Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lord of the Internet Rings


The New York Times

October 9, 2010

Lord of the Internet Rings


It didn’t take long, sitting with an enthralled audience and watching the saga of the cloistered jerk who betrayed those around him and ended up unfathomably rich and influential, to understand why it has been hailed as a masterpiece.

They had me at the mesmerizing first scene, when the repulsive nerd is mocked by a comely, slender young lady he’s trying to woo. Bitter about women, he returns to his dark lair in a crimson fury of revenge.

It unfolds with mythic sweep, telling the most compelling story of all, the one I cover every day in politics: What happens when the powerless become powerful and the powerful become powerless?

This is a drama about quarrels over riches, social hierarchy, envy, theft and the consequence of deceit — a world upended where the vassals suddenly become lords and the lords suddenly lose their magic. The beauty who rejects the gnome at the start is furious when he turns around and betrays her, humiliating her before the world. And the giant brothers looming over the action justifiably feel they’ve provided the keys to the castle and want their reward. One is more trusting than the other, but both go berserk, feeling they’ve been swindled after entering into a legitimate business compact.

The antisocial nerd, surrounded by his army of slaving minions, has been holed up making something so revolutionary and magical that it turns him into a force that could conquer the world.

The towering brothers battle to get what they claim is their fair share of the glittering wealth that flows from the obsessive gnome’s genius designs.

The gnome, remarkably, invents a way to hurl yourself through space and meet up with somebody at the other end.

All of these mythic twists and turns in “Das Rheingold” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York were a revelation to me. I’d never seen the Ring cycle. I didn’t even know what it was about. I loved everything about Peter Gelb’s $16 million production: the shape-shifting, high-tech stage, the mermaid sopranos dangling from wires, the magnetic Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who plays Wotan, the weak ruler of the gods who tries to renege after bartering his gorgeous sister-in-law for construction of a gorgeous castle. (The moral of the story: Never mess with your contractor, the contractor always wins.)

But as I watched the opera, my mind kept flashing to the “The Social Network,” another dazzling drama about quarrels over riches, social hierarchy, envy, theft and the consequences of deceit. A Sony executive called “The Social Network,” the David Fincher-Aaron Sorkin movie about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his circle of ex-friends and partners, “the first really modern movie.” Yet the strikingly similar themes in Wagner’s feudal “Das Rheingold” — the Ring cycle is based on the medieval German epic poem “Das Nibelungenlied,” which some experts say helped inspire J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” — underscore how little human drama changes through the ages.

We are always fighting about social status, identity, money, power, turf, control, lust and love. We are always trying to get even, get more and climb higher. And we are always trying to cross the bridge to Valhalla.

W. P. Ker defined the heroic epic as “the defense of a narrow place, against odds.” And that can just as well sum up the modern epic of the antihero Mark Zuckerberg.

In “Das Rheingold,” the dwarf Alberich is mocked and rejected by the Rhinemaidens. “Fury and longing/ fierce and forceful/ surge through my spirit,” Alberich sings.

Thwarted in lust, stewing in rage, the gnome turns to greed and vengeance. He steals the Rhinemaidens’ gold, returns to his sulfurous, subterranean cavern and forges a gold ring that “would give unbounded power and wealth.”

He uses the ring to enslave the other dwarves, “the Nibelungs’ nocturnal race,” and forge and weld more gold trinkets, as well as a magic helmet that can make him invisible and teleport him through space.

“No one can see me/ though he search for me/ yet I am everywhere/ hidden from sight,” Alberich says, in a perfect description of the elusive Zuckerberg and Internet users in general.

Then, in a mantra that could belong to Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg, Alberich warns the gods: “Beware!/ For when once you men/ serve my might/ the dwarf will take his pleasure/ with your pretty women/ who scorn his wooing,/ though love does not smile upon him.”

The 1854 Wagner libretto has ornate language like “the soft zephyrs’ breeze.” The 2010 Sorkin screenplay has snappy, syncopated language about Python Web servers and Pix firewall emulators.

But the passions that drive humans stay remarkably constant, whether it’s a magic ring being forged or a magic code being written.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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