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Opera, Sex and Other Vital Matters


Opera, Sex and Other Vital Matters gathers both classic and never-before-published essays from one of the leading stylists in contemporary American letters, and one of our more revered public intellectuals, Paul Robinson. Diverse and elegant, the essays in this new collection showcase the sly wit and lightly worn erudition of their author. Each celebrates art and the flesh, directing us to the twin ecstasies of music and eros.

The essays on opera gathered here explore how ...

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Opera, Sex and Other Vital Matters gathers both classic and never-before-published essays from one of the leading stylists in contemporary American letters, and one of our more revered public intellectuals, Paul Robinson. Diverse and elegant, the essays in this new collection showcase the sly wit and lightly worn erudition of their author. Each celebrates art and the flesh, directing us to the twin ecstasies of music and eros.

The essays on opera gathered here explore how masterpieces like The Creation and The Magic Flute reflect the intellectual currents of their day. Be it the work of Verdi or Mozart, Wagner or Strauss, Robinson compels us to search for meaning not just in the lyrics of opera but also in the music. In melody, not libretto, we are more likely to discern key historical complexities and appreciate the way opera transcends language and time. The essays on sexuality, meanwhile, are ruminative, funny, and even moving. At one moment, Robinson measures whether homosexuality is the result of destiny or free choice. In another, he shares a touching exchange of letters with a gay student in the process of coming out. The final essays that encompass "other vital matters" find Robinson at his most incisive. Whether defending Freud as the most influential thinker of the twentieth century, attacking the dreaded use of semicolons, reflecting on his own mortality, or even meditating on the nature of cats, Opera, Sex, and Other Vital Matters is an eclectic work that will appeal to any reader interested in the continuing relevance of ideas to life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The 17 erudite and accessible essays in Opera, Sex, and Other Vital Matters probe Stanford University humanities professor Paul Robinson's (Gay Lives) long-time obsessions the two named in the title, plus a third: Sigmund Freud. In both previously published and new pieces, Robinson weighs in on such matters as Orientalism in Aida; Richard Strauss's maligned later works; opera queens; sex studies; Freud and feminism; sexuality in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four; and the strange, compelling qualities of cats. Whether arguing that Beethoven's Fidelio is actually the orchestrated history of the French Revolution or considering student-teacher relationships, Robinson offers both intimate anecdotes and a whirlwind tours through modern intellectual history. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226721828
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 332
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Robinson is the Richard W. Lyman Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. He is the author of a number of books, including Opera and Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss and Gay Lives: Homosexual Autobiography from John Addington Symonds to Paul Monette, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.
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Read an Excerpt

Opera, Sex and Other Vital Matters

By Paul Robinson

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-72182-5

Chapter One

The Philosophy of Punctuation

Punctuation absorbs more of my thought than seems healthy for a man who
pretends to be well adjusted. The subject is naturally attractive to all
with character structures of the sort Freud dubbed anal, and I readily
confess to belong to that sect. We anal folk keep neat houses, are
always on time, and know all the do's and don't's, including those of
punctuation. Good punctuation, we feel, makes for clean thought. A mania
for punctuation is also an occupational hazard for almost any teacher,
as hundreds of our hours are given over to correcting the vagrant
punctuation of our students.

One approach to punctuation is by way of rules. In my very favorite
book, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White, we may
read, for example, Rule Number 2: "In a series of three or more terms
with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last."
I couldn't agree more heartily, and I love the quaint formulation.
Better than that, I have inserted the missing comma in countless
sentences written by students and colleagues of mine. I have also
suffered no little distress seeing that comma removed frommy own prose
after it has been sent to the New York Times Book Review or (yes, I'm
sorry to say) the New Republic, both of which clearly have adopted
policies of eliminating this serial comma so beloved by purists.

Rules are important, no question about it. But by themselves they are
insufficient. Unless one has an emotional investment, rules are too
easily forgotten. What we must instill, I'm convinced, is an attitude
toward punctuation, a set of feelings about both the process in general
and the individual marks of punctuation. That set of feelings might be
called a philosophy of punctuation.

