Previously I noted that Tosca’s aria Vissi d’arte is widely viewed as a hymn to the life of the artist. Yet, only once after those first two words does Tosca mention her artistic work. As I said in the same post, she is really singing about the torment of the terrible choice that Scarpia has imposed on her: give him her body or he will kill her lover.
I also titled my post right afterwards as a “digression” because it was about how we should understand the Buddha when he says that doing the right thing will make us sukha. He is saying that doing the right thing will make us happy.
Looking more closely at Tosca’s words, I now see that this review of an instance of retributive justice in the Dhammapada was not off the point at all. The aria consists of a list of all the good things that Tosca has done:
- She never hurt “a living soul.”
- She helped those less fortunate without advertising her good works.
- She said her prayers at “holy shrines.”
- She “gave flowers to the altar.”
- She “gave jewels” for the cape of the Madonna’s statue.
- She dedicated her singing to pleasing heaven with its beauty.
In the middle and at the end of this list, Tosca questions God. After she has done all these things for Him, why does He “reward” her with this “hour of grief”?
Tosca’s implicit moral order is that God rewards good deeds. He is just and, therefore, he gives us our due, for both good and bad deeds. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha does not posit the existence of an all-powerful God. So he does not face Tosca’s problem that this God lets the good suffer and the evil prosper. Nevertheless, his repeated statements that happiness will result from good behavior lead into similar problems that are not resolved in my mind by the doctrines of kamma and rebirth, any more than free will and privatio boni deal with the theist problem of evil.
Therefore, we will return to the question of retributive justice more than once in this series of posts about imagining and ordering in the face of pain, suffering, and illness. My point here is as follows:
If the listener dismisses high-minded critical commentary on the struggles of the artist, if the listener truly listens to the what Tosca is saying, then Vissi d’arte draws us into imagining justice, into feeling the pain of not getting justice, and into the plea to be treated justly.
All the while, evil triumphant in the form of Scarpia stares at her. Those who have seen the opera know that Scarpia gets his “reward,” his “kiss” from Tosca. In the end, however, justice does not win. Imagining that hurts, too.