This may be one open forum where the music comes first. What are we doing here? I'd like to help you understand, appreciate, the meaning of this particular artwork- Porgy and Bess. Now, when you ask the question, "What is a particular arwork saying to us; What does it mean?" Of course in all great art, there is multiple levels of meaning and I think it would actually be a service to us all if I mention 3 of them even though I want to spend most of our time on the third one- at least briefly the first 2.
There are 3 meaning to this particular artwork- Porgy and Bess.
The first level goes like this. Richard Crawford is a very prominent musicologist- he taught at the University of Michigan, he's written a lot about Gerschwin by the way. I read a very helpful interview with him recently in which somebody was asking him questions about Porgy and Bess and what it means. Of course there are a lot of technical and idealogical issues surrounding this piece of music. Technical issues are - you know this is not a musical, this is an opera - it's a sung dialogue, and there's been a lot of debate whether jazz is appropriate for opera. Crawford says something interesting. At one point, he stops the interview and says, "What I don't like is somebody judging a work strictly on technical or ideological grounds without actually experiencing it. Maybe one of the most beautiful things said about Porgy and Bess was said by Gerschwin himself to Ruben the night after the first rehearsal. He called Mumulien who was the opera stage director in the middle of the night, 2 in the morning and said, 'You know what? I can't sleep. I just found the music tonight so beautiful I can hardly believe I wrote it.' "
Crawford goes on and says, "If he at that point was able to stand outside of the thing... it wasn't a matter of ownership or pride, it was a matter of wonder. He was saying, holy smoke, where did this come from? To me... there's so much music that's exactly like this. Great music takes you to another region of your being. It's that experience. It's that transcendant experience."
Now, what is Crawford saying?
In great art, before you should ask the question, "What does it mean?" and then try to get an answer, first ask the question, "Is there any meaning in life at all?"
and you don't even have to wait for an answer because- it doesn't matter how discouraged you are, how much in dispair you are- in the presence of any great art there is a sense sometimes of joy, sometimes of wonder, but there's a sense that always comes through like this: there IS something worth standing for, there IS something worth fighting for, there IS something worth hoping in. It doesn't matter what the art is. Even if it's very harsh protest art, it's saying there's something worth fighting for. Or even if it's incredibly beautiful. What comes upon you at the first level of meaning is life is not a pile of spit; the world is not an accident. There is meaning, there is design. Of course Berstein says when he listens to Bethoveen, there's something that checks out of the universe. something that follows it's own laws, something that will never let us down... there's something. It doesn't matter what I believe in my head.
So, at the first level, didn't you notice that?
In the first level, way beneath your cognition, way beneath your intellect, great art always tells you that this world didn't happen by accident. There is a meaning, there is a hope, there is something worth fighting for, maybe even dying for.
So, at the first level, it tells us about that. There is meaning, right, wrong, truth. There's hope.
Now, the second level, is it tells about history and african-american experience (tim went into it, but it's really not that significant so i'll leave it out... )
Now, the third thing you need to know about Porgy and Bess is that it's a love story. The third thing it tells us about is love. Most of the synopsis says it's about "star-crossed lovers; a tragic love story"
But I want you to consider this. It is a counter point. There are lots of movies in the past decades that deal with "star-crossed lovers." Titanic. But Richard Crawford, in the same interview says that there is an american myth. The american myth of true love, of the true romantic love is a universal solvent- this will solve all of your problems, this will overcome all social barriers, this will overcome all injustice, this will overcome everything. True love, this is what you need.
And he says the myth of true love, the myth that there is such a thing, the myth that it's impervious, infallible, HAS to overcome everything; all barriers, all problems. He says that is the essence of ALL popular american culture practically. That any musical, any movie, any story that is presented to a mass audience in America the last 75 years, if it deviates from that, it doesn't do well. Americans believe it, americans want to believe it.
