And then I savour the subtle
longing in their eyes
when, from my visible charms,
they guess at the beauty concealed.
This onrush of desire
It delights me, it delights me.--From Puccini's La Boheme (Musetta), libretto Luigi Illica en Giuseppe Giacosa. Translation: William Fense Weaver
We went to La Boheme at Covent Garden last night. It was a true gift from my wife (who generally finds nineteenth century music insufferable). It was a warm Summer evening, and after a day of grading all I wanted to do is sit in the garden and eat crackers with cheese (with honey). My wife has been suffering from migraines, which made me uneasy about the crowds in town. Besides my concern, and modest guilt about my lack of gratitude, I was sad to miss the Brazilians play. But when we grabbed a quick bite of pizza, my wife spotted a copy of Lampedusa's The Leopard (recall) in the window frame next to the bar area. It was clearly put there, with fake nonchalance, part of the restaurant's marketing. I took it as a good omen.
I had never been inside before, and after an appreciative look at the new atrium we found our way to the main hall. While nothing beats an opera staged in an ancient ruin -- my dad introduced me to opera in Veroná's arena when I was a doubting fifteen year old --, I love houses that keep the audience close to the stage and packed up high. Before I eased into the music, I had a moment of anxiety about the effect of the pungent smell from all the perfume on my wife.
It was a simple and aesthetically tasteful, (and given the bohemian subject matter) perhaps too tasteful, production. The audience, too polite--I missed the rowdy Italian commentary. The stage, during the second act in Quartier Latin, showed signs of shops that echoed a sanitized image of Parisian storefronts to be found in the streets outside of Covent Garden; on our way I had noticed that the Balthazar Bistro had been franchised to London. On our way home, we bumped into the homeless. Seeing the stage design I wanted to tell my wife about how we would get free steak frites at midnight from the bartender at Balthazars on Spring street because one of my college housemates would bake their bread.
I have quoted from the show-shopping moment in Musetta's great comic scene (sung marvelously in an upbeat waltz** by an athletic and hysterically funny Vlada Borovko). La Boheme figures longing poets and philosophers without much to say. (I learned a new term for such philosophers, they are bearish.) A disquieting recognition took hold of me. Even in the rare moments of self-knowledge, they fail to act on their ideals or desires.
The action of the second scene takes place inside Café Momus (while writing this post I was pleased to discover it really existed once). Momus is the god of satire; but I suddenly remembered, from researching Hume's interest in Lucian, that Lucian presents Momus as a xenophobe who postures frank directness in the name of a kind of common sense morality (indeed, see here). I made a mental note to re-read Lucian soon.
In the version I saw, Musetta is standing on the tables at Café Momus, outside and inside crowds, are watching her every movement. Musetta adores being the subject of other people's desire. Earlier in the scene, the insatiability of rather sterile desire for commodities -- personified by Christmas shopping --had been thoroughly mocked. But the desire for Musetta is made to feel vital, even (ahh) inspiring.
Since Amia Srinivasan's now famous piece, I have been made to feel my meekness on the politics of desire (recall). In consumer culture desire is shaped to secure and directed at the profitable fruits of commodification. This much is familiar enough. But because the end of desire is thought in terms of (impersonal) goods, subjects of desire are often left out of the equation (or made to appear gendered [Kate Mann is very good on this in her Down Girl] passive, submissive, attentive and malleable). To be the subject of unwanted desire is unpleasant, and often worse.
But to be the agent and shaper of welcome desire may be thrilling and empowering. I don't deny there is a petty version of this that is a needy even narcissistic desire for celebrity which follows from self-loathing or worse. This focuses attention on dazzling surface properties to disguise the emptiness within.
But there is another kind which redirects attention -- as Musetta proudly notes -- from the surface to hidden qualities. This other kind, which, in the eternal overflowing now, it's its own reward because (as Spinoza -- acquiescentia in se ipso sit-- noted) it may instantiate a vibrant self-acceptance.*