Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cross Purposes

Can a place of work or a school have a dress code?
Yes.

Ought a place of work or school to have a dress code?
Dunno. Depends on how extreme the code is and how good a reason for it there is. Asking people to wear hard hats on building sites, fair enough. Asking people to wear clowns hats in the office, not so much. Okay to ask men to wear a tie. Not okay to ban them from wearing trousers. Unless company in question was Jock McHamish's Kilt Emporium. Or the Perfectly Normal Transvestite Shop. Or, come to that, the Raunchy Nude Butler company. It's complicated.


Are you saying that dress codes aren't unreasonable in themselves, but a particular dress code might be unreasonable for some people under some circumstance?
It's complicated.

Is this a human rights issue?
We have to come up with a vocabulary and framework for talking about these things, and human rights seems to be the one we've decided. If they'd asked me, we'd have reserved "human rights" for the big stuff like torture and war crimes, but they didn't. When t.c Tony Blair talked about access to the internet being a human right, I started to think that "human rights" had become one of those phrases that used to have a meaning but now just indicate mild approval from the speaker, like "stakeholder", "zero tolerance", and "British".

Might this ever be a human rights issue?
If a prison or school or branch of Tescos had a policy of enforced nudity, then that would be a breach of someone's human rights, as well as an interesting premise for a porno movie. We should be careful of making assumptions about how different people from different backgrounds feel about modesty. If your culture tells you to wear a turban, what does it feel like to be caught with no turban? Is it more like "How incredibly embarrassing! I've come to work without putting a tie on"? Or is it more like "OMG my knickers have fallen down in public and everyone can see my arse!"? It's only a couple of generations since a woman walking down the high street without a hat would have caused a genuine scandal, after all.

If a place of work or a school has a dress code, should there be exceptions to it for people with strong religious convictions?
It depends on the importance of the original dress code and the importance of the religious conviction. I don't think that I should be exempted from wearing protective clothing at work because I happen to have decided that I feel like wearing my "Smile, Jesus loves you" tee shirt today. If a company has made a rule about wearing badges, then I am not sure that it makes any difference if the badge in question is a skull and cross bones or an icthus. 

What are these strange "badges" of which you speak?
I believe that they are what foreigners would call "buttons". You may have become confused about the differences between "trousers" and "pants" several pages ago.

Is the law prohibiting Christians from displaying signs of their faith a breach of their human rights?
I don't know. But it seems pretty intolerant and mean spirited to me.

Is there, in fact, a law prohibiting Christians from displaying signs of their faith?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. Just walk down your street and count how many cars have Christian fishes on them, and, for that matter, how many cars have those nasty little Darwin fishes on them.

Do some companies have a dress code which forbids the wearing of jewellery at work?
Apparently so.

Are people who want to wear crosses, stars of david or rosaries at work automatically exempted from the "no jewellery" rule?
Apparently not.

Have you ever seen anyone wearing a rosary at work?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. 

Should there be an exception?
It depends on the importance of the rule and the importance of the jewellery. If you are working on a production line and jewellery is dangerous, then there should probably not be an exception. If you are putting books on shelves in a library and it's a very small and discrete cross, then there probably should be. If wearing a small cross is a compulsory element of your sect, then almost definitely. 

Wouldn't that mean that Motorhead fans and members of the Liberal Democrats would suddenly decide that wearing small badges was a compulsory part of their faith?
Almost certainly. If you say that "literary merit" is a defence against a charge of indecency or obscenity then every publisher in the country is going to claim that his top shelf magazine is a work of serious literature.

Are there, in fact, any Christian sects for whom wearing a cross at all times is compulsory?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. 

So how did "the human rights court is deciding if companies should be legally obliged to waive their dress codes for Christians who want to wear jewellery to work" become "the human rights court is deciding if Christians should be banned from wearing crosses in public"? 
See under "Eric Pickles", above. 

Why does he think its such a big deal?
It isn't quite clear. He doesn't think that people should be allowed to wear crosses because everybody should have the same freedom as everybody else and subject to that as much freedom as possible; he thinks that people should wear crosses because Faith is a good thing and we want more of it. It doesn't matter too much in what. But he has a purely instrumental view of this Faith stuff.  He doesn't think Faith is a good in itself; he thinks it's a good because "it provides a clear moral compass and a call to action that benefits society as a whole", whatever that means.

So he really cares about "society as a whole" and sees Faith as a means to an end?
That's what I meant by "instrumental", yes. 

So, in fact, he worships "society" rather than God?
Yes Socrates; that is indeed the case.

Is that roughly what you would expect a member of discredited right wing government to do in a country where the dominant folk religion has always been a sort of Christian tinged secular pelegianism?
Oh, Socrates, you are so much cleverer than us!

Would the world be a happier place if I refrained from reading the Daily Telegraph even when someone has left a copy of it on my table?
Very probably.

What's the difference between analogy and allegory?
Analogy is when strawberries being you out in spots. Allegory invented the internet.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Loose Ends (5)

C.S Lewis's "trilemma" was never intended to be a proof of the existence of God. Again.

The radio broadcasts were never aimed at atheists. There weren't any atheists in England in 1940, and if there were they didn't listen  to religious talks on the wireless. They were specifically commissioned to appeal to those who "on whom church membership sits lightly."  Lewis's target audience are people who may think that "cardinal sins" are the kinds of sins committed by Roman Catholic cardinals and that the "begotten, not created" bit in the creed has something to do with the virgin birth. People who don't know but want to know, or who are prepared to listen. Translating big ideas for the benefit of the Common Man who is certainly not stupid but is almost completely uneducated. His attitude can certainly seem incredibly patronising, as indeed can everything else that the BBC did between 1922 and 1984; but they were wildly, wildly popular, turning Lewis into an instant celebrity and cult figure. 


I therefore become exasperated in a not at all mean spirited way when people just repeat the old saw that Lewis was a bad or dishonest polemicist because the "aut deus aut malus homo" argument is merely a "dodgy rhetorical flourish". He is directing the argument at people who think of themselves as Christians, but who honestly don't know what kinds of claims are put into Jesus' mouth in the New Testament; who honestly believe (because generations of dishonest clergymen and schoolteachers have told them so) that the Jesus of the Bible was a moral teacher and nothing more; that to be a Christian means "to be good"; that the expression "Son of God" means "person whose moral teaching we agree with". Lewis is showing why this doesn't work. It obviously doesn't work. 


*

The aforementioned Francis Spufford gives the trilemma very short shrift, as I mentioned in the review. He argues, very interestingly, I think, that the mystical transcendent sense of being in contact with God can be very emphatic even for very ordinary believers; so it would have to be utterly overwhelming for a remarkable and holy man such as we must suppose "Yeshua" to have been. Believing that you are God is a perfectly imaginable response to such an extreme experience. If human experience is such that perfectly sane people can come to believe that there is a God, it's possible to see how a perfectly sane person could come to believe that he is  God.

Of course, Dawkins has sufficiently poisoned the discourse that most people probably don't think that it is possible for a sane person to believe in God: me and Jesus and Rowan Williams and the Vicar of Dibley are mad and bad by definition, so the whole argument is rather moot.  

