It ís Friday, a national holiday I am told. Does it matter why? People need to celebrate, and yes, people sometimes need to rest.
I didn’t realize how tired I was.
I boarded the plane Wednesday night in Toronto. When I saw that the fellow beside me on our 757 was watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty shortly into the flight I asked him (in spite of his earbuds and his naive hope for privacy, poor fellow) whether he’d seen the film before. No he told me, and I promptly spoiled some of the film for him by telling him that it seemed so profound to observe, while we were flying to Reykjavik. He sort of nodded to me politely, hoping I would shut up and not make any more quixotic invasions of his space.
As the plane had gone up I’d been thinking spiritual thoughts. On take-off while I always seek a window seat, loving the views especially on landing, I was in prayerful mode. It ís not that I was really fearful, so much as I was thinking of family, connections to those I am visiting on this trip and those from before. I sometimes find Wagnerian associations comforting, in my own internal Gesamtkunstwerk of self-celebration. Yes when I think about it RW is more than anything the ego supreme, whether or not you know your Wagner. How do I love Mein Self? Let me count the ways.
1-Wagner? me uber alles, my loud music that drowns out all resistance. If you’re thinking but I prefer heavy metal / rap / Bollywood : if you play it loudly and proudly, you’re well on your way to being Wagnerían. If you deliberately choose it loudly to drown out your neighbours or possibly in the hope that they will be unified with you in an orgiastic celebration of a cosmic music festival? that too is a Wagner thing. Nevermind whether anyone objects, it’s a naive sort of egomania, right?
2-Before Wagner, theatre was a free-for-all. He tells great stories in his writings of such things as a fight between performers preventing one of his works from being staged, of performers whose hammy desire to show off detracted from the beauty of the whole. Those two stories (and he has other such examples) could be subtext for his mission to unify the components. That aforementioned word “Gesamtkunstwerk” is usually translated as “total art-work”, meaning that the parts work together. We take for granted nowadays that a film or play or opera should be a unified effect, where the director’s interpretation is supported by the designers of costumes & set, where the actors and words & music all work together in harmony. But while others may have aimed somewhat in that direction, Wagner was the first to really put the ideal into words. Imagine, now, that you are a composer, also the one who writes the words, also a conductor, also a director and a dramaturg/theorist writing pamphlets about how to stage this great work. Me, me me, everywhere me..! Yes that’s Wagner.
3-And when it didn’t work out his way when debts and debtors chased him out of the country on one occasion, when his participation in a failed revolution had him on the wanted listt: he ran away. No he didn’t take his football and say nobody could play with it. But he was very much of the opinion that if he couldn’t be king of the castle, then he didn’t want to be fart the messenger to someone else. And no wonder so many of his opera plots involve conclusions with death as a solution rather than a tragic outcome.
The last week before departure I sat down at the piano a few times to play and sing through the last parts of Parsifal, his final opera. I like the music, enjoy the way the opera ends, and cannot deny that I get a huge rush. And I am in good company. In the 19th century, before there were DVDs or Victrolas, your only option was to get someone to play and/or sing it for you. Debussy used to play passages of Wagner operas at parties, and on occasion would go through the entire work, playing and singing (after a fashion). How well did he sing? Great question. I can’t help wondering what he would have sounded like. Before you let yourself be captured by any humorous thoughts, thinking that this would somehow be ridiculous, ask yourself what alternative people might have had. Nobody had a clue what Wagner sounded like, at least not in places beyond what we now understand as Germany (NB the country didn’t exist yet). They hadn’t yet heard the pieces with full orchestra. And there were no recordings. To have someone sit down with a piano-vocal score and conjure up the magic of a Wagner opera? It ís admittedly an ego-fest, a trip for the performer, in their identification with the grandiose moments portrayed in the work, captured in musical climaxes that release tension and leave your body reverberating afterwards.
Even as I write this, I am hearing the passage to which I alluded a moment ago. It ís magical when music can spontaneously come into your head. If you’re Barry Manilow and you’ve written a good song or jingle (and I am not sure that there is a huge difference, as I alluded in a piece I wrote awhile ago), you are triumphant if you’ve managed to implant your song in the heads of others, like the RNA that gives your genes a kind of immortality beyond the body in the flesh of others. Fortunately I can speak of Manilow without fear, because in my recent experience serious music wins, especially if i’ve seen the score. Wagner, for example, is so solidly in my head, both my ear and visually through the score, that I can’t hear the unfortunate jingle I alluded to, but instead hear that concluding music from the opera. And I am not alone. TS Eliot alluded to it in “The Waste Land”. Is it five minutes long? I am guessing, as I am not sure I can describe it objectively.
