Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/01/2010

“We lie to others in order to lie to ourselves” (Wendy Doniger)

My waking hours yesterday were highly charged with emotion from start to finish. 

I awoke thinking about the terror I’m feeling about performing twice in the next ten days in California. Probably healthy—one of my spiritual mentors says the gift of fear is action. I will continue to practice. Along with that terror, however, came my thinking about Coomaraswamy and Suzanne Langer, so I guess it wasn’t all bad. 

Then I went to church where the entire morning was about voting to close the church. How I can have so much emotion around the demise of an institution that causes me consternation at best and a gross feeling of hypocrisy in general (mine for being so integral a part of something I barely believe in, and some of the members’ for being certain they know “god’s will” in the decision to close the church—I’m not sure I can ever write in detail about that either privately or publically). 

After a fast-food lunch on the run, I arrived at the Winspear Opera House at the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts (a new creation of “cultchuh”), the most surprising aspect of which is not its wonderfully diverse architecture (some successful, some not—the Opera House most certainly is) but the fact that it is in Dallas. 

The offering of the day was Mozart’s Così fan tutte, one of my favorite (and everyone else’s) “comic” operas. All about intrigue and love plots and deception and disguise and glorious music. Fiordiligi’s aria Per pietá, ben mio, perdona (“By your mercy, my love, forgive me”) is one of those stunning Mozartean events whenever it is sung well (Elza van den Heever was magnificent). So I was prepared to have an afternoon of musical pleasure and dramatic fun to bring me out of my grief and anger at what is has been done to my church. 

What, in fact, happened was not pleasurable—dramatic and musically superb, yes, but pleasurable, no. Perhaps I was not in the mood for intrigue and silliness. Perhaps my physical discomfort (I am painfully aware when I cannot sit still and embarrassed by what I presume is its affect on those around me in a situation such as an opera—I have to have an aisle seat, or I simply can’t go to the opera) was getting in the way of my enjoyment. 

But I think what happened was that the production itself invaded my space (I’m not sure it was the best production I’ve ever seen of the opera, even though Ms. Van den Heever achieved what not many sopranos do—she totally dominated the production, as Fiordiligi must in order for it to make any sense). 

The invasion was, as I suppose all invasions are, uncomfortable, and it seemed almost violent. I was angered and discomfited by the whole show. When Don Alfonso led Ferrando and Guglielmo in the ridiculous trio statement of the line that names the opera, Così fan tutte (“women are all like that”), the idiocy and hypocrisy of the carryings-on dropped on me in a massive depression from which I have partly recovered this morning. Women are all like that? Fickle, or whatever Don Alfonso tries to prove? If that is true, then the subtitle of the opera should be, “And men are all like this.” Men are all like this? Mean and deceptive. Here are two men in disguise, tricking their own fiancées into believing they are someone else in order to seduce them and prove that “women are all like that.” Which is better, fickleness or ego-maniacal deception? I have known ever since Jack Coogan introduced the opera to me in about 1968 that is what it’s all about. But I had never before seen it onstage, felt the musical duplicity, experienced the evil of the manipulation. 

I was, of course, alone. I could feel very smug that I do not have any opportunity to hurt and embarrass a lover because I don’t have one. 

And then it occurred to me that lovers aren’t the only ones who toy with the emotions and mangle the serenity of people they love. 

I’m writing not about Così fan tutte at all. I came home and did a bit of scholarly snooping, hoping to find some cerebral way to deal with my feelings of betrayal. I found the article, “Sex, lies, and tall tales,” in which Wendy Doniger deals with the “art” of deception in theater. She writes about deception in theater and other arts as metaphor, explanation of—I don’t know what it is—the deception we all practice, mostly culminating in the deception and “tall tales” we practice in our so-called love lives. 

However, I take her meaning in a much wider context. She writes that 

Self-delusion is indeed the key, for we lie to others in order to lie to ourselves. We lie to ourselves in bed when we lie about who our partners are and about who we are. Though we may think we are “our real selves” in sex, we may actually be least so (1). 

I think it is possible to say “we may think we are our ‘real selves’ in____” and fill in the blank with any number of activities. Primary among them, religion. 

This is not a diatribe against “religion.” It is about self-deception. If there is a God (let’s be as sophomoric as we can be), that God does not reveal her “will” to a group of people sitting around talking about what they have decided to do anyway. The deception religious (read “christian” here because they are the religious persons I know—and may be one of) practice on others is really “self-delusion.” 

I am angry at what has happened to the institution that has given me an anchor in my spiritual and emotional storm (puleeze! that’s beyond sophomoric!) for fifteen years. Although I am almost absolutely convinced that human life is like all other life on this planet, that is, death is the end and there is no more, I have found comfort in the music, the language (even though I don’t “believe” a good deal of it), and mostly the community of that little church. It has kept me, mostly through the love and friendship I have from and for the people, from abject despair for all of this time. How anyone can avoid abject despair in the face of the reality that she or he is simply going to cease to exist, that she or he  will not even be conscious of the reality that she has ceased to be a conscious being, I do not know. 

Music and friendship are about the only realities I cling to. I am not an atheist, I am not a fatalist, I am not anti-social. I am simply undone in the face of the reality of death. What happened to me yesterday was that music I have loved for decades suddenly changed. In a moment, that music helped me understand a reality that I do not like:

Everyone (especially religious folk) says that everyone else is “like that.” And everyone does not care to see that—not only in bed, but in most of our interactions—we are more “like that” than anyone else. Mozart was too savvy about human nature to be writing comic entertainment. And yesterday his understanding of the duplicity of human nature hit me full force.
Doniger, Wendy. “Sex, lies, and tall tales.” Social Research 63.3 (1996): 661+.
At the University of Chicago, Wendy Doniger is Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School; also in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Committee on Social Thought, and the School. She has written a great deal on Shiva (see my post from yesterday).


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