What I said at the conference: or: The universal opera mind, the experience of aesthetic rapture, the leading role of the audience, and how economic advancement can kill a perfectly good art

Thai Khon

[Our current art theories are fundamentally flawed. This is important because art theories both inspire artists’ endeavors and determine official arts policy; and false theories of art lead to failure just like false theory of rocket science leads to crashes and false medical theory leads to the patient’s death: art stagnates, artists are frustrated, grant money is misspent, and the public, unserved, loses interest.

That our art theories are false ought to be apparent to anyone with but a modicum of education and experience – a little modern logic, a little modern economics, a little modern psychology, a little travel, a little business experience in the private sector; the trouble is that those who formulate and teach our art theories, and those who attempt to put them into practice, lack precisely that modicum.

It is worse, in fact: our current art theories have evolved a phalange of special interests: professors who teach it, bureaucrats who administer it, several generations of artists who have been raised on it, and a whole tribe of consultants, managers, dealers, and impresarios who live off the economic systems put in place to implement precisely those theories. Any new theory of art which challenges the economic standing of all these people is therefore resisted. And thus, our false theory of art has become a kind of scholastic Aristotelianism, an unassailable dogma, a powerful group-think, and, generally speaking, no genuine debate of it is possible.

At a recent conference I presented an aspect of a dissident point of view. Below is the text of my presentation with marginal annotations in yellow.]

1. Comparing East and West

The idea that one could learn something useful about one’s own culture by comparing it to other cultures is very old in Europe, but it has never been well implemented, mainly because most attempts to do so set out form the assumption that other cultures are so foreign that we could not begin to understand them, let alone find any similarities. Comparisons, when they are made, are focused on differences rather than similarities. Voltaire gave a perfect expression of this view; he wrote: what is in in Peking, in Paris is right out. In other words, all cultural standards are merely conventional, including our own.

In fact, the truth is precisely the opposite: there are lots of similarities and standards are strikingly alike. That Voltaire did not see this is curious: it’s almost certain that as he wrote those words, he had before his eyes somewhere in his office several pieces of Chinese porcelain: it was at the time, very much in both in Peking and in Paris.

And it was only one of many such things which Voltaire – we – should have noticed.

Balinese Gambuh

2.  Asian dance-drama

Here is another one: my learned predecessor has just expressed the view, quite common, that European opera is a unique art form in the world. I believe it is not. I believe other ancient civilizations have evolved very similar art forms – similar both aesthetically and socioeconomically – and that it is both possible and useful to compare them and their fates. I propose to do just that today and my topic will be one such art form: Asian dance-drama.

I came in contact with it for the first time in my middle age, having been formed intellectually in the European cultural tradition: I was a great fan of baroque opera already; but, though I had by then spent a lot of time in Asia, I was not at all familiar with Asian theater. My reaction was at first that of wonder at the strangeness of the drama I was watching – the people looked different, they wore flowers in their hair, the musicians sat on the floor and played gongs, the singers ornamented their songs in unfamiliar ways, and I have never seen such dance figures before. But as the play went on, I was struck by a powerful sense of recognition: it was like meeting a masked stranger during the carnival in Venice and suddenly recognizing that the stranger behind the mask is in fact our old and familiar friend. This experience is not unique to me: it has happened repeatedly to cultured Westerners: Walter Spies, Beryl de Zoete, Collin McPhee. It continues to happen every year at the Bali Dance Festival. It happens too frequently to be an accident: it happens frequently because there is really is a very strong similarity there.

I will discuss the similarities next, but first I have to tell you what I mean by Asian dance-drama. I mean by it a dramatic form invented as a temple art in South India sometime around the year 0. It tells classical stories, usually taken from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, in the form of dance accompanied by an orchestra and a singing narrator, frequently backed by a choir. As Hinduism, and later Buddhism, spread from South India to South East Asia, the dance drama followed, sometimes – oddly – in opposition to the ruling religion (it is almost as if one imported the religion along with its sins). By the 9th century AD, dance drama became an essential part of royal ceremonial throughout South East Asia. The art form has evolved three distinct styles – South Indian, Indonesian, and Thai-Cambodian. All three are still practiced today.

