Racism and Sexism in Mozart's Zauberflöte:
Fatal Flaw or Exegetical Beacon? Continued
In the course of events we learn that Sarastro had inherited the sevenfold sun-disk from Pamina's father who had previously been the high priest of the consecrated brotherhood. Presumably on her father's instructions Sarastro had taken Pamina from her evil parent in order to prevent her from falling into the dark ways of her mother. (I wonder if anyone else shares my view that all this sounds a lot like Luke Skywalker and his evil parent.) The magic flute and presumably the magic bells were made by her father, not by her evil mother, in whose possession, however, they had happened to remain.
I hope you are beginning to understand that this is a rather sophisticated text rather than a simplistic one, for I am now going to leave this line of discussion and test my working hypothesis by putting a difficult question to you: If Mozart and his collaborators did indeed go to all this trouble to create in The Magic Flute a school for epistemology, a school for learning to see through commonly accepted, biased or prejudicial "truth" in pursuit of enlightened real truth, then do you think it likely they would have intended their opera to confirm racial and gender stereotypes? Or is it even possible they intended their opera to undermine such stereotypes? I understand the risk involved in imposing contemporary issues onto a two-hundred-year-old document, but let's follow this line of reasoning a bit and see where it leads us.
Let's address the question of race for a moment. When Papageno first encounters Monostatos, xenophobic racial stereotypes of the black as bogeyman contribute to his (and the audience's?) original bias about Sarastro as evil sorcerer. Immediately after his initial shock at encountering a black man, however, even Papageno, certainly no rocket scientist, understood that it is perfectly normal for there to be various colors of humans, just as there are various colors of birds.
We learn that Sarastro has in nowise discriminated against Monostatos; on the contrary, he has probably given him more authority and more freedom of action than he deserves. In the end Sarastro expressly tells him that it is his black heart and his black deeds, absolutely not, however, his black skin, which make him unsuited for the life of the gods: Monostatos had just threatened Pamina with death if she did not choose to love him, and he had "played the race card," as it were, in effect asking: Is it because I'm black? When she refuses him, he says, full of anger: "...warum? Weil ich die Farbe eines schwarzen Gespenstes trage? Nicht? Ha! So stirb!" (Reclam, p. 49) (...why? Because I bear the color of a black spectre? Oh, yeah? Aha! Then die!) His "Nicht?" implies she has shaken her head as if to say: "of course it is not your skin color," a notion which Sarastro now reinforces.
Monostatos, having been caught in the act of attempting to murder Pamina, blurts out a quick lie: "Herr, mein Unternehmen ist nicht strafbar, ich bin unschuldig! Man hat deinen Tod geschworen, darum wollte ich dich rächen." (Sir, my behavior is not punishable, I am innocent! They had conspired to murder you, therefore I wanted to avenge you.) Sarastro says: "Ich weiß nur allzuviel, weiß, daß deine Seele ebenso schwarz als dein Gesicht ist. Auch würde ich dies schwarze Unternehmen mit höchster Strenge an dir bestrafen, wenn nicht ein böses Weib, das zwar eine sehr gute Tochter hat, den Dolch dazu geschmiedet hätte. Verdank es der bösen Handlung des Weibes, daß du ungestraft davonziehst. Geh!" (Reclam, p. 50) (I know more than enough, I know that your soul is just as black as your face. Also I would punish you for this black enterprise, if an evil woman, who does happen to have a very good daughter, hadn't provided the dagger for it. Thank the evil actions of this woman that you are allowed to leave unpunished. Go!)
Failing to gain the daughter, Monostatos now turns to the mother, who had called herself Die Sternflammende Königin (The Starflaming Queen), but who is in fact, Die Königin der Nacht (The Queen of the Night), a being whose blackness is also not a function of her skin color, but of her essential inner nature. Thus Monostatos and the Queen profoundly resemble each other and are ultimately paired up in an unholy alliance against the Good.