While Spufford is, in my opinion, a bit harsh on Lewis, he is very good about the whole scholarly debate about the New Testament documents and the "historical" Jesus. The Gospels are clearly stories, not news reports, and have to read as such, something which Lewis, curiously, never really came to grips with. On the other hand the, the populist notion that the stories depict a sweet Lennonist moral sage and nastybadjewish St Paul perverted them into a religion about a deified saviour is completely false. The earliest Christian writings we have are about a divine, resurrected saviour who is coming back Real Soon Now. The narratives are written decades later. 

Granted, those narratives must have had antecedents and sources - St Luke says explicitly that he's editing previous accounts - and all scholars agree that our best link to the really really original totally historical utterly authentic Jesus of history is a lost fifth Gospel that collected a lot of parables and teaching. [*]

Spufford cleverly makes the point that, even if this is correct, that still doesn't get us back to a sweetly human Jesus of simple morality as preached by Douglas Adams, Charles Dickens, Queen Elizabeth II, Woody Guthrie, Geraldine Granger, Miss Govey who taught R.E at my infant school, John Lennon and David Icke. 

He (Spufford) writes:

"Moreover, even if you try to discard everything in the biographies which is explicitly devoted to storytelling Jesus's divinity, and just concentrate on the bits which must have come most uncontentiously from the lost sayings-collection, you still don't get back to a layer in which he's just a wise person dispensing wisdom....'If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt too' is not 'great moral teaching' in this sense. It is either foolishness, or something else."

Not great moral teaching. Either foolishness, or something else.

Now, what does that remind me of?  

[*] Except the ones who don't.

My previous seventeen essays on the Trilemma, can be found in "Do Balrogs Have Wings?"  along with that essay on Planet Narnia everyone wanted so badly. The unsigned copies are the valuable ones.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Loose Ends (4)

I may at some stage try and write a review of the Hobbit

But on the other hand, I may just sit in the corner and weep softly to myself. 

Man of Steel looks appalling, and after dubbing the last one The Abomination, I would be a bit of a humbug to go and see Into Darkness. 

I am greatly looking forward to The Miserables. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Even Looser Ends


(Responding to comments on previous thread. I will get back to writing about funnybooks soon, I promise.) 

Before writing anything about religion, I really ought to write, "I AM NOT NEARLY AS PIOUS AS I AM PROBABLY SOUNDING" in large letters at the top of the page.

The religious don't think of God as only, or even mostly, as Universe Createy Guy. (This is why most of them found that Hevolution required only relatively minor adjustments.) So I don't think that saying "God is like a father" can be mostly a way of conceptualizing the concept of Creation. In any case, Christians almost never talk in terms of God bringing the universe into being like a father bringing a child into being. If anything, it's more like a craftsman constructing something. (Hence "begotten, not created" in the Creed.) The reluctance to call God "Mother" is possibly connected to this: "God the Mother" is always in danger of giving birth to the universe, which changes the way you think the universe is related to God. Joseph Campbell goes on and on about this. 


Note that I didn't say "If Christians are right to conceptualizes God as sky-father..."; I said "If Christians are right to call God 'Father'" (or, as I then said "Daddy"). 


"What we call God" = "How we address God" = "What kind of relationship we think we have with God". 


Is there an imaginative difference between thinking that you can approach the divine as "Daddy" and thinking you can approach it as "Mummy"? 


I think there possibly is, maybe. 


At any rate, masculine imagery is used right through the Bible, and once you've said "God is neuter", "God is hermaphrodite" or "God is an energy field created by all living thing, he surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together" you'd have to rethink all the other images and metaphors in the Bible. What would you do with the mystical wedding feast of the Lamb in the book of Revelation; the allegorical level of the Song of Songs; the parable of the Prodigal Son; the story of the Seven Foolish Virgins waiting for the Bridegroom; etc etc etc?


This is the problem with ultra free translations of the Bible. All very cute for Miss Muir to tell us that the Missionaries sometimes taught Natives that Jesus said "I am the coconut of life", but how did they then deal with the passage about the Jews leaving Egypt in such a hurry that they had to eat unleavened coconuts, which is clearly relevant to the story of Jesus' giving coconuts and wine to his disciples.


An evangelical pastor once posted a "wayside pulpit" poster outside his church, reading:


"WOULD YOU RATHER WATCH WITH WISE VIRGINS OR SLEEP WITH THE FOOLISH VIRGINS?"


Back in prehistory, when the Church of England first debated the whole question of Lady Vicars, I think the position of most of us liberal evangelicals was along the lines of "Well, we are far from sure that a vicar does act as the ikon of God, because we are far from sure that we believe in that clergy are "priests" in that sense. But we are quite sure that a female priest can be an ikon of God the father just as much as a male one can." 


I mean, that was what we thought when we weren't thinking "This is a rather obscure and technical point to be making quite such a lot of fuss about." 


The only time we became jumpy about the whole thing was when a minority of women's ordination exponents said "A female priest can be an ikon of God because the Bible and tradition is completely mistaken to think of God as father". "Oor, er" we said "It now sounds as if you are making a change to the whole grammar of faith rather than, as we thought, correcting an obvious and silly historical injustice." 


A woman's ordinands wrote to the Guardian and said "The only difference between me and Robert Runcie is that he has a penis and I don't." The great Auberon Waugh responded in his column "Even at the purely psyiological level, this argument is bollocks."  It is entirely possible that I have quoted that before. 


A 2007 post by me, entitled "A Completely Unfunny Posting" gets more hits, by a fact of about five to one, than anything else I have ever written. I initially thought that, since it contains a lot of bad religious jokes, it must be linked to from some religious or theophobic website that I can't find. It has been pointed out to me, however, that in the course of the piece I frivolously refer to Mr Dawkin's imaginary "memes" as "midichlorians", so the hits are probably coming from very disgruntled Star Wars fans, none of whom have bought my book.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Loose Ends (3)

I think that "Jacob" makes a very valid point


I think his very valid point is this: The whole idea that the relationship between two men might be lawful and blessed, but not sacramental; and the whole idea that it's perfectly fine for a female to to be Queen or head of MI5 but impossible for her to consecrate the Eucharistic clearly implies that differences (and therefore, in certain respects at least, inferiority and superiority) are built into the whole system. That makes the whole system rotten at a very deep level.

I am very sympathetic to this argument, and actually used it myself the first time I wrote about this subject, back in the Jurassic era. 


I would, however, ask "Jacob" to charitably consider my analogy with the pagans -- the ones who hypothetically believe that the male and the female principle are hard wired into the universe, and a man can't be an earth mother any more than you can make rabbit stew without a rabbit. It's not a rule that someone made up; it's a description of how things are. 


This would make things actually a lot more sticky because if 


a: Sexism and homophobia are actually implicit in the whole idea of calling God "Father" 

and


b: Calling God "Father" is a significant Christian belief 

then it follows that

c: telling Christians that they have to have female priests and marry same sex couples really does amount to saying that their whole concept of God is not permissible; which really does amount to saying that they can't practice their religion; which is either a very good thing or a very bad thing depending on how Christophobic you are. 