Cambodian lkhaon kbach boran

3.  Asian dance-drama and European opera:  two branches of the same art?

So, what are the striking similarities between European opera and Asian dance-drama?

I have divided the similarities into three categories.

(1) First, aesthetically speaking, both European opera and Asian dance-drama resort to the same trick for their emotional effect: first, both art forms induce a strong sense of unreality, or otherworldliness, by staging the performances at night, with dim lights, in incomprehensible languages (Venetian dialect in Europe, for instance, or Kawi in Java); by playing music; by singing and dancing rather than acting; by telling well known and often unbelievable stories, frequently in fragmentary form. All these procedures allow the audience to suspend their sense of reality and engage in appreciating the abstract complexities of the performers’ technique: singing or dancing (or both). The complex technique lies at the heart of the art form. It takes years for the performers to master and years for the audience to learn to appreciate. Its appreciation appeals to our visceral, animal nature: we are naturally very sensitive to the sound of the human voice and the movements of the human body. When we are presented with certain aspects of these phenomena, under certain conditions, we can experience rapture. Both art forms seek to induce the experience of rapture through the procedure described.

(2) Although I believe that the central point of both arts is the attainment of aesthetic rapture, there are important similarities between the two art forms as far as their intellectual frame-work is concerned. For instance: the story does not matter in either art form: the stories are told in incomprehensible languages, they are often silly, and they are invariably familiar: there is no sense of suspense of “what happened then?” In both art forms, the libretti are either classical (Greek and Roman gods in opera, Indian epics in dance-drama), or somehow imitate the classics: there is a sense of a loyalty or adherence to the past on the scenario level. Further, on the ideological level, the stories typically concern themselves with the “old virtues” – virtues appropriate to the feudal society: chivalry, courage, loyalty and decorum. Issues of religious observance, ordinary morals, and utilitarian considerations are studiously avoided. The feudal virtues are deemed to be appropriate to, or possessed by, the aristocratic heroes, who are often contrasted with – but not opposed to – the lower classes. The principal concern is with high and low and the contrast is seen as one expressive of quality, or virtue.

(3) Both art forms have played very similar socio-economic function in their respective societies. For instance, both have always been of very narrow social appeal – a minority art form. (Even in the best of times no more than 10% of the population has ever attended opera in France). In both, core users predominate – people who are avid and frequent consumers of the art form and who devote vast amounts of time and money to its consumption, are capable of watching it every night, often the same production several nights in a row, travel long distances to see special performances, and usually sit in the first rows. Both art forms are characterized by repeat consumption: no opera lover would ever say “Oh, I have seen Cosi Fan Tutte already”. Both art forms are very expensive to put on, both in terms of time and money. Both are connected in the popular mind with the national identity: they are thought to be a kind of epitome, or perhaps even, a kind of zenith of their respective cultures. This gives them both the power to legitimize authority: kings and governments have traditionally used them to establish their authority and shore up their prestige. Finally, both art forms stimulate the same kinds of response from non-users: the first, critical, often lampoons the art form because of its unrealistic representation of life (“fat ladies singing”): popular art’s attitude to these art forms is often subversive; the second common attitude of non-users is admiration and aspiration: “I wish I could appreciate it”.

Cambodian lkhaon kbach boran

And now, allow me to engage in a spot of speculation:

4.  Is there such a thing as the opera mind?

Are there enough similarities between opera and Asian dance-drama for us to suggest that they represent a single genre – in fact, the same art form with only minor, cosmetic differences? And if so, can we say that the two art forms have arisen in such similar ways because their particular “trick” fits somehow some aspects of the human mind? If so, it certainly does not fit, as audience participation shows, all human minds: it appeals to a minority of minds in each society where it is present, but, significantly such a minority seems to exist in many different societies. It is possible to take Italian opera to Warsaw in the year 1628 and stage it there without any audience training whatsoever and find that the art form appeals to some of these unprepared minds. Similarly, Indian dance drama can be taken to far away places like Laos and Bali and – be liked by some people there. I am reminded of the Parable of the Sower:

At that time, when a very great crowd was gathering together and men from every town were resorting to Jesus, he said in a parable: “The sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air ate it up. And other seed fell upon the rock, and as soon as it had sprung up it withered away, because it had no moisture. And other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. And other seed fell upon good ground, and sprang up and yielded fruit a hundredfold.” As he said these things he cried out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  (St Luke, 8:4-15)

We know from experience that different people have different personalities; and we know from Evolutionary theory that a limited variety of different cognitive skills can be expected to co-exist in any human population. Ergo, perhaps there is such a thing as an Opera Mind: a mind especially suited to this type of art form? (“The good ground”). If so, then the invention of the art form was not so much an invention as it was a discovery: a discovery of a certain kind of mind. The fact that the rules of the Italian opera genre established themselves within just twenty years and have remained largely stable since seems to support the thesis: this is the nature of all discoveries which suit underlying reality: the general outline of the invention comes into being quickly and once it does, it remains remarkably stable: think of automobiles: within two decades, automobiles already looked a lot like today’s cars because that was the form that suited the human body. Similarly, the rules of Asian dance-drama have remained, as far as we can tell, largely constant over the last thousand years — perhaps because they suit the dance-drama/opera mind?

I cannot resist counter-factual speculation: if the dance-drama mind is in fact the opera-mind, would staging Venetian opera during the dance festival in Bali meet with the same sense of recognition among the Balinese which I experienced upon my first viewing of Balinese dance-drama? We don’t know that, but, luckily, it is not too late to perform that experiment. But the reverse experiment has been performed: the Royal Cambodian Theater performed in Paris in 1906 and the performance was a huge success with the Parisian cultivated classes.  (For some reason it was never repeated).

[So here are some unorthodox ideas for you, such as:

a) that there may exist different kids of minds and that different kinds of art may be designed to fit these different kinds of minds;
b) that these arts may therefore not be fungible – i.e. that arts designed for a certain kind of mind will never fit another other kind of mind, and vice versa;
c) that the distinctions between different kinds of minds – and therefore different kinds of art – can cut across different societies and manifest themselves in many different civilizations; and therefore
d) that certain kinds of minds in Europe and in Asia may be more similar to each other than they are to some of their own peers.

These ideas are strongly resisted by the Art Theory Establishment which holds, in direct opposition, that the mind at the time of birth is a blank slate and that any kind of art can be inscribed upon it. (With the necessary corollaries that the task of inscribing upon it should be paid for by the state and entrusted to the guardians of Art Theory who shall then inscribe upon this very blank slate a kind of art which will benefit the whole society, make it happier, richer, more harmonious and more virtuous).

But if true, these ideas would have many far-ranging consequences, one of them being rendering wholly impossible any utilitarian (“greatest good of greatest number”) arguments in favor of public support for opera. This may not necessarily be bad – opera can survive – even thrive – on its own – it did on 17th century Venice, in Warsaw ca. 1800, in Paris between the wars; indeed, it may be good: freed of any further need to broaden its appeal beyond its core users, to educate the broad public and satisfy indifferent bureaucrats, it just might deliver better the one thing that makes it a great art: the experience of aesthetic rapture.

Which, of course, is another unorthodox idea. The established art theory does not recognize the aesthetic experience at all: it is thought to be “just an emotion”, and “socially constructed” (and therefore arbitrary). Establishment art theorists like to credit the importance of opera to its function as civil liturgy (?), its ability to manipulate signs and symbols (??), it’s education value (all those half-baked ideological messages, I suppose, such as “love is most important” and “love your country”), etc.  This makes me often wonder whether the people who write this kind of stuff have in fact ever experienced aesthetic rapture, and if they have not, then, what business do they have to tell us what opera is about?]

Javanese Wayang Orang

5.  The Fate of Asian dance-drama in Bali and in Thailand: the role of the educated audience

Now I would like to devote a few words to the modern fate of Asian dance-drama as I think it contains some important clues to understanding what makes an art thrive. There is a tremendous difference between Bali, where Asian dance-drama thrives, where nearly everyone is involved in its performance and consumption, and where the artistic level is very high, and Thailand where it is, quite literally, on its last legs and the one National Theater cannot be filled even for four performances a year.

