Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Ring Cycle and Its Mythical Foundations

The Ring Cycle written and composed by the nasty anti-Semite Richard Wagner is famous for many things.  One thing it is not famous for is that yours truly is part of a presentation of the Ring as part of the Opera Australia (OA) Ring Cycle Festival in Melbourne.
The version of the Ring I am in.  Cher (Miss Sharry), Madonna (Justine Anderson) The King (Richard Wood) Kiss (Peter Hanway). I am Garry Glitter (at the right - not the best the character to play) who is playing Hunding (a thug - also not the best character to play).  If you want to see The Ring in a Ring Spectacular, Saturday and Sunday at 5 pm this weekend and next (the whole thing for an hour and a bit) email:
In celebration of Wagner’s 200th birthday, OA is mounting the whole 17 hour ordeal.  The Ring Cycle is a 4 opera extravaganza of helmeted women warriors (the Valkyries), adulterous gods, incestuous siblings, incestuous nephew and aunt and heaps of gratuitous killings.  It is a cult classic and the whole season was booked out a year ago at over a thousand bucks for the tetra-logy. 
But it is a funny thing to be so popular.  The story and music are inaccessible.  The story is remote from the modern world and complex.  The operas are mainly unmelodious recitative without any really catchy tunes.  The most hummable is the Ride of the Valkyries but that is the exception rather than the tuneful rule. 
The rest can be a turn off.  Indeed the phrase, “it ain't over till the fat lady sings” derives from the pain endured waiting for the Valkyrie Brünnhilde to finish off the last 5 hour song fest with a twenty minute aria.  But the piece has survived and thrived.  The dramatic music apart, the power comes from the stories that make up this narrative.
Stories often have a mythic power that overcomes objections about lack of plausibility or evidence.  The truth though fascinating, is never a big thing if a legend is either loved, consoling or addresses troubling issues.  The founding fathers of sociology such as Weber and Durkheim documented the power of the story to the troubled human.  Durkheim in particular documented stories that are almost identical in variety of different cultures because of their power to console.
We see this universality of popular tales in the Ugly Duckling.  The narrative where the downtrodden conquers pain and oppression is found everywhere.  Cinderella, Forrest Gump, most romantic comedies, Oliver Twist (and lots of Dickens) are just some of the countless stories that speak to us all of a mythic justice in a cruel world.  In Christian liturgy, the equivalent of the Ugly Duckling is the Magnificat where Mary’s prayer assures us that those in suffering are raised high by God and bastards get it in the neck.  This is Cinderalla and the notion of Karma, writ large.
"My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

…And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.

…he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away."

 So the strength of the narrative of the Ring is buttressed by the potent story lines that appeal to those humans in search of consolation in a harsh and unjust world.
The Ring story is based on Nordic myths just like the Lord of the Rings.  Here is a Durkheim/Campbell type comparison of stories in the opera that are found in other fantasies in European culture.
A magical ring that both empowers and corrupts those who wear it.
Nordic and Tolkien ring stories
A narrative about the corruption of absolute power and the inability of power to make the powerful happy.  It is both consoling to the powerless and a warning to would be dictators
Brünnhilde is asleep until kissed
Sleeping Beauty
Don’t worry if you wait years for a bloke, someone will come along.
A magical sword only a son of Wotan the King of the Gods can extract
Somehow, a man born to lead will find the means to get there.
The hero Siegfried slays a dragon
St George and the dragon
There is always a hero out there to save us from shit.
The Rhinemaidens are beauteous women who live in the river Rhine and have no sense of the cold
There are always inaccessible hot magical women who blokes can only dream of. Get over it.
Pay your debts.  The whole saga is essentially a building dispute because the Gods wanted to avoid paying the builder of their wonder home, Valhalla
Many tales of Aesop were about work and the need to do it such as the Hare and the Tortoise. Many bible stories are about fairness and payment.
No free lunches in Wagner’s world.

Brünnhilde sacrifices her life to save the world
Sacrifice and martyrdom are good to do. (Problematic for the godless).
Sigmund and Sieglinda are twins who have an incestuous relationship.They die and their heroic but dumb son is murdered.
Zeus and Hera Greek Gods who are husband and wife and brother and sister – not to mention Oedipus. Lots (a pun) of biblical stories.
Incest is problematic.