But I am now making a hypothetical argument on behalf of a hypothetical person whose hypothetical views I don't myself agree with and may not even have properly understood. Some people may question the usefulness of such an exercise.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Loose Ends (2)

Using analogies sometimes helps me to think straight. I think they may sometimes help other people think straight as well. 


Jesus once said "You don't know when you are going to be burgled, so you lock up every night. Similarly, you don't know when I'm coming back to earth, so be prepared for me all the time." I don't think it follows from this that Jesus is like a house breaker; or spirituality is like a mortice lock; or pastoral care is like being a a crime prevention officer; or that the second coming is going to result in damage to your DVD collection. I think that the burglar has one specific element in common with Jesus, i.e the element of surprise. (Jesus also said that human beings were to God as litigants were to magistrates; I don't think he intended us to think that the prayer involves filling out endless forms, knowing the correct forms of address, wearing funny wigs etc etc etc.)

I get very bored with people wilfully misunderstanding analogy. Only the other day, a friend of mine said to another friend "Oh, if your bike is a mighty stallion, my bike is only a little shetland pony." I naturally responded "That's outrageous and Shetlophobic! Have you ever seen a pony with wheels?"

When an organisation -- let's call it "The Church of England", for the sake of argument -- confuses two elements of its own anatomy, let's say for example its arse and its elbow - over some particular issue -- let's hypothetically say "the ordination of women Bishops" -- everyone naturally feels very cross / ashamed / defensive / bored. Christophobic writers are naturally inclined to jump up and down with joy and say "You see! That proves what I've been saying all this time".  Bloggers are inclined to reply "Well, I think it's actually more complicated than that" even though in this case it probably isn't. 

So I think it can sometimes be helpful to take a step back and say "Let us imagine a different organisation, called X, that has made a different arbitrary rule, prohibiting a particular group (Y) from holding a particular office (Z)" What would follow?  Does the breadth and significance of Z within the organisation, the position of Y in the power structure, or the influence of X in the community make a difference; or is prejudice against Y over Z just as serious as prejudice against A, B or C over D, E or F. Because I am a terribly funny and witty writer (terms and conditions may apply) I like to think of silly values for X, Y and Z in order to make the analogy more memorable, and the essay less boring. If I ask us to think about a custard factory which won't allow blue eyed people to sweep the floor, it doesn't, mean that I think that the historical oppression of women is no more serious than the historical oppression of blue eyed people, or that carrying out the Great Commission and administering the Eucharist is like manufacturing egg thickened confectionery cream. I'm just trying to sort out in my own head what exactly it is we are disagreeing about.

I realise that many of us would rather not sort out in our heads exactly what it is we are disagreeing about. I think that many of us would rather just form battle lines and shout at each other. Which is great fun and excellent aerobic exercise, I admit. 

I think that many of us really do think that the Church of England is really a social movement like the Campaign for Real Ale or the National Society for the Prevention of Children, that all the ceremonies and rituals are more or less dispensable decoration (like one of those Laurel and Hardy men's clubs with jokey initiation rituals). Whereas I think that some of the people getting their knickers in a twist about ordination probably think that the ceremonies and rituals are the main thing, possibly even the only thing, which the organisation is there for. I think that most people "get" that there are groups of people like wiccans and druids and Alan Moore who honestly believe in rituals and ceremonies and spells which have some kind of actual effect. (Most of us also think that they are as fruity a batcakes, but that's not the point right now.)So I think it is sometimes helpful to say "Pretend that we were not talking about Christians saying that a lady can do anything except perform Holy Communion; pretend that we were talking about a group of wizards saying that a blond haired man could do anything except cast a Fireball spell - what would you say in that case?"

Which isn't the same as saying that I think that the Church of England is similar to a covenant of fire wizards, or that transubstantiation does 1D6 damage per level, or that I am going to carry on labouring this particular point for the next twelve months, necessarily.

I believe it to be the case that in a modern wiccan ceremony, only a man can embody the horned god and only a woman can embody the earth mother, because the male and female principles are believed to be real part of the cosmos. Peter Owen-Jones certainly had to get into the nuddy. But I don't actually know anything about modern neo-paganism, which is why I prefer to make up hypothetical examples. 


To digress back to the last point but one: someone might say that a belief that there really are male and female cosmic principles is Sexist; some might say that such a belief is Sexist, but not in a bad way; and others might say that it is not Sexist, because it is true. And someone else might say that if it were true, it wouldn't be sexist, but since it isn't, it is. You can define the word how you like, but it is not much help to deliberately think up a definition which will apply to people you think are wrong and then say that they must be wrong because they conform to you definition. 

Someone will say that imagining wizards who, while not otherwise prejudiced against bald people, say that the best spells can only be cast by people with hair, doesn't change the argument at all, because discrimination is discrimination and discrimination is always wrong. Telling a white man that he can't play in your Very Authentic Traditional Blues Band, or a black man that you don't want him in your Very Authentic Traditional Morris Dancing Side is no different from saying that he can't stay in your hotel, sit in the best seat on the bus, or vote in election.[*] Once you have conceded one kind of prejudice, however minor, you have conceded that prejudice is okay really. There are no grey areas. Never compromise: even in the face of antidistestablishmentarianism, never compromise. 

As a matter of fact, I would probably agree with you, although I draw the line at mixed gender changing rooms. But I think that extended hypotheticals about the Red Headed League may have helped to clarify the point. No disrespect intended. No intention to trivialize important issues. I don't for one minute mean to imply that you really have been chucking feathers and lumps of lead around in a vacuum.



[*] It obviously makes a difference if you say that the only people who can stay in your hotel, sit in the best seats in the bus, or vote at elections are Morris Dancers, Bluesmen, or High Level Wizards.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Loose Ends (1)

I don't think that "having false beliefs about" and "hating" are necessarily the same thing.


Er. that's it, basically.

I mean, I could say some other things if I felt like it. I could arbitrarily decide that I was going to spend 2013 referring to Richard Dawkins as "Christophobic". I could speculate about whether the use of the same word to describe "having false beliefs about" and "hating" is inadvertent, or tactical or sometimes one or sometimes the other and sometimes both. I could play around a bit with with words like "antisemitic" and "islamophobic" and wonder if everyone who is bothered by (say) ladies wearing face masks is "islamophobic", and whether that means they are wrong, necessary  But I don't think I will. 

Having false beliefs and hatred are not necessarily the same thing. But sometimes they are. Really, that's it.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

(warning: stayed up very late last night listening to folk music, got on coach very early this morning to travel oop north to visit friends, godchildren, dogs, etc and, incidentally, listen to folk music; consumed coffee and far too many Pro Points worth of sugary snack in cafe with wifi connection. may possibly be shooting from the hip slightly more than is traditional.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter

Appendix


Well, it's obviously a mess, but.

There is a famous story about a Catholic and a Jew who wanted to get married. The local Priest didn't think Catholic boys should marry Jews, and the local Rabbi certainly didn't think that Jewish girls should marry anyone other than Jews. However, the local Vicar thought that it was his job to marry anyone in his parish who wanted to get married, regardless of their faith, so he married them. 

Anyone who ever read the Dandy knows that the longest word in the English language isn't "antidisestablishmentarianism", it's "smiles".

