Milton Babbitt and Contemporary Music

This being the centenary of the birth of Milton Babbitt, one expects that celebrations of his work and legacy would be in order. So why the silence?

Milton Babbitt is one of America’s greatest composers; and one of the most neglected in performance halls. While the Julliard School’s Focus! Festival recently celebrated the centenary of Babbitt’s birth (Babbitt taught there for 37 years) and pianist Augustus Arnone performed Babbitt’s complete solo piano works, there are few other celebrations of his works planned.

One reason is the fearsome reputation of Babbitt and his music. Babbitt is said to be a composer of ‘difficult’ music. That alone gives some pause. Many have strong, negative opinions of his work without ever having heard a single note. Then there are the essays, ‘Who Cares if you Listen?’ published in High Fidelity (1958) and ‘Some Aspects of Twelve-Tone Composition’ (1955) where he famously argued that, ‘twelve-tone music suffers only slightly more than other ‘difficult,’ ‘advanced’ music — to the extent that the label itself supplies a basis for automatic rejection.’ One only has to replace ‘twelve-tone music’ with ‘serial music’ and one captures the feeling of most music listeners today toward Babbitt and his works.

That is unfortunate because Babbitt’s music is hardly difficult and its rejection says much about the state of contemporary musical performance.

Let’s take a look for a moment at Babbitt’s High Fidelity piece, one which is often pointed to as an example of everything that is wrong with Babbitt and with contemporary serious music. First off, the title was not Babbitt’s. It is, in fact, ‘The Composer as Specialist.’ The editors at High Fidelity wanted something more provocative. Without telling Babbitt, the editors changed the title. To this day, that title gives many the wrong impression of what Babbitt was arguing. Here is an excerpt:

The unprecedented divergence between contemporary serious music and its listeners, on the one hand, and traditional music and its following, on the other, is not accidental and- most probably- not transitory. Rather, it is a result of a half-century of revolution in musical thought, a revolution whose nature and consequences can be compared only with, and in many respects are closely analogous to, those of the mid-nineteenth-century evolution in theoretical physics The immediate and profound effect has been the necessity of the informed musician to reexamine and probe the very foundations of his art. He has been obliged to recognize the possibility, and actuality, of alternatives to what were once regarded as musical absolutes. He lives no longer in a unitary musical universe of “common practice,” but in a variety of universes of diverse practice.

This fall from musical innocence is, understandably, as disquieting to some as it is challenging to others, but in any event the process is irreversible; and the music that reflects the full impact of this revolution is, in many significant respects, a truly “new” music, apart from the often highly sophisticated and complex constructive methods of any one composition or group of compositions, the very minimal properties characterizing this body of music are the sources of its “difficulty,” “unintelligibility,” and isolation. In indicating the most general of these properties, I shall make reference to no specific works, since I wish to avoid the independent issue of evaluation. The reader is at liberty to supply his own instances; if he cannot (and, granted the condition under discussion, this is a very real possibility) let him be assured that such music does exist.

If one takes a moment to read these words carefully, one discovers that there is not much to disagree with. I am most in agreement with his argument that today’s composer is ‘obliged to recognize the possibility, and actuality, of alternatives to what were once regarded as musical absolutes. That there exists not a single set of agreed upon practices, but a variety of ‘universes of diverse practice.’

One of the challenges of modern serious music, especially at music that is labeled ‘difficult’, is that it requires listeners to abandon searching for recognizable tonal reference points. These points are ones that have been drilled into people’s ears and reinforced by repeated performances of agreed-upon important classical works. If one comes to a piece by Babbitt expecting to hear a composition in the style of Beethoven or to hear melodic motifs similar to what one finds in Schumann or Debussy, then one will be lost. That is not to say all that came before is abandoned, only that there are now other ways to compose works, new vocabularies open to the composer to use.

Babbitt’s music, as with much other serious music of the 20th century (atonal, twelve-tone, microtonal, electro-acoustic, etc.), puts these new musical vocabularies or ‘universes of diverse practice’ at the centre of the work; and places unique demands upon listeners:

This is not necessarily a virtue in itself, but it does make possible a greatly increased number or pitch simultaneities, successions, and relationships. his increase in efficiency necessarily reduces the “redundancy” of the language, and as a result the intelligible communication of the work demands increased accuracy from the transmitter (the performer) and activity from the receiver (the listener). Incidentally, it is this circumstance, among many others, that has created the need for purely electronic media of “performance.” More importantly for us, it makes ever heavier demands upon the training of the listener’s perceptual capacities.

I liken the demands made by contemporary serious music on the listener to that made by modernist literature on readers. If one comes to the works of Joyce and Beckett, or Gaddis and Gass, for example, or to the poetry of Paul Celan or H.D., expecting to read them in the same way, or to operate in a similar fashion, as 19th century novels and poetry, then one will be thrown for a loop. It is still common for people today to react negatively to modernist literature; just as it is common for people to have a similar reaction to ‘difficult’ music. How many times have such works been dismissed – with a great deal of anger in some cases – as elitist, the artist producing works cut off from the greater world and arrogantly asserting themselves above the common man.

Take a moment to listen to these two early pieces by Babbitt:

These works showcase Babbitt’s extension of the twelve-tone idiom. What about them is exactly ‘difficult’ or elitist? Where are they ugly, as I’ve heard other claim?

When one listens to other Babbitt compositions, such as All Set, one hears not difficulty, but joy and sly humour. And the music swings!

Even knottier works such as Tableaux for piano from 1973 with its rapidly unfolding contrapuntal lines never feels forced or academic. It is engaging in the deepest sense of the word:

So why is Babbitt’s music not played more often in the concert repertoire?

The late Charles Rosen in Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, makes a point that new music requires champions and repeated performance to become understandable to an audience.

Too often, today’s orchestra’s and chamber groups shy away from doing this. One is a fear of offending the audience. With many orchestras and chamber groups in the United States and Canada financially struggling, symphony and chamber music board members will insist on sticking to what is familiar. That is why every year one hears the same pieces and composers, the same operas performed. I had one board member tell me that if they were to program new works they were guaranteed to see about a quarter of their long-time subscribers cancel their support. Why risk such a financial loss?

And in those rare times when a new piece is performed, it is often done badly. New works need extensive rehearsals for the performers to understand what the composer wants to achieve, to familiarize the players with the new tonal language before them. And once mastered, those works need to be played often so that audiences can orient themselves and navigate these works.

Rosen remarks how he conveyed his excitement and wonder to Boulez at a performance of a chamber work by Harrison Birtwhistle that Boulez conducted. “Boulez explained: ‘We had thirty-five rehearsals.’” Later, when Rosen saw a performance of Alban Berg’s Lulu conducted by Boulez, and was fascinated by how the orchestra seemed to know the opera by heart and executed it with amazing confidence, again Boulez remarked that he was able to secure forty-five recording sessions. It was only by repeated rehearsals, by the orchestras and chamber groups working their way through the difficult piece before them, did the musicians achieve the mastery and understanding needed to make the works understandable to both themselves and the audience.

“Is it any wonder that the public finds difficult contemporary music so irritating. However, since Beethoven, it is the difficult music that has eventually survived most easily; originally unintelligible Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, and all the others that were so shocking are now an essential part of the concert scene. Some of this music is accepted because of its prestige; an average audience would find Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue for string quartet as annoying as Schoenberg or Stockhausen if they were not told the name of the composer.” (184)

Rosen adds that even up to the 1950s, there were towns in the United States that would cancel performances by the famed Budapest Quartet if they got a hint that the musicians might play a late Beethoven quartet.

Not much has changed. Few concert halls or chamber groups will invest the time needed to learn a new piece of ‘difficult’ contemporary music and risk the audience’s puzzlement or resentment; or to make such works a standard part of the repertoire and thereby help audiences become accustomed to such works.

