Demon spawn

December 16, 2012

Yesterday I referenced the tragic events in Connecticut.  The day before at the MIT Press I had both Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought.  My Christmas reading pile includes Parkins Anthropology of Evil, recently recovered from Daughter.  My first ever essay other than those commissioned in school was on the problem of evil – a document and tape I hope never sees the light of day again, I was 17 at the time. Last night I went to see Mayerbeer's Robert Le Diable at the Royal Opera House (the first performance in the UK since 1890), which is about evil redeemed.  Now this is not I hope, some novel or unhealthy interest on my part.  Thinking about evil is a major part of our intellectual tradition, dealing with its reality an all too frequent practical need.  We personify it, we are fascinating by it in oh so many ways; think of the raw sexuality of the vampire genre.  For last night's opera the ballet scene where the lascivious dead arise was one of the highlights; see opening picture.

The minute the opera was announced I booked tickets.  Originally I was going Tuesday but the need to fit in a workshop in Bratislava meant I had to move it and the only option was last night, after a red eye.  But it was worth it.  Meyerbeer was one of the original inspirational points for Wagner.  Without him Rienzi would never have been staged in Berlin, but that failure and Wagner's problems with Paris made Mayerbeer a scapegoat and was probably the reason behind the temperamental polemic that has so tainted Wagner's history namely Das Judenthum in der Musik.  It is a Grand Opera, and one of the first of that kind.  The story picks up on a mediaeval French legend about the father of WIlliam the Conquerer who was supposedly the product of a pact between his mother and the Devil.  In the opera his father, sung magnificently by John Relyea, has to secure a pact with his son to stay on earth.  He is at the end redeemed, even though of demon stock, by his foster sister and servant Alice (gloriously sung by Marina Poplavskaya) reading a letter from his mother.

Now all of this picks up on the whole mediaeval idea that women being susceptible to the devil as a result of their untamed lusts coupled with noble virgin servant girl and the like.  Demons in the Christian tradition are of course fallen angels, and there is must speculation in the history of the Church as to whether some of them were just caught up in the rebellion and may be reprieved.  Of course Milton implicitly, and the modern form of Pullman's Dark Materials explicity, suggests a more noble desire for freedom in that rebellion.  The lot of demons is of course to suffer and create suffering in tern.

We may claim to be too sophisticated these days for what we see as simplistic mediaeval notions of God and Satan, contracts with the Devil, penance, redemption through loyalty and persistence etc. etc.  But its all to easy to forget that the mediaeval mind, in so far as we can know it, saw evil as a day to day aspect of life, a constant temptation to be overcome through a virtuous life.  In the modern day we demonise those we do not like.  Fox News presents simplistic dichotomies in which the good are so very good and the bad are unredeemable.  Their opponents too often fall into the trap and attempt a reverse dichotomy, something I commented on earlier in the year.  So maybe, as Christmas approaches, the idea of evil redeemed which is at the heart of the opera is not bad theme.

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