The Beatles’ Revolver and the Universal

by ttucker23 on November 28, 2009

Revolver, by The Beatles, was released in 1966.

Revolver by The Beatles was released in 1966 and marked the beginning of a new phase for the band and a revolution in popular music.

In his book The Sixties, an exhaustive history of the 1960’s, Arthur Marwick introduces his subject as follows:

If asked to explain the fuss, both survivors of the decade and observers of the repeated attempts subsequently to conjure it up again could probably manage to put together a list of its most striking features, which might look something like this: black civil rights; youth culture and trend-setting by young people; idealism, protest, and rebellion; the triumph of popular music based on Afro-American models and the emergence of this music as a universal language, with the Beatles as the heroes of the age; the search for inspiration in the religions of the orient; massive changes in personal relationships and sexual behaviour; a general audacity and frankness in books and in the media, and in ordinary behaviour; relaxation in censorship; the new feminism; gay liberation; the emergence of the ‘underground’ and the ‘counter-culture’; optimism and genuine faith in the dawning of a better world.

The first part of that statement regarding The Beatles’ contribution to 1960’s culture – ‘the triumph of popular music’ – finds its source in the band’s extraordinary success during the early phase of its career, from 1963 – 1965. The second part – ‘the emergence of this music as a universal language’ – emerges entirely from the album Revolver.

In the June 2000 issue of Q Magazine, Revolver topped its assessment of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. In that issue, David Quantick pointed out that this was ‘the most shocking Beatles record, the one that makes a quantum leap even from the brilliantly developed super pop of Rubber Soul’. He also asserts that ‘1966 was the only year that The Beatles’ album Revolver could have been recorded.’

The timing is significant. It marks the start of the second phase of the 1960’s, when the exuberance of youth, permissiveness and sexual scandal gave way to a darker and more cynical outlook. It was the year that the 1960’s grew up.

The Beatles more than any other artists were totally in tune with these times. The album Revolver didn’t just capture this new outlook, it pointed the way forward. And the way forward from the point of view of the latter part of the 1960’s was that ‘universal language’ referenced by Marwick above. In fact, every one of those definitions of the 1960’s referred to in the Marwick quote above finds expression and reflection on Revolver.

The wide variety of musical styles, the range of human concerns covered in the lyrics, the bewildering kaleidoscope of innovative sounds and the interrelated musical themes on Revolver are unprecedented in any musical field, let alone pop music. Consider the musical genres covered:

  • Rock (And Your Bird Can Sing, She Said She Said)
  • Soul (Gotta Get You Into My Life)
  • Electric blues (Doctor Robert, Taxman)
  • Ballad (Here, There and Everywhere, For No One)
  • Children’s song (Yellow Submarine)
  • Classical chamber music (Eleonar Rigby)
  • Indian raga (Love You To)
  • Avant garde ‘musique concrete’ (Tomorrow Never Knows)

And within these songs themselves we glimpse snippets of a myriad of other styles, from military brass bands, sea shanties, tape loops, sound effects, sacred vocal music, bar-room piano, and more.

While not quite a ‘concept album’, Revolver does, as Quantick states, ‘combine an astonishing mix of styles with a weirdly consitent sense of purpose’.

The subjects of the songs cover much ground, from the worldly (Taxman) to the deeply personal (For No One), from adolescent sexual joy (Love You To) to a more spiritual kind of love (Here There and Everywhere), and from a child-like wish for togetherness (Yellow Submarine) to the desperate loneliness of old age (Eleonar Rigby).

The all-encompassing variety is itself a theme, as the album creates a powerful sense of the ‘unviersal’ from its disparate materials, the many combining to make one.

Cyclical motifs in Revolver

The other major theme is that of ‘cycles’, referred to in the title, as Jonathan Gould elaborates in his excellent book on The Beatles, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America:

After considering titles like Abracadabra and Magic Circles, the group had settled on Revolver as a kind of McLuhanesque pun – revolve is what records do – that also described the way the focus of attention on the album turned evenly from one Beatle to the next. Woven with motifs of circularity, reversal and inversion, Revolver was the first record on which the Beatles made the interplay of their individual personalities a theme of the music itself.

