Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/08/2011

My relative was wrong about the words

It's the words

It's the words









Seemingly unrelated from the last week:
learning of the death of a good friend two weeks ago, and experiencing the Dallas Opera production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

How, you might ask, is it possible to learn of the death of a “good” friend only after two weeks? We communicated almost entirely by electronics (Facebook, email), and few of our mutual friends know members of his family. And you might also wonder what connection a friend’s death has in my mind with Lucia.

My friend and I communicated at some intellectual/psychological level reserved in my experience for a highly restricted group of friends. Our friendship encompassed some divergences of character and experience that might easily have made it impossible for us to communicate at all.

He was a geek of some sort, making his living in one of those careers that I simply do not comprehend—the way he did not comprehend my being gay–but that did not bother either of us. He took the same type of medication I take to treat the same condition. His version of the condition was more destructive to him than mine to me. I would guess it was a factor in his premature death, but I do not know that. He and I met at an event in support of an extremely unpopular cause. Each of us was surprised and somewhat relieved to discover the other at the event because we were definitely the two outsiders in the crowd. He was there because he was a photographer, I because I was blogging about the issue.

He and I used words in the same way. We often used the same words. We understood many of the “important” things of our lives similarly. We adamantly disagreed on other important ideas—in fact, our disagreement was strong enough to have destroyed a different kind of friendship. We joked—no, we were serious—about finding a way to revitalize a Socialist Party in Dallas. Of course, all of our socialist ideology was purely theoretical, and we knew that. One can hardly live as a socialist in a hyper-capitalist society. But we would like to have found a way to make a socialist agenda at least part of the political discussion in this “winner take all” society. He was the only person I knew who had read Marx, Adorno, Weber, and Veblen as I have. He remembered details of what he read; I have a general sweep of ideas from all of that reading.

All of our disagreements grew from our irreconcilable difference of opinion about god. He had found in the writings of such men as Richard Dawkins, Daniel, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens a view of the universe that made sense to him. His atheism was thorough and (to me) doctrinaire. My agnosticism is complete but about as non-committal and wishy-washy as such a mindset could possibly be. Our last exchange on Facebook (see ** below) codifies our disagreement—most of the time our discussions were less sophomoric, but what do you expect on Facebook? I have to admit that one of his beliefs (taken directly from the misconceptions and virulence of Christopher Hitchens) bothered me: his conviction that Islam is a threat to all of civilization. I would simply laugh at him. He learned not to mention it in my presence.

Our relationship was based almost 100% on words. And, as my relationships go, it was fine!

Lucia di Lammermoor, as does every opera  –

that ‘extravagant and irrational’ art form, as Samuel Johnson famously put it – complicates. Most simply put, opera brings together music and words in the service of an enacted, dramatic story(1).

Words tempered by any reference to meaning

Words tempered by any reference to meaning

The greatest challenge to an opera-goer is the words. Even when an opera is sung in English (either in its original form or in translation), I can seldom make out the words. That is for two reasons. First, I can’t hear any more. Second, I can’t multi-task, that is, I can never comprehend music and words at the same time, especially while I watch flesh and blood people acting out what they are singing (saying) on the stage. It’s just too complicated. If they’d leave out the words so I can concentrate on the music (which comes naturally) and the action, I’d be OK.

That seems, I am sure, weird coming from a poor man who is willing to pay upwards of $200 per performance to have a good seat for the entire season of the Dallas Opera. A real opera fanatic.

A relative of mine not too long ago attended her first performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and was smitten by the performance (she is a technical theater person and was, I think, awestruck by the sheer brilliance and opulence of the staging). She offered one critique, however; I’m sure it came from the mindset of the purist. She said the surtitles were bizarre—I think she’d go so far as to say they are offensive.

