Monthly Archives: May 2009

May 8, 2009

Danton’s Death (1835)

Georg Büchner (1813–1837)
Dantons Tod (1835)
translated into English as Danton’s Death (1971) by Victor Price


930: Danton’s Death

This was a satisfying morsel of seriousness, like a dark piece of meat. This is exactly the sort of theater I would never buy tickets for: historical, political, grim, long. But on the page and in my mind, it impressed me with its consistent intelligence. Every moment brings a new idea, either in content or form. Büchner wrote it at the age of 21, never having written for the stage before (and possibly never having seen a play?), and it feels wonderfully free from the influence of theatrical standard practice.

It’s clear that he wrote because he was personally invested in the issues (being a cynical revolutionary himself), not because he considered himself “an artist.”

Many writers seem to write principally because they are writers. The occupation and habit of writing demands subject matter, rather than the subject matter demanding its being written. Their desire to communicate is merely a habit, not an imperative. This state of affairs isn’t inexcusable, but once I recognize it, I often lose interest. I want to be caring about the same thing the writer cared about, feeling the same way he felt. If he was thinking about writing more than about life, chances are so will I. The catch is that passionate, unwriterly writing is usually ineffective; writers, unfortunately, are generally the only people who write well.

Here we have a rare and invigorating case of an author motivated more by his subject than his craft, and yet still having an excellent and original talent for that craft. Or at least for literary art. It’s not clear how realistically Büchner was thinking about theatrical productions. This play calls for a really huge cast (30 named roles plus assorted others), many of the characters making only one appearance each. It contains several heavily populated scenes requiring a large stage, and also many extremely short scenes that demand quick changes. Obviously, these things are all possible, but in combination they create the impression of a play written to be produced in the imagination rather than by paid professionals. Considering how heady and depressing it is, it’s awfully expensive. Not a promising combination from a business perspective.

It can be produced, and has been — not during Büchner’s brief lifetime, of course; not for many decades afterward — but at heart it’s not really crying out to be performed, at least not to my mind. It’s really just literature that happens to be written down as drama, I think because Büchner felt that the form of drama closest approaches the artistic ideal of recreating life. This piece borrows the notation of drama to be something rather different, a different kind of literature — just like that chapter of Ulysses that is written like a play but is manifestly unperformable.

I just read someone’s blog saying that Büchner invented cinema aesthetics 70 years too early: his successions of very brief scenes read like edited film. One succession, in fact, is like a reverse cut, where the scene set outside the prison wall, with a character seen in the prison window, is followed by the scene inside the prison, with the same character looking out the window. This is a neat point, but of course what Büchner was writing was not cinema because it couldn’t be. It was his own fresh aesthetic, driven above all by his desire to be true to life and not to convention.

Here’s an excerpt, in which Büchner decries the mass audience that lacks the imaginative capacity to comprehend sincere and conscientious portrayals of life, such as… this play. How right he was! This speech would not get anywhere near that audience for years. If a writer describes a tree falling in the forest, but nobody ever reads it, is it still standing?

CAMILLE. I tell you, if they don’t get things in wooden copies, all neatly labelled, in theatres, concerts, or art shows, they’ve got neither eyes nor ears for them. But carve a puppet, show them the hole where the string goes in, give it a pull so that its joints creak in blank verse with every step it takes — and then, what character-drawing, what verisimilitude! Take a little scrap of sentiment, an aphorism, a concept, dress it up in coat and trousers, give it hands and feet, paint its face and let it attitudinize through three acts till at the finish it gets married or blows its brains out — and lo, idealism! Fiddle out an opera that bears as much relation to the ups and downs of life as a clay pipe blowing bubbles to a nightingale — high Art. Turn people out of the theatre and on to the street — and oh dear me, how pitiful reality is! They forget God Almighty for his bad imitators. Creation, red-hot creation thunders and lightens in and around them at every moment; they hear and see nothing. They go to the theatre, they read poems and novels, they grimace like the puppets they find in them and turn up their noses at God’s creatures. ‘My dear, how commonplace!’ The Greeks knew what they were talking about when they said that Pygmalion’s statue came to life but bore no children.