Those motifs of circularity that Gould alludes to can be found throughout the album. To take some random examples: the overlapping a capella fade-out on ‘Good Day Sunshine’, the cyclic harmonised guitar instrumental in ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ and the circular descending/ascending chord progression of ‘For No One’. The album culminates in a tour de force of cyclical representation, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, with its incessant circular drum pattern, backward-and-forward guitar playing and musique concrete taped loops. As Gould explains in his chapter on Revolver in Can’t Buy Me Love:

As the singing fades up and away, the bass hums, the drums stutter, and the banshees wail. “Or play the game Existence to the end – of the beginning… of the beginning… of the beginning,” John repeats, over and over, like a proverbial broken record, or a skip in the Wheel of Rebirth, ending Revolver with a conceptual joke as elaborate as the one with which it began. “The end of the beginning” completes the album’s motif of circularity and declares the Beatles’ intent to initiate a new phase of their career.

The motif of circularity is not merely decorative. It refers to a deeper theme on the album, that of transformation. From childhood (Yellow Submarine) to old age (Eleanor Rigby), from sleeping (I’m Only Sleeping) to waking (Good Day Sunshine), from the birth of love (Love You To) to its tragic demise (For No One). Above all it speaks of the ultimate transformation, from life to death.

Death casts a shadow over Revolver, from the ghoulish image of Taxman, in which we are advised to ‘declare the pennies on your eyes’, to the ‘surrender to the void’ of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (see my post on Leonard Bernstein’s comments on death in the 20th Century). The journey that Revolver takes us on is in effect an acceptance and transcendence of death. The lost opportunity for love that leaves us suspended over a spiritual precipice at the demise of Eleanor Rigby (‘No one was saved’) is finally transformed into something positive with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. By surrendering to that same void, accepting that ‘love is all and love is everyone’, we reach a state that ‘is not living’ and ‘is not dying’ – ‘it is believing’.

Buy Revolver by The Beatles (Amazon affiliate link).


David Copperfield: Realism and Romance

by ttucker23 on November 26, 2009

Charles Dickens, author of David Copperfield (1849-1850).

Charles Dickens, author of David Copperfield (1849-1850).

I have said in a previous post that David Copperfield is a defence of the poetic view of life (this was a quote from GK Chesterton). But to clarify, Charles Dickens’s great novel is more than this. It is one of the best examples in literary history of the fine balance between realism and romance.

Before clarifying this point, let me be clear on terms. By ‘realism’ I mean with respect to the realist movement in literature in the 19th century. In this sense it applies to writing that attempts to describe the world as it really is, devoid of fancy or exaggeration.

Realism in the literary sense applies to works of fiction written in prose. It was influenced heavily by the journalistic, documentary style of newspaper and magazine writing in particular. This form of literary realism attempts to reach objective truth through faithful descriptions, for example of real scenes, or a person’s appearance, or aspects of a character.

By ‘romance’ I’m referring to a mode that emphasises or exaggerates specifics without trying to capture the whole. This mode is subjective and is often also called ‘poetic’, because it is the essence of poetry. In a descriptive scene, for example, the poetic mode highlights the significant detail at the expense of a totally realistic description of the scene (see my post on Elizabeth Bishop’s Sandpiper for example).

The other major aspect of the poetic mode is its use of ambiguity. Clearly ambiguity is the very opposite of realism, but the poetic mode commonly uses a range of deliberate ambiguities to shine a light on deeper truths; William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity is the key work on this approach (the complete text can be downloaded at the Internet Archive).

Blending poetic romance and prose realism

The ‘poetic’ and the ‘realist’ mode, then, are antithetical in approach. All fiction uses elements of both to various degrees, but I believe that, at his best, Dickens achieves the perfect balance. David Copperfield is one of his greatest achievements in this respect.

Consider the following description of David’s first sight of his step father’s sister in Chapter 4:

It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her two uncompromising black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.

The descriptive technique here is based on prosaic realism, but the effect, with its trenchant premonition of David’s forthcoming incarceration, is poetic.

At times the romantic mode emerges through hints of something fantastical, as in this excerpt from Chapter 23:

Doctors’ Commons was approached by a little low archway. Before we had taken many paces down the street beyond it, the noise of the city seemed to melt, as if by magic, into a softened distance. A few dull courts and narrow ways brought us to the sky-lighted offices of Spenlow and Jorkins; in the vestibule of which temple, accessible to pilgrims without the ceremony of knocking, three or four clerks were at work as copyists. One of these, a little dry man, sitting by himself, who wore a stiff brown wig that looked as if it were made of gingerbread, rose to receive my aunt, and show us into Mr Spenlow’s room.

This short passage starts with the realism of a documentary but soon dissolves, as if by a spell, and we seem to be suddenly in another land, one of far off temples and fairytale gingerbread wigs.

