Love Note – Ave Maria

Amongst the usual merry-go-round of Christmas songs, one song has captured my undivided attention this year: Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Ave Maria. It’s not necessarily a Christmas song; it’s not necessarily a song that I have cared much about in the past; and I only really started caring about Frank Sinatra two years ago when ‘One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)’ literally stopped me in my tracks.[1] This year, however, Sinatra’s rendition of Schubert’s much-loved piece has been the gentle yet sublime musical offering that I have needed during this busy time.

The combination of Sinatra’s deep voice with the soaring choral accompaniment is both uplifting and deeply comforting. He sings a popular Latin interpretation of the song that describes Mary mother of God being with ‘us’ in the hour of our death. This, understandably, could be read as extremely morbid, but for me, feels more like a lullaby. On a basic level, the speaker both entreats and asks for everything to be alright, but through the reassuring ebb and flow of the choir, the plucked violins, and Sinatra’s grounding dulcet tones, we get the sense that everything is already more than alright. How can anything be but OK when we use the present moment to tap into hope, appreciation and gratitude?

I would describe myself as spiritual, rather than religious, and whilst Ave Maria has some serious Catholic affiliations, thanks to the previously mentioned Latin prayer that was later attached to Schubert’s composition, there is ample room for further interpretation. Schubert originally composed Ave Maria as a musical setting for Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake: more specifically, Ave Maria is a musical dramatization of Ellen’s song ‘Hymn to the Virgin’, whispered by the heroine Ellen whilst sheltering in a Goblin cave with her exiled father. There are some problematic references to Mary being ‘undefiled’ and ‘stainless’, which reinforce the virginal standard of ‘perfection’ that has been used to hit women round the head with for hundreds and hundreds of years. Some of the lines, however, in their appeal for some kind of divine maternal protection are beautiful:

‘The murky cavern’s heavy air

Shall breathe of balm if thou has smiled;

Then, Maiden! Hear a maiden’s prayer,

Mother, list a suppliant child!

Ave Maria!’

The poem entreats a greater, spiritual power for comfort, safety and support; to dispense the dank weight of the air in the cavern with the gentle smile of benevolence and clarity. Whoever has felt like a captive in the churning and chattering or their own mind knows the yearning for relief and for lightness; the cavern that Scott describes here, trapping Ellen, could easily reflect the headspace of anxiety, depression and worry.[2] A calm, serene smile in the face of adversity, uncertainty and pain is a wonderful image of transcendence and acceptance. Whilst we may remain critical of the traditional, patriarchal imagining of femininity here, this is undeniably a prayer from woman to woman: Ellen appeals to Mary’s young womanhood here, so uncannily like her own, yet not her own. Ellen is at once a woman like Mary, but so in need of nurture and support, like a small child; Mary’s small child. She appeals to a maternal figure so much greater and more powerful than herself, currently trapped in a desperate predicament. In this reaching, in this supplication to something beyond herself for direction and guidance, she finds peace and joy in the declaration: Ave Maria! It is that same feeling I alluded to earlier of asking that everything be made OK, whilst knowing in the very asking, that everything in this present moment is OK, is as it should be.

Ave Maria then, whilst used in many religious circumstances for this most important time of year for Christians, is also welcoming beyond those confines. Life is so uncertain and awe-inspiring, and it is pieces of music like Ave Maria, and what it has come to mean for me, that soothe our fears. It takes us out of the worries and patterns that keep us stuck and afraid, and opens us to the possibility that if we look beyond ourselves into the mysterious, strange and beautiful world and Universe around us, that we can find inner stability and peace.

 

 

 

[1] My first experience with Ave Maria (as with most of my favourite pieces of classical music) was watching Disney’s Fantasia. The film finishes with the calm parade of pilgrims after the chaos and profanity of Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

[2] This also reminds me of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, which could easily be a metaphor for the existential crisis or Dark Night of the Soul that many, if not all of us, will encounter at some point in life: ‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost’.

Love Note – Non-Christmas Christmas Films

I am not a Christian, but I have always loved Christmas. I acknowledge that in many ways it has become a consumerist shadow of its former religious and spiritual self; but nevertheless, I have been lucky enough to have lived 26 Christmases so far full of fun and festivity. Additionally, the idea of ‘peace on earth and good will to all men’ has never felt timelier or more desperately needed. The story of a displaced family and the birth of their baby in the most humble and desperate of circumstances is still very much a story for our times.

