Monday, May 28, 2012

esoteric outbreaks in the labyrinth...

Concurrent with reading and writing on Wagner (see my opera blog), my ongoing interest in esoterica, the “secret histories” of the world, has been stimulated by recent connections between seemingly disparate subjects. Two fascinating pairs, in fact: the “mad” French poet Nerval and the German philosopher-poet known as Novalis (“one who opens up new land”) and two studies of the Renaissance, by Frances Yates and Walter Pater. Yet another pairing sparked the following syncretist attempt at connection, and that is Wagner’s visionary writing on Weber’s Der Freischütz.

"In the heart of the Bohemian Forest, old as the world, lies the “Wolfsschlucht”; its legend lingered till the Thirty Years War, which destroyed the last trace of German grandeur…" Wagner is describing the setting of the pivotal “Wolf’s Glen” scene in Weber’s opera in which the protagonist, Max seals his pact with the “Dark Hunter,” the Mephistophelean Samiel. Wagner’s reference to the Bohemian setting, the “grandeur” of German lore and legend, along with the fantastic and supernatural bent of his own imagination, connect this most enigmatic of geniuses to another episode of the world’s secret history.

The Thirty Years War saw both the climax and the quashing of the “Rosicrucian Enlightenment,” a movement of visionary mysticism associated with the Stewart princess Elizabeth (daughter of King James) and her husband Frederick V, the Elector Palatine of the Rhine. Disparagingly known as the “Winter King and Queen of Bohemia,” their demise following their defeat at Prague has overshadowed one of the most fascinating chapters “and most profound ironies” in the history of thought. This late-flowering “Enlightenment” at the end of the Renaissance gave birth to the so-called “Age of Reason.” Through a usurping reversal, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment was all but erased by the Cartesian era it helped engender. This is another example of the “Master and Emissary” dichotomy Iain McGilchrist so adroitly describes in his book of that name about the paradigm reversal of the brain’s hemisphere. Or, how the “wrong” half of the brain has dominated its right side. Reading The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, by Renaissance specialist Frances Yates, has piqued my curiosity and aroused my own syncretist tendencies.

The esoteric or hermetic traditions, like Rosicrucianism or Freemasonry, are syncretist “systems” whose theories aim at unity through harmony. Syncretist thought seeks the reconciliation of humanism and religion, the union of the “old [pagan] gods and the new [monotheistic] one(s),” or the sacred and profane. The individual is a symbolic microcosm of the macrocosm that is the universe. These fascinating and mysterious “schools” or “societies” have always been suspect and misunderstood, and therefore subject to dismissal, scorn or violent persecution. The esoteric traditions have in common various combinations of mystical, aesthetic and scientific thought like Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy and magic, music, architecture and philosophy, mathematics, geometry and chemistry.

An esteemed British scholar, Frances Yates devoted her career to research on the esoteric and hermetic traditions in and around the European Renaissance. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (Routledge, 1972, 2002) is an engaging study aimed at correcting an imbalance about an important “phase of culture” that has nearly “slipped out of history.” I believe Wagner, like many a “romantic” artist (from across the various historical periods of culture), was more in tune with the esoteric traditions than many biographers and critics allow. In contrast, attention has always been paid to the Masonic influences on Mozart. The Magic Flute is a veritable allegory of the symbols and rites of the Freemasons. This “divulging of secrets” by the upstart composer is the stuff of scandal, which is another reason Peter Shaffer’s controversial play Amadeus is vital theatre. It transcends the confines of biographical “fact” and connects to more abstract truth. And it’s great art.

The controversies surrounding the biographies of “eccentric” artists like Giordano Bruno and Robert Schumann (or Nerval and Artaud) have always threatened to upstage their visionary originality. Syncretist worldviews, and esoteric traditions in general prize equally the sciences and the arts, philosophy and literature, music and mathematics. Intuition and cognition are partners and not opponents in this universe. Openness to the mystical, metaphysical or supernatural realm extends to other mysterious worlds like alchemy and magic. Esoteric artists, as seekers of truth, strive to remain intellectually grounded in the sciences and cultivate the insatiable thirst for knowledge and experience. This is not to say such visionaries are “sorcerers” or members of “the occult.” They may, however, be called “initiates.” Like Wagner, they strive for a unifying, reconciling oeuvre. Rather than imitating life, art seeks to represent it in an “Ideal” form.

I am not making any claims for Wagner’s “membership” in a literal or figurative chain of hermetic artists. I simply perceive a connection between his life and works and the mysterious metaphysical “powers” that propel the prototypical German romantic opera, Weber’s masterpiece, Der Freischütz. Weber’s opera – like Gounod’s version of Faust – deals with the devil and ends with redemption, a unifying theme across theater and ritual. It is the leitmotif of Wagner’s music dramas. Reconciliation is one of the principal motifs uniting the various schools of esoteric thought, the Renaissance, and its re-incarnation in the Romantic movements of the 19th century.

Wagner said Weber’s orchestration “seemed to me like a greeting from the spirit world,” and eagerly confessed to a “sense of eeriness that had always excited me.” Subject to vivid visions, dreams and nightmares throughout his life, Wagner’s prose can reach heights of oneiric fancy. The boundaries between truth and imagination (or fact and fiction) and consciousness and dream are porous in this mysterious realm where creativity is master and reason is its loyal emissary. “Isn’t it romantic?”

Novalis, creator of the romantic archetype of the “blue flower” of longing and desire, was a master of the aphorism and fragment. Many of the fascinating hedgehogs in the labyrinth are his. “The mysterious way leads inward.” The “highest task of education is to take command of one’s transcendental self – to be at once the I of its I.” (from Novalis: Philosophical Writings, translated and edited by Margaret Mahony Stoljar. SUNY, 1997.) This is neither solipsism nor narcissism, but psychodynamic individuation. The “owning” of one’s “I” is necessary to realize one’s potential in the lifelong process of becoming one’s “self.” Nietzsche is one of many poets and philosophers to use such aphoristic fragments like those pioneered by Novalis.

