Sunday, April 27, 2008

Opera and Obama: Teary - Eyed

Former Bush (Sr.) speechwriter Peggy Noonan wondered about whether Barack Obama gets "teary-eyed" when he thinks of America. Here's the excerpt from her column in the Wall Street Journal April 24:

Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama's problem. America is Mr. Obama's problem. He has been tagged as a snooty lefty, as the glamorous, ambivalent candidate from Men's Vogue, the candidate who loves America because of the great progress it has made in terms of racial fairness. Fine, good. But has he ever gotten misty-eyed over . . . the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything? How about D-Day, or George Washington, or Henry Ford, or the losers and brigands who flocked to Sutter's Mill, who pushed their way west because there was gold in them thar hills? There's gold in that history.

John McCain carries it in his bones. Mr. McCain learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa's knee. Mrs. Clinton learned at least its importance in her long slog through Arkansas, circa 1977-92.

Her reflection jives with mine. Someone I know who adores Obama asked me what I like about John McCain, as if I must be kidding. It was a friendly social situation and I demurred. Shortly after that, he made some comment about 9 - 11 as being well-deserved "payback" from the rest of the world for US policy. I thought, "If you said that in front of Barack Obama, he'd be able to make sounds of agreeing with you in spirit while taking care to show another side. Mr. McCain would punch you out."

Mr. Obama's real calling is to be an entertainer. He'd make a good serious talk show host, with his easy banter and earnest but unremarkable pronouncements about the world. Like Bill Clinton, he is adept at setting out unpleasant extremes and then saying that we must find something in between. No harm in that; it's what educated people do, researching all sides before making an informed decision. McCain has been waffling on economic policy recently, and he's triangulating between criticism of our strategies in Iraq and faith in our mission. I prefer Mr. McCain's searching to Obama's, because, as Ms. Noonan says, there's something "in his bones."

Now, on an almost unrelated tangent, I want to figure out why I teared up during the High - Definition broadcast of Donizetti's LA FILLE DU REGIMENT yesterday. I understand tearing up when the friends realize that Mimi has expired in BOHEME; you identify with them, and you feel what they are feeling. I've also analyzed why so many viewers tear up without knowing why at the end of Act One of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE: it's the delight at seeing so many ideas come together in one perfect image, combined with the knowledge that the moment is passing even as we watch it, just as the song says exactly that (" ... forever! On an ordinary Sunday . . . ").

But in FILLE, the characters are all stock ones: tomboy "daughter of the regiment," bumptious sergeant, snobby old maid, fresh-faced country boy. The plot? All the usual comic stuff: young love, consent to marriage denied, low - class tomboy girl schooled in manners, some fol-de-rol about an inheritance. There was marching (with the regiment's longjohns on a pair of impossibly long clothes lines), mock-ballet, and a little old-soft-shoe.

Yet tenor Juan Diego Flores brought tears to my eyes singing that famous aria with the nine high C's in it. I'm not even sure what the words are, something about "Oh, I love her, and I'll get her back." I thought immediately, "It's just the sound of his voice." But why would that make someone cry? The sound of the voice as an expression of romance that everyone knows is made up, but everyone believes in anyway? I'm sure that seeing the earnest face, and knowing the vivacious soprano about whom he's singing, helps. When he finished, he froze in character while cheers and applause washed over him. Slowly, he broke character to bow. Then the action moved on. Was it another case of a perfection reached for just that moment, then passing?

I still don't know. For that matter, why do John McCain, Peggy Noonan, and I get "teary - eyed" over the Gettysburg Address or D-Day?

There's more here to figure out.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Backward, Day by Day

(a look back on the FORWARD DAY BY DAY pamphlet for February - April 2008. As always with this publication, the author is anonymous.)

Whoever wrote the daily reflections for the FORWARD DAY BY DAY booklet this past time is wise. Many mornings I marked the pages to remember them later. Here's what struck me:

Friday, Feb. 8, John 17:9-19 "I am asking on behalf of those whom you gave me . . ." Jesus prayer on behalf of his disciples, who don't seem to be able to pray for unity themselves, makes the author think of a Last Supper painted by Bassano: "Jesus sits in the center, gazing steadily at the viewer, surrounded by all of the [quarrelling, distracted] disciples, not one of whom is looking at him."

