Sunday, February 19, 2012

Janus-faced Victorians...

Certain periods in cultural history are fertile ground for Janus-faced figures that look back to the tradition they’ve inherited while facing forward with vision. Straddling the 17th century, Monteverdi (1567-1643) enlivened the Renaissance period behind him while ushering in the musical Baroque. Bach straddled the 18th century and Beethoven the 19th and both titans of “classical” music are exemplary Janus-faced visionaries.

Visionary and Victorian are not adjectives typically linked by association, but I would like to wed the two, using poetry and song. I have already mused on Thomas Hardy and his fiction and verse. It was Hardy’s subject, his critique of contemporary society, its foibles and hypocrisy, more than his style that makes him a visionary. Vision implies the courage to not only see but to say. A visionary may or may not be a prophet; a prophet is always visionary. As a post-Victorian seer named W. H. Auden put it in his anti-fascist poem, “September 1, 1939,”
All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie…

Alfred Edward Housman and Ralph Vaughan Williams may not be front-runners in the race for visionaries of their era, but they are joined as Janus-faced authors unafraid to tackle the Big Questions of life, regardless of how easily dismissed as traditional or conservative their works may be. Though they were not close in life, they are forever joined in art through RVW’s chamber music setting of 6 AEH poems entitled On Wenlock Edge. The masterpiece song cycle, for piano quintet and tenor, is one of the composer’s finest works, and a distillation of his studies with Ravel. It is redolent of a quintessentially English pastoral impressionism, at once particular and universal, a balanced synthesis and exemplary essay in its genre.

What Housman and Vaughan Williams both achieve, in poetry and music, respectively, is a series of exquisitely crafted landscapes that mirror the psyche as emotional inscapes, surveys of the heart and soul. The title poem of the song cycle describes a tempest, a snowstorm worthy of one of Turner’s sublime landscapes. Vaughan Williams proves his mettle as a composer of so-called program music, continuing a tradition in which “weather music,” from Monteverdi to Beethoven to Wagner to Debussy, functions both as pure visceral sound and as dramatic program.

One of many challenges facing the Janus-faced artist is the tension inherent in the dialectic. We recall the romantic aphorism beloved of Schlegel and Novalis that “without contraries is no progression.” The contrast between “modern” city life and “idyllic” country life is a central theme in Victorian England and across post-revolutionary Europe. Housman joins Hardy, and both follow Heinrich Heine in this progression. The authentic English voice of Vaughan Williams and Holst, following Elgar, juxtaposes tranquil pastoral beauty that is tinged with romantic melancholy in tension with the encroaching angst of the modern era.

The prescience of the visionary can only be evaluated in hindsight. If not the first, George Orwell was the most prominent member of his generation to recognize Housman’s foresight. The inexorable march of time, transient mortality, the loss of traditional faith, and the sheer contingency of life on earth are all themes central to modern thought articulated before the so-called “Great War.”

The unimaginable horrors of the First World War, which, as Adorno points out, “seems peaceful in comparison to its successor,” are perceptible as germs in the poetry of Hardy and Housman. Such seeds were sown earlier as the romantic era and the industrial revolution materialized in close proximity. Songs of Innocence and Experience is not only William Blake’s most famous poetry collection, it is the epitome of a dialectic that continues to challenge and inspire. Its synthesis is embodied in authentic experience that haunts us with its elusiveness.

After Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Hardy, Housman and Robert Louis Stevenson carry this essential crux, the nexus of intuition (innocence) and cognition (experience). The names of Stevenson’s major works alone attest to this. Innocence pervades A Child’s Garden of Verse and out-of-balance “experience” drives the Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. The dialectic is further explored in Treasure Island and Songs of Travel (the latter chosen by Vaughan Williams for his most famous set of solo songs).

Hardy’s poetry abounds with imagery contrasting the unspoiled innocence of nature and children with the studied and stunted experience of so-called grown-ups. “Wagtail and Baby,” “At the Railway station, Upway” (or, The Convict and Boy with the Violin), and “Before Life and After” are three such examples, each set to music by Benjamin Britten. No composer embodied the dialectic of innocence and experience more than Britten. It is a through-line in his life and is the central theme of his work. The rub of recovering innocence’s purity and wholeness in a world broken by experience colors the operas upon which his fame was established, and permeates his prolific body of choral and vocal music. His collection of Hardy settings, Winter Words is one of the finest examples of English poetry set to music. Each song is a character study or drama in miniature. The poet’s imagery is brought vividly to life in both the virtuosic tenor melodies and the Schubertian tone-painting accompaniments for the piano.

“Wagtail and Baby” describes a pastoral setting where a toddler watches a bird drinking while various creatures enter and disturb the landscape. Only when “a perfect gentlemen” appears does the bird fly away, causing the child to ponder.