Indeed, one of the saddest experiences during my study of Asian dance-drama was to see a performance of Thai dance-drama (khon) in Bangkok in 2005. It took place at the National Theater, a grand building founded by the state, and was performed by the Royal Thai khon troupe, which is fully supported by the state. The audience consisted of perhaps two thousand high school kids herded in by their school who had no interest in the performance and talked and played with their mobile phones throughout. The performance was absolutely terrible: the orchestra played with all the oomph and gusto of ripe Camembert, and the dancers could not be troubled to lift their legs so that it was impossible to say whether they could dance at all. I thought I’d just seen the death of khon.

And then, only two years later, I saw the same troupe perform in Bali. The difference between the two performances was night and day – and the explanation for the difference seemed… the audience. The audience in Bali is knowledgeable and experienced and it gives ready expression to its likes and dislikes. This leads to a special rapport between the audience and performers and motivates the performers to try harder; and they do.  On that night, the Thai khon dancers appeared to be gods come down to earth: they did not move, they floated.

The existence of knowledgeable audience probably explains the excellent condition of dance-drama in Bali where a very large number of amateur troupes (nearly every village has its own theater troupe) performs it throughout the year and where the annual dance festival features several simultaneous performances – to packed audiences – throughout the day for a whole month. The difference in the audience is probably explained by the education: growing up in Bali obliges one to dance and play music since childhood. Dance education begins around the age of 3 and continues till death:  nearly every adult participates in some artistic ensemble in some capacity. By contrast, classical dance drama education, which had once been part of any upper-class child’s curriculum, has ceased in Thailand nearly 40 years ago.

[This, by the way, is another view in direct disagreement with the established theory of art. The notion that a knowledgeable audience motivates artists to a better performance, that it spurs them to greater efforts and guides them in their search for new forms of expression runs wholly against the current and general belief that a true artists is someone who leads and teaches his audience, guides it out of its ignorance – indeed, yanks it out of its ignorance and complacency, often against its will, at the cost of tremendous self-sacrifice and professional failure in his lifetime. (i.e. only future generations can appreciate the work of a genius working today who must, by definition, be “ahead of his time” and therefore misunderstood).]

Keralan Kathakali

6.  Is Europe going Thailand’s way?

Incidentally, this is what is happening in Europe: the generation of our grandparents was taught to sing and play the piano – and not just at a rudimentary level: a reasonable level of expertise was required — enough to perform Beethoven and Schubert piano sonatas. This level of expertise made it easy for that generation to learn to appreciate opera and assured a steady audience for operatic productions. Today hardly anyone receives any musical education, and if they do, it is at best elementary. Appreciation of classical arts requires cultivation:  not hours, but months and years of training the eye and the ear and today we do not devote that kind of time to cultivating ourselves. Is it any surprise that the popularity and commercial viability of European opera is going the way of Thai dance-drama?

7.  The economic decline of the upper-middle class the death of art:  can we even hope to have great opera for long?

And this is a good moment to ask ourselves a philosophical question: given the way our society has changed in the last century, and in particular the way the life of the middle and upper-middle classes has changed, can we even hope to foster a broad, educated audience for our opera? Only a hundred years ago a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer would leave for work at 10 and come back home by 3. Within those short five hours he would have earned (and kept) enough income to support a large household with servants. This allowed him and his family not only the financial resources, but also the time necessary to cultivate themselves, to learn how to play the piano and sing, and to amuse themselves by giving amateur ad hoc opera performances at home (such as took place at my grandparents’ house). In today’s middle and upper-middle households, both spouses work and, being professionals, probably work 60- or 70-hour weeks; then they return home to perform household chores themselves. There is no time to become culturally cultivated today. Perhaps we have to accept that opera is an art of a bygone era: an era when we had time for it.


Get this.

A think tank — no less — has asked your reporter to speak.

Unbelievable. It’s like asking the sun to rise or a baby to pee in its clothes. One does not ask me to speak.  One asks me to please be silent.

What is worse:  having acquainted myself with the topic of the conference, I cannot see how I could do anything but speak

in such a manner as will displease them.

Which can’t help but seem ungrateful.

