Friday, December 13, 2013

In which concept is marred by execution: the stories of Algernon Blackwood

(By the way: this one's late. It was written back in October, but I forgot to post it. Still relevant: maybe for next October. . .)

I can't do it. I know it's October, and I know he inspired HP Lovecraft, but try as I might, I cannot get into this Algernon Blackwood guy.



No I don't want to get sidetracked into providing a full biography, bibliography and psychoanalysis. This being the internet age, you can zip over to wikieverything and get everything you need to know there. See you in a few:



http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algernon_Blackwood



Done? Good. This is not going to be a scholarly essay, this is going to be a collection of initial impressions I want to get out of the way so I can eat my Thanksgiving dinner. It is now the 13th of October (not a Friday, alas), and the only real seasonal reading I've managed is Algernon Blackwood. And I've decided not to continue. I'm finding his writing clumsy, meandering, and a tad melodramatic.



Now melodrama is not a bad thing in itself, but you need the meat and potatoes to back it up - in a word substance. Events in the narrative must lend credence to the melodrama, it must seem a reasonable to be melodramatic under the circumstances. In Blackwood's stories, it does not. It seems a whole lot of overreaction to circumstances that really aren't that exciting. They are not terribly exciting because unlike a Lovecraft, a Bierce or a Poe, Blackwood doesn't seem capable of making them exciting.



An example: I am currently slogging through "Ancient Sorceries". A man has gotten off a train in a strange town. He's beginning to notice its strangeness and is getting alarmed. I, the reader, am not. Partly because I'm pretty sure I can guess where this story is going – Blackwood is incredibly unsubtle in his foreshadowing – and partly because I am utterly indifferent to both the town’s mystery and the man’s predicament. So he arrives in a town full of weirdos? So what? Leave. I don’t find myself terribly concerned.

 

Now here’s the paragraph that convinced me to drop the book and abandoned the story. It’s supposedly an important one:


”It was on the fifth day he made a definite discover which increased his alarm and brought him to a rather sharp climax. . . Before that he had already noticed that a change was going forward and certain subtle transformations being brought about in his character which modified several of his minor habits. . .

At the best of times he was never very positive, yet when necessity arose he was capable of reasonably vigorous action and could take strongish decision. The discover he now made that brought him up with a such a sharp turn was that this power had positively dwindled to nothing. He found it impossible to make up his mind.”

 

So our protagonist is having bouts of indecision. This is supposed to be a horrifying personal revelation? Call me unimpressed.

 

For one thing, the character up until this point has been described in such a way as to make indecision entirely consistent with his character. What comes as a surprise rather is that he could ever be capable of “reasonably vigorous action and strongish decision.” There is also the element of “who cares?” If the character had noticed a change in his sleeping or sexual habits, sudden weight gain or loss, bizarre dreams and visions, or developed an appetite for past-its shelf life tuna, we could share his alarm. He’s changing! Something weird is definitely happening! If he’d grown confused and befuddled, or started forgetting things, we could go along with it. But he simply can’t make up his mind? Come now, who can, even at the best of times? On the scale of creepy goings on, it ranks well below 3 out of 10.   

 

The result being that this supposedly important plot point falls absolutely flat. I am not compelled to read on. I have no curiosity. A failure to instil that is, I think, a writer’s cardinal sin.

 

Remember, this is not a scholarly essay. I am not analyzing the story. I am only telling you what I read so far, and why I won’t be finishing. Maybe the ending is brilliant and I’ll be missing out missing out on a masterpiece - and maybe that Nigerian oil tycoon really does want me to look after his millions. I’ll take that chance. I would not expect a brilliant conclusion to follow from a sloppy set up. And don’t give me that “you can’t judge it ‘till you’ve read it” line. The fact is, this writer has failed to capture or maintain my interest. How much time am I supposed to give him? As far as I’m concerned, I’ve kept my side of the bargain – I gave his story an honest shot, and in return he bored me. He violated the contract between writer and reader, rendering it null and void. I’m now a free agent, to take my time elsewhere. . .