Some Anglican clergy have genuine, sincere, theological beliefs that marriage is something which can only occur between a man and a woman. I realize that territorial battle lines have been drawn, and you either have to see these people as martyrs or homophobes, when they are mostly neither. The point isn't whether they are right, the point is that it's really what they think.

It is very easy to write a law which says "so far as the state is concerned, marriage is now between any two people regardless of sex, but naturally, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Wesleyan Holiness people don't have to marry two men if they don't want to, any more than they have to marry two people who they don't think are sufficiently Wesleyan, sufficiently Holy or sufficiently Adventurous." The state has no interest in what ceremonies are performed by particular sects. 

But it is very difficult for the law to say "marriage is now between any two people, but individual clergy of the established church don't have to marry two ladies if they don't want" because the whole point of the established church is that it will marry anybody, christen anybody, and bury anybody who asks them do. (It prefers that the parents of the people it christens so some signs of understanding the Anglican teaching on baptism, and that the people it buries are dead.) 

So, as someone with some background in games design, the proposed law which says that any sect is free to conduct same sex weddings if they want to, no sect has to conduct same sex weddings if it doesn't want to, and the established church isn't allowed to even if it does want to is actually a brilliant manoeuvre  given that the rules of the game are where they are. If we didn't have establishment, then the situation wouldn't arise, but we do, and we're stuck with it, because Dave and Ed and Nick love basking in the reflected glory of the Queen, and any suggestion that we might change the Queen's job description would be denounced as treason by the people who really run the country (Murdoch and Dacre.)

It's still a mess, though. I still think we should go for the Hamlet option...

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Book Review

Unapologetic 
by Francis Spufford
I am old enough and uncool to have sung "I serve a risen Saviour" without any sense of irony. (Irony not being something which Methodist youth groups named Sunday Session are known for.) You remember the one: 

“He lives! 
He lives! 
Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me! 
He talks with me! 
Along life’s narrow way!
He lives! 
He lives! 
Salvation to impart! 
You ask me how I know he lives?
He lives…!
Within…!
My heart…!”

I recall a (male) speaker at my college Christian Union taking issue with the song, pointing out that it invited the response “You ask me how I know he doesn't live? He doesn't live within my heart.” Had you asked St Paul how he knew Jesus lived, he suggested, he would have replied “He lives because a massive great stone was moved away from his tomb, and five hundred people actually saw him, go and ask them, they’re still alive.”  Which wouldn't have scanned.

Christian Unionists insisted on Christianity being historically based; objectively true; a God Who Acts in History; not a dead hero but a risen saviour, the Resurrection is the best attested event in history. Once you have memorized Who Moved The Stone? and can confidently show why it is impossible that Jesus Swooned On The Cross; The Disciples Moved The Body; or The Women Went to the Wrong Tomb then you've established the literal truth of Christianity with geometrical certainty. I wonder what they would make of this book?

In one sense, Francis Spufford is making an even weaker claim than "he lives within my heart". 

"I don’t know whether there is (a God). And neither do you and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins and neither does anyone. It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there…"

Which does, I suppose, invite the Village Atheist to respond "I don't know whether there is a God either. But it doesn't feel as if there is one, and so it makes sense..." I doubt that he would have got even that far, actually: he knows in advance that nothing exists except "knowable items", and that "not being a knowable item" is the same as not existing. 

But that's what makes this book such a refreshing read. The New Atheists say that there is No Evidence and that you should just stop worrying and enjoy your life. The Evangelicals say that there jolly well is Evidence That Demands A Verdict and that you should take on the Atheists on their home turf.  (That rarely ends well.) Spufford sort of admits that there isn't, in that sense, any evidence, and that all he has got to go on is a feeling, and then has a pretty good stab at saying what that feeling is like and why it's the kind of feeling which makes the whole "evidence" thing seem pretty unimportant. 

Some parts of his description work better than others. He's rather more convincing about Jesus than he is about God, as you might expect, and he gets a bit stuck on the problem of evil. Even Old Atheists might lose patience with his lack of answers. How does he know there's a God? He doesn't. There may well not be. If there is a God, why is the world so obviously horrible? He doesn't know, but when you've come a certain distance in believing in God, it seems to stop mattering. Did the story of Jesus actually happen? "Well, I don't know. I think it did. Miracles, resurrection and all. But I don't know." What about all the terrible things the Church has done? Well, a lot of that's true: but on the plus side, there's Holy Communion. 

It's an exaggeration to say that nothing like Unapologetic has been attempted before: it's recognizably a spiritual autobiography, and in it's jaunty, witty, four-letter-word-including way it follows the trajectory of a lot of spiritual autobiographies: becoming conscious of sin; calling out to God; encountering Jesus; coming to the foot of the Cross. ("Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners" might have done nicely as a subtitle although "Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense" looks more snappy in Waterstones.) But spiritual autobiography normally forces psycho-spiritual experiences through the sieve of theological language (because that's what that language has been developed to talk about) or else turns them into allegories (because making up concrete symbols for things you can't otherwise describe is what allegory is for.) I can't off hand think of another book written from the point of view of the man in the pew trying to be as honest as possible about how (rather than what or why) he believes.  

It's very entertaining: a lot of the fun is in the digressions, where he wanders off the point to talk about John Lennon or the gnostic scriptures or the wealth of the Church of England. There are some terrific footnotes. He has a direct, engaging, funny style, full of pointed analogies, direct addresses to the reader and very long sentences. 

He gets in some good hits at deserving targets:

"In fact the're something truly devoted about the way that Dawkinsites manage to extract a stimulating hobby from the thought of other people's belief......some of them even contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England , which is not easy to do. It must take a deft delicacy at operating on a tiny scale, like doing needlepoint, or playing Subbuteo, or fitting a whole model-railway layout into an attaché case."

This is good, crowd pleasing stuff (always depending on who is in the crowd) but when he gets into serious argument, Spufford can be very nuanced. Take this passage, talking about the popular myth which says that if only you can cast off the taboos and rules which are preventing you from being yourself, you'll become truly happy, stop worrying and enjoy your life:

"Like all potent myths it has a large amount of truth in it. Over the last fifty years we really have been escaping, as a culture, from a set of cruel and constricting rules, particularly about sexuality and gender roles which (yes) did have the sanction of religion behind them. (Not that religion caused those rules to exist, on the whole. There was a malignant cultural consensus in their favour, of which religion was a part."

I suspect that that kind of honest good sense — Christianity was involved with the Bad Thing, but it didn't cause the Bad Thing and it doesn't follow that if you just took Christianity away the Bad Things would go away as well — is likely to irritate both sides. You can just imagine the Village Atheist howling "So you are trying to MAKE excuses for the Church's HOMOPHOBIA, are you, you obviously AGREE with it" while the evangelical would want a more robust defence. His chapter on the Church ("the international league of the guilty") is one of the best things in the book: rejecting out of hand the Sixth form Religion-Causes-All-Wars canard, but painstakingly going through all the specifically bad things that the church has specifically caused (anti-Semitism, body-hating asceticism, fear of hell) and looking at how they came about.  (Twistings of the message in most cases, but it was always part of the nature of the message that it could be twisted in those particular ways.) Very few axes seem to be being ground. He doesn't seem to be translating pre-conceived theology into journalism-speak. He really seems to be saying what he actually feels, whether or not it is going to support his case.