DANTON. And artists treat nature as David treated the murdered Septembrists when they were thrown out of La Force on to the streets. He sketched them in cold blood and said: ‘I’m catching the last spasm of life in these scoundrels.’

[He is called away.]

CAMILLE. What do you say, Lucile?

LUCILE. Nothing, I so love watching you when you speak.

CAMILLE. Do you listen as well?

LUCILE. Of course!

CAMILLE. Well, am I right? Do you really know what I said?

LUCILE. To tell you the truth, no.

That deflated after-beat demonstrates what makes the play so brilliant. Büchner’s essayistic speechifying, which is always fascinating in its own right, is never allowed to forget that it too is just part of a real, fallen world, in which the pretensions of essayistic speechifying pale next to the love and pain and confusion around them. This is, in fact, the philosophical point of the play; just causes and noble actions are important, revolutions cannot be ignored, but they reduce life and death to political currency, and anyone who can see that death is another sort of thing entirely is bound to become disenchanted. A revolutionary with his eyes open will always be a cynic about his own cause.

What’s exceptional here is that Büchner takes equally seriously both the politics and the undercurrent of anti-politics. There’s no writing off the political intrigues of the plot as just so much breast-beating; everything that happens is very important for both the characters and for their country; but neither is there any writing off the sense that it is all an ugly, deluded game. Danton’s ambivalence is genuinely Büchner’s and it becomes ours as we take it all in. That, I think, is a great achievement. It’s so easy for a work of art to purport to struggle with philosophical issues even as it sits comfortably within larger and more fundamental philosophical assumptions. This play refuses to get comfortable; it lives right within the issues that drive it.

Among the major speeches of the play, most of them by boasting, feuding, scheming revolutionaries, there is one very earthy, personal one given to a whore, which ends on this remarkable note:

MARION. … Other people have Sundays and week-days, they work six days and they pray on the seventh. Every year they look forward to their birthday, and to the New Year, and they feel sentimental. I don’t understand all that. I know nothing about divisions or changes. I’m all of a piece, just one big longing and clinging. I’m a fire, a river. My mother died of grief. People point their fingers at me. That’s stupid! The only thing that counts is what you enjoy — bodies, holy pictures, flowers, toys. The feelings are just the same. Enjoy yourself — that’s the best way to pray.

This is really Molly Bloom incarnate, 80-some years before her time. The whole play feels like an outburst of very modern philosophical clarity, from an isolated soul who came to it with no particular help from the culture around him. I’m not enamored of “genius” any more than any other artistic mode d’être, but in this case I found the aesthetic self-sufficiency of the work and its author very compelling.

What, I can say raison d’être and modus operandi but I can’t say mode d’être? Well, screw you. And anyway, it’s still not actually what I mean. I really want a word for the type of story that is told about a given person — a mode of being talked about or dramatized, a pre-packaged quasi-narrative identity that can be imposed by a historian. “Tortured genius,” or “renaissance man” or “free spirit,” or “ahead of his time” — each of these is a what? They’re all a little phony because they’re all blithely reductive. Word suggestions please.

I wanted to say something about how naturalism is relative and the speeches aren’t actually “realistic” at all to the way people talk. The atmosphere created by playwriting that is observant about life but is artificially dense with thought always reminds me of Shakespeare, but surely that’s because I haven’t read enough plays. Though the introduction does seem to think drawing connections to Shakespeare is specifically merited here. So… there, I said something. The shorter the better.

A lot of standout lines and moments — I want to mention that the deeply evil speech that Saint-Just makes to the assembly, in particular, is absolutely riveting — and a richly idiosyncratic overall conception makes for a very satisfying read. But even knowing that, I’m not sure I would want to see this performed. I’m not sure it makes enough deliberate enough use of time — real, tangible time, sitting-in-a-crowd-in-the-dark-being-quiet time — that it wouldn’t just feel like a cruel way of turning this intriguing text into a tedious ordeal. There are plenty of very good books that I wouldn’t want to hear performed aloud. I think this might be one of them. Stage directions be damned.