 

 

Post Scriptus:

Lest I come across as too grouchy – no, don’t protest! – I should make it clear that not all of Blackwood’s stories are clunkers; “The Wendigo” and “Willows” contained in them some delightful moments – he’s particularly evocative in his descriptions of vast, hostile wilderness. Made me homesick when I was in UK. But even in those stories, there were moments where I wondered what exactly his characters were frightened about. I think I know what he was trying to achieve: nameless dread at something intangible or unknowable is a staple of good horror fiction: Lovecraft was a master at this. So is Ramsey Campbell (though, to be honest, I find his short fiction more successful than his full length works). Blackwood I'm afraid was not. It doesn't matter that Lovecraft found inspiration in him: sometimes the master is inspired by the student. . .

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Oh Canada: behave and make it bland!

So. . .

In the latest campaign against the inequalities of antiquity, certain luminaries of the Canadian intelligentsia, Margaret Atwood and Belinda Stronach chief among them, have set their sites on this country's national anthem. At issue would appear to be the out dated phrase "in all thy sons command", which would appear to exclude all thy daughters, also eager for command. Perhaps the lyrics should be rewritten, gender neutral.

Fortunate indeed our daughters if this is their most pressing issue.

Now, as a white man, I realize I am in a poor position to lecture other people about when they ought to feel excluded, and I realize it is not ultimately my decision what causes the oppressed multitudes ought to take up. But try as I might, I really cannot see the urgency here. I honestly can't. I don't see how the lyrics of the anthem affect anybody's life in any meaningful way, I don't see how the lyrics of the anthem prevent women from participating in Canadian society in any capacity they choose (whatever other barriers there may be) and I'm honestly not convinced anyone else really cares.

Last weekend I had the privilege of singing the anthem at a football game with my choir. The audience stood dutifully at attention and listened politely, but the producers still didn't see fit to televise our bit. It was only the anthem after all, who would care? Best to get in a few more advertising dollars. This is the degree to which "Oh Canada" is revered in our country, to whit: not at all. In school, we used to slouch behind our chairs and mumble the words while we waited to sit back down again (subsequent folk and hip-hop versions similarly failed to inspire us). We paid very little attention to what the words actually were. At sporting events, folk will stand crookedly with their hands in their pockets, sway to and fro and maybe hum along. God knows I am no fan of jingoistic displays of nationalism, and yet. . .well, I can lament this another time. Point being: very few people appear overtly inconvenienced by the words of "O Canada".

 When significant persons go after issues such as these, issues that have no immediate effect on anybody, they strike me as looking for itches to scratch. The campuses are full of such types, folk who need to prove themselves in the crowded world of academia by finding pots to stir and sacred cows to slaughter, at a time when there are very few left. Perhaps its a positive sign of a healthy society that we have to look this hard for things to be upset about, and maybe it's evidence of a truly free society that we need to look this hard for evidence of oppression.

Maybe. Perhaps. I'm a man, what do I know?

Going after the anthem bugs me for two reasons. One is the impoverishment of language, to be expected in a politician like Stronach, but disappointing in a writer like Atwood. The other is the lack of tolerance for earlier eras.

To cleanse language of terms which are not in the strictest sense considered "neutral", limits the language we have at our disposal. We suddenly have fewer ways to express ourselves. To find meaning. It would not be an exaggeration to say language is what sets us apart from animals: it is what allows us as a species to share knowledge and experience, and - crucially - give meaning to abstraction. It's quite extraordinary when you think about just how much is being expressed by simple words like "freedom" or "love". It's not just our ability to express concepts either, but to understand them. Our ability to understand any concept is largely dependant on our ability to describe it. For this, we need as extensive a vocabulary as possible.   Limiting this is not only incredibly petty but actually quite dangerous.

To be fair, no one is suggesting that phrase "at thy sons command" should be permanently removed from the English language, but they are suggesting we shouldn't be allowed to use it on this occasion. "It's exclusive; use something else". It's regulation of language by a small party, which I would never be in favour of.

