Only in Manhattan does one celebrate achievements such as successfully spreading possessions across four small pieces of real estate (two offices, one storage unit and one apartment), rather than simply having a single piece of real estate that can fit everything you own. Over the last few weeks, my partner and I have undertaken the task of consolidating the libraries of two bibliophiles. After building countless cardboard boxes, filling them to maximum capacity and moving them out, we have started to see the intended result: more space in our apartment. Richard oversaw the removal of 16 boxes of LP’s from our apartment into storage, while I reorganized some 400 books recently moved into my new office.
It’s no secret that spatial economy is a nuisance, as the contents of vast quantities of literature are in no want of space in the human mind. After all, for many reading is as valuable as practical experience, as volumes of detailed chronologies or dry analyses form the bases of entire worldviews and perspectives. The permanence of paper offers the opportunity for continued experience with each and every read, potentially altering the context for how one might view the world. Just as we change, the words we read change with us to a degree.
Hence, what one chooses to keep nearby in a library can be telling about one’s values or even their stage in life. Richard’s copy of Hesiod’s Theogony sits one stretch of an arm away from our couch, wedged between Homer and Pindar, while Ovid’s Metamorphoses rests between Thucydides and Plato in my office. For me these volumes remain insightful into human nature, but more practically, because of their sustained relevance over the centuries, they can act as cultural dictionaries when encountering an obscure reference in painting or a piece of a music.
Several weeks ago, I interrupted the packing flow to find my copy of Metamorphoses before I moved it into my new office. It was needed it in order to look up what Ovid might have to say about the figure Astraea, who came up in a rehearsal of a previously unperformed oratorio by Antonio Giannettini (1648-1721). Being the only reference of its type in Giannettini’s account of the life of Moses, La creatione de’ magistrati di Mosè, it was safe to assume that the reference was not without significance.
At first, it seemed that Ovid had little to nothing to offer on Astraea, only offering that she was the last of the immortals sent to live among men in the Golden Age, departing at the end of the Bronze Age and the start of the Iron Age.
Piety was dead, and virgin Astraea, last of all the immortals to depart, herself abandoned the blood-drenched earth. The harsh iron age was last. Immediately every kind of wickedness erupted into this age of baser natures: truth, shame and honour vanished; in their place were fraud, deceit, and trickery, violence and pernicious desires. And now harmful iron appeared, and gold more harmful than iron. War came, whose struggles employ both, waving clashing arms with bloodstained hands. They lived on plunder: friend was not safe with friend, relative with relative, kindness was rare between brothers. Husbands longed for the death of their wives, wives for the death of their husbands. Murderous stepmothers mixed deadly aconite, and sons inquired into their father’s years before their time. (Ovid, Metamorphoses I)
From this reference alone, it was hard to figure out what exactly Astraea’s place might be in Giannettini’s oratorio. But as I perused the libretto, a few other things stood out. First, though the oratorio is supposed to be about Moses, roughly half the arias are sung by his father-in-law Jethro, whose role in Moses’ life receives little mention beyond the 18th chapter of the Book of Exodus. Second, the oratorio’s sequence of events does not include any of the major milestones we would usually associate with Moses, such as the Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, or the receipt of the Law on Mount Sinai. Rather, Giannettini’s oratorio goes into great detail about a period of Moses’ life after the flight from Egypt and before the giving of the law, thus focusing on the uncomfortable decisions which Moses had to make about his leadership of the Hebrews, lest he become a tyrant.
If one reads carefully into the book of Exodus, it’s apparent that Moses wasn’t terribly popular with the Hebrews once he got them into the desert. In Exodus 15-17, it’s said that food and water were scarce, invading tribes wrought havoc, and as of yet, there was no central law or governance apart from the leadership of Moses himself. For a people supposedly defined by their relationship with their God, it would appear they had fallen under a personal dictatorship led by Moses.
The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:1-3)
From the oratorio’s outset, Moses tells his wife and all who would listen that he has been entrusted with Astraea’s scales in order to divine the fate of his people, and that he perhaps fears the loss of control. But later Jethro warns Moses that if he does not exercise good judgment but proves himself a tyrant, Astraea will have her vengeance:
But beware, if greedy instinct prevails in a Minister:
Astrea shall bewail her laws by tyrant’s interests twisted,
her perfect balances turned to basest use—
for weighing gold, instead of works;
she’ll see her sword with ruined temper,
and with dulled blade.
What corner of a venal heart
can fail to brighten
at the lethal shine of lucre’s light,
if by a wicked tribunal
Reason is outdone
and the Law is made by dealing,
for guilty spoils of vile treasure.
(Giannettini/Giardini, La creatione de’ magistrati di Mosè, Part I)
In Giannettini’s own time, the concept of Astraea’s return figured heavily in art and literature, though not in his native Italy. On the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, John Dryden published his panegyric poem Astraea Redux, praising the return of the Crown in the form of Charles II following the dissolution of Oliver Cromwell’s authoritarian regime. So distant in the past is the English revolution that one can easily forget the despair and desolation which accompanied Cromwell’s theocracy. Travel was restricted, music and art largely banned, food was rationed, all giving rise to widespread religious belief that apocalypse was nigh. The success of Dryden’s poem was not in its political or philosophical praise of the monarchy in its own right, but in its reflection of the widespread belief that the Stuart monarchy could turn back the clock.
