At the end of the film, Farinelli’s smile meant peace. It was the peace of a man who loved, of a man who had accepted his fate, of a man who had a future, of a man who was no longer the judge and standard—despite having suffered unjustly. It was the peace of a man who had forgiven, the peace of a man who had been freed from “Groll.”

The helicopters are humming in the sky outside my home. I can see one from my window, darting in and out of the clouds. The others I can only hear: a low whirr that bounces off the skyscrapers, waxing and waning. They are keeping watch on the protesters who, I am told, are on Fifth Avenue. I can hear them too, at times, or so it seems to me.

The streets are mostly still deserted in the City, the stores for the most part still closed. I can, at times, see lone persons walking dogs. I have spotted a taxi or two on 42nd Street these days. The Delis are boarded, their entrances small and guarded. I saw graffiti on my favorite steakhouse as I walked past it this afternoon on my way to the parks behind my home. It had a broken window, through which I could see chairs resting on the tables and dust gathering on the floors. There is still no real word on the return of the coxswains, no word on next semester. We are the many in the City, still waiting for our sentence to be commuted, still bravely holding our 7 p.m. salute, even though COVID-19 and the frontline workers seem only to be a thing of the past.

I cannot but reflect on the lavish, heartbreaking movie Farinelli, as I read the news these days, of Carlo Broschi and his tormented quest to discover why he had been castrated, of his discovery that it had been his own brother who had ordered it, of his rage at his betrayal and his resentment, of his desire to have children. The air (or so we are told) is thick with a rage and resentment that echo his. Even the drugs that Farinelli took in order to deal with his nightmares (and the daylight) fill today’s world.

I remember the rage I felt when I walked out of the movie theater that night. It was not directed at Riccardo Broschi, the older brother, the composer who sought fame and fortune, who rather than protecting his young brother had had him mutilated so that he could avail himself of what had promised to (and by all accounts turned out to) be an extraordinary soprano voice. Nor was it directed at the hideousness of the world that rejoiced at the results of Farinelli’s mutilation, at the crowds of fainting painted women who adoringly chanted “One God, one Farinelli,” fell at the poor Castrato’s feet, and into his bed knowing that their husbands (or fathers) would be none the wiser for their having done so.

My rage was directed at those who had not protected me: my parents. I was a student. I was fighting my way up the ladder alone. How could parents not protect their children? Why weren’t they helping me? How could I suffer (and have suffered) from their willful ignorance, their sacrifice of their own children to their own dreams and designs? Why did I have to wear that hat with a chicken on it during the Easter parade, with my mother and all of her friends laughing at me uncontrollably, tears rolling down their cheeks? I was only six years old. My mother had insisted that I march in the parade and that I wear the chicken hat, knowing that it would make everyone laugh. She never told me why I had to march in the parade or wear that hat. She had not even told me why the hat was so funny. Why put your child through that? Why me?

It was Spring when I saw the movie. The air was sweet, the trees in bloom. I walked past them on my way home afterwards, and the brownstones. Petals carpeted the sidewalks. Quaint little lights illuminated the entrances to the homes with their bow-windows, making my imagination run wild with images of parents who did not make their children wear chicken hats or fend for themselves. I saw little Amy Preston, with her white gloves and prim Easter bonnet that made no one laugh, and whose parents glowed when she marched past them. The images made my blood boil. Why, I fumed, why make me a laughingstock for your own amusement?

The allure of that combination of rage and resentment, what the Germans call Groll, was powerful. I remember nearly every step of it as I walked home that night. It was intoxicating to have Groll, to allow rancor, stirred by a real (or imagined) injustice suffered, to spew from my guts and fill the recesses of my soul with rage: to see myself as a victim.

Groll filled me with immediate certainty: I felt, on that walk home, that I was in full possession of the standards of truth and justice. The standards were mine. They were me. I no longer needed to reason to make out just who I was, what I was really capable of doing, how good my work really is, what I really want, what really happened to me, what the world is, and what I ought to do, what I should have done, my own mistakes, my failures. Groll made me the center of the universe: the focal point of all human events. It was all self-evidently about me.