At times, his style makes me uncomfortable -- embarrassed, even. Because he’s trying to talk about faith from the inside, he’s necessarily telling us about his most personal feelings. In his opening pages, talking about how Christianity is regarded, outside of the Dawkins bubble, as not so much wrong or evil as tragically uncool, he remarks that “we get down on our actual knees” and something in me said “Do we? I mean, of course we do. But I wish you hadn't mentioned it.” Maybe the shifts between the jokes and the piety sometimes happen too quickly; maybe a book which refers to original sin as "the human propensity to fuck things up" needs some hand signals before doing a right turn into churchgoers being engaged in “the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us…as if we were all precious beyond price…” It’s like that cringe when the biology teacher shifts without warning from the reproductive organs of frogs to masturbation. A clash of register. But that may well be just the reaction he’s aiming for. 

The thrust of his argument is thusly. The Human Propensity To Fuck Things Up is a given; we all have the experience of waking in the night realizing that we have messed up our lives, though our own choices and that’s not pathological but a fact about what it is to be human. (Sin is “what flying a plane into a skyscraper has in common with persecuting the fat kid with zits” - bravo!) This can bring you to a point where you “turn to the space in which there is quite possibly no-one” and cry out “Hello? A little help in here, please?” and usually get no answer. I almost wish he’d left it there, and said that faith is precisely that: calling out to the empty space and not getting an answer. Noble Christian existentialism: I think that was probably what Kierkergaad believed in. 

Greatly to his credit, he doesn't do this, but instead gives us a rather awkward chapter about sitting quietly in church and just feeling that there is something real and loving underlying the universe. ("Behind, beyond, beneath all solid things there seems to be solidity.") Again, to his credit, he doesn't attempt the the manoeuvre that some Quakers, Hindus and Archbishops would attempt — that the feelings you experience in the silence are what is real, and “God” is simply a name we give to those feelings. He thinks that his experience of "bog standard transcendence" is a feeling about something: it sometimes feels as if God is there because he is. 

He admits that it's this experience of God which creates the "problem" of evil, because without the sense of a loving thing behind the universe, there isn't a problem, there's just stuff. He gives the standard theological solutions to the problem pretty short shrift: I was particularly pleased with his idea of the Eden story as a "cut out or circuit breaker (between) God and a derelict creation", and he's surely right to say that the story tries to have it both ways "We're fallen because of our HPtFtU; we have the HPtFtU because we're, um, fallen". But I think I have enough faith in Tradition to think that a story which has scriptural backing can’t be quite so easily rejected out of hand.  (A hypothetical Martian reader could, I think, get to the end of this book without realizing that the Hebrew scriptures were part of the book which Christians call the Bible, although his imaginative description of first century Judaism in the Jesus chapter is excellent.) If I felt slightly uneasy with his conclusion — that there is no answer to the problem of evil, but that most Christians find that it doesn't matter, they can still hold on to the thing they experienced in the quiet in church regardless of the obvious horrible stuff in the world — then I imagine that it would make the Village Atheist chuck the book across the room in disgust. But again, it’s the honesty which makes it such uneasy reading. And the fact that I think he’s probably right.

The impossibility of solving the problem of evil is preliminary to his quite brilliant chapter about Jesus, who he de-familiarizes as "Yeshua". I can see this chapter being taken out of context and used as devotional Easter-time reading for many years to come. I don't know if it's specifically intended as a riposte to Phillip Pullman's feeble book about the two Jesuses, but it feels as it could be: a novelistic synthesis of the gospels, at times very traditional (he seems to conflate Mary Magdalene and the woman taken in adultery) and at other times wittily iconoclastic:

"So tell me, teacher, says a solid citizen, as the remains of the baked eggplant are cleared away what must I do to be saved? Yeshua's gaze slides across the tapestries, the silver bowls for washing guests' feet, the candlestick blessed by the Chief Priest of the temple himself. I'd get rid of this lot for a start, he says."

I think he even allows Yeshua to say "fuck" at one point, although he doesn't put it in quotation marks. 

"This is the story that we have instead of an argument" he says -- meaning an argument which solves the problem of evil -- "and it is important that it is a story, making a story-like sense". In "The Child That Books Built" he used the expression "story-like sense" to gloss the argument that Tolkien famously made to his atheist friend Jack Lewis that Christianity was "a myth that really happened". Spufford mentions that Lewis's mad/bad/god trilemma is one of the all-time classic bad arguments; but no-one who has read the earlier book will be surprised to learn that his Yeshua sounds an awful lot like Aslan.  

I assume that everyone will take him at his word that the feelings he's describing are feelings that he has really had, and that they really are the source of his beliefs. ("It’s the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feeling; I don’t have the feelings because I've assented to the ideas.”) You’d have to be a very uncharitable Dawkinsbot to read this kind of book and say “Oh, don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes: you really believe in an old chap with a beard who made the world in seven days and all this subjectivity stuff is just spin-doctoring." But he's specific enough about what he does feel and what he does believe that no-one is going to go the other extreme and say that he's replaced God with a vague, mushy, spiritual mood. 

He comes out as a fairly mainstream C of E believer. The Yeshua of his story is definitely God; the miracles and the resurrection are an important part of that story; Yeshua's death really was to save us from sin. He avoids the language of punishment and retribution, talking instead in terms of  Yeshua sort of sucking in all the guilt for the bad things we've actually done. At one point it sounds as if he thinks that nearly the whole point of the Church is Holy Communion, and he doesn't quite commit himself on which side of the miracle / symbol line he comes down. He may not be a fully-fledged Alpha Course evangelical, but he's a traditional enough Christian that Giles Fraser would probably denounce him as a death-cultist.

He says that he think the life of Yeshua was all about mending and forgiving broken people in the here and now and that he doesn't really think in terms of heaven. While I agree that the whole "watching and waiting, looking above" otherworldliness is unhelpful, and that Yeshua did have a lot of awkward things to say about this-worldly social justice, I think the whole story is seriously compromised if you don't think it leads, in the end, out of this world into a different one. I also think Spufford is a little optimistic to say that Hell has been abolished, except for a few extremists. Probably no-one sensible still thinks of Hell in terms of an eternal step on which God is going to make the naughty sit for ever and ever (that would, he rightly says "make God himself a torturer") but the idea that the HPtFtU is such that some people will not let Jesus mend then and are going to carry their fuck-ups into eternity is pretty widespread, and I think, pretty important. (It's hard to avoid the fact that the New Testament puts passages about God's judgement into the mouth of Jesus himself. I'm also, incidentally, not quite convinced that Jesus' relative silence on sexuality means that he didn't think that what we did in bed really mattered, or that his absolutism about divorce should be read as proto-feminism.) 

It isn't quite clear whether Spufford thinks that what are universal human feelings have, for him, flowed into the shape of Christian orthodoxy because he happens to live in a Christian culture; or whether he thinks that the twin facts of guilt and transcendence necessarily add up to the Christ-story, or something a lot like it. 

