Thursday, September 1, 2011

New Yorker Train-Wreck

Flipping through the current New Yorker, after a long, hard day at the office, I find myself repeatedly coming up against troubling, mediocre material. First a poem by W.S. Merwin that sounds like a parody of a poem by a far lesser poet. Then an article about a philosopher’s quest for “moral truth.”

Excuse me! (As they used to say.)

There is no such thing as moral truth. Morality has to do with the way we behave. Truth has to do with our understanding of the world. The two are certainly related. On the other hand, many books have been written about the close connection between humanitarian ideals and spineless behavior. Thinking and doing don’t always work hand in hand. Which explains why “moral truth” is a meaningless association of terms.

No need to read that essay. (The guy has a sanctimonious expression and a horrible haircut, too.)

But the final blow came when, reading an article by Louis Menand about Dwight McDonald, he describes his own father in the following terms: “The American Civil Liberties Union and the Metropolitan Opera were the joint deities of his world.”

That sounds OK to me. But not to Menand. “I met a lot of people like that growing up, people who managed to combine unequivocal support for principles like equal rights and freedom of speech with flagrant cultural elitism….They can be democrats out in the town square and snobs at home.”

I guess Menand doesn’t like opera much. He may be “musically challenged.” But there is nothing snobbish or elitist about opera. Anyone who loves opera loves it the way a kid loves baseball, the way a patriot loves the flag. Opera combines glamour and fantasy with melodrama and primal vocal sounds that rend the heart and buoy the spirit in ways that few other mediums approach. There is something childish, rather than snobbish, about the whole enterprise. Fairy Tales for grown-ups, and the music, which cuts through both the theory and the protocol of adult living, is for real.

Verdi, for one, was a peasant. He often conducted his rehearsals in secret, because he didn’t want the local organ grinders to pick up his tunes and start playing them on the street before the premier. He knew that before long every Tommaso, Richardo, and Enrico in Italy would be hummin’ La donna รจ mobile ("Woman is fickle") but he needed to sell some tickets first.

It costs a lot of money to stage an opera, it’s true. Therefore, the tickets are not cheap. But many of them are cheaper than Minnesota Vikings tickets. And the Met HD broadcasts are not only relatively cheap, but far superior to local live performances. They’re loud enough to summon the level of emotion opera at its best can touch.

Now that I think about it, there is far more “moral truth” in an opera by Verdi, Mozart, or Puccini, than most philosophers’ hypothetical rigamarole. Tosca’s aria Visi d’Arte, Visi Amore is not only hauntingly beautiful, it also raises the basic moral dilemma of our time—or of any time.

If there is moral truth, it’s something we do, or see in the actions of others, rather than merely think.

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