- improved mood
- increased confidence
- improved health (less susceptibility to disease e.g. colds, and shorter recovery times)
- feeling calmer and more relaxed (reduces physical and mental effects of stress e.g. reduces muscular tension and one becomes less prone to (sports) injury or stiff joints etc., etc.)
- improved mental fitness: better (1) memory and (2) ability to learn new skills/abilities (getting older is no longer a barrier to good memory and ease of learning)
- the world will start to make sense
- greater adaptability
- improved articulacy and ability to communicate (improve ability to deal with ‘difficult’ people)
- knowing what you want and being able to ask for it
- being able to ask for help if you need it e.g. at work etc.
- being able to say ‘No’ e.g. to your boss
- ability to think clearly
- ability to interpret your dreams (see later discussion)
- ability to use intuition (see later discussion)
- more vitality
- recover one’s sense of humour (a well developed sense of humour is a protection, nobody can insult you or manipulate you
- one looses one’s fears e.g. of other people, of unemployment, spiders etc., etc.
- better work/life balance i.e. more time to do what you want to do (learn how to write reports in a quarter of the time it used to take, leaving you to read a book instead)
- one’s experience of life becomes much richer
- discovery of one’s true personality (spirit animal)
- a feeling of being grounded
- development of the ability to see past the advertising e.g. one can identify emotional or psychological manipulation and one is no longer manipulated by it (see later discussion)
- payback (see later discussion)
Bad behaviour gets you none of the above. Good behaviour results in all of the above.
An informal discussion of many of these points follows in the main body of this piece. Next, however, a brief description follows of what constitutes good behaviour and why it works.
The consequence of good behaviour, including the use of intuition, is that it allows one to live a happy, healthy, fulfilling and enjoyable life in harmony with other people. Using intuition is vital because it tells one how to behave in any situation encountered. The world, and one’s experience of it, is simply far too complex to be governed by a set of rules imposed on one by an external authority such as religion, philosophy or government. The function of intuition is to allow one to live in a complex world (without rules), which is to say, naturally. Bad behaviour renders the individual ‘deaf’ to intuition. Under these circumstances, rules become necessary for society to function.
An example of good behaviour is cooperation, conversely an example of bad behaviour is competition. What constitutes cooperative behaviour is not well understood. Playing in team sports is often thought to encourage cooperative behaviour. It doesn’t. Playing as a team is only a means of allowing competitive people to work together.
It is accepted that human society is competitive. Scientists claim that the natural world is also competitive, that it is ‘red in tooth and claw’. Because ‘red in tooth and claw’ is the accepted view of the natural world, the answer eludes scientists as to why it is that huge flocks of starlings can put on those spectacular aerobatic displays prior to roosting. In these displays the birds carry out the most complex manoeuvres, twisting and diving and turning, not as tens of thousands of individual birds, but as if they were one, single body. Compare the starlings to soldiers on the parade ground being drilled and drilled to merely walk in step in a straight line and maybe make a 90 degree turn now and again without bumping into each other and falling down. When one realises that the natural world is cooperative, then it explains very well the ability of starlings to fly the way they do. The starlings, as it were, fly in harmony because they behave cooperatively. Competitive behaviour results in the much cruder, far less sophisticated, crude parade ground displays of soldiers that require months and months of practice. There is no comparison between the two.
In a nutshell, what the issue of behaviour boils down to is one of practicalities. Bad behaviour doesn’t work. Conversely, good behaviour does work. That is why it is desirable.
Realising the real consequences of behaviour started for me some years ago.
My life was not what I wanted it to be. It had lost much of its interest and I was in a rut. My health too was far from what I wanted it to be. My response was to look for therapies to improve my condition. Meditation and relaxation therapy produced almost immediate effects. I felt calmer, more relaxed, my mood improved. People commented on my improved well-being, saying that I looked younger. Then I took up writing again after having dropped the interest in my teens. (The writing I did was specific and a description can be found in Section 3 of my previous piece, Modern Society: dictators, dragons, intrepid travellers.) My articulacy improved, my ability to communicate improved, so too did my confidence and my health and well-being generally. Then visual communication became of interest and I started exploring dreams.
