Saturday, August 18, 2007

Weird Juxtapositions

I've been thinking about several seemingly unrelated things lately, and came across a completely unexpected connection between them all. I thought I'd take the time to put it into words, bounce it off of all of you, and see if there's actually something here (the alternative, of course, that this case falls into the category of The Rest Of The Time I'm Generally Incoherent).

Item 1: For those of you who don't know, I was once involved in opera. I was in the opera program at San Jose State, then I went into the chorus at the Opera San Jose company (a very good small company, by the way; I highly recommend it), and I even had a small role in a start-up company in Captiola a few years later (Alcindoro, from La Boheme, for those of you who care to know).

So I found this article to be highly depressing. It's a long article. For those of you who don't wish to read it (though I would highly recommend that you do so), it concerns the recent phenomenon of "Director's Theater" (or Regietheater auf Deutch, since the Deutch seem to be the ones who spawned it). In Regietheater, the director's vision is elevated in importance above the vision of the composer and librettist. Stage directions in the libretto are thrown out; the people are put in costumes of which the composer would never have dreamed, the settings are changed, elements are added or subtracted at the whim of the director, and what emerges at the end of the process is often unrecognizeable to people who actually know the opera. Incidentally, this trend is happening in pretty much every kind of performance art, including drama and ballet. The linked article describes the phenomenon in much more depth than I have here.

I remember encountering Regietheater a few times when I was in Opera San Jose. One production (which I was not in, but several of my friends were) turned Mozart's Magic Flute on its head, so that the Queen of the Night was a jilted mother whose daughter was being brainwashed by the strange cult led by Sarastro, who was a lecher with his eyes on Pamina. And of course by the end of the opera the Queen of the Night is vanquished and Pamina is an honored member of Sarastro's congregation, so the way this production put it, the brainwashing was successful. This obviously turns the entire point of the opera on its head; the opera, as written, is about heroism, forgiveness, magnanimity, fraternity; the way it was staged turned it into a horrifying tragedy in which the oppressive, racist patriarchy vanquishes the well-meaning mommy who was just trying to raise her child according to her own values.

I seem to remember one of my friends who was in the production commenting at one point, "Well, you wouldn't want it to be like all the other productions of The Magic Flute out there, would you?" I also seem to remember that his attitude had soured on the concept a little later on into the rehearsals. I also seem to remember that they didn't get a whole lot of business that season, that Irene Dallis (the company founder) declared that "I'm sick of seeing half-empty theaters!", and that later seasons used much more traditional stagings. But I also remember the company making little baby steps back toward Regietheater in the following seasons.

Item 2: While I was musing on Regietheater and trying to understand the mindset of the directors, I came upon this article, which has a few interesting things to say regarding the way we as a society permit ourselves to express anger. Specifically: while we've always had anger in human society, we have in the past seen it as a potentially destructive force, and we've considered one's ability to control one's anger a virtue. But that's changing. Now those who openly display their anger, who openly hold their opponents (in politics, in sports, in many spheres of life) in contempt, are seen as heroes among their fans; while those who behave with decorum are increasingly seen as squishy by their would-be fans who want them to take a harder line.

So here's where I started to see a connection. One of the things that Freud introduced into popular thought was the concept of "catharsis"--that is, that when one has strong emotions, it is unhealthy to deny them by maintaining an outward calm. Maintaining calm when one experiences turmoil inside is "repression", supposedly, and leads to all kinds of psychoses later on. The way to deal with strong emotions--lust, anger, etc.--is to "let them out", by acting on those impulses.

This was a very different concept from what had been widely accepted before. Prior to this, the prevailing view was that our discipline, our ability to control our impulses, was what set us apart from the animals; it was what made civilized life possible--including the more sensitive aspects of romance, art, meditation, and so forth. One's inability to control one's anger, hatred, or lust was deemed a serious character flaw. It is said that George Washington had a huge, fiery temper, but that he recognized this fact and took pains to discipline himself so that he could still direct himself with composure when angry--and by any contemporary account, he was spectacularly successful.

But after Freud, all this became seen as not merely not virtuous, but in fact downright unhealthy. The person who uses discipline to control his or her anger or lust, to keep from saying what he or she really wants to say, is now seen not as controlled and disciplined, but as repressed (at best), or a hypocrite, or even psychotic. After all, they're not letting you see in their actions what they really think!

