Monday, 10 September 2007

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.


Hermes said...

Impressive post. However, when Castoriadis engages with the Greeks I get the feeling he is sometimes seeking an Castoriadis Ideal rather than a Greek one by choosing to ignore important undercurrents manifested in the mystery religions such as Pythagoreanism and Orphism which contradicts his view of Greek life being without hope. But I suppose we all interpret the Greeks in our own way.

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john akritas said...

Funnily enough, Hermes, I was thinking exactly the same thing.

Castoriadis suggests a radical distinction between the Greek vision of the afterlife – a vision exemplified by the famous Land of the Dead sequence in The Odyssey – with the Platonic and Christian visions – but don’t the Eleusian Mysteries – or the dozens of other similar mystery cults that existed the length and breadth of the Greek world – indicate a Greek orientation to a world beyond this one, a concern for the afterlife and the hope of obtaining advantages in Hades, when you finally get there?

However, the message of the (mainstream) mystery cults remains that Hades is a place of a torment, and that life there is much worse than the worst life on earth and that all you can hope for is an amelioration of the torment. The world we know is still recognised as preferable, which is the important point for Castoriadis, because this recognition ‘liberates man for action in this world’.

Walter Burkett, in his book on Greek ritual and myth, Homo Necans, backs this up, when he says the myth of Hades/Demeter/Persephone, which is played out in the Eleusian mysteries, does not tell of ‘a victory over death’. Death, Burkett says, for the Greeks, is irrevocable, insurmountable. Hades always triumphs. The initiates at Eleusis encounter death and destruction and experience that life results from terror. They become initiated not expecting to overcome death but to be reconciled to it.

‘We tend to assume,’ Burkett says, ‘that there must have been a specific Eleusian message, a secret but distinct declaration of death overcome. But no matter how surprising it may come to one Platonically influenced, there is no mention of immortality at Eleusis, nor of a soul and the transmigration of souls, nor yet of deification.’

I think this fits in pretty well with Castoriadis’ assertion that in Greek ontology, being is essentially chaos, and this is overturned towards the end of the classical period by Plato and Platonists and then destroyed by Christianity, which share a view of being as essentially good and the world as ordered by God, an organising intelligence or whatever.

The legein blog looks very good.

Stavros said...

A world without hope or the solace of God would be worse than Hades itself. I always liked Bergman's "Seventh Seal". It's my favorite because the knight, a heroic figure in a chaotic world, plagued by the same doubts that affect us all, not only grapples with Charon but achieves a victory over death by selflessly sacrificing himself in order to save a young family.

I rather admire the Greeks for trying to make sense of the chaos and impose a certain order to it even when they failed, as they often did, miserably.

Hermes said...

J.Akritas, you make an important distinction i.e. "the world we know is preferable" or "initiates become initiated not expecting to overcome death but to be reconciled to it". Even in later Stoic and Neoplatonic thought systems there was no idea of "victory over death". This lie was first propagated by Christians in the Greek world. Dare I say, it has contributed to our modern overly irrational, superstitious and fatalistic character.

The Greeks provided the greatest hope of all. The hope that with discipline, community, dialogue and knowledge of natural limits we can make the best of what we got. They are still the bravest people that have ever existed.