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.