Friday, August 19, 2011

Celebrating The Prosaic: The Magnetic Fields' "The Book of Love" As Comedy

The vast majority of the time works of tragedy focus on one man, one central protagonist. This man is usually an important figure, perhaps a king. Assuming he doesn't die a horrible death (think Macbeth and Othello), this king must learn a lesson about pride by being knocked down off his high horse. He will probably still die in the end, but it will be a good death--one that means something (think Oedipus and Hamlet).

Works of epic literature nearly always focus on one man as well. He is also usually a king. Where Epic differs from Tragedy, though, is that the epic hero isn't just himself, he is the leader of a people, whose desires he represents and whose actions he undertakes. The true protagonist of any epic work is actually the people the epic hero personifies (e.g., Ithaca in the case of Odysseus and Rome in the case of Aeneas). Unlike tragic protagonists, Epic heroes fight to elevate themselves higher than everybody else. They must be the ultimate badass, the conquering hero on behalf of their polis.

In works of comedy we see something quite different. Comedies always focus on a group of people, at least two (a couple), and their relationships to one another. This group which consists of at least two people is in fact (or, at least, will become) a family. This family usually starts out in low estate; i.e., they usually don't matter much at the beginning of the work. By the end of the work, though, they have been elevated to the level of a royal household (like Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Trygaeus in Aristophanes' Peace, both of whom "wed" goddesses).

Titania and Bottom, by Sir Edwin Landseer
Where in Tragedy the king must be removed from the high place which he won for himself (and which won him his pride as well), and in Epic the hero must do everything in his power to conquer on behalf of his people, win glory and honor, and establish peace and justice on their behalf, in Comedy the protagonists actually do very little.

That is to say, nothing is won or conquered by them. Everything they receive is given to them by some external force as a reward. A reward for what you ask? Being stupid. Silly. Dumb. Idiotic. In a word: humble. The entire action of comedic works is geared toward the celebration of humility--of the prosaic, the down to earth. When the goddess Titania falls in love with Bottom he is literally an ass. Trygaeus gains entry into Heaven and council with the gods by riding a dung beetle there.

Consider the following song by The Magnetic Fields. As usual the lyrics are included below. And here's the direct link to a music video in case the embedded audio doesn't work.

The book of love
Is long and boring.
No one can lift the damn thing.
It’s full of charts
And facts and figures,
And instructions for dancing
But I,
I love it when you read to me,
And you
You can read me anything.
The book of love
Has music in it.
In fact that’s where music comes from.
Some of it is just transcendental.
Some of it is just really dumb.
But I,
I love it when you sing to me,
And you,
You can sing me anything.
The book of love
Is long and boring,
And written very long ago.
It’s full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes,
And things we’re all too young to know.
But I,
I love it when you give me things,
And you,
You oughta give me wedding rings.
This is the prosaic, the humble, the day in, day out lifestyle that Comedy (and Christianity) extols. "The book of love is long and boring." Married life, real life, isn't bliss. Far from it. It's full of troubles, trials, and pain. There's nothing at all romantic about it. "It's full of charts / And facts and figures." In fact, oftentimes even the supreme expression of love--the marital embrace--must submit itself to charts, facts, and figures. The whole point is to work through it. To bring good from it. To infect the people and the world around you with your loving hard work. The point is to stick it out. To keep doing it every day. No matter how "long." No matter how "boring."

"No one can lift the damn thing." This line is reminiscent of a passage from Revelation that has to do with opening a book.
"I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?' And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to into into it. Then one of the elders said to me, 'Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals,'" (Rev. 5:1-5).
No one can open, no one can lift the book of love, the Book of Life but the one who wrote it--the Author of life and love, Love himself. The book of love has always been his book. If we get one word in one footnote it's because he has given us everything we are, every insignificant bit of love we have been able to give to another.

"I love it when you give me things." Of course, this is the essence of real love. Action. Day-to-day, moment-to-moment giving. Of "flowers," "heart-shaped boxes," time, energy, foot rubs, and above all, self--body and soul. This is the self-giving love which leads naturally to "wedding rings." It is the self-giving love expressed ultimately in the marital embrace, the self-gift which, when complete, blossoms forth into a new creation, a child which could almost be said to be an incarnation of his parents loving gift of themselves to one another. But it is also expressed in those simple, boring, every day things like laundry.

Notice the balance in the refrain between "I" and "you," each given two lines, half a verse, parallel in form. Real love is a communion between two persons, each recognizing the other as a subject rather than an object from which something can be got. They are a person just as I am, and it is the relationship, communion, community of inter-subjective self-gift through boring, prosaic things in which love subsists. The song also mentions dance, which is a physical analogy for this kind of relationship.

It is the life that means nothing, that amounts to nothing that we all must hope and work for. Of course, it isn't actually nothing, for love, self-gift, and the new life that hopefully results are the most important things there are. They are what allow us to become like Love himself--who himself loved so much that he produced a Son from eternity, whose relationship of loving action with his Son produces a loving Spirit, in whom we have all been made able to share.

If you're interested, here's an amazing cover of this song by Peter Gabriel. Check it out.

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