The great commentators on the function of myth such Joseph Campbell (with his 4 reasons for myths) and Claude Levi Strauss all stress the role of myths to support the social order.  Myths hold out the hope of magic, stress moral lessons and convey the sense that we are cared for. 
For the godless like me who specialize in challenging the stories that underpin our culture, we need to know what we have gained and lost by challenging the veracity of our myths and legends.  Our cause will be served by making those myths that are still perceived more like Aesop tales.  These fables are seen as beguiling fantasies with a messages because they are acknowledged as fictional.  Let us save the stories but not be seduced into either accepting that they are true or that we need to endure 17 hours of difficult music to get them.
What is your view?
What is the enduring power of myth?
Will we ever live in a world without a need for myth?
Does the bible fit well into this analysis of myth?
Over to you….

Next time - what does one do if a great artist like Wagner is a racist, sexist swine whose music was appropriated by the Nazis??? 

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Changing the Church

The challenge of church change is considerable.  What believers love about their faiths are their immutable absolute rules and practices.  The Ten Commandments written for an agrarian bronze age world when oxen were a really big talking point are thousands of years past their use by date.  The New Testament is full of ridiculous rules and statements about divorce, homosexuality and sex generally.
The Pope has decided to call for a Synod of Bishops, which is to have a two-stages.  First, an Extraordinary General Assembly in 2014, intended to define the “status quaestionis” and to collect the bishops’ experiences and proposals for living the Gospel of the Family “in a credible manner” (whatever that means).  Secondly, there will be an Ordinary General Assembly in 2015 to seek working guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family.  Read the whole thing at
Will this be a big bang or a damp squib?  Will it enable to the Church to modernise its antediluvian views on sex or not?  Time will tell.
Ordination of women in 2011 Anaheim California.  An issue NOT countenanced in the current reform process.
So on the Australian Catholic Bishops web site is a consultation document.  The document starts by stating the obvious, things have changed in the family.  Cohabitation without marriage, same sex unions, surrogacy, mean that certain Sacraments in the words of the Bishops, are “showing signs of weakness or total abandonment”.  I can hear the godless cheers going up now.  This is not to mention other issues which are centuries old like contraception, women's ordination, priestly celibacy and abortion.
The debate of the issues does not start off in a promising way because it starts with scripture.  The citation of biblical sources on marriage and family in this document are essential references”.  I find that a bit of turn off to begin with.  The document then gives a potted history of the sacred texts that have informed the Catholic Church’s views of sex and family.  It includes that famous encyclical Humanae Vitae by the crusty reactionary Pope Paul VI which, against expectations, outlawed contraception.  It was a complete cock up.  Imagine the strife the Church could have avoided if they had been able to embrace some change in the face of modernity?  Imagine if they could avoid the almost universal contravention of Catholic contraception principals by women in the West?  What would have happened if divorce was kosher for Catholics? The whole controversy, misery and utter crap that have bedevilled the Church on the issue of sex would have been starkly lessened.  Is this moment when the Church, in the face of fundamental problems, grasps the nettle?
The consultation document then moves to 9 main questions.  What is to be done about cohabitation without marriage, same sex unions, surrogacy, divorced parents and the like?  What does the Church do with the kids from these quaintly labelled, “irregular” families?  The great unmentioned in these issues are contraception and abortion.  The latter will never be countenanced but it is time the former got a tick.  Would that be too much change to expect? I think it will be because the document talks about “natural” contraption and making families more open to having more children.  These priestly men really live in a rarefied world of their own.
A number of the questions have to do with education and catechism.  What do you young Catholics know and believe?  I think the problem is almost universal ignorance and indifference to the complex liturgy and rules of their faith.  That must a concern for the Church and this comes out in the consultation document.
Let me finish with a story. A close relative of mine has spent a lifetime of very fruitful activity in the Uniting Church.  He has done a lot of good through that institution.  He is a long time widower in his late eighties.  He wanted to hook up with a widowed woman also in the Uniting Church.  A wedding was not really relevant or on the cards.  They are now living together with the blessing of their Ministers.  It is wonderful.  Far from being vilified and shunned for “living in sin” they continue their rewarding and productive Church activities without blame or censure.  Catholicism has to see examples like this and grow from them.
Catholicism is beginning to face its number one demon – sex.  Can it change?  What do you think?
·         Can Catholicism reverse its change aversion?
·         What will it do on contraception and divorce? What about women's ordination and celibacy?
·         Will this process be a fundamental redirection of the ship or another lost opportunity?

Over to you guys.