It's hard to know who the book is aimed at. Atheists almost certainly won't read it. (The first chapter was published in the Guardian, and the on-line comments from "New" Atheists ranged from bafflement to simple rage.) Christians, both of the old style evangelical mould and the new style Giles Fraser social gospel type, may feel that he's divorced Christianity from reality, immunized it from criticism and therefore made it pointless. (The real thing is not about how you feel: it's either about the objective fact that you were objectively going to an objective hell and now you are objectively going to live forever in an objectively real heaven; or else it's a social programme about not picking on the fat kid and erecting tents outside St Pauls Cathedral.) 

But I think its going to prove to have been a genuinely important book. Many of us read Dawkins and Hitchens and say "Well, what you say is sort of right, but it isn't really the point." Spufford has done a pretty good job of articulating what the point is. The idea of the book, the whole concept of "a defence of Christian emotions" is what's important. If you "get" what he's trying to do, then he's probably made his point, even if you don't in the end think he succeeds. Maybe some serious theologians and philosophers and (most importantly) saints will get to work on the book and say that faith has to have some objective elements as well as some purely subjective ones. But the book will have still been worth writing. What's important is that he's attempted the journey, even if you can't go with him right to the end of the road. 

Friday, November 09, 2012

Letter from WC I (3)

Gotterdammerung
Covent Garden



In one respect, the Ring is a lot like Star Wars.

Wagner wrote a single opera called Siegfried. He realized it was too long, so he split it in half (Young Siegfried; Siegfried's Death). Then he realized that he needed a prequel to explain the back-story And, like George Lucas, Wagner's understanding of the plot and the characters changed during the writing process, so the early episodes are a good deal more complex than the later ones. We have to work quite hard to convince ourselves that the pantomime Dark Lord in Episode IV is the same character as the flawed Chosen One of Episode I. We have to work almost as hard to make ourselves believe that the favoured daughter of Wotan, we meet in Valkyrie, the personification of the All-Father's will is the same character as the vengeful ice-queen in Gotterdamerung.


The loose ends never really get tied up. Gotterdamerung is more primitive — more like an opera — than either Siegfried or the Valkyrie. It has a chorus. It has a silly plot involving a love potion. It has a revenge trio. Am I the only person ever to spot that the elaborate revenge plot in Act II makes no difference whatsoever to the final outcome? Brunhilde, Hagen and Gunther agree to kill Siegfried during a hunting trip; but then Hagen stabs him in the back and immediately admits that this is what he has done. He might as well have just stabbed him when he first saw him. (Their original plan is to make it look like an accident for the benefit of Gutrune, who has just married him, but they forget about this during the interval. They were probably also drinking cocktails.) Have all the shenanigan of Acts I and II really just been to generate a situation in which Brunhilde will reveal Siegfried;s Achilles heel to the villains? (It turns out that he is indestructible from the front but vulnerable from the rear "because he would never turn his back on an enemy". I believe that in the original legend Brunhilde guides Hagen's Spear into Siegfried's Achilles-Spot-Just- Below-The-Left-Shoulder blade. I recall even less distinctly that the sympathetic villain in Maharbarat has an Achilles Bottom, which causes endless problems because the hero is too chivalrous to strike below the belt.) Chunks of the libretto of Acts 1 and 2 feel like one of those bad Dungeons and Dragons games where the GM desperately tries to retrofit the scenario to the mythology. Brunhilde suddenly remembers that, despite having been de-Valkyried at the end Valkyrie, still has "magical powers" inherited from Erda; and that she has, without telling anybody, cast magic indestructibility spells on Siegfried. On the other hand she seems to have completely forgotten all the hours of exposition that she went through with Wotan. She knows what the significance of the Ring is — yet when Siegfried hands it to her she seems to regard it as important only as a token of love. (Are we being asked to believe that when Wotan sends her to sleep he also has her memory erased? But then how does she know who Siegfried Help!)

There is also, in the Ring as in Star Wars, a problem about the passage of time. So far as I can see, it takes Siegfried a matter of hours to get from the dragon's cave to Brunhilde's rock, and he sets out on new adventures after one ecstatic night of love with his new bride. Siegfried's Rhine Journey must take a few days at the most. But by Act III of Gotterdamerung, the slaying of the dragon has become an event which took place in the hero's youth. When he says that he hasn't talked to any birds recently, does he really mean "since yesterday afternoon."

"There you are, Andrew" I hear you saying "That is why it was much better in the olden days when we used to listen to Wagner without surtitles. We understood that the music tells the story of the universe from creation to apocalypse, starting and ending with that undulating B flat buzz; and as long as we couldn't understand them we could pretend that the words must be saying something very profound indeed. (It also meant that we could treat Tristan as a love story and ignore all that Buddhist shit.) If you insist on listening to a running translation of the lyrics you can't complain if they turn out to be tosh."

Well, up to a point. It is true that there are sections of the work which don't make sense once you understand them, it is also true that once you know what is going on, you discover that the opera is full of significance and connections and subtleties that you hadn’t noticed before.

For example. Act I of Gotterdamerung is very long. Very, very long. Longer, as everybody knows, than a complete performance of La Boheme. And there is no doubt that it can feel like a bit of a marathon. Scene two sets up the climax — Siegfried is going to climb up the mountain and awaken Brunhilde all over again. But before you get to that pay-off, you have to go through a long (and very beautiful) musical interlude and a long (and very powerful) scene in which Brunhilde is visited by another Valkyrie.

Wagner loves to embed back-story in narrative: even he can't put the whole of Norse mythology on the stage, so he engineers sections in which Wotan, Waltraute (the Other Valkyrie) or the three Norns tell us about the creation of the world and the cutting of Wotan's spear from the World Ash Tree. The narrative of Waltraute is very powerful indeed. Wotan is, she explains, still sitting on his throne in Valhalla with the broken fragments of the spear on his knees, waiting for the universe to come to and end. She tells Brunhilde that he is saying that the end of the gods could be averted if only she will return the Ring to the Rhine-maidens

Brunhilde says no: she's not giving away Siegfried's wedding present no matter who asks her too. What she actually says — I've never noticed this before — is "I will not renounce love". She would have to renounce love in order to return the ring; Alberich had to renounce love to steal the ring in the first place. The music agrees: the two scenes are parallel. Thematically and philosophically and musically it all hangs together wonderfully. But you do rather need to know what she is singing about.

People who'd rather not have surtitles are as silly as people who'd rather have a concert performance or just listen to it on the wireless. 

(Except…why is Wotan asking her to return the ring to the Rhine? I thought the whole point was that he has accepted and was positively seeking, oblivion and the end of the gods? Help.)

There is, by the way, nothing more surreal than a men's lavatory in the interval of an opera. Lots of men, all in their extremely smart tuxes, standing alongside each other doing what they came into the lavatory to do, and all humming different bits of the opera while they go about it.

Once again, the most memorable scenes in the production are the most minimal. Hagen stabs Siegfried in the not-invulnerable back and kills him. There follows two of the most beautiful bits of music in the Ring, and therefore anywhere. First Siegfried's death itself; the harp notes of him dying are precisely the same as those we heard when Brunhilde woke up. And then, of course, the mighty Funeral March which is arguably what the whole sixteen hours have been building up to, thumping out all the motifs, with that huge explosion of brass in the middle. (Don't bother to listen to it if you haven't been to the opera: it doesn't work out of context, any more than the Mona Lisa's smile works out of the context of her face.)