It is not understood that dreams, like intuition, are not merely ‘decorative’ features of human experience, but, like sight or smell, have a specific and necessary function. If you can interpret your own dreams, they tell you things that you could not possibly otherwise know. For example, they can tell you the true intentions of other people i.e. whether someone is trying to manipulate you. Dreams enable you to see behind a façade. Dreams also advise you about your own behaviour. They may point out bad behavioural habits that you have picked up that are damaging you or your ability to communicate with people. Sometimes I have found it hard to accept these criticisms, yet when I follow the dream’s advice, the results are always positive. It is important here to understand that dreams do not lie. They deal only in the truth. To quote Wilfred Owen’s poem Strange Meeting, dreams reveal “truths that lie too deep for taint”. No one can deceive you if you have access to your dreams (or your intuition). Dreams can also advise you about your health. It was a dream that told me the ‘health’ pills I was taking at the time, vitamin C and iron pills, were adversely affecting my mood. I came off the pills and my mood improved. Writer’s block is something many members of Great Writing will have experienced. Dreams will help you with your writing by offering advice and giving you ideas. You need never worry about a lack of ideas if you can access dreams. Dreams will also allow you to track your own personal development by providing regular ‘reports’. I cannot now conceive of how I once managed without access to my dreams. Nor could I live without intuition.
A very good example of how intuition works happened to me just the other day. In the supermarket, I saw a DVD that I wanted to buy. (Alien, as it happens.) When I picked up the DVD to put it in my basket, my intuition told me that the DVD was damaged and would not play on my DVD player. I swapped it for another one. Sure enough, when I got home, the DVD would not play. Had I thought about it at the time, I would have realised that if one of a batch of DVDs was faulty, then the rest of the batch would probably be faulty too. This seems to have been the case. (As luck would have it, however, the DVD would play on my video game machine, so I was still able to watch the film.) Intuition acts as an adviser. One no longer needs recourse to Which? magazine to advise you about what washing machine to buy or what car to buy. Intuition can do that for you. My intuition tells me when my bank account needs attention or if my library books need renewed. I use intuition to tell me when to do the cleaning or the laundry. Just the other day I felt a strong impulse to tidy the living room and I acted on that intuition. I no longer have to write myself lots of Post-it notes as reminders to do this or that and stick them on my fridge door. Intuition performs that function. I no longer need to rely on memory to go about my daily business. This frees up my mind to get on with other more enjoyable things. It is also thought that having to make too many choices can lead to depression. In my experience, making choices is very stressful. Intuition takes care of choices such as: What DVD will I watch tonight? or “Will I go for a walk today?” or “Where will I go for my walk?” or “What will I wear to work today?”. These are not trivial choices in terms of the stress they generate. Intuition even helps me with the weather forecast. Last autumn, intuition told me that the coming winter would be milder than of late, and it was right. I was a bit sceptical about the weather forecast but as I experience intuition successfully time and again, my confidence in it grows. Being able to access my intuition is a HUGE weight off my mind and makes my life much less stressful. My health improves as a result, it cannot but do otherwise now that a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
Making a start on using intuition will produce results fairly quickly. It is necessary, though, to work on keeping calm and relaxed. If you are not calm and relaxed, you will not ‘hear’ your intuition and you will not be able to use it. Learning to interpret one’s dreams is a little harder to acquire and will take a little longer.
The Ridley Scott film Gladiator, is one of my favourite films currently. Among other things it is packed full of interesting incidents to illustrate many of the points I made in my list of benefits at the start of this piece, particularly the “ability to see past the advertising”. When I first saw the film, maybe 10 years ago, much of it passed me by, which is the same as saying I did not then have the ability that I do now to spot when I am being manipulated emotionally. Thus I largely accepted what the film told me, namely, that Maximus, Marcus Aurelius and Senator Gracus (Derek Jacobi) were the ‘good guys’ and Commodus was the baddie.