One of the gifts of literature – of poetry and philosophy in particular (interchangeable terms where Novalis is concerned) – is its naming power. According to Stoljar, “Novalis had set out to redefine the relation between the intuitive and cognitive functions of the self, between feeling and reflection.” Or, as we like to say, “heart and head.” The “interactive process that Novalis calls ordo inversus is one of synthesis, harmony and reconciliation. When he states, “the world must be made Romantic,” he is not talking about a rose-colored sentimentality, but an integration of sentiment and intellect and spirit. So, heart and head and soul. Stoljar continues: “Through the working of the ordo inversus, our intuitive perception of objects and ideas is transformed into cognition as we distinguish them by name. Naming is perhaps the first and the simplest form of symbolization; once a name is established, it takes on a functional value of its own, giving form to our intuited understanding.” Names help us understand the world and ourselves.

Another aphorism cryptically states, “several names are of benefit to an idea.” This characterizes the non-solid, malleable form of poetic thinking. Its inability to be pinned down is one of the reasons its power remains mysterious. This may help explain why some find it unapproachable. “Poetry creates rather than imitates.” The same can be said for music. The joining of the two in opera makes for an inimitable and all the more potent creative force.

Like all visionaries, Novalis was ahead of his time and has been more appreciated with hindsight. Another term applied to his poetic philosophizing is “organic reasoning.” Influenced by the polymath genius Goethe, Novalis was working on an encyclopedic philosophical notebook before his death at age 29 in 1801. The “General Draft,” writes Stoljar, “ranges over philosophy and religion, science and mathematics, politics, literature and the arts, sexuality and psychology.” Such range is difficult to catalog, and impossible to categorize using the compartmentalizing tendencies of Cartesian logic or binary reasoning (“either/or” is “closed” reasoning, and “both/and” is open). Novalis, like the esoteric hermetic thinkers before him, was an early example of a thinker we’d call “holistic.” Education of the entire human being required teaching the individual how to think with all of the faculties. “The contemplation of the antiquities must be taught physically.” This “thinking in the body” must also be “poetic.” He referred to the “art of using all the senses” as nothing less than “magic,” and cited “love” as “the foundation of the possibility of magic.” If that sounds a bit “esoteric,” consider how many times one hears (or speaks) of the “miracle” of “true love.”

Stoljar describes the “exhilarating vigour” of reading these fragments and aphorisms, “that stems from their disconcerting heterogeneity.” Anyone who finds such “magical” or “alchemical” thinking disconcerting has presumably already left off reading. As mentioned above, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment is just one of the traditions concerned with the mysteries. Kabbalah, Masonry, and the “pagan” mythologies of classical antiquity – whose “revival” was the original inspiration for the Renaissance itself – are but a handful of names. But as Novalis reminds us, names are powerful symbols; they are essential clues in decoding the “secrets” of the esoteric traditions. Let’s examine one.

Parnassus is a mountain in Greece above Delphi. Literally. The student of the classics knows, moreover, Delphi was home to not only the famous oracle of Apollo, but was home to the Sun god himself. Parnassus is not only associated with Apollo, it is the home of the Muses. It is thus the “peak” of poetry and song. Is it any wonder bards of every age invoke a “renaissance” of this beloved “lost” world? A reference to Parnassus might “simply” be a classical cipher or a Hellenist association. And it may penetrate deeper below the surface to indicate ideals, aspirations or point towards some hidden knowledge or mystery.

The “Parnassian school” refers to a group of 19th century French poets every student of classical voice should know. They were not as famous as the composers who set their exquisitely balanced verse (Fauré was chief among them). Yet their influence on poets and composers, from Baudelaire and Verlaine to Debussy, changed the landscape of French aesthetics. Gérard de Nerval is sometimes grouped with the Parnassians (with his friend, Théophile Gautier and Leconte de Lisle). But Nerval, as I have attempted to demonstrate elsewhere, was also a visionary esoteric, and not a “mere” classicist. He imbues names and references with layers of explosively packed meaning. A poet who speaks of “that privileged and oneiric experience of time which ‘concentrates an entire century of action into a minute of dream,’” is not interested in proving his mettle as a scholar. The nine muses of Parnassus, whose mother was Mnemosyne (Memory), spoke in Nerval’s ear with increasing frequency during the last few years of his stormy life. Variations of “Sing, Muse” and “Speak, Memory” have whispered from the lips of bards from before the time of Homer to the ever-longed-for time of worldwide renaissance. They whisper still. Can you hear them?

Yates refers to a tract called “the general reformation of the whole wide world.” It circulated in tandem with the so-called “Rosicrucian manifestos.” The Venetian philosopher Boccalini wrote a satire called “News from Parnassus.” Satire depends upon the discerning intelligence of its intended readership for effect, and with various degrees of thinness, disguises its subversive agenda with ironic humor. Heine, Swift and Twain are romantic masters of this art. Rabelais and Cervantes were famous Renaissance incarnations of it. Boccalini’s readers would have recognized his sympathies with the Rosicrucian enlightenment. Yates cites a reference to Thomas More (author of Utopia), who “complains to Apollo of the spread of the heresy.” Unlike the bitterly ironic reversal that saw this esoteric enlightenment killed in its infancy, the author intends a subversive reversal. “Heresy” here does not refer to unorthodox creeds or “blasphemous” tracts (like the claims hurled at the Rosicrucians and their kin). Boccalini, an esteemed colleague of Galileo, invokes fellow visionary Thomas More in enlisting Parnassian support for the “confrontation… with a reactionary world.” Tyranny is the real heresy.

Galileo, More and Francis Bacon may be more familiar names than Paracelsus, Mirandola, Bruno and Boehme. Each of these hermetic philosophers and mystical alchemists deserves to be invoked more widely from Memory, the literal and figurative mother of the muses. Yates’s book is a great starting point.

