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Arnold, Mahler, Spenser (not Edmund)

Good, but not as good it can get.

by Everett Wilson
September 15, 2011

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Arnold, Mahler, Spenser (not Edmund)


The  tenth anniversary of  9-11 was a more solemn Sunday than usual. The Sunday paper was dominated by our common memories. A bidding prayer during worship focused our attention on the event and our national sadness.  Throughout the day we did not forget. 

In the afternoon I took a break and finished reading an early novel, God Save the Child,  in the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker. After that indulgence—as I saw it at the time-- I turned to the televised memories of ten years ago and  noted that the New York Philharmonic had scheduled Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony, "Resurrection," on PBS for later in the evening, That sounded like an appropriate conclusion to the day.  It had been a while since we had watched a major symphony performed by a major orchestra and chorus, It was an occasion for  high seriousness, and  I looked forward to it. 

As it turned out, the Spenser novel and the Sunday comic pages that addressed 9-11 were, for me, more on point than the Mahler symphony. There was honest but understated, un-mawkish emotion in the comics; and Spenser, the fictional creation of  an English professor, is the archetype of the American hero—sexy, smart, sophisticated, very tough, very competent, but with a passion for justice and the protection of the vulnerable. 

I stayed with the symphony almost to the end, but I did not connect with it.  That is not music criticism, because I am totally unqualified to say anything in that respect.  During a symphony I am pure audience, and not even very experienced audience at that. But I was in the mood to connect, even though I was tired. After about a half hour I speculated to Donna, "Maybe my appreciation of symphonic music is restricted to composers before 1825," but I suspected there was something else going on that I couldn't identify.      

Then the Philharmonic Chorus got into the act, and PBS printed the English text for the words they were singing. I caught but one mind-boggling line, which revealed where Mahler was coming from. I am indebted to David Stone for posting the English lyrics if the stanza on his blog, "Stoneposts." Here is part of it:

With wings which I have won me,

In love's fierce striving,

I shall soar upwards

To the light which no eye has penetrated!

"With wings which I have won me"?  In fairness, it wasn't Mahler who tagged the work with the "Resurrection" label, but whoever did it was cheating future audiences.   "Resurrection" in Christian literature, history, and theology has zero connection with wings we have won—it is entirely the work of God. But Mahler is not off the hook.  "With wings which I have won me" is humanistic pretension of a high order.  It is as skilled, perhaps more so, as Spenser and the Sunday funnies, but not as honest.    

I should not have been surprised, and perhaps would not have been, if it had been announced simply as  Mahler's "Symphony No. 2 in C Minor" and resurrection had stayed out of the title.  It  was first performed in 1895, in a period when humanism was masquerading triumphantly as enlightened Christianity in European and American universities (and some  churches!), and when first cousins  on the thrones of  Great Britain, Russia, and Germany  were  blundering toward  the inevitable shootout  now called World War I.   

When people say that the world is going to pot, I agree--but it has been going to pot for a long time. Around 150 years ago Matthew Arnold wrote an imaginative description of the world as he saw it in "Dover Beach."  In the poem, he and his wife are looking through a  hotel window at the beach, the white cliffs, and the tide by moonlight; then he is gripped by an idea that he can't let go:  "The sea of faith was once too at the full."  There was a time when people were no better than they are now, but were more willing to believe what they did not understand.  When they stopped believing, some dimwit called it "enlightenment." 

Individuals still believe, but faith is no longer the common perspective of western civilization.   One hundred fifty years ago it was gone, and Arnold knew it—not from the hearts of individuals, but from the common perspective of western civilization.  

If the culture can no longer recite the twenty-third psalm, maybe we ought to require the memorization of  "Dover Beach" in public education.    

Here is how it ends:

                 . ."the world, which seems

 To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of  struggle and flight,

 Where ignorant armies clash by night."

It's at least prettier  than  Macbeth's description of life as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

So what do Spenser, Mahler, and Matthew Arnold have in common?

Whether pessimist or optimist, they  accept the consensus of a world that treats God as non-existent, that what they do and think is as good as it gets, the "highest good." 

To that I say No. So does Jesus Christ. 

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