Films and books are of course full of such manipulation. Sometimes this is used to keep readers/viewers attentive. The book I am reading now, Fire World, is only just keeping my interest by stringing me along with promises of a fantasy world populated by dragons and fire birds. I do not think the author is going to keep his promise so I am becoming irked and on the point of giving up anyway. At a writing course I attended once, it was suggested that a failsafe device to ensure that reader interest would not flag, was to “run over a kitten”. The death of an animal is also a common device in films; I Am Legend comes to mind here. In that regard, one of the worst children’s films I have seen recently that used emotional manipulation utterly shamelessly was The Velveteen Rabbit. The little rabbit is a very attractive character. (The more attractive a character, the more we ‘care’ about its future and this makes emotional manipulation all the easier.) The rabbit is a toy come to life and it is really a sentient being with wishes, desires and feelings, yet it is tortured emotionally by being treated and discarded as if a toy (i.e. not treated as a ‘living’ creature). The makers of this film pride themselves in providing wholesome family entertainment yet they clearly have no idea of the appalling, cruel manner in which the secondary character, Rabbit, is being treated. Secondary characters do suffer in films and books. That seems to be their function, by and large. These characters are used to create a “run over a kitten” effect. As soon as a secondary character declares that s/he has something to live for, you know they are for the chop! That’s called writing-by-the-numbers and is beautifully illustrated at the beginning of The Perfect Storm where all those fisherman about to die are all given something to live for e.g. Bugsy finally finds himself a woman etc., etc. (Actually, I like this film very much precisely because it is such a perfect example of writing-by-the-numbers.) In Gladiator, Maximus’ loyal servant Cicero, a sympathetic minor character, also suffers that sort of fate. Cicero discovers his master is still alive, assists in arranging his escape, and dies for his troubles. That is emotional manipulation. Its function is to keep the viewer’s emotions ‘engaged’. Personally, I’m inclined to think it has more to do with being unable to write a good story. Surely a good storyteller does not need to resort to such tricks to keep the reader’s attention? Or perhaps I am missing the point. In the world of fiction, there seems to be only one way of writing a book i.e. by one set prescribed rules. Surely there are other ways to write a book…….
Returning to the main male characters of Gladiator, how does the film manipulate us into believing that Maximus, Marcus Aurelius and Gracus are goodies, whereas Commodus is a baddie?
In the first place, Maximus is a general who is popular with his men and he clearly cares about them. He is also a farmer and a family man who loves his wife and son and longs to return home to them. That his wife is beautiful is also no accident. If she was an ugly woman, would we think so highly of Maximus? Maximus is religious and prays regularly, venerating his ancestors particularly. Maximus is a man of honour, a man of his word. And, above all, he loves and is loyal to his emperor, Marcus Aurelius, another good man, for whom one supposes Maximus would sacrifice his life if required. In fact, Maximus is sacrificing himself for he dearly wants to return to Spain instead of fight in Germania, and such self-sacrifice is considered desirable in today’s society, so this is more Brownie points for Maximus. These are the clues that tell us Maximus is A Good Man. So too, is Marcus Aurelius. He too has sacrificed his life “for the glory of Rome” by spending 20 out of the last 24 years picking fights with the inhabitants of the countries he has conquered in order to keep Rome peaceful. Marcus Aurelius is also a philosopher (one reason he is admired by historians) and his trump card in the film is that he wants to make Rome a republic i.e. a democracy. In the west, we have an almost religious belief in the value of democracy, so this ensures that most viewers will find Marcus Aurelius a sympathetic character. If Marcus Aurelius had declared he wanted Rome to be ruled by a tyrant, would we still approve of him? Senator Gracus is a goodie because he supports a democracy. He is a man “for the people”, even if he is not a man “of the people”. Also, he is willing to trust Maximus because he trusts Lucilla and she trusts Maximus.
