Thursday, February 7, 2008

Interpretation as Doctrine

There is a moment in the central adagio of Balanchine’s Diamonds where the ballerina is in fourth position on pointe and then tilts her head back ever so slightly, places her right palm against the back of her head, and extends her left arm parallel to her upturned sight-line. For two decades, this pose became the source of endless speculation, with people suspecting that it gave hints of the mystery at the heart of this pas de deux. It proved that Balanchine was writing in movement the story of the chaste goddess of the night, Diana, on a hunt, showing her bow – the jutting right elbow – and her arrow – her extended left arm. Or it revealed that Diamonds was Balanchine’s take on A mon seul desír: a maiden walking in the woods, unaware of all around her, but so enticing that a unicorn would lie in her lap – see, the ballerina’s hand at the back of her head is a position of lady-like authority from the 19th century ballet Raymonda, and the extended left arm is the unicorn’s horn. Or it was similar to the arm positions that the trapped maiden Odette makes and “Diamonds” was Balanchine’s Swan Lake fantasy with a happy ending.

And then Suzanne Farrell, the originator of the ballerina role, wrote about the origin of the pose in her autobiography: she was standing on pointe, and since Balanchine had not told her what to do with her arms at that moment, she decided, “oh, I'll model the beautiful headpiece Karinska (the costume designer) is going to make for me.” Balanchine didn’t disapprove of the unorthodox epaulement, so she repeated it several times and it remained in the ballet, to be debated over by a whole generation of critics and balletomanes. And one can see immediately, once knowing this, that this is the type of glam-girl pose a 20-year-old (as Farrell was at the time) would strike to show off her beautiful headpiece – slightly petulant and haughty, meant to draw attention to her face and head. Balanchine hadn’t created that pose and Farrell wasn’t thinking of any high-brow notions when she tossed her head and arms that way; it probably could have been any number of poses at that moment without disturbing the ‘meanings’ within this non-narrative ballet.

In one sense, the actual reason behind this pose doesn’t matter – what matters is the meaning the audience draws from it in the context of the ballet; in other words, what matters is what the audience feels. But I think it’s also a good example of our tendency to see greater meaning in moments that are entirely practical – the romanticism that Arturo speaks of. Reading a forum for Catholic traditionalists several weeks ago, I was struck by one thread about the ‘meaning’ behind each part of the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite (as it is now known), linking each part with the Passion narrative. Ironically, one of the few religious books my grandmother owned also had text explaining the ‘meaning’ of what the priest was doing, and unsurprisingly, the ‘meaning’ of various parts of the Mass differed from the descriptions given on the forum. All of that is fine and dandy, but I noticed the tendency to treat the lack of these exact moments as the reason the Novus Ordo was invalid – it didn’t show the Passion like it should, the priest HAS to kneel three times here to show that Christ fell three times, etc. It took something, that from my reading, was a late medieval inclination to provide explanations for events in the Mass in terms of the Passion narrative, and turned it into dogma, part of the faith once delivered.

Another example was with a family member, who thought that the sanctus/sacring bells HAD to be rung during the Mass, because that was the way, according to the Psalms, that the angels and the Holy Spirit knew that Christ was about to be present on the altar. No sanctus bells, no Holy Spirit, and no angels. Sanctus bells of course have an entirely practical and earthly purpose – they are rung at the epiclesis and at the elevation of the Host and Chalice. When the priest is speaking softly in Latin and at a distance (if viewable) facing ad orientem, it would indeed be difficult to know when the former moment had arrived without the ringing of bells, a non-noxious attention-getter. And of course, at a church with side altars, the congregation knows when the Host is elevated in one part of the church through the ringing of the bells. However, a pious nun, probably hoping to enrich her students’ participation in the Mass, had taught my relative that the angels came to earth at those moments, and the Holy Spirit wouldn’t know to come down without the bells. Such thoughts are worthy of meditation and remind one of what is occurring in the Mass, but they are not part of the deposit of faith and were not intended to be, and their lack certainly does not automatically render one practice (or liturgy) superior to another.

I also notice that this tendency towards romantically treating moments for meditation in liturgy as if they are Tradition seems to be especially prevalent among converts and those who grew up in a Protestant milieu. I wonder if they don’t know from where to get tradition (with a small t). All tradition must be Tradition, because one has never really seen tradition, in action? Everything that happens during the liturgy must have a separate grander purpose than what we see/hear that is filled with rich meaning, because we lack an organic sense of how to be religious in our lives? I grew up in an area of the country where everyone attends Novus ordo Masses and we also have elaborate, saint-filled Churches, Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s altars, processions on Palm Sunday and Corpus Christi (even around the whole town!), St. Rosalie Festivals, white-washing of tombs for All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, blessings of the fishermen’s boats, etc. Perhaps the French in southern LA, feeling superior to American Protestants, never quite capitulated to Protestantism the way it seems many Irish and Italian immigrants did within a few generations, letting their traditions die. Perhaps it’s just New Orleans Creoles and Cajuns being particularly ornery when it comes to their own French and Italian-derived Catholic traditions. And while there’s plenty of longing, it isn’t “oh, we need rediscover what it is to be Catholic in this way that has been lost to us….” You just pray, participate in the activities and live your life. The way for those in southeastern Louisiana doesn’t have to be the way everyone else does it – never has been – but it also doesn’t necessarily have to be expressions from the past treated as apostolic practice.