A Thing of Beauty in a Barbarous Time

(11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis. – Ovid

With the economy imploding, and the wars, and crimes, and torture, and impotent political posturing — even as the pockets of the people are picked on a daily basis — there is a time, there must be a time for beauty, for a time apart the madness. We must remember what our humanity is, and why we even bother with the onus of civilization, with its exploitation and its barbarism.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his famous essay, “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” provocatively asked whether it wasn’t such condolences that bound us ever tighter to the chains of oppression:

So long as government and law provide for the security and well-being of men in their common life, the arts, literature and the sciences, less despotic though perhaps more powerful, fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh them down. They stifle in men’s breasts that sense of original liberty, for which they seem to have been born; cause them to love their own slavery, and so make of them what is called a civilised people….

What would become of the arts, were they not cherished by luxury? If men were not unjust, of what use were jurisprudence? What would become of history, if there were no tyrants, wars, or conspiracies? In a word, who would pass his life in barren speculations, if everybody, attentive only to the obligations of humanity and the necessities of nature, spent his whole life in serving his country, obliging his friends, and relieving the unhappy? Are we then made to live and die on the brink of that well at the bottom of which Truth lies hid?

Let it be remarked here that Rousseau went on to write one of Europe’s first and most popular novels, and even composed an opera of his own!

But philosophy is not my intent here, only to select a respite from the sorry spectacle that 21st century capitalism has provided us, and the sure prospect that, unless humanity grab history in its puissant fist, things will only be getting worse.

The following aria and duet from Richard Strauss’s opera, Arabella, is some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. The duet between the sisters in the last minute is as close to perfection as one will ever hear in vocal music. Who cares that the subtitles are in another language (Finnish?)?

Enjoy, and remember John Keats’ epoch-making words:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing

A flowery band to bind us to the earth,

Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth

Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,

Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways

Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,

Some shape of beauty moves away the pall

From our dark spirits.

“Ich danke Fräulein – Aber der Richtige” from act I, Richard Strauss’ Arabella, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris (2002) — with Karita Mattila (Arabella), Thomas Hampson (Mandryka), Barbara Bonney (Zdenka), Günter Missenhardt (Graf Waldner), Cornelia Kallisch (Adélaide), Hugh Smith (Matteo), Endrik Wottrich (Elemer), Olga Trifonova (Fiakermilli), Sarah Walker (Kartenaufschlägerin) et al. Christoph von Dohnányi conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.

(Oh, yes, the Latin quote at the top, it’s from the opening of the Rousseau essay, and is translated, “In this place I am a barbarian, because men do not understand me.”)

Also posted at Invictus

8 comments

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    • Valtin on October 7, 2008 at 7:10 am
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    but I could not. One begins to feel worn down, and that’s when I’ve learned an anodyne is necessary. Alcohol and drugs do not properly soothe the soul (only the body, and then only somewhat). For me, it’s music and literature, and a good hike or a day’s sailing on the planet’s great seas.

    • pfiore8 on October 7, 2008 at 9:32 am

    that helped to spur creativity, i’ve read.  before that, people worked seven days a week. they didn’t have time for beauty or philosophy. like today… nobody has time for it anymore. . . it seems.

    when we have time, yeah, maybe we like to write poetry and paint.

    harmony, rhythm, excitement, exploration … seeking to integrate these things into our programming or our souls.

    now you’ve got me thinking about it. the lack of time for quiet. reflection. living amongst cookie cutter mac mansions without any tree line.  who’s got time for a catch, like to play ball? it’s all practice to WIN a position, WIN the game.

    who even plays anymore? except, of course, our dogs.

    the optimist i am, i keep waiting for the inventors and artists and poets of these troubled times to emerge . . . aren’t these the times when we can count on at least that? i keep waiting for greatness to emerge somewhere.

    or is it just that god thing? no. i think people can have greatness in them. and can do great things.

    • Edger on October 7, 2008 at 11:21 am

    It’s easy to forget when we read and hear “the news” that there are lots more important things in life than barbarity.

    Sarah Brightman, for example. “Deliver Me” 🙂


  1. This was lovely, the words of Keats and the music and voices in Arabella.

    It’s a good reminder that we need, no matter the times, to reconnect our souls to that which is beautiful — calming, soothing, nourishing our hearts throgh sights and sounds precious!

    Thank you again!

  2. …to find a link to Montserrat Cabale for your post here, but couldn’t find before I got too tired…

    But I think you know what I mean.

    Yes…beauty…

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