Monday, Feb. 11: Genesis 37:1-11: "When Joesph's brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him." The author reflects that Jesus, beginning his ministry in the Gospel assigned for this day, would have grown up hearing the story of Joseph and his envious brothers, and would know how the painful story ends in redemption. The author writes, "May God open our hearts to stories within stories, hope hidden in darkness, providence at the bottom of even the darkest pits."

Tuesday, Feb. 19: Psalm 62: "God alone is my rock and my salvation." The author thinks about images of God as a rock and fortress, and adds: "But the Christian tradition has always insisted that God both shelters us and sends us out.... 'Send us now into the world,' we ask."

Tuesday, March 4: Psalm 97: "Let the many coastlands be glad" (RSV) The author remembers a coastline in Scotland: "The same wind blew a low stinging cloud of sand from the hard-packed beach: sand and sea racing toward each other in an encounter as powerful and primitive as the collision of stars. " He concludes, "May the many coastlands remind us that our gladness too may sometimes be not just a sedate thank-you, but racing like the wind to meet our God."

Wednesday, March 12: 2 Cor. 2:14-3:6: "You are a letter of Christ." The author writes, "I confess I love this epistolary imagery (especially from such a famous epistle writer): the idea that each of us, in ourselves and in our communities of faith, are Christ's open letters to the world."

Thursday, April 3: John 15:12-27: "This is my commandment, that you love one another." "How, our sentimental-romantic culture wonders, can love be commanded? Surely it is something one helplessly (and pleasurably) feels, not something one obediently (and possibly with difficulty) does?" But no... It is an order.

Monday, April 7: Exodus 18:13-27: "You will surely wear yourself out." "Moses's sense of victimized indispensability might sound familiar to workaholic leaders everywhere. ....It is tempting to believe that without me, nothing would get done, and that no one else could do what I do for God. ...God commands us to stop thinking we are called -- or allowed -- to bear our burdens alone."

Thursday, Psalm 37:1-18 "Do not fret yourself. It leads only to evil." The author remembers a friend, afraid of flying, who cheerfully admits that, deep down, she must believe that "it is her white knuckles alone that keep planes in the air." And our fretfulness is no more useful.

Saturday, April 12: Col. 3:1-17: "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts." The author searched for another translation where the peace would "rest" or "dwell", but it's unequivocally "rule." The author recalls William Alexander Percy's poem-hymn, "They Cast Their Nets in Galilee," which demonstrates that the "peace of Christ" is "No peace," leading to crucifixion, stoning, loneliness. "Yet let us pray [for] the marvelous peace of God."

Wednesday, April 16: Exodus 33:1-23: "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." The author recalls a dream of water skiing in rough waters, and letting go of the bar to sink in "suddenly, blessedly, silent water." It was a comforting dream of contemplative prayer.

SUNDAY April 20: John 14:1-14: "No one comes to the Father except by me." Author quotes C. S. Lewis: "God has not old us what his arrangements about other people are." We do not know that only those who KNOW him can be saved through him. "Grace is a mystery, not a formula, -- and not subject to our prior approval. ... The Spirit blows where it will. ... In hidden ways we cannot see, control, or imagine -- even in other religions -- Christ is bringing the whole world home to the Father. . . ."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Glass Full : Gandhi Opera at the Met

The young man sitting next to me in row K of the Metropolitan Opera for the premiere of Satyagraha liked it much more after our chat at intermission. What helped my neighbor was to think of it not as a story, but rather as ritual re-enactment of episodes in M. K. Gandhi's discovery of the "strength of truth" (roughly satya + agraha in Sanskrit). 

My neighbor had nodded off several times during Act One. No wonder, since he didn't know anything about Gandhi's career or about the Bagavad-Gita. He was frustrated by the director's choice not to translate the words, except for bits and pieces projected on the set sometimes near the end of a piece. Naturally, he also expected something with a story.