For his long absence Church and State did groan;
Madness the pulpit, faction seized the throne:
Experienced age in deep despair was lost,
To see the rebel thrive, the loyal cross’d:
Youth that with joys had unacquainted been,
Envied gray hairs that once good days had seen:
We thought our sires, not with their own content,
Had, ere we came to age, our portion spent. (John Dryden, Astraea Redux)
But these events not only loomed large in England, but in Modena, where Giannettini was employed as a court musician by Mary’s brother, Francesco II d’Este. Mary and Francesco themselves were no strangers to the dangers of imprudence and ill judgment. In 1597, the Este family was deposed from their regency in Ferrara, and forced to flee the famous Castello Estense to Modena in a political scuffle. One can’t help but speculate the extent to which Giannettini’s characters in La creatione de’ magistrati di Mosè – Moses, Zipporah and Jethro – were literal allegories of James II, Mary and the patriarchal Church. Upon the flight of Mary of Modena to France after the Glorious Revolution, Francesco II declared a period of mourning, commissioning dozens of oratorios to be performed, fostering reflection on demise of faith in the face of human greed. But most interestingly, much like Giannettini’s Mosaic oratorio, these oratorios also blend Classical mythology with episodes from the Old Testament to illustrate those themes which not only recur in the Bible, but human history.
The concept of “Western Culture” rides all too easily on a high horse, it can often seem. Frames of reference naturally change, from age to age and place to place, and in a multi-cultural city like New York, one would hope that there would be openness to other ideas and cultural vantage points that were perhaps alien to our parents, or even to ourselves. But such is the nature of the evolution of ideas that living philosophies and religions don’t necessarily have to die so much as be reframed and recontextualized. After all, Greek and Roman religion turned into Greek and Roman “mythology” over the course of centuries, providing fruit for artists and writers to pick when other frames of reference fail or merit augmentation. The Book of Exodus too, once a prescriptive text and a literal tale of a nation’s simultaneous deliverance and strife is now largely a polemical tome, though perhaps out of fashion because of Judeo-Christian ideals are in this moment likewise passé and yet too close to associations with America’s religious right. And yet, the tales of the past can continue to inform and remind us not only about the characters embedded in the stories, but about subsequent events and squabbles in which the antiquity’s was one prism of many through which the world was viewed. It can bring art and music of the past to life, making them relevant to our own time and place.
If you’re like me, you will have been disturbed by subversion of the American Presidency from a position of leadership into a tool of extortion. Whatever your views on the border wall are, it’s hard to deny that Trump’s determination to take government wages hostage would be laughable were it not so economically disastrous for hundreds of thousands of families. Such is magnanimity of error of judgment and callous disregard for the well-being of ordinary American citizens, that one cannot help but wonder if we are about to hear the Republican Party’s swan song. After all the excitement about 2016 election, and the conviction that the American Left had truly failed America, I’m convinced that the events of the last four weeks will cast a longer shadow than any investigation about Russian collusion, or any horrible comment about women, immigrants or the vulnerable. Whether we like it or not, Trump’s dishonesty can be twisted to seem like character flaws, and he certainly would not be the first liar in public office. But Trump’s capacity for vindictive pride has officially outshone that of any other politician I have seen in my short lifetime. Of course, quite a bit can happen between now and 2020, but it would seem that a new standard for unethical leadership has been set.
Again and again in history and literature, the decisions about leadership and communication directly affect a leader’s success. Moses had the good wisdom to listen to advice and resign his authority, electing magistrates to implement the law before he was deposed. James II did not, and faced a rebellion which not only saw his permanent expulsion to France, but the legal suppression of Catholicism in England until 1829. One can argue for against their respective political enterprises, as in the end both men sought to establish harsh and inflexible theocracies. But regardless of any political stance, the stakes of political action act like pendula, swinging back with the same force with which they were set them in motion. In this regard there is no better example than Ovid’s fate after Metamorphoses, composed over period of time during which Ovid fell out of public favor. In Book I, it is clear that Ovid is not only confident in his status as a poet, but in his own stature in the Roman Empire, comparing its fortitude to that of the Gods themselves. But by Book XV, written not long before his expulsion from Rome to the Black Sea, one can see the cracks forming in the Roman imperial mythology. Before concludes with brief and insincere praise of Augustus and his father Julius Caesar, he inserts a lengthy prophecy attributed to the figure Pythagoras. It speaks not of mathematical perfection or impermeability, but the ease at which the mighty can fall.
This let me further add, that Nature knows
No steadfast station, but, or ebbs, or flows:
Ever in motion; she destroys her old,
And casts new figures in another mold.
Ev’n times are in perpetual flux, and run,
Like rivers from their fountain, rolling on,
For time, no more than streams, is at a stay;
The flying hour is ever on her way:
The golden age, to silver was debased:
To copper that; our metal came at last.
The face of places, and their forms, decay;
And that is solid Earth, that once was sea:
Seas in their turn retreating from the shore,
Make solid land, what ocean was before;
And far from strands are shells of fishes found,
And rusty anchors fixed on mountain-ground:
And what were fields before, now washed and worn
By falling floods from high, to valleys turn,
And crumbling still descend to level lands;
And lakes, and trembling bogs, are barren sands.
And the parched desert floats in streams unknown;
wondering to drink of waters not her own.
Here Nature living fountains opes; and there
Seals up the wombs, where living fountains were;
Or earthquakes stop their ancient course, and bring
Diverted streams to feed a distant spring.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses XV, translation attributed to John Dryden)
One wonders how long it will take the Republican Party to realize that unless they ditch Trump, Astraea will not only leave, but return with an axe to grind. Whether you agree with members of my generation or not, they possess a level of vitriol and anger commensurate with the assault on practice of politics under this administration. As the Right continues to move even more to the right, so too does the left pull in the opposite direction. Like Ovid, the Republican Party’s actions put them at risk of not only taking second place in 2020, but of being violently excised from future political discourse. It would be a pity to see the advent of nothing but a political mirror of the inflexibility that has come the characterize the presidency as of late.