My response to that is that the words are one-third of the spectacle of opera. Understanding the words is absolutely essential to experiencing the opera. And if the audience does not understand the language, they do not experience the opera. They can hear lovely music and see a great spectacle, but they are not experiencing opera. They must have help. (See the Hutcheon article in full for an exhaustive study of this phenomenon; otherwise, take my word for it.)

John Bunyan (1628-1688), Baptist/Anglican writer of morality tales qua sermons, published reading instruction books for children that served also for religious instruction. In one, A Book for Boys and Girls,

words are printed with breaks to mark each syllable, and are accompanied by a statement that ‘e-ve-ry word or syl-la-ble (tho ne-ver so small) must have one vow-el or more right-ly placed in it’. The suggestion that words exist on the basis of meeting internal, systematic or structural criteria is not tempered by any reference to meaning, divine or other (2).

Always the words came first

Always the words came first

For an opera-goer to hear the words  “on the basis of meeting internal, systematic or structural criteria [not] tempered by any reference to meaning, divine or other” seems to me as odd as expecting children to understand their parents’ religion by reading words reduced to syllables (each containing a vowel) without reference to each other. My relative is wrong about the necessity of surtitles at the opera.

Ah! Back to my point. My late friend and I related almost totally at the level of words. They were not, however, words without structural criteria, without reference to meaning. They were words that created a friendship that continues in my mind today. And will continue. The words created the meaning. But the words joined action, living, bodies, marching, protesting. The bond. But in this instance, understanding the words is absolutely essential to experiencing the friendship.

Seemingly unrelated: a friend’s death and an opera performance. Unrelated except for their dependence on words.
(1) Hutcheon, Linda, and Michael Hutcheon. “Prima La Musica, Poi Le Parole?” Operatic Challenges To Word–Music Relations.” University Of Toronto Quarterly 79.3 (2010): 869-880.
(2) Spargo, Tamsin. “Have You Never A Hill Mizar To Remember?: Some Thoughts On Agnosticism And Meaning.” International Journal Of Religion & Spirituality In Society 1.1 (2011): 15-24.

(**)  Facebook exchange, October 19. My friend died October 21.

My Friend:  Jesus never existed. A myth created by the arbitrary elimination of the Apocrypha and cementing of the ‘canonization’ hoopla. Christianity served the establishment of a brutal power structure that for centuries represented the most egregious known to the planet. Suggest literature pertaining to orthodoxy and heterodoxy ping-pong in the first 5 centuries. Your Jesus is better than mine. Make up whoever works better – as continues today. Today’s Jesus is a free market capitalist.

Suggest the movie ‘Agora’ to see the emergence of the scourge that labels itself ‘Christianity’. Anybody that adheres to the godman superstitions and runs for public office is bad news. It is indicative of a psychological illness documented by 20th century scholars (Freud et. al).

Me:  Some time let’s talk about whether or not Freud knew anything about mental “health.” The only people he ever talked to, of course, were neurotic, psychotic, psychopathic, or recovering from incest, so he certainly knew what made people psychologically healthy, right? Freudian psychology is as responsible for human misery now as Christianity was back then.



  1. “Freudian psychology is as responsible for human misery now as Christianity was back then.”

    Amen (you should pardon the expression).

    I experienced Freudianism from deep inside a religious community (or gulag, take your pick) for which it was one of the two Great Evils of the 20th century, the other being Communism (viz. Sheen, Bishop, whose weekly show ran in prime-time, live, back in the 1950s). I learned about Freud’s theories through their constant negation–I suppose it was the weakening of the “faculty” of the will that was at the core of the hostility. Yet, I incorporated his basic theories, as I understood them, into my thinking at a very early age in consequence (as I did an obsession with sex, thanks to its daily proscription by my teachers).

    In other words, I agree that contemporary dogmatism (and Freudianism is as doctrinaire as any other ism) is as destructive as any other, religious or not. My experience of watching psychotherapists control people’s freedom both physically and more subtly has convinced me that all power structures will behave the same way given the opportunity (nod here to Foucault).



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