97. ambivalence


Picture of story headline from CNN

Only three more blog posts away from #100. It’s hard to believe how long this blog has actually been going, and how long it’s actually taken me to get to a hundred posts. Most of that ground has been covered in the past couple of months as I’ve been using this blog to explore and document my journey from Christianity to apostasy, and the various ways in which my thinking has changed and grown since February.

For my hundredth post, I intend to write out an essay on what exactly I believe now, how I came to atheism (aside from the “born again” moment on my birthday, which I shall try to reference as little as possible), and answer some of the questions that have been posed to me since coming out as an atheist.

Since wrapping up NaNoWriMo on November 28th and feeling utterly drained creatively, I’ve been taking some time off to recharge, feed and nurture my creative self. Most of the time I drive myself like a machine, with the expectation that my mind is this factory of ideas that can churn out and turn over high-quality work in a relatively short span of time. The fact is that this is not the case, and that I’m more like a creative “shoppe” that needs freedom, flexibility and room to work. And I also need to love myself and my muse, and treat it with love and respect instead of with an iron fist.

My brain also undergoes something akin to the reversal of the earth’s magnetic poles every couple of months, switching from musical North to verbal South, or what I call different mental “modes.” Sometimes my brain thinks in words, and I’ll write stories and novels; and sometimes my brain thinks in music, and I’ll do a lot of composing and music. Right now, after a heavy period of verbal writing my brain is switching back over to music; and one project in particular has caught my attention again.

Back in 2007 I started work on a setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Aria da Capo, a one-act play which I’m turning into a one-act opera. My friend Larisa directed it in the spring of that year, and I was immediately taken with it. Aside from how well her words translate into music, what attracted me at once was both the beauty of the language and the chilling message that it offers. The difference between what I do as a composer and what most composers do is that for me, music always takes a backseat to story and to text (and/or to action, whichever is driving the piece). When I’m picking a story or a text to set, my first consideration is whether it will be served at all by being paired with music, and how my music can serve the words and the story. (A lot of the time I feel it’s the other way round.)

My composition professor in college gets a lot of credit for this perspective. He would say that “opera is a mind expressing itself at a critical point.” I take that to apply to music in general: That breaking into song or playing an instrument is the only possible choice that a character could take at that moment in time, so I’m very careful about how and where I put music. For me, singing in an opera isn’t an obligation, and I’ll think nothing of cutting music if it makes more sense to have speech. After all, song is just sustained speech.

I hope that makes sense.

Anyway, I’m getting to the headline at the top of the page.

If you haven’t already, go and read Aria da Capo. It’s well worth it, and a short one at that. The title comes from the baroque song form, which is tertiary, meaning that it’s essentially in three parts: A B A, where you have the first part of the song, followed by a contrasting section and then a return to the first part. The play opens with a harlequinade, with a farce featuring the Commedia dell’arte stock characters of Pierrot and Columbine.

COLUMBINE: Pierrot, a macaroon! I cannot live without a macaroon!
PIERROT: My only love, you are so intense! . . . Is it Tuesday, Columbine?— I’ll kiss you if it’s Tuesday.
COLUMBINE: It is Wednesday, if you must know . . . Is this my artichoke, or yours?

This goes on until Cothurnus, the Greek muse of tragedy, enters and kicks them off. He then brings on two shepherds, Thyrsis and Corydon, who insist that they thought they had more time before they had to go on.

CORYDON: Sir, we are counting on this little hour. We said, “Here is an hour,—in which to think a mighty thought, and sing a trifling song, and look at nothing.”—And, behold! the hour, Even as we spoke, was over, and the act begun, under our feet!

They also complain that the setting is all wrong (“We cannot act a tragedy with comic properties!”), but Cothurnus urges them on:

COTHURNUS: Try it and see. I think you’ll find you can. One wall is like another. And regarding the matter of your insufficient mood, the important thing is that you speak the lines, and make the gestures. 

The shepherds begin their own play, with Cothurnus standing by as prompter, a tragedy about two friends who decided to play a game that goes horribly wrong:

THYRSIS: Let’s gather rocks, and build a wall between us; and say that over there belongs to me, and over here to you!
CORYDON: Why,—very well. And say you may not come upon my side unless I say you may!
THYRSIS: Nor you on mine! And if you should, ‘twould be the worse for you!

Over the course of this play, this game becomes more real as Corydon realizes that Thyrsis has all the water on his side of the wall, and then he discovers jewels on his side. In the end,  the shepherds kill each other, with Corydon strangling Thyrsis with a necklace of jewels and Thyrsis poisoning Corydon with a bowl of water. Pierrot and Columbine return and discover the bodies. Pierrot complains to Cothurnus:

PIERROT: Cothurnus! Come drag these bodies out of here! We can’t sit down and eat with two dead bodies lying under the table! . . . The audience wouldn’t stand for it!
COTHURNUS: (Off stage.) What makes you think so? — Pull down the tablecloth on the other side, and hide them from the house, and play the farce. The audience will forget.

They then start the first play over again, with the first couple of lines (“Pierrot, a macaroon,—I cannot live without a macaroon!”). For almost a year I was working on bits and pieces of music for this, struggling with the meaning of the text, and it wasn’t until I saw the documentary The Devil Came on Horseback, that I finally understood. It’s a film about former U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle’s experiences in the Darfur, documenting incidents of cease fire violations, and his eventual uncovering and exposing of the genocide taking place there. The last scene from Aria da Capo instantly came to mind as the story broke in U.S. papers but then quickly faded as a news item.

That film, along with the shockwave of 9/11 still relatively fresh in my mind, as well as the genocides in Bosnia and the myriad of other horrific events — murders, suicides, tsunamis, earthquakes — began to shake my faith in God and his supposed goodness.

So today I open my Google homepage, with a newsfeed from CNN, and there’s the headline from the story I posted at the top of the page (which you can read here). A 7-year-old girl was beaten about the head, stabbed to death, and thrown in the trash. Is that part of God’s ineffable master plan somehow? That somehow this all fits into his grand design?

Or perhaps that, as some of my Christian friends assert, he’s constantly working to restore the creation? In that case, God is looking more and more like a harried, overworked social worker, with an ever-growing stack of files on his desk, and more cases falling through the cracks than he’s able to keep track of, no matter how hard he tries to stay on top. That God deserves our pity and maybe even our assistance, not our worship or undying devotion.

However… this is the all-powerful God who created the universe and all life therein? The God who forgives sins, ushers the faithful into a blessed afterlife, and punishes the wicked with an eternity in hell? This is the deity Christians entrust their security to?

The more I look at that headline, the less plausible God (at least the Christian God) seems, even less plausible than he already seems to me. Again, I will cover more of this in post #100; and I certainly don’t believe in God anymore; but it is an interesting thought.

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