Maybe I should try..?
- Amfortas, the grail knight whose wounds won’t heal, sings one last time in defiance of the other knights. He had promised to unveil the grail, the chalice that magically restores the other knights; but that same effect reopens Amfortas’s wound, by bringing him back to life.
- Parsifal appears holding the spear that inflicted the wound, announcing that only one thing can heal the magic wound, namely the spear that caused the wound. He announces that Amfortas is healed: and Amfortas is healed.
- Parsifal reveals the grail, blessing everyone present.
Is that it? I am sure I am leaving parts out. It ís a unique opera because it purports to be a sacred festival drama, something like one of the mystery plays (and it sounds more like something Biblical than rational): except it is simultaneously a dissident work for some of what it says. Jesus is tormented on the cross even now because the church is corrupt. We redeem him if we transcend our sinful selves…Or something like that.
The end of the work coming from a man long immersed in a life of ongoing infidelity with multiple partners & betrayals is more Buddhist than Christian, in its vision of a peaceful redemption by overcoming the desires of the body. That spear? It is of course an image of the phallus, Amfortas’s never-healing wound is his libido, desire.
Now one doesn’t get too deeply into this kind of deconstruction when one is listening. It ís merely nice music that makes a wee bit of sense. When I sing Amfortas’s last line to start the sequence, followed by Parsifal’s final lines, while playing the piano-reduction of the orchestra, it ís a very magic experience, one that conjures images in my head. I hear the chorus, even including the children when we finally modulate into the D-flat where they float their highest notes (heard inside my head) while playing. It ís a feat far beyond selling hamburgers or feelings.
Ah what a long digression.
I was explaining the context for hearing that music from Parsifal in my head as the plane took off, and for much of the flight. Yet one popular tune did displace Wagner for awhile.
I glanced over from time to time at my neighbour’s screen. I didn’t hear any sounds, but still enjoyed watching the video minus audio for Walter Mitty. I’d seen it three full times on pay per view in the 48 hours of rental time, plus at least two additional viewings of my favourite scene, the one where the hero runs for the helicopter. I wish I could show it to you. Even as I type this, the tune is now in my head. And I should add, it ís not David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that I am hearing, but the cover version from Kristin Wiig.
As I sit beside Mr Earbuds I am glancing over regularly. When we get to the part where Sean Penn seems to beckon to Walter, his fingers twitching almost imperceptibly in a photo, as if to say come find me, I start to watch the film, soundless but fabulous nonetheless. Until this moment my soundtrack had been the Wagner.
But now I am watching, and waiting. When we see Wiig’s character show up in the Greenland bar, a non sequitur that ís unmistakeably subjective and very Wagnerian I hear her strum those chords and sing her lines. This is not a moment to deny libido but a moment of youthful vigor. Ben Stiller’s Mitty is so different from Danny Kayes version, boldly running after that helicopter, coming to vibrant life, as if she were strumming him and not a guitar.
It ís one of the most fabulous things I’ve ever seen in a film.
And as we fly along in our 757, watching this middle-aged guy who had seemed so scared & vicarious, I can’t help thinking that my trip really began when I saw Walter Mitty throw caution to the wind & fly to Greenland & Iceland. It seems I am on the same trip.
Nice as Bowie’s tune is, lovely as the images Stiller creates in the film, Wagner’s tunes re-surface. I don’t know that these two can’t coexist. I’ve paired them in the headline, suggesting that they’re opposites, although in a real sense Mitty’s tune is also about a kind of surrender, when Bowie’s Major Tom drifts away from ground control, letting himself be lost in his rapture of the deeps. I suppose both are adventure heroes. Parsifal & Major Tom are Buddhist in their surrender.
I spent much of Thursday just noticing:
- Noticing how tired I was
- Noticing where I was
- Noticing who I was
How drained I’d been by my trip(!). And yet it was simply more of the same, like the trajectory of the various vectors implicit in my choices. I had the luxury of time & space to work with, noticing that the images playing on the virtual screen that is my consciousness were a bit washed out, that the speakers or my hearing were hissing with background noise. I didn’t eat nearly as much as usual, because I was paying attention to my appetite. I wasn’t really hungry, yet it was just fine that I ate so little.
Thank you national holiday, I breathe and rest. It ís wonderful to be alive.