. . . Truth, as they say, may be stranger than fiction, but fiction has a way of leading to deeper truths. That is the way I feel about my next piece. I include the story because it touches on themes I have been exploring – fictional characters and the quest for a soul – and because it lends itself to imaginative interpretations, ones in which we might, if we maintain a poetic sensitivity, catch a glimpse of our own souls . . .
The late philosopher Robert Nozick made an intriguing argument: namely, that certain fictional characters – Hamlet, Don Quixote, Raskolnikov, for instance – seem to possess a greater degree of reality than most real-life individuals. Their reality, he contends, consists in their vividness, their sharpness in detail, and the complex psychological organization they exhibit. They are concentrated portions of reality and they seem to resonate with deeper aspects our own psyches. Perhaps they are, to see things from a Jungian point of view, archetypes; the building blocks from which our individual personalities are constructed.
One such “fictional” character, which has gripped my imagination, is the tragic water nymph Rusalka from Dvorak’s great opera of the same name. Even for those who don’t appreciate opera the story is powerful and compelling. Rusalka’s plight is particularly rich in psychological and metaphysical import for us because mermaids and water nymphs have traditionally been thought to lack souls. Only by marrying a human could a mermaid gain a soul. Our tale begins as the moon casts its gentle beams on an enchanting meadow abreast of a lake. Here supernatural creatures laugh, dance, sing and play with a paternal Water-Gnome who rules the under-water realm. Rusalka, a water-nymph, and daughter of the Water-gnome, sits despondently in the embracing arms of an ancient willow tree. She explains to her father that she has fallen in love with a mortal prince who frequently ventures into the lake to swim. Earlier she had embraced the prince as a wave, but she now hopes to take a human form so she may be embraced in return. She longs to leave the chilly water so she might live in the sunlit world with her human Prince.
Her kind father cautions against such thoughts, after all “humans are full of sin.” But Rusalka believes “they are full of Love!” Her father finally reveals that Rusalka can attain human form with the aid of a witch named Jezibaba. Before casting her magic spells, however, the witch tells Rusalka that on her wedding night with the prince she shall gain a soul, but if she is ever betrayed by her lover, then she will be dammed eternally. Rusalka is also told that she will also lose her power of speech in the transformation into a human being, but Rusalka will not be deterred.
As morning arrives the prince is drawn to the lake by the vision of a doe that mysteriously vanishes as he reaches the lake. Suddenly he encounters a beautiful woman, long streaming hair caressing her shoulders. For the Prince she is an irresistible fantasy, a sublime vision. Rusalka is mute, but the prince is certain that Rusalka’s lips will respond to his kisses. In great happiness the two leave the lake together. But below, the grieving cries of Rusalka’s sisters and her father can be faintly heard from the water’s depths.
Soon, the Prince and Rusalka are to be wed. At their reception, however, the Prince begins to wonder why he always finds a slight chill in Rusalka’s embrace, and why this makes him tremble so. Nevertheless he is still entranced by Rusalka, and feels that he must have her. Seeing their devotion, a foreign Princess, smitten with jealousy, determines to steal the Prince for herself. But if she cannot have him for herself, she says, “Then let both their happiness’ die!” However, before the end of the reception the foreign Princess has succeeded in seducing the Prince. When the Prince expresses his love for the foreign Princess, Rusalka flees into his arms only to be rejected. “I am neither woman nor nymph” weeps Rusalka. “I cannot die, nor can I live. My heart is empty.” Moments later, however, it is the Prince himself who is rejected by the scornful Princess. Cruelly she tells him “speed after you chosen one into the depths of hell.”
Betrayed, Rusalka longs only for death. The grieving Rusalka returns once more to the lake from which she sprung. Hearing Rusalka’s cries, the witch Jezibaba sarcastically asks if the Princes’ kisses were tasty. Rusalka responds that “Love was short, but grief will be long.” The witch then offers Rusalka a chance to escape her eternal fate; if she spills the blood of the man who spurned her then she can avoid her horrible fate. If not, then she is doomed to become a “bludicka” -- a spirit of death – existing at the lowest depths of the lake, capable only of rising at night to lure mortals to their death. Rusalka is taunted by her sisters who reject her saying that her grief can only spoil our merriment. Only Rusalka’s father, the water-gnome, offers her any consolation.
The Prince, too, has returned to the lake in desperation. He cries out, “Where are you my white doe? My fairy tale, my silent image?” Rusalka appears suddenly, bitterly she asks: “Why did you betray me? Why did your lips lie?” The Prince pleads for forgiveness and asks for a kiss. But Rusalka knows that even a single kiss means certain death and damnation for her Prince. She tells him, alas, to no avail. The Prince will not relent. And so, “She kissed him with a holy kiss; but she relaxed not her hold. Pressing him more closely in her arms, and weeping as if she would weep away her soul. Tears rushed into the Prince’s eyes, while a thrill of bliss and agony shot through his heart, until at last he expired . . . ‘I have wept him to death’ said Rusalka as she turned towards the water and disappeared beneath the waves.”
There is so much about the human condition reflected in this operatic work. Like so much in mythology, the story seems to spring from the deepest recesses of our imaginations. When Rusalka first expresses her desire to attain human form she exists in an ontologically undifferentiated state – in potentia - much like the uncollapsed quantum wave. Does this metaphorically express a metaphysical Truth? Might we consider Rusalka the personification of the fundamental, and undifferentiated energies in at play in the early universe -- the primeval quantum soup as physicists might say -- or the noumenal according to Kant and Schopenhauer -- that longed, unconsciously, to attain more differentiated forms? If so, might Rusalka be the personification of the world soul which, according to the Neoplatonic tradition, was feminine in character? Can we think here of some kind of Schopenhauerian will -- or an Eros -- that had a primitive, blind, but creative impulse to move from a state of undifferentiated formlessness, and manifest itself, at least seemingly, as differentiated and individualized forms, as individual souls?
Of course, Rusalka’s story is not a happy one. Suffering, it seems, is the sole consequence of Rusalka’s quest. Though she longs an individual soul, it seems her fondest hope cannot lead to happiness in the human or phenomenal world. Only by returning from whence she came, it would seem, can she find peace . . . and so Rusalka departs from the sunlit world of the Prince for the murky darkness and the unfathomable depths. I imagine her yearning remains . . . as deep and unceasing as the tides that even now brush against the shore. A reminder of the constant interplay of opposing forces that gives birth to Strife . . . the eternal force which keeps the world alive . .
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