One of the stimulating aspects of such reading and study is the connectedness of it all. Robert Fludd figures prominently in the Rosicrucian Enlightenment. The Anglican philosopher is also the inspiration for Booker-prize winning novelist Hilary Mantel’s novella, Fludd. Her note at the book’s head states, “The real Fludd (1574-1637) was a physician, scholar, and alchemist. In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical.” I followed the critical acclaim garnered by her prize-winning historical novel of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall. I encountered an aphorism from Fludd, however, in a book of depth psychology by the Jungian analyst, James Hollis. Jung might not credit such serendipity as literal “synchronicity,” but in Mantel’s “symbolic and fantastical” world, we shall call it so.

In honor of their shared birthdays on May 22, I wrote a little essay about Nerval which began by mentioning his connection to Wagner. Though Baudelaire’s and Debussy’s writings on the Master of Bayreuth are the most well known French examples of Wagner criticism, Nerval got there first. I tried to “read” some of Nerval’s esoteric “code” in my essay. Thumbing through my Nerval volume again in the company of Novalis and Wagner, Fludd and Yates (and Pater, with whom we shall conclude), I am struck by several references his editor and translator, Richard Sieburth, has included in the endnotes to Angélique. He refers to an “Italian magus” and “the mysteries of Egyptian Masonry” in one. The next four notes refer to: a “mystical illuminist and theosophist;” Nostradamus; “Jakob Boehme (1575-1614), German mystic and student of Paracelsian philosophy;” and finally, “Frederick William II…both he and his prime ministers were Rosicrucians.”

Reading Nerval’s Angélique on the eve of his 204th birthday caused one of the “thin partitions” between the levels of consciousness and the spirit world to dissolve. I experienced fantastic visions and dreams, and wrote the following gibberish as a personal and hermetic birthday tribute to Gérard and Richard.


What is madness? A transplantation out of essence
but into the abysses of the exterior interior.

(Artaud on Nerval)

I felt transplanted out of essence last night (May 21) reading Nerval’s Angélique. The vertiginous déjà vu of entering a world at once strangely familiar and utterly strange, eerily present yet interminably distant, unreachable except through my willingness to yield, submerge and disappear into the poet’s “waking dream,” his “supernaturalist reverie.” Is Eliot conjuring Nerval when he sings, “You are the music / while the music lasts?” Did I merge with the elusive de Bucquoy, Nerval’s fictional author of Incidents of the rarest sort? If so, it was a fascinating semi-consciousness that augured operatic dreams full of rhapsodic Wagnerian music.

Nerval’s heroine’s first lover leaves her a letter of exquisite invention:

…my need to see you again, has impelled me to return to your side so that I might humbly bask in the radiance of all your brilliant attributes and accomplishments, the lure of which has entirely stolen both my soul and my heart, and yet I am honoured to be the victim of such larceny…

Alas, “this letter proved fatal to its young author…caught red-handed by her father.” The poor gentleman “died four days later, the victim of a mysterious murder.” Artaud reminds us of Nerval’s tragic death, one in which he would join his idol nearly a century later. We are all victims of one form of larceny or another.

…let’s not forget that Gérard de Nerval died hanged… and that suicide cannot be anything other than a protest against a control and I really believe it is that of time, not on the side where time is the time that follows us in present life, but on that where present life rebels against the presence of eternity.

Artaud’s diagnosis sounds as absurd as Camus’ reading of Sisyphus smiling at his fate, blithely facing eternity, endless repetition and the tenebrous shades.

But from time to time, I mean at long intervals in the tenebrificated space of time, a poet has uttered a cry to make the little children come back…the beings born in the tumefying eschar of his heart of a suicidal immortal who comes to bell their drama in the foreground, the tragedy of their will to clarity: To illuminate the insistent tenebrae as I would say if I were Mallarmé, but as I will say like the Antonin Artaud that I am, the insistence of these tenebrae which rise up around my will to exist.

Our “will to exist” expresses itself in our “little children,” our artistic “daughters of the heart and of fire” (to conflate the two mad poets and their lyrical personages). What visions may yet appear ere l’anniversaire de Nerval est passé? What secret book lies within arm’s reach, its magic waiting to be conjured from lips prepared to sing its hieroglyphs into incantatory music?

22 May Tributes (Birthday letters to Gérard and Richard from Scotty)

I. (to G.d.N.)
Am I putting on its cloak
is this throbbing in my head
my brain about to implode
from the vertiginous thrill
of this mystical communion, Gérard?
Have I heard you correctly
Shall I await further instructions
or is this already the descent?
I do not fear Death
or rather, I am not afraid
to face him and confront
my fate. Thank you for
sharing the silent howl
of lyrical protest.
I embrace your eminence.

II. (to RW)
Was that you riding a bicycle
Richard, like Loge on that scooter
in the avant-garde Valencian
production of the Ring? So
happy birthday, Leubald, 199
and counting more than a
century’s worth of red balloons
to crown your Fest and
fly above that infamous
immodest ambition that puts
Scottish usurpers to shame. You’d
have to be mad to deny it
and even more touched to attempt
such vaulting theatricality – a 4,000
line über-Hamlet at 15?
A 16-hour tetralogy 40 years
in the making remaking a genre
and yourself, idol of the opera
house and scourge of God’s elect
to which ghosts do we pay
homage and which specters cast
away like the devils we love
to banish night after intoxicating night…

Never mind all that. The connections have continued across this week of reading and dreaming and writing. Best known for the aphorism, “all art aspires to the condition of music,” the philosopher and aesthete Walter Pater (1839-1894) is my favorite writer this Memorial Day weekend. A friend of Oscar Wilde (and inspiration for aspects of Dorian Gray), Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance is another “must” on the reading list. It starts with the era of the Troubadours in a microcosmic “renaissance” within the Middle ages, and ends with the 18th century German aesthete, Winckelmann. “A lover of strange souls” (by his own admission), Pater is a “Renaissance man” for all the ages. He includes essays on the aforementioned esoteric, Pico della Mirandola, and the Renaissance icons Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. He writes about Michelangelo’s poetry, an underappreciated aspect of that artist’s genius (though the facet most loved by Britten and Pears). He draws a portrait of the ideal artist and man, the Diaphaneité: “the diaphanous character,” innocent and transparent, “the true and visible soul or spirit.” Matthew Beaumont’s trenchant introduction to the slim Oxford World’s Classics paperback is an excellent entrée to this important, influential and controversial thinker. Like Novalis, Pater believed communion with and in art involved the entire human being; the work of the critic was not the exclusive purview of the traditional academic, trained philosopher or thinker.

