- Sick with Passion
Driving east from the Auvergne you may chance upon La Chaise-Dieu, a charming village where a very acceptable cafe confronts the fortress-like Abbatiale de St Robert across the village square. The church itself is an imposing monument to the ephemeral glory of the Avignon Pope Clement VI, but its most extraordinary feature is a fresco in the aisle to the left of the choir. Called the Danse Macabre, it depicts death as a sequence of skeletons, each of which beckons, pleads with, consoles, or compels its many victims—young and old, rich and poor, exalted or mean—toward their inevitable end. At times the skeleton’s posture is sinister and threatening, at others, as with children, it seems to turn away, as if to shield them from its fearful aspect. The skeletons seem to catch the movement of a single dancer as they select one partner after another, taking the life of each in a graceful though ghastly movement.
The fresco depicts the Black Death—art inspired by disease and contagion. But even if you were as innocent of history as the typical American tourists you would confront in the fresco the undeniable image of death, and the caprice of its visitation, a thought contrasting strangely with the enduring granite of the church. Your experience may be enriched by history and lead you to moralize on the contrast [End Page 155] between the pomp and grandeur of the papal builder and the fresco’s depiction of the vanity of human wishes. But it would be a jarring note if some know-it-all in the company of viewers were to lecture for all to hear on the transmission and symptoms of pasteurella pestis. That is another story, and an interesting one, but not here and now.
And so it is, if not so abrasively, with a recent book by Linda and Michael Hutcheon on desire, disease, and death in opera. They hope to shed new light, by combining literary analysis and the medical theory of disease and contagion, on the themes and purposes of opera, or certain operas anyway. Somehow the passages on mycobacterium tuberculosis, treponema pallidum, and vibrio cholerae, together with graphic descriptions of the symptoms caused by these micro-organisms, and an accompanying photograph of syphilitic gummæ seem intrusive, just as talk about the etiology and the pathology of the plague strikes a discordant note as we look upon the Danse Macabre in wonder and fear. The Hutcheons, a husband and wife team who practice, respectively, medicine and literary criticism, tell the reader they are opera lovers. I hope their affection is not prompted only by infection.
But why shouldn’t medicine and its history be relevant to literary, artistic, or musical creation? Think here of a question Wittgenstein asks in Zettel (paragraph 610): “Why should there not be a psychological regularity to which no physiological regularity corresponds? If this upsets our concept of causality then it is high time it was upset.” He did not mean to say that it would not be surprising if someone talked and acted and looked like a person but turned out to have an empty skull. But he did mean surely that talk about human projects and emotions is complete as it stands; what is going on in the neurons and what busy microbes are doing are other stories. Literature is about human projects, the skill or clumsiness with which they are pursued, the responses to success and failure, achievement and frustration. Opera, which, ever since someone had the idea of putting story to song, raided literary invention for its subject matter, is the same. Heroes and villains may of course be expected to be vulnerable to the various vicissitudes of life. Diseases may lay them low, as well as passing trains. But disease enters their stories to delay or frustrate or put period to their projects, not as new characters on the stage. If you read about the death of Ivan Illych and come away dissatisfied because Tolstoy failed to identify the...