But of course I don’t know — a good director could easily surprise me. I have an open mind and would like to sample a production on video or radio, except there doesn’t seem to be any easy way of doing so. There is a fairly well-regarded opera of Dantons Tod, which seems to have been a career-maker for composer Gottfried von Einem. Oddly enough, you can listen to most of it right here (a few tracks are missing). I actually got the score out of the library and followed through about half of it. The adaptation seems respectable and thoughtful, certainly, and the music seems fine… but I think I just don’t speak opera. As with Richard Strauss a few months back, I don’t know how to listen to a succession of moments of little to no inherent drama each being given big-time musical emphasis. This may well have to do with my mongrel musical upbringing, as I was saying earlier this week. But to go there would be really and truly off topic. Halt.

I got out the ratty library copy above even though they also had two successively cleaner and newer reprints, because 1) more fun to get something that reminds me of the 70s than something that reminds me of the bookstore, right? and 2) the new editions, being offset from the old edition, had slightly thicker, weightier letters. I bet if they cared about it, the technology exists to reprint old editions without any detectable loss of fidelity. But they obviously don’t care, and so they print these ever-blurrier editions, even though the crisper, more delicate letterforms are always more satisfying. AM I RIGHT, PEOPLE?

I’m thinking of building this observation into my standup routine.

Actually I think Demetri Martin already has, right after his hilarious bit about n factorial, and his brilliant riff about how 3 looks like a backward E, and his sestina about how awesome a perfectly sharpened pencil is. That shit cracks me up.

But seriously folks, Demetri Martin is probably a cool guy. I’m gonna end this entry before anything else happens.

May 8, 2009

Disney Canon #19: The Jungle Book (1967)


ADAM That was the most charming case against miscegenation I’ve ever seen. “Would you want your daughter to marry a panther?” That was creepily of its time.

BROOM I don’t think that’s what that meant.

ADAM That’s what it meant in every other context when people said things like that. I’m not saying that’s what it meant here. I just thought it was funny.

BROOM Several times I thought about how it’s easy for us to see things that are “inappropriate.” Like that they shouldn’t be rubbing their balls on things. But I must have watched this movie many times as a kid — so much of it was familiar this time — and I never thought “look, he’s rubbing his balls!” Or that it was too weirdly intimate for Mowgli to be lying on Baloo’s belly.

BETH That didn’t really seem inappropriate.

BROOM Well, we were snickering at it, but there’s really nothing there.

BETH You don’t think the animators thought about it?

BROOM No. I just don’t think it was there at all. And I definitely don’t think that they thought of it in racial terms. I don’t think that the jungle was “the wrong kind of people” and the human village was “the right kind of people.” I don’t think there was any sort of “typing” going on.

BETH It did seem less racial than, say, Dumbo did.

BROOM I think the avoidance of any characters who were even remotely black meant that they had, by this point, learned their lesson.

ADAM Um, except the orangutans!

BROOM They weren’t black! As you said, they were like the guys who sing “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Very pointedly so, instead of being black like they would have been in any other Disney movie.

ADAM I thought that the orangutan king was, like….

BROOM He was Louis Prima! He’s Italian.

ADAM I don’t know.

BETH He seemed to be black.

BROOM Yes. He’s Cousin Louis because the voice is actually Louis Prima.

ADAM Okay. I thought it was funny that Disney’s response to the 60s — that finally kicked in in 1967 — was…

BETH Ringo?

ADAM It was like Dobie Gillis. They tried to do the Beatles, but their Beatles were singing barbershop. They obviously said, “let’s get some of this crazy 60s stuff in,” but they had no idea. Their understanding of what 60s culture meant was, like, beatniks.

BETH I don’t know. To do what they did, I think they couldn’t have been clueless.