Towards this purpose yours truly has been reading on opera and has found, here, a book which took fifteen years to research and write, a fantastic book, which, instead of proposing high-felutin’ but incomprehensible theories of aulic sponsorship and courtly-versus-popular — er? —  a pretty easy thing to do, if you think about it, read three books (of which one is Hegel and the other two a French and an American pomo person respectively) and on their basis write a fourth one, totally original — instead of that, say, this book does things like count tickets sold, days on play-bill, tax records and other dull whatnots.  (Accountants say:  “if you want to know what happened, follow the money”).

The book’s principal finding is that… the business has never made any money.


Of course, modern film is like this, too.  Sure, the studios make money — on distribution; actors do — as wages; and even producers generally make a living.  But investors — each film is a separate business venture financed by all sorts of — it turns out wide-eyed naives hoping to “get into the business”, gratified to rub their shoulders with the stars, etc. — well, investors are regularly taken to the cleaners.  For big sums, too.  In Venetian opera, ticket sales normally covered barely one half of the expense of the production.  Regularly.  Year in, year out.  Investors ended up losing huge sums — 2,000 ducats, 4,000 ducats each season — well north of 500K of today’s money — each.  Yet, what one sees is the same guys taking a beating and then — coming back the next season for more.  Like a dog to its vomit.  Or a gambler to his one-armed bandit.  Sure, they were rich, but the sums they lost were not insignificant sums.  They write to the impresarios complaining of their cashflow problems:  wheat prices are down, crops have failed, rents have not come in yet.  In some cases, mothers have to step in and put an end to the nonsense.

Kinds of reviews: the silly banter

So, I went to see this.  Nearly didn’t make it:  the trip from South Ken to the Barbican — a distance of 5.5 miles — 8.8 km — took me 1.5 hours!  I could have made it faster if I had walked.  What a ridiculous city!

The concert itself was pretty lame.  No one had any voice to speak of (except Vicky, of course).  Who are the great singers of today?  It seems the greats who were going strong when I first took interest in opera — Kirkby, Battle, Troyanos, McNair, Botte, Te Kanawa — have all died, lost their voices, or gotten too old or too sick to sing.  Last night, besides Vicky, the only good performance came from the conductor, not because he conducted especially well, but because he was entertaining:  he was very small, cute and jumped up and down energetically in a manner which made me imagine pink shrimp dancing.

You know:  French.

Ms De Niese was also very entertaining — she’s gaining weight in the delightful way of Indian ladies of a certain age — and she was wearing a body-clinging, bright red piece of silk which brilliantly emphasized her generous thigh-o-hip complex, which has already reached the mature form of a single, undifferentiated body part.  (Rather like the Spanish jamon iberico).

Which is not a bad thing, you know.  There are gentlemen who rather like ladies that way.


It’s a pity I didn’t sit closer to feast my eyes.

I should remember to bring opera glasses next time.

Good thing I don’t need to bring a hearing aid.


Though in this case, it would have made no difference, actually.

Well, in their defense, I suppose ever since this recording — (you can conveniently, if illegally, copy it here) — everyone is doomed to sound more or less inadequate.

And herein resides a philosophical reflection:  that in some sense, live classical music (the French say musique savante, that is, “educated music” — how very smart of them to have invented the right word for the phenomenon, but then again that’s their greatest forte, is it not, the bon mot), well, as I was saying, the musique savante, then, in the age of recorded sound becomes gradually more and more… irrelevant.  There are recordings which simply will never be matched. Period.  And once such a recording has been made, well, we have reached the end of art, have we not?

(Yes, yes, I know, this is not what Danto meant, but what he meant seems irrelevant, while what I mean is hugely pertinent).

It was interesting to observe the audience. First, it seemed more adequate than the American audience:  they knew what to applaud and — when.  (They recognize the false cadenza in London, even if no one at the Met does).

But they were rather mean to Ms De Niese, I thought.  Surely she was not the worst singer on stage that day, even if she did subcontract “Myself I shall adore” to a  side-kick; and tended to substitute arches for trills.  (Trills are hard.  I know.  I can’t do them at all).

No. After all, there is no need to single out Ms De Niese for special criticism:  there really, honestly are no great sopranos today.

(Well, with the exception of one.  Perhaps Monsieur Philippe could be convinced to try Semele?  I should suggest the idea to my friends in Chiang Mai.  A sexually-transposed/differently gendered Semele would fly there).