But without the commitment in bringing new works to musicians and audiences, works by such composers a Babbitt – and many others, sadly – will remain rarely heard or given a chance to find an audience.

Guy Davenport

The Face of the Moon John Russell

The Face of the Moon, “painted from nature” by John Russell, 1795

I remember the Guy Davenport story, actually a novella and the first of his three great novellas, which made me a lifelong admirer of his fictions. It was the opening of ‘The Dawn in Erewhon’ from his first collection, Tatlin!

The Dutch philosopher Adriaan Floris van Hovendaal was arranging the objects on his table, a pinecone to remind him of Fibonacci, a snail’s shell to remind him of Ruskin, a drachma to remind him of Crete. He had been thinking all morning of time, which was nothing, or was the direction of being, or was a dimension of the world and therefore spatial, or was the deference whereby an effect followed rather than preceded or was simultaneous with its cause, or was but sequence and nothing more.

This opening stopped me, not because I was flummoxed by the references and learning packed into that single paragraph. My reading in university at the time I discovered Davenport’s fictions was delightfully eclectic and catholic, with the chaotic reverie that comes from youth and wanting to devour all. Along with my assigned readings from professors, I devoured the densest of philosophical works, Schopenhauer to Heidegger, the ancient Greeks to Wittgenstein; high modernists as Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Joyce and Beckett, to name a few, and works science fiction and detective stories.

Davenport’s opening captured the world I was living in at the time and its excitement. As I read on, going to the university library to check upon some person or idea Davenport referenced, I grew enchanted with how Davenport told the story of van Hovendaal, whom I learned Davenport modeled after Ludwig Wittgenstein and the retelling Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. This was not writing, I thought, but writing as a work of art. The novella’s disjunctive style was as important as the story; the juxtapositions of different ideas and thinkers were meant to startle one into new ways of seeing and thinking about things.

Once, reading by a campfire, he had an intuition of the bog men inspecting their bone hooks and written blades by the glow of peat. He had thought of Rembrandt, of the preciousness of glass, the interior smugness of the Dutch. Rembrandt was candlelight, stovelight.

Vermeer was windowlight reflected from canals. Hobbema, the light before rain. The north had all its light sifted through forest leaves, and has never forgotten it. Only Dūrer dreamed of real light.

I cannot look at those painters to this day without Davenport’s illumination of the different kinds of light each painted. No one wrote like this; no one today writes like Davenport.

Each time I read his fictions and novellas, I’m amazed not just at the erudition behind them, but how I’m startled anew by some piece of information Davenport places in this story, linking together thinkers and ideas that brings about some new insight. Davenport often notices something mundane, something that has always been there, but that throws into a new light an artist’s whole work. Take for instance Balthus, whom Davenport has probably written the only good studies of this painter, both in his Balthus Notebook and  the short essay ‘Balthus’ in his collection Every Force Evolves a Form and from which the passages below are taken:

The only clock I can find in Balthus is on the mantel of The Golden Days of the Hirschhorn, and its dial is out of the picture. Balthus’ children have no past (childhood resorbs a memory that cannot yet be consulted) and no future (as a concern). They are outside time.

Charles Fourier concocted an elaborate philosophy to discover human nature and invented a utopian society to accommodate it, a society of children organized into hives and roving bands. Adults were, so to speak, to be recruited from the ranks of this aristocracy.

The linking of Charles Fourier with Balthus is marvelous and revelatory. Balthus and Fourier are utopians.  Both celebrate and revivify the imagination and physical and sensuous life. As if often the case with Davenport, as it is with Balthus, it is those moments of adolescent reverie and imagination, combining Eros and sensuous energies, which remake the world. There is a passage in Davenport’s stunning Apples and Pears that captures this moment and serves as a touchstone for what Davenport hoped to achieve in his fictions and essays:

Rilkean angels, complex essences in a wind of light, fibrous with articulate memories, accidental events enriched into significance, a cherished smile, a long afternoon, a concupiscent dream, disappointments salvaged by courage, are the quiring that Fourier saw as a destiny of attraction. They are harmonies of essences. They are kin to us.

Davenport is not much read now. Many of his books have gone out of print and none of his stories, to my knowledge, appear in collections of American short fiction. He has his admires, students who attended his lectures and classes at the University of Kentucky, and other writers. Samuel R. Delany has written that Davenport is one of a select group of writers who “each reaching in an entirely different direction, achieve a sentence perfection that dazzles, chills and – sometimes – frightens: William Gass, Joanna Russ, Guy Davenport and Ethan Canin.”

What explains Davenport’s near vanishing from the literary scene? Davenport’s fictions feature many instances, sometimes alluded to and sometimes explicit, of boys and young men in homoerotic relationships. This part of Davenport’s works throws up barriers to some readers, although I have found many, who while turning away from Davenport’s work, have no problem with Nabokov’s more morally disturbing Lolita.

What may be going on is that many mistake Davenport’s boys and men as pornographic images, much as Balthus’ paintings are reduced to being nothing more than the work of a dirty old man who liked “young girls showing their knickers,” as one person told me when Balthus’ name was mentioned. As a scholar and translator of ancient Greek, Davenport knew how Eros and philosophy were closely tied. Eros, agapē and love fill Platonic dialogues. The handsome Alcbiades desires to sleep with Socrates only to have Socrates artfully put him off. Still, it is this erotic element in Plato that is turned to the highest of philosophical arguments and speculation.

Dialogue between the master and the student, between the older Socrates and the younger men and boys whom he speaks and debates with, is electrically charged with erotic energies. There is no getting away from that. George Steiner in his Lessons of the Masters puts it memorably: “A ‘master class,’ a tutorial, a seminar, but even a lecture can generate an atmosphere saturated with tensions of the heart. The intimacies, the jealousies, the disenchantment will shade into motions of love or of hatred or into complicated mixtures of both . . . Over the millennia, in countless societies, the teaching situation, the transmission of knowledge, of techniques and of values (paideia) have knit in intimacy mature men and women on the one hand, adolescents and younger adults on the other.” From the Platonic academy to British public schools, from the Athenian gymnasium to seminaries, homoeroticism and education are intimately linked.

Such relationship are fraught with risk. Rousseau knew the dangers of amour proper, that it can become toxic and self-defeating. But if moved in healthier directions, amour proper would help develop rational capacities and more healthy relationships amongst persons. Davenport’s fictions with their Fourierist utopianism are a plea for a healthier relation between both imagination and Eros. Davenport knew that his fictions were likely to be controversial. In his anthology collection Twelve Stories, he wrote that he excluded his longer novella and novel-length works (The Dawn in Erewhon, Apples and Pears and “Wo es war, soll ich werden”) as they were often misunderstood. Too many fixed on elements that are trivial. While never stated outright by Davenport, he could only mean the homoerotic elements of the works. Still, he held onto the hope that there  might someday be a readership for these complex fictions: “Another age, beyond our end-of-century comstockery and Liberal puritanism, may find these works interesting, aber freilich nicht wahrscheinlich.”

