O Ridiculous Fortune

Groucho Scream
September 11th, 2012

O fortuna! Velut luna, statu variabilis!

Semper crecis et decrecis, vita detestabilis!

(Carmina Burana)

O fortune! Like the moon you are ever-changing:

Always increasing and decreasing, making life detestable!
(Rough translation)

Whenever I’m feeling depressed, laughter is often the way out. Ridicule in particular is my friend, paradoxically. When others ridicule me, my self esteem evaporates faster than water in a vacuum. But when I ridicule myself, in the ensuing hilarity, all my self-important tragic victimhood sublimates.

Music is often the tool for the job. Listening to broody romantic music, or in this case, Orff’s post-modern cantata Carmina Burana is all it takes.

At first I am dragged away by deep currents of sadness, but then, I become aware of the Dantesque comedy that life is, and the insanity of being incensed by it, and belly laughs explode.

The harsh, grating chords of “O Fortuna!”, the first song in the Carmina Burana, are often overused on television to symbolize burning ire, destruction, and sometimes eternal damnation. They contain brilliant cymbals, searing brass, ominous strings, voices of lament, and dissonant harmonies. They are the sonic equivalent of Edvard Munch’s famous “Scream” in the deep anguish and existential angst they conjure.

But that is precisely why they are ridiculous. If I were audacious enough to modify Munch’s masterpiece, I would put clown make up, or comedy glasses on it. That might render it even more terrifying for some, but it’s hard to supress grunts of laughter at the mental picture. (Profuse apologies for the blasphemy and artistic sacrilege.)

Carmina Burana seems to me a descent into existentialist absurdism in its high praise of hedonism. It has a song that celebrates drunkenness (In Taberna), another that with some artistic license might be translated to “I am the abbot of cuckoldry” (Ego Sum Abbas), a hymn to physical beauty (Ave Formossisima), and a lovely love song to a goat (Veni Veni Venias).

This laughter is our salvation when life tries to crush us in its wheel of fortune. Why not turn it into a carnival wheel, or better, a Ferris Wheel, and from the perspective of one of its gondolas, observe the beauty that it is to exist.

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