Magazine article The Spectator

How Far Do You Truly Believe? Perhaps It's a Waste of Time Even to Ask the Question

Magazine article The Spectator

How Far Do You Truly Believe? Perhaps It's a Waste of Time Even to Ask the Question

Article excerpt

Readers familiar with Idomeneo might have shared my pleasure (and bemusement) at a performance of Mozart's early opera at the Coliseum in London last week. The English National Opera production, which staged most of the action in what appeared to be a top-quality modern hotel, was ludicrous (I found the waiters distracting, but then I often do), but no more ludicrous than any other imaginable 21st-century staging of an 18th-century account of an ancient Greek tale.

No, what perplexed me was the part played in the narrative by the gods. At one point near the end we literally and explicitly encounter a deus ex machina when the voice of Zeus, off-stage, cuts a Gordian knot and briskly resolves the plot; but the implicit intervention (or feared intervention) of the gods, especially the vengeful Poseidon, is what carries the storyline throughout.

I will not detain you with the plot, which I lost in the first five minutes, then fitfully regained.

The point is that in the minds of the principal actors the gods were real, potent, and liable at any moment to barge in. Unless you believed that - or at least believed that they believed that - the whole thing was pointless and you would be left with only Mozart's music: a perfectly tolerable fate.

But did they believe it? Did Mozart's contemporary audiences, presumably Christian, believe it? Did they believe that the men and women they saw on stage, the ancients themselves, had actually believed it? We pass here through three removes of belief: our own belief in the belief of Mozart's intended audience in the belief of the characters portrayed, in the existence of Zeus, Poseidon, etc. At each stage, starting from the ancients themselves, the level of belief grows weaker, so that in the end we British opera-goers in the summer of 2010 are seeing Zeus through three glasses, and very darkly indeed. How, though, did the Greeks see him?

And I fell to wondering whether and how we can ever find out. Did the ancients really believe in what we now call their divine mythology? Did Mozart's contemporaries really believe in their Christian theology? Do those who call themselves believers today? And what do we mean by 'really believe'?

I first began to reflect on the gap (or otherwise) between professed and real belief when, to my great surprise in Margate, my paternal grandmother (on the occasion of my having made a comforting remark to the frail old lady about the afterlife) pulled me up sharply: 'You don't think I've ever believed in any of that, do you?' A conventional and deeply conservative woman, she was born in 1888, and her mother was a church organist in Kent. I was only slightly less surprised, a few years later, when my maternal grandfather, an upright, retired RAF officer, expressed reluctance even to enter a church for his own grandson's wedding, telling me that two of life's greatest evils were vicars and insurance salesmen: both in the same business. My paternal grandfather was an enthusiastic Freemason whom I never saw in a church in my life; and I don't believe my maternal grandmother had a religious thought in her head.

So here are four 19th-century-born English people, living conventional lives and expressing largely conventional attitudes. They would all be assumed by any future historian to have been Christians, and never made any sort of public statement, or placed upon any sort of record, any evidence to the contrary. …

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