This isn’t a religion blog, but the way our cultural elites treat religion these days tells you a lot about–our cultural elites. Back in 1957, when the Soviet empire was at its evil height and fresh from its tank assault on the brave Hungarian students who had dared to raise the cry of freedom, the French composer Francois Poulenc mounted an opera, “The Dialogues of the Carmelites,” whose theme was another totalitarian regime, that of the terrorists of the French Revolution, intent on crushing the freedom of conscience of its citizens, with the guillotine if necessary.
I saw “Dialogues,” revived this past weekend by Opera International at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, and I found its message thrilling, as apt for our own times of religious persecution by authoritarian governments as it was during the Cold War. The Washington Post’s music critic Tim Page also saw Poulenc’s opera. He pronounced it “not only wrongheaded but curiously repellent.”
The victims, or rather, the heroines, in Poulenc’s opera, were 16 nuns of the Carmelite order, whose members then, as they do now, led ascetic, communal lives and devoted themselves to praying for others who didn’t have time to pray or couldn’t pray. There aren’t too many such nuns and monks left in the Catholic Church these days (although they still exist), but there are plenty of them in Buddhist countries, such as Tibet, where the Chinese communist government works as assiduously to shut down their monasteries and crush their religious communities as the Terror did with French Catholic monastics in 1794. For the same reasons, too: so-called “counter-revolutionary” activity.
Although Poulenc added a handful of fictional characters (including the heroine, a timid, neurotic nun who becomes brave) to his “Dialogues,” the underlying events in the opera actually happened. The architects of the Terror–Robespierre, Danton, et al.–decreed that monks and nuns, who happen to answer to God, not the state, as their supreme source of authority–were a danger to the revolutionary Republic. Like the Bolsheviks under Lenin, they shut down all monasteries and convents and forbade the nuns to wear their religious habits or meet communally for prayer. The 16 nuns, all from a convent at Compiegne and from every variety of backgrounds high and low (one nun’s father was a shoemaker), defied the order and went underground in 1792, where they continued their usual work of communal prayer and caring for the needy. Eventually the nuns were found out, arrested, imprisoned, and convicted by a kangaroo-court of a panoply of Stalinist thought-crimes, including “fanaticism,” according to the opera’s liner notes.
The nuns were sentenced to the guillotine. Under Lenin, they would have been shot. Under Stalin, they would have been sent to an icy gulag for slave-labor, starvation and rape. In today’s China, they’re sent to prison for a couple of decades. The nuns had taken a vow of martyrdom: that is, they had solemnly resolved to die, if necessary, as witnesses to their Christian faith. On July 17, 1794, they mounted the scaffold one by one, bravely singing a hymn. That July was a banner month for tumbling heads: more than 1,000 of them. All the bodies were burnt in a huge bonfire and then dumped into a pit–rather the way the Nazis disposed of the bodies of their victims, except that the Nazis used ovens.
The music that Poulenc wrote for “Dialogues” is ravishing, climaxing with the metallic clangs of the guillotine’s blade as the nuns meet the deaths that silence their hymn but not their faith. The opera, is among other things, an exploration of the composer’s own fear of death (his homosexual lover lay dying as he put his opera together). Wherever and whenever it has been staged, it has usually been an enormous hit. It was revived to great acclaim by New York’s Metropolitan Opera during the 1970s. At its premier in Israel a few years ago, the audience (who could see clearly the parallels to the persecution of their own people) wept and applauded.
Times have changed, however, at least in the critical quarters of the Washington Post, where faith equals fanaticism, just as it did for Danton, and a willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s beliefs is seen as “curiously repellent.” Music critic Page writes:
“Now, French Revolution-bashing is a fine and noble sport; this leveling, regicidal frolic made way for the even more ghastly ‘people’s republics’ that were to come. But religious fanaticism is no picnic either, as we have learned to our cost, and Poulenc’s exaltation of an anxious young woman who renounces family, friends and romantic satisfaction to join an extreme sect of Carmelites that shuts her away to prepare for martyrdom is a strange enthusiasm indeed.”
The “learned to our cost,” by the way, is a reference to 9/11. Page, like most liberal secularists, confuses a death-sentence meted out by a totalitarian government with crashing a plane into a crowded office-building in the name of Allah. And I don’t understand why sacrificing your own “romantic satisfaction” so as to devote yourself to others is such a “strange enthusiasm.” Clara Barton did it. Simone Weil did it. Mother Teresa did it.
But that’s how our cultural elites regard religion. They just don’t get it. I learned a lot more about Tim Page on reading his review of “The Dialogues of the Carmelites” than I learned about Poulenc. I also came to understand why, among the liberal literati, religious persecution, whether it’s in today’s Sudan or yesterday’s Soviet Union, always gets a free pass.