The festive period is as much about the build up to Christmas as it is about Christmas Day itself. There is no shortage of Christmas activities to get involved with, for example listening to music, writing cards, ice skating, baking, wearing jumpers, drinking mulled wine and eating all the food available with family and friends. Watching films has always been an excellent way of tapping into the Christmas spirit and I don’t need to tell you that there are a plethora of films about Christmas that are worth digging out every year. In addition, I have a few favourites that always make their way out in December that aren’t necessarily specifically festive, but embody a little bit of what Christmas should be all about.

MockingbirdCourtroom

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 – A gorgeous old film based on a gorgeous book about justice, growing up and both protecting and fighting for the vulnerable. In place of a bearded man in a red coat handing out gifts, we have Gregory Peck’s masterful turn as Atticus Finch: wise, caring and as much of a sensitive, commanding presence on his porch as he is in the courtroom. This film is the gift that gives on giving.

edward_scissorhands_hug

Edward Scissorhands, 1990 – The tenuous Christmas link comes with the large presence of snow that Edward creates with his scissorhands (and the fact that the magical Danny Elfman score has been used in a plethora of Christmas adverts over the years). This film is a fairytale set in sugary suburbia, rooting for the societal underdog against the backdrop of fickle public opinion. It is important to note that I have fallen out massively with Johnny Depp over recent years, but I am still so here for Winona Ryder.

life-of-brian

The Life of Brian, 1979 – This could technically be classed as a Christmas film because it begins with the nativity of Jesus and Brian, and then follows their lives up until the latter’s crucifixion. But I am including it here because as well as being absolutely hilarious, the film propagates heavily for critical thinking as opposed to mob-like sheep mentality. Plus there’s a useful Latin lesson in there for anyone interested.

MSDONHU_EC034_H_Glenn-Close-Cruella-De-Vil-101-Dalmatians-467

101 Dalmatians, 1996 – This film’s stars are adorable spotted puppies and Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil, leaving little else to be said. I have written previously about how, killing animals and psychopathy aside, Cruella might just be one of the greatest style icons of all time and that view still stands. Fashion aside, however, this film primarily revolves around family unity, adventure and features delightful snowy countryside. Perfect Christmas fodder.

#ArmisticeDay100 one week on

A week ago saw the international commemorations of Armistice Day: on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War came to an end. There was the annual event at the Cenotaph in the UK followed by a service at Westminster Abbey, gatherings of world leaders in Paris, and services taking place at cemeteries and memorials in India, New Zealand and the USA amongst many other countries. I had a draft version of this essay ready last Sunday, but decided to wait until a week had gone by before I posted it. I was curious to see how the spirit of remembrance would pan out a mere week after the solemnities of the remembrance services, the public grief and mourning over lives lost and the thankful vows to ‘never forget’. After the week we have just seen, where the level of British political debate has been puerile, headlines have featured militaristic language of ‘plots’, ‘battles’, ‘fighting’, ‘rebels’, ‘calling in the cavalry’ etc. and the harassment of a prominent female investigative journalist became institutional, I am convinced that remembrance in this country is little more than an annual self-indulgent performance.[1] Additionally, and sadly, this did not surprise me in the slightest.

Of course, there is always a performance element to any kind of national event; however, above all others, Armistice Sunday really has become the biggest yardstick of nationalism with which to bash people around the head for a couple of days of the year, until business as usual resumes. Remembrance, we are told (and I firmly believe should), involve respect of difference, empathy, compassion and a renewed sense of hope in the potential of human beings to acknowledge the injustices of the past and to unite to do good, try harder and be better in future. Nowhere have I seen any of these played out in British politics this past week: the lack of respect, the spite, the selfishness that we have seen manifesting at Westminster has been galling. As such, I think it’s absolutely crucial that we deconstruct and re-think remembrance, so that we carry its spirit with us all year long and begin to conduct life as human beings with integrity and long-sightedness. As a species, we can live consciously and kindly, we can serve one another by embracing and protecting difference, and we can prioritise love, compassion and justice over greed, intolerance and hate.

As with many things in these polarised political times, there is much division over the poppy as a symbol of national remembrance. On one hand, it is a nod to John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ and is an emotive and powerful symbol representing sacrifice and loss for a cause greater than oneself. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as an uncritical expression of nationalistic pride; brought out once a year to remember the devastating effect of war on human life whilst governmental policy continues to pursue and fuel unnecessary conflict.[3] For literary critic Walter Benjamin, this thinking in binary opposition, that has incidentally become so inflammatory and toxic over the past few years, is inevitable if we are to understand our history, our present and our future through the use of symbols. The poppy will never go far enough to help us understand and remember history. Instead, we need to culturally embrace and elevate allegory.  As Benjamin writes in The Origin of German Tragic Drama:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.