Modernism and Subjectivity: A Brief Essay

Kazimir_Malevich small

Kazimir Malevich – ‘Suprematist_Composition – White on White’, oil on canvas, 1918, Museum of Modern Art

One reason why there are so few decent books on modernism — pace the often excellent books and studies of individual modernist writers, painters and thinkers — is that modernism is not a term that can be clearly defined or dated. Every attempt brings risk: why this historical period as opposed to another, why this trend and not one that paralleled or preceded it? Can modernism have a specific date and place? Is there one modernism or many?
What is excluded is just as important as what is included. Should Dada and Futurism be included or should they be seen as unique challenges within the modernist movements happening across Europe. Should Vorticism and Russian Futurism be included; how should one place the short-lived collective OBERIU along with Suprematism and the artistic and other literary experiments happening across Eastern Europe and Russia, and in the early years of the Soviet Union? How to they fit into the idea of modernism? And why has modernism today retreated from the scene? Why have we returned to tired forms and nostalgia?
To understand what modernism is, it may be best not to seek a positivist account. It cannot be reduced to a defined historical period, as a part of the natural progression of art and history; or amongst its most implacable foes, as a conspiracy by academics and dealers looking to secure tenure and make money by telling people that plotless novels and blank canvases were superior to good-old-fashioned plot-driven  works and recognizable landscape paintings.
Instead, I would like to propose that modernism can only be understood as a result of the tensions that emerged within the Renaissance the later Enlightenment, in what T.S. Eliot called the ‘dissociation of sensibility,’ where the individual was now in a world were the old verities were gone, or if not completely disappeared were nevertheless under increasing scrutiny. But what was to replace the old certainties was uncertain. At the same time this was happening, there was a growing shift to living in what we would call urban environments, where life was tuned to new kinds of economic, social and political realities.
Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind outlined the psychic cost of this dissociation. Where Man could once ground the self on what were once universally accepted certainties, that was not the case anymore. In the section ‘Freedom of Self-consciousness: Stoicism, Scepticism and the Unhappy Consciousness,’ Hegel outlines how the self is now not a secure, unchanging thing that can be objectively observed, but is one in dialectical flux:

Sceptical self-consciousness thus discovers, in the flux and alternation of all that would stand secure in its presence, its own freedom, as given by and received from its own self. It is aware of being this of self-thinking thought, the unalterable and genuine certainty of its self. This certainty does not arise as a result out of something extraneous and foreign which stowed away inside itself its whole complex development; a result which would thus leave behind the process by which it came to be. Rather consciousness itself is thoroughgoing dialectical restlessness, this mêlée of presentations derived from sense and thought, whose differences collapse into oneness, and whose identity is similarly again resolved and dissolved — for this identity is itself determinateness as contrasted with non-identity. This consciousness, however, as a matter of fact, instead of being a self-same consciousness, is here neither more nor less than an absolutely fortuitous embroglio, the giddy whirl of a perpetually self-creating disorder. This is what it takes itself to be; for itself maintains and produces this self-impelling confusion. Hence it even confesses the fact; it owns to being, an entirely fortuitous individual consciousness — a consciousness which is empirical, which is directed upon what admittedly has no reality for it, which obeys what, in its regard, has no essential being, which realizes and does what it knows to have no truth. But while it passes in this manner for an individual, isolated. contingent, in fact animal life, and a lost self-consciousness, it also, on the contrary, again turns itself into universal self-sameness; for it is the negativity of all singleness and all difference. From this self-identity, or rather within its very self, it falls back once more into that contingency and confusion, for this very self-directed process of negation has to do solely with what is single and individual, and is occupied with what is fortuitous. This form of consciousness is, therefore, the aimless fickleness and instability of going to and fro, hither and thither, from one extreme of self-same self-consciousness, to the other contingent, confused and confusing consciousness. It does not itself bring these two thoughts of itself together. It finds its freedom, at one time, in the form of elevation above all the whirling complexity and all the contingency of mere existence, and again, at another time, likewise confesses to falling back upon what is unessential, and to being taken up with that. It lets the unessential content in its thought vanish; but in that very act it is the consciousness of something unessential. It announces absolute disappearance but the announcement is, and this consciousness is the evanescence expressly announced. It announces the nullity of seeing, hearing, and so on, yet itself sees and hears. It proclaims the nothingness of essential ethical principles, and makes those very truths the sinews of its own conduct. Its deeds and its words belie each other continually; and itself, too, has the doubled contradictory consciousness of immutability and sameness, and of utter contingency and non-identity with itself. But it keeps asunder the poles of this contradiction within itself; and bears itself towards the contradiction as it does in its purely negative process in general. If sameness is shown to it, it points out unlikeness, non-identity; and when the latter, which it has expressly mentioned the moment before, is held up to it, it passes on to indicate sameness and identity. Its talk, in fact, is like a squabble among self-willed children, one of whom says A when the other says B, and again B, when the other says A, and who, through being in contradiction with themselves, procure the joy of remaining in contradiction with one another.

Later he will add:

Hence the Unhappy Consciousness the Alienated Soul which is the consciousness of self as a divided nature, a doubled and merely contradictory being.
This unhappy consciousness, divided and at variance within itself, must, because this contradiction of its essential nature is felt to be a single consciousness, always have in the one consciousness the other also; and thus must be straightway driven out of each in turn, when it thinks it has therein attained to the victory and rest of unity. Its true return into itself, or reconciliation with itself, will, however, display the notion of mind endowed with a life and existence of its own, because it implicitly involves the fact that, while being an undivided consciousness, it is a double-consciousness. It is itself the gazing of one self-consciousness into another, and itself is both, and the unity of both is also its own essence; but objectively and consciously it is not yet this essence itself — is not yet the unity of both.

An important part of modernism is recognizing this new sense of the self that emerged. While many books about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment tend to place positive weight on the emergence of what we would call modern individualism that arose out of the collapse of the old ways of thinking about persons and their relationship to society and religion, these thinkers and writers have often downplayed or ignored the tensions and contradictions that arose. In the effort to undermine old certainties, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers often could not ground the new certainties any better. If old certainties were argued to be set on unexamined or arbitrary foundations, the new ones were many times set upon ones that were as unstable and prone to collapse when subjected to the same scrutiny given to the ones now removed. The self and its place in this new world was as uncertain as the foundations on which the new order was trying to set itself upon, hence Hegel’s sense that self-consciousness was unhappy when it became aware of its divided and contradictory being.
Kierkegaard recognized one consequence of this dissociation of sensibility and that is the tendency of persons to seek some basis on which to ground themselves. One way of doing so is by absorption into the anonymous urban mass. Kierkegaard recognized the consequence of this absorption, which in his A Literary Review, he called ‘levelling.’ The danger in this levelling is that it removes the will of persons to examine themselves and gives rise to inauthentic selves based on what is external. As he was to put it in The Sickness unto Death:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self…. In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

By the late-19th Century, this feeling of the self under threat, of the ennui  produced by the self’s perilous relationship to mass society, of at any moment it being swallowed up, was memorably described by Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria as the feeling one gets when missing a step on a darkened staircase.

Heidegger in Being and Time will take this idea of levelling to describe the anonymous ‘they’ of das Man, that of modern urban mass culture that directs persons to superficial externalities:

In this averageness with which it prescribes what can and may be ventured, it keeps watch over everything exceptional that thrusts itself to the fore. Overnight, everything that is primordial gets glossed over as something that has long been well known. Everything gained by struggle becomes something to be manipulated. Every secret loses its force. This care of averageness reveals in turn an essential tendency of Dasein which we call “levelling down” of all possibilities of Being.

We might call this public opinion or received wisdom, an all-to-easy set of prescriptions for our selves and our agency, that are external to us and un-reflected upon. This is why today, in my opinion, there is a nostalgia for the old forms, for novels written in the modes from the 19th century with its comfortable psychology; for serious music that tonally mimics earlier styles.
Modernism brings this tension to the fore, of Hegel’s dialectical self and its relation to the world with the pressures of sinking the self into modern society’s anonymous levelling of spirit. Kierkegaard waned of the dangers of the levelling affect of the public, of which nostalgia is one such consequence :

The public, however, is an abstraction. To adopt the same opinion as these or those particular persons is to know that they would be subject to the same danger as oneself, that they would err with one if the opinion were wrong, etc. But to adopt the same opinion as the public is treacherous consolation, for the public exists only in abstracto.

Modernism resists this levelling of the public, of the treacherous consolation of the old forms.