Language is not only about the communication of meaning, but also the communication of, well, beauty (How's that for an abstraction). A poet's first concern when writing a piece is never "is this phrase inclusive enough" but "how does this phrase sound? Is it good enough?" The poet's first concern should always be with the quality of the work, and never to the needs of the state. Or anyone else for that matter. Is the phrase really the best for the task? Well the alternatives, "all our hearts command" or "everyone's command" are all bland as porridge by comparison. Cherry picking language for inclusive phrases rarely leads to great poetry.

Which indirectly leads me to my second objection. "All thy sons command" is a deliberate archaism, penned at a time when deliberate archaisms were fashionable. Having suffered through a creative writing course in the past, I know that deliberately archaic language is deeply unfashionable among today's literati, and can't help thinking that's what's driving this campaign as much as anything. "Make it modern! Make it relevant!" Indeed, why should the past be allowed to intrude upon our modern sensibilities? After all, isn't this the land where tax-payer dollars went to grafting a cancerous crystal carbuncle onto the Royal Ontario Museum?

Past? What past?
Monolith monsters devour Royal Ontario Museum.

 
Be that as it may, supposing Stronach and company really do feel put out by the lyrics of the national anthem? Should an old song (the English version was commissioned more than a hundred years ago, in 1905) reflecting old values and old aesthetics continue to represent the country today? Well, I would argue that if we're to have any pretentions of being a real culture with a real history, we cannot rewrite or whitewash that history, nor pretend that this society has always been what we would like it to be. If we go about retroactively rewriting old songs and stories that don't reflect our current values, we'll soon be left without any songs or stories. I suppose we could change the lyrics of "O Canada" and not be any worse (besides having a more boring anthem, which is not nothing), but then what? What else could we go after? The Merchant of Venice? "Farewell to Nova Scotia"? "Money for Nothing"? A culture cleansed of its tics and its heritage, eternally on eggshells, permanently terrified of someone else's toes. A culture sanitized to the point of banality.

Does anyone really want that?

Monday, August 12, 2013

In which the melting of popsicles is elevated to rock-concert status.

Finland's Wintersun are one of the most exciting bands on the scene today. I honestly think their output is revolutionary, taking Heavy Metal music to a higher plane of creativity.

This blog post will not be dedicated to them.

Rather, this blog post will be dedicated to the band who opened for them last night at the Opera House in Toronto, the syllabically extravagant Fleshgod Apocalypse (is there a mail-order service for these band names?).

Here's what I have to say about Fleshgod Apocalypse: in almost twenty years of concert going, I have never, ever, until now, felt the need to pull out a book and start reading while the band was playing. That's right: Fleshgod Apocalypse are the musical equivalent of a bus stop.

Analysis is to follow, as to why such well intentioned haloweeny theatrics could go so disastrously wrong, but I have to leave for the cottage in twenty minutes and still haven't packed any socks - suffice it to say, they were completely utterly awful. I hated them. As fun as watching paint dry, as musical as a car crash, as Metal as filing your tax returns, Fleshgod Apocalypse have set a new standard for gnawing-off-leg-tedium. They made me want to cut my hair and listen to smooth jazz. They sounded like a cat in a blender, and what's worse, inspired the audience to sound the same way after they had mercifully left the stage.

Speaking of bone-shattering excitement, I actually do have to file some tax-returns, so to continue this conversation, why not smear a jar of white face-paint over the trunk of the nearest tree you can find and watch it grow for forty minutes. You will have experienced Fleshgod Apocalypse.

You're welcome.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

So many war books, so little understanding: a look at three volumes, two grand and one small.


Do we need any more books on the Second World War?

 

            Yes we do. Next question?

           

            Alright: which book?

 

            Good question, glad you asked. (And aren't you glad you did?) There are three actually that I completed quite recently – I could go further back and include five, but these three are the ones that lodge in my mind, completed very nearly one after the other. Two very large doorstops and one piddly little pamphlet. Two excellent, mind-expanding volumes, and one I wouldn’t use as a high school text-book. Each useful in its own way.

