Monday, November 30, 2009

Time in Arcadia

In the never-never land of Arcadian pastoral, a shepherd loves a sea-nymph. She returns his love, but a one-eyed giant, a cyclops even, also wants her. Annoyed by the giant's attention to the nymph, the shepherd gets angry, and challenges him to a duel. It's not going to be an even match, obviously.

Another, wiser, shepherd warns him against the duel:
Consider, fond shepherd,
How fleeting's the pleasure
That flatters our hope
In pursuit of the fair.

The joys that attend it,
By moments we measure.
But life is too little
To measure our care.
This is an aria in Handel's delightful opera Acis and Galatea, which we heard this weekend in Boston.The aria warns about how strangely time works when we are in love. There are two schemes for time, one that we can measure and that gives us pleasure (notice the rhymes); the other that is sorrowful, and that is completely unmeasured. He implies that if the lover pursues his rival in anger, time will become unmeasured, chaotic. Something will happen that will take him from a sequence of happy moments to an eternity of care.

Of course, he's right. The giant heaves a big rock and kills the shepherd. Happy moments are now an eternity of nothingness for Acis. Just before he dies, the others simply acknowledge, "Gentle Acis is no more."

In a genre like baroque opera, which is itself so measured, to be "no more" is to be completely extinguished. How deeply opera depends, and especially this older eighteenth-century opera, on holding on to a measured, sequential existence. Arias famously extend themselves by the "da capo": the return to the beginning. Arias were written with an A section, a contrasting B section, and at the end of the B section, the singer reprises A, usually with more decoration. When we are bored the "da capo" can be a dreadful moment: more singing, no chance for action, when will we get home? But when we're engaged -- as we were Saturday night in Jordan Hall -- these are chances to extend that measured life, the pleasure of love and music that the shepherd warns is "so fleeting."

This moment before Acis dies is so excruciatingly beautiful. It makes me think that art, too -- opera, poetry, photography, architecture, and all -- is an attempt to extend the pleasure of moving IN time, against the threat of the chaos of unmeasured movement. Dante's Paolo and Francesca, murdered in their love, are blown endlessly in the winds of passion in Inferno.

The Boston production made reference to the great, strange painting by Poussin of shepherds deciphering the inscription on a tomb (at the top of this post). "Et in Arcadia ego," it says. It may mean, "Also, I, Death, am in Arcadia," though it is not so explicit: that is, even as you think all continues in measured pace to the last syllable of recorded time, it does not; I cut it off.

Is art the suspending of that dreadful cutting off?