Another example can be found in Chapter 47, where David Copperfield and Mr Peggotty follow Martha down to the river in Westminster. In this passage Dickens demonstrates the consummate skill with which he so easily blends fictional strategies. Here he passes from high realism to morbid melodrama  as smoothly as the river that flows through the scene:

The neighbourhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive, sad and solitary by night, as any about London. There were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy waste of road near the great blank Prison. A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land in the vicinity. In one part, carcases of houses, inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away. In another, the ground was cumbered with with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what strange objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which – having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather – they had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves. The clash and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river-side, arose by night to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that poured out of their chimneys. Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year’s handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb-tide. There was a story that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of the Great Plague was hereabout; and a blighting influence seemed to have proceeded from it over the whole place. Or else it looked as if it had gradually decomposed into that nightmare condition, out of the overflowings of the polluted stream.

Charaterisation, fiction and mythology

There is another sense in which Dickens contrasts realism with romance, and this is in his characterisation.

It is often remarked that many of Dickens’s characters are two dimensional and unchangeable. Examples in David Copperfield include Wilkins Micawber, Uriah Heep, Mr Murdstone and James Steerforth. But to make this a point of criticism is to miss his intention, for as GK Chesterton explains in the chapter on the Pickwick Papers in his fascinating book on Dickens, this side of his work is derived from mythology and folklore rather than a modern conception of fiction:

Dickens was a mythologist rather than a novelist; he was the last of the mythologists, and perhaps the greatest. He did not always manage to make his characters men, but he always managed, at the least, to make them gods. They are creatures like Punch or Father Christmas. They live statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves.

This is true of some of the characters, but we can’t fail to see the realism of others. We certainly see development and change in David Copperfield himself (this is the whole point of the novel), as well as Little Em’ly, Ham, Aunt Betsey Trotwood, and many others.

We must also take into account the highly realistic scenarios that these characters inhabit. For example, there is far more realism than romance in the sexual relationships described in the novel.

Romantic love never works in David Copperfield; witness the failure of David to really connect with Dora despite his desperately powerful romantic courtship. Likewise Mrs Strong fails to forge a relationship beyond immature attraction with Jack Maldon and Steerforth cannot develop his passion for Little Em’ly into anything lasting or meaningful.

The really successful love relationships in the novel are far more complex and require patience and experience to make them work effectively; for example David’s attachment with Agnes, Peggotty’s marriage to Barkis, and Dr Strong’s eventual reconciliation with and closer understanding of his young wife.

In all these ways, and many more, Dickens blends diverse modes of fiction to create a unique style of story telling. At times they are so fused together that it is difficult to tell where gritty realism ends and fanciful poeticising begins. It is my opinion that Dickens achieves this mysterious alchemy more completely and more successfully than any other prose writer in history.

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David Copperfield and the Poetic View of Life

by ttucker23 on November 20, 2009

WC Fields as Mr Micawber in the MGM film of David Copperfield, 1935.

WC Fields as Mr Micawber in the MGM film of David Copperfield, 1935.

David Copperfield is Charles Dickens’s most autobiographical work (see this short article on auobiographical elements in David Copperfield for some details). If we are to take the main character of David Copperfield as a representative of Dickens himself, we must take seriously his reflections on the nature of that character. There is one point in the novel where he makes a direct assessment of his own qualities, and it occurs in Chapter 42, Mischief:

I will only add, to what I have already written of my perseverance at this time of my life, and of a patient and continuous energy which then began to be matured within me, and which I know to be the strong part of my character, if it have any strength at all, that there, on looking back, I find the source of my success…

My meaning simply is, that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; that, in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest. I have never believed it possible that any natural or improved ability can claim immunity from the companionship of the steady, plain, hard-working qualities, and hope to gain its end. There is no such thing as such fulfilment on this earth. Some happy talent, and some fortunate opportunity, may form the two sides of the ladder on which some men mount, but the rounds of that ladder must be made of stuff to stand wear and tear; and there is no substitute for thorough-going, ardent, and sincere earnestness. Never to put one hand to anything, on which I could throw my whole self; and never to affect depreciation of my work, whatever it was; I find, now, to have been my golden rules.

Here we see a strong self portrait of Dickens himself, and we can only be struck by the strength of his self-awareness. GK Chesterton makes a similar assesment of the character of Charles Dickens in his Appreciations and Criticisms:

He sometimes wrote bad work; he sometimes wrote even unimportant work; but he wrote hardly a line which is not full of his own fierce vitality and fancy. If he is dull it is hardly ever because he cannot think of anything; it is because, by some silly excitement or momentary lapse of judgment, he has thought of something that was not worth thinking of. If his joke is feeble, it is as an impromptu joke at an uproarious dinner-table may be feeble; it is no indication of any lack of vitality. The joke is feeble, but it is not a sign of feebleness. Broadly speaking, this is true of Dickens. If his writing is not amusing us, at least it is amusing him. Even when he is tiring he is not tired.