Since first hearing the opera on record in 1987, I've thought of it as a religious work of art, easily my favorite Glass piece. Writing yesterday in the Boston Globe, critic Jeremy Eichler explains why:
Conceived and written in the late 1970s, it manages to maintain the early integrity of the composer's signature style while annexing the sumptuous vocal and instrumental textures of traditional opera. It is full of supple writing for solo voice, for small ensemble, and often for full chorus. In a sense, it represents an elusive way station in Glass's overarching journey, a moment of perfect equipoise between his past as an austere minimalist pioneer and his future as a neo-Romantic populist. He never again achieved this precise balance. ... Those open to a meditative listening experience that obeys its own laws of glacial pacing will find a visually rich presentation of a landmark Glass score [in the Met's new production], one that flows by with a moving and serene grandeur unique among his oeuvre.
Its religious text is 2000 years older than the events depicted on stage. I explained to my neighbor: It's as if someone wrote an opera about the SCLC in Alabama in 1963, but, rather than give Martin Luther King and Reverend Lowry and Bull Connor dialogue from their story, extracted all their words from the King James version of the Book of Acts. My explanation was lost on him: he's Muslim. Anyway, when bullies confront Gandhi, their text is from the Bagavad-gita, something like, "Ha ha! This I have gained today, this whim I'll satisfy. I am young and rich and strong. Who else can match himself with me?" The soprano who saves Gandhi sings something like, "The devilish folk... they have no other aim than to satisfy their pleasure, convinced that is all. So speak fools."

The opera's religious quality comes from the music even more than from the text. Glass's music has been used in movies to suggest desolation, despair, or anxiety (as his song "Facades," his score for the documentary Koyaanisqatsi and the commercial film The Hours), but in Satyagraha, it expresses serenity, resolve, and joy. Glass builds each movement over a repeating bass line, borrowing the technique from Bach, in itself an expression of eternity. The notes all sit comfortably in the ranges of the singers, and these singers projected with ease and warmth. Richard Croft as Gandhi invested repeated lines with vitality, and all the singers made variation in dynamics when there was no variation in the melody.

The middle scenes have pleasing fast-paced motion and slow dramatic build, as Glass builds variety by revoicing the harmony, mixing and matching different lines at the climax of a movement; but I've always been most partial to the last movement. It's the longest, I believe, and it accompanies the least action: a march of miners gathers adherents despite threats of violence, while Gandhi and others meditate on the way that Truth is reborn when there is trouble, generation after generation. The act begins with an off-stage chorus singing, a cappella, a pulsing "ba - ba - ba - ba" d minor chord that shifts to f minor and back. The orchestra takes up those two chords with upward arpeggios; two women sustain long notes over the same pair of chords and the same pulse; Gandhi eventually sings it, too. When he's alone on stage, several minutes later, the music shifts to a major chord (C major, I think) and he sings a C major scale, from E to E, in plain old quarter notes, many, many times, slightly out of sync with the arpeggios. Oldest trick in the book, switching from minor to major, but it works, and Croft's voice is like a balm.

Of course, I knew all this before I went to see it. The visual aspects of the production were striking, and very much in the spirit of the music and text. Here are some highlights:

It opens in silence, moments after the event in Gandhi's sojourn in South Africa that changed his life: He was literally kicked off of a train for refusing to give up (on account of his color) a seat that he had paid for lawfully. Gandhi picks himself up, shaken. He then opens a small book that he finds near his suitcase -- evidently a copy of the Bagavad-gita -- and begins to sing before the orchestra joins him.

Crowding the stage were characters dressed as descendants of Europeans in South Africa, all carrying newspapers, and their Indian lower class, all carrying baskets. As the song built, its text concerning impending battle between factions of a single family, giant (20 foot high) humanoid monsters rose up behind the respective camps, made of newspaper and baskets.

Divestment of clothing came to represent sacrifice to join the movement - so, everyone in cast and chorus took off their shoes at the end of the first scene, and later placed their coats and wraps on hangers that lifted the clothing to the ceiling fifty feet above the stage. (I enjoyed watching the chorus come out at intermission to claim their own shoes!)

