“Gods are hard for mortals to see”—Homer (trans. Gregory Nagy), Hymn to Demeter
In his book Literature and the Gods, Roberto Calasso bemoans a dearth of the divine in modernity. “There was a time,” he sighs, “when the gods were not just a literary cliché, but an event, a sudden apparition…” It’s worth unpacking this claim for its presupposed nostalgia for the ancient past, where magic and mortality apparently coexisted within the material world. But are things really quite so different today? What have we lost in these end times?
Personally, Calasso’s statement resonates with me; I feel anemic, yet inundated with information—text, sound, image. One rarely has a chance to linger over beauty, to champion it, to surrender to a god, to enter the cult. Calasso cites reading as our touchstone to the divine. Nevertheless, he (somewhat condescendingly) suggests that this activity is, in fact, not an invocation of the gods at all, but a parody of them. That being said, a part of me still identifies with Calasso; I understand his search for the divine. It is heaven (literally!) to brush up against a god, to enter into its cult, to worship.
However, it’s also worth looking further (and perhaps beyond) Calasso’s assertion in order to break it down, to refuse his claim for its bleak, modernist notion that the gods have long been consigned to the pages of literature. Are the gods located truly and solely on paper, as flattened imitations of themselves, acting out in parody? Or, are there other channels through which one might encounter the divine. My hope is that Calasso is being a bit shortsighted. My hope is that there are ways to bear witness to gods and goddesses outside acts of reading, beyond parody. Which is to say: let us put our faith in a different liturgy. Words and music still bring the congregation together in ceaseless adoration.
Published in 1975, James McCourt’s novel Mawrdew Czgowchwz is engaged with a similar longing for the divine. And it is, perhaps, a welcomed antidote (or complication) to Calasso’s claim that the gods have retreated solely to the modalities of literature. A rambunctious, difficult book, the novel charts the apotheosis of an opera singer known as Mawrdew Czgowchwz, an artist in possession of a voluminous talent. With a threadbare plot, the narrative traces her rise, fall, and resurrection as both an artist and persona, all the while cataloguing the praise, condemnations, and exhortations hurled at the diva by her public. Overflowing with language—argots and slang—the novel offers one a vision into the sub-culture of opera fandom. As Wayne Koestenbaum writes in an introduction for the novel,
“The weird drag persona of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, like Myra Breckinridge, gives voice—and, almost a body—to artistic preoccupation, or to the sensibility of men, and women, too, who, in the 1960s and earlier, put their considerable mental resources into connoisseurship, aesthetic partisanship, and standing on the line [at the old Metropolitan Opera]”
This is the language of a highly coded and highly ritualized milieu. It is hyperbolic, fraught, magical—hexes even appear within the novel, a plot point that both suggests the power of faith and language, within the verbal ecologies of fandom, and hearkens back to the supernaturalism of Calasso’s antiquity.
Verbose, linguistically dilated, and rooted in pre-Stonewall aesthetics, McCourt’s artistic preoccupation, beyond the practice of diva-worship, is primarily language. Sentences unspool as unruly and uncontainable as a virus. Nothing in the novel is particular gay, but the text itself serves as a significant contribution to a strange and alien queer literacy, a lost art in our sanitized queerness (McCourt would take up these concerns again in his later, non-fiction work Queer Street). Certain signifiers, difficult to recount due to the ontology of cruising, reverberate beneath the surface of the text, conjuring a different time, a different age, a different scene; these signs prove legible only to a select few—the elect, as McCourt would undoubtedly put it.
This term—elect—is deployed by McCourt to describe those opera fans pulled into the orbit of the main character, diva Mawrdew Czgowchwz. With its connotations of ritual, theology, and soteriology, the elect is a frustrating notion—especially if one has not been summoned into the cult to practice “Mawrdolatry,” as McCourt articulates it. Ah! To be marked out at some prior vetting, one’s soul determined fit enough for the task at hand! It is a stance that looks from the inside out, from a vantage point of aesthetic privilege.
Superiority attends those who count themselves as members. They smugly consider the unenlightened: the walking dead, mindless as zombies, blind to the glories brandished by their god. In McCourt’s novel this generates a system of camps, allegiances and alliances. For example, the novel opens with a description of the cult of Morgana Neri (I Neriani), a WWII era diva on the decline:
Neri’s opinions on everything and everyone in music were recited in antiphon over tables littered with clippings, reviews, vile coffee, and majestically autographed glossies of the diva, in black and white and in sepia (none of a later vintage than the last year before the war). Neri was considered ageless, her voice deemed eternal. The elders, who could actually speak of the Neri debut, were revered by intimates as prior saints. Wire recordings of Neri broadcast performances passed like transcripts of the Orphic mysteries from fool to fool.
But, as the novel details in a filigree of gossip and wit, Neri’s reign will come to an end beneath the shadow of the novel’s eponymous heroine, “whence the Neriad [takes] a turn for the tragic.” Mawrdew will unseat the diva with her art: “She wedded music to mimicry to create ‘musicry.’ She was the definitive diva, she still is.” And so the culture of Neri disintegrates (notwithstanding a few malicious stabs at retribution), and the cult of Czgowchwz ascends.
