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Arcadia, variations on a theme

Tonight I had the great good pleasure of experiencing The Art and Ecstasy of the Chaconne: From the streets of Spain to the mind of Bach, a concert by Sinfonia New York (brought to Victoria by the Early Music Society of the Islands). It was fantastic, I was literally at the edge of my seat for much of it. “Transcendent” is a word that came to mind – in the sense that Charlie Mingus or John Coltrane would have felt in sync playing with, say, Christine Gummere (cello) or Claire Jolivet (violin). Or vice versa.

The first piece was for solo violin, played by Judson Griffin: Passacaglia in g minor by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The music – and Griffin’s interpretation – reminded me, at a stroke, of Nicolas Poussin‘s great painting, Et in Arcadia ego (the version now in the Louvre Museum). In Poussin’s painting, we see three men and a single woman in a beautiful, Italianate landscape. The men are traditionally interpreted as shepherds; the woman’s role is more difficult to determine. In the foreground of this serene, classical landscape is a large block of stone: a tomb. Poussin shows us the four figures after they have come upon this tomb, which bears the inscription Et in Arcadia ego.

A lot of ink has been spilled interpreting the painting. Essentially, the scene is read as a meditation on death. “Arcadia” is “Eden,” but even in Paradise (Arcadia), there is Death. You can get all metaphysical and possibly Derridian or Lacanian (that is, ur-Freudian) here and go spare over the sole female figure (woman as life …and Death), but basically you’re left with the Latin, Et in Arcadia ego, on a tomb (which is where dead people lie). Death is even there, in the middle of bliss.

So why did I think of Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego tonight? There was something so beautiful about the music (as written, and also as played and interpreted by the musicians) that all I could think was that I, too, want to live among people who could say Et in Arcadia ego. That is, it’s not at all about death, it’s about “getting” what it’s like to know Arcadia – a place no one actually lives in anymore (we’re all postlapsarian), but which can be known through various means (including art, particular kinds of work, certain deeds, etc.). It’s a place and a state that does not need to be entombed or announced via an inscription, but one that can embodied and experienced (as per the shepherds and their enigmatic muse). It’s a place that’s defined by its absence – the fact that it’s no longer directly accessible – but which is represented by something else (art, for example), and thereby known and experienced.

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