No.  The audience were mean to her not on account of her singing but on account of her preening, flagrant sex-appeal.  Ladies don’t like it.  Gentlemen in the company of their ladies dare not contradict.

Well, I didn’t care.  I applauded.  (I may even have whistled).  OK, so she sings nothing special, but, surely, she is a magnificent girl plus she sings.  (We have an expression for that in India:  “more girlfriend”, we say).

I was struck by something else, too:  when I first began going to opera — nearly 20 years ago today — I was usually the youngest person in the audience.  Last night, twenty years later, I was still the youngest man there; and I spied only one nubial-age female.  I wonder whether there are any statistics:  is opera dying because of the graying of the audience?  Or was opera always an art form for the rich and therefore old (people typically reach peak-earnings around 55).

It took me an hour to travel the 5.5 miles back home and by the time I got here, I was falling on my face with exhaustion.  What a busy, exhausting life this is:  museum in the morning, library in the afternoon, opera at night.  I am practically harried:  museum, opera, book, cinema, theater, book, book, cinema, opera, museum, lecture, book, library, institute, workshop, museum, concert.  I am running short of breath some days.

I can’t get this through my head:  how do people find time for work??

And the answer is, of course, they don’t.  And this is why they are so bloody ignorant — and, says Mrs Sei, dull:  they simply don’t have the time to educate themselves.  There was once, before the great socialist leveling, a leisure class whose job was to sponsor and consume art, and, as a result, we had once pretty decent art.  But today, the leisure class is gone, and with it any sensible art.  All we have now, it seems, is the the conceptual, zen-like… rhino stool:  “Geddit?” “Yeah, yeah, I geddit”, etc.

Hu Shih once wrote a brilliant article in which he explained — with ample historical proof — that Zen was unalloyed hippopotamus cowplop.

Left out on account of being too melancholy

Unlike most action narrative we are used to, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria isn’t much interested in what happened; the librettist’s interest lay mainly with the ethical implications of what happened.  Of course, Odysseus probably did not have much choice but to kill the suitors; and to do it by surprise attack:  it was very much the case of “better them than me”.  But this does not change the fact that the killing was treacherous; that it was — murder (since the suitors were unarmed); and that many bystanders were terribly affected by it.  Act Three of the opera deals with some of the consequences — yet, even Monteverdi himself found the impact of the librettist ruminations on the subject of victory contained within it much too dispiriting.  He intentionally left  out a scene (originally designated as Act V, scene II) in which the spirits of the suitors descend into hell:


[La si lascia fuori per essere malinconica.]

Deserto con Ombre de’ proci, Mercurio.


Dell’umana tragedia è questo il fine.
Regni, bellezza, amore
nel transito dissolve,
lo spirto vola e non riman che polve.
La morte è dèa possente,
abbatte ogni vivente
né ria speranza giova.
Chi non crede all’esempio
al fin non può negar fede alla prova.
Voi già proci superbi or placid’ombre,
prima principi illustri, or alme oscure
per man d’Ulisse il forte
gran ministro del ciel estinti foste,
ed or dopo goduta
la vagabonda libertà di morte
andrete profondati ove chi regna
a incrudelir insegna.
Chiaman le vostre colpe
precipizi d’averno,
voragini d’inferno,
ch’a’ perfidi e crudeli
quando l’eterno danno ha il ciel prefisso
s’apre così l’abisso.

Qui s’apre scena infernale e si profondano l’Ombre de’ proci.

Mercurio segue.

Imparate mortali,
sono di vostri brevissimi piaceri
i castighi immortali.
Stolti, sin che vivete,
vostri umani diletti
hanno la reggia in polve.
Mentre godono sol la carne, e i sensi,
e poi che morti siete
passa allo spirto un immortal
duro cambio infelice
gioir farfalla e tormentar fenice.
Vostra vita è un passaggio,
non ha stato e fermezza;
se mai giunge bellezza
tramonta allor, ch’appena mostra un saggio.
Vivi cauto, o mortale,
che cammina la vita e ‘l tempo ha l’ale,
e dove ingorda speme
vivendo non s’acquieta
dell’umana pazzia questa è la meta.