Commodus, on the other hand, is to be reviled. He is a schemer, so much so that on the journey he and his sister make to be with their father in Germania, Lucilla says to him “Please, Commodus, your incessant scheming is giving me a headache.” Commodus is also paranoid, and his love for his sister, we discover, extends beyond the familial. Actually, when I first saw the film, I found Commodus quite frightening because he always seemed to be on the verge of losing it altogether. His eyes were a bit too bright.
So, the film tells us what to think about these characters through their attributes. A pleasant fantasy that, for the reality, when one actually THINKS about it (rather than responding emotionally) is a different matter altogether.
Consider Maximus. He hero worships his emperor, Marcus Aurelius. This makes him very vulnerable to emotional manipulation. And, indeed, Marcus Aurelius uses just those tactics to get Maximus to agree to do one last job: take the army to Rome and convert it to a republic. Maximus all but agrees, and his hero worship of Marcus Aurelius sets off a course of events that results not only in his own death but that of his wife and child. While Commodus gave the orders for these deaths, Maximus, by his behaviour, brought the tragedy upon himself. There is a scene in the film where Maximus is called by Commodus to the deathbed of Marcus Aurelius. Maximus realises that the emperor has been murdered by his son. Thus when Commodus, as his new emperor, offers him his hand in friendship, Maximus, being a man of honour, refuses. This is the act which seals Maximus’ fate and that of his family. Being a man of honour, Maximus lived by rules, not by intuition. He was not adaptable. What any sensible person would have done in his shoes would have been to buy time by accepting Commodus’ offer of friendship. But being a man of honour, Maximus could not bring himself to take Commodus’ hand, because he did not like Commodus. Indeed, Maximus seems to have been particularly naive because, having seen Commodus murder the emperor, and there being a ‘history’ between Commodus and Maximus (Commodus no doubt jealous of his father’s liking for the general), he can guess what Commodus is capable of. It was not uncommon, after all, for the entire family of an emperor’s enemy to be put to death. If Maximus had given himself a breathing space he could have thought out the situation and at least secured his family’s safety before moving on Commodus.
Then there is Marcus Aurelius. The self-sacrifice for ‘the glory of Rome’ simply doesn’t wash. These people were empire builders because they loved a damn good scrap. As Marcus Aurelius says “there will always be someone to fight”. That aside, consider his tactics for returning Rome to a republic. His man for the job is Maximus. Maximus is a farmer, he is a political innocent and, above all, he has never even been to Rome. Even Maximus recognises his unsuitability for the job. But the emperor manipulates him to do the ‘last wish of a dying man’. What Marcus Aurelius intends is that the general march on Rome with the army and somehow or other turn it into a democracy. Does Marcus Aurelius seriously think that Commodus is going to take that lying down? If Marcus Aurelius really did have the best interests of Rome at heart, he would not be sending the general there, like a lamb to the slaughter. For example, he would arrange a takeover with sympathetic, republican-minded senators beforehand and Maximus and his army would be answerable to them. My view of Marcus Aurelius was that he was setting Maximus up for a fall deliberately. If Rome descended into civil war, it would make his own peaceful reign seem all the more glorious and thus his name would go down in posterity.
Then there is Marcus Aurelius’ treatment of his son, Commodus. Hardly the stuff of which sympathetic characters are made! For Commodus’ entire life, his confidence had been undermined by his father. No matter how hard he tried, he could never live up to his father’s expectations. (Commodus’ mistake was in trying to live up to them in the first place. That gave his father a hold on him.) In a letter he once received from his father were listed four cardinal virtues, none of which Commodus possessed. What a taunt. What a kick in the teeth for Commodus. With a father like that, no wonder Commodus was paranoid. What an even bigger kick in the teeth to be told, with no warning whatsoever, that he is not to be emperor. And in what a manner! Marcus Aurelius brings Commodus, his sister, and an entourage of senators out to Germania from Rome in the expectation that he will announce Commodus as his successor. In this very public manner Marcus Aurelius humiliates his son by revealing his true intentions. If Marcus Aurelius had loved his son as he claimed, he would have found a way of breaking the news that would allow Commodus to save face, by maybe letting him back down himself, before announcing Rome’s fate.
