Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Wittgenstein's Cat

Imagine a cat in a box (it could be a duck or a rabbit or even a beetle instead, of course but we will assume without criteria that it's a cat) . She is caterwauling (you might be going to the vet or some such, because the cat is sick) but you can't tell if her cry is closer to "yanny" or to "laurel." At some point she quiets down, which after a while is worrying. You'd stopped at a fabric store on the way to get some soft silk to make the cat more comfortable in the box. The shopkeeper matched the gold fabric which you gave him a sample of to some silk he had on hand. Then perhaps he counted out fourteen inches of fabric (perhaps he recited the numbers from 1 to 14 as he counted out each inch: he counted in just the way we count, in the most ordinary sense). You arrive at the vet and she opens the box in her examining room. I want to say you will see either a dead cat surrounded by the funerary crepe of black fabric or a living cat rolling upon pink to work it in. But what was she doing before that, and was her caterwaul "yanny" or "laurel?" (We assume it has to be one of those.)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

We went to see the HD version of the Met's Walküre yesterday. Despite the much-hated set (which I ended up thinking was okay), I thought it was amazing. And I think I got something about Wagner -- how the extreme length of his operas matters. (Twain's joke: You go to see a Wagner opera that starts at 6, and an hour later you check your watch to find that it's 6:15.)

As with Act II of Tristan, Act III of Die Walküre is a long interchange between a devastated authoritarian, a father figure whose grief seems impossible to reconcile with his authority, and the person -- here Brünnhilde -- whom he must injure, who has brought her injury upon herself, and whom he must explain himself to.

Such explanations are not easy. This is the opposite of the marvelous efficiency of dramatic or film dialogue, where clarity is completely efficacious. This is more about mind-changing. The argument, the reasoning is clear from the start. What acts to change Brünnhilde's mind is the strange, bass-baritone emotion with which Wotan (and Marke, a basso profundo in Tristan) sings. It's as though their loss, despair, powerlessness is in part the impossibility of their singing in a tenor's register -- Siegfried's par excellence. Hunding (also a basso profundo), is simply evil. He revels in his authority. Wotan doesn't. His authority is a fact that he cannot escape. If he could be a tenor, he would. If he could have two eyes he would. Wotan and Marke (and to an extent the baritone Giorgio Germont, the father in La Traviata who finds himself unexpectedly having to explain to Violetta why he needs her to give up her love for his son) cannot set aside the burden of office, the burden that makes him a type, not a character, an opposition and not a protagonist. It's a very hard position to be in, and there's something very moving about the hopelessness of power the very long explanation conveys. Care sits on their faded cheeks, and the length of their scenes is an amazing demonstration that there is nothing to be done.