Opera as intellectual history

The Song of the Soul: Understanding Poppea is a delight.  Its topics are guaranteed to please — seventeenth century Venice, Monteverdi, opera; it’s writing is learned yet — breezy; though it be blessedly short (120 pages), yet it feels satisfyingly deep.

It is also the kind of history reading that seems best:  a kind of deep core-sampling.  Since no human mind can comprehend all of history, the best way to approach it may just be statistical: to take a series of random deep core-samplings. By the time you have sampled (in depth) Heian Era Japan, for instance, (The World of the Shining Prince) + Qing Dynasty China + Europe of the time of the bubonic plague (The Distant Mirror) + 17th century Italy, you begin to develop a sense of the overall shape of human affairs:  what is local and accidental and what is universal and lasting.

The book also happens to be good (i.e. non-fantastical) intellectual history. Its cogent argument is that the fall of the republics in Italy shifted classicists’ interest from Livy (Republican) to Tacitus (Imperial); and the corresponding rise of tyrants fueled an interest in Seneca’s stoicism – especially in something referred to as costanza – indifference, essentially – a precious mental skill at the time of rapidly declining individual liberties.

The book is also a delightful object:  small, light, well hand-fitting, it can be read comfortably in any position; it has a beautiful cover and meticulous print on quality paper. It reminds us that books are not merely words but can also be art objects. Pinguinification of the classics has had the converse effect. My newest Sei Shonagon is a Pinguin – unevenly pasted together with smelly glue, lousily small-printed on cheap, yellowing, brittle newsprint, it’s already beginning to fall apart. (One could say that I have read three Sei Shonagon’s to death). By now, at least two generations of scholars have been raised on such nothing-matters-but-the-text editions; is it any wonder they think that story telling and language games is all there is to literature?

Yes, we still have beautifully published art catalogs and coffee table books, but they are not read – they are too large and too heavy for reading. Poor classics, on the other hand, are invariably published in user unfriendly formats. Is it any wonder people aren’t reading them?


If I had an ounce of intellectual ambition, it may never be better deployed than to produce a similar book – a sequel, shall we say – on another Monteverdi opera – Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria.  I would want to include in it an essay on the 1977 Harnoncourt/Ponelle production of it. Ponelle’s famous statement about it – “Die schoenste zusammenarbeit meines lebens” – does mean “the finest collaboration of my entire life”, like the English liner notes say, but it also means – “the most beautiful”.

And it is beautiful.

And historically convincing – it certainly looks very baroque.

And comprehensible – most productions of the opera since have not been.

And – not least – a great lot of fun.  (There is a lot of humor in the opera and the H/P team have successfully carried it off).


Of course, one reason why it is comprehensible is that it is also — complete.  Most modern productions heavily abridge Act Three – in which three parties have to be reconciled to Odysseus’ “victory” — or, should we say, his murder of the suitors: Ireus, the glutton (now deprived of free fare), gods (who have been tricked), and Penelope (who refuses to fall into Odysseus’ arms, perhaps precisely because she has no real choice about it).

In part, moderns abridge the opera because it is long – today we are all working class people, by and large, and suffer chronic shortage of time; as well as — possibly — a virus-induced ADD.  (A brain-shorting virus is spread by domesticated cats).

But mostly directors abridge it because, habituated to the currently popular way of thinking about success, failure and virtue; and expectations of what constitutes a good plot; they either do not get the point of Act Three, or, perhaps more likely, think their audience will not. Who cares about the loser Ireus?  Why must gods be propitiated?  Why does not Poppea fall instantly into the arms of Odysseus?  And why are these points allowed to interfere with the happy end?

The reason why is that Ulisse was intended to be as much philosophical as Poppea was.  The hero winning the battle and getting the girl was not all there was to it.  Abridging Act Three ignores this fact and dumbs the opera down.  Evidence suggests that it probably cannot be done.  (Certainly not seemlessly).

The fairly common perception that Ulisse needs to be dumbed down — and the audience’s frequent incomprehension where it wasn’t, implies a kind of transformation in the common way of thinking — a weighty intellectual history in itself.  Discovering it might tell us more about ourselves than Ian Fenelon’s book does.