This is such an important facet of Dickens the writer that it should be front of mind during any attempt to appreciate or criticise his work.

John O Jordan has noted that earlier critics identified signs of weakness in Dickens’s work in his ‘sprawling melodramatic plots, larger-than-life characters (and) verbal extravagance’. These qualities will particularly strike the modern reader, but to fully understand Dickens we have to grasp these as fundamental aspects of his writing. In fact, as Chesterton asserts in his book on Charles Dickens (1906) (which TS Eliot called ‘the best on that author that has ever been written’) this is the whole point of Dickens’s work, and especially David Copperfield:

David Copperfield is the great answer of a great romancer to the realists. David says in effect: “What! you say that the Dickens tales are too purple really to have happened! Why, this is what happened to me, and it seemed the most purple of all. You say that the Dickens heroes are too handsome and triumphant! Why, no prince or paladin in Ariosto was ever so handsome and triumphant as the Head Boy seemed to me walking before me in the sun. You say the Dickens villains are too black! Why, there was no ink in the devil’s ink-stand black enough for my own stepfather when I had to live in the same house with him. The facts are quite the other way to what you suppose. This life of grey studies and half tones, the absence of which you regret in Dickens, is only life as it is looked at. This life of heroes and villains is life as it is lived. The life a man knows best is exactly the life he finds most full of fierce certainties and battles between good and ill—his own. Oh, yes, the life we do not care about may easily be a psychological comedy. Other people’s lives may easily be human documents. But a man’s own life is always a melodrama.

In this sense David Copperfield is a ‘defence of the poetic view of life’, and characters like Mr Micawber ‘an immense assertion of the truth that the way to live is to exaggerate everything’.

I can’t end this article without quoting Chesterton once more, in what appears to me the last word in Dickensian criticism:

This is the excuse for all that indeterminate and rambling and sometimes sentimental criticism of which Dickens, more than any one else, is the victim, of which I fear that I for one have made him the victim in this place. When I was a boy I could not understand why the Dickensians worried so wearily about Dickens, about where he went to school and where he ate his dinners, about how he wore his trousers and when he cut his hair. I used to wonder why they did not write something that I could read about a man like Micawber. But I have come to the conclusion that this almost hysterical worship of the man, combined with a comparatively feeble criticism on his works, is just and natural. Dickens was a man like ourselves; we can see where he went wrong, and study him without being stunned or getting the sunstroke. But Micawber is not a man; Micawber is the superman. We can only walk round and round him wondering what we shall say. All the critics of Dickens, when all is said and done, have only walked round and round Micawber wondering what they should say. I am myself at this moment walking round and round Micawber wondering what I shall say. And I have not found out yet.

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Culture Club: Theme for November – December 2009

by ttucker23 on November 4, 2009


November – December 2009

This month we don’t have a theme as such. Instead we each chose a work as a virtual ‘Christmas present’ to the rest of the group. So there’s nothing underlying the choices except that each one of us would like to share our chosen work with the others (my gift was Revolver by the Beatles, although I also championed David Copperfield, one of my favourite novels of all time).

Here’s the list:



Both of John Webster’s great plays, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, are shrouded in ambiguity, from the motives of the characters to the morality at the heart of the plays. One of Webster’s great achievements is that this ambiguity is expressed powerfully through the poetry. This speech by the Duchess of Malfi’s murderer uses the image of a ‘mist’ to express the overall ambiguity of the play:

Of what is’t fools make such vain keeping?
Sin their conception, their birth weeping:
Their life a general mist of error,
Their death a hideous storm of terror.

Similar imagery occurs again in Act V, scene V, when Bosola is asked how Antonio was killed, and his reply seems to be a self-referential remark about the play itself:

In a mist: I know not how –
Such a mistake as I have often seen
In a play.

The play’s ambiguity presents problems of interpretation. Many critics agree with the sentiment expressed by David Cecil in his essay ‘Poets and Story-Tellers’ (1949) (published in Webster: The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, Casebook, Edited by RV Holdsworth).

Webster envisages evil in its most extreme form: and he presents it – so far as this life is concerned – as far more powerful than good. His theology is Calvanistic. The world as seen by him is, of its nature incurably corrupt. To be involved in it is to be inescapably involved in evil: all its apparent beauties are a snare and a delusion.

This is persuasive and there is enough evidence in the play to support this argument. But I don’t think it’s the correct interpretation of Webster’s  intentions.