During a turbulent instrumental interlude, a whole monster - movie cityscape with giant puppets gathered behind Gandhi to menace him, and disappeared as suddenly, all during the scene of Europeans bullying Gandhi. Another cool element of that scene: Shoe shine "boys" caring for every chorus man's shoes, bowing and scraping while the men sang their arrogance.  A very literal image, but effective: every chorus member and cast member comes forward to cast their hated government-issued identity cards into a hole in the stage floor, which Gandhi at last ignites, while the chorus sings triumphantly about the resolve to accept pain if it is a consequence of duing duty.

Finally, the semicircular wall of corrugated steel split in the final scene, revealing a projection of clouds on blue sky, while we see "Martin Luther King Jr." in his pulpit (seen from behind) as he gestures to an unseen crowd, while Gandhi sings "Whenever the law of righteousness withers away... then do I generate myself on earth... for the protection of good, thrusting the evil back and setting virtue on her seat again."

Concluding his review in the New York SUN, critic Jay Nordinger asks,
Is Satyagraha really an opera? Or is it more like an oratorio or cantata, with a production around it? There is certainly a sense of ceremony about this work. It has an air of churchliness, dare I say. (Templeness?) And a cynic may find it culty and na├»ve, not to mention pretentious. But there is a less cynical, and better, view. .... We owe this to the minimalists, if nothing else: At a time when beauty in music was under attack — vilified as a bourgeois indulgence [i.e., during the hegemony of serialism in the art music and jazz music of the 60s and 70s] — they stood up for it.
After that uplifting performance (boy, did you ever leave the theatre humming the tunes!), I have to report being let down by Prokofiev's The Gambler. The scenery was promising, at first: a green felt curtain, and a stylized setting for a cramped apartment elongated way out of proportion, suggesting a wall built of cards. But a little more minimalism would have helped this one: too much variety is as stultifying as too little. I'll admit that I dozed off several times. Every time I awoke, the characters on stage were continuing to discuss the same basic thing: "I need money to pay a gambling debt." The second act was more interesting, as the protagonist bets repeatedly on red, to win money, to serve the girl he loves. The stage becomes a giant roulette, and a chorus sings and dances across it, but it all comes down to this: He wins a lot of money. He offers her the money. For reasons that have something to do with pride or integrity (why should she bother with those now?), the love interest rejects the money and him. Opera over.

That night, I saw the much-touted London production of Sunday in the Park with George, about which I've written often on my web site and on this blog. All I can add is a fresh appreciation for James Lapine's deft characterizations of people in just a few lines of dialogue, and the wonderful work of actors to make such minor characters seem totally real during their brief times on stage. (This is especially noticeable in the second Act, where most of these characters appear only for one song and the scene that follows.) The computer-generated background was cool, but not so much more cool than ingenious cutouts or the production in Washington that utilized giant easels and canvasses as scenery. The actors in the lead were endearing and real, energetic and playful. The piece was affecting as always, in the same ways as always... so I rather wish that I'd spent my precious two days in NYC sampling a couple of new productions on Broadway instead of The Gambler and Sunday. Oh well.

(Reflections on the Metropolitan Opera's premiere of SATYAGRAHA, composed by Philip Glass, who collaborated with Constance DeJong on text, adapted from the Hindu scripture The Bagavad - Gita. The production was designed and directed by Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, and others from London's theatre company IMPROBABLE. Also, brief comments on the Met's production of Prokofiev's THE GAMBLER, and Roundabout theatre's production of Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Nyman's HAT: Nothing Minimal About It

(reflections after a performance of THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT, opera by composer Michael Nyman, with libretto by Nyman and Christopher Rawlins, based on the essay by Dr. Oliver Sacks.)