A baby watched a ford, whereto
A wagtail came for drinking;
A blaring bull went wading through,
The wagtail showed no shrinking.

A stallion splashed his way across,
The birdie nearly sinking;
He gave his plumes a twitch and toss,
And held his own unblinking.

Next saw the baby round the spot
A mongrel slowly slinking;
The wagtail gazed, but faltered not
In dip and sip and prinking.

A perfect gentleman then neared;
The wagtail, in a winking,
With terror rose and disappeared;
The baby fell a-thinking.

Elsewhere I’ve written about Britten’s tour-de-force setting of Hardy’s “The Choirmaster’s Burial,” a scene in which innocence and experience are articulated vis-à-vis the artist and society. It is another through-line uniting the artistic genres and the artists who create in each of them. The images, metaphors and allegories that story the poems, paintings and songs of artists across the centuries attest to this passion for articulating the challenges of living an authentic life in a broken world. One of the 20th century’s greatest artists was George Braques, who “along with Juan Gris and Picasso, made up the holy trinity of cubism, in which the role of God the Father belonged wholly to Picasso and the role of the Son to the surprising and still misunderstood Juan Gris – who in a different production could easily have played a Cyclops – whereas fate reserved for Braque…the role of the Holy Spirit, which as we know is the most difficult of all and the one that gets the least applause from the audience” (Robert Bolaño, Between Parentheses).

Bolaño’s colorful description – visionary itself – is followed by excerpts from Braque’s Illustrated Notebooks, the ostensible subject of his essay. Braque observes, The artist is not misunderstood; he’s unrecognized. People exploit him without knowing it.

More than a grain of truth lives in that observation. What is even more dangerous for our collective health is misunderstanding or failing to recognize the artist’s subject, namely the search for meaning. Entertainment may be artistic. And it may be mere entertainment, “escape art” as Auden put it. “Parable art” teaches and enriches, it provokes the catharsis of emotion and connects us to the core of our being, our shared humanity, and the indomitable spirit that makes us human. Such authentic art may also be entertaining. Our mental and psychic capacities allow for complex experience. It is up to each of us to recognize, understand and embrace such complexity. It is up to each to choose the complicated truth over the simple lie, to live through the tension rather than escape from it. As the eminent conductor James Levine reminds his musicians in rehearsal, struggling to balance the competing demands of executing complex opera scores, “if it were easy, anyone could do it.” One of Sondheim’s songs repeats, “Art isn’t easy.” Life isn’t either. Which is why life and art have each other. Nearly home and about to be lost again at sea, Odysseus exclaims, “I will stay with it and endure and once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to pieces, then will I swim. What else can I do?”

Saturday, February 18, 2012

In praise of the uncomfortable...

Benjamin & Baudelaire, shock & spleen

Comfort isolates…it brings those enjoying it closer to mechanization. (Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Baudelaire)

We live in a “culture of entertainment” where hours, days and eventually lives are spent with “extremely merry things viewed by extremely sad people who do not know what to do with them” (Max Scheler, quoted by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World). This is why we have universal remote controls and limitless supplies of pharmaceuticals.

There is an abyss between the walls of our consciousness, the halves of our brains, a widening gap between the intuitive and the cognitive, between success and fulfillment. None other than Albert Einstein registered the chasm thus:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

Might the comfortable be the enemy of the authentic? Might our society’s brokenness bemoaned by the strident right and whiny left (the adjectives are interchangeable) be connected to the same unchecked drives that brought the so-called “American Century” to the fore? Does anyone still read Shakespeare? History?

Pathos, which in modernism is replaced by Angst, becomes in post-modernism just a joke. (McGilchrist)

Hungering for new stimulation, obsessed with the latest version of the latest technology, the fastest, easiest, most “user-friendly” app available, no one notices the cloaked stranger smiling in the corner of the room, brandishing his scythe.

We confuse novelty with newness (McGilchrist). We mistake surface for substance, volume for intensity and packaging for content, culturally afflicted as we are.

Walter Benjamin was an intellectual prophet whose time may be now, if we are to save civilization from imminent destruction wrought by technology and reality TV. His critique of modernity was not as reactionary as the preceding sentence(s) might aver. In the years between the world wars he anticipated the “commercialization and final alienation of the intelligentsia…the gradual denaturing of art…and the replacement of experience by the new concept of information” (Michael Jennings, introduction to The Writer of Modern Life). Art may be our final hope.

The loss of humanity and the mechanization of life through the unchecked march of technological “progress” is the stuff of apocalyptic sci-fi lit, post-modern speculative fiction, and films from the Nouvelle Vague to last summer’s lamentably forgettable Hollywood “blockbusters.” The latter’s generalization does not require elaboration, further proof of the disconnect between our souls and the stuff we feed them.