On receiving the bad news, Commodus asks his father “Which older, wiser man is to take my place?” What a humiliation to be told it is to be Maximus. First, Maximus is not significantly older than Commodus; he is of the same generation. Also, Maximus has no political experience and has never even been to Rome. Thus he is hardly wiser than Commodus. In fact, Commodus IS the most suitable man for the job for he has spent his life in Rome and has the most experience with politicians etc., etc. Commodus proves his worth by offering Maximus his hand in friendship when he becomes emperor. He is upfront and tells him it will only be offered once. Considering that Maximus has been set up by the dead emperor as Commodus’ rival, this act is one of a wise man, and so Commodus seems once again to be misrepresented by the film. Then there is the issue of Marcus Aurelius’ murder at the hands of Commodus. The man had spent his entire life being badly treated by his father. In modern parlance, Commodus suffered child abuse. Having been provoked by his father beyond endurance, he really cannot be blamed for killing him. (The French used to call that sort of murder a Crime of Passion and excuse it.) In fact, I would say that the actions of Marcus Aurelius ensured that he got what he bought: death at his son’s hands.
Thus, upon closer examination of the actions of the characters, I find myself somewhat in sympathy with Commodus, whereas I have no sympathy for the fate of Marcus Aurelius, for he brought his death on himself. I think Maximus was also the author of his own misfortunes, although not perhaps as manipulative as Marcus Aurelius. I suppose what this amounts to is that actions speak louder than words. The film tells us what to think about these characters, but their actions reveal the reality of their characters and the consequences of their behaviour.
Finally, a look at Senator Gracus. When his unexpected appearance in the crowd at the Coliseum excites comment, he says somewhat loftily, “I don’t claim to be a man OF the people, but I do try to be a man FOR the people”. (The distinction between OF and FOR is political nit-picking if ever I heard it!) Being a man FOR the people, Gracus is obviously a goodie. I do not think he is a goodie. He represents his voters in the senate, that is how the system works, yet how can he represent them? The only person he can truly represent is himself because only he can speak for himself. He knows nothing about the cares, expectations or lives of ‘the people’ he supposedly represents. He does not allow them to speak for themselves. By doing so, he kills them. I do not mean kill physically, but mentally. When people are governed to the extent that we are today, when people have the ability to speak for themselves taken away from them, people switch off and the mind dies. It becomes no more than a machine. That is why Gracus is not the man the films wants us to believe he is. In fact, this got me wondering why people today seem to have a much longer life expectancy than in Roman times, say. I do not think it is because medicine keeps us alive but rather because government kills (by taking away our ability to speak for ourselves). I am reminded of another Ridley Scott film Blade Runner. Roy Batty finally gets to meet Tyrell, the man who ‘made’ him. Batty is hoping Tyrell will be able to extend his life span. (As a robot, Batty has a 4 year life span and is near death). Tyrell explains that he can do nothing to help and says to Batty, by way of compensation for his predicament, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.” I think the major reason that earlier people had a shorter life span was because they burned more brightly. What I mean is that they had more fulfilling lives and burnt themselves out. People today have had their life taken away from them and all they can do is exist. Which makes me think of my own mother who died of cancer in her 50s. She wanted to die, not because she had cancer and it was unpleasant, but because she was tired of a life which wasn’t, to her, worth living. Death was a welcome release and cancer was a convenient and timely means of achieving that. In the same way, in the film Gladiator, the death of Maximus ultimately is not sad. Death was a release for him from a terrible struggle. He had achieved what he set out to do, exact revenge on Commodus, and he no longer wanted to live. Death is natural and can be very desirable. We do not recognise that today. Indeed, we go to extraordinary lengths to keep people’s bodies alive, yet many people would, I have no doubt, welcome the release death brings if only they were given the choice. Exercising that choice is another freedom that government has deprived us off.
