Monday, December 28, 2009

Lovely Myths of the Season

We emerge from a season of festivities as if from a long dark tunnel, albeit one illuminated by twinkling lights and cheery faces. We’ve been bolstered along the way by pickles wrapped in ham, chicken chili with jalapeños, eggplant parmigiano, pork roast stuffed with cranberry jam, grilled salmon with pesto on home-made pasta, white wine, red wine, vintage port... A few gifts have been exchanged, though for those of us without children this is a very minor aspect of the occasion. We’ve taken in a few films—in the daytime, no less!; played a French Voyageur game that involves singing and passing shoes while kneeling on the floor (see photo above); taken a trip downtown through the slush to a service on Christmas morning where poinsettias hang from every light fixture; reacquainted ourselves with the entire gospel of St. Mark in front of the fire, reading out loud and snoozing by turns; and shoveled wet snow from the driveway, the front sidewalk, and the back deck, layer by layer. Four deer paid a visit to our backyard on Christmas morning before dawn to sample the shrubs, their elegant forms appearing as dark silhouettes against the snow; and by the time all is said and done more than forty people, family and friends, stopped over for a meal at one time or another, a few of them coming from as far afield as Miami, Dallas, Portland, and Dayton, Ohio.

These are dark times, but also good times. We inevitably read editorials about the consumerism of the season, but it isn’t hard to avoid. In fact, this year I did so little shopping that I didn’t hear a single version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” which makes me a little sad. Nor did I hear the Beach Boys doing “Little Saint Nick” or Madonna singing “Santa Baby.” I kept waiting for Charlie Parker’s version of “White Christmas” to show up on my new iPod shuffle (a cast-off from my sister, who has three of them, though I do appreciate it). I guess I haven’t been going to the gym enough lately.

Around our house the turntable has been dominated by the Tallis Singers, the Alfred Deller Consort, up-beat orchestral Bach (keyboard concertos, violin concertos) and a somewhat dreary but atmospheric CD for quieter moments entitled “Musique Iberique au Clavicorde: Cabezon, Cabanilles, Coelho, Correa de Arauxo, etc.” On Christmas Eve I gave Arvo Part’s De Profundis a shot while cranking the pasta-maker as Hilary fed the dough down the slot, but that portentous downer didn’t last more than five minutes.

And speaking of music, I was cheered at one Christmas gathering to learn that my young niece’s favorite gift had been a set of Beethoven’s late string quartets. (Heavy stuff!) Another niece, who designs lingerie for a living by day, told me about the large paintings she’s doing at night incorporating mythic elements into portraits of women. When she described one that had bees arising from a woman’s hair I was reminded of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and having my copy close at hand, I showed it to her. Scrooge that I am, I didn’t actually lend it to her, but Ovid is not the kind of thing you just read cover-to-cover and then return. I could have given it to her, but it was a beat-up copy, and besides, we agreed that myth arises from common experience, and from the psyche. Such fountains of inspiration and insight can easily be blocked by excessive learning.

There is a mythic element to the events that took place in a manger in Bethlehem under a bright star long ago, and they’ve been analyzed ad nauseam. A recent episode of Frontline presented a very sophisticated overview of how the various gospels differ in tone depending on whether the Temple In jersuelem had been torn down or not at the time they were written. And a few days before Christmas another powerful myth with slightly different overtones was broadcast on public television. I’m referring to Puccini’s La Boheme. This opera encapsulates perhaps the most powerful myth of the modern age as beautifully as any work of art I know. The story of young artists enjoying life and supporting one another as they freeze in a Parisian garret cultivates a notion that most of us believe in, at least to some degree, namely, that we’re all undiscovered geniuses with something unique to offer the world. “I’m a millionaire in ideas,” Rodolpho says at one point with great enthusiasm.

This theme is amplified by the appearance of Mimi, a shy but beautiful seamstress who lives downstairs. It’s love at first sight between these two, of course, and when Mimi returns to die in Rodolpho’s arms in the final act, we may also call that “love,” though all she really wants to do is die in the company of someone who actually knows who she is.

Might this also be the ultimate message of Christianity? That we ought to attend very carefully to one another? I don’t know, but I’m suddenly left wondering if that sort of message is anywhere to be found in the Metamorphoses?

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