Reading this on and around Armistice Day, there seems to be no more a fitting image of a ‘petrified, primordial landscape’ than the hellish ‘No Man’s Land’: stretches of Belgium and France that were muddy, pockmarked with shells (some still unexploded), land scoured with barbed wire and dead bodies churned up in it all. If this is the face of history, then we need to understand history in a much more multifarious and multifaceted way than a symbol can allow. Indeed, when we try to remember and observe the impact of such complex and destructive human inventions such as war, nationhood and self, this becomes crucial. I would argue that it is important to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War; it is important to remember the destruction and devastation that war entails; it is important that we share a collective grief and mourning over the past so that we can build a more progressive, peaceful future. I am very serious about peace and if the world is to take the principles of Armistice Day more seriously i.e. observe it beyond one day of the year, then we must look above and beyond the symbol of the poppy alone. A symbol cannot go far enough to explore the depth of experience that Armistice Day entails. To reflect on all the fallout of war, we need to go beyond the surface level of symbols and engage with allegory. In my opinion, one of the best ways to access the historical nuances and perspectives of allegory is through art: poetry, music, film and visual art. Art and creative expression take us away from the confining realms of the symbolic, widening and deepening our conception of historical event and history itself. It is essential that remembrance incorporates art.  In light of this, I want to begin by discussing a particular piece of music that can help us to explore remembrance in a way that provides a more comprehensive, broader and yet deeper understanding of the past that Armistice Day requires.

I first heard Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending, written in 1914, during the rather lengthily titled ‘A Solemn Commemoration of the Centenary of the Outbreak of the First World War’, which took place on 4th August 2014 at Westminster Abbey. Amongst the usual hallmarks of British national remembrance on display, from poppy wreaths, the soaring strains of Elgar and Bible readings to the royal family clad in a combination of black and military regalia, the service made room for poetry and music. The work of T.S Eliot, Wilfrid Gibson, Sebastian Faulks and Bach all made appearances and I was happy to see German prayers and poems featured too. Yet, it was Jennifer Pike and Daniel Cook’s haunting performance, on the violin and organ respectively that, in my opinion, brought an exceptional emotional weight to the service.[5]

The Lark Ascending (I’m thinking of the almost mythical Wessex as a backdrop to Hardy’s concerns with contemporary misogyny, hypocrisy and class limitation).

There is an elegiac quality to The Lark Ascending, making it suitably fitting for remembrance. Its mournful folk strains convey a sense of painful, intangible loss where we know that we are losing or have lost something, but we’re not entirely sure what.In light of this, how else can we think about remembrance, and what can remembrance also include?

War is an attack on critical thinking. In 1914, Europe was heavily armed, and the powerful ruling elites, who had spent years acquiring arms and stealing land and resources across the world, needed little excuse to start blowing each other up. What they relied upon, however, were young, fit men who would do the fighting on their behalf. The propaganda campaigns across all the nations and alliances involved in the First World War were sustained and convincing. In Britain, for example, 2.4 million men volunteered to fight before conscription was introduced in 1916. Men from Britain’s colonial territories were also convinced/forced to join the war; for example, 10% of New Zealand’s 1.1 million population volunteered to join the fight in Europe, with 18,000 eventually losing their lives.[7] The war was presented in a very simplistic way: ‘we’ are good, ‘they’ are bad, and, as such, young men were encouraged to enlist to assert and defend a strong sense of nationalistic pride. The posters and adverts appealed to unambiguous xenophobia, a misguided sense of glory and heroism and the war was likened to a big, grand adventure.

We can gain a clear sense that war was marketed to the young, and it was undoubtedly the young who suffered in their millions. At no point were they actively encouraged to look beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and explore the history and complexity of the war: young people were just encouraged to get involved, for quite literally fear of missing out and for fear of being accused of cowardice. For all that many young people today are called ‘snowflakes’ for challenging the orthodoxies and traditions into which they have been born, at least they have been encouraged to explore contexts and perspectives beyond their own. In a world of ‘dodgy dossiers’ (the Iraq War was nothing if not a shining example of critical thinking being swept aside for the sake of power and posturing) and fake news, we need to be more careful than ever with the information we consume. We must learn to question the information and stories being delivered to us, especially when they are being presented to us with a motion towards objectivity, and not allow facts and opinions to become so hopelessly muddled. Remembrance and critical thinking must walk hand-in-hand so that we do not slip and slide down the murky paths of bigotry, vested interest and power into catastrophic violence.