Harold Brodkey

Harold Brodkey, New Yorker Hcoale, via Wikimedia Commons

Few literary reputations have fallen as precipitously as that of Harold Brodkey.
From the time his first stories appeared in The New Yorker to the publication of his acclaimed collection First Love and Other Sorrows (1958), Brodkey was considered a writer of outstanding promise. When word got out that Brodkey was working on a massive novel, portions of which appeared over the years in several magazines and journals, it was proclaimed by some as a work of genius and Brodkey as important a writer as Proust. As years went by, with his only other publication being Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988) and various essays and occasional pieces appearing in such places as diverse as Esquire and Anteaus, critical opinion turned. Brodkey was now more often accused of being a fraud, his much-delayed novel a hoax and his literary skills negligible. Opprobrium was directed at Brodkey’s person, at the advances given to him from publishing houses to which his novel was shopped around and at those who once championed his work. Stories that once were said to be masterpieces, such as “Innocence” and “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft,” were dismissed with such venom that one suspected the critic making the negative comment had been personally insulted by Brodkey at some private event.
When his novel finally appeared in 1991, having undergone a title change from Party of Animals to The Runaway Soul, as well as going through extensive revisions and stylistic changes from the portions that had appeared earlier, critics and readers responded negatively. Few serious novels, in my memory, have been savaged in the way The Runaway Soul was or how its author was publicly pilloried, with some reviewers leaving the distinct impression that Brodkey had committed some grave moral offense that could not be forgiven.
While he continued to publish after the failure of The Runaway Soul, producing another novel and more short stories, along with a book about Venice and a memoir of his battle with AIDS, by the time of his death in 1996 Brodkey’s literary reputation was in tatters. Now approaching twenty years since his passing, Brodkey’s works are out of print and his name has fallen out literary conversation. There are no planned symposiums on his work or person, or a even biography in the works, that would suggest a revival of interest in his work.


It is not hard to see why The Runaway Soul did not succeed. Brodkey’s novel is demanding in ways so few novels today are. There are few incidents across its sprawling text and its focus, instead, is on the obsessive and microscopic chronicling of the sensations and shifting consciousness of Wiley Silenowicz, a stand-in for Brodkey, and his coming of age in the American Midwest; and on Wiley’s love, sometimes sexual and erotic, with the various people in his life. The novel is marked by two erotic and explicit episodes that take up a great part of the book’s explorations of Wiley’s consciousness.
Where most novelists will reveal a character’s inner consciousness as it develops over time and in chronologically laid-out incidents, Brodkey has time move at the pace of consciousness. Time becomes pliable, slowing down and speeding up in Brodkey’s focus on closely examining those handful of incidents in Wiley’s life. What fascinates Brodkey is how such incidents can never yield a single final truth, that each remembrance will offer up a new sensation, an additional fact and emotional register. It is the plenitude, excess and complexity of experience within those snapshots of time that most fascinates Brodkey. Think of it as a radical form of phenomenological realism where traditional realism, as developed in the 19th century novel, is unable to go. Brodkey’s realism also requires a new kind of writing , one that can capture the subtle changes happening to Wiley’s consciousness. What Brodkey develops is a writing that captures the different emotional and intellectual registers of consciousness, but one that is not in anyway linear or continuous. It is a style marked by excess, capriciousness and expansiveness. It is a headlong rush that can change on a dime, moving from the portentous to the subtle, from the mundane to the profound. Language is stretched to the point of breaking in the rush to capture every nuance, even if at times, Brodkey has Wiley struggling to find the right words and expression for what is happening, and sometimes failing and flailing in the process. Here is Wiley describing Ora and he in the prelude to having sex:

The way we were doing it ̶ the ironic thing and the physical effort and the showiness and the sincerity ̶ from time to time ̶ and that stuff being shown (rather than the physical mattering most) ̶ well, in body-surfing, you land on the beach and you’re okay and you think back over your recent ride so you can have it in near-consciousness, so to speak (but the memory is all rushed and a lot of what happened is hidden from you inside the sense of wondering pleasure), you have bits of a conscious large-scale stuff, and then being young and bare-fleshed and borne along by the melting green locomotive. Something unhallucinatory, something graspable, the shine of faint sweat on Ora’s face, the faint fakeries of the posture in the first place ̶ I’m not comfortably a showy fucker. I’m hammy. Ora said, Oh you beautiful man . . . But, see, it was proof of a kind of wrongness ̶ which was okay ̶ it went with the thing of sex being softly and oozingly mechanical and breath-driven, and unmechanical, and fitting and suitable, and loving and stupid ̶ and not stupid ̶ and grand really only, sublime, a little ̶ as when you were small and were on a swing and went too high and suddenly the sky was there and light and infinite air and a separation from the world which was infinite, infinite ̶ for a second. That was here judgement ̶ her view. I am guessing at it. It’s the body parts and then the motions of them. And the minds. Glittery, amazed, semi-opaque ̶ like eyes. Two wills, changeable, and then the applause, thunk, thunk, of abdomens. And the permissions, I suppose. The glimmering lights of birth are echoed here, are repeated in a kind of semi-inverted animal talk.

In ‘Grammar and American Reality,’ Brodkey argues that there is no agreed upon and no ‘polite,’ American English. “We have no real over-tongue, no equivalent to hochdeutch or serious standard-British English or Tuscan.” Instead, American English and grammar is marked by a “crudity of spirit (in the sense of not anciently derived spirit) and aesthetic hubris (in the same sense), mark any intelligent us of English . . . We unconsciously admit that a proper use of English is, ipso facto, an eccentric use; and, so, we overpraise proper or seemingly proper writers who write a rather poor but pretentiously schooled English.” And later, in “Language is Articulated Consciousness.’ Brodkey writes, “Let me being with the notion that language is articulated consciousness. Articulated how? Articulated for the purpose of comprehension in real time among the physical laws of breath and hearing or eyes and comprehension.” While neither of these two essays can be called aesthetic manifestos, they do reveal a lot of Brodkey’s own principles behind his writing, especially the shift away from the kind of proper-English, middle-class American realism that so excited reviewers when his early stories appeared in The New Yorker, to the examination of interiority and the stylistic complexity and daring that came about with that shift in focus, and which offended so many.
For those interested in exploration of the personal, of daring and complex writing, there is much to be learned from Brodkey’s work. The question is, will there come a time when Brodkey’s work and The Runaway Soul will be given their due? It is impossible to tell. Literary reputation is difficult to predict and the standing of a writer can be impacted less by the quality and aesthetic daring of a work and more by changes in literary taste and what engages critics at the moment. Literary modernism and experimentalism has been replaced by nostalgia for the 19th century novel and traditional psychological realism in the mode of Tolstoy and Dickens, and works written in the style of the middlebrow fiction popular in the 1950s. Look at the number of novels and short stories being published now to great acclaim that can sit easily amongst the same readers that made Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place a best seller in 1956.
Sometimes what keeps a writer being read is the passionate devotion of a group of dedicated readers and critics who can champion that writer’s work. Brodkey now waits for those readers.

Mailer’s Egyptian Vision

Norman Mailer, 1948 By Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings is a novel that grows in stature as time passes.
On first publication, Ancient Evenings was ridiculed in the popular press. After a decade of work on its near 700 pages, Mailer’s novel seemed both an anomaly and an outrage. That so much effort should be given to a novel that literalised Egyptian mythology and W.B. Yeats’s theosophical interpretations of that same mythology; tying that mythology to Mailer’s own ruminations about death as an existential beginning, the psychic substance of semen, feces and buggery; and finding equivalences between the ancient forces of the Egyptian psyche and contemporary America, was too much. Even today, Mailer’s novel still polarizes, though it has its fierce supportive partisans, of which I am one.
If that wasn’t enough, reviewers who were able to hold their noses in the presence of Mailer’s dialectics of sex and death, the cavalcade of buggery, rape, incest and excrement, were more offended that all this is worked out in a novel that barely has a traditional plot. To summarize briefly: Meni, whom Menenhete relates his narrative through, is dead. He awakens and struggles to gain self-awareness moving uneasily and unreadily through the Land of the Dead. Making the journey difficult is that his ka, one of the nine components of the self, must find a way to reunite with the body. Things only gets worse. Meni discovers that the tomb has been broken into and desecrated. Soon Meni meets his great-grandfather Menenhete, where after having Menenhete’s penis inserted into his mouth, Menenhete begins to recount his exploits, from an ambitious solider to a general fighting against the Hittites with Ramses Usermare II. Things go badly for him soon after as Ramses demotes him after raping him. After he is born again, he becomes a High Priest of Amon. In his second and third lives, he never attains the glory or position he had in his first life. While he does achieve in his fourth life some semblance of his earlier glory and power, Menenhete becomes depressed that he could not bring about the removal of the Pharaoh. He once more succumbs to despair and loneliness. Meni remarks that his great-grandfather never found what he most desired and Mailer’s novel suggest that Menenhete’s psychic burden is what prevents him from having a final death. Meni, it seems, now must take on that enormous burden.