Reading would be a good start. Literacy and open intelligence are required “to fathom the full meaning of the breakdown.” Benjamin’s reading list didn’t necessarily start with the splenetic proto-modernist Charles Baudelaire, but he circled back to the poet of Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil, contemporary with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, another seminal and career-defining, ever-evolving single body of work).

I am fond of the Janus-faced figure. Not in the pejorative “two-faced” sense, but in the visionary sense of looking back to the past while envisioning a way forward. Baudelaire was one such figure, the one Benjamin credits with being the first to recognize society “was about to annul its contract with the past.”

One of the means Baudelaire uses towards this end was spleen. Benjamin again:
Baudelaire was a bad philosopher, a good theoretician, but only as a brooder was he incomparable…his perpetual readiness each time to put the image at the beck and call of his thought… The brooder, as a historically distinct type of thinker is at home among allegories. He perforce must dwell in shadows, and be familiar with discomfort.

Benjamin uses an allegory with the Old Testament figure of Joshua, whose sun-stopping accomplishment was “to interrupt the course of the world.” Benjamin cites this aim as “Baudelaire’s deepest intention… From this intention sprang his violence, his impatience, and his anger.”

If we recall Benjamin’s younger cousin Thomas Bernhard’s definition of “genius,” then Baudelaire (and Benjamin) are full members of a prickly, unpopular company. Bernhard’s splenetic artist Reger is both alter ego and anti-hero.

A good mind is a mind that searches for the mistakes of humanity and an exceptional mind is a mind which finds these mistakes of humanity, and a genius’s mind is a mind which, having found these mistakes, points them out and with all the means at its disposal shows up these mistakes (from Old Masters).

Along with Baudelaire’s sui generis brooding, Benjamin cites his location of the “shock experience at the center of his artistic work.” Thus, like Bernhard’s mistake-seeking malcontent, “Baudelaire’s poetic production is assigned a mission.”

The shock is nothing less than the abyss between the persona and the soul, the artist and society, or the human being and the authentic life (recall that “the good life” used to refer to one balanced by intellectual commerce across the humanities, with science / technology playing supporting roles: the epitome of the erstwhile “Renaissance man”).

Enlightened or authentic consciousness is the protective shield against the threatening danger of shocking stimuli, to paraphrase Freud and psychoanalytic theory. Baudelaire registers the shock experience with his poetry, connecting back to Poe (who is more appreciated in Europe than at “home”), paralleling Dostoyevsky while looking forward to Kafka and Beckett. That these writers can be loosely grouped under umbrella descriptors like “difficult,” “disturbing” or “dystopian” should stimulate deeper reading rather than easy escape.

What is difficult and disturbing is the real-life challenge of gaining enough consciousness to first register the shock and then absorb it into one’s self without grievous bodily harm resulting.

Baudelaire has portrayed this process in a harsh image. He speaks of a duel in which the artist, just before being beaten, screams in fright. The duel is the creative process itself.

Benjamin uses a Poe tale, “The Man of the Crowd, ” translated by Baudelaire, to illustrate both sides of shock‘s coin and the numbing effects of modern society on the individual. From the assembly line in the industrial revolution to contemporary “plugged in” lives absorbed by an endless variety of screens, a mislabeled “connection” to society results in isolation. Alienation is an even graver danger, distinct from isolation as shame is more insidious than guilt. Benjamin weaves these strands into an apt illustration of an ever-present imbalance.

Poe’s text helps us to understand the true connection between wildness and discipline. His pedestrians act is if they had adapted themselves to machines and could express themselves only automatically. Their behavior is a reaction to shocks. “If jostled, they bowed profusely to the jostlers.”

Poe’s line is echoed by one of Baudelaire’s diary entries, itself tinged with irony (and a reminder that biting wit is both arsenal and defense in the hands of the poet):

Lost in this base world, jostled by the crowd, I am like a weary man whose eye, looking backward into the depths of years, sees only disillusion and bitterness, and looking ahead sees only a tempest which contains nothing new, neither instruction nor pain.

So what to do? Battle the crowd like Baudelaire, “with the impotent rage of someone fighting the rain?” That image more closely resembles a polemic politician, evangelist, or a spoiled child. The medium and the message must meet in context.

Dylan Thomas put it memorably, mustering strength and channeling willpower:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

An ancient Chinese proverb reminds us it is “better to light one candle than curse the darkness. ” Despite the apparent contradiction in these aphorisms, the essentially affirmative nature of artistic creativity makes them kin. Light the candle while cursing the “madding crowd,” but move on to the poetry reading, please. Let’s start with Auden: All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie (from September 1, 1939).

