A Romanian Story

Picture via Wikipedia

Picture via Wikipedia

I’ll go out on a limb here. I am going to advance that joy is not intrinsically linked to goodness.

It can be. It often is. But I’d say joy – great pleasure, elation – bubbles up like a spring from other sources entirely.

Take The Rite of Spring.It is a fanciful vision of what might have happened before comforts masked the horror of Winter and the wild joy of the coming of Spring, and it is a tale of human sacrifice.

Choreographed by that genius Vaslav Nijinsky of the assymetrical step, The Rite of Spring opens with a tribe dancing on the Steppes of Russia. And we meet all the characters: the old witch-woman, the foot-dragging men, the beautiful young girls. Gradually, one sees more and more of the girls, and they dance an enchanted dance in a ring. The first to stumble -and that is a terrible moment – is singled out. And the men assemble and the villlagers watch as the girl dances to death.

Whilst human sacrifice is proven to have happened in ancient peoples, the shock and awe created by The Rite of Spring in equal measure comes from a work created not millennia ago by ancient man, but just 100 years ago in 1913. Its centenary will be May 19 this year.

Why did Igor Stravinsky and Nijinsky create this? I swear I cannot take my eyes from the screen when the horrific tale is being played out. It is impossibly joyous to me, the haunting music and those hypnotic steps of Nijinsky’s. I would give much to dance that death dance. If you care to, watch it here, here and here.

We tell ourselves a tale that when civilisation came: when the ability to create high art arrived, then such base joy was masked forever.

Here is a Romanian story. All over the world we have such stories but Romania – well, it does them so well. With flare. With fierce pride.

Manole was a master builder.

He could coax beauty out of stone with unparalelled skill. His chisel did not chip, it caressed. And his skill on the small scale was matched in his vision for whole buildings. Manole could create buildings which could move a gruff old soldier to tears. He gathered a ring of charmed craftsmen who moved with him from place to place creating joyous beauty.

At length the team was invited to start work on a splendid project indeed: a great monastery on the Arges River.

One night, sleeping there near the walls, Manole had a dream. If he wanted this monastery to be really beautiful – if each man who beheld it was to be surprised by joy – a woman beloved must be walled up in the monastery.

He told his team about it: and it was agreed that the first woman who came to see them the next morning should be walled in.

Alas: it was Manole’s pregnant wife Ana who arrived, and true to his word, he decieved her whilst he built high walls and then made her stand there whilst he walled her in, ignoring her heartbreaking pleas for mercy.

Cold-blooded murder was clearly the right course, for the church of the monastery still turns heads today: it was the most beautiful building anyone had ever seen, both inside and out, and the Master Builder was pleased indeed with himself.

But he made a fundamental mistake. Standing admiring his handiwork with the Prince, he observed that he would be making his next project even more beautiful.

But the Prince was a Romanian prince, and we all know you don’t mess with those. He had the ten men imprisoned on the roof so they could never better this gorgeous monastery. And the builders, desperate to escape, made wooden wings which were worse than useless, and crashed to the ground beneath in their attempts to escape.

And the last to jump was Manolo. The place where he fell, it is said, is marked by a bubbling freshwater spring outside the church.

Only that part of the world could commemorate this legend with a stamp. It seems terrible joy is never far beneath its surface.

And so, you see: that is why I think there is nothing intrisically good about joy. Or indeed beauty.

They choose their own bedfellows.


36 thoughts on “A Romanian Story

  1. that is sadly true. Oh how men have given beauty precedence over humanity so often. Yet the beauty remains when the memory of the people has faded.

  2. So, Manolo falls into a bubbling spring while his poor wife is murdered in a brick tomb, alive, bearing a child? Pity no stamp commemorates her. Oh Kate, you have done it again; intrigued me with this Rumanian tale.

  3. Hmmmm, the stamp is pretty tricky as Moldova as region and a part of Romania has nothing to do with Arges River which is passing through a land called Tara Romaneasca and where was the Monastery built. Could it be about Moldova, the country which used to be a part of URSS and who is not so common with the legend?