But if Monastotos's evil nature is not a function of his race, neither is the Queen's evil nature a function of her gender, which brings us to that problem. I wish I could say that all the misogynistic statements in the opera had reference to the Queen of the Night or to her ladies in waiting. That would make my task easier. But clearly there are three other women in the opera who are not evil characters, namely Pamina, Papagena, and Isis. (For that matter, I wish there were another black-skinned person in the opera who was on the side of the good guys, but that, too, alas, is not the case.)
It is true that many of the misogynistic statements start out as references to the Queen of the Night, but then they quickly appear to become generalized to all womankind. After Pamina's attempt to flee from Monostatos, she explains to Sarastro her conflicting loyalties to him and to her mother: "Mich rufet ja die Kindespflicht, denn meine Mutter (My child's sense of duty calls to me, because my mother ) Steht in meiner Macht" (Is in my power), Sarastro rather brutally interrupts. "Du würdest um dein Glück gebracht, wenn ich dich ihren Händen ließe." (You would be robbed of your happiness if I left you in her hands.) "Mir klingt der Muttername süße;" says Pamina, "sie ist es (The name of mother sounds sweet to me; she is my ) Und ein stolzes Weib," (And a proud woman) Sarastro interrupts once more. "Ein Mann muß Eure Herzen leiten, denn ohne ihn pflegt jedes Weib aus seinem Wirkungskreis zu schreiten." (Reclam, p. 34) (A man must lead the hearts of you women, because without him every woman tends to overstep the bounds of the circle of her effectiveness.) This is clearly going to be hard for me to explain away. But there's more!
When Tamino and Papageno submit to a test of their steadfastness and their ability to hold their tongues, the speaker and the second priest give them their instructions in a duet which begins with the words: "Bewahret euch vor Weibertücken: Dies ist des Bundes erste Pflicht! Manch weiser Mann ließ sich berücken, er fehlte und versah sich's nicht. Verlassen sah er sich am Ende, vergolten seine Treu' mit Hohn! Vergebens rang er seine Hände, Tod und Verzweiflung war sein Lohn." (Reclam, p. 41) (Protect yourselves against the wiles of women: This is the first obligation of the covenant! Many a wise man allowed himself to be deceived, he erred and didn't notice it. In the end he saw that he was abandoned, his loyalty rewarded with mockery!)
Again, though this is on one level a warning that the Queen and her ladies are lurking around the temple perimeter waiting to ensnare Tamino and Papageno (in the next scene the ladies pop up out of the ground and attempt to get them to break their vow of silence), it would be hard to miss the universal nature of the warning against the wiles of all women.
What the ladies tell Tamino at this juncture is interesting, incidentally, for it amounts to nothing more than an attempt to get him to believe rumours: "Tamino, hör, du bist verloren! Gedenke an die Königin! Man zischelt viel sich in die Ohren von dieser Priester falschem Sinn." (Tamino, listen, you are lost! Remember the Queen! There's a lot of whispering going on, a lot of whispering in a lot of ears, about the falseness of these priests.)
Without breaking his vow of silence, Tamino's answer (spoken only to himself) reveals that he has come a long way in his epistemology since his first encounter with the old priest: "Ein Weiser prüft und achtet nicht, was der gemeine Pöbel spricht." (A wise man applies tests and doesn't regard what the common mob says.)
The ladies continue with the rumours: "Man sagt, wer ihrem Bunde schwört, der fährt zur Höll' mit Haut und Haar." (It is said that whoever swears an oath to join their covenant band goes to hell, lock, stock, and barrel.) Papageno is frightened by this and asks Tamino if it's true. Apparently Tamino is permitted to answer him in song, which he does as follows: "Geschwätz, von Weibern nachgesagt, von Heuchlern aber ausgedacht." (Nonsense, gossip echoed by women, but thought up by hypocrites.) Papageno sings: "Doch sagt es auch die Königin." (But the queen says it.) "Sie ist ein Weib, hat Weibersinn," replies Tamino.) (She is a woman, has the mind of a woman).
Soon the priests discover the ladies have made their way into the temple and they shout: "Entweiht ist die heilige Schwelle! Hinab mit den Weibern zur Hölle!" (Reclam, pp. 43-44) (The holy threshold is desecrated! Send these women down to hell!)