Rejecting the orthodox school of the “abstract definition of beauty for the intellect,” he required a “certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved” by works of art which were “receptacles of so many powers or forces.” The duty of the critic or student or amateur then, is to “trace the action” of the artist’s “unique incommunicable faculty, that strange mystical sense of a life.” His “diaphanous character” has no agenda other than the union of the senses and the spirit.

Pater referred to the Renaissance as “an outbreak of the human spirit,” as “the movement in which the human mind wins for itself a new kingdom of feeling and sensation of thought.” From the auguries of the Renaissance in the Middle Ages to its rebirth in the Romantic age, Pater “traces the thread of light that runs through the richness,” according to Beaumont. He aligns Pater’s work with other idealistic philosophers like those chronicled by Yates. Pater’s “thread” runs through the 19th century and the modern era, “in the hope that, like a late form of Romanticism, it might eventually redeem the dispiriting realities of life in an industrial society. Like Romanticism, it thus constitutes a critique of the present and, at least potentially, a utopian alternative to it.” Beaumont anticipates the charges such lofty claims always provoke. “Paterian aestheticism is not an escape … it is an attempt to redeem.” Ah, there’s our theme. He “situates the alienated subject that he hopes to emancipate.” And he sits him in one of the most fertile periods of humanity, where thought, invention, creativity and discovery were equally aflame. Adept with clear logic to balance his flights of fancy, Pater observes: "Theories which bring into connection with each other modes of thought and feeling, periods of taste, forms of art and poetry, which the narrowness of men’s minds constantly tends to oppose each other, have a great stimulus to the intellect and are almost always worth understanding."

Writing about the rich period of the Troubadours, citing the legends of Tannhäuser and Venus, Héloise and Abelard, his opening chapter refers to an even lesser known aubade, “Aucassin and Nicolette.” Praising the “intenser sentiment,” and the “profound and energetic spirit” of poetry that juxtaposed the sacred and profane with daring virtuosity, he could be writing about the Rosicrucians or Nerval or Camus. "One of the strongest characteristics of the outbreak of the reason and imagination, of that assertion of the liberty of the heart in the middle age… was its antinomianism, its spirit of rebellion and revolt…"

I will conclude with Pater’s summary of the style of Pico della Mirandola. One of the hermetic mystics in Yates study, he was a prototypical “Renaissance man” who lived in Dante’s Florence. He influenced a subsequent generation of artists known as the Florentine Camerata, the founders of the genre we call opera. Pater finds with Mirandola, "a constant sense in reading him, that his thoughts…are connected with springs beneath of deep and passionate emotion; and when he explains the grades or steps by which the soul passes from the love of a physical object to the love of unseen beauty, and unfolds the analogies between this process and other movements upwards of human thought, there is a glow and vehemence in his words." And the flame that burns in such an artist, as Pater writes of Pico, will never “lose its vitality.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nerval: "...the most singular madman"

“Let us tell you the story of the most singular madman…”

Thus opens Nerval’s The King of Bedlam (in Richard Sieburth’s translation of Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings. Penguin, 1999).

Friend of Liszt and Berlioz and the French author credited with starting the craze of Wagnerisme in Paris (following his review of Lohengrin’s historic 1850 premiere in Weimar), Nerval deserves more attention. In honor of Wagner’s 199th and Nerval’s 204th birthday (they were both born on May 22), this is a humble effort in the direction of correcting that imbalance (see my opera blog for essays on Wagner).

According to Sieburth, whose introductory essays are among the finest I’ve encountered in such an anthology, Proust considered Nerval one of the greatest writers in all of the 19th century. His gargantuan novel, In Search of Lost Time is indebted to – and partly inspired by – Nerval’s novella, Sylvie. Countering the claim that the institutionalized poet was incomprehensible, Baudelaire praised the “forever lucid” work of a visionary Artaud compared to Hölderlin, Nietzsche and Van Gogh. Foucault would include Artaud himself in the list of “mad” geniuses whose biographies are inextricably bound up with their works.

Nerval (1808-1855) was most famous in his day for his translation into French of Goethe’s Faust. It was Nerval’s version of the mythic legend that enflamed the imagination of Berlioz, inspiring both his early Eight Scenes from Faust and his masterpiece musical drama, The Damnation of Faust. Admirers of Berlioz should note the connections between the visionary composer and his colleague. Both artists were ahead of – and thus out of sync with – their time. Their eccentric personalities and hard-to-classify originality have made them both easy targets. Both men cited visions and hallucinations as sources of inspiration, and Nerval articulated the dilemma this caused the lucid seer of such phenomena.

If the mind has to become completely unhinged in order to place us in communication with another world, it is clear that the mad will never be able to prove to the sane how blind they are, to say the very least!

(And all the crazy artists said “Amen.”) Like the rest of us loonies, Nerval had a self-deprecating sense of humor, a necessary attribute in our too-frequently hostile world. “The last madness I’ll probably persist in is to believe myself a poet: it will be up to the critics to cure me.”

Nerval was a mystic and syncretist, and like Poe, Baudelaire, Berlioz, Wagner and Artaud, a believer in the unique power of the unconscious. He described his artistic work as taking place in a “waking dream,” where he lived in “a state of supernaturalist reverie.” Such lofty esoterica does not endear one to the academy. Indeed, “normal” society has usually agreed on only one institution for such “unreasonable” creative types. Like Artaud after him, Nerval’s mental suffering, exacerbated rather than alleviated by his confinement, led to his suicide at what hindsight reveals as the peak of his achievement.

