Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sacrificial Rites in Picasso and Stravinsky: Part 5 (The End)

Stravinsky's Oedipus is also an example of a character who has stepped beyond the bounds of the permissible. Mellers claims that Stravinsky's ritual is both negative and positive; Negative because the terror and violence in the ritual seemed directly to parallel the death-struggle of our deracinated civilization which was then erupting in the first of the World Wars; positive because this primitive vitality served as a reminder of the instinctive passional life that modern man had lost.

In Oedipus' opening aria, as he promises to deliver his people, he overflows with confidence in his own abilities as a hero and solver of riddles. The irony here is pointed, as Oedipus will, in fact, deliver his people by removing the cursed presence that causes the gods to plague Thebes. What he does not know is that this curse is he, himself. Oedipus' fame lies in his ability to see into dark riddles yet he is unable to see his own destiny until it comes howling down on him. Oedipus later laments as he lists his sins: "I was born of whom divine law forbade / have lain with whom divine law forbade / have slain whom divine law forbade / All is I now made clear!" The Speaker labels him "foul beast, incestuous parricide, and madman," and the chorus is hardly more encouraging as they drive him from Thebes: "Behold! Oedipus the king appears--a most foul monster, a most foul beast." Here the description would be equally apt for Picasso's Minotaur. Oedipus is a breaker of supernal boundaries and must be sacrificed, in this case not with blood but with exile, a scapegoat staggering with the guilt of Thebes on his back. In exhibiting the unacceptable behaviors of sexuality and aggression, Oedipus is unfit to live any longer with the companionship of his people. His very presence has brought the vengeance of the gods upon Thebes and his exile is a necessity that the civilization may continue. Mellers says that "Oedipus's final arioso is closer to liturgical chant than it is to the heroic music he has sung previously. Or rather one could say that at the end he rediscovers the music that was implicit in his first utterance, which is now purged of egoism and self-will." Through the sacrificial nature of Oedipus's horrific enucleation, the hero has achieved a kind of expiation for the guilt of his disgraceful crimes. But the Chorus's final driving away of Oedipus, while not necessarily forgiving, is not cruel either, but filled with a gentle pity. The music is calm and even tender as Oedipus, the self-sacrificed, stumbles off stage and into his long and lonely exile. Again, Mellers is insightful:

"The rite has always been, with [Stravinsky], an act of incarnation, it has been a historical necessity; the consequence of an agonizing awareness of the 'human predicament.' ... Stravinsky has shown us that, even in our bruised and battered world, the heart may still sing in the sustained lyrical period, the pulse beat in a rhythm that is not motorized, but fluid and compulsive as the sea."

Oedipus is a figure not only of pathos, but also of nobility. His sacrifice in Stravinsky's work may be viewed as a kind of spiritual fulfillment-the truth may not have made him exactly free, but it has allowed him to rise to a plane beyond egoism and personal heroics. He inhabits, alone, a visionary place of the blessed, comforted only by the knowledge that he has performed well what was demanded of him.

Picasso and Stravinsky explored the nature of sacrifice in modern life in their works. For them, it is a necessary component of civilized life, and while destructive in nature, is a vital aspect of creation and harmony. In rejecting the base and devouring it, a liberation, though limited, is attained. This liberation is what Picasso and Stravinsky yearned to achieve through their journeys into the aesthetic past. By stepping down from the forefront of the modernist army they came into a place where they could experience greater freedom through order. Both artists performed a sacrifice of the chaotic in order to find the solid ground of classical endurance.


B. Diederich said...

I came across your 2007 blog--delightful! (I was googling the word "king".)
It looks like you are enjoying writing...
I will have to glance more at your blogs later when I have time...very interesting.

Sarah E. said...

I found your bloq while researching a paper comparing Stravinsky and Picasso for a 20th Century Music class for non-music majors. It was far easier to understand than the class lectures on neoclassicism. Your writing style is informative and interesting. Thanks so much.

Steve Morrison said...

Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you found this helpful.