I prefer Irving Ribner’s assessment from his essay ‘Jacobean Tragedy: The Quest for Moral Order’ (1962) (again published in the Casebook collection). He sees Webster’s ambiguity as ‘an agaonized search for moral order in the uncertain and chaotic world of Jacobean scepticism by a dramatist who can no longer accept without question the postulates of order and degree so dear to the Elizabethans.’

In Ribner’s view, there is a moral balance to the play. On the one side are the ‘destroyers of life’, Ferdinand, the Cardinal and (while he serves them) Bosola. But while these forces dominate much of the action and atmosphere of the play, ‘this world is not the total picture’:

Into it comes the Duchess of Malfi who stands for the values of life, and Webster’s final statement is that life may have nobility in spite of all. The Duchess, not her brothers, stands for ordinary humanity, love and the continuity of life through children.

For Ribner, the unifying element is Bosola, the great ambiguity at the heart of the play. The different roles he assumes serve both evil and good, and ‘can be reconciled to one another only in terms of the play’s thematic design’.

In one key scene Bosola provides a kind of pivot for the imagery representing both good and evil: in Act IV, scene 1, the Duchess curses the stars, defying nature. Bosola replies cynically that her curses are in vain:

Look you, the stars shine still.

But this cynicism is also, through the traditional poetic association of shining stars, an affirmation, as Ribner explains:

While the stars shine there is certainty, for we cannot doubt the reality of the universe and of an illuminating beauty which persists in spite of all.
From the essay Jacobean Tragedy: The Quest for Moral Order by Irving Ribner.

This crucial line is echoed later when in Act IV the Duchess faces her end and proclaims ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’. Here Ribner sees the central point of the play, where it asserts the final triumph of life over death:

The body may be subject to death and decay, but in these words the Duchess affirms the permanence of the spirit which is the really vital part of man. The line in its simple syntax echoes Bosola’s ‘the stars shine still’ and equates the permanence of the human spirit with that of nature.


Culture Club: Theme for August – September 2009

by ttucker23 on August 15, 2009

Scene from The Duchess of Malfi, Directed by David R. Gammons, Boston, January 2009.

Scene from The Duchess of Malfi, Directed by David R. Gammons, Boston, January 2009.

August – September 2009

The theme this month is Revenge.

Obviously there are many works to choose from with this theme, but I think we’ve come up with an interesting list. There’s quite a breadth of material here too, stretching from Elizabethan to contemporary works. As always, I’m looking forward to the forthcoming discussions.


The Temptation and Fall of Eve, by William Blake - illustration to Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (1808, pen and watercolour on paper)

The Temptation and Fall of Eve, by William Blake - illustration to Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (1808, pen and watercolour on paper)

At our Culture Club discussion on Milton’s Paradise Lost, one aspect of the narrative came up as a particular problem. This was the meaning of the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’, the instrument of humanity’s fall.

I think we all agreed that the tree is symbolic of something, but the nature of the symbol needs clarifying.

Before eating from the tree, Adam describes his creation to Raphael, and in his speech he inadvertently highlights the flaw in his character that will lead to the fall:

Tell me, how may I know him, how adore,
From whom I have that thus I move and live,
And feel that I am happier than I know…
Paradise Lost, Book VIII, lines 280-282

As soon as he is created, then, we learn that Adam wants to know more about the earth, the stars, and the nature of his creator. He is born with curiosity and a yearning to know more about the ‘objective world’.

The angel Raphael happily passes on some of this information, so clearly this is not forbidden knowledge. Therefore the knowledge that is being offered by the tree must be of a different kind. God calls it ‘knowledge of good and evil.’ But what does he mean by that?

To my mind, the key is offered in the quote from Adam above. Before tasting from the tree of knowledge, Adam is ‘happier than I know’. He is happy without being aware of why or how he is happy. After tasting from the tree, he and Eve are aware of their predicament in surprising new ways. What the tree brings is a type of knowledge peculiar to humanity: ‘consciousness’.

The Sin of Consciousness

It has long been believed, and yet to be disproved, that consciousness is the single unique-identifier of the human mind over that of other animals. It is our ability to ‘know that we know’ which makes us unique as a species. What the Bible story and Milton make clear is that this same knowledge can be a burden for humanity, when it takes the form of feelings such as guilt, shame, regret, etc.

Consider the immediate consequences of the knowledge that Adam and Eve gain by eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. After their lustful ‘amorous play’ they fall asleep and become ‘with conscious dreams/Encumbered’ (Book IX, line 1050-1051, my italics). They awake to find themselves ‘naked left/To guilty Shame’ (lines 1057-1058).