In addition to an amazingly rich book of sonnets, Nerval wrote essays and criticism. His fiction defies classification and prefigures avenues of modernism like Proust’s “involuntary memory” and surrealism’s “stream of consciousness.” Like mystics of every time and place, he is fluent in classical mythologies and a friend of the mysteries and rites. He keeps company with Virgil, Apuleius, Pythagoras, Dante, Bruno, and Mozart. He invokes Apollo and Dionysus, Orpheus and Prometheus. He signed a late letter with the oracular title, “Gérard de Nerval, initiate and vestal.”

The “vestal virgins” were guards of the “eternal flame” of Vesta, goddess of the proverbial fire at the center of the universe. An initiate is someone who has entered a fraternity or society through a series of tests and trials. One of the most common motifs in the initiation process is the mystical death and rebirth. It may be a literal or figurative re-creation of the descent to the underworld, as in the stories of Orpheus, Aeneas, Odysseus, Dante or Christ. The concepts of resurrection, transfiguration and transformation are universally potent symbols. The esoteric traditions, “mystery” cults and so-called “secret societies” remain clouded in misunderstanding. They are typically dismissed as “occult” or “fantasy.” In repressive times they become easy targets for witch-hunts. Do I think Nerval quotes Mozart in his writings to leave us a “clue” about his own status as a fellow Freemason? I don’t care about decoding Nerval’s “chimeras” for such superficial clues. He and Mozart are kin because they share artistic and philosophical values. These values have existed at least since the dawn of humanity. A belief in intellectual and spiritual enlightenment and a strong connection to the ancient world through faith in its meaning-of-life-enhancing mythologies (of which Christianity is one prime example) are just two core principles uniting the missions of many such fraternities. The ease with which such values are corrupted by social, economic, political and / or religious greed and hypocrisy has plagued every era. “This is my story, this is my song…” One can hardly blame the societies for guarding their “secrets.” Nerval invokes Virgil’s orders to Dante in the Inferno, “Be bold and think not of retreat;/ This way must serve us for the downward stair.” He juxtaposes Mozart's "andiam, mio bene" with it. Among other resonances, this is a poetic "shout-out" to his forbears and a signal to his readers.

One of Nerval’s early critics attempted to decode his densely layered mythic poems, The Chimeras by applying “occult symbolism of alchemy and tarot.” While alchemy and other forms of “magic” have always played an important role in the esoteric traditions, to “decode” them is to miss the poetic forest for the trees. The opening of the mind via the portals of symbolism is a main point of the process. The transformation engendered by a figurative alchemical process, rather than a literal metal-forging experiment, requires a comfort with “negative capability,” a faith in “fugitive causes” and an exceptional openness to the mysterious “other.” The critic James Parker (writing in The Atlantic about fantasy literature), cites Tolkien’s “Secondary Belief” as an example of “immersion – not the prim suspension of disbelief, but its joyful capsizing. Heavy swats of air as the dragon of imagination takes flight…” What an image – can you sense the fiery inspiration of its breath?

Countering that 1946 critic who wanted to explain away the mysteries of Nerval’s poetry, Artaud wrote, with characteristic cryptic flair,

the soul is a watchfiend, not a warehouse but a watchfiend, who always rises again and revolts from what formerly wanted to subsist, I would like to say “remanate,” to remain in order to re-emanate, to emanate while keeping all of its remainder, to be the remainder which will reascend. – Now, this soul, the poet makes it and he alone makes it… I do know that the poems of Gérard de Nerval are beings, extracted from Nerval from nothingness…

(from Watchfiends & Rack Screams: Works from the Final Period of Antonin Artaud, Edited and translated by Clayton Eshleman. Exact Change, 1995).

Artaud identified so closely with Nerval he virtually assumed the luckless poet’s mantle. The parallels between their biographies and outputs are uncanny. The opacity of a passage like the one just above should not obscure its brilliance. Writing to his erstwhile colleague, Alexander Dumas, Nerval drolly described his “hermetic” sonnets, The Chimeras. “They are no more obscure than Hegel’s metaphysics or Swedenborg’s Memorabilia and would lose their charm in being explained, if that were possible.” Poetry’s most musical gift is its rhapsodic and incantatory potential. In a visionary poet like Artaud or Nerval, the performance of the lyric is a vital element in its compound. Speak Artaud’s paragraph above aloud and note the music of his verbal invention: therein lies much of its hidden power. Like an undercurrent that is less seen than felt, the music of poetry needs to be sensually experienced. Nerval’s final sonnet, “Vers Dorés” (Golden Sayings) features an epigram of Pythagoras: “So, everything is sentient!” Sieburth’s free-verse translation reads:

Man, free-thinker, do you believe you alone are possessed of thought
in this world, where life burst forth in everything?
You are free to dispose of those forces at your command,
but the universe is absent from your plans.
Honour the spirit active in every creature:
each flower is a soul that opens on to Nature;
each metal harbours a mystery of love;
‘Everything is sentient!’ And everything has power over your being.
Beware of blind walls with watchful eyes:
even matter is imbued with a word…
Put it not to sacrilegious use!
Often the most obscure of beings houses a hidden God;
and like a nascent eye veiled by its lids,
a pure spirit buds beneath the husk of stones!

Sieburth quotes Nerval’s own preface to his translation of Faust.

All honour no doubt should be accorded to rhythm and rhyme, for they are the primordial and essential attributes of poetry. But there is in a poetic work something far more crucial and fundamental, something that produces the profoundest of impressions and that works with the greatest effects upon our spirits – namely, that which remains of a poet in prose translation, for only this conveys the true value of the material in all its purity and perfection.