As Koestenbaum suggests, Mawrdew Czgowchwz is based on a composite of Maria Callas and Victoria de los Ángeles: “Partly Callas, partly de los Ángeles,” Koestenbaum writes, “Ms. Czgowchwz is an amalgam of every great singer.” McCourt’s personal devotion to de los Ángeles colors his writing with a delicious, pink cloud of nostalgia and affection. And the influence of Maria Callas, regarding the character’s elegance and glamour, is undeniable. Mawrdew, like Callas, manages to evince both a public persona, as well as indicate toward a more private, mysterious interiority. For as much as Callas suffered and lived for her art (Vissi d’arte!), her public persona was consumed by it, and so she remained surprisingly private in other ways.
One thinks of the famous photographs of Callas in recital. Dazzling, draped like a Grecian goddess (a Greek-American, resident of Athens—namesake of Pallas Athena), she bewitches through contradiction. She pours out her art, beckoning the spectator (one feels like a moth drawn to the flame), and yet she eschews our approach. She is formidable, yet alluring.
Similarly, much of Mawrdew’s thoughts, within the novel’s promiscuous angles of vision, go unrecorded, serenely opaque. She drifts through Gotham, lovely and withholding—except, perhaps, through the generosity of her voice. Like the gods on Olympus, one wonders: what is going on up there in her head? What does it feel like to possess such earth-shaking talent? Never mind. We don’t need to know; rather, it is better to bask in the delicious, inviolable mystery of her talent, the esoteric practices of the artist’s inner sanctum.
Is there a current correlative? Who is central to our cult these days, or have the gods—as Calasso suggests—slipped into the abyss of history? In these dreadful times, we pursue our devotion. We long to love, to adore, to worship. Where is our goddess? It seems like the very concept is the vestige of a long, lost past. As Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker last week, regarding the state of fandom at the Met:
The days are over when the crowd [at the Metropolitan Opera] was filled with voice geeks who could identify transpositions, cuts, and optional high notes. Such people still exist, but their numbers have dwindled, not least because rising ticket prices have made habitual attendance harder. You hear less informed buzz around you; you see more people sneaking looks at their phones.
And much of McCourt’s novel circles around the standing line at the old Metropolitan Opera, where hymns of praise and curses abound. The novel is valuable in that it feels like dipping into that long forgotten pool, bathing in a language that dried up through the days of HIV/AIDS and, more recently, the mainstreaming (hetero-washing?) of legalized gay marriage. It’s bittersweet. I am happy gays can get married. But what happened to the notion of being elected? Where is the glitz, the glamour, of Mawrdew?
It’s not just a question of the voice. There are a number of fine singers strutting across the stage. For example, Elina Garanca is a surefooted vocalist. Nina Stemme is an extremely capable musician and singer, especially in light of her repertoire. There are Angela Meade, Sonya Yoncheva, Latonia Moore, Jamie Barton, Marina Rebeka, Nadine Sierra, Anja Harteros, Tamara Wilson, Isabel Leonard, Tamara Mumford, Anita Hartig and etcetera. But each of them lacks an essential element to catapult them into the stratosphere, to bring about their apotheosis, to provoke worship.
Even Renée Fleming, whose instrument is of the highest quality, whose ubiquitous presence is the standard of perfection (though, perhaps, airbrushed within an inch of her life), remains “the people’s diva,” much like her predecessor Bubbles. Nice is fine, but goddesses are not nice. We fear and love the divine. Nobody wants to worship the girl next door.
Which brings me to Anna Netrebko. Who else embodies the super-human, scorching star-wattage of this singular Russian soprano? Talk about (to borrow Calasso’s language) the god as event, a sudden apparition! Who else has the gravitas, the vocal chutzpah, the deranged fashion sense, the will and bravado to sing badly and then sing really well—in short: a willingness to put on a show, on and off the stage? Netrebko, whose vocal prowess has recently surmounted her off-stage persona, is a life-affirming performer (“I heard from someone—I can’t remember his name—that she’s studying with a new teacher in Berlin”).
Generous, indulgent, voluptuous—a contradiction: both heavenly and earthly. The sexiest thing about her is her voice (and I am well aware of her physical beauty). One can imagine her decked in the armor of Athena, blazing across the battlefield. Her weapon is her singing, like a laser, melting the flesh of her adversaries.
So, I think it’s a conversation worth having. What has happened to the elect? Have they dissipated, unbound by the absence of a proper diva? Have our goddesses absconded the stage? Or, am I being a shrill alarmist (a la Calasso), ringing my hands over nothing? As a writer for Parterre, I have thought often of McCourt lately—the work his novel engages with is the work all of us at Parterre engage with. One aches and longs for Mawrdew, or some variant of the diva.
As Calasso writes in his book, “The world…has no intention of abandoning enchantment altogether, because even if it could, it would get bored.” There’s nothing I want more, as a critic and operagoer, than to heap lavish praise on a deserving deity. If I could invoke her, whoever she is, I would. But, alas, I’m not a priest of the elect. I wait and search, longing for the goddess to return, the bright flash of her parousia lighting up the stage at Lincoln Center.