I say "a" philosophy, because I'm not yet so opinionated as to insist
that everyone adopt my own. I recognize legitimate alternatives, and I'm
quite aware that punctuation has a history. A single page of Thomas
Carlyle, or any nineteenth-century writer, reminds us, for instance,
that a comma between subject and verb-for me the most offensive of all
punctuation errors-was once perfectly acceptable. A colleague of mine,
whom I consider a fine writer, punctuates, as it were, by ear. That is,
he seeks to reduplicate patterns of speech, to indicate through his
punctuation how a sentence is supposed to sound. Consequently his
punctuation lacks strict consistency. But I can respect it as guided at
all times by what I consider philosophical principles.

Given my character, my own philosophy is more legalistic. My colleague,
you might say, is a Platonist in punctuation, while I am an
Aristotelian. My punctuation is informed by two ideals: clarity and
simplicity. Punctuation has the primary responsibility of contributing
to the plainness of one's meaning. It has the secondary responsibility
of being as invisible as possible, of not calling attention to itself.
With those principles in mind, and on the basis of reading what now
passes for acceptable writing, I have developed a set of emotional
responses to individual marks of punctuation. Precisely such emotional
responses, I believe, are what most writers lack, and their indifference
accounts for their errors.

Let me now introduce my dramatis personae. First come the period and the
comma. These are the only lovely marks of punctuation, and of the two
the period is the lovelier, because more compact and innocent of
ambiguity. I have fantasies of writing an essay punctuated solely with
periods and commas. I seldom see a piece of prose that shouldn't, I
feel, have more periods and fewer of those obtrusive marks that seem to
have usurped its natural place. The comma, as noted, was once overused,
but it now suffers from relative neglect. The missing comma before the
"and" introducing the last item in a series is merely the most obvious

Periods and commas are lovely because they are simple. They force the
writer to express his ideas directly, to eliminate unnecessary hedges,
to forgo smart-aleck asides. They also contribute to the logical
solidity of a piece of writing, since they make us put all our thoughts
into words. By way of contrast, a colon can be used to smooth over a
rough logical connection. It has a verbal content ranging anywhere from
"namely" to "thus," and it can function to let the writer off the hook.
Periods and commas, because of their very neutrality, make one an honest

Semicolons are pretentious and overactive. These days one seems to come
across them in every other sentence. "These days" is alarmist, since
half a century ago the German poet Christian Morgenstern wrote a
brilliant parody, "Im Reich der Interpunktionen," in which imperialistic
semicolons are put to rout by an "Antisemikolonbund" of periods and
commas. Nonetheless, if the undergraduate essays I see are
representative, we are in the midst of an epidemic of semicolons. I
suspect that the semicolon is so popular because it is the first fancy
punctuation mark students learn of, and they assume that its frequent
appearance will lend their writing a properly scholarly cast. Alas, they
are only too right. But I doubt that they use semicolons in their
letters. At least I hope they don't.

More than half of the semicolons one sees, I would estimate, should be
periods, and probably another quarter should be commas. Far too often,
semicolons, like colons, are used to gloss over an imprecise thought.
They place two clauses in some kind of relation to one another but
relieve the writer of saying exactly what that relation is. Even the
simple conjunction "and," for which they are often a substitute, has
more content, because it suggests compatibility or logical continuity.
("And," incidentally, is among the most abused words in the language. It
is forever being exploited as a kind of neutral vocalization connecting
two things that have no connection whatever.)

In exasperation I have tried to confine my own use of the semicolon to
demarking sequences that contain internal commas and therefore might
otherwise be confusing. I recognize that my reaction is extreme. But the
semicolon has become so hateful to me that I feel almost morally
compromised when I use it.