Talking of government, one of the most absurd moments in Gladiator is the final scene in the Coliseum. Maximus has killed Commodus and is himself teetering on the brink of death. Quintus snaps him out of it long enough for Maximus to pass on the ‘last wishes of a dying man’, namely that Rome is to be a republic. Meanwhile 50,000 or so spectators look on as their future is decided for them by a couple of people in the arena. The absurdity of this will pass most people by. Indeed, if one of those spectators was describing the experience today, he would say something like “It was a real privilege being there to watch history being made.” Nothing like knowing your place, eh?
Which brings me to the topic of payback. Commodus got payback on his father by killing him and Maximus similarly got payback on Commodus. Both men had suffered at the hands of the people they killed. The title of this piece, Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?, is actually a quote from the film Independence Day. The plot of this film is a variation on the theme of War of the Worlds. Instead of a biological virus bringing about the destruction of aliens, a computer virus does the same job by disabling the alien defences. When the defences are disabled, volunteer human pilots fly out to bombard the alien space-ships with missiles. One of the volunteers is a crop-sprayer. He wants revenge big time! He had been abducted by those aliens 10 years previously and up until then, no one had ever believed his abduction stories. As the crop-duster fires a missile into one of the space-ships he yells “Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?”. Speaking from personal experience, I couldn’t agree with him more. Indeed, payback was one of the benefits of this process that happened pretty early on.
At work, I had had the same line manager for many years. He did not make my life easy. He was always wrong footing me one way or another, for example. Had I behaved better, he would not have been able to get away with his games but when I did begin to behave better, I was in a position quite quickly to put matters right. For one thing, my articulacy had improved greatly, that gave me a huge boost of confidence, and also I was able to identify when I was being manipulated much more easily. I did not go looking for payback, but like that crop-sprayer, when the opportunity presented itself, I took it. The situation with my line manager came to a head unexpectedly. My increase in confidence resulted in a successful application for promotion to the higher echelons of management in my workplace. My line manager was still my senior in the organisation for he had also been promoted. However, he finally went so far as to deny me information which meant that I could not do my new job properly. Somehow our boss got to hear of this (I had so far said nothing to anyone) and called a meeting to sort out the issue. Our boss chaired the meeting and there was a fourth person present. I had decided to play the meeting by ear. Before the meeting started, my line-manager started boasting about his promotion and the huge amount of money, millions of pounds, he was responsible for. This did not intimidate me in the least, for I saw past the man’s bravado. When our boss started the meeting, as if by fate, he handed me my opening lines on a plate and I immediately launched into a list of grievances against my line manager. I could not believe my own ability to do this. I spoke in the most forthright manner, emphasising my points by banging the table with my hand. My line-manager, having been so boastful and confident, was now sliding lower and lower into his chair, his face very red and looking more and more dishevelled. Then a strange thing happened. At some point I realised a conclusion had been reached, and the meeting was finished. Yet the chairman, our boss, did not call it to a close. So the meeting dragged on and on and on, and still he didn’t bring it to an end. Finally, I understood what had happened. Unconsciously the chairman had passed control of the meeting to me, because of how strongly I was presenting myself. Our boss no longer ‘commanded’ the room, I did. Thus I took the initiative and closed the meeting myself. Seconds later I bumped into my line manager in the staffroom where he was drinking a cup of water. His hands were shaking, his face red and his eyes glazed. He looked shell-shocked. He was shell-shocked. “I’ve never seen you like that before” he remarked shakily. Thus the man thought twice about playing his games at my expense again. And I have no hesitation in saying that victory tasted sweet. Also, that revenge is a dish best served cold (I did not go looking for payback, remember).
Incidentally, my confidence subsequently improved to such an extent that when I found my promotion resulted in too much extra work for too little extra pay, I packed it in. I resigned and demoted myself back to the ranks. My setting such a precedent excited much surprise among my colleagues. Yet my status did not suffer as I thought it might because of my demotion. People responded to my confidence very positively. They also knew of what I was capable should they cross me, so my voluntary demotion actually enhanced my colleagues’ respect for me.
