy friends.  It's an easy thought for an educated person who lives by his skills, when he considers the horde of apparently willfully ignorant American youth with the illusion of privilege -- the same frat-boy types who made his childhood miserable.  But when I face a mother who says to me more or less what Dilbert's coworker said, how do I respond?  How do I tell her what she secretly knows -- that young folk with no drive for success will no longer be able to reap the benefits of their parents' hard work?  The wise thing then is to say nothing, and contemplate the mixture of good fortune, hard work, and privilege (at least the privilege of proper upbringing that taught one to value education) that got one as far as one has gotten.