Post-War Trauma and Postmodern Love

Musical Double Entendres “in” the Song of Song

In: Biblical Interpretation
Heidi Epstein University of Saskatchewan, Canada

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What biblical critical insights might re-reading the Song of Songs through its contemporary musical afterlives produce? I propose that certain offbeat musical settings of the Song participate in the discursive composition of specifically postmodern versions of love (e.g. those of Berlant, Belsey, Illouz), and thereby disrupt the transmission of normalizing socio-romantic energies within what Lauren Berlant calls “the intimate public sphere.” In this intertextual case study, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1925 Flos campi – a work usually praised for its harmonious reconciliation of sensual and spiritual musical moods and idioms – becomes a dystopic allegory of postmodern love. Gestating during WWI as Vaughan Williams served in France and Greece, then composed during a post-war decade of collective disenchantment with the Great War’s socio-political balance sheet, Flos campi constitutes an ambivalent response to both the composer’s individual as well as a more collective experience of national post-war trauma. With help from Roland Boer’s Lacanian reading of the Song (), I locate this ambivalence in the composer’s enigmatic treatment of musical pastoralisms and modal-tonal harmonies as well as his expressive deployment of formal, motivic, and thematic repetition. The dissonant erotic semiotics that these techniques produce in Flos campi can be enlisted today to challenge religio-rhetorical co-optations of the Song to bolster heteronormative institutions of love, sexuality, marriage and family by way of the Song’s supposedly timeless message that “Love Conquers All.” Correlatively, reading Flos campi as a product of post-war trauma and an allegory of postmodern love invites biblical critics to hear the text’s pastoralisms with fresh “ears.”

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