Harold Bloom warned in his passionate and supportive review of the novel that “if you read Ancient Evenings for the story, you will hang yourself. There is a lot less story than any summary would indicate, because this is a book in which every conceivable outrage happens, and yet nothing happens, because at the end everything remains exactly the same.”
Ancient Evenings demands to be read several times to see how Mailer carefully constructs the novel and how his use of Yeats’s theosophical works and Egyptian mythology illuminate the contemporary American psychic landscape. It is not possible to detail all of what Mailer does, but it is sufficient to draw attention to two key elements of Mailer’s novel. Mailer draws from Yeats the insight that the self is never stable, that minds flow into one another and become a single mind. When Ra in The Book of the Dead states “I poured seed into my mouth, I sent for issue,” Mailer takes that statement literally. Meni must take Menenhete’s member into his mouth, his seed, in order for Menenhete’s and Meni’s memories to issue forth. Another element Mailer takes from Yeats is the image of the spiral, that great gyre of energy and endless return and circling. Mailer’s novel turns on itself. Memory, the self and time spiral and merge as Meni and Menenhete come together and become indistinguishable at times. History is dynamic, never linear. It repeats both in the world of the living and in the dead through the great cycles of rebirth and regeneration, both bloody and terrifying. The image of the Nile and its flooding is tied by Mailer to excrement and the place it has in life and regeneration — and of violation.
There are deep primal forces, tied to the deepest recesses of the psyche, that drive these characters to assert themselves, to dominate their world and other people around them. Menenhete both loves and hates the Pharaoh, who both gives him his glory and then casts him down. This dynamic becomes sadomasochistic. Ramses sodomizes Menenhete. Menenhete later rebels by sleeping with the Pharaohs’ mistress. Menenhete watches the Pharaoh’s sometimes violent sexual exploits and later acts out the scenes he has witnessed with available mistresses.
Still, Menenhete is always in a subordinate position, a feminine position. Mailer explores this dynamic in greater detail in the last two books where critics find the sadomasochistic elements overwhelming. For Mailer, the assertion of masculinity, the striving for dominance on the personal level or on the world stage through Imperial and political domination, involves male domination of other males. This is experienced though male-on-male rape. Mailer had been exploring aspects of this dynamic for some time, from the Kennedy presidential campaign he chronicled and later collected in The Presidential Papers, on blood sports as boxing and in such stories as “The Time of Her Time” that first appeared in Advertisements for Myself.
This is what most critics find find difficult to accept and produced the most resistance when the novel was first published. There are other depths to the novel left untouched here, but I will say that Mailer’s Ancient Evenings will come to take a central and important place not just in Mailer’s canon, but in American literature. Like Melville’s Pierre and Israel Potter and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, its mythic constructs and characters throws a light on the “crude thoughts and fierce forces” that animate America’s psychic and political landscape even to this day.

The Balthus Enigma

Balthus By Damian Pettigrew (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known to most as Balthus, remains the most enigmatic of painters. His work seems outside the major visual movements of the past century. His is a modernism of a revival of old masters techniques with the psychological acumen of Freud. His paintings work like a foreign language, the meanings hidden until we learn to read them properly. Yet, nothing is truly hidden in Bathus’s paintings, except the viewer’s own prejudices which causes many to be drawn up short when coming across his work.
Balthus is too often regarded as a painter of prurient eroticism, of young girls in provocative poses. This is mistaking the surface for what the paintings are about. Are Thérèse on a Bench Seat or Thérèse Dreaming really nothing more than paintings of eroticised adolescence? Or is there something more going on? It would be best to contrast these works with Surrealism. Breton in his manifesto described Surrealism as, “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought.” Balthus is very much interested in the psychological. Unlike Dali, Andre Masson or Rene Magritte, however, Balthus is not interested in depicting the mechanisms of the psychic automatism of thought. Balthus is instead a contemporary of the novelist André Gide and Charles Fourier’s 19th century utopianism.

Therese DreamingThérèse on a Bench Seat
For Balthus, adolescence is a time where children come into their own. It has its own dynamism, that frisson of energy when a new self emerges and possesses the world around it. Wuthering Heights is a keystone for Balthus. Emily Brontë’s novel is a depiction, if in hysterical fashion, of how adolescence creates its own customs and sense of time. Thérèse in the paintings is a depiction of that adolescent vitality and psychic emergence, where erotic energy is channeled into what Guy Davenport, in his provocative A Balthus Notebook, describes as an “an endless afternoon of reading, playing cards, and daydreaming.” For Balthus — as for writers Alain-Fournier and Cocteau, as well — children live in their minds and contour the world and themselves around those games, afternoons and daydreams. There is an eerie stillness in emerging adolescence that Balthus captures. We are glimpsing, just for a moment, that interior self-sufficiency of the adolescent, where body, mind and world are united and creating a unique space of possibilities.

Thérèse 1938

Pause for a moment over Thérèse. Balthus paints her leaning back in an armchair. Her face is apparently turned toward the viewer, but not (if one looks closely) focused directly either on the painter, whom she is supposedly gazing towards, or us. Her pose is relaxed and understated. Raised and crossed on top her right leg, her left is relaxed with her left hand placed on the knee. Balthus’s capturing of light on her legs and face, the careful working out of such details as her hands, clothing and Thérèse’s gaze all suggest a girl within her own world. The armchair, the table and its wrinkled covering, the wall behind her are now part of the interior world of Thérèse. Thérèse is wholly within herself, looking at herself. She is far removed from Watteau’s Diana Bathing. Diana, while alone like Thérèse, is never unaware of the gaze of another. Thérèse cares not a wit for another’s gaze. Balthus’s adolescents with their provocative poses are not seeking to be gazed at, but instead gaze into their own world. The world around them is then remade in that interior view. One is reminded of Courbet’s portrait of his sister, Juliette, who possesses the same self-satisfied gaze and glance one finds in Balthus. Balthus obviously was influenced by that work.

Nude on a Chaise Longue 1950 by Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) 1908-2001

Nude on a Chaise Longue is another painting that captures this moment, a variation, I believe, on the earlier Thérèse paintings. Here a female figure wearing only white knee socks and red slippers is on a chaise longue. She is stretched across the longue with her head back, eyes closed and one arm raised above her and another down towards the floor. Her hair is loose. The colours are muted. The female figure’s age is indeterminate. Like Thérèse, the female figure is within her own world. Body, mind and place are one within the painting. Possibilities of an emerging physical, psychological and sexual realm abound, but never is one realm privileged over another. Balthus’s old master techniques, his chiaroscuro lighting effects, his colour palate and his near architectural placement the objects in the room and the placement of the female figure bring all three realms together.
It is a mistake to see Balthus as focusing only on the sexual. Balthus often said that his paintings had no overt sexuality. I think he was not so much denying such sexuality existed, but that is was not the only thing his paintings were about, or even what they were about at all. The sexuality in Balthus is never vulgar or cheap. It is strangely protective as the gaze of all the girls is private and inward, never outward or beckoning. It is only the person who fails to understand or to truly experience what Balthus is doing and instead forces Balthus into a single meaning — in most cases today one of prurience and admonition against adolescence having any kind of healthy and meaningful interior life that is not circumscribed by adult expectations or worries over innocence and experience — that will miss what makes Balthus important.