ADAM It was like, “hey, these people are on Ed Sullivan, and they have mop-like hair and British accents!” and that was about all they got.

BETH The barbershop singing was weird.

BROOM I was wondering what kind of song they were going to sing, because if they sang a Beatles-style song, it seemed like that would be taking it too far. And when they started singing the barbershop, I thought, “this is a good move.” The quartet turns into something else so that we don’t have to be distracted thinking about the Beatles the whole time. I thought that the electric bass in the underscore while they were talking was already heavy-handed enough. Did Bagheera remind anyone else of Captain Picard?

BETH Yes! I was going to say that! He looks like him and talks like him.

ADAM I liked the shaggy style of the drawing here, with stray lines. It looked like an animated sketchpad.

BROOM That’s because they used xerography or something to transfer the drawings directly to the cells. But you liked it?

BETH I like that too. You don’t?

BROOM It’s a sign of them cutting costs. But when I was a kid, it was just “a look,” and I guess I did like it. I certainly liked this movie a lot when I was a kid. I think it has two of the catchiest songs in the Disney canon in it.

ADAM What’s the other one?

BROOM “I Wanna Be Like You” and “Bear Necessities.”

BETH When the snake’s eyes get crazy…

BROOM “Trust In Me?”

BETH … no, I’m just asking about the scene — that didn’t scare you? I feel like that totally would have scared me.

BROOM Really?

ADAM It would have scared me more if Bagheera hadn’t been as exasperated by it.

BROOM I don’t remember the first time I saw it, but I remember watching it and knowing it already, and I knew that Kaa was ineffectual. Even though he gets right to the place where he could eat Mowgli, both Shere Khan and Bagheera are more powerful than he is.

ADAM Why does Shere Khan let him go if he knows that he has Mowgli?

BROOM I think that when he lowers his middle down, the trick actually works. Shere Khan is actually surprised that he’s able to do that.

BETH I thought Shere Khan was a great villain character.

BROOM He’s excellent. It’s a shame that he’s only in about five minutes of the movie.

ADAM Yeah. He’s so authoritative.

BETH He’s just like James Mason in North by Northwest, I thought. “Your next role will be playing dead; you’ll be quite convincing.”

BROOM That’s right. I like that his power comes in being so calm the whole time. I like when he puts out his claw and quietly squeezes Kaa’s neck. That’s a good bad-guy show of force. But I think the movie — even more than Sword in the Stone — is just episodic, just a series of encounters with characters, some of whom have songs. Well, I guess they all have songs, but some of the songs suck.

ADAM The orangutans to me were pretty charismatic, and Baloo is pretty entertaining — he’s the first stoner in a Disney movie.

BROOM He’s not a stoner, he’s just a vagabond. I remember really liking Baloo in the same way I liked the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz — as “the guy who likes you! He’s so nice to you!” It’s a very warm feeling, and Phil Harris’s voice is very inviting to a kid — though now I hear a little more sleaze in it than I would have heard then.

ADAM He has a Yogi Bear quality.

BROOM Yeah, but more warm, more avuncular.

ADAM You can see in him the Hanna-Barbera-ization proceeding apace.

BROOM What does that mean to you? Just a cheapening, all-around, or something else?

ADAM Sort of a jauntier, cheaper animation style, and a jauntier cast of characters; less moralizing and more slapstick.

BROOM Some of the slapstick was pretty shoddy.

ADAM When the temple collapses, it’s like the temple collapsing in a Scooby-Doo cartoon.

BROOM That’s true.

ADAM [imitates Hanna-Barbera “scrambling feet” sound effect]

BROOM Right. The slapstick was generally well-animated, but a lot of it was pretty lazy stuff. Like someone being snapped backward and slamming into something. And the timing was very much for kids. I guess Sword in the Stone was like that too. I feel like The Jungle Book has a little more human warmth than The Sword in the Stone, which is probably why I liked it better. Bagheera and Baloo felt like nice guys.