This shame that the couple feel is expressed through another kind of self-consciousness, an awareness of their nakedness, which they are immediately moved to cover:

But let us now, as in a bad plight, devise
What best may for the present serve to hide
The parts of each from other, that seem most
To shame obnoxious, and unseemliest seen;’
Paradise Lost, Book IX, Lines 1091-1094

The idea that consciousness is central to the human condition has occupied all areas of human enquiry, including religion, philosophy, the arts and science.

In his book Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde Roger Scruton outlines the perspective of the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

According to Kant, human beings stand in a peculiar metaphysical predicament – one not shared by any other entity in the natural world. We see ourselves, he argued, in two contrasting ways – both as objects, bound by natural laws; and as subjects, who can lay down laws for themselves.

The human object is an organism like any other; the human subject is in some way ‘transcendental,’ observing the world from a point of view on its perimeter, pursuing not what is but what ought to be, and enjoying the privileged knowledge of its own mental states that Kant summarized in his theory of the ‘transcendental unity of apperception.’

It is not religious belief that forces us to see ourselves in this dualistic way. The need to do so is presupposed in language, in self-consciousness, and in the ‘practical reason’ that is the source of all human action and moral worth. Even if there were no God, that would not undermine the belief in human freedom or in the ‘transcendental’ viewpoint from which that freedom stems.
Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, by Roger Scruton, pg 123

Kant’s view was that our knowledge of the objective world was based on representation, and that we can never know ‘the thing-in-itself’ that lies behind this representation. Arthur Schopenhauer developed a philosophy built on Kant’s, but suggested that self-knowledge, or self-consciousness, can be a pathway to a true understanding of ‘the thing-in-itself’:

I have stressed that other truth that we are not merely the knowing subject, but that we ourselves are also among those entities we require to know, that we ourselves are the thing-in-itself. Consequently, a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without. It is, so to speak, a subterranean passage, a secret alliance, which, as if by treachery, places us all at once in the fortress that could not be taken from outside.
Scopenhauer, quoted by Roger Scruton in Death-Devoted Heart, pg 127

Note that Schopenhauer describes this self-knowledge in terms that evoke the Biblical ‘fall’ story. It is treacherous, subterranean, forbidden.

For Schopenhauer the ‘thing-in-itself’ expresses itself as ‘Will‘. His definition of ‘Will’ is fascinating: something ‘one and immutable’, a ‘universal substratum from which every individual arises into the world of appearance, only to sink again after a brief and futile struggle for existence’. It is not hard to see an analogy here between Schopnhauer’s ‘Universal Will’ and the concept of ‘God’.

The Universal and the Individual

According to Schopenhauer, we have access to the universal will from within ourselves, and this is embodied in the transient ‘will to live’ of individual creatures:

Will is manifest in me, trapped as it were into a condition of individual existence by its restless desire to embody itself in the world of representation.
Death-Devoted Heart by Roger Scruton, pg 128

Will manifests itself in two ways: as Individual and as Idea.

Idea (much like Platonic idealism) is a universal pattern, presented to us at the level of ‘kinds’ and ‘species’. Schopenhauer goes on to say that the species should be favoured over the individual, since the species gives permanent form to the ‘Will’. The individual creature is simply a way of perpetuating the ‘Idea’ (i.e. the species).

Schopenhauer expresses these ideas beautifully in the following image:

Just as the spraying drops of the roaring waterfall change with lightning rapidity, while the rainbow which they sustain remains immovably at rest, quite untouched by that restless change, so every Idea, ie every species of living beings remains entirely untouched by the constant changes of its individuals. But it is the Idea or the species in which the will-to-live is really rooted and manifests itself; therefore the will is really concerned only in the continuation of the species.
Schopenhauer, quoted by Roger Scruton, Death-Devoted Heart, pg 128

What’s more, Schopenhauer asserts that the universal will when incarnated as individual leads to torment, suffering, and conflict:

Individual existence is, from the individual point of view, a mistake, yet one into which the will to live is constantly tempted by its need to show itself as Idea. The will falls into individuality and exists for a while trapped in the world of representation, sundered from the calm ocean of eternity that is its home. Its life as an individual (my life) is really an expiation for original sin, which is ‘the crime of existence itself’.
Death-Devoted Heart by Roger Scruton, pg 129

Scruton here makes the link between Schopenhauer and the Biblical creation myth explicit (the italic on ‘falls’ is his not mine). Schopenhauer believed that our ‘salvation’ is impeded by our attachment to the phenomenal world, as we strive to affirm our separate existence as individuals.

In Paradise Lost this same concept is expressed as the self-consciousness that comes with forbidden knowledge of the reality of our existence. We are cursed by our awareness of our individuality, and can no longer be, as pre-lapsarian Adam was, ‘happier than I know’.

