Thursday, January 26, 2006

magical thinking and The Magic Flute

Even as we celebrate his 250th birthday, I think we tend to fixate on Mozart's youthfulness. Certainly he wrote brilliantly in his teens and early twenties, but the Mozart of the late symphonies and operas was no longer a young man. He had suffered through hard times in his career and in his personal life, struggled to support his family, mourned both his parents and a beloved son. The precocious wunderkind had become a precociously wise old man, only to reach a precocious end at 35.

We struggle to conceive of someone so wise at such a young age. Lately I have been reading Joan Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, written after a year in which Didion lost her husband and very nearly lost her daughter. She writes about our society's changing approach to death:
One way in which grief gets hidden is that death now occurs largely offstage. In the earlier tradition from which Mrs. [Emily] Post wrote, the act of dying had not yet been professionalized. It did not typically involve hospitals. Women died in childbirth. Children died of fevers. Cancer was untreatable. At the time she undertook her book of etiquette, there would have been few American households untouched by the influenza pandemic of 1918. Death was up close, at home. The average adult was expected to deal competently, and also sensitively, with its aftermath.

- p. 60-61
I'm probably more a product of today's denial-ridden culture, always turning away from death. I picked up Joan Didion's book curious about that 'magical thinking' of the title, not for any advice on grieving. As I read deeper, though, the book seemed more and more relevant. It was a weekend when death seemed to overtake our media culture's frantic attempts to elude it - both a coal miner in West Virginia and the Israeli prime minister had been medically induced into comas, and the news reports shuttled from one emergency room briefing to the other.
Next to those news reports, Joan Didion seemed a voice of clarity and reason, even as she described the state of crazed unreason which grief brought her to. It is a voice that seems to come from the eye of a hurricane, still and calm and surrounded by the most devastating violence.

It may be a stretch, but I think some of Mozart's music comes from a similar place. This weekend's concerts at the New World Symphony begin with the overture to The Magic Flute, and an introduction conductor Bernard Labadie described as "organized chaos". All Mozart's command of technique, his famous grace and surface prettiness, is used here to depict disordered confusion. The other pieces on the program, the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, the Masonic Funeral Music, and the "Jupiter" Symphony No. 41, also offer glimpses into a Mozart darker and more human than typically expected.

As in Mozart's music, Didion's style and clarity are never separate from content, and the true beauty of her work is in the shared memories of a loving marriage, never neglecting the pain of its loss:
This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to the credit sequence for a new life, a catalyst for the discovery that (a point typically introduced in such accounts by the precocious child of the bereaved) "you can love more than one person." Of course you can, but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory, marriage is time. "She didn't know the songs," I recall being told that a friend of a friend had said after an attempt to repeat the experience. Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John's eyes. I did not age. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I saw myself through the eyes of others. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I realized that my image of myself was of someone significantly younger...

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.

- p. 197-198
Reading this passage again, I wonder if casting Mozart as the eternally young artist is a way of preserving our own illusions of immortality, by imagining ourselves as we first heard this music. It's a kind of "magical thinking" we probably do more than we realize, tethering ourselves to our most precious memories by every possible means. Mozart would probably be pleased to serve as the tether, 250 years after his birth; those kinds of magical associations make his music immortal as well, with all its mortal wisdom.

1 comment:

mkh said...

Great post!