           

            The first, Europe at War: No Simple Victory by Norman Davies, a mind bogglingly extensive and exhaustive tome (actually less than five hundred pages, which is actually quite astonishing – I could have sworn it was twice that) basically arguing that we need more WWII books (hence, my intro).

 


            See, for all the extensive scholarship on this subject – probably more than on any other topic ever – according to Davies, we still don’t get it. All our national mythologies, the comforting myths we the victors soothe ourselves with – are wrong.  The good war, the noble crusade, the Great Patriotic War. Britain’s finest hour, and all the feel-good smugness of Saving Private Ryan. All fantasies of nations who each needed to glorify their own role in the greatest organized slaughter in history.   

           

            It’s not that we are unaware of the facts. The funny thing about this book is that nothing in it really new – none of it should come as any surprise to anyone who’s actually studied the war in depth – it still feels shocking to realize how divorced our illusions have been from the reality.

            Each country has its own set of mythologies. We in the west tend to maximize our role in the defeat of Hitler, out of all proportion to our actual contribution; the fact is that for the most part, we were bystanders, watching from the sidelines while the fate of the world was decided by Soviet Russia. For it’s part, Russia tends to maximize its virtue, playing the innocent victim driving out the evil invader, downplaying or ignoring altogether its early role as a Nazi ally, its role in the dismemberment of Poland, its invasion of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland, the campaigns of mass rape by the Red Army, or any number of atrocities which Davies recounts in stomach churning detail. Nor do contemporary Russians make enough of the tremendous amount of Lend Lease aid they received from the Americans (who themselves tend to make far too much of it).

 

            Nor does is the virtue of the west unblemished. How could it be after the strategic bombing campaigns which killed hundreds of thousands? The incineration of enemy infants was not an unfortunate by-product of war, but official policy for both the British and US governments.  This evil tends to be downplayed before the all-encompassing evil of the Final Solution, and excused as one method of bringing the later to a halt. Whether the policy actually worked or not is another matter entirely. At the very least, it should not sit comfortably on the side of virtue.

 

 

            Democracy has been sited as one of our great causes, but can we forget that Britain at the time was subjugating vast populations in Asia and Africa? Or the United States, even as it fought for democracy segregated its own people among racial lines (to say nothing of its origin in slavery and the displacement or out-and-out murder of Native populations)?

 

            Davies isn’t interested in moral equivalence (and funny how even mentioning these undisputed historical facts opens one up to such a criticism). But he does think that sanitization and romanticism have blinded us to history, causing us to simplify what really is not a simple victory.  

 

            Which brings me to the second tome-like volume: All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings. At first glance, Hastings is a much more straightforward historian than Davies (from a journalistic rather than academic background); his book mostly just recounting facts rather than a call to re-evaluate our perceptions. But there are so many, mainly from first hand accounts and primary sources, that we can’t help but re-evaluate our perceptions anyway. Confronting this Sargasso Sea of information fresh from the reading of Davies book can be a helpful exercise.

 


            What are we to think of the Battle of Britain after Hastings’ asserts that “the Luftwaffe’s clumsy offensive posed the one challenge Britain was well placed to repel”? Or the Battle of the Atlantic when we learn that “the submarine force commanded by Donitz was weak” and that “99% of all ships which sailed from North America to Britain arrived safely”? We’re not accustomed to thinking of these battles from that perspective.

 

            National mythologies of any kind don’t fare very well. The French might prefer to forget that more of them served Petain than DeGaul (660), and modern anti-racists probably won’t believe that Moorish troops pillaged and raped their way through Italy.  I myself was not thrilled to learn that Canadian troops did indeed murder helpless prisoners of war in Northern Europe, and that our Merchant Marine performed poorly against Kriegsmarine U-Boats. (283). I do wonder what the Canadian media, which aggrandizes this country’s war record to an almost Soviet degree, would make of this.