Nerval’s erudite translator concludes, “poetry, in this sense, is not that which gets lost in translation, but rather that which survives it.” Thanks to readers from Artaud to Sieburth, Nerval’s “forever lucid” oeuvre has.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Reading Schubert’s musical landscapes

(for James Lego)

The novelist and Schubertian Peter Härtling called Schubert “an urban vagrant, a stranger among friends.” The center of a popular artistic circle at the dawn of the Romantic age and Biedermeier Vienna, Schubert is among the most enigmatic of composers. The so-called “father” of German art song, Schubert was a frustrated opera composer who failed to break the Bel canto craze Italian opera held over the imperial Austro-Hungarian capital. His impressive output of piano sonatas, string quartets and symphonies have always lived under the imposing shadows of Beethoven, and the melancholy syphilitic composer died at 31.

As much as any composer, tonality mattered to Schubert. Anyone interpreting the great B-flat piano sonata would do well to consider the family of songs in that key. The "Unfinished" symphony in B minor is informed by the “ineluctable sadness and loneliness of the human condition” Schubert associated with his key “of alienation and despair.” John Reed’s claims are supported by the litany of melancholy songs (including one by that very name) beginning in 1816 and continuing through his haunting song-cycle, Winterreise (Winter’s Journey) and the sets of Rellstab and Heine songs posthumously published as Schwanengesang (Swan Song).

A misconception has long existed that Schubert was an indiscriminate reader of poetry, and the scores of songs by minor authors are propped up as circumstantial evidence. Schubert also set the greatest writers of his day, from Goethe and Schiller to Novalis, Rückert and Heine. His settings of “lesser” poets, like his companion Johann Mayrhofer, reflect not poor literary taste but loyalty. Indeed, his friendship with Mayrhofer, a classicist poet and censor in Metternich’s reactionary regime, is one of the more enigmatic chapters of Schubert’s tempestuous bourgeois existence.

“His existential restlessness” was exacerbated by the circumstances of artistic life at the dawn of bourgeois society in the early 19th century. Härtling argues Schubert “suffered from the dull-witted, all too easily satisfied philistinism of his contemporaries and sensed the coldness and inhospitability of the newly dawning modern age. He was making preparations for a winter’s journey.”

Some of those musical journeys trail off with little trace, not so much like a proverbial road less traveled but untraveled altogether. The B minor symphony is one such path. Reed refers to the “apocalyptic and enchanted air” of the "Unfinished," and connects songs “concerned with suffering, death or passion,” like Suleika I, Grablied für die Mutter and Der Doppelgänger. All share the same tonality.

Poetic rhythm is as important as tone and diction in Schubertian form. “Was bedeutet die Bewegung?” (What is the meaning of this stirring?) is the opening line of Suleika (Reed’s translation). The Bewegung, or motion of the poem is a rocking pattern of three upbeat 8th notes followed by a downbeat quarter note. It is the same pattern as the “knock of fate” motive that opens Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Schubert uses it again to underpin the opening of his own B minor symphony.

If it is a melancholy tonality, it can also be an urgent one. Härtling refuses to classify Schubert as the prototypical Romantic he is often claimed to be. “He was one of those few anxious souls worn down by new departures and journeys left unfinished, a man who had abandoned Classicism’s clearly defined terrain and who with characteristic urgency and stubbornness explored the shadowlands between the Biedermeier period and a future age accelerating out of control: Kleist and Hölderlin, Büchner and Schubert are four of a kind in this respect.”

Again, contextual exploration connects Schubert to the “mad” poet Hölderlin, beloved by Brahms and Britten, and the visionary playwrights Härtling lists. Kleist’s Der Prinz von Hamburg inspired one of the great but underperformed operas of the 20th century by Hans Werner Henze, and Büchner’s troubled life is interwoven with his anti-hero protagonists like Wozzeck. Henze and Britten both were bowled over by Berg’s expressionist masterpiece operatic version of the play. All three writers articulated the challenges facing the artist in an increasingly philistine society.

We are not as far away from Schubert’s landscapes as it may seem. Ariadne’s thread runs through Schubert to Berg and Britten and Henze, and leads us through a cultural labyrinth connecting the authors above, composers like Bruckner and Mahler, and landscape painters from Friedrich to Munch and Van Gogh.

Härtling believes Schubert “draws all the strands together” in the Unfinished, and thus “the wanderer is now at home. Nothing can frighten him any longer, neither loneliness nor darkness.”

When Beethoven faced an existential abyss, he leapt over it throughout his revolutionary career. Schubert is also one unafraid of the darkness. Rather than catapulting himself over it, he approaches the precipice and confronts the void he faces.

Perhaps Härtling would agree. Of the Rilke-like “archaic torso*” that is Schubert’s "Unfinished," he says the “way in which the second movement ends requires no continuation. I imagine that, having made a few tentative attempts to complete it, Schubert realized that he had no need to finish this chapter, with its powerful design for a future world that awaits the wanderer’s coming.”

One of the most remarkable facets of artistic genius is its capacity for self-renewal and transformation. Schubert himself wrote in a famous letter, “what I produce is due to my understanding of music and to my pain.” In a poem from the period that saw the birth of the "Unfinished" symphony, the "Wanderer" Fantasy, the opera Fierabras and the song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, Schubert wrote:

Behold, as nothing in dust I live / A prey to grief unknown to all / My life a pilgrimage of pain / Now hears its everlasting end / Destroy my life and all I am / Cast me into Lethe’s depths / And then, O Lord, allow new life / To thrive in purity and strength.
(Schubert, John Reed. Schirmer, 1987, 1997.)

In Schubert’s most famous letter, an 1824 Jeremiad to his painter friend Kupelweiser, he poured out the grief that frequently precedes Phoenix-like renewal.

Think of a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this always makes things worse instead of better. Think of a man, I say, whose brightest hopes have come to nothing; for whom the happiness of love and friendship have nothing to offer, but, at the best pain; whose passion for beauty (at least the sort that inspires) threatens to forsake him. I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being? ‘My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it never, nevermore.’ I may well sing this every day now, for every night, when I go to bed, I hope I may not wake again, and every morning only recalls yesterday’s grief (quoted in Reed).