ADAM Although it’s a shame that when he leaves his wolf family, it’s like, “oh well.”

BROOM It’s true. His parents don’t mean anything to him.

ADAM And then when he leaves Baloo and Bagheera, it’s like, “so much for that!” He leaves them for that little minx.

BROOM Yeah, the really sexy ten-year-old.

ADAM That’s the clip that I’d seen in a Disney Valentine’s Day special, which is really creepy.

BETH It is.

BROOM She’s explicitly seducing him, even though they’re just ten-year-old kids. And her really big eyes that she bats at him. She looks like that creepy shot in Lion King where the girl lion looks up at him and it’s a little too sexual. I thought that Mowgli looked like Bobby Hill. He had a very simplified flat face.

BETH I liked his face. I thought he was cute and easy to watch. A lot of times I think kids’ faces look obnoxious.

ADAM I appreciated that we didn’t have to endure the backstory of how he got into the jungle.

BROOM Right. It doesn’t matter. “He got abandoned by his parents. There are no emotions in it; go with that.” There are almost no emotions in the whole movie.

BETH Well, fear.

BROOM Just momentary fear, maybe. But even the final, serious, scary-landscape, actual-threat-of-death fight scene is still just about being bonked on the head.

BETH Yeah.

ADAM “Easygoing” is what I would call this movie.

BROOM I remember it being very appealing when I was a kid. Yes, it’s very superficial.

BETH Even if Baloo isn’t a stoner, it feels like it was made by people who had done a lot of pot.

BROOM Oh, I don’t think so. I think it was all the same old men who had done the other movies.

BETH Really? Even the music? A lot about it seemed so 60s-y.

BROOM I think the association of that aesthetic with drugs and hippies is just retrospective. I think a lot of people in the 60s were just having the same lives they had in the 50s, with a different soundtrack.

ADAM I think the orangutans were clearly pot-smokers. And I think Baloo was clearly a pot-smoker.

BROOM I don’t think pot was a factor here at all. Baloo was just a moocher, a well-meaning good-for-nothin’.

BETH But he might have tried drugs at some point.

BROOM His defining characteristic was his advice to Mowgli: “Don’t go out there looking for things that you don’t have; just give up and settle for the bare necessities.” I don’t think he was saying “space out.” He was just saying “don’t expect anything.”

ADAM Hakuna matata.

BROOM “Hakuna Matata” is exactly the same scene; it’s obviously an attempt to do this song again. “Bear Necessities” really is a standout song for me. It’s really very catchy. The patter about the prickly pawpaw — “put the paw and the claw with the pawpaw” or whatever — when I was a kid, I thought it was just the fun of saying crazy words in rhythm. This time I heard that he was actually saying things that made sense, and the idea of doing a tongue-twister break seemed almost embarrassingly corny to me now. Anything else to say about the big picture here?

BETH About the ideology?

BROOM I don’t know. Sure, if you’ve got something.

ADAM The ideology is like, “cool it.”

BETH “Go with the flow.”

ADAM “Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it: keep cooly-cool, boy!”

BROOM That’s about keeping cool and not losing your cool; but nobody here was going to lose their cool. Even Bagheera, the serious one, the prude, isn’t really a prude. At the end you think he’s going to be flustered and say “I can’t sing this song!” but instead he immediately joins in.

ADAM It’s like nobody meant any of it, for the whole movie. And that’s sort of comforting.

BROOM Which is what all Disney movies were like at that point. All those Herbie movies… there’s no threat of anything.

BETH You were just saying this. That you like encountering old live-action Disney movies on TV because there’s no threat of having to deal with anything.

BROOM I don’t remember saying that.

BETH At the beach.

ADAM Can we read the review? I have to go. Sorry, Emma.

BROOM No, she’s happy about that. I was going to say at the beginning of this conversation that this viewing was a little more distracted, because Beth was falling asleep and Adam had work emails coming into him as we watched, but that it turned out the movie could handle it. The movie didn’t demand anything of us. There’s no investment to be made in it; it’s just a series of diversions.