Before leaving the realm of epidemics, I want to mention two other
practices that are out of hand: the use of italics for emphasis and of
quotation marks for distancing. These are ugly habits because of the
intellectual tone they set. Italics rarely fail to insult the reader's
intelligence. More often than not they tell us to emphasize a word or
phrase that we would emphasize automatically in any natural reading of
the sentence. Quotation marks create the spurious impression of an
aristocracy of sensibility. Three paragraphs back I originally put
quotation marks around "fancy," to suggest quite falsely that I would
never use such a word myself, being of too refined a temperament.

At the opposite pole are two marks of punctuation that have grown
increasingly obsolescent, the question mark and the exclamation point.
Appropriately, the disappearance of the question mark largely reflects
the disappearance of questions, which sound unpleasantly rhetorical to
us. But even real questions, if they are long enough, are now apt to end
in periods. The exclamation point is obviously too emphatic, too
childish, for our sophisticated ways. Psychologically speaking, the
decline of these two marks is the inverse of the semicolon epidemic.
Questions and exclamations betray a sense of inquisitiveness and wonder
that is distinctly unmodern, whereas semicolons imply a capacity for
complex, dialectical formulations appropriate to our complex times. As
part of my campaign against the semicolon-no doubt irrationally-I am
endeavoring to develop friendlier relations with these neglected
gestures. But I'll admit that it's not easy.

Then there are parentheses and dashes. They are, of course,
indispensable. I've used them five times already in this essay alone.
But I think one must maintain a very strict attitude toward them. I
start from the proposition that all parentheses and dashes are
syntactical defeats. They signify an inability to express one's ideas
sequentially, which, unless you're James Joyce, is the way the language
was meant to be used. Reality may be simultaneous, but expository prose
is linear. Parentheses and dashes represent efforts to elude the
responsibilities of linearity. They generally betoken stylistic
laziness, an unwillingness to spend the time figuring out how to put
things in the most logical order. Needless to say, they also betoken a
failure of discipline. Every random thought, every tenuous analogy gets
dragged in. Good writing is as much a matter of subtraction as creation,
and parentheses are the great enemy of subtraction. In all that I write
I try to find ways to eliminate them.

A monstrous variation on the parenthesis is the content footnote. What,
after all, is a content footnote but material that one is either too
lazy to integrate into the text or too reverent to discard? Reading a
piece of prose that constantly dissolves into extended footnotes is
profoundly disheartening. Hence my rule of thumb for footnotes is
exactly the same as that for parentheses. One should regard them as
symbols of failure. I hardly need add that in this vale of tears failure
is sometimes unavoidable.

Only one issue of punctuation generates no emotion in me, namely, the
rules governing the placement of punctuation marks with respect to
quotation marks. Those rules are simple enough, but perhaps because they
differ between England and the United States they possess for me only
the arbitrary authority of commandments and none of the well-nigh
metaphysical significance that I associate with the period, the comma,
the parenthesis, and the semicolon.


Excerpted from Opera, Sex and Other Vital Matters
by Paul Robinson
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 A Symposium on Opera and Ideas 3
2 Reading Libretti and Misreading Opera 30
3 The Musical Enlightenment: Haydn's Creation and Mozart's Magic Flute 52
4 Fidelio and the French Revolution 75
5 Verdi's Fathers and Daughters 112
6 Is Aida an Orientalist Opera? 123
7 The Wagner Problem 134
8 Richard Strauss, Ambivalent Modernist 148
9 The Opera Queen: A Voice from the Closet 157
10 Homosexuality: Choice or Destiny? 170
11 Sex Studies and Sex Books: Four Reviews 185
12 For the Love of Big Brother: The Sexual Politics of Nineteen Eighty-Four 206
13 "Dear Paul": An Exchange between Student and Teacher 219
14 Three Essays on Freud 241
Freud under Siege 241
Freud and the Feminists 255
Freud and Homosexuality 273
15 H. Stuart Hughes and Intellectual History 279
16 Three Essays on Writing 293
Why Write? 293
Lost Causes 299
The Philosophy of Punctuation 303
17 Cats 308
Epilogue: My Afterlife 313
Index 323
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