Robin Williams in 1998, after receiving an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting. Photo: Getty
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Using art to understand life: not everything you can imagine is real

From Robin Williams’s death to the Arab Spring, we have to resist the urge to impose simple storylines on complex events.

Among the many tributes tweeted in the wake of Robin Williams’ death on Sunday night was one by actress Evan Rachel Wood, featuring an image of the Genie (voiced by Williams) embracing Aladdin in the 1992 Disney animated film, accompanied by the caption “Genie. You’re free”. The tweet was retweeted over 100,000 times and an unattributed copy of it an hour later tweeted from the official Academy of Arts and Motion Picture Sciences account outdid that, with over 320,000 retweets. For most people, these were touching tributes, remembering the late actor in a manner that connected with most of his fans, particularly those who first came to know him in the early 1990s. There were others though, especially suicide awareness activists, who criticised it for a supposedly dangerous romanticisation of suicide. I too was a bit put out by this blithe summation, however well-intentioned, of a life tragically ended, something that Williams’ friends and family – who are, we ought to remember, the ones actually bereaved – may not subscribe to. It also seemed that suicide was being recast, in an oddly crass manner, as a quintessentially Hollywood act of self-realisation. The butterfly emerging from its pupa, as it were.

It might seem a little harsh to criticise Wood or The Academy’s social media button-presser for their fatuousness – maybe it just came natural for them to conceive of a tragic event with the vocabulary and tropes they were most familiar with. After all, the lexicon of condolence and sympathy shared by most people and repeated every time a friend or acquaintance is bereaved is one that is as universal as it is limited. There may also be a tendency of people who are involved in the production of art and entertainment to see forms and hear echoes of those works in every life and sometimes in world events. Occasionally the tendency can give rise to insensitive formulations, such as Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s rambling opinion, delivered soon after 9/11, that the attacks on the World Trade Center “the biggest work of art there has ever been”. No amount of protesting and clarification about context was ever going to later undo those words in the minds of the general public.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s assertion that the first Gulf War “did not take place” on account of its existence for westerners as a media event was taken by many in the English-speaking world as proof of a decadent Left Bank philosophe bringing an abstract epistemological template to bear on an actual war. Few of those commentators were aware though that Baudrillard’s essay used as an anchor reference Jean Giraudoux’s 1935 stage play La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place). Giradoux’s historical allegory is relatively unknown in English-speaking countries, where it was, in any case, staged under the title Tiger at the Gates. While Baudrillard’s thesis was one of a notional “virtual” modern war, rather than the failed inter-war diplomacy that Giraudoux skewered, the post-structuralist instinctively reached for the cultural vocabulary to mount his argument. It was not really his fault that the connotations were obscure to most outside of France.

I have to myself admit to having a predilection for “narrativising” contemporary events in a way that makes them appear to be lifted from fiction or drama, though, in some cases, the coincidences make it easy to do. Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Booker in 2010. The titular slap is one given by an adult to someone else’s brattish five-year-old at a suburban barbecue in Melbourne. And so follows a contentious tale of disputes and fallings-out among a group of friends each steadily advancing, at different stages, into parenthood. The Slap is a disappointing novel, its vivid portrayal of working-class and immigrant life marred by some woefully leaden prose and the seismic promise of the title’s action never materialises. A real-life slap however in late 2010 would have far-reaching consequences worthy of a great novel.

In December of that year in Sidi Bouzid, a dusty, economically stagnant town deep in Tunisia’s interior, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young unemployed university graduate was trying to eke out a living illegally selling fruit and veg on the town’s main square. One afternoon he was accosted by a policewoman and told to pack up his wares and go. It was Bouazizi’s third arrest for illegal hawking but this one was the most humiliating, because, according to his family, a female municipal office slapped him on the face. The youngster returned to the square, doused himself in petrol outside the governor’s office and set himself alight. Bouazizi died of his injuries eighteen days later, by which time he had been visited in his hospital bed by an increasingly nervous Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, and anti-government protests had spread across the country. In the week that followed Bouazizi’s death, Ben Ali addressed the nation twice but was eventually pushed to step down by the military; he and his notoriously corrupt family then fled to Saudi Arabia.

We all know what happened next – Egypt rose up in arms and overthrew Hosni Mubarak after almost three decades of authoritarian rule. Then there were protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and finally, Syria, each of which western and Arab powers took differing attitudes towards. It was the most momentous world-historical chain of events since the fall of the Berlin Wall in over two decades earlier. Like the events of 1989, it was actually the result of a cumulated process of historical facts and events (protests over food prices and the police murder of another youngster, Khaled Mohamed Saeed, could as easily have tipped the balance in Egypt in mid-2010) but it also had a similar air of narrative concision about it. As events unfolded, with many of the protagonists active in real time on Twitter and Facebook, you felt you were witnessing something epic. One of those protagonists, the young Emirati journalist Sultan al-Qassemi, tweeted upon his first post-revolution visit to Cairo that he felt like he was meeting characters from a favourite novel. Events since then, of course, took a more sinister twist in Egypt, with the SCAF’s bloody crackdowns on protests, rising sectarian violence, a military coup that dares not speak its name and we are now left with a situation where the country’s foremost novelist Alaa al-Aswany is a vocal supporter of the current repressive government. As Syria spiralled into an increasingly horrendous civil war, which has in turn overspilled into Lebanon and Iraq, the exhilaration at being at such a close vantage point to unfolding history has sharply receded. This is not to say that the uprisings against sclerotic totalitarian rule were a bad thing or that the sour turn so many of them took was inevitable, rather than the result of specific political actions or choices. What is true though is that there is a clear limit to the amount of narrative jouissance to be had from observing “interesting times”, least of all from a safe distance. Ironically, the only one of the Arab countries that rose up in rebellion that looks to be still in reasonable shape is Tunisia itself; the north African country has not been spared civil strife, with economic crisis, political assassinations, stand-offs with Salafists and encroaching Islamisation in universities, but it has largely managed to address those crises peacefully, by consensual rather than conflictual means.

This tendency to see narrative or artistic forms in real life, just as Fibonacci sequences are revealed in natural life-forms, is understandable enough. Even the way we experience and remember our dreams is quite probably beholden to our cultivated sense of narration. The power and genius of great (and even sometimes minor) art lies in its ability to map, mimic and project everyday and historic reality, sometimes unwittingly so, long after its creator’s death. Consequently, art and literature provide us with the tools and the vocabulary to interpret and understand reality. It is not for nothing that words such as “Dickensian”, “Kafkaesque” or “Orwellian” have passed into general usage and their resonance is understood even by people who have never read the works of the writers in question. Even minor literary characters such as Svengali, Nicolas Chauvin, or the supporting players from Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (which coined the word “robot”) serve as linguistic functions for interpreting the real world that lies beyond the page. It is worth remembering though that that real world is mostly messy and inchoate and can rarely be shoehorned into the confines of what are the arbitrary conventions of narrative and artistic form. It might be tempting to sense in tragic images or events culled from news headlines echoes of Shakespeare, of Michelangelo or even of horror films and disaster movies. Maybe it is best though not to lose the run of yourself when you do so.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis