Listening to Maria Callas

An Essay By Ben // 11/4/2003

Dear Homeschooling Friends,

I am listening to the voice of Maria Callas right now. Her voice transforms my dirty dorm room, transforms the time that passes, recalls to me a sense of my life. And in her voice I hear what I want to call - and can only call - silence.

My roommate (a great guy whose name is Richard) told me a little about Maria Callas' tragic life. He told me she was a beautiful woman (I’ve seen her picture and agree). But she died in dejection, without an audience to appreciate her gift. Now, after she is gone, many believe she had the best voice of the last century. Because my grandfather remembers playing French horn during one of her performances I can imagine her well. I see her singing in front of the orchestra where my grandfather sits, lit by a gold light, in a white gown, and carrying her life in her voice.

And though her voice is gone . . . though she is no longer living . . . the record of her voice plays here in this, my room. Can we really bring ourselves to say she is dead once we hear her voice? I want to say about her what Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote after the death of a man whose voice meant much to him:

Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear,
Or love or pity or all that sweet notes not his might nursle:
It is the forged feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.
('Henry Purcell', 2nd stanza)

I think the same 'rehearsal of own, of abrupt self' in Maria Callas' voice prompts me to write that I hear silence there. Whether I really do hear silence in her voice I cannot be sure. It only seems so when I listen for the source (not the beginning) of her music, to the source of that magnificent voice. Where does such a voice come from? Silence. And when I say 'silence' I mean a sort of nothingness. And in that nothingness is the return to the source of self, to what it means to be a person. Her voice remains and 'stays with' silence. And that is an act of great heroism of self.

I am the first to question everything I am saying now! I am the first to doubt it. But just now a good and new friend walked in to my room, and I asked him whether it was possible to 'hear silence in a voice.' Without hesitation he agreed that it is always possible, because it is there. What seems to me to be a vague notion or intuition he says can be the source of much more . . . so I will 'stay with' this notion and think more on it. I have already been thinking about it since last year when I wrote about silence.

Today I walked into a doctor's office and waited in the waiting room for another friend. Everything I read or saw in that room repulsed me . . . not because the things there were totally depraved: on the contrary, they had reprints of paintings by Monet and Van Gogh up. But the setting of these paintings was horrible. 'How can a painting from the 1800's apply to the medical service we offer today?' appeared below that most beautiful painting of the party by Monet. Below that the text related the softness of the humans in the painting to the perfection of the medical help. Not only was the analogy terribly flawed, but also the use of that painting was a terrible twisting of its beauty. It used that beauty to explain and advertise and make flat our very person-hood. What I am saying is this: by entering into that room all of us present there – myself included – were made to see ourselves as flat. Up to now this attack has been hidden in the sense of the grotesqueness of the paintings: the beauty is approached wrongly.

Now I think the attack is beginning to hide itself in a new way: by being ridiculously forthright. This attack was made all-too-clear to me when I glanced at a sign advertising tests for depression in the waiting room. In large lettering I read: 'Don't let your moods derail you.' Below this was listed words like 'anger,' 'sadness,' 'anxiety,' 'fear,' 'loss of control.' Let these words rest in your mind a little and you realize that every word in the sentence 'don't let your moods derail you' is devilish. The sign advertising a cure for depression tells us that the cure is not to let anything affect us.

A certain crisis appeared to me in that waiting room, which was really a room that no longer waited to show its attack but ordered me simply to wait to be flattened. It would take a great act of heroism to take Maria Callas' voice into such a room, and it would be a great act to hear the silence in her voice in such a place. Do we need to do this? Or should we just avoid such places? Does anything need to be 'done' at all? I feel sadness right now that after I have left this place of refuge next year – graduated and entered into the world we call 'real' – I might begin to lose sight of silence. For without that voice playing in my ear there can be no silence.



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