The script says that during the funeral march, Hagen’s vassals come and carry Siegfried back to the castle. This production simply left him dead on the stage, picked out by a spotlight and left the music to do the work. Just when we thought that nothing was going to happen at all, we realize that Wotan (presumably not Bryn Himself) has come in and is standing over the body of his dead grandson, paying his respects. That’s it. Astonishingly powerful. And, of course, it was powerful precisely because the simple empty stage was such a contrast to the relatively crowded imagery of much of the rest of the cycle.

There were other powerful ideas. At the beginning of Act II, Alberich appears in Hagen's dream, floating above him in a boat, the same boat in which he approached the Rhine-maidens on Friday night. (Siegfried finds the remains of the boat on the banks of the Rhine at beginning of Act III.) The Tarnhelm has been represented as a transparent perspex cube throughout: when Siegfried arrives at the Gibiching castle, the whole stage has become a cube; as if he is somehow inside the helmet. (Opera-buddy spotted that the glass of one of the windows was cracked, and the Tarnhelm was cracked in exactly the same place.) Act I ends with Siegfried using the helmet to take on the form of Gunther, and going back up the mountain to woo Brunhilde all over again on Gunther's behalf. (The love potion means that he's forgotten her and fallen in love with Gutrune, Gunther's sister. Please try to keep up.) This usually means we see Siegfried but have to imagine that Brunhilde sees Gunther. Tonight, the wooing/abduction/rape was acted by Gunther, while Siegfried stood on the stage, wearing the helmet, and delivering his lines. This may have been the cleverest invention of the whole cycle: it was easier to understand, more dramatic and less silly than the standard staging. (Oh, and Hagen — John Tomlinson again — remains on stage as a malevolent reminder of who's in charge for the whole of the second half of the act.)

Years ago, I saw a version of Pygmalion in which introduced Bernard Shaw as a character, reading out his own impossible stage directions. Has anyone ever tried to do the Ring on a bare stage, with the text of Wagner’s descriptions projected as text or read out as a commentary? It would be fair to say that his instructions for Act III of Gotterdamerung are literal unperformable. 

From the ruins of the fallen hall, the men and women, in the greatest agitation, look on the growing firelight in the heavens. As this at length glows with the greatest brightness, the interior of Walhall is seen, in which the gods and heroes sit assembled, as in Waltraute's description in the first act. Bright flames appear to seize on the hall of the gods. As the gods become entirely hidden by the flames, the curtain falls.

The producer claims, however, that tonight’s production found some stage action to represent virtually everything which Wagner describes. I can will believe this.

In Act II, huge golden statues of the gods from Rhinegold dominate the stage. (This makes a lot of sense, since the act actually ends with sacrifices being made to Fricka to celebrate the marriages of Siegfried and Gutrune and Gunther and Brunhilde. Instead of taking oaths on the point of Hagen's spear, they take oaths on Wotan's spear, which Hagen has taken down from the statue for the purpose) In Act III, the dead Siegfried is wrapped in a shroud, like a mummy, and Brunhilde embarks on her monumentally epic Immolation aria, in which she decides that the resolution to all dramatic, theological and philosophical problems that have developed in the story up to this point is to throw herself onto Siegfried's funeral pyre. Typically for this production, she puts a lot of light and shade into the final solo; she's particularly convincing and dramatic in the bit when she says that Siegfried was both the most faithful, and the least faithful of lovers. (The scene where poor Gutrune realises that she was never married to Siegfried at all is also carried off with unusual sympathy and drama.) Considering the pyrotechnics we've had on Brunhilde's rocks and Mime's forge, it's not surprise that the funeral pyre is done with real fire, sprouting from both the Rhine and from the arches (possibly representing DNA) which have been cropping up since Day 1.

But the really inspired bit was that the long-suffering vassals also carry the four golden statues from Act II back onto the stage and then dropped them into the Rhine, where they burned impressively. So while we don’t actually get to see Valhalla going up in flames (we never, ever do) we do very much get to see the Twilight of the Gods. (Didn’t Wagner’s mate Freddy write a book called Twilight of the Idols?)

This spectacles didn't completely swamp out the joy of the Rhine-maidens finally getting their ring back; although we felt that when Brunhilde jumped into the river (as opposed to riding on to the pyre) it felt slightly bathetic, as if the immolation had turned out to be a dip in the pool.

The very very final image had the double-helix-archy-things rising up out of the Rhine, now formed into a circle (or, indeed, as you might say, a ring) with a previously unseen and unidentified youth sitting on them. I assume that this represented Rebirth or the Triumph of Youth or Birth of a New Society or something. Tomorrow belongs to me. (This was possibly the one point in the whole week when I felt that the part of my brain that said What are they doing? What does this mean? destracted the rest of my brain from listening to the actual music.)

I am told that this is the first production in Covent Garden history where, during the final curtain call, the orchestra comes onto the stage and got, naturally and justifiably, the only actual standing ovation of the week.

Bravo.

Groß Glück und Heil lacht nun dem Rhein,

Whoot whoot.

It may, however, now be that I have seen enough Wagner for one year.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Letter From WC 1 (II)

Siegfried
Covent Garden



The English National Opera (the less snooty wing of the London Opera Scene) is currently engaged in a risible “undress for the opera” advertising campaign. Opera is now a democratic art form, open to everyone prepared to spend £800 on a ticket, regardless of whether or not they can afford a dinner jacket.

This might have made sense 50 years ago when there may have been people who wanted to go to the opera, could afford to go to the opera, but didn't think that they'd would feel comfortable at the opera among all the people in posh suits. It makes no sense at all in the democratic twenty-teens when the very rich wear jeans and the very poor wear…well, jeans. It’s a bit like one of those religious campaigns that says “Come to Church! You might like it! We no longer burn heretics at the stake! We have black people and everything!”

Covent Garden is posher, more expensive and more traditional than the English National, but the dress code was very democratic. I did three nights in coloured waistcoat and one night in D.J and didn't feel either over or under-dressed on either occasion There weren't that many penguin suits, actually; although some of the ladies had dressed up. There were men in business suits, men in tee-shirts; a lady in an impressive turban; a young lad of fifteen in a grey suit enthusiastically explaining the finer points of the plot to a long-suffering middle-aged lady companion. Very little evidence of "Corporate Jollies": everyone around us seemed to be keen and enthusiastic Wagnerians. The man in front of us spent the interval studying the libretto. The man next to us had never been to a Ring before and was reading the synopses after the acts finished so as not to spoil it. He told us that he was "all pumped up" before Act III of Gotterdamerung to find out how it came out. 

Covent Garden gave us decent length intervals: around 30 or 40 minutes after Acts 1 and 80 or 90 after Acts 2. There were singletons reading big thick books; groups who had pre-booked the sit-down dinner (we were impressed with the numbers of Lords and Sirs on the reservation list); people who had brought sensible hampers of smoked salmon sandwiches and bubbly and eccentrics who were laying out tablecloths and jars of HP Sauce and Helmans Real  Mayonnaise. I hear that a large number of people beat a course to Zizis Pizza over the road, who carefully laid on timed interval reservations. Opera-buddy and I ate at a Very English Pub before Act I and spent the intervals leaning on the swish bar drinking champagne cocktails that were not quite as expensive as you might have expected under the circumstances.