Permit me one final example of misogny before I attempt the high-wire act (drumroll please!) of demonstrating that the opera is not misogynistic: When the Queen comes to Pamina with a dagger, and orders her to assassinate Sarastro, she recounts her husband's words to her during his last hour: "Weib, meine letzte Stunde ist da alle Schätze, so ich allein besaß [presumably including the magic flute], sind dein und deiner Tochter." "Der alles verzehrende Sonnenkreis" fiel ich ihm hastig in die Rede "Ist den Geweihten bestimmt", antwortete er, "Sarastro wird ihn so männlich verwalten wie ich bisher. Und nun kein Wort weiter; forsche nicht nach Wesen, die dem weiblichen Geist unbegreiflich sind. Deine Pflicht ist, dich und deine Tochter der Führung weiser Männer zu überlassen." (Reclam, p. 47) ("Woman, my last hour has arrived all the treasures I alone possessed are yours and your daughter's." "The all-consuming sun disk" I hastily interrupted him "Is destined to belong to the consecrated ones," he answered, "Sarastro will administer it in as manly a way as I have to this point. And now, not a further word; don't try to understand things which are unfathomable to the female mind. Your obligation is to turn yourself and your daughter over to the leadership of wise men.")
That's a lot of misogyny. How can we explain it? To begin, let's turn to a duet sung quite early in the opera (the music of which is the setting of a hymn "Though in the Outward Church Below") between Papageno and Pamina, containing the lines: "Wir wollen uns der Liebe freun, wir leben durch die Lieb' allein... Ihr hoher Zweck zeigt deutlich an, nichts edlers sei als Weib und Mann." (We wish to enjoy love; we live by love alone... Love's noble purpose shows clearly that there is nothing more noble than a wife and a husband.) The song ends in the chiasm: "Mann und Weib und Weib und Mann, reichen an die Gottheit an." (Reclam, p. 27) (Husband and wife and wife and husband, reach up to [and attain] godhood.)
This theme that a man and a woman together reach up to or achieve godhood is picked up again when Tamino has passed all the prior tests and is now poised for the final, grand test: "Der, welcher wandert diese Straße voll Beschwerden, wird rein durch Feuer, Wasser, Luft, und Erden; Wenn er des Todes Schrecken überwinden kann, schwingt er sich aus der Erde himmelan. Erleuchtet wird er dann imstande sein, sich den Mysterien der Isis ganz zu weihn." (He who passes along this path full of difficulties becomes pure by means of fire, water, air, and earth; If he can overcome the terrors of death, he soars from earth toward heaven. Then, illuminated, he will be in a position to dedicate himself entirely to the mysteries of Isis.)
Tamino is ready to charge into this test as a lone man, for he says: "Mich schreckt kein Tod, als Mann zu handeln..." (No death frightens me enough to prevent me from acting like a man...) but the previous verse emphasizes it is the mysteries of a female, the goddess Isis, into which he is to be initiated. Consequently, he learns that Pamina is to go with him into the holy of holies, into that part of the temple where they will be bonded as priest and priestess, god and goddess, which relationship cannot be severed even by death: "Nun trennet uns kein Schicksal mehr, wenn auch der Tod beschieden wär'!" (Now no fate can separate us any more, even if death were to intervene!) Tamino and the two cherubim-like guardians of the path to eternal life (though they have flaming helmets rather than flaming swords) now join to sing the significant words: "Froh Hand in Hand in Tempel gehn. Ein Weib, das Nacht und Tod nicht scheut, ist würdig und wird eingeweiht." (It's joyful to go into the temple hand in hand. A woman who does not fear night and death is worthy and can be initiated.)