It seems to me that this inversion of the value system--that the kinds of expression that were once considered vices are now considered virtues, and vice versa--is at the root of both of the phenomena that I just described. In the case of Regietheater, the sensitive aspects of Romance--the troubador serenading the beloved under a balcony, the witty double-entendre--are seen as weak substitutes for what the people really would rather be doing. So, the director decides that the original stage directions are passé, and he shows you what he thinks the people would be doing if they were actually honest about it, as he defines honesty; and he then goes on to make the absurd claim that, yes indeed, he is following the spirit of the opera left by the composer--he's just paring out all that boring stuff and making the story relevant to modern audiences.

Likewise, the politician who swallows his anger at his opponent long enough to hammer out a workable compromise has "betrayed" his constituents, who often believe that the way for this country to move forward is first to punish the ones who got us into this mess in the first place! Often the politician's constituents--and even, his allies in elected office--want to fix the bridge/energy policy/tax code/immigration mess eventually, but the first order of business is to wreak justice on them. The one who talks to those across the aisle either isn't deemed angry enough, or is a hypocrite for not permitting the anger they do have from dominating their actions toward their colleagues. The result, of course, is that everyone gets angry; those who don't get angry enough get punished on election day; and urgent problems aren't fixed, but are used as political weapons against one's enemies.

Item 3: It was while I was contemplating this last little bit that the third event happened. At our church, we have a playground where kids can play after services. And anytime you get enough kids together, there will be some rambuncious ones. We have one in particular at our church who's two years old, but is very big and strong for his age. A couple of times I caught him hurting other kids--not through malice, because I don't believe that a two-year-old can really understand what malice is, but just because he is so young, so big, and so strong, that he can hurt other kids without realizing that what he's doing is wrong, or even that he's hurting them at all.

Now, I need to say that this is not because of any deficiency on the part of his parents. They are aware that their kid is a bruiser; they do their best to discipline him whenever they know he's done something; and they have requested other parents who catch him doing something to snitch on him (which I did, and not only because it was one of my own kids who got kicked).

What kind of man will this young boy grow up to be? Well, there is a chance that he'll grow up to be a bully, but I don't really think that will be the case here. There's a guy at our church now named Phil, who's about 30 years old, about 6'3" and 300 lbs, who's just a big teddy-bear of a guy with a great sense of humor. I've never met a happier guy in my life, with the possible exception of my 6-month-old (more on that in another post sometime). Phil is also very, very strong; he has broken up fights before, and has saved people's lives. I pity the young man who first tries to date one of his daughters. I suspect that the two-year-old bruiser has a pretty good chance of growing up to be another Phil.

But how does one get from being a two-year-old bruiser to a 30-year-old protector? Speaking as a daddy, I can vouch for the fact that kids that young don't really have a good sense of the "other" having a "self". A two year old might think, other kids are merely actors in my own world, and exist for my benefit; if one of these other kids does something I don't like, then there's something wrong with the world, and Mommy needs to come rescue the situation right now.

And how does the kid begin to grasp those really, really abstract truths, like the "other" having a "self", having rights, and having intrinsic worth? It happens slowly, as we parents impose social norms on our kids. We insist that our kids share their toys, even when they would rather not. We forbid them from beating up other kids, or taking their things just because they're bigger and because they can. We discipline them as necessary to make sure they live more or less in harmony with their peers, insofar as that's possible for a two-year-old. In short, we repress them (cue Imperial March here).

Ultimately, it is by following these norms that the kid learns what it means to value someone else. When the kid treats other kids as well as he or she would want to be treated, the kid learns something of the value of other kids, and what their rights are. To generalize, the kid's practiced behavior ultimately helps to shape the kid's worldview.

Notice how foreign this concept is to the Regietheater director, or in the Freudian worldview. The idea that we can become--say--altruistic, by behaving altruistically; that we can become magnanimous, by behaving magnanimously; that we can become romantically sensitive by behaving in a romantically sensitive way; that we are truer to ourselves when we practice our virtues and maintain our decorum, than when we pretend that indulging our whims is itself a form of virtue--soars way over the head of Herr Director, who views the altruism, magnanimity, and romantic sensitivity as nothing more than hypocrisy, illusions which merely distract us from knowledge of our "true" greedy, contemptuous, lustful selves.

(Great. Now I have to tie this all up.)

There are some really poisonous philosophies in our public culture that have the power to mess up our kids. Thankfully, we can sidestep a bunch of them just by doing the things we know to be right--teaching our kids to treat each other right, and exposing them to good literature and art that illustrate the virtues (and what comes from the lack of these virtues). I suspect that morally speaking, most of the teenagers in the church I attend have more maturity, more sophistication, than many of the masters of the Opera Houses of Europe, who due to their accepted worldview wouldn't understand real art if (mixed metaphor alert) it bit them in the butt.

Talk amongst yourselves...

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