Schopenhauer’s philospohy (as he himself noted) has much in common with Eastern religion, as expressed in the Vedic Upanishads. Salvation is available to the soul with the loss of its individuality and its escape from the phenomenal world into ‘Brahman‘, the world spirit (analogous to the Universal Will in Schopenhauer).

From our modern perspective, we can also see that Schopenhauer’s theory looks forward to ideas of modern evolutionary biology. For example, a similar view is expressed in different terms in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Dawkins’s contention is that the genes that get passed on in a species are the ones whose consequences serve the interests of the gene, i.e to continue being replicated and thus propogate the species. Thus the meaning of existence for the gene is the species and not the individual organism which it is part of.

It is as if Judaism, Christianity, the Upanishads, Milton, Kant, Schopenhauer, Darwin and Dawkins (and many others) are all telling the same story using different symbols.


In the creation story as told by Milton, the fruit of the forbidden tree expresses the fundamental dualisms explored above: Objective world/Idea/Species/Universal Will vs the Subjective perspective and the self-aware Individual organism.

In Paradise Lost, the dualism is expressed through the symbol of ‘the state of human knowledge before and after eating the forbidden fruit’, i.e. with and without a capacity for consciousness. It is the difference between an innocent knowledge of the world, in harmony with God (Universal Will), and the more complex and troubled knowledge that comes with the individual’s awareness of itself, which itself leads to a conflict with God and the need for redemption.

The post-lapsarian man and woman in Paradise Lost are transcendent with new knowledge, but also flawed with all that consciousness brings.


The Creation of Eve, by William Blake

The Creation of Eve, by William Blake

The following links offer useful resources for the study and analysis of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Full text


Essays and Analysis


Culture Club: Theme for June-July 2009

by ttucker23 on July 10, 2009

The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) by Pieter Bruegel.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) by Pieter Bruegel.

June-July 2009

The theme this month is hell, heaven and the garden of eden.

  • Inferno – Dante Alighieri (poem)
  • Paradise Lost – John Milton (poem)
  • The Creation – Music by Joseph Haydn, text by Gottfried van Swieten after John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Oratorio)


Don Giovanni: Rebel Hero or Threat to Society

by ttucker23 on April 25, 2009

Simon keenleyside as Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008.

Simon Keenleyside as Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008.

The character of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera personifies two contrasting aspects of the Enlightment:

  1. The embodiment of liberty. Don Giovanni sees himself as exempt from the laws of state, society, culture and religion. In this sense he is the Enlightenment hero, an extreme example of the idea of liberty that marks the age.
  2. The embodiment of social disruption. Here he is the destroyer of liberty in others. His moral liscentiousness leads him to ignore oaths and promises, break up relationships and marriages and disrupt the distinctions in status that hold society together.

The conflict between these complementary and contrasting aspects of Don Giovanni is what drives the drama.

Don Giovanni as Rebel Hero

The comic element of the opera is drawn from the first definition described above: Don Giovanni as the emobdiment of liberty.

We delight in Don Giovanni’s trickery and play and are amused by his antics. This side of his character coincides with what the German poet Friedrich Schiller (a contemporary of Mozart) promoted as a classical aesthetic that transends the duality of the rational/formal and the material/sensual. As Nicholas Till says in his excellent book Mozart and the Enlightenment:

[Schiller] characterised aesthetic freedom, famously, as play – a self-fulfilling activity which liberates the sensual from material determination, re-admitting it to the airy dance of the ideal. For Schiller the play-drive was the ultimate expression of the ‘purposeful purposelessness’ of aesthetic freedom.

In On the Aesthetic Nature of Man, Schiller tells us how we can achieve the classical ideal of aesthetic social order:

We are likely to find it, like the pure Church and pure Republic, only in a few chosen circles, where conduct is governed, not by some soulless imitation of the manners and morals of others, but by the aesthetic nature we have made our own.

In this respect Don Giovanni represents the Enlightenment ideal of political and social liberty. The refrain of ‘Vive la libertà’ which Giovanni, Leporello, Don Ottavio, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira sing together during the finale of Act 1 highlights the ambiguity of the term within the opera, but as Julian Rushton points out in Don Giovanni (Cambridge Opera Handbook), the political implications of ‘Viva la libertà’ were taken seriously enough by the Austrian censorship in the nineteenth century for it to be changed in Italy to ‘Viva la società’.