 

            Like Davies, the East is of paramount importance to Hastings. He does not openly state but quite strongly implies that it was Stalinist brutality, more than anything else, which ground the Wehrmacht down. The relentless, suicidal offensives, the scorched earth policy, the murderous coercion of the NKVD blocking brigades, and the sociopathic indifference to human life: could it all have been necessary? Is it possible that this was the only way to stop the Nazi machine, and that the democracies, lacking these inhuman qualities, didn’t have what it took? It’s a hell of a thought. 

 

            For me, the single most shocking revelation was that as early as November 1941, leading German industrialists, believed the war had already been lost for Germany. Long before Kursk, long before Stalingrad,  before the Germans had been repulsed before Moscow, before the Germans had suffered any real defeat and still lay at the height of her powers, the practically indestructible masters of Europe, those in the know had already given up hope. There is an eerie, gloomy foreboding about the passage. It presents a picture of an entire nation heading inextricably towards its doom. Imagine if Germany, with all its grand industry, its economic might, its technology and phenomenal powers of social organization, had devoted itself to good? What might it have achieved? Instead, it chose the path of evil and was destroyed as if by Divine decree. This is Greek tragedy on an epic scale.

           

           

            Now, we come to the pamphlet. Norman Stone’s World War Two (did he trademark that title?) is clearly meant as a “short history” rather than a game changer, like either of Davies’ or Hastings’ books. It limits itself to just the briefest of outlines and comes in at less than two hundred pages (199 to be exact).

            This tremendous brevity becomes a problem as Stone continually fails to explain his statements or justify them with evidence. There are no footnotes either, so we’re often left to guess just where Stone got his ideas from. Where for instance does he get the idea that the Russians “could not have held out” if the Germans had maintained air superiority? This is not an idea I have encountered in any other account. For much of the war the Germans did have air superiority in the East, and the Russians did hold out. How was the invasion of Norway “one of the moments at which Hitler lost the war”? (It has to do with the Kriegsmarine I gather). Again, it’s not a thesis I’ve heard elsewhere. Why does he think an invasion of the continent “should have been possible” in 1943? Much in here is unspecific and unsubstantiated.

            Stone also shows an aversion to chronological order, jumping to the future then back again, often in the same paragraph. So we get a description of Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun just before a description of Market-Garden, and Stalin’s declaration of war on Japan before the dropping of the Bomb on Hiroshima. There are long tangents into entirely new subtopics and then back again, as if Stone were following some stream of consciousness process, when perhaps a separate chapter might have been more appropriate. The effort feels disjointed.  Anyone not already familiar with the events described would probably not feel any wiser having read it. It would be no use at all as a textbook.

            That said, this little book is not without its charms. The final chapter on Europe’s reconstruction is quite well done, as if Stone felt himself on firmer ground. And a lot of the minutiae are more interesting than the (non-existent) analysis. We learn that Hitler and Eva were married by the deputy chief of garbage collection for Pankow, that Hitler suffered from flatulence after the Bomb Plot (is there no indignity that man didn’t put himself through?), that the descendants of Richard Wagner presented Hitler with the original draft of Parsifal then demanded it back when the war was lost. (Hitler was a fan of Parsifal? Why am I not surprised! There's no one else who deserved to own it more.) Details which are perhaps not appropriate for a “short history”, but nevertheless the saving grace of this volume.  One wishes Stone had devoted himself to more of these little details rather than compiling a “short history”, of which we have plenty (though still not enough, if Davies is to be believed). It’s stuff like this that keeps it all interesting.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Greatest Story Ever Told, or One of Them Anyway: Doctor Who and the Rings of Akhenaten


            Right oh. . .

 

            Teenaged suicide, school shootings, conspiracy theories and Wagnerian Opera. No wonder nobody wants to read this blog!

 
           So, just this once, I’m going to write about something happy. In this post, I am not going to write about Rehteah Parsons (damnit, will we never learn??) and I’m not going to write about the Boston bomber. I’m not to write about Margaret Fucking Thatcher, and I’m not going to write about Climate Change, and I’m certainly not going to write about my bleedin’ Visa Bill.