[we read the original Times review but have nothing to add]


May 3, 2009

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15 (1795; rev. 1800)

Classical Canon random selection #12:


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Opus 15: Piano Concerto (No. 1 in C major)

composed: 1795, revised 1800 (age 25, 30)
[although recent scholarship suggests composition may have been as early as 1793, age 23]

published: 1801
first performance: December 18, 1795, Redoutensaal, Vienna
[recent scholarship, again, thinks perhaps that concert featured the “Concerto No. 2,” and this one was actually premiered in 1796 on tour, in Berlin, Pressburg (Bratislava), or Pest (Budapest)]

dedicated to Princess Barbara Odescalchi (née Countess von Keglevics)

That’s two Beethovens in a row, if you’re counting.

I have a whole bunch of these Classical Canon pieces to respond to but I’ve been held up because I just don’t have much to say about this one. But that’s okay, right? Isn’t it okay not to have much of a response to something?

I guess. But the obligation to write is supposed to be my incentive to up the ante. When you put some shoulder into in it and push upstream against lazy, duck’s-back indifference, you almost always find something. Not finding anything is usually just a symptom of passivity. So going with my shrug feels like a cop-out, even if it’s sincere.

But some things are more shrug-worthy than others.

When we say that something has made no particular impression on us, what we mean is that the impression was already made on us, earlier in life, by something else. Everything makes an impression on a blank-slate newborn, but as the impressions build up, the mind begins to construct categories, and then subcategories, and so on and so on. And then it finds itself here, as me, listening to a piece and thinking, “yeah, this just sounds like some classical-era music,” and then trying to listen closer, and thinking, “yeah, this just sounds like a classical-era piano concerto,” and then — let’s skip to the finish here — “yeah, this sounds like an early Beethoven piano concerto.” That’s a sub-category in which there are only two items. And yet it still feels like a category and not an identity.

A talking point that I’ve brought out in several conversations past: how many Road Runner cartoons are there? Yeah, Wikipedia says 45, but that includes a bunch of latter-day nonsense; the ones you’d ever see on TV end around 40, and that includes a whole series of shoddy, cut-rate ones from the 60s. The Chuck Jones ones, which are the only ones you actually think of when you think of Road Runner cartoons, number only about 22. The point is: some fairly small finite number.

Yeah, believe it or not, I’ve used this as an example before. So, it’s not a great one; so sue me. I still think of it when I think of this issue of type versus exemplar. There is no amount of specific familiarity with those 22 cartoons that I could gain and not still think of Road Runner cartoons as a type, an unbounded set. Or so I suspect. I’m not going to try.

I have come to accept that in listening to music, I am personally most sensitive to kinetic qualities: how much energy it’s exhibiting and how, what happens to movement, whether it’s gathering force or dissipating, smaller impulses driving larger ones, etc. My memory of music I’ve only heard a few times will frequently trick me by replacing harmonies, melodies, or rhythms with other ones that “accomplish” the same thing, kinetically, because that’s what I’ve identified as essential. That kind of awareness comes without any thought or effort, and is quite full. But for me to become sensitive to the particularities of line, or harmony, or form, beyond their most aggressive features, requires either strenuously willed attention, or a score to concretize everything so I can work with my eye and not just my flaky ear.

Or I have to hear a piece many, many times, until every detail has wormed its way into my memory. But that kind of knowledge feels a little superficial in its own way — when you care about some accidental squeak on a recording as much as you do about the sequence of notes, your familiarity is not specifically musical. John Cage would say otherwise, but I think he’d be wrong. You can become very familiar with a recording of a person’s voice speaking in a language you do not understand; that’s different from becoming very familiar eith the text being spoken. Objectively and cognitively different in type, not just character. Being able to hum my way through a piece still doesn’t mean I “get it,” just like being able to walk the route to elementary school didn’t mean I knew anything about the geography of my hometown.