Another element of Giovanni’s character which enhances the idea of his heroic status is his complete lack of fear. He displays a super-human courage in the two key climaxes of the work:

  • The Act 1 finale, where the five characters threaten him with the vengeance of heaven and he replies ‘My courage shall not fail me, though the powers of hell assail me.’
  • The finale of Act 2, where he says ‘no man shall call me coward’ and refuses to repent and change his life even in the face of everlasting suffering.

It is worth bearing in mind that in the final scenes of the opera Giovanni’s fate is not sealed, and that he is offered the chance to repent and go to heaven rather than hell. His steadfast refusal here is almost Nietzschian in its conception of invididuality, and in his refusal to compromise the full realisation of his own nature. One is forced to admire Giovanni here, as Nicholas Till says:

With his desperate, defiant denial he becomes a triumphant yea-sayer, prepared to plead his values of individual freedom at the bar of heaven itself. In this moment, as the scene is written by Mozart, it is almost impossible not to identify with Don Giovanni and adopt him as some sort of existential rebel: a rebel whom Camus was to describe as ‘A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply renunciation,’ and who prefers ‘the risk of death to a denial of the rights that he defends.’

Don Giovanni as Social Threat

But of course there is a dark side to Don Giovanni. He is a ‘harbinger of chaos’. His liscentiousness, his breaking of oaths and promises, his flouting of taste, convention and manners, and his dismissal of all social conventions threaten the fabric of society itself.

The first scene alone sees him attempting the rape of an aristocratic lady betrothed to another and then murdering her father. Major crimes against society and its institutions are committed by Giovanni within the first 15 minutes of the action (and what an opening!).

Later he attempts to break up the marriage of Zerlina and Masetto before it has begun, and commits an act of violence on Masetto when he seeks revenge. It is clear that this kind of extreme individuality cannot operate within society.

Don Giovanni manifests disruption thorugh the confusion of social hierarchy that his actions bring about. We know from Leporello’s famous catalogue aria that amongst his conquests he counts country wenches, burghers’ wives, lower gentry, baronesses, princesseses and ‘every shape of female figure, every class and every age’. During the course of the opera we see him attempt to seduce a lady, a maid and a peasant, representatives of all three social classes.

This social breakdown is highlighted in one of the most extraordinary musical moments of the opera. During the Act 1 finale three dances are played together: menuetto, follia and alemanna are superimposed on top of one another, each dance representing the separate classes of aristocrat, peasant and bourgeoisie. The combination of distinct types of music, in different metres, treads a fine line between the harmonious and the grotesque, and highlights the dangers of disrupting social structures.

YouTube Preview Image
Don Giovanni, Act 1 Finale, performed at the New York Met, April 1990, conducted by James Levine. Note the three dance styles superimposed on each other, and the ensuing chaos, before the abrupt interruption of the three maskers 1 minute 56 seconds into this excerpt.

Don Giovanni: Hero or villain?

So which are we to take as the real Giovanni? Is he hero or villain? The answer has to be both, but this raises questions about the morality of the opera and what we should make of its ultimate meaning.

Nicholas Till makes a persuasive case for seeing Don Giovanni as a representative of the general artistic character, indeed an expression of Mozart himself, through what he calls ‘the subversive artistic spirit’.

Like Giovanni, the absolute artist remains uncommited to anything or anyone which will constrain his freedom; he breaks promises and defies threats. Like Giovanni, the artist must adopt chameleon disguises to penetrate into the world of others and assume that ‘negative capability‘ that Keats believed to be so important to the poet.

Mozart’s music is often effused with playfulness, not just in Don Giovanni but throughout his work. His Musical Joke, K.522, was written around the time he was writing Don Giovanni, and his love of dance forms is a clear indicator of the play drive in his music.

The Act 1 finale with its distorted dance themes takes on extra significance in this respect, as an expression not just of social disharmony but of Mozart’s skill as a composer. It demonstrates a virtuosic display of compositional skills to fit together three different dances, each in its own metre, and still produce music that makes sense as a whole (Mozart was later to elevate this technique to the level of the sublime with the remarkable fugal ending of his Jupiter Symphony).

Consider also this description of Mozart by Andreas Schachtner, a Salzburg trumpeter who knew Mozart and worked with him closesly (quoted in Mozart and the Enlightenment by Nicholas Till):

I think that if he had not had the advantage of good education which he enjoyed, he might have become the most wicked villain, so susceptible was he to every attraction, the goodness or badness of which he was not yet able to imagine.

As an artist Mozart expresses to us, through Giovanni, his own humanity. He thereby dramatises every human being’s desire to extend their individuality into the world and live life by their own rules.

At the same time we are made aware of the tensions between this expressive individuality and the social boundaries that help to keep these forces under control.