            Nope, I’m going to write about something happy for a change. To make up for lost time, I’m going to write about the single happiest thing in the world, the one thing guaranteed to carve a smile on the most granite of grumpy faces. I’m going to write about the 100% effective, never been known to fail diamond-tipped happy drill, the best thing humanity’s ever come up with, the great compensation of dwelling on this merciless mud ball earth. . .

 
            That’s right: I’m going to write about Doctor Who.


 

            Doctor Who is the Greatest Story Ever Told. It is so much better than that other one, for reasons we shall see. Doctor Who is magic. Is joy. Is the repository of all that is great and wonderful in the human imagination. If you don’t like Doctor Who, then we’ve got nothing in common and you need to go away. Shoo.

 
            Now I’m not going to write about this week’s episode of Doctor Who, which I haven’t seen yet, and I’m not going to write about last week’s episode with the Ice Warrior (why bring back the bleedin’ Ice Warriors if you didn’t want an Ice Warrior style monster? Why bring back a big, hulking monster if you didn’t want a big hulking monster for the story?). I’m definitely not going to write about how next November’s 50 Year Anniversary story is apparently only going to celebrate the last eight years (No Baker, Davidson or McCoy??? Go fuck yourself Moffat. Go fuck yourself.) No no, I’m going to talk about the episode before that one, the “Rings of Akhaten”, by Neil Cross.

 

            I’m going to write about “Rings of Akhaten” because it made me happy, and that’s the theme for today. It made me righteously, uproariously happy. It made me sing, dance, laugh and cry (and every time they interrupted it with adverts for Tim Hortons Panini rolls, I did cry). I loved this story. It was the best story I’d seen all year, the best story I’d seen in many years, possibly the best story I’d ever seen.

           Yes you read that right: “The Rings of Akhaten” may very well be the greatest Doctor Who story I have ever seen.

            Is that enough hyperboyle for ya? Well too bad, I’ve got a whole lot more on the way. . .

             I may of course change my mind next time I watch Genesis of the Daleks, or Logopolis, or Earthshock or The Caves of Androzani. But here’s the thing:

            When a franchise has gone on for this long, when a story’s been told for this long, sometimes the only thing left to do is make the story about itself. Not in some stupid post-modernist sense – I don’t mean textual self consciousness, or self parody or winking at the audience or any of that nonsense. I mean just getting to the heart of the matter, finally recognizing what the story’s been about all this time.

            “The Rings of Akhaten” is a story about stories, what they are and why they matter. Basically, they’re two things: memories and hope. Memories “of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow”, or in other words, all the things that make us human. And Hope, for the future, for what May Be.
 
            (I suppose Fear may be the other side of the same coin, but happiness is the theme for today, so I’ll stick with Hope).

            It’s an explanation I think would have made Bradbury proud (Peace be Upon Him). 
 
            That is was said here in the context of Doctor Who is all the more appropriate: after all, who is the Doctor but an eternal storyteller? What does he give us week after week after week but another story? And what is that makes us human if not stories?

 
            And what a story. . .

            “ All the elements in your body were forged many many millions of years ago in the heart of a faraway star that exploded and died. That explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space. After so many millions of years those elements came together to form new stars and new planets and on and on it went. . .until eventually they came together to make you. . .

            Writer Neil Cross is basically paraphrasing astronomer Lawrence Krauss here, who once said "nevermind Jesus, the stars died so you could live!" The context here is that the Doctor is telling the story to the Mary Galhel, the "Queen of the Years", a little girl of no more than ten.  Young Mary has been raised from birth to sign lullabies to, and if necessary, give herself up to her planet's angry god. In a breathtaking display of cultural insensitivity, the Doctor imposes his values on her by basically insisting this is bollocks:

           " You are unique in the universe. There is only one Mary Galhel, and there will never be another. Getting rid of that existence isn’t a sacrifice: it is a waste!”
 