What Role The Critic

Books on a Shelf

No one has anything good to say about critics. They are a despised lot, of a lower order to that occupied by the artist. Brendan Behan called critics “eunuchs in a harem.” Kenneth Tynan said of critics, including himself, that they were persons who know the way around, but cannot drive a car. Nabokov’s disdain of critics was only matched by the contempt he had for editors, whom he described as “pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to ‘make suggestions’ which I countered with a thunderous ‘stet!'”

Even the greatest of critics are more commented upon than read. How many today read Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare or his Lives of the English Poets? Or for that matter how many know of Sainte-Beuve’s What Is a Classic? or Coleridge’s writings on Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher? Or Hazlitt’s Lectures on English Poets? All are confined to the connoisseur or literary specialist. It is no better for more recent critics. How many people know of the work of Viktor Shklovsky whose Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar and his essays in Theory of Prose should be on any serious literature student’s desk, next to Auerbach’s Mimesis and Lukács’ Theory of the Novel and The Historical Novel.

One reason why critics are so poorly thought of is that proper criticism has been much diminished. Take a look once more at the small list of names I mentioned. These critics situate their subjects and ideas within larger arguments of history, philosophy and previous and current commentary. They examine how artists work and explicate upon the various strands of thought, criticism, ideas and politics at play in their works. At the same time, these critics show why certain artists are worthy of such sustained attention. They exemplify Hilton Kramer’s argument for connoisseurship, “the close, comparative study of art objects with a view to determining  their relative levels of aesthetic quality.” Criticism today is reduced to statements of preference rather than discrimination, placing all works on the same aesthetic level. Joyce is in no way superior to Henry Miller, Pound to Maya Angelou. This is criticism reduced to Amazon’s starred reviews and comments.

When criticism works, it brings forward not only the aesthetic aspects of the work under study, but the mechanism by which that work makes its aesthetic claims and thereby allow a reader to see why its is aesthetically superior to other works.

William H Gass By David Shankbone (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

William H Gass is one of America’s finest novelist and critics. In many respects his novels and stories and his criticism form a continuous dialogue, building on and developing Gass’ evolving and deepening philosophical and aesthetic insights and arguments. From his earliest essays collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life, Gass staked his esthetic mission on an argument that is difficult to refute, although many have tried, from his late and close friend and novelist John Gardner to most recently James Woods: “Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves out of concepts.” (Philosophy and the Form of Fiction, pg. 4) Shortly thereafter, “The esthetic aim of any fiction is the creation of a verbal world, or a significant part of such a world, alive through every order of its Being. Its author may not purpose this — authors propose many things — but the construction of some sort of object, whether too disorderly to be a world or too mechanical to be alive, cannot be avoided.” (pg 7)

The art of fiction is, at it core, an assemblage of words, shaped by the artist who places them onto a page under mechanisms chosen by them in order to shape those words into a fiction. This can be the either be Joyce’s loose modeling of Bloom’s and Stephen’s wanderings about Dublin on Homer’s Odyssey and the creation of their interiors through various linguistics literary pastiches or to the pared-down prose of Beckett that seeks the clarity and weight of Heraclitus. The landscapes and destinies of characters, the worlds created are “indistinct from words and all their orderings.” (pg. 8) Even the realism so prized by James Woods in How Fiction Works is a mechanism, one of many that can be chosen, by which words are ordered by an author. And what is realism? It should not be forgotten that Joyce was attacked for writing about Bloom’s satisfying bowel movement and the wiping of his arse with bits of his morning newspaper. Joyce’s realism was a step too far, even among readers and critics of the time who read Zola.

Gass’ criticism pays special attention to how writers use words, to how words are ordered and what mechanisms shape that order. Gass is a master in teasing out how writers shape words and sentences to achieve the desired ends. Gass is one of America’s the great masters of the sentence. Take a look at his discussion of Gertrude Stein’s style in “Gertrude Stein: Her Escape From Protective Language.” Written as a review of “Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Works” by B.L. Reid, Gass does not so much review Reid’s book, but examines how Stein’s prose work and how Reid fails to comprehend what Stein is up to. Reid disparages Stein because she embodies principles that upset his notions of art. Gass points out that Stein has had that affect on critics from the beginning; and that is the very point of what Stein is trying to do with her prose. She wishes to challenge in the most direct way possible our notions of art and style, of or received opinions, and she will sculpt language to do so. Sculpt is the right word as I believe that Stein works with language as sculptor works with stone: “It requires us to consider again the esthetic significance of style; to examine again the ontological status of the artist’s vision, his medium, and his effect.” (pg. 87) The language of her early story Things As They Are seems to mock the title, for as Gass points out it is on the first flush or reading, pompous and vague, filled with circumlocutions and pedantic rhetoric.

One’s reaction is to give up and claim Stein a fraud. Many still do. But it is only on closer reading and looking at what Stein is trying to do with this language, especially as developed it in her later works, does one understand her strategies. She is challenging that common aspect of English writing toward what Gass calls protective language, where words — common words, phrases, social speech, simple nouns etc. — are used not as a way to confront the world, but to “gain by artifice a safety from the world — to find a way of thinking without the risks f feeling — is the source of the impulse to abstractness and simplicity in Gertrude Stein as it is in much of modern painting, where she felt immediately the similarity of aim.” (pg. 89) Protective speech is not about finding meanings, but cutting them off and limiting words to mere naming. A writer will say “John loves Mary.” It is a simple, declarative sentence. Only while the writer tells us that the character John, who may be young or old, a stock broker or a construction worker, loves Mary, possibly a teacher or a lunch counter waitress, the writer will never show them loving. Stein wants to show. Gass demonstrates how Stein’s language works to do exactly that: to show rather than to name. If we fail grasp that we fail to see how she works with words; for how Stein works with words, how she arranges them on the page, will show us how she accomplishes her goals. She will challenge how language should operate, how words should be used in order to break out of this protective language. If we fail to see how the writer does what they do, that we come instead with preset notions of what literature should do and how words should be used, then a writer like Stein will always stand as an effrontery. Take this passage from Stein’s The Making of Americans:

Disillusionment in living is finding that no one can really ever be agreeing with you completely in anything. Disillusionment then in living that gives to very many then melancholy feeling, some despairing feeling, some resignation, some fairly cheerful beginning and some a forgetting and continuing and some a dreary trickling weeping some violent attacking and some letting themselves do anything, disillusion then is really finding, really realising, really being certain that no one really can completely agree with you in anything, that, as is very certain, not, those fighting beside you or living completely with you or anybody, really, can really be believing anything completely that you are believing. Really realising this thing, completely realising this thing is the disillusionment in living in the beginning of being an old man or an old woman is being no longer a young one no longer a young man or an young woman no longer a growing older young man or growing older young woman.

Stein loves words, their sound and even their look upon the page. Protective language and criticism banishes this simple fact. Gass in his fictions as with Stein revels in words, in their vitality on the page and in ones mouth when spoken. Gass and Stein should be read out loud, the mouth savouring as one will a fine wine or as once chews a piece of meat. Gass’ criticism forces one to look anew at words and how artists work with words. We may say that characters come alive when we read them. Gass reminds us how the artists is there behind them.

Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport At Poetry Collections (

Guy Davenport is another critic and writer where the dialogue between his fictions and his criticism is constant. Many of his essays and stories should be ready side-by-side to see the sinews between them. Like Gass, Davenport is one of the masters of the sentence. Davenport’s are instantly recognizable. No one writes like him or brings the full weight of learning, lightly worn but ever present, to the sentence.