And as I walked (and breathed in heavily of that rage and resentment, of Groll), I ‘clearly and distinctly perceived’ that I was immaculate, spotless: that those who have not done what I wanted had self-evidently mutilated me. Where was my pony? The entire universe was misaligned, I felt, because it had not recognized my maltreatment: what I truly deserve. My victimhood felt self-evident: clear and distinct. The world owed me.

I also felt strangely free. Groll relieved me of all responsibility and made me very powerful. It took down the walls that separated my emotions, my thoughts, my aspirations, and reality. It acted like an automatic bridge between the “clear and distinct me” and reality. My emotions fueled my thoughts, sharpened them, and directed them. They replaced the streets under my feet, the brownstones, the trees, Farinelli. Groll turned my inner world into an anti-Garden of Eden, that promised all of the ease that Adam and Eve knew before the fall.

Theirs was an unimpeded view of the good and the right. It was not wrapped up in pain, fatigue, toil, needing to fend for oneself, getting the grades, convincing people to back you, getting the grant, making headway, figuring out how the little actions fit in with the big picture, piecing together a proper view of universals, abstraction, natures, essences, understanding where I am going, making sense of the whole horrid phenomenon of castrating young boys for fame and fortune, of chicken hats. Adam and Eve knew no uncertainty before the fall. They knew no fear.

The garden of Groll gave me all of that immediacy. I suddenly felt that it was not I who needed to grow, to understand, to search, to bow to reality, to make amends, to find, to double check. It was everyone else who needed to accommodate me and to make amends. My soul become black with the need to vindicate my self-evident mutilation, my importance, my being the center of the world. Nothing would satisfy that need other than obeisance, prostration, groveling, making everyone else suffer.

But as I walked step after step feeling more and more vindicated by Groll, the voice of reason began to filter through that molten lava bubbling inside of me. It was not brought on by seeing the homeless people in the streets clutching pints of hooch, by a honking horn, by a yelling cab driver. It was a breeze, a gentle breeze that blew in the darkness: an image of Farinelli kneeling before his beloved Alexandra, kissing her pregnant belly, and smiling.

The image stopped me in my tracks. How could he be smiling, I growled? Had his manhood magically been restored by the pregnancy? Had his years and years of pain melted away simply because the woman he loved was going to give birth? Had his brother really paid for his lies and his sin simply because he had tried to commit suicide and had fathered a child for a brother whose very manhood he had stolen for his own personal gain? Who did Farinelli think he was just to let that go?

I looked up at the trees and knew what that smile meant: peace. It was the peace of a man who loved, of a man who had accepted his fate, of a man who had a future, of a man who was no longer the judge and standard. It was the peace of a man who had forgiven, the peace of a man who had been freed from Groll.

In a flash I saw that the garden of Groll was lonely and dark. Nothing grew there. There was nothing but a black pit. How had I wandered into that garden? I wondered. I recognized nothing around me. How could I have found that place stable and seductive? The certainty, the immediacy, the self-evidence, the clear and distinct perceptions that had all seemed written in stone had vanished.

I am not even in control of myself, I realized, let alone being the focal point of all human events.

My parents, my poor clueless parents, I then sighed, they too had had parents, and in all probability chicken hats too. And their parents had had parents, and it’s turtles all the way down. I was not even able to be angry at Descartes and all of his minions who for centuries have been trying to herd us into the garden of Groll: to the fishbowls, their microscopes, and their promethean tragedies.

With that I thanked God, begged for forgiveness, and smiled with Farinelli. If marching in the Easter parade wearing the chicken hat gave my mother joy, so be it. At least it kept Groll at bay. Laughter makes the devil flee.

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The featured image is a detail from Retrato de Carlo María Broschi, Farinelli (1750) by Jacopo Amigoni (1682–1752) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity. The film Farinelli is based on the life of this 18th-century Italian opera singer whom the portrait depicts.

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