            In other words, no God is worth more than the life of a child.

            Or anyone for that matter.

            Let the Boston bombers suck on that!
 
            In a world where people are told to give their lives at the drop of a hat. For Gods and Ideologies and Causes. Either to throw away their lives or devote their whole lives to something else. Here we’ve got something different:

             You matter. Not those invisible men in the sky or their petty jealousies. You matter.  People matter, human beings matter. Nothing’s more precious. That, deep down, is the message of Doctor Who. It’s always been the message, since William Hartnell landed the TARDIS in a scrapyard on Totters Lane. But it’s never been put more beautifully than in “The Rings of Akhaten”.
 
           The STARS died so you could live!
 
            Now isn’t that a much better story than that OTHER one they always tell which goes on about how wretched and sinful you are?  
 
 
 

No Wonder Goebbels loved it: a take on Wagner's Parsifal


            Folks out there who’s exposure to Wagnerian opera extends no further than “The Flight of the Valkyries” may be forgiven for thinking that Wagnerian opera might kick ass.


            Those suffering said delusion may be forgiven for being lured to a production of Parsifal by buzz words like “Holy Grail”, “Knights”, “Holy Speer” and “Evil Magician”. Maybe it will be exciting! Maybe it will kick ass!  Such misguided folk could be forgiven for thinking so, and for actually seeking out a Met production of the Wagnerian opus  Parsifal at their local Silver City. 
 
What could go wrong?
 
                       Such folk will be punished all the same: Parsifal is the single most boring experience it is possible to have in a theatre. Watching Parsifal is like watching paint dry, like watching grass grow, like watching frozen treacle drip down a gently sloping hill. Parsifal is slower than continental drift, slower than evolution by natural selection, slower than fossilization, a dour, dreary, utterly joyless affair that slowly drains the audience of the will to live.


Neitzsche:"A work of perfidy, vindictiveness, of a
secret attempt to poison the presumptions of life."
            Worse than that, Parsifal is a manifesto of a repugnant philosophy, a repudiation of human feeling and earthly existence, a work Nietzsche called a work of perfidy, of vindictiveness, of a secret attempt to poison the presumptions of life.”

            Did I mention it was slow?

            So what’s Parsifal about then? Basically, it’s the story of one young man’s journey to find a magic stick. He leaves home one day, manages not to get laid, brings home the stick, and everyone lives happily ever after.   That’s it. I swear that’s all that happens. I am not leaving out pertinent details. Parsifal leaves. Parsifal does not get laid. Parsifal returns. That my friends is the first, second and third act, summed up in their entirety. There are no plot twists, no sub plots, no secondary characters, no red herrings, no comic relief, no action of any kind.  
             That is all that happens.
 
            So how does a plot so paper thin sustain itself over 340 agonizing minutes?

 

            It takes Parsifal a good forty minutes to take off his hood. It takes Amfortas the better part of two hours not to die. It takes Parsifal the better part of three not to get laid. There is not a single action, a single word, a single bloody thing isn’t slapped onto a torture rack and stretched to triple, quadruple, quintuple its natural length. It makes Peter Jackson look like a master of brevity, and Stephen King a model of self restraint. There’s not an idea that isn’t repeated, a statement that isn’t prolonged, a theme that isn’t pounded into the head and relentlessly stamped into the ground.

 

Give us a smile then!
 
            Hundreds of people stand on stage doing just about nothing. Most of the time, they don’t even sing; Wagner never let his puppets sing overtop one another (so much for harmonizing). The music never wavers from one long, slow, dour, indistinct dirge, not even during the supposedly triumphant moments, which here feel more exhausting than triumphant, like marathon runners crawling toward the finish line, just glad that it’s over.

           

            “Please Dickie, please! I’m beggin’ on my knees! Just once, just once, once in the almost six hours you’ve demanded of me ! Pick up the tempo, or give us a crescendo! Something, anything, to please the ear or awaken the soul.

