Blog Post

A Night at the Opera

In a talk at Stanford that I listened to here, Gayatri Spivak warned that literature departments were turning into opera. Coming from someone as melodramatically operatic as Spivak, it might not be apparent at first that she means that as the meanest of put downs, where “opera” stands in for “irrelevant” (the nice version) and “passive collaborator” (the Frankfurt School version).

At least I think that’s what she means: I’m never really sure I know what Spivak says (which is part of what I like about her; like it or not, her writing puts you on the edge). Anyway, I thought the opera line was worth trying to sort out a little. So I went to the opera to find out what happens there.

Full disclosure: I have inhaled opera before. I am not, though, an “opera lover”—that is, I rarely feel transported or moved by what is happening onstage, which is always bordering on the stupid. I feel about opera the way I feel about Van Halen: the songs are catchy and fun, and every once in a while they become so ridiculous that something genuinely, emotionally, intellectually moving happens: “This is home...this is mean street.” You know, that is so true!

Also, if anyone were ever born to act in a Mozart opera, it is David Lee Roth.

Toronto has a big, shiny new opera house, complete with fancy staircase, polished wood, and lots of glass. At intermission you can buy wine and drink it in a glass made of glass. The acoustics, I’m told, are excellent. All of which is to say that the first problem is that literary criticism is in absolutely no danger of turning into opera. Sadly, no one feels the need to dress up to go to a Spivak panel, though I hereby promise to wear a tux to MLA if someone else promises to wear a prom dress. And though the English Department at the University of Toronto is in a nice enough building, it’s not nearly as nice as the new opera house. Opera, like heavy metal, is a strange fetish that people seem willing to spend vast amounts of money on. If only that were true of literary criticism. Before I get to the mean critique of opera as culture-industry collaborator, then, it is crucial to stress the obvious: it is always, always better to have a lot of money. Money makes anything relevant and important, no matter how silly it is.

At the Toronto opera, there are a handful of old people who are always looking at you like you don’t really appreciate what is happening and who obsess about missed notes or “dazzling” choreography. Mostly, though, there are lots of youngish people dressed up in, well, prom dresses or suits, an echo chamber of nineteenth century politeness (a friend disagrees with me by pointing out that only people in the cheaper seats wear prom dresses). Opera functions as dress-up party, a chance to play at a fantasy of being upper class, sort of like people do at weddings (unless you are upper class, in which case weddings are a showcase of an ideal of wealth that even the rich can’t live anymore). Put another way, opera is everything that has been attacked about art over the last forty years. Everyone at the Toronto opera LOVES opera. It is more or less the same experience that you’d have were you to be, say, at Madison Square Garden in 1984 and to encounter a teenager with a large mane who explained how much he LOVED Van Halen. In the midst of all this spandex, it is easy to forget that Carmen or Madame Butterfly or Jamie’s Crying are really depressing stories. And you can sort of understand how Othello, surely one of the most unnerving plays ever written, turns into Otello, surely one of the most boring operas ever written.

What unites the old and the young, and unites them with Van Halen lovers, is an aesthetic (wonder at technical proficiency; willing absorption into the most stupid of spectacles) that really does make you want to break out Dialectic of Enlightenment. I am still shocked when I meet someone under 50 who is an opera fan who has the attitude toward opera, and the attitude toward art, that I associate with mindless undergraduates in 1948, or with Alex Ross. Productions are “wonderful,” a word that never fails to signify that absolutely no critical thought is occurring whatsoever (and this is especially true when it is used at academic conferences: what a rich, wonderful question!). Just when you thought the term “bourgeois” could finally be laid to rest in relation to art, you head to the Toronto opera house and you’re back in the mid-twentieth century. It’s the same attitude that manages to find Woolf or Joyce “naughty.” The wheels of history sometimes move slowly.

At this point, I thought, none of this sounds much like a literature department. Literature departments have been ruthlessly attacking aesthetics for years; literature departments are practically the only place where Dialectic of Enlightenment is still regularly read. I much prefer even bad literary criticism to the average Toronto opera lover. But another turn of the dialectical wheels makes the comparison more clear, at least to me. For these days literature departments and opera and Van Halen fans all tend to share the same aesthetic. The comparison is, I admit, a little tricky. The confusing part is that in literature departments this particular aesthetic disposition does not typically manifest itself as a celebration of “aesthetics,” whether Wagner’s or Van Halen’s. Instead, the operatic manifests itself as a dedication to something called “historicism.” Rather than describing a poem as wonderful, I regularly meet people who describe a historical fact as wonderful (blood was sometimes thought to be a magnetic solid! human hair was used for both sex and enemas, sometimes at the same time!). A friend of mine calls it “I found a thing” criticism. Historicism, which was supposed to eradicate the pieties of bourgeois aestheticism, is now bourgeois aestheticism. When Roland Greene notes that literature professors “seldom read literary criticism outside their immediate field,” a prime reason is that “immediate field” almost always means “historical field.” Just as opera lovers get upset when the setting of a production is too updated (The Ring set in Disneyland, say), so literature professors get upset when literature is taken out of its historical context (Shakespeare our contemporary? someone arrest that guy!)

As part of this aesthetic, literature departments share, much more than they care to admit, the class fantasies that opera sets more gratuitously in motion. Refreshingly lower-class Van Halen never had this component of class aspiration (except among guitar players in the 1980s whose cultural superiority was displayed in their tapping proficiency). The tone of so much historicized literary criticism today sounds as annoyingly high-minded as intermission opera criticism (so rich! so wonderful!). That tone comes in no small part from the precarious fantasy of class power that literature departments continue to believe in whether or not professors are wearing tuxes and prom dresses when they teach. In short, literature departments have become like opera in their shared commitment to an aesthetic that they rarely examine and that no one outside of a small circle cares about at all. Like the self-evident wonderfulness of opera, the self-evident wonderfulness of “history” has made literary criticism little more than historical navel gazing. Hey, look, there’s a piece of lint! You know, in the Renaissance belly-button lint was often made into paper! I bet that will finally tell us what is really in Shakespeare.

My first suggestion, then: if you want literary criticism not to be opera, if you want it to be critical, stop historicizing. Or, to modify a joke that Zizek makes, why do you say you should be historicizing when you should be historicizing? Or a third way of putting it: if you want to do historicism, not opera, then you’d better start paying more attention to aesthetics. Want to be hot for teacher? Then put the literary back in criticism. About more in a moment.

Christopher Warley's picture
Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.