Notes After an Opera

Everyone must, at some point, stand before art as an idiot. Which is to say that there remains for everyone a form of art they will first encounter both as an adult and as a stranger. It is this simultaneity of advanced age and genuine stupidity that sharpens the encounter, that turns the encounter into a fine point capable of drawing blood. What is new is also somehow embarrassing in its newness…precisely because it is not new per se, but only new to you

It is one of the strange warpings of our liberal society that the experience of mortification—the experience of anything sharp and painful, really, of anything that draws emotional or spiritual blood—is felt as anxiety. It’s a curious thing…this mist that settles, a dampening feeling…that becomes solid only at that precise moment of a skin’s piercing.



I was very anxious when I sat down for my first opera last year. I felt stupid before what was unfolding, and resisted that stupidity until, of necessity, I gave into it. Particularly nervous-making was the title screen before me. For the first ten minutes, I wondered how I should make use of it: after all, if I was too focused on the words, I would miss what unfolded on stage, and if I watched the stage, how would I know the words? “If only I knew Italian!” I thought, but surely a secondhand fluency would not have made clear to me the words being sung: even with English-language church choirs, I have to consult the book to know what’s being carried out; music has a way of transforming even native speech into pure mystery…


It is often the case that a person’s rejection of a certain artwork, or even form of art, is born of anxiety rather than aversion. The viewer or reader feels deeply that he or she is about to be rejected or has been rejected by the work of art, and in a reactionary strike, he either preempts or “doubles” that rejection by dismissing, condemning, or even “ignoring” the work of art before him. Once one has reached adult age, a new-to-me work of art or art form demands an act of humility. This demand is received as an extraordinary demand because, (a) it is not certain that our humility will be rewarded (that we will understand or be initiated), and (b) the unprepossessing and “innocent” casualness of the artwork’s demand mocks, by virtue of its tone, the very melodrama and self-seriousness with which we receive it. One feels like a ridiculous child before what is new-to-me in art.


This is because we feel we are supposed to “know” all art, and so we should “recognize” it in all its guises, when it comes to us. One really does wonder at the disciples who couldn’t recognize Christ himself. But there is a “Christ himself” in all successful art. And it is a bit embarrassing to find oneself placing a finger upon the wound, in wonder.


As children, ignorance is a prerogative. It is adorable and adored. It is also a burden: our ignorance is supposed to be, simultaneously, our innocence. In other words, our childhood ignorance is supposed to be, in a certain sense, perfect knowledge. For innocence is knowledge incapable of articulation, an absolute and total silent-recognition of the world… achievable only by those for whom achievement means nothing. As our budding capacity for articulation betrays our poverty of knowledge and our desire for achievement, we begin our descent from charming ignorance (innocence) to mere stupidity (embarrassment). In our adolescent years, we scramble to “know” everything we can…we hope for a precocity that can help us cross over from innocence straight to its cane-wobbling correlate, wisdom, without loitering in the pit-stop of idiocy.


The reception of new-to-me art is indeed a kind of loitering. I wonder: how long can I wait here, without “buying anything,” before I am kicked out?


But idiocy is also the first requirement of an adult reader or viewer… A capacity to loiter shamelessly in the lobby seems to be essential. How does one pull it off without being overcome by anxiety? In our youth, we find our souls at the intersection of innocence and ignorance; in our adulthood, we find our salvation at the intersection of idiocy and genuine recognition. By embracing our most idiotic self, do we escape anxiety?


We would like to believe that anxiety cannot be escaped, but that is only because anxiety is a stalling technique, a way of saving ourselves from embarrassment, disappointment, and the revelation of our erstwhile inadequacy to the task of being human. We think of anxiety as inescapable because we want it to be. That is because anxiety is a safety mechanism, a psycho-spiritual emergency brake.

But what a curious protective tool! Doesn’t it make us feel awful? Surely it is a kind of plight, rather than a form of protection? After all, why would we wear such ill-fitting armor?

But I would like to know of one instance of comfortable armor!

To be anxious before a new-to-me work of art—La Traviata, in my case—is only a way of saying… I refuse to go where I cannot be found…

But is there really a place where we cannot be found? Does there really exist a successful work of art that cannot deliver us, that cannot be the cornerstone of a life?


When I was fiddling with the title screens, there was a little monster in me saying, “You’ve got to do this right. You’ve got to experience this right. It’s slipping away from you and you’re doing it all wrong. Look up. And now look down. Too late! Oh, you poor little thing…you’ll never get the hang of what, if only you could just get the hang of it, would be…one of the great experiences of your life…”


Only one who has accepted his own idiocy will know the pleasures of silence and reception. But this does not mean you should not ask questions! The questions of the truly stupid are delightful and honest.


Their questions will deliver us all from the mists!

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