You Are Going To Get A Big Spanking Young Lady
In 1889, the not yet 23 year old Umberto Giordano took sixth place in what was by then a well-known and widely-followed one-act opera contest sponsored by Sonzogno, then one of the more substantial publishing houses in Italy. Sonzogno had benefited greatly from Italian unification and served for many decades as a sort of crude talent clearing house for all of Italy.1 Giordano was the son of a Pharmacist who regarded his progeny's dalliances in art and music with cold distaste and preferred for his son the career of a champion fencer, forcing the young hopeful to study in secret until 1880 when his father finally relented and permitted him to attend (after failing the first entrance exam) Naples Conservatoire San Pietro a Maiella, housed in a former monastery at the far end of Via dei Tribunali.2
Giordano had composed his contest entry on a libretto purchased for only 25 lira and, while he did not place in the top three, his performance compelled Sonzogno's owner, Edoardo Sonzogno, to invite the young student to play the score for him in person. There, while refusing to publish the opera owing to his dislike for the libretto, he was impressed enough to invite Giordano to Rome, put him on salary and commission a new piece. The result was "Mala Vita," a desperate and grim opera sketching the tale of a labourer who vows to reform a prostitute if his tuberculosis is cured. The work would later serve as the template for the almost anti-Romantic verismo style of opera, characterized by a frank discourse of the everyday difficulties and burden of life, that would dominate Italian tastes for years. While the work was, perhaps unsurprisingly, ecstatically received in Germanic countries, its premiere in Naples resulted in a dangerous riot that spilled out of the opera house and into the streets.3
The 1894 production of his later piece "Regina Diaz" was so poorly received that Giordano was fired forcing the composer to endure several months of squalor and despair in Milan. It was in this period, however, that Giordano wrote "Andrea Chénier," based on the life of French Poet André Marie Chénier. It premiered at La Scala in 1896 and, despite extremely low expectations, met with great success.
Chénier, unfortunate victim of the Reign of Terror, languished in Saint-Lazare until July of 1794 when, after 140 days of imprisonment, he was dispatched by the National Razor at the age of 31. Maximilian Robespierre was detained and murdered by the state only a few days later. This last point is relevant on two different planes. First, the death of Robespierre marked the end of the Reign of Terror and a marked reduction in the constant flow of severed heads which poured into the hands of the Comité de Salut Public. Second, it was Robespierre directly who, settling an old score, ordered the execution of Chénier.
Chénier had been intensely critical of Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois in "Sur les Suisses révoltés du regiment de Châteauvieux," had contributed what would surely later be seen as counter-revolutionary attacks to the Journal de Paris, and, as if fate had not already been tempted, provided arguments in the defense of King Louis XVI. Even before this, his works had a certain biting edge, bloody and sharp through and through.
Un scélérat de moins rampe dans cette fange.
La Vertu t'applaudit. De sa mâle louange
Entends, bell héroïne, entends l'auguste voix.
O Vertu, le poignard, seul espoir de la terre,
Est ton arme sacrée, alors que le tonnerre
Laisse régner le crime, et te vend à ses lois.
In that mud crawls one scoundrel less.
Hear, lovely heroine, hear Virtue bless,
Hear the august voice of its virile praise.
Oh virtue, the dagger that hope will raise,
Is your sacred arm, when Heaven holds its thunder
And lets crime rule, while laws are cut asunder.4
Chénier was arrested at a party given by Mme. Pastoret at Passy, entirely by accident as it turned out, by agents of Comité de Salut Public who had been hunting instead for a marquise, whom they immediately mistook Chénier for. One rich looking pig is as good as another, after all.
Chénier might well have escaped notice entirely while in captivity and, in fact, his relatives resolved to keep quiet and hope he would be overlooked. It was not to be. Instead, Chénier's father, who was a minor official in happier times, arrogantly sought to intervene and demanded his son's release. The Comité de Salut Public, having ignored their prisoner for months, now took renewed interest and, once Robespierre recognized the name, sentenced Chénier to death immediately on trumped up charges of conspiracy. Within two days of his father's intervention, Chénier was dead.
In his last days Chénier wrote extensively and produced what was arguably his most moving work in the nights before his execution, in particular "La jeune captive,” his last work. His poems written at St. Lazare were concealed in baskets of dirty linen and smuggled out by a compliant jailer. Only two saw print before his death.
It takes only a little reflection to recognize that these narratives, united by themes of popular revolution gone terribly wrong in the 1790s and the well-meaning but botched and dangerous paternalism of Louis Chénier, are particularly relevant in the present environment. Much like rise of Modernism following the death rattle of the Enlightenment, the danger of reactionary overreach is keen. So too is the temptation to employ (or indeed to seek comfort in) the heavy hand of paternalism.
