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Heaven Is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens: On Tim Dlugos’s “Turandot”
I am in the hospital for the fourth time in the past five months, this time for excruciating abdominal pain that turned out to be due to a bowel obstruction which has still not cleared up. I have had a tube down my throat and have been unable to eat for over a week. I spend most of my days trying to sleep through the pain and nausea.
In the course of the various tests to try to determine the cause of the obstruction, my surgeon found several large masses on my liver which, after a blood test and a liver biopsy, have turned out to be a fast-growing resurgence of my colon cancer. Thus I am in the hospital cancer ward for the foreseeable future, starting chemotherapy again (it had been on hold during my assorted medical crises of the past few months), before I have had time to fully recover from my recent illnesses and surgeries. I don’t have wi-fi access in my room, but my darling Robert is posting this for me.
Doug Powell recently wrote on this site about the late gay Tim Dlugos, which reminded me of one of my favorite of Dlugos’s poems. It’s one of the last poems Dlugos wrote before he died of AIDS in 1990, and my recent brush with death has made it particularly resonant for me.
When I try to imagine
what heaven will be like,
I think of Puccini’s Pekinese
court, ruled by a big Joan Sutherland
type wearing an enormous headdress,
where riddling has metastasized
from a show of wit into a burning
passion, consuming all the time
that passes in the progress
toward an end that never comes,
and everyone, not only the sympathetic
slightly ridiculous Ping, Pang and Pong,
has long since been sated by the marvels
of the capital, and just wants to go home.
In keeping with the this-worldliness of Dlugos’s sensibility, its insistence on the preciousness of the things of this world, “Turandot” is an ironic meditation on ideas of the afterlife, imagining heaven as the rather warped imperial Chinese court of Puccini’s opera, in which the titular virgin princess (recorded by, among other sopranos, Joan Sutherland) subjects each of her suitors to a set of three riddles, and executes all those who cannot answer correctly, which turns out to be all of them. (Really, the riddles aren’t that hard. But perhaps all these princes are too addled by love to keep their heads.) As the comic courtiers Ping, Pang, and Pong complain in the opera, life has been reduced to three bangs on a gong, three riddles, and one head chopped off. This is how Dlugos pictures heaven, as a place where nothing happens, over and over again forever.
Whereas the opera ends with Turandot’s heart finally being melted by Prince Calaf, who answers the three riddles and whose true name, she realizes, is love, in the poem’s heaven there is no end to the riddling, to the pomp and ceremony and ritual. There’s a clear allusion to and an implied critique of the ceremonials of organized religion, specifically the elaborate rituals of the Catholic Church in which Dlugos was raised, and of the religious emphasis on the life to come as opposed to the earthly life which is the only life we know we have. At the end of this rather brief poem, everyone, having had more than their fill of the wonders of Peking, simply wants to go home. But of course there is no home to which one can return after death, no going back to earthly life. Thus the poem also implies a critique of the Christian notion of the resurrection of the body, and of all the ideologies that convince us to value an imagined or potential afterlife over the actual life we are living. So “Turandot” is a veiled carpe diem as well (Calaf tears off Turandot’s veil to melt her heart with his kiss), which warns us to seize the day and live in the now. As the opera tells us, there are three riddles, but only one death—and only one life.