Davenport said of his stories and novels that they resemble not so much traditional fictive forms but “assemblages.” His is a collage of styles and techniques, calling attention to how the object in question, in this case his fiction, is assembled. It is closer to the Pound’s argument that master artists are those who combine a number of processes together and into a new whole. Davenport’s assemblages, whose closest parallel are Joseph Cornell’s boxes, calls attention to how he creates and assembles his work; at the same time, because of how he assembles the various object trouvés  that make up his works, he forces new ways of reading as well.

One sees the same in his essays, collected in The Geography of the Imagination, Every Force Evolves and Form and The Hunter Gracchus. His essays and commentaries force one to look anew and more closely at how the works of certain artists are put together and how they forge new strategies of reading.

“When a density of learning began to appear in English literature, there came with it the understanding that the author would teach us what we needed to know as we read along,” Davenport write in “The Critic as Artist (Every Force Evolves a Form, pg 99-100) By the time we reach the modernist movement in literature, with Pound, Carlos Williams, Zukofsky, Olson and Joyce and Beckett, the artist is asking for more careful and attentive reading than what many are often willing to give. Most don’t and complain bitterly at the work required. “Everywhere we look in modernist writing, we can see the writer trying to get us to pay attention, to wake us from some sleep into which literacy itself has lulled us.” (102)

Take the opening from Louis Zukofsky’s immense poem “A”:

A round of fiddles playing Bach

Davenport makes us pause over this simple opening. It only reveals its complexity once we begin to understand what Zukofsky is doing throughout his monumental poem, one of the great 20th century works that almost never makes it onto university syllabuses of modern poetry, much as Olson’s Maximus Poems and Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and for good measure Pound’s The Cantos are left off. Davenport tells us that to understand what Zukofsky is doing, we need a new way of reading. We must read the line as: A round of fiddles playing a work of Bach’s, with an appreciation that “playing the fiddle is work for musicians . . . These musicians playing Bach are working at Carnegie Hall in 1929 (both Passover and Good Friday that year), and they are working because union fiddlers are on strike and would not play. Work, said Karl Marx, the tutelary spirit of this part of the poem (before Thomas Jefferson take over later), should be as engrossing as play (an idea from Fourier, an evocation of whom will close the 23rd part of the poem).” (102) The task of the critic, according to Davenport, is to show how to read Zukofsky’s  poem, the techniques used by Zukofsky to explicate his themes and his images.

Each work of art brings with it its own set of rules for reading. How one reads Proust’s double images and symbolism is of a different sort than how one reads Ulysses, which needs its own set of reading mechanisms. Davenport’s great contemporary Hugh Kenner realized that the 20th century’s literature was an complete overturning of the aesthetic direction of the 19th century. We need new ways of reading Beckett, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Olson and Zukofsky. We cannot bring how we read Dickens, Thackeray or Austin to these writers.

This is from Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr:

He slouched and ambled along, neglecting his muscles: and his full-blooded blackguard’s countenance attempted to portray delicacies of common sense and gossamer-like backslidings into the inane that would have puzzled any analyst unacquainted with his peculiar training. Occasionally he would exploit his criminal appearance and blacksmith’s muscles for a short time; however: and his strong piercing laugh through ABC waitresses into confusion. The art-touch, the Bloomsbury technique, was very noticeable.   

One cannot approach this without knowing something of Lewis’s quarrels with Chelsea and Bloomsbury artists, of his Vorticism and his relationship other European avant-gardes and Marinetti’s Futurism, along with his Lewis’ own critical works such as his immense Time and Western Man. Without those, Lewis’ prose will flummox most readers.  Lewis demands a new kind of reading. The same for Olson’s “The Kingfishers”:

I thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said
la lumiere”
                    but the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
                    but the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
                    he got the color of his breast
                    from the heat of the setting sun!


Davenport’s essay on Charles Olson in The Geography of the Imagination shows what kind of new reading is needed for Olson’s poem: “It cannot be avoided that we as readers are asked to become Leskenoi along with the poet, to leave the polychorme images and finely modulated rhythms of the poem, learn some things, and then return as a worth participant.” (Olson, pg 89) The critic makes the reader a participant in reading.

‘Listening’ to Music

Walter Benjamin By Photo d’identité sans auteur, 1928 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

CBC Radio recently aired ‘Twilight of the Gods,’ a history of the recording industry by Robert Harris. It ran through the usual suspects of why the recording industry has declined in recent years. What caught my attention was a moment when Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility’ — or as it is often translated, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ — was referenced in relation to a work of art’s ‘aura.’ The program argued recorded music and its mass production and distribution offers a more authentic experience of music. Through recorded reproduction, listeners form a profound emotional attachment with a particular piece of music or with an individual performer that is not possible in a ‘live’ setting. Far from diminishing the ‘aura’ of the work of art, mechanical reproduction enhances that ‘aura.’

Benjamin’s essay is one of his most cited; and most misread around this idea of ‘aura.’ ‘Aura’ is today  argued to be  identical to the work of art — be it a painting, a sculpture or a piece of music: it is carried forward with each reproduction. The more accurate the reproduction, the more accurately the ‘aura’ is conveyed and the more immediate is the person’s experience of the ‘aura’ of the work of art.

What this misses is Benjamin’s argument that the ‘aura’ of a work of art is something more than the moment of a work of art’s creation. A work of art has always been reproducible. Replicas were often made by apprentices learning their craft or created for patrons seeking copies for their households. Roman commissioned copies Greek statues and vases to adorn their homes and master painters often made copies of their own work to sell. However, reproduction can only go so far: “In even the most perfect reproduction, one think is lacking: the here and now of the work of art — its unique existence in a particular place . . . The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological — and of course not only technological — reproduction.” Mechanical reproduction takes a piece of art out of its place in history, eradicates tradition and substitutes a mass experience. As consumers, we are all supposed to agree that this particular painting is ‘a great work of art,’ even though most will not be able to say why a work by Monet, Pissarro, Picasso, Balthus, Freud, Newman, Bacon or Rothko is important, both in terms of the historical forces the artist worked within or the work’s technical and stylistic originality. It is enough that it is reproduced endlessly which in today’s consumer market speaks to its importance and ultimate value. Is it surprising that works that are not commonly reproduced and marketed, regardless of their quality or importance, are regulated to a lesser status? Why are El Lissitzky or Klimet Redko not more well known or more valued?

In the realm of serious music, technological reproducibility has made this detachment from tradition and mass effect even more pronounced. Today, a person has many versions of Beethoven, Bach, Schoenberg etc. to decide which to invest in, from recordings using period instruments and playing styles, to ‘historic’ recordings of works from the early part of the 20th century. One can even become a devotee of certain styles of performance or a particular interpreter’s approach to a composer. Cults accrue around Callas,Gould and Karajan, with devotees collecting every recording no matter how questionable the approach or the quality of individual performances.

Whatever reputation certain performers may have in the general public and the ready availability of modern recordings, it does not escape the fact that today most persons lack any practical knowledge of music as art. Few today can play an instrument and most have little or no knowledge of musical theory or solfege. Music is a mass produced item made to be part of one’s aural landscape, but without really having to ‘listen’ to it. Adorno warned of this. When music stopped being a part of one’s being, requiring space and silence in which one can devote close attention to, then a deep disconnect happens between music as art and background noise. Music becomes difficult to distinguish from the clatter of spoons in a cafe or a conversation on a street corner.

Can one today recognize the harmonic or rhythmic differences in Mozart, Berg, Schoenberg, Carter and Messiaen, Birtwistle, Ligeti and Schnittke? Can one place each of these composer’s works in their historic context or how they revolutionized the harmonic and rhythmic templates for those who followed? Without a knowledge of music, to read the written score or to play individual pieces to understand how it is constructed and works, that depth of understanding is impossible to do exclusively through listening to recordings.