    And..over shoes and many other things, Manolo’s descendant invented the world first jet, just another free lesson about what means creation & sacrifice in Romania.

    1. Dana, hello! My grasp of the history of states in the region is hazy because borders and politics chopped and changed so much during the 19th and 20th centuries. The monastery, still standing today, is the Cathedral of Curtea de Argeș -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curtea_de_Argeș_Cathedral – in the foothills of the Carpathians. The legend, I believe, has travelled the length and breadth of that part of the world, including – and I am assuming here – what was once Bessarabia and is now Moldavia.

      And the irony of the invention of the first jet….thank you for that! What was the name of this descendant?

  4. To find real joy, I think we must experience extreme sadness.

    Of course, in the book “The Geography of Bliss”, Moldova was the unhappiest country on earth……….

  5. Seems like there would be a legend about the walled-up wife’s ghost haunting the monastery. And vampires. Where are the vampires? I had a beautiful LP many years of Moldovian and some other dances by Brahms. I may have got the composer wrong, but the folk dances are lovely and haunting.

    1. Oh, they are…I had a music professor who specialised in collecting and analysing the folk tunes of these regions, Gale. He would talk about how, whilst our melodies always had shape and were closed, if purposeful, the melodies of Eastern Europe would wander back and forth, going over and over a fragment of melody again and again, wilder and freer than anything we could write here in the West. Entrancing and yet very different.

  6. It’s quite a moral tale about hubris. Pride goeth before the fall, in this case a literal fall. He made a beautiful monastery, but he lost everything. How very sad.

    1. It was, wasn’t it? And I still wonder whether the beauty of the monastery was wirth the price he paid. For myself, I would never sleep properly again after doing something like that.

      1. No beautiful building is worth murdering your wife and unborn child, even leaving aside his boasting getting him and 9 others murdered. He doesn’t have to worry about sleeping… but in his day and age, they worried about hell. I can only assume he must have believed that was where he was headed. With lots of justice.

    1. They did, Judy, how clear-sighted of you. The story rests well with others of the region, for sure. One day I will write a book of those stories. Gruesome they are, but compelling too.

    1. Have a look at the link, Debra. I have never seen Nijinsky’s choreography on stage, and I long to. It is unconventional but an example, in my opinion, of how asymmetry and the grotesque can be breathtaking.

    1. Thank you for those words, Gabrielle. Part of me felt like Nijinsky himself just linking joy to anything but virtue and goodness.In English translations of the gospels one of the fruits o the Holy Spirit is translated as joy. I would love to get back to the Hebrew – I am sure there must be a better word.

      1. It is a coincidence but I was (not long ago) reading another blog post from an Aussie writer about the word joy – the thing is, these words have so many shades of meaning and there is no right or wrong imo – but it does make for a good blog post 🙂

  7. Legenda Meşterului Manole (The Legend of the Master Builder Manole) is a Romanian popular ballad. It is a story only insofar as it is a narrative in verse. But it’s wonderful (rather unexpected, too) that you should have heard about it. Glad you have.

    1. Ah, Patrick, but some of our best stories have come from ballads – the Arthurian legends, for example, and Robin Hood himself! Master Builder Manole is in great company 😀 Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment today. I have been trying to find more Romanian ballads and stories – so far I have not been able to find a ‘book of fairy stories’ for the region, comparable to Grimm and his like. I wonder if you know of one?

  8. Very interesting post. Thank you. I had never seen the original choreography for “Rite of Spring”- but made the connection to the Pina Bausch, more modern interpretation. Thanks for the link- interesting ride . . . .

    1. Hi Gina; the Bausch is beautiful in its own way. I miss the raw Ruaaian-ness of the original though. Bausch cannot resist making beautiful balletic shapes; Nijinsky had something elemental to express and every movement was a surprise and delight to me because it confounded my expectations.

  9. One wonders if joy arising from evil is not simply a grim glee, and that only from goodness can one know true joy? As for the concept of true beauty created evilly, that is a hard one! Is a work of art cruelly wrung out of slave labour not somehow tainted in the atmosphere it gives off?

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