Reading John Simon's dry review of Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE in the week of its premiere in 1984, I ran across a name I'd never seen before. Simon was dismissing Sondheim's music as pastiche of "Steve Reich's minimalism." That was enough for me, and soon, I was purchasing recordings by all the minimalists I could find: Reich, Glass, Adams, Riley, and a latecomer, Michael Nyman. They taught me one important lesson, from which many others flowed: there's more to music than melody and harmony. They also gave me courage, because I'd despaired of ever catching up with Sondheim who knew counterpoint and harmonic progressions by heart. Hearing the "Opening" to GLASSWORKS, thrilling DESERT MUSIC by Reich, affable "In C" by Riley, and the stately first movement of "Grand Pianola Music" by John Adams, I thought, "I could do that!" Or, in the words of Peter Schickele, after Ellington: "If it sounds good, it is good."

This week, I'll see three different pieces of musical theatre that I've known mostly from recordings since then. Tomorrow, it's SATYAGRAHA by Phillip Glass at the Metropolitan Opera. Saturday, it's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. Last night, it was THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT by Michael Nyman, with libretto by Nyman and Christopher Rawlins, based on the essay by Dr. Oliver Sacks.

HAT is a "chamber opera," and I'd say it was a great success at its performance at Emory's Cannon Chapel last night. The audience included as many medical students as arts lovers, as it was sponsored by Emory Health Services. They were prepped to be fascinated by the uniquely focused plot: a nuerologist conducts tests to diagnose a patient's problem.

Yet it wasn't "clinical." In spoken lines at the start, "Dr. S" tells us how neurologist's jargon is all phrased in terms of loss, but tells us nothing of what the patient has; it's all what, not who. We were all moved, I think, by the plight of a man who seems at first to be healthy and happy, attended by his doting and energetic wife. The doctor (Oliver Sacks, generalized) is at a loss to understand why the man ("Dr. P") had been referred to a neurologist at all... until the man, finished with tests, dresses to go. I teared up at the moment when the wife and the doctor realized that the affable Dr. P has put on only one of his two shoes. Asked where his other shoe is, Dr. P points to his stockinged foot and sings, on a monotone, "That is my shoe." Dr. S(acks) sings back on the same pitch, "That is your foot. There is your shoe." Dr. P, embarrassed, pretends that it was just a joke. But the more that Dr. P hummed and smiled, the more horrified the wife, and the Doctor, and the audience felt. This man is somehow, in some way, perceiving the world very wrong, and it must be a nightmare, and he doesn't seem to know it.

Some moments are funny and touching at the same time. Dr. P sees a rose, and says that it is a "convoluted red form" with a "green vertical appendage." He struggles to figure out what to do with a glove, which is a "continuous surface...with five outpouchings" used, he guesses, for storing coins of five different sizes. He mistakes Bette Davis's close-up for a battlefield or contest. And he cannot recognize his wife's picture, or his own, or the difference between a photo of his face and a mirror -- while his wife looks on, losing her ability to deny that something's wrong.

I wonder, would we have had the same experience, or a better one, had there been no music? Would an enactment of Sacks's essay be just as moving?

Nyman reiterates one sequence of chords for ninety minutes, varying riffs (no doubt) and the key (I'm pretty sure). It was the carpet of sound under which the three characters sang lines that very often overlapped. Sometimes, we watched the three doing their business silently (collecting pictures for a test, stirring tea, arranging chairs) while music continued. In this way, we got Dr. P's intense efforts to put his perceptions into words, his wife's excuses for his odd behavior, and his doctor's analysis, all at the same time. The repeated piano figures with steps up and down the scale increased tension during a few sequences, most notably the scene when the impaired patient beats the doctor in a game of chess ("Bishop to Q4" is a typical line). The soprano's highest notes , 4/5 of the way through the opera, shock her husband into silence. There's a refreshing scene where the patient and doctor join in a performance of a song from Schumann's DICHTERLIEB, its pulsing accompaniment fitting in well with the rest.

Near the end, a distinctive slurred triplet in the piano's bass line recurred, and I recognized a connection between the music and the text. Dr. P may not see the whole, but he recognizes a feature (Durante's nose, Hitler's mustache, his brother's big teeth), the way we might perceive that we've heard this music before because of that little slurred triplet or a particular interval.

There's another element that the music brought. It's hard to imagine the performers' characterizations without the soprano's chirpy vocal lines, the doctor's vulnerable and incisive tenor notes, and the patient's stolid bass -- or, in one wonderful and disturbing passage, his lyrical baritone describing a photo of a lovely scene at the shore (only it's some machine, not people at the shore at all).