War is an attack on all of humanity: the total number of deaths resulting from World War One is estimated at 20 million, which was divided into 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians.

During services of remembrance, we are told that we must remember all wars; however, what we think of as ‘war’ is, in itself, very limited. ‘War’ conjures up images of strategic military campaigns and operations, trench warfare, spitfires, tanks and the ideological aim of attacking some form of an aggressor. I think, however, that the conception of ‘war’ needs to be broadened much wider. In particular, I think we need to acknowledge the role of brute force and military violence in the form of colonial atrocities. There must be a space for acknowledgment of colonial barbarism in our collective Remembrance. The pillaging and theft of human beings, their land and their cultural identities from across Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and Americas at the hands of European soldiers must also be acknowledged as the acts of war that they are. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey is a national focus on Armistice Day, but what about the unknown millions who were killed and raped at the hands of soldiers when their countries were colonised and destroyed? If invading another country with weapons and arms, claiming it as your own, butchering and oppressing the people there isn’t an act of war, I don’t know what is. To add insult to grave injury, Remembrance is savagely whitewashed. What is rarely acknowledged is how many indigenous peoples fought in a European war, hundreds of miles away from their homes: 1 million Indian soldiers served in the British army; 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans were brought to Europe by the French; and 2200 Maori soldiers were in the New Zealand army, plus many more ethnicities. This was all whilst military campaigns and bombardments were conducted across Africa by the colonial powers to divert attention, money and resources away from the Western Front.[10] The contributions to the ‘war effort’ of Commonwealth and other former colonial countries cannot be acknowledged without also acknowledging that those very soldiers were victims of colonial and cultural war. Britain, in particular, is very reluctant to have a frank and honest discussion about atrocities committed in pursuit of ‘Empire’. If we are to remember all wars properly, we must cast our perspectives wider, beyond the trenches, over the seas to lands that Britain had absolutely no right to steal from others; to peoples who bore the scars of foreign soldiers.

Finally, there is always hope.  Even after witnessing British politics revealing itself  to be the sorry shit show that it is one week one from the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we can be better. Through proper mourning and grief work, through a concerted, meaningful practice of remembrance, we can touch upon the prospect of better future. Elevating symbols like the poppy without acknowledging the deeper ambivalence surrounding the fallout of war, simply will not help us to learn from the past to produce a better future: here, a greater appreciation and understanding of art will always help. All wars have to end with diplomacy and conversations where we actively seek resolution: remembrance, therefore, should bring awareness to those very things, before arms are hastily taken up to begin with. Instead of blindly following the traditions of remembrance, remembrance itself must be an action. More specifically, it must be an explicit action of thinking critically and compassionately: weighing up arguments and perspectives, developing historical fluency and taking responsibility for all military atrocities.

 

[1] ‘The Papers’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs/the_papers [accessed 19th November 2018].

[2] Additionally, a mere three days before Armistice Day, a report was published highlighting that 41% of children have seen adults bullying one another in the past six months. How can adults preach to child to not bully one another when the way in which adults relate to and speak to one another is wholeheartedly aggressive, disinterested and narrow-minded? ‘Bullying: Children point finger at adults’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46140135 [accessed: 18:35, Sunday 18th November 2018].

[3] Here I refer to the controversial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the British government’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia.

[4] The full order of service can be found here: https://www.westminster-abbey.org/media/5205/ww1-vigil-service.pdf

[5] The original 1914 composition of The Lark Ascending was written violin and piano. Williams later reconstructed the piece for an orchestra that premiered in 1920 and has become one of the most popular pieces of music of all time.

[6] I think there may be room here for discussion of the pastoral with Sigmund Freud’s conception of ‘melancholia’: ‘One feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either […] This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness’ from ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,  Volume XIV (1914-1916) p.245.

[7] https://ww100.govt.nz/history-guide [accessed 21:28, 18th November 2018].

[8] ‘Reperes’, http://www.centre-robert-schuman.org/userfiles/files/REPERES%20%E2%80%93%20module%201-1-1%20-%20explanatory%20notes%20%E2%80%93%20World%20War%20I%20casualties%20%E2%80%93%20EN.pdf [accessed 21:15, 18th November 2018].

[9] ‘Europe on the move: refugees and World War One’, Peter Gatrell, https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/refugees-europe-on-the-move# [accessed 19th November 2018].

[10] ‘In 1914, the whole of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, was under European rule and Great Britain and France controlled the two largest colonial empires’, Experiences of Colonial Troops, Santanu Das https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops [accessed 16:29, 19th November 2018].