In late January of this year, just as the issue of executive compensation and pay caps was emerging as a pet project of the Obama administration, there issued forth from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs what, in other circumstances, should have been an incredibly unfortunate statement. Bloomberg reproduced the declaration thus: "At the White House, Gibbs said Obama is like a “disappointed parent” on the issue [of Wall Street bonuses]."5 This was the same day that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse proposed the (very Law of 22 Prairialesque) "'temporary economic recovery oversight court' that would give the government the power to 'take reasonable steps to restrain the massive self-indulgences that these masters of the universe have become accustomed to.'"6
These particular contours still linger on the visible surface of this month's political zeitgeist and hint at some rather sinister undercurrents lurking beneath the ripples we can actually see. Consider what it means when the practiced voice of Robert Gibbs, a seasoned expert in the ways of the silver-tongued fox, lets slip so blatantly this administration's views of its own paternal role in anything and everything. Are we surprised? Should we be? Or is Gibbs, and the administration for which he serves as mouthpiece, merely uttering the most vocal expression to a grim mentality that has grown and lingered for decades as subtle but audible background noise in the American condition? Specifically, "where is my slice of the government pie?" Whatever he is spouting, it should be obvious that, much as the Comité de Salut Public, there is much dispute, even internally, in who we should be elevating, who we should be executing, how and when.
The Obama administration's new plan to bail out the nation's banks was fashioned after a spirited internal debate that pitted the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, against some of the president's top political hands.
In the end, Mr. Geithner largely prevailed in opposing tougher conditions on financial institutions that were sought by presidential aides, including David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, according to administration and Congressional officials.7
This muddled, bumbling reality is in stark contrast to the very arrogant and cocksure demeanor of the present administration, typified by little slips like "I won," as well as more much elaborate, deliberate and carefully edited statements. To wit:
So I ask this Congress to join me in doing whatever proves necessary. Because we cannot consign our nation to an open-ended recession. And to ensure that a crisis of this magnitude never happens again, I ask Congress to move quickly on legislation that will finally reform our outdated regulatory system. It is time to put in place tough, new common-sense rules of the road so that our financial market rewards drive and innovation, and punishes short-cuts and abuse.8
"...ensure that a crisis of this magnitude never happens again." Of course, ensuring this "never happens again" is impossible, and, no matter what you believe and how hard you hope, winning an election does not give you a mandate to suspend the laws of supply and demand. That we would be promised this things is a sign of how far economic reality has slipped away from the political class. That these promises would be taken at face value is a sign of how blind the citizenry is to the ignorant or malicious machinations undertaken by the political class. Indeed, lately it is difficult to watch even a single Congressional hearing, critique a single cabinet appointment, or listen to a single legislator critically without coming away with the feeling that everyone is simply full of shit.
One consequence of this arrogance is the use of the paternal identity of the state to parse out social justice through mechanisms other than the due process of the judicial system. Industries that behave "properly" are rewarded with subsidies, favorable legislation, tax relief, or regulatory forbearance (ADM, a host of ethanol manufacturers, and any number of large agricultural interests have collectively caused decades of price distortion). Industries that behave "badly" are punished with hearings to fan the flames of public outrage, confiscatory tax proposals, regulation or legislative interference with property and contract laws. Squabbling siblings are dealt with via the parents' antitrust paddle. Greedy children are sent to bed without dinner. Private plane owners are caned to within an inch of their life (provided the mob is of such a temper this month).
The seriously beholden figurehead currently posing as Chief Executive at Citigroup understands this well, and, pocketdoglike, obediently sits, rolls over and (yes) plays dead at the slightest change in vocal inflection from his 70 masters. Predictably, his institution looks short for this world.
The resulting patronotocracy, just as the overbearing father of a developing composer, the once powerful and now marginalized public official pleading for his son's life, the recently risen personality at the center of the Reign of Terror, or the Comité de Salut Public, is subject to (or the source of) the arbitrary and, often, capricious whims of a parent. One need only examine the performance of the Government Relief Index (a bit of ironic genius on the part of some NASDAQ official) to see the results.
It seems pretty clear that it is about time for the government to get out of the business of administering non-judicial spankings.
- 1. Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana," which has since shown at the Metropolitan Opera over 650 times, took first prize that same year. Today, Sonzogno is probably most famous for publishing Helen Fielding (author of The Bidget Jones's Diary).
- 2. The conservatory is located in the edifice that was once the monastery of San Pietro a Maiella which, after the monastic suppression by the Neapolitan Republic in 1799, suffered a rather clumsy Baroque "restoration" by the Spanish in the 1600s and has recently undergone a "re-restoration" that has returned it to its former, brooding period appearance. Interested finem respice readers are highly encouraged to wander the Gothic walls that housed so many young and hopeful artists.
- 3. Popular sentiment of the time, particularly of the Italian variety, was easily aroused into literal orgies of repressed anger and violence. (Though the Romans apparently received it warmly and without incident). More than ten years later a gelded version of "Mala Vita," called "Il Voto" and lacking much of the raw despair and dark passion of the original was re-staged successfully in Naples.
- 4. Excerpt from "Ode to Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday," André Marie Chénier (1793)
- 5. "Obama and Congress Seek to Limit Pay at Bailed-Out Companies," Lorraine Woellert, Bloomberg (January 30, 2009).
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. "Geithner Said to Have Prevailed on the Bailout," Stephen Labaton and Edmund L. Andrews, The New York Times (February 9, 2009)
- 8. "Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery Address to Joint Session of Congress," The White House Press Office (February 24th, 2009)