The Mastersingers

Tragedy is subversive, comedy is conformist. Where comedy incites us to laugh at the odd and unusual, tragedy elevates and dignifies it. Compare the ignoble fate meted out to Hotspur to the apotheosis of Antony and Cleopatra. Of course, in practice it would be supremely easy to invert my opening sentence and to create a case that tragedy marginalises the outside while comedy subserts the status quo, but it was still something going through my mind while watching a performance of Wagner’s Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Where the Ring Cycle or Tristan and Isolde depict passion as a chaotic force that destroys all in its wake, the Mastersingers is all about how it can be contained. Sachs even dwells on the possibility of events proceeding in the same direction as they did for Tristan, before Walther and Eva’s love leads them instead to marriage. Where Wagner’s other operas are generally aristocratic, Walther abandons that background in favour of Nuremberg’s burghers. The emphasis placed in the opera on art as a romantic expression of the national gesellschaft, something instinctive rather than a product of artifice shows Wagner at his most complex. On the one hand, his stress on folk art rather than elite culture (and the elevation of a cobbler to the status of protagonist) reflects his leftist politics. On the other, it forges a path towards Hitler’s admiration for Wagner and national socialism, with the depiction of Beckmesser, so reminiscent of Shakespeare in As You Like It, having some marked parallels with Wagner’s antisemitism, the dark side of his vision of a pre-capitalist Germany. The Prom immediately after the Mastersingers contains Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, while a few weeks later the Mastersingers were back again; the overture being played in Lemare’s organ arrangement along with Tannhäuser and the Ride of the Valkyries.

The British Library’s maps exhibition turns out to be more interesting than I’d imagined, showing a combination of maps, globes, folded screens and posters. Much of the history of maps is as much about history or architecture as geography, as with a map of Europe that doubled as a visual record of the siege of Vienna or the many maps showing representations of the city’s buildings around their edges (such as the enormous Klencke altas, open here with views of the Low Counties). An elevated view of Seville from south of the Guadalquivir river shares its perspective and broad details with a view of London showing St Paul’s at the centre. In passing, I find myself wondering why this sort of perspective faded from view in the nineteenth century; presumably as cities grew larger a perspective equivalent to that obtainable from the naked eye became redundant. Inevitably maps also include views of the population, flora and fauna; a view of christian Europe include an appearance by Durer’s rhino in North Africa (inaccurately so as Durer had shown an Indian rhinoceros). The pre-Copernican worldview of the various Mappa Mundi designs in display shows geography and religion as co-terminous, with the earth as the body of the lord and Jerusalem as its omphalos. Grayson Perry’s Map of Nowhere presents a somewhat cynical post-religious revival of this tradition. Similarly, Stephen Walters shows London as an island, detached from the rest of Britain, although Booth’s poverty map or Gill’s Wunderground map are both absent. Maps of London abound but there’s no Harry Beck tube map or Great Bear pastiche. One other omission is foreign perspective; a Chinese artist paints a view of Guangzhiu harbour, but uses European rather than axonometric perspectives.

Some of the satirical maps are particularly. A pair of Victorian election maps show Gladstone and Disraeli astride the British Isles. Each map is for a different side in spite of both having been created by the same artist. Soviet maps castigate churches and synagogues for their wealth at a time of famine in Ukraine. A teatrade map seem to suggest that most of the world revolves around tea: “Saharah desert: no water to make tea.”

I’ve often thought that much of the tone and themes of Russian nineteenth century fiction lends itself well to the modern world. The hapless clerks in Gogol and Dostoevsky exist in a world where the bureaucracy deprives them of autonomy (as it could be said to with today’s ‘flexible’ markets), leading to a narrative form distanced from Western European realism and more deeply versed in the absurd. In the fiction of Daniil Kharms as much as in Kafka, the absurd emerges as a response to totalitarianism. At times, the absurdism is composed of a deliberate break from the quotidian into the fantastic. Often, that break is a form of violence (usually directed at little old ladies and children), something that hardly accorded with Soviet ideas of ostranenie of the kind the Oberiu declaration had endorsed ("look at an object with bare eyes and you will for the first time see it cleansed of its crumbling literary gilding . . . To cleanse the object of the rubbish of ancient, decayed cultures – is this not the real requirement of our times?"). At others, it lies in a bathetic collapse of the narrative, with nothing of any note happening. In one form reality is subverted, in another the literary form is subverted.

Cather’s The Professor’s House is an interesting case of the fable or romance elements of the American novel overlapping with the more social aspects of the European novel. In some respects, it’s a fable about the Professor regaining his earlier self; "The Kansas boy who had come back to St Peter this summer was not a scholar. He was a primitive. He was only interested in earth and woods and water." Conversely though, its polyphonic depictions of the two extremes represented by Tom and by Louie, of nature and civilisation is highly nuanced. One of the things that surprises me about The Divine Comedy is how theologically heterodox it must have seemed. Much of its vision is classical rather than christian, from the idea of an outer circle in hell for virtuous pagans to the presence of Cerberus and Charon. Equally, the repeated condemnations of church corruption buttressed by an emphasis on faith seems like an anticipation of Savonarola.

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