Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Vengeance of Hell Boils in My Heart

Mozart, Bergman, Castoriadis

Ingmar Bergman’s films are not normally associated with optimism and joyfulness, yet his version (1975) of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is, on one level, a rapturous tribute to love, a fervent affirmation of life, which endorses Mozart’s Enlightenment imbued repudiation of darkness, superstition and tyranny.

On another level, however, the film of The Magic Flute clearly incorporates Bergman’s more recognisable themes – despair, death, suicide, madness, family dysfunction, the absence of meaning in a world devoid of God and hope, and the centrepiece remains the bloodcurdling and exhilarating aria (above video) – The Vengeance of Hell Boils in My Heart – in which the Queen of the Night urges her daughter Pamina, to murder her father, Sarastro, the queen’s estranged husband.

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!

A world without the solace of God and hope is the Greek vision of human life too, says Cornelius Castoriadis in his essay The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy.

Hope, in this sense, according to Castoriadis, corresponds to that ‘central human wish and delusion that there be some essential correspondence… between our desires and decisions, on the one hand, and the world, the nature of being, on the other. Hope is the ontological, cosmological, and ethical assumption that the world is not just something out there, but cosmos in the archaic and proper sense, [i.e.] a total order which includes us, our wishes, and our strivings as its organic and central components. The philosophical translation of this assumption is that being is ultimately good. As is well known, the first one who dared to proclaim this philosophical monstrosity was Plato…’ (For more on Castoriadis’ confrontation with Plato see here).

At the core of the Greek imaginary, then, according to Castoriadis, is not being as good but being as chaos, the world rooted not in cosmos but in void and nothingness. The absence of order in the world also, necessarily, permeates human experience and human endeavour, which Castoriadis characterises as ‘the lack of positive correspondence between human intentions and actions, on one hand, and their result and outcome, on the other’.

Humans striving for knowledge and meaning, in a vain effort to unite thoughts, desires, decisions and actions, in which self-awareness proves elusive or catastrophic, resulting in despair and self-destruction, as the chaos we sought to confront, obscure or deny ends up overwhelming us, is more like the Bergman we know and love, the Bergman of Scenes from a Marriage, Hour of the Wolf, From the Life of the Marionettes and so on.

All of which might suggest that the excessive joyfulness and optimism of The Magic Flute is an aberration for Bergman. But this is not the case.

For just as Greek creativity was predicated on an awareness of the latent and not so latent ubiquity of chaos – an awareness producing, at its most accomplished, at its most creative – in the instance of the Athenian polis – not only Athenian tragedy but also Pericles’ Funeral Oration – in which Pericles defines Greek creativity as the creation of human beings and Athenian citizens who can live with and practice beauty and wisdom and love the common good – so in Bergman’s The Magic Flute, creativity, the creative possibilities he offers Tamina and Pamina, remain circumscribed by a world which is chaos.

Certainly, Bergman allows the young, tormented lovers, Princess Pamina and Prince Tamina, to emerge in triumph from the House of Trials, having overcome ‘death and despair’, ready to take their place as guardians of the Temple of Wisdom in preparation to rule, after Sarastro’s abdication, over a kingdom, as Tamina puts it, based on ‘art, wisdom and beauty’; but there is no way Bergman is suggesting that their victory is complete or everlasting.

We know this not only because we have Marianne and Johann in Scenes from a Marriage and Peter and Katarina in From the Life of the Marionettes – who no doubt had moments of joy before their unions and lives disintegrated into brutality and humiliation, before joy gave way to catastrophe – to refer to, but also because in The Magic Flute Bergman is careful to remind us of the ever-present possibility – indeed, the certainty – that in any contest between beauty and wisdom, on the one hand, and strife and chaos, on the other, strife and chaos will always have the upper hand, by having the Queen of the Night, at the end of the film, as she and her followers retreat from a failed attempt to seize control of the Temple of Wisdom, and having declared ‘our power is shattered, our might destroyed’, then smile contemptuously at Sarastro, who returns her mocking glance with one of fear and recognition – recognition that the Queen of the Night is not done yet, that she’ll be returning to the fray shortly, proving that for Bergman, like Castoriadis and the Greeks, the essence of being can never be good, but is always chaos.