He says for example, the fantasy of boy gets girl is present in virtually every musical, and in every block buster movie you can think of for the last 75 years. He says in fact there's always a hero and heroine, and there's some barrier inbetween them that seems insurmountable- class barrier, family differences, personal character flaws, whatever... but in the end, somehow, they get through it. They break through it and they get perfect love. It doesn't mean that the movie or play has to end happily in order to perpetrate the myth. For example, in Westside story, even Maria and Tony have their perfect love- it doesn't last, but they get it. For almost 2 centuries in America now, audiences demand that perfect love or they turn away from the story. And he goes on to point out, for example in Westside Story, of course it seems to end tragically. Are they star-crossed lovers? well, yes and no. Because remember that moment in the back of that dress shop, where they sing that song, "we are one, even death won't part us now." our love has overcome racial barriers, our love has overcome racism, our love has overcome class barriers, and now, even death won't overcome it. And Crawford points, they get it: perpetrates the myth. And he goes onto say, since the late 1960's, artists who produce musicals have refused to go that way, and as a result, they will never, ever ever ever get the amount of success that the older movies and musicals get. Because Americans believe in the myth of true love- that's it's a universal solvent. That individual romantic love, if you get it, it will overcome everything. It doesn't matter injustice, it doesn't matter race, class barriers, it doesn't matter, it will overcome everything. It's true happiness.
Now, what you have in Porgy and Bess is an American anti-myth... now, I didn't say an anti-American myth... no, i didn't say that. what you have is a counter point, or an anti-myth to the American myth.
What you have here is that natural evil, social injustice and evil, and personal character flaws, make perfect love essentially impossible.
it's not Titanic.... sure at the end he goes away after saving her on the raft... but they had it, and they overcome all class barriers. That's not what you have in Porgy and Bess.
Natural evil, social evil and personal character flaws make perfect love an impossibility.
Let me show you those 3 things.
First of all, there's an incredible irony in that song that was sung. The irony is that the mother is singing over the child and says, "Daddy's rich, and your mother's good looking, and since we're both standing by you, you're going to have a great life."
Now, during the opera, the father of that baby, Jake, his fishing boat is caught in a hurricane, and Clara, the mother runs to try and save him and they both drown. There's a place near the end of the opera where Bess now is taking care of the little orphan... and she sings the lullaby now of course, because this is the lullaby that she heard her mother sing, and this little child has enormous obstacles to have any sort of fulfilling life, and why? It was just a hurricane, it was a natural disaster; a natural evil got in the way.
Secondly, social alienation. Now, white people want to believe that individual romantic love can overcome all race, class barriers, social injustice; if you just love one another enough, we can do it. Titanic's all about here's a poor boy and a rich girl; we've overcome it all through true love... it can be done. we can get past all that prejudice. White people want to believe that corporate injustice isn't all that bad. That racial barriers aren't all that bad. That if you really try hard, that if you really believe, that if you really are determined, if you really love enough, work hard enough, you can overcome all these things.
Why do people want to believe that?
Because people don't want to believe what a head start we have. Just walking into a store, not having an accent. We don't want to admit the head start we have looking for jobs. We don't want to admit how structural problems keep us out. And this play tells us that structural problems really do keep us out.
Porgy is not able to get Bess because he's poor and because he's crippled. He's not beautiful, and he's not rich. And he gets her when she's desperate. Because you see, nobody will take her in. When Crown leaves, the women won't take her in because she's disrespectful, men won't take her in because she's tainted- she belonged to someone else. So, finally she comes into him. Eventually though, she's seduced by the idea of the high life, by money.
you know, the way culture works the structural injustices and iniquities of culture are not things that you can just say, "well, they're really not that bad."
One of the great ironies of that lullaby "your daddy's rich and your mother's good looking..."
isn't it great that we don't live in that place? where it's important that men are well off and women look good- isn't great that we don't live in that world? isn't it wonderful that we've overcome all that? We are not seduced by them, we are not controlled by them, we're not manipulated by them.
Of course we are; it's astounding.
If you automatically elimate people as your possible mate if they don't meet your standards, there is no possibility for an unexploited relationship, and you are being controlled by stereotypes.
And what Porgy and Bess tells us, what reality tells us, about the American fairy tale myth is that social evil, structural evil has a devestating effect on your possibilities of true love; it is not just something that you can win through.
So there's natural evils, there's social evil... but what ultimately dooms us all is the sin in the human heart.
Here's where people who get upset with stereotypes, get upset.
First of all, Bess, she doesn't go with Porgy until she's desperate, because after all, he's a cripple, he doesn't have money. And she continually is attracted.. she can't help herself, she's attracted to the power of her old boyfriend even though he's a violent man; she can't stop herself. And the stereotype is woman. She's emotional and they don't like this stereotype. And they also don't like the stereotype of Porgy.