Without evidence to the contrary, I’d assume that everyone experienced music this same way: motion and texture above all, then tunes, then everything else. It just feels so inevitable to me. But I know it’s not so. Beth, for one, remembers melodies very accurately after only one or two listens, and is amazed how often I — “a musician!” — sing back melodies incorrectly, subconsciously recomposing phrases in ways that feel to me “functionally equivalent” to the originals. To her ear there’s nothing “equivalent” about it; I’m just getting them wrong, period. But her memory for accompaniment and rhythm seems to be vaguer than mine.

It seems likely that these kinds of predilections are determined by the musical languages to which we are exposed as children, just as our ability to distinguish phonemes seems to correspond to the language we are brought up speaking. An English speaker has a hard time learning to hear and speak Mandarin vowel sounds (right?) but no baby brought up speaking Mandarin has any serious problem. Maybe. On the other hand, people’s precision of enunciation varies greatly within the same culture. Beth’s brother, who grew up in the same household, lets all his phonemes melt together without apparently hearing it or caring; she doesn’t. So there’s probably some genetic component as well. For what it’s worth, I know many fine musicians who are terrible mumblers, and many actors who can very attentively and carefully mimic speech patterns but not musical ones. Yeah, I know, that’s a whole other bicycle of fish.

I personally grew up hearing a mix of classical music, theater music, and pop — and most importantly, of course, TV — but pretty idiosyncratic selections from each. Most people with classical music in their lives seem to have been exposed to various composers and pieces approximately in proportion to their general cultural prominence, but my exposure was mostly based on what my father’s casual, eclectic interest happened to have focussed on in any given month. I heard Mozart and Beethoven, but only a few pieces by each. I probably heard more pieces by Bartok than by Mozart. There was no obvious way for me to know that the five or six Mozart sonatas that I knew were actually to be understood in the context of a whole coherent musico-linguistic culture circa 1785 in Austria, whereas Bartok came from a time of iconoclasts — he was surrounded by influences but no true contemporaries. In my childhood, I recognized that each composer had a personality that united their pieces, but otherwise each piece stood alone. The fact that Mozart and Beethoven had sort of similar styles, all things considered, was if anything a count against them both. Why write more of that kind of stuff when we already have the 10 pieces that I know?

Pop music was similar. I never sought it out and never put on the radio, so I just heard the albums my parents bought and listened to — a couple every year but not a lot more. Plus the extra copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that they let me play on my Fisher Price turntable. As with classical, I didn’t have a full enough spectrum of material to form a sense of a shared language. Other than the basic chords and rhythms, each band seemed to be coming from its own universe. The only genuinely whole musical “culture” I knew was the TV, which probably accounts for stuff like this being in my brain today.

The point of this digression is that I think whatever strengths my musical mind developed were those that were useful in distinguishing this range of musical fragments from one another. The musical culture to which I and nobody else belonged (well, except maybe my sister, for a while) was the one which contained a few isolated pieces by the Beatles, and Bartok, and Mozart, and the theme for the evening news, and only a few hundred other things.

Every spoken language emphasizes different kinds of discrimination — our American-English ears don’t seem care too much about a lot of vowels, but we place greater emphasis than the rest of the world, it seems, on distinguishing our “R” from other sounds near it — and the same is true for musical cultures. Beethoven and Mozart wrote for listeners who were apparently expected to care very much about the character of line, even at a very small scale. Most of their listening was presumably to virtuoso vocalists whose elaborate flourishes were the point. Even after a bachelor’s degree and several decades of attentive listening, my ears almost always just hear “music that believes in flourishes,” which is sufficient to distinguish it from, say, the 3-2-1 Contact Theme, and mostly disregards the specific flourishes, just like we all mostly disregard the difference in character between the decorative gook growing on the front of the one dollar bill (classical, leafy, modest), and the decorative gook growing on the back (baroque, sinuous, alien). We just see “dignified, intricate old-timey decoration.” And part of us always will, no matter how many design classes we take.