 

 
            But don't just take my word for it:

Twain: didn't like it either
"I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of Parsifal anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune or melody... Singing! It does seem the wrong name to apply to it... In Parsifal there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die."

 
 

            Everyone on stage looks like they’re waiting to die. Amfortas is the one with the gaping spear wound, but everyone here exudes pain and exhaustion. Even when the king is healed by the magic stick, and the grail is revealed and the cast sing of meadows and flowers and “highest joy of miracles”, nobody smiles. Nobody looks remotely pleased by the events which have transpired. This is an opera bereft of feeling, bereft of joy, bereft of life. It’s a purgatory of muted death. It’s the kind of stage production a Dalek would enjoy.   

          The funny thing is my friends, none of this is the fault of the director, or the choreographers or the set designers or the costume designers, or any of the good folk down at the MET. No, all the other stuff looks quite extraordinary. The plain stage and the spectacular recorded backdrops and the pools of blood are all most impressive. The interpretation is as vivid as it’s possible to be. No, it is the source material itself, as set down in the score by Dickie Wagner himself that will allow for nothing but suicidal boredom.  See, Dickie would never allow such trivial things as suspense, or humour, or melody or genuine human feeling to sully his work. He wanted to transcend all that, and in so doing help the audience transcend any desire to ever return to the opera.
 
            We are introduced to the wounded  king in the first act, but it is difficult to care about his fate, since we never really see what difference his death will make: his world is so dreary to begin with.

 
The King, Amfortas (Peter Mattei) is finally saved by the holy grail; by this point it's impossible to care.

               The entirety of the second act is given over to Wagner’s hatred of humanity. As Parsifal struggles to free himself from Kundry’s embrace, we get the idea that in Wagner’s world there is no sin more heinous than sexual love, and no sinner worse than the sexualized woman. Kundry, the only character in the entire opera capable of any warmth, of any life at all, is constantly told how wretched she is, “The devil’s whore!” suffering from “desire sent from hell!”, and finally dies at the end for no reason at all. In Wagner’s world, a whore is any woman who enjoys human contact apparently, and in Wagner’s world, the only good whore is a dead whore apparently.  Parsifal rejects the human touch and throws his life away in search of some magic stick. In Wagner’s world, this is a good thing. In Wagner’s world, earthly things are full of sin, and only in cutting ourselves off from our earthly existences can we achieve spiritual transcendence. That being the case, it becomes impossible to care about this opera.

 
Paragon of virtue: it takes Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann) takes three hours not to get laid.

            How can one care, with the story so thoroughly drained of life?

             I honestly didn’t give a damn about Parsifal or his magic stick. I couldn’t care less whether Amfortas lived or died. I didn’t give two flying. . .farts about the knights of the round table or their lousy grail. The only character I cared about was Kundry. Who died.  With a story so drained of human content, so too is drained any reason to care. Any character to sympathize with, any want or need or desire to identify with, anything at all to cling to.  There are no people on stage; only religious ciphers. Personally, I don’t give a damn about ciphers, which renders the entire story pretty much worthless to me.
 
The temptress Kundry, here played by Katarina Dalayman. The only character in the whole opera of any vitality (to even display a pulse really), mercylously condemned and killed off to satisfy Wagner's masochistic vision of virtue.

            I walked out of Parsifal feeling my time had been wasted and my afternoon ruined. My cold was also worse from sitting for six hours in a drafty cinema. I had a pounding throbbing headache, a nose like a leaky faucet, and a throat that felt it had just been cut with a rusty razor. Furthermore, my brain and my soul felt like they’d just been stuffed with cigarette ashes. What a grey, dry and dusty world this is. . . I had to counteract the effect with something, anything. Some Bizet, some Tchaikovsky, some Beatles, even some Sharon Lois and Fucking Bram.  Anything to remind myself that music could still reflect life and that life could still be beautiful and warm.

           No wonder Goebbels loved the experience. 

"My greatest experience at the opera. . .by the end, I was completely overwhelmed."