One thing this process has done for me is that my articulacy has improved to such an extent that I can pretty much write off the top of my head. This piece has been written totally off the cuff. So, when I had a dream last night giving me an idea for the final paragraphs of this article, they will also have been written totally off the cuff.
In my dream I saw a well known opera singer. In fact, I heard him on the radio last night singing in a Wagner opera. This singer is also in one of my opera DVDs, The Marriage of Figaro. It is an opera that I was thinking about the other day and one that made an unexpected impact on me as I shall explain shortly. Firstly, though, it is through this process of understanding behaviour that the world of opera opened up to me. I have always listened to music, popular and classical, but I could never thole opera. A couple of years ago my interest in opera was piqued, an awakening liking for the theatricality of opera if not the music, and I began to deliberately cultivate a taste for it. I did not work hard at it. For one thing, I rarely had access to opera, but when an opera was broadcast on tv I would watch it, or part of it. I didn’t enjoy opera but persisted. What happened was similar to when I first travelled to the Mediterranean. For breakfast every morning one was presented with a plate of olives and feta cheese. I disliked olives but ate a few all the same. The following year I spent another holiday in that area. More olives and feta cheese for breakfast. This time I could not get enough olives. The same happened with opera. The transition between indifference and enjoyment happened suddenly. I remember the moment. I was listening to Wagner and suddenly I was aware something had switched on in my head. The music came alive. Now I cannot get enough of opera and the world is a richer place for me as a result.
I got hold of some opera DVDs and familiarised myself with those operas. The Marriage of Figaro was a later acquisition. It sat on my shelf for a while before I watched it. It was my first Mozart opera. I was aware of its reputation. It is described as an opera of “depth, subtlety and point”. Through it, Mozart is credited with great insight into human behaviour, especially love and marriage. I have heard this assessment of the opera time and again by opera singers themselves, professional musicians as well as from opera goers. They describe the opera as having great depth and praise Mozart’s characterisation. In the film Amadeus, Mozart has to persuade the Emperor Josef to allow him to rehearse and perform the opera, for the emperor wants to ban it for political reasons. To persuade, Mozart describes his opera as ‘charming’ which, I suspect, is an epithet many people might use of it. I like this opera a great deal too. Charming, however, is not an epithet I’d use to describe it. In fact, the first time I watched this opera, about halfway through Act II my senses started to pick up something very distasteful. I puzzled for a bit and then realised where the sensation was coming from. What I was witnessing was a bit of soft porn. The production was clean enough, very clean by any standards today. The source of the distaste was the opera itself. When you think about it, the story is really rather unpleasant.
Figaro and Susannah are to get married. They need their employer’s permission. But their employer has the hots for Susannah and wants to restore feudal rights which would allow him to bed her before Figaro. It is not only Almaviva who lusts after Susannah, but Basilio too. The two men sing an aria with Susannah in which it is made quite clear that they lust after her. They drool over her as they sing and she pretends to faint to escape their clutches. Then there is Cherubino. He is a young page. The role is a ‘trouser role’ which means that it is played by a woman dressed as a boy or man. Cherubino has an expressed problem. He has unsatisfied sexual desires i.e. is a nymphomaniac. He lusts after every woman he sees. (In the opera the word ‘love’ rather than ‘lust’ is used. But it is lust or sex, not love, that this is about.) In some scenes, Cherubino, played by a woman, has ‘his’ nose almost buried in the countess’s cleavage and almost kisses her. He tries to paw her like Susannah was pawed. So, as well as using the men’s lust for Susannah to get his audience ‘excited’, Mozart adds a little spice to the mix with a little girl-on-girl action i.e. lesbianism. Charming? No. Whatever sex is, charming it is not. Not only this, but we have a little entrapment in the plot too. Entrapment used to be disapproved off. Now it is acceptable for policemen to pretend to be drug pushers to entice druggies into their trap and to book them and have them convicted. Susannah and her mistress the Countess contrive a plot whereby they can catch Almaviva red-handed making ‘love’ to Susannah. Susannah arranges a rendezvous with him at night but instead of Susannah, his wife will go in her place, disguised as Susannah. What this all boils down to is that, in a way, Mozart did understand people. He knew that sex sells and used it to sell his operas. Don Giovanni sells for the same reason, but at least Giovanni’s promiscuity is paraded for what it is (and, as an aside, he is depicted as paying a high price for his behaviour). Incidentally, I did not find Don Giovanni distasteful in the way I did at first with Figaro. Perhaps this is because Don Giovanni is a little more up-front. In fact, returning to the film Amadeus, Salieri describes Mozart as a dirty minded little man. I think that is a good assessment. If it is true of the man, it is also true of the opera, and that was why I felt such strong distaste. The spirit of a person comes through in whatever they do. If you want to really get to know a person, listen to their music, look at their paintings or read their books, but don’t listen to what comes out of their mouths, for that is just advertising.