Concurrent with the "Unfinished" symphony and the dawn of Schubert’s syphilitic illness are three fascinating settings of another “minor” Romantic poet, Matthäus von Collin. Reed calls Wehmut (Melancholy) “the most perfect expression in Schubert of the mingled joy and sadness” so characteristic of this complex composer of “little” songs. Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) “is a bizarre tale of beauty and the beast, with overtones of sexual domination and obsession.” The song opens and emerges from the same cellular device as the "Unfinished." They are uncanny twins deserving further consideration. The insistent and repetitive rhythmic motives that suffuse Schubert’s works from his 1814 masterpiece Gretchen am Spinnrade (the source of the “self-quotation” in the letter above) to the "Unfinished" are never mere accompaniment. The final Collin setting, and the one that insures that poet’s immorality is one of Schubert’s most exquisite pages of music. Nacht und Träume is the beautiful calm after the sublime terror of Der Zwerg’s psychological storm. It is a dramatic juxtaposition of musical landscapes the composer would paint again and again in his brief life. The B minor symphony’s two movements are another such pair. If it is “unfinished,” it is “suffused with brilliance” like Rilke’s torso, Hölderlin’s fragments and Coleridge’s fragmented “vision in a dream,” Kubla Khan. Like them, Schubert’s symphony stands on its own, open and enigmatic, inviting us inside.

*see Rilke’s “The Archaic torso of Apollo” (from New Poems, translated by Stephen Mitchell):
We cannot know his legendary head / with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso / is still suffused with brilliance from inside, / like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, / gleams in all its power. Otherwise / the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through / the placid hips and thighs / to that dark center where procreation flared. / Otherwise this stone would seem defaced / beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders/ and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur / would not, from all the borders of itself, / burst like a star or here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

NYC notebooks: "…a riveder le stelle" with Broch & co…

The night before I flew to NYC, I heard Lidholm’s ethereal a cappella setting of Dante, "…a riveder le stelle," in a dream. The atmospheric soprano solo echoed from a balcony while I careened high up in the air on a seemingly endless swing, attached to nothing but the sky. Dante’s vision of the beyond is mirrored in Lidholm’s score, an infusion of the mysterious aurora borealis lights of the Nordic landscape.

Upon waking, memory of the fantastic dream was accompanied by the melancholy consciousness that the professional chorus I’d planned on introducing Lidholm’s music to (in real life) was wrested from me just a year ago. The professional loss was also a personal one, one with which I continue to grapple and come to terms.

My NYC reading list includes Hermann Broch’s profound novel, The Death of Virgil. A neglected 20th century European master, he was a victim and survivor of Nazi persecution (he was arrested as a “subversive” and fled to the US upon his release).

I’m visiting NYC to relax with friends and “enculturate” myself following a grindingly busy spring. I’m the opening of Billy Budd backstage at the Met May 4, thanks to my friend, Steven White. I also have a subscription to the final Ring cycle of the season.

Reading Broch reminds me why substantive art feeds all aspects of the human nutrition cannot reach. To call The Death of Virgil just prose or fiction is akin to mentioning only one facet of a priceless gem. His musical diction, in the form of the dying poet’s interior monologue, reads like poetry. Since I am inventing words in this notebook, the most immediate source of my enculturation is Broch’s “philoetry,” a supremely intelligent and lyrical harmonizing of philosophy and poetry.

Dante’s vision “to behold again the stars” is fittingly paralleled in Broch’s psychologically penetrating portrait of an artist as an old man.
…for a single time, perhaps for the last time, he must come to comprehend the vastness of life, he must, oh he must again behold the stars…
[Quotations are from the Vintage edition, translated by Jean Starr Untermeyer.]

As Virgil stirred from sleep, “he felt perception at work in himself.” Looking “to find the way back to himself,” and complete his life’s work (the Aeneid), he muses in a passage of philoetry, profound as any I’ve encountered in 20 years of close reading.

for he who has left the first portal of fear behind him
has entered the fore-court of reality,
now that his perception, discovering itself and turned towards itself,
as if for the first time,
begins to comprehend
the necessity inherent in the universe, the necessity of every occurrence,
as the necessity of his own soul;

The “doors of perception” to which Blake referred in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" are opened in such visionary writing. Concurrently with Broch, I am reading Campbell’s magnificent study, The Masks of God, Volume I: Primitive Mythology.

Writing about our collective mythological experience, he uses the poet A. E. Housman’s essay, “The Name and Nature of Poetry,” to describe humanity’s “urge to fashion images and organize forms in such a way as to create stimuli.” He is describing our need to create and experience art.

For Housman (quoting Keats), inspiration for poetry “‘goes through me like a spear.’ The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.” I remember the poet Gary Snyder asking me “if I had a fire in my belly,” in response to my naïve question about what I needed to do to “become” a poet. Diane di Prima inscribed her collection of poems to me with the quote, “the fire is central.” Campbell centralizes this inspirational fire through an interdisciplinary marriage.

Human experience and human art…have succeeded in creating for the human species an environment of sign stimuli that release physical responses and direct them to ends no less effectively than do the signs of nature the instincts of the beasts. The biology, psychology, sociology, and history of these sign stimuli may be said to constitute the field of our subject, the science of Comparative Mythology.

Thinking through Virgil, Broch writes that the artist,
must put his perception to the test again and again
and be proven by it again and yet again…

And in a passage echoing Whitman and Rilke at once,
the soul is caught constantly setting out,
ready for departure and departing toward her own essence…

Broch’s protagonist could also be the “absurd” artists Camus defines in The Myth of Sisyphus, for whom “freedom, passion and revolt” are the noblest triumvirate.
Continuing to weave his syncretic and labyrinthine thread, Broch proceeds, circling:
…for man is held into the perceptive ground of his knowing soul,
into the perceptive ground
of his doing and searching, his willing and thinking, his dreams,
he is laid open to the infinite and the chanceless within the real…

held into the now of his own symbol
in order that it may come to be his constant reality;
for it is the defiance of its summons
into which man is held,
the defiance of the imprisoned one,
the defiance of his inextinguishable freedom,
defiance of his inextinguishable will for knowledge,
so unyielding…

The artist is always on some level impatient, both by nature and experience. Discipline may temper the artist’s anxiety and be an antidote to frustration, but the unyielding fire is inextinguishable in the life of such a one. Broch nails it.

…for even though man was so fated to disappointment, delivered over to every sort of disappointment in great things as in small, his labor in vain, fruitless in the past and hopeless in the future, and even though disappointment might have chased him on from impatience to impatience, from restlessness to restlessness, fleeing death, seeking death, seeking work, fleeing work, harassed and loving and again harassed, fate-driven from one perception to another, driven way from the erstwhile life of simple creative work toward all the diversity of knowledge, driven on toward poetry and to the further exploration of the oldest and most occult wisdom, impatient for knowledge, impatient for truth, then driven back to poetry as if it could be related to death in a final fulfillment – oh, this too was disappointment…

Broch should not be dismissed as an over-stuffed pessimist or another angst-obsessed European. Even a fellow survivor wouldn’t stoop to such a blow. Resilience and persistence, steadfastness and a likeable obstinance mark him. Writing near the end of his own life, after his ordeals under the most brutalized form of philistinism fascism inevitably becomes, Broch’s protagonist is any such artist.

…even though his whole life seemed so utterly shipwrecked and remained so shipwrecked, so clogged by shortcomings from the very beginning, damned to founder for ever and aye, since nothing was fitted to penetrate the thicket…

Oh Virgil, Oh Dante, Oh Whitman, Oh Hermann, let this supplicant’s “many faults and derelictions” share but a moment in your shadows…

for only amidst error, only through error
in which he was inescapably held,
did man come to be the seeker
that he was…
…this was why he held into space after space
of his own awareness,
into the spaces of his self-realizing self,
self-realization – fate of the human soul

Paraphrasing Rilke, life is a series of increasingly large failures through which we grow. Campbell locates transformation in “the imprint of rapture enclosed in suffering.” This is another way of describing the famous catharsis of emotion, originally found in classical tragedy and present in many a great opera. I may be in an insignificant minority of English-speaking readers to encounter Broch, much less be moved to tears by his philoetry. Chalk it up to another “shipwrecking error” or “clogging shortcoming” on my part, hopeless romantic I am fated to be.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Remembering Adrienne Rich

Most of our love took the form
of mute loyalty

we never spoke at your deathbed of your death

but from here on
I want more crazy mourning, more howl,
more keening

These few lines are inside the May issue of Poetry magazine, underneath the name and dates of Adrienne Rich (1929-2012). Her death in March at the age of 82 leaves a void where a powerful and courageous voice had spoken for 60 years.

I met Ms Rich in 1994 at the Dodge Poetry Festival, and she inscribed my first collection of her poems, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. The title of the collection comes from the first line of her poem, “Integrity.”

Emotionally open like the so-called “confessional” poets, Rich’s work is contemporary and expansive, searing and intelligent, passionate and brave. Defying easy classification (like confessional, feminist, historical, political), she juxtaposes styles engagingly. Here’s a verse from the middle of “Integrity.”

Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breath in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius
to spin and weave in the same action
from her own body, anywhere –
even from a broken web.

Her prose is equally engaging. One of my favorite books of essays by any writer is What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. Poetry lovers will recognize the title’s reference to William Carlos Williams.

It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day
for lack / of what is found there
(from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”). Her essays introduced me to great women poets such as Muriel Rukeyser, June Jordan and Audre Lorde. She read Shakespeare and Stevens and Rilke with equal discrimination. She confronted difficult issues from the Holocaust to race and gender. She worried that contemporary US culture “may have forgotten the ancient role of poetry in keeping memory and spiritual community alive.”

Her passion is inspiring. One of the shortest entries in What is Found There is “As if your life depended on it.” Referring to books, music, theatre and painting also apply.

You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it. That is not generally taught in school. At most, as if your livelihood depended on it: the next step, the next job…

Re-reading this now, I recall an ambitious young colleague who chose “the next job” over loyalty to a mentor, who thanked the conductor who gave him his first professional engagements “for the opportunity to advance his career.” It should be possible to enjoy success and maintain integrity. Sadly, philistinism is as present in the arts as it is in every other corner of a society poisoned by materialism.

To read as if your life depended on it would mean to let into your reading your beliefs, the swirl of your dreamlife, the physical sensations of your ordinary carnal life; and simultaneously, to allow what you’re reading to pierce the routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary carnal life is tracked, charted, channeled.

Her brief prescription concludes with a demonstration of her clarifying tonic.

You can take refuge in the idea of “irony.” Or you can demand that artists demonstrate loyalty to that or this moral or political or religious or sexual norm, on pain of having books burned, banned, on pain of censorship or prison, on pain of public funding.
Or, you can say: “I don’t understand poetry.”

Encouraging a friend to stand up and take a risk in the name of principal, I shared a blast of Nietzsche I think even Rich might have endorsed.

The secret of realizing the largest productivity and the greatest enjoyment
of existence is to live in danger! Build your cities on the slope of Vesuvius! Send your ships into unexplored seas! Live in war with your equals and yourselves!

(from The Gay Science)

She is “thinking of Simone Weil” in “A Vision” but could be describing herself:

You. There, with your gazing eyes / Your blazing eyes

you are free for a moment. Then it comes back: this
test of the capacity to keep in focus

you with your stubborn lids that have stayed open

Near the end of the excerpt in Poetry magazine quoted above, the poet wrote,
We stayed mute and disloyal / because we were afraid. Rich confronted her fears in her work, and her life is a witness of bravery and unflinching honesty. Her “stubborn lids” stayed open and her vision is central to the poetry of the fraught 20th century.