Like the plastic arts, the fidelity of reproducibility is mistaken for the ‘aura’ of their originality. The emotional attachment one develops with a particular piece of music is not the same as understanding what makes that piece of music unique and important; more critically, why one piece of music is more important than another. Discrimination of taste and knowledge comes to an end with mass production.

Charles Ives: Still Waiting To Be Discovered


Charles Edward Ives 1913, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Ives is still not welcomed in the concert hall. One of the most significant American composers of last century is without a place among listeners and performers of serious music. His symphonies, string quartets and piano music are performed rarely, and recordings tend to be sporadic. Labels such as difficult, uncompromising and incomprehensible are often attached to his music. Even during his lifetime, Ives’ passionate followers and supporters were outnumbered by those who claimed his music was either mad, juvenile or, if more kindly disposed, just plain weird. Musicians often said his music was impossible to play.

He has not been helped by attempts to make his music more ‘normal,’ smoothing out the dissonance and anarchic qualities, his juxtaposition of high and low, of combining the most rarefied of classical traditions with American folk and popular music of the time. Or by attempts to make his music a precursor to the modernism of Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The reality is that many of the ‘modernist’ elements of Ives’ music were attempts to capture the political and social events of his time. David Wooldridge’s neglected and now sadly-out-of-print study, From The Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, makes the explicit argument that Ives was a man deeply influenced, even when in opposition, to the American political and social landscape, to its literature and most profoundly to the ideals set forth by the American Transcendentalists:

“Ives had a comprehension of America’s seers and poets . . . Among these: enormous respect for Emerson, enormous admiration for Hawthorne, enormous affection for Alcott, total identification with Thoreau — these were his favorites . . . Yet more than any other it is Melville who foreshadows Ives in the use of an extended rhetoric to American man. The progressions of Ives’s music, like Melville’s prose, are born on a living speech rhythm, not on someone else’s verse. But with Ives, a Yankee speech rhythm. A collage of musical vernacular transfigured.” Wooldridge, pg. 5.

When Ives writes in his Alcott piece in Essays Before A Sonata, quoting Emerson’s son, E.W. Emerson, on how Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson went to the United States Court House in Boston to rescue a fugitive slave, Ives is clearly evoking that incident in the Alcott movement of his masterpiece Concord Sonata. Ives says of the incident that “helps confirm the theory — not a popular one — that men accustomed to wander around in the visionary unknown are the quickest and strongest when occasion requires ready action of the lower virtues . . .” Wooldridge, pg. 278.

To fully understand Ives and to grasp his achievements, one has come to an understanding of his engagement with his times and the works that formed the core of his being. It goes some way to explaining his neglect in concert hall repertoires today. Ives is a man clearly trying in his music to grasp and understand what is happening in his country and to evoke other paths set out by the Transcendentalist who provoke his deep admiration and influence his own sense of self and purpose. I would argue that to fully grasp Ives one needs to fully grasp Emerson Divinity School Address or later wrote “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” or Thoreau who writes “American liberty has become a fiction of the past — as it is to some extent a fiction of the present . . .” What may make Ives’s music difficult for some is this ceaseless questioning of the ‘myth’ of liberty. The too easy invocation of liberty today would likely have offended Ives deeply, seeing it as an empty term thrown about by all sorts of political and social elites. In a 1923 letter to Gilbert Seldes of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, Ives writes he is not disappointed in America, but that America “is a vast unreal intermediate thing intervening between the real thing which was Europe, and the next real thing, which will probably be America, but which isn’t yet, at all.” Wooldridge, pg. 310.

Because today we can hardly grasp this sentiment, where Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Hawthorne are hardly read (does anyone read Emerson today?) Ives’s music continues to remain outside of the concert hall today.

Wagner, The Enigma

Wagner Image

Richard Wagner, Munich 1871, via Wikimedia Commons

One cannot be neutral with Wagner. He provokes both unreserved praise and passionate devotion, and severe condemnation. The piety of ‘Condemn the man, not the music’ founders when it comes to the monumental scope of his mature works and the monstrosity of his personality and anti-Semitism. Debates about the extent to which anti-Semitism pervades his works, how deeply inscribed into the artistic texture of the works, grows voluminous. Each time his works are performed, the debate rages once more: Is Wagner Bad for Us?

This is the fascinating title of Nicholas Spice’s talk where he tackles this question. Wagner’s music and its ability to both embrace and repel a listener, is what gives his music both its power and its uneasiness. Take Tristan and Isolde, what many consider Wagner’s most supreme achievement. Spice points out how the famous Prelude avoids final cadences that one finds in most tonal music. This avoidance holds “the listener in a state of unrelieved alertness,” and that the opening 17 bars lead to an “interrupted cadence that gently forbids us to leave the musical line.” This tension is embodied in the story of Tristan and Isolde themselves; their illicit love played out in the second act where they long for the night to continue so their lovemaking will not end. Daylight will bring about the end of their love. The only thing in their fierce delirium that will sustain their love is death. No wonder that many early listeners found this opera unsettling, even some to declare it degenerate and unhealthy. Those of weak nerves were told to avoid this opera. No friend of Wagner, Nietzsche complained of the pernicious nature to the nerves of Wagner’s music and how it attracted the weak and exhausted.

This tension, as well as Wagner’s ability to organize and composes large-scale works that  combine in ways still unsurpassed of music and drama that moved simultaneously, is what makes his music so powerful. The problem comes when the music becomes tied to Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism and reactionary politics. Adorno’s ‘In Search of Wagner’ makes the argument that Wagner’s betrayal of the revolutionary spirit of the 1840s, of his dismissal of bourgeois politics and his adoption of biological anti-Semitism in his later writings on art and music is embedded in the very fabric of Wagner’s operas.


ADORNO by LGd, via Wiki Commons

The troubling paradox is these same tensions and his musical genius also point to a more politically and philosophically positive outlook, side-by-side with Wagner’s gross politics and anti-Semitism. Zizek, a passionate Wagnerite, has written several times on the emancipatory kernel in Wagner’s work.  

Parsifal with its declamation “Enthuellt den Graal!” is an announcement of a new social order, one where the Grail is to be revealed at all times and not as an object for a select, closed community and order. “As to the revolutionary consequences of this change, recall the fate of the Master figure in the triad Tristan-Meistersinger-Parsifal (King Marke, Hans Sachs, Amfortas): in the first two works, the Master survives as a saddened melancholic figure; in the third he is DEPOSED and dies.

Even the ending of the immense Ring cycle can be seen not as a loss but as something necessary, where the world of the gods now corrupted by avarice and materiality, falling into what Marx would call commodity fetishism with the taking of the Rheingold,  must come to an end. Man is now free, standing before the spectacle, to forge a new world. Even the elements singled out as showing Wagner’s anti-Semitism (Alberich, Mime, Hagen as figures of the Jews  who bring lust for power and corruption to the universe) are more complex, embodying  the social and political antagonisms that existed in the society Wagner lived within: “An appropriate reading of Wagner should take this fact into account and not merely “decode” Alberich as a Jew, but also ask the question: how does Wagner’s encoding refer to the “original” social antagonism of which the (anti-Semitic figure of the) “Jew” itself is already a cypher?”

Zizek does not downplay Wagner’s anti-Semitism or the reactionary and disgraceful aspects of his politics and person. He does not indulge in that typical liberal compromise of defending the music and making Wagner’s anti-Semitism some private quirk; or worse, as some have done, seize on some bit of kindness to say, “See, he was not all bad. . . etc.”; nor does he reduced Wagner’s works to mere proto-fascist pamphlets, so they can be safely dismissed in a kind of morally superior waving of the hand. This is sometime the case with other critics of Wagner, as if his work is simply the Horst-Wessel-Lied on a larger scale.

To approach Wagner, one must take the monstrous with the sublime. To fully appreciate and understand Wagner’s music, to truly embrace it, one has to come in contact with that which makes it troubling in order to find its revolutionary core. One can’t detour around either or pretend they are not there.