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A little more reading...with Roberto Bolaño

(which may or may not be by Breton, according to Roberto Bolaño's newly collected "Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998-2003 entitled Between Parentheses, New Directions, 2011)

The cowardly don’t publish the brave
(or why the sunny-side up establishment resists the shadow-dwelling dissidents). This is the pithy Bolaño on the unjust neglect of Rodrigo Lira, and is equally applicable to Nicanor Parra, Pedro Lemedel and Witold Gombrowicz, among others.

Lira, unlike most of his contemporaries, isn’t an involuntary inhabitant of an incomprehensible dream, but a voluntary resident, someone with his eyes open in the middle of a nightmare.

On Pedro Lemedel,
the best poet of my generation…though he doesn’t write poetry:
Lemedel is one of those few who doesn’t speak respectability (the respectability for which Chilean writers would sell their asses) but freedom

Bolaño picks up where Bernhard left off, in the lonely lineage of the disgruntled genius who dares speak the harsh truth against the grain, takes aim at the establishment from every angle. Bolaño pillories positivism, deflates the rose colored balloons of Hollywood & Hallmark-style romanticism, exposes all forms of reactionary fascism, liberal hypocrisy, cowardice and any perpetuating conformist status quo while maintaining a sense of humor that is requisitely self-deprecating, ironic, playful, and egalitarian in its targets. He joins Diogenes the Cynic, Cervantes & Shakespeare, Swift & Poe, Kafka & Musil.

Prizes, seats (in the Academy), tables, beds, even golden chamber pots belong, of course, to those who are successful or to those who play the part of loyal and obedient clerks.

As Barthelme points out, all art is affirmative by its nature, so Bolaño forges something luminous in the crucible of his wit, from the detritus of his pot shot diagnoses. His wish for his native Chilean literature reads like a manifesto for any of our dissident writers striving to create

something more decent, more radical, more free of chicanery…something reasonable and visionary, an exercise in intelligence, adventure and tolerance.

Though Auden may by too fey and academic for Roberto’s gang of poets, his double-edged “Our father” concludes with the following aspiration.

Inflict thy promises with each
Occasion of distress
So that from our incoherence we may learn
To put our trust in Thee
And brutal fact persuade us
To Adventure, Art and Peace. (from For the Time Being)

The epigraph-as-manifesto above is the concluding phrase of “Eight seconds with Nicanor Parra.” Descriptions like the following whet my appetite to discover another Chilean writer, which is one of the ways the window of our mind stays open.

Parra doesn’t write about purity. He does write about pain and loneliness; about pointless and necessary challenges; about words fated to drift apart just as the tribe is fated to drift apart. Parra writes as if the next day he’ll be electrocuted.

What a startling image of how we might live each day with more vitality, urgency and presence. Rilke may be too precious for Roberto. And I have to make room for the too-quickly departed Christopher Hitchens’ anti-Rilkean Letters to a Young Contrarian somewhere. The angel-communing, Orpheus-echoing poet’s injunction, you must change your life reverberates and harmonizes with Roberto and Hitch.

Where is the Bolaño for the USA today? Christopher Hitchens, whose targets have included progressives & neo-cons alike, Bill Clinton & Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa & God, died at the end of last year, aged 62. Bolaño died in 2003, aged 50.

Contextualizing Parra, Roberto describes an essential voice for any place / time:
He has survived the Chilean left, with its deeply right-wing convictions, and the memory-challenged, neo-Nazi Chilean right. He has survived the neo-Stalinist Latin American left and the Latin American right, now globalized and until recently the silent accomplice of repression and genocide. He has survived the mediocre Latin American professors who swarm to American university campuses and the zombies who stagger through the village of Santiago.

Partisanship is a dead-end and the establishment is deadening. Ars longa

Returning to the cross-dresser, Pedro Lemedel,
Bolaño piques and arouses us again:

No one goes deeper than Lemedel. And also, as if that weren’t enough, Lemedel is brave. That is, he understands how to open his eyes in the darkness, in those lands where no one dares to tread. How do I know all this? Easy. By reading his books. And after reading them, in exhilaration, in hilarity, in dread, I called him on the phone and we talked for a long time…and then I know that this queer writer, my hero, might be on the side of the losers but that victory, the sad victory offered by Literature (capitalized, as it is here), was surely his. When everyone who has treated him like dirt is lost in the cesspit of nothingness, Pedro Lemedel will still be a star.

From the same notebook of epigrammatic entries containing “Phone conversations with Pedro Lemedel” (collected in Between Parantheses, brilliantly translated by Natasha Wimmer, and the source of this homage to one of my heroes), a closing quote from “Everybody Writes.”

Sometimes the fact that everyone in the world writes can be wonderful, because you find fellow-writers everywhere, and sometimes it can be a drag because illiterate jerks strut around sporting all the defects and none of the virtues of a real writer. As Nicanor Parra said: it might be a good idea to do a little more reading.