Back in the Dark Ages, before the Internet and cell phones, my then-fiancée and I had tickets to see the opera “Tristan and Isolde” by the German composer Richard Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York. It wasn’t as if we were such highbrows, but my parents had subscription seats and they didn’t like Wagner so the tickets fell to us.
For those who don’t know, “Tristan and Isolde” opens on board Tristan’s ship. Tristan has been ordered to transport Isolde (and her maid) to Cornwall where she is to be married to the king. There is a whole lot of howling back and forth in German during which Isolde gets angry at Tristan for disobeying her and she tells Tristan’s aide that she hopes that the ship sinks in a storm and so on and so forth, yada, yada, yada.
Unfortunately, on the way in to The City (to New Yorkers, Manhattan is “THE CITY”), we became trapped on the world’s longest parking lot, the Long Island Expressway, so we arrived at the Met (or “THE MET” to the cognoscenti) less than two minutes before the curtain went up. The result was that we had no opportunity to read the libretto (or “plot summary” for us proles) and since we were ersatz opera aficionados at best, we had no idea of the opera’s story line.
This particular production was one of those artsy “minimalist” offerings in which there is almost no scenery. Just as my fiancée and I took our seats, the curtain rose on an almost empty stage bearing nothing more than some curved pieces of wood that were evidently supposed to signify the prow of a ship, on which stood two men and two women, baying their hearts out. My then 19-year-old fiancée, who even then looked at the world through a slightly unusual prism, told me that since we had not a clue as to what was happening, she would narrate what was happening on stage. My esteemed fiancée’s observations were somewhat novel and highly entertaining. The plot for the first scene of Tristan and Isolde, as interpreted by her, is as follows:
“Two guys and two girls are on a singles cruise. One of the guys meets one of the girls and asks her to join him for dinner and dancing that evening. She agrees, but only if he can also produce a date for her friend and traveling companion. After some arguing, he agrees to fix up her friend with his and it ends as they all go off to dress for dinner.”
That’s it! It made more sense relative to the action before us than the actual libretto.
I thought of this episode from my distant past while listening to my rabbi’s sermon in synagogue last Saturday. The gist of his talk was that all of us rarely see the full picture of what others are seeing. He gave the example of his happening to catch glimpses of a Disney film that his children were watching while wearing headphones, so he could see but not hear what was happening. As a result, when he mentioned to his children what he thought he had seen they looked at him as if he was out of his mind. What he perceived they were watching had nothing whatsoever to do with what they had actually seen. The gist of his lesson was that looking at a film with the mute button engaged is the same as our viewing what is happening around us with the virtual mute button engaged. We think that we are seeing and understanding what others are saying or doing, but our understanding might be completely wrong.
That is a humbling — and disturbing — thought. If I were to admit to the absolute truth, I would say that I totally enjoy despising the political left and refusing to listen seriously to them at all. The idea that someone who voted for Barack Hussein Obama might actually have some bona fides is appalling to me. The idea that a person who argues in favor of ObamaCare might not be bound and determined to destroy the American economy is alien to me. The concept that I might have the mute button engaged when I view the American political landscape is enough to make me take to my bed with a fever. I will accept that it might be true that (on very rare occasions) even I “don’t listen.”
But if I want to grow as a person (and make my arguments in favor of political conservatism actually convincing), I need to recognize that I use that mute button entirely too much. Before you despair of me, allow me to affirm that there are certain truths that are basic to my weltauunshung (see my April Mercury column). Some of those are:
Barack Hussein Obama was (and will forever be) the worst president in American history; socialism is an absurd concept because it neglects the fact that human beings are human beings; the state of Israel is and will always be the “Jewish State”; Jerusalem is and will always be the undivided capital of the Jewish state of Israel; 12-tone music is unbearable; Charleston, South Carolina, is filled with really nice people; Mac and cheese is the greatest food ever invented (even better than hot dogs); mac and cheese will clog your arteries and kill you if you as much as look at it; my grandchildren are the best; my esteemed wife has made my life wonderful.
(She edits this column ... and I’m not a fool.)
I could continue with my list of basic truths, but that might foreclose any possibility that you might want to read any future columns of mine. Those enumerated (and unenumerated) items notwithstanding, the idea that we need to disengage the mute button and start listening is vital if we are to survive as a civil and civilized society. Each one of us should listen and each one of us needs to be heard. If I think about it, I would wager that the majority of day-to-day ill feelings and anger are a result of someone who feels ignored, misunderstood or disrespected.
I was once involved in a discussion among a group of my close friends. One of them voiced an opinion and in my haste to make my point, I dismissed her with a wave of my hand. She blew up — justifiably. I had muted her and she felt disrespected and demeaned. She was right. I hadn’t even heard her point because I was so busy making my own. How many of us do that to our friends? To our spouses? To our children? How many of us think that we know the “score” of the operas that are being sung around us when we have taken neither the time nor the opportunity to read the libretto?
The absurdist playwright Tom Stoppard wrote a play whose concept I have always considered beyond brilliant. In “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” he takes two peripheral characters in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and makes them the central roles in his play. The events that transpire in “Hamlet” also transpire in Stoppard’s play, but they are viewed from the standpoint of the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead of from the viewpoint of Hamlet. The result is startling and thought provoking (it has piqued my thoughts since I first saw it in 1966, shortly after it was first produced). It is the opposite of the existential concept that I am the star in my own play and anyone who is not interacting with me at any particular moment is simply offstage.
I have resolved to try to read the libretti of the operas that are going on all around me. The problem is that, by doing so, I will have cheated myself of the pleasure of trying to figure out what is happening while I have the mute button engaged — or of having my hilarious and esteemed wife figure it out for me.
Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.