The performers were young for their roles, but perfect in voice and just fine in characterization: Jessica Stavros, Gideon Dabi, and Daniel Gerdes of the Boston University Opera Institute. Pianist Jeffrey Stevens never flagged in ninety minutes of unremitting, pulsing notes.

Until the end, we never applauded, and few laughed (I did). I suppose no one was humming any of the lines. But the music propelled, colored, punctuated, and structured the theatre. Having greatly enjoyed maximalism at the Met's HD broadcast of BOHEME last weekend, I can attest that the label makes no difference in the drama.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Daily Devotion: A Sample

(Reflections on the readings assigned for today in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. )

Some of us at St. James Episcopal Church in Marietta are inviting parishioners to participate in creating a book of daily meditations for Lent 2009. To give volunteers an idea of how a reflection on Scripture could also tie in with our experiences as parishioners, I composed a sample meditation on today's assigned readings, which are listed at the bottom:

Colassians 1:10. ...bearing fruit in every good work and increasing with knowledge of God.

Every year at this time, I'll pull out of my driveway worrying about work and schedules, and be startled by shades of pink and bright green in the trees. While I've focused on my hectic winter schedule, there were forces working under the surface, with sunshine and rain and nutrients in the soil, preparing all these buds and blossoms to appear seemingly overnight.

The readings for today start with some kind of cleansing to dedicate a community to God, and then look ahead to "bearing fruit." It's comforting to think that God can be working under the surface in my life, too, even while I'm distracted with errands and meetings.

Still, Paul connects growth to "increasing with knowledge of God." I'm old enough to have heard every word of scripture at least once, but I hope that doesn't mean I've no room to grow in knowledge of God. I think that's why the Scripture emphasizes community so much: we need to teach and work with each other to grow beyond book knowledge.

Thinking of these things, I now imagine walking from the sanctuary down the long corridor as moving from the roots up the trunk. In the Parish Hall, I see children, adults, and seniors conversing over coffee and snacks, while Father Ray's Power Point flashes all kinds of learning, worship, service and fellowship opportunities that engage our community every week: branches that shoot off in all directions, bearing fruit.

Psalms 28, 36, 39; Exodus 19:1-16; Col. 1:1-14; Matthew 3:7-12

Monday, April 07, 2008

Updike's Witches

(reflections after re-re-reading THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK by John Updike 1984.)

John Updike's upcoming novel returns to some old characters for THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK, so I've pulled out my old paperback of the 1984 novel THE WITCHES.... The main thing that strikes me, so soon after re-reading COUPLES, is how the books' lines run parallel:

We meet an insular community within an insular community (the couples' group within the suburb of Tarbox, MA, and the coven within the small town of Eastwick, ME). As we get to know them and their routines and lovers, a newcomer disturbs the equilibrium (Foxy Chapman in COUPLES and Darryl Van Horne in WITCHES). Long story short: the pleasures that ensue contain the seeds of the community's disintegration. In both novels, the dissolution of the community is not the end of the world, and life goes on for the individuals, away from each other.

I enjoy, as always, simply being immersed in the lives and sensations of these characters. There's also the tricky way that Updike plays Hawthorne's game of giving us magic that might also be mere rumor, or coincidence, or dream, or metaphor. One witch shriveled her husband to nothing, and she keeps his dust in a jar among the tomatoes; another turned her husband into a doormat. One shares a vision of flight. One casually kills a squirrel with her evil eye when she sees him raiding her bird feeder. Together the three witches wish cancer upon a rival -- but the young woman already said she felt a growth.

Written in 1984, the novel looks back with more than a hint of satire on the hippie - feminist - Weatherman currents running through the culture in 1969. Betty Friedan's THE FEMINIST MYSTIQUE referred to men's pretense of protecting women's mysterious closeness to nature, saving them from the rough world of male business and government. Updike catches a whiff of that in later feminists' own extolling of sisterhood. So there's this sisterhood of women who would certainly agree with the once-popular feminist bumper-sticker that "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycyle," and yet they're all thrown into a tizzy of excitement and jealousy by meta-male (and Satan) Darryl.