This is what Wagner meant by gesamtkunstwerk, I suppose. There were no bratwurst to be had, not even for ready money.

Dinner Jacket is the British English for "Sidewalk". May I apologize about a decade late to the person who thought my reviews of  English National Opera Ring were going to be about Brian Eno performing classical music. 

Wagner has a tendency to drive producers crazy, but I am happy to report that some of the prettiest and most powerful moments of the week were the simplest and therefore the bravest. The Great Big Revolving Wall from Valkyrie reprised its role as Brunhilde's rock and all purpose stage-symbol in Siegfried. It tilted on its side and rotated during Wotan’s confrontation with Erda at the beginning of Act 3: Bryn Himself sure-footedly walking around it in the opposite direction while continuing to sing. (Possibly an over-literal interpretation of Erda’s line "wild und kraus kreist die Welt!" ("wild and askew rotates the world") but it worked. Erda herself materialises in her armchair from Rheingold, floating in mid-air. By the end of the scene, we've worked out that it’s actually perched on a big black column, but that doesn't stop the initial effect from being striking.

It has reverted to being a vertical wall for Scene 2, where Wotan does the "No Luke, I am your father" thing with Siegfried. Flames are projected on it while Siegfried is passing through the magical fire on top of the rock. Slightly oddly, Siegfried's finding of Brunhilde is mostly mimed; with Siegfried saying "look, there’s a horse" and "a man in armour, shall I take off his helmet" to empty air. Presumably this was to stop the audience from laughing when Siegfried takes off Brunhilde's breast plate and cries out "This is not a man!" They laughed anyway.  But it also meant that the first we saw of Brunhilde is at "Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!" when she steps through the door in the rotating wall, light streaming behind her; a nice image. She and Siegfried don’t attempt to play the Dreadful Quarter Hours in the love duet as drama: it makes far more sense for them to talk about how they feel the seas raging fire when their blood surges towards them directly at the audience.

Siegfried has to brave Wotan’s spear-point before he can ascend the mountain to Brunhilde. (Opera-buddy and I agree that this is a bit of the opera that just doesn't make sense: if he's already guaranteed that only the Noblest Hero of All will wake her up, why guarantee the destruction of the gods by also standing guard himself?) Tonight, he  put his spear across the door in the rotating wall, so Siegfried has to physically break it to pass: a very cool image. 

But the most striking image of the third evening is Bryn Himself standing in front of the Revolving Wall holding the two broken pieces of the spear. That's the last we see of Wotan (more or less) and, without any dramaturgical jiggery pokery: it sums up the whole plot of the opera so far. The power of the gods, represented by Wotan’s spear, is over. Wotan has been destroyed by the contradiction in his own being: he has finally created a hero who is independent of the gods, but that hero has (by definition) to destroy him. "Pass on! I cannot prevent you!" The music doesn’t say that Wotan has lost, but that he's won. Or at any rate, that he’s cool about losing. Very possibly it's a Buddhist thang about true being being being non being, or, come to that, a Christian metaphor about the only true messiah being the one who denies his divinity.

Bryn Himself is magnificent throughout. He’s gone from the slightly capricious "Percy, who’s All-Father?" deity of Rhiengold, through the tortured, self-doubting father of Valkyrie, to achieve a godlike serenity in Siegfried: he’s achieved the true divine dignity now he knows that his time is over and he has to be overpowered by his (grand)son. Bryn’s subtle acting is a joy to watch. The "riddles" scene in Act I (when Wotan and Mime spend 20 minutes telling each other things they already know for the benefit of the audience) can be a musical hurdle that you have to get over before the macho magnificence of the sword forging. Bryn Terfel and Gerhard Siegel make it both funny and dramatic; Wotan listening intently to Mime’s questions and nodding to himself when he is confident he knows the answer; tying Mime up and casually pouring petrol over him when the latter fails to answer the third question. 

Opera-buddy and I once again agreed that we didn’t quite understand what Wotan is up to in this scene: if only Nothung can kill the dragon and only Siegfried can forge Nothung, isn't Wotan cheating, yet again, by giving Mime this crucial fact? And did Mime really need to be told — wouldn't Siegfried eventually have done it for himself anyway?

At first, I thought that Stefan Vinke did not have a sufficiently powerful voice for Siegfried. But it grew on me as Act I dragged on, and I was totally won over by the Very Famous Sword Forging Scene (shamelessly ripped off from the scene which Tolkien left out.) He had great nuance, great characterisation, and pulled off the humour pretty well. This was an easy going, nonchalant Siegfried. I wasn't convinced that I was going to like having the Woodbird played on stage by a singer (rather than being a special effect voiced from the orchestra pit.) We first meet her peeking out, like a cherub, from the hyper romantic painted blue sky during the "forest murmurs", dangling a paper bird over Siegfried on a piece of string. I understood why the set suddenly had astroturf grass and warm green lighting — to contrast the pastoral interlude with the dark grim scenes with Mime and the Dragon. But wheeling on stuffed animals when Siegfried starts wondering whether his mother’s eyes were as soft as a roe-dear was, shall we say, a Production Idea Too Far. When Siegfried gets a lick of the magic Dragon's Blood of Birdtalking, the singer comes down from the roof and runs round the stage. There’s a nice running gag about Siegfried forgetting things. The Word-bird beckons him playfully to come and find the fiery mountain where there is a magical companion, and Siegfried runs after her, and then runs back to pick up the Tarnhelm. Which is also a nice piece of characterisation: Siegfried’s power and freedom depend on the fact that he has powerful magic items like the Ring of Universe Ruling and the Magic Helmet of Shape-shifting, Invisibility and Teleportation and doesn't actually care. A bit like that Tom Bombadil, in fact.

Neither ether Opera-buddy nor I quite knew why there was a great aeroplane in the middle of Mime's forge, although there has been Propeller Imagery throughout the opera. I wondered if we were being asked to imagine that Sieglinde and her baby had somehow been flying from Wotan in a plane and crashed in the forest? It didn't matter, though. An aircraft hanger, with tools and vices and blowtorches, is as good a place as any to forge the Perfect Sword. My one quarrel with Phylida Llloyds English National production was that she said that she found the forge scene to be too testosterone-soaked, and toned it town a little. It seems to me that when you are the Noblest Hero of All and the Man Who Has Never Learned To Fear, you are allowed to be a little bit macho. Here it was shown in all its mechanical details. He grinds it, he splinters it, he blow torches it, he plunges it in water, he sharpens it, he brandishes it; and he cries "Hi-ho, hi-ho" and "hi-ho-ho-ho".

Mime is sufficiently smarmy and unpleasant (we see him beating the child Siegfried during the overture) that the Perfect Hero mostly avoids coming off as nasty Aryan bully when he kills him. I even forgave them the man in the teddy bear suit.

“Schau, Mime, du Schmied: so schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!” Or words to that effect.