Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Implied Rebirth

A number of years ago, an old friend and I had a conversation about the ending of Die Götterdämmerung, the last opera in the Ring Cycle, in which the world as we know it is destroyed.

My father, essentially an optimist, told me that I was to understand this aspect of opera as a cleansing, and a paving the way for rebirth. My friend at the time told me that the old Nords believed the world would simply come to an end, as this is the reality of existence. I'm guessing he was essentially a pessimist.

What did the Nords believe? It's unclear. Some say the Götterdämmerung paved the way for a new set of gods. Others that it really was the end of the world.

I'm essentially an Aristotle girl, and when I'm feeling healthy and positive, easily subscribe to his somewhat didactic and prescriptive point of view.
Tragedy is the imitation of action arousing pity and fear, and is meant to effect the catharsis of those same emotions.

In other words, yes of course there is pain, but this is cyclical if understood correctly and will bring about some kind of catharsis or greater understanding.

My favorite of all the Greek Gods has always been Dionysis--god of wine and poetry and suffering, all things that go together. But he's also the god of rebirth, long before Christ. It makes sense. Those poor grape vines look all but dead in the winter. I read somewhere recently that tragedies had to have four parts:
First came an agon, or contest, in which the protagonist, the representative of the year-spirit, finds himself in conflict with darkness or evil. There followed a pathos, or passion, in which the hero undergoes suffering and defeat, after which a threnos or lamentation for the defeated hero was enacted. And finally a theophany pictures a rebirth of life on another level with a reversal of emotion from sorrow to joy . . . In later Greek tragedy the theophany all but disappears, remaining only as a hint.

Aha. Well, that's pretty sophisticated, the idea that in experiencing tragedy, you are just supposed to know or feel that rebirth will follow. I mean, it makes sense when you read all those old stories about the Flood, or the death of the Titans that a new world order will follow. But it's a tough thing to apprehend if you are right smack in the middle of your own tragedy. It's also unabashedly modern.

It isn't at all fashionable to follow up a contemporary tragedy with an overt rebirth of any kind--we are too cynical and sophisticated for his. It's fine for chick lit movies and books where something sad is always followed by the birth of a baby. But elitists don't like this kind of sentimentality. It's unreliable and, we suspect, not really all that easy.

And this made me think of what is often said about the writer Cormac McCarthy, the he depicts for us the hope of rebirth through violence.
The neobiblical rhetoric of the novel and its blood-washed,apocalyptic images support this vision of revolution, of violent death and rebirth, of some enormous and profound change in the fabric of things imagined by McCarthy through the perversion of the sacred hunter and his position in the natural world.

He may well be our greatest living writer right now.

I personally find it totally unhelpful when people say that great pain and suffering can bring about great change--if one can embrace and endure it. It's completely unhelpful to the person in pain. But I also suspect it is true. How, then, to bridge the gap between a lamentation and a theophany seems to me to be the most modern of struggles, and one of the questions I'd ask of Aristotle if I could. Yeah, I know he didn't like women. I figure I would eventually win him over.

(Finally, as an aside to all my friends working through Possession--I finished. And did you know that Cristabel LaMotte's great "epic" poem references the myth of Psyche . . . and that Ash's Ragnarok--or whatever it's called--references Götterdämmerung? That's way too much synchronicity for me. I'm moving on to the next book I promised someone I'd read.)

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