What dooms the relationship is, yes, Bess' weakness. You can't understand this song until you study Genesis 3.
In fact, what the tempter does is, he tempts Bess in the garden- out in this beautiful environment where they're having this picnic, and the tempter says to the woman in Genesis 3 is, first of all:
1) Questions God's Word.
He says, has God REALLY said you're going to die if you eat from that tree? It ain't necessarily so says the serpent. You will not surely die!
2) Twisting of God's Word.
The serpent doesn't just contradict God's Word, but twists it. And one thing that is so intriguing about "it ain't necessarily so" is there is one part where the serpent is describing the gospel, but it isn't necessarily true.
He says, in order to get into Heaven, don't shoot a seven (craps), live clean, don't have no fault- oh, i believe it, but i take it with a grain of salt.
So then, what's the gospel?
if you want to get into Heaven, be good.
And so what you have is, you have a tempter. And the tempter comes to the woman, and she eats.
SO you say, well, you see, the problem is the woman.
Porgy looks like the hero, but here's the problem with Porgy. Porgy is satisfied because why? because he's got his woman.
Before he had his woman, he wasn't happy with God: why did He make me a cripple? He wasn't happy with children- he grouched at them. And one of the things that comes out in the book Porgy is that when Bess comes into his life, suddenly now, he's happy with everything. He's nice to children, he's praying to God- everything is fine now- in other words, Porgy believed in the American myth.
Porgy says, "my life is crap; I am nothing- but if i would get HER... if I would get this beautiful woman... if SHE would be mine... then FINALLY my life would mean something."
What that means is, he has made her, his Savior- he has made her, the integral part of his life, and if you do that to a fallible human being, you're doomed to disaster.
And ultimately, because she has become his Savior- the one non-negotiable thing he's got to have to be happy in life- he kills for her... which is the reason why he loses her.
What you have is the ultimate refutation of the American myth that some how the thing that's going to make you happy if you can get it, is get that one person, is you won't get that person because of natural, social, personal evil... but IF you do, and you believe that that one true love will be the thing that will make your life right, you'll destroy her/him... you'll destroy the relationship- it has the seeds of it's own destruction in it.
So, where does this bring us?
We saw that there's an American myth. that if you get that one true love, your life has made it. And Americans, over the years, have rejected any story that does not give them the myth they want.
But secondly, Porgy and Bess is beautiful, poignant, realistic, powerful, unconsciously, works off the biblical understanding of sin, temptation, human corruption, and of the brokenness of reality in being.
Here's the last thing I'd like to say.
The way it ends. The way it ends is very intriguing.
He's not only been in jail for a week for the murder of Crown (her ex boyfriend), or rather, for the contemptive court because he refused to identify the body. So after she leaves, he comes back and because he's had some successful games of craps, he has bought her a new dress, and he comes back and shows everyone the new dress and he finds out that she's gone. Where has she gone to? New York.
And here's how it ends.
He says, how far is New York? Where is it?
it's up North.
Well, how far is it?
It's way past the custom house.
The custom house was just blocks north, but for him that was a long way because he was a cripple. And the only way he used to get around was in a goat cart, that he would kneel in and he had a little goat that would move him around and therefore he never went more than blocks from where he was.
So he said, how far is it?
They said, 1000 miles.
So this is how it ends.
He gets the goat cart, he gets in it, and he says, I'm off to get her. I'm going to take her out of that heroin slavery, I'm going to get her away from the man who's going to make her life miserable, I'm going to REDEEM her, i'm going to take her, i'm going to find her, and we're going to be happy again.
And he goes off singing a song, and there's this joy at the end... but you know that he's never going to do it. It's not cynical. It doesn't deconstruct the idea of romantic love, in the end, it still says, "but there's got to be!"
Look what it's done to Porgy, it's made him into a better man. He'll do anything to get her back. So there's a deconstruction of the myth, and some affirmation.
Here's my opinion.
I read Porgy and Bess like the Old Testament.