I especially enjoy Updike's nearly plausible explanation of a magical thunderstorm. It's willed by the witch Alexandra Spofford to spite the sun-tanned and fit young adults whose frisbee and radios spoil her walk at the beach. Updike observes that the weather certainly has an effect on our moods; Alexandra simply reverses the process.

Updike is particularly rough on a Unitarian power couple of liberals, and Felicia, a literally sharp-tongued community activist (she spits up tacks, sticks, and feathers under the spell of her enemies). He usually shows empathy for all of his characters, but not with these. "Felicia had a considerable love for the underprivileged in the abstract but when actual cases got close to her she tended to hold her nose." The pompous Unitarian preacher - turned - terrorist blows himself up; his wife becomes leader of a rival coven and spits up pieces of insects in the pulpit, and Felicia's husband bashes her head in mid-screed. Updike slowly builds that scene of the murder by filling in the husband's reflections on the past and present between lines of spoken dialogue. After the crime of passion, someone (husband Clyde, or Updike's vaguely situated narrator -- who sometimes speaks for Eastwick) reflects, "Marriage is like two people locked up with one lesson to read, over and over, until the words become madness."

There's another set piece near the end: the devil's sermon, delivered in the pulpit of the Unitarian church. It's a stick in the eye of all who say that creation is good, pulling out of an encyclopedia the horrible slow deaths caused among wildlife by certain insect poisons and ghastly parasites, with gratuitous (even circuitous) processes that seem way out of range for evolution to explain. (Begins p. 321 in the Fawcett paperback of 1985.)

There's no way for me to read the book without flashing back to the movie, which starred Jack Nicholson as Van Horne, Cher as Alexandra, and Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer as the other witches. Cher's performance was particularly memorable in a scene that doesn't occur in the book: Alexandra rebuffs Van Horne's crude seduction with self-assured amusement, ending her list of his faults with, "And you smell." But Van Horne retorts with a description of Alexandra's life, her truncated expectations, her unexpressed dreams, and her self-delusions. He circles, while the camera closes in on Cher's face, and we watch as her smug smile freezes into a grimace and tears form in her eyes. The end of the movie is pretty silly.

John Williams' score for the movie is a favorite of mine. His main theme is a pastiche of Lizst's Mephisto waltz, and its recaps grow old; but the long seduction sequence is eerie and fun; and I love especially the piano toccata that Williams uses for a magical tennis game.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Cabinets, Committees, and Me

I recently sat at the table with Senators, President Bush, NATO heads of State, the cabinet of Iraq, the governors of the Federal Reserve, trustees of the school where I teach, and the Vestry of the church to which I belong. We concluded our meeting with a sense of relief that the matter had been decided, but also with a sense of dread that we would face second guessing and people personally hurt by what we decided.

During our meetings, the more we wished aloud for other options and chased other possibilities, the more we saw a wall with no other ways through, and its narrow gate closing. For all that, we also felt like we were taking a gamble.

We've made our decisions, for better and for worse, and consequences are rolling in. "It's socialism for the rich," says one about the Fed's recent decision to assist the buyout of Bear Stearns, while another says, "A failure to act would have been economic disaster for everyone." Al Maliki misjudged the strength of his forces and misjudged the time and has irrevocably weakened his floundering government in Iraq, or else he has finally demonstrated his will to break the stronghold of tribal militias in Iraq. We have hurt church programs and slapped faithful staff in the face, say some; and we have responded sensibly and hopefully to current circumstances, within parameters set up by decisions made years ago say others.

Cabinets and committees have run the world for the last two or three hundred years. I've taught about it, and read about it; now I'm in it.

The feeling recalls Abe Lincoln's fit of temper when accused of ruining his party's chances out of pure personal ambition. "I have tried to do what's best, you know how I have, and now to be accused of doing it for selfish reasons. . . !" His secretary wrote that Lincoln mastered his temper at this point: "Well, things could be better, they could be worse. All I can do is what appears to be right." (Quoted from memory.)