And now, very significantly, I believe, Pamina does not simply follow Tamino into the temple, she leads him, as she is lead by Love and as they are both protected by the magic flute, which has something of the essence of the tree of life about it, since she now tells Tamino that her father cut it from the roots of a thousand-year old oak tree "in einer Zauberstunde...bei Blitz und Donner, Sturm und Braus." (in a magical hour...with lightning and thunder and raging storm.) Pamina says: "Ich selbsten führe dich, die Liebe leitet mich!" (Reclam, pp. 65-66) (I, myself, will lead you; Love will lead me!)
As they complete their test of courage, the chorus exults: "Triumph! Triumph! Du edles Paar! Besieget hast du die Gefahr! Der Isis Weihe ist nun dein! Kommt, tretet in den Tempel ein!" (Reclam, p. 67) (Triumph! Triumph! Thou noble couple! Thou has vanquished danger! The initiation of Isis is now thine! Come, enter into the temple!)
Finally, as the music becomes a joyful celebratory wedding dance, a choir of priests sings: "Heil sei euch Geweihten! Ihr dranget durch Nacht. Dank sei dir, Osiris, Dank dir, Isis, gebracht! Es siegte die Stärke und kronet zum Lohn die Schönheit und Weisheit mit ewiger Kron'!" (Reclam, p. 72) (Hail to you, consecrated ones! You penetrated through night. Thanks be unto you, Osiris, and to you, Isis! Strength was victorious and crowns beauty and wisdom, as a reward, with an eternal crown!)
It may be instructive briefly to consider these Egyptian gods, Isis and Osiris, who have determined that Tamino and Pamina should be together forever and become gods like they are. There is no shortage of husband-and-wife deities in the pantheon one thinks of Zeus and Hera, Wotan and Fricka, Haephestus and Aphrodite but Isis and Osiris belong to an elite group of married god-couples who really get along with each other, are true to each other, and who act like they are being lead by Love.
It will be recalled from the myth that when Osiris's evil brother Seth, the god of the red desert, of death and destruction, kills Osiris out of jealously Osiris is the god of new life and then cuts him up and buries pieces of his body all over the realm, to make it harder for him ever to come back to life, it is Isis who goes around to find his body parts and reassemble them. Thus Osiris is always portrayed as wrapped in mummy cloths signifying he was once dead but with green skin signifying that he is newly alive and his consort Isis always stands by him as they greet the worthy dead who have passed all the tests and are ready to be resurrected, drawn through the veil with the sacred handshake into the presence of the living gods.
It seems to me that The Magic Flute invites us to think of Isis and Osiris, not Sarastro, and certainly not the Queen or Monostatos, as the ultimate model for our lives. If conventional wisdom about the unworthiness of women to be inducted into the sacred order is reflected in the statements of the priests, the deeper structure of the opera suggests that Mozart perceived that this misogynistic and celibate order though righteous as far as it goes should and would be replaced by a new married and equal gender-neutral leadership, personified in Tamino and Pamina, deified in Isis and Osiris. Certainly that does not detract from the dignity and holiness of Sarastro, who apparently represents the last celibate high priest, destined to be replaced by the new, married high priest and priestess.
All this is distantly reminiscent of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, who with his wife Kondwiramurs, becomes the new Grail King, replacing the imperfect and celibate Fisher King, Anfortas.
I don't know exactly what's behind this feminist and anti-racist twist in the opera. I don't know enough about Mozart and his friends as yet. It seems plausible to me, however, that under the inspiration of his muse, Mozart follows the logic of real humanism to its conclusion and sets about to lift Masonry and society at large by its own rhetorical bootstraps, as it were, (and not only the society of his day, since ours still faces similar problems!) to show that it had yet to live up to the ideals of its own philosophy, to take it kicking and screaming if need be out of its chauvinistic, rascist, and misogynistic phase into a new era.
Mozart uses as a lever the logical extension of the enlightened world-view espoused by Masons and others of their time which systematically strives to avoid all prejudice and irrational traditions and whose model was the loving god-pair Isis and Osiris.
So just as Tamino and Pamina transcended the gross deceptions of her mother, they also transcend the more subtle last, residual biases reflected in conventional racist and chauvinistic truisms sometimes thoughtlessly uttered or adhered to by otherwise enlightened souls.
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