Even though the Gerschwins weren't doing this consciously, Porgy and Bess IS a parable of the Old Testament. Because you go to the book of Ezekiel and Hosea, and the book of Isaiah, you will see that God in the Bible, the Biblical God, creates us, not just to be subjects of a king, and not just to be sheep under His shepard, but He creates us to be His SPOUSE. He continually calls us His bride, and that He is our husband. He wants to have this incredible love relationship with us- He wants to have a relationship of intimacy. And it's all the way through.
Like in Isaiah 54:
"Sing, burst into joy, burst into song, O my people," says God. "For your Maker is your HUSBAND. No longer will they call you deserted for as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you."
And you go through the prophets and the whole Old Testament, here's what you see: God creates human beings to not just have them serve Him, but to enter into a love relationship, but the tempter comes, and questions God's Word, and seduces us away- that's what the text says. And yet God continually says, I will not give you up.
One of the most astounding Porgy and Bess stories in all of the Old Testament is the book of Hosea in which God tells the prophet Hosea, I want you to take in that woman Gomer, she's a prostitute, she's an adultrous woman and she's filled with all sorts of emotional, social and sexual weaknesses.... I want you to take her in and make her your wife, even though she's going to CONTINUALLY let you down. And everytime she lets you down, I want you to go back and love her and I want you to forgive her and I want you to bring her back.
And Hosea says to God, "WHY?"
and God says, "So at LEAST, you will know how I feel about my relationship with the human race."
And so over, and over and over again, God says, "I'm not going to let you go".... .... but then we run away... and then we rebel.
that's the story of the whole Old Testament- all the Hebrew Scriptures! And then the Old Testament ends. Because near the end, God says in Ezekiel 16 near the end, "I saw you thrown in the field, but I took you in"
isn't it like Porgy and Bess? Talking about us, His people?
"and when you grew up, I adorned you, and I made you my bride. But you trusted in your beauty and you used your fame to become a prostitute and you went to others"
but at the very, very end, He, the Sovereign Lord says at the end of Ezekiel 16:
"I will remember you, I will not deal with you as you deserve, I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, I will make atonement for you, and then you will remember Me."
But that's not how the book ends- very much how the opera ends.
Here's a man who says, "in spite of what you've done to me, i'm going to find her- i'm going to redeem her. I don't care what it's going to take, I might die in the attempt, but i don't want her to live a life of slavery, I don't want her to be enslaved by someone who doesn't really love her- I am the only husband for her and i'm going to go do it."
so he goes off, willing to sacrifice everything. you and I know that he's going to fail. But that's how the Old Testament ends.
But, what's the answer?
The great thing about the Bible is it doesn't end there. And what the Bible tells us is that God came to earth- this is the Christian Gospel- as a poor man, and we're told in Ephesians 5, "Husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church, and GAVE Himself for her."
and so, He came as a poor man, and He was also willing to suffer for us, and He was willing to do anything to redeem us, and that's the Christian message.
Now, i'm not here to expound all that, explain all that, defend all that, but what i'm here to show you is that I believe that the Gerschwins, who would have been VERY emersed in the Hebrew Scriptures, unconsciously were working off that canvas. And so what you have on the one hand is NO, sentimental love is what you really need to save you, no.
But not a cynisim that says you don't need romantic love, but rather, there MUST be a love, and answer to the deepest need of the heart that says that I need a romantic love that will fulfill me.
The answer of the Christian, whole Bible, both Old and New Testament is there IS a romantic love that will satisfy you utterly but your true lover can not be any ONE individual human being. It's got to be the one who came, as the poor man, and gave Himself for you. Once you taste that though, then oddly enough, you can get into human relationships without making them into idols. And get into more deep, satisfying love relationships than you ever thought would be possible otherwise, if you were living out the American myth.
So, that's it.
And that's the only way I can get the affirmation of Porgy and Bess, and yet the realism of Porgy and Bess and hold it together in my own heart- I'm saying that as a Christian, I'm saying that as a pastor, you may have another way to do it. But this is one take on the meaning of Porgy and Bess that tells us about the reality that we are NOT here by accident, that there IS someone who made us. It talks about the reality of social injustice but it also talks about, points to a romantic love that IS going to eventually be the thing that fulfills us. Though in the opera, we can't quite put our finger on it.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
This is long for sure...but I felt it hit a chord in me, that I haven't felt in awhile. A transcript from a sermon Dr. Timothy J. Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NY. You can buy the mp3 here.