(One anticipates that since in this modern world sex has been raised to a divine act necessary to the well-being of all humans, one is in danger of being dismissed as a Mrs Mary Whitehouse. However, in my experience, huge numbers of people claim to enjoy sex because they are too fearful of ridicule to admit that they do not like it at all and even find the practice repulsive. Let’s face it, the human body is sweaty, smelly, blemished and, after sex, people do not look like they do in the movies. And I mean, to kiss anyone who has just been drinking alcohol or smoking.....oh, p-lease!! In Carry On Henry, Henry VIII marries a Spanish garlic eating wife and is therefore unable to perform his duties and produce an heir, thus there follows a behaeding and a new wife. Of course, part of this love of sex relies on a switching off of the ‘disgust reflex’. I saw on tv recently Embarassing Bodies where people were being trained to switch off their disgust at poking their noses into their own stools.)
It is not just sex that sells. Both Mozart and Beethoven, musical ‘geniuses’, both preferred CPE Bach’s music to his father’s JS Bach. Today JS Bach is considered the better musician. This preference of the two ‘geniuses’ was nothing to do with recognising a good musician, it was simply that CPE Bach was doing something new and that is the only reason he was preferred. Mozart realised that ‘new’ sold, and that is why he portrayed ‘commom’ people in his later operas, such as The Marriage of Figaro. He was simply responding to fashion. So to suggest that his music shows great insight and characterisation is nonsense. I like his music, but I am not fooled by his intentions or his abilities.
When I come to think on it, I meet this sort of thing time and again. I once heard a Radio 4 programme, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, in which some academics discussed a famous painting. The painting was ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by French artist Delacroix (1831). In it, Liberty, a woman, is depicted bare-breasted. At her feet lies a man with no trousers on, exposing his all. The academics on the programme spent a great deal of time discussing why Delacroix painted a bare breasted ‘Liberty’ and a trouserless man at her feet. No conclusion was reached. By all accounts, doctorates (three year’s research) have been awarded for research into this aspect of art history. Listening to these people, my jaw dropped. I could have saved the researchers their trouble. I felt like taking the academics and shaking them. The attitude of the academics was so typical of the ‘cultured’ classes. For god’s sake, I wanted to say to them, open your eyes. Sex sells! Same for Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. The naked woman is there for the same reason. Sex sells. Like Figaro, all these paintings are masquerading, or being masqueraded, as something they are not. It says a lot about modern society that no one recognises this.
Actually, I think I am incorrect. I think that people have persuaded themselves into believing these lies so that they are no longer identifiable to them as lies. It is, in fact, all advertising. The cultured classes or the academics could not ‘sell’ themselves as such if they acknowledged the likes of Figaro and Liberty Leading the People as porn. That is the crux of the matter and is a whole new article. There is much to be revealed about the role of advertising in our society, how extensive it really is, as well as the role of whitewashing in business……..
Oh, one final point about Gladiator. If you thought gladiatorial games were a thing of the past, think again. They are coming to London in the summer.