I must accept that before I put on my “18th-century-make-believe” helmet and hunker down hard with a score — and even afterward — I am going to hear Beethoven in competition not with Albrechtsberger and Hummel (who?) but with Debussy and Prokofiev and “Theme from the Jetsons” and “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”

This problem is — OBVIOUSLY — the main reason why classical music is hard to popularize nowadays, but nobody wants to talk about it because there’s no solution other than to give up on all but a very few pieces from any given era.

One of my esteemed music professors once played a Bach “surprise” cadence on the piano and ostentatiously savored how wonderfully spicy and shocking it was, and then bemoaned the fact that today most people need to be beaten over the head to elicit any sense of surprise, and attributed it, with an Ivy League shake of the head, to “the coarsening of our culture.” Which is, at face value, actually a very good metaphor for what’s happened, but he didn’t mean it that way — he meant that these horrible people today are getting more and more vulgar and lowdown, ugh. I said that I thought it was simply because we’ve been exposed to contexts where that chord isn’t shocking at all; that if we heard that very same chord progression in a work by Schoenberg, we would have been principally struck by how uncharacteristically bland and rote and old-fashioned it was. These things are all contextual, and we aesthetes and aficionados are all play-acting, to a degree, when we pretend to live in those contexts, whereas the coarse people around us who admit not to being surprised by a totally characteristic “surprise” are just being honest. And he had absolutely nothing to say to that. We just went on to something else.

I think. It’s possible my memory has distorted the moment, to make me more of a lonely prophet of sincerity in a vale of pretension. Thanks, memory!

This is all to say that this piece is hiding behind some other pieces from around 1800 that I already know, and won’t come out no matter how much I coax it. Here, kitty kitty. Even if I commit the whole thing to memory, will it ever really come out?

My recent entries here have been long and dull and it’s because I haven’t been writing as much lately. Juices need to be gotten flowing. A lot of this is, I suspect, like reading the loop-de-loops of someone getting a dry pen started.

So I’m going to be bold and just end it here. Wait, what about, like, Beethoven’s Concerto No. 1? You can listen yourself if you want. It’s a decent but unremarkable piece based on decent but unremarkable material. It’s not in the 1001 Recordings list and more power to them. I think David Dubal just wanted to list all five concerti because Beethoven’s such a damned demigod.

Honestly, it’s better than this entry lets on. You might like it.

Dubal told me to listen to:

Fleisher, Cleveland Orchestra, Szell: CBS M3K 42445
Schnabel, London Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sargent: Pearl PEA 9063
Arrau, Dresden Staatskapelle, Davis: Philips 422149-2

I hit the Schnabel, not the others.

I listened to
Murray Perahia, Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (1985)
Artur Schnabel, London Symphony Orchestra / Malcolm Sargent (1932)
Rudolf Serkin, Philadelphia Orchestra / Eugene Ormandy (1965)
Melvyn Tan, The London Classical Players / Roger Norrington (1988, on period instruments)
Sviatoslav Richter, Boston Symphony Orchestra / Charles Munch (1960)

Man, that’s a lot! Who knew. I don’t remember which ones I liked; it was a long time ago.

Maybe someday my conscience will come haunting me and I’ll force myself to have more thoughts specifically about this piece, but that seems highly, highly unlikely.

May 2, 2009

Doctor Zhivago (1957)

Boris Pasternak (1890–1960)
Доктор Живаго (1957)
translated into English as Doctor Zhivago by Max Hayward and Manya Harari (1958)

Roll #17:
1748: Boris Pasternak.
1749: Doctor Zhivago

I had been writing a tremendously long entry about this book over many days, but I started to feel nauseated looking at it so I just now wiped it clean. From the top again, boys, this time with feeling, and don’t drag!

I’ll start with the confession: I’m not as proud of this reading as I have been of my others in this series. The book took me by surprise by turning out to be hard. It’s sort of a stealth hard book. You don’t realize what it demands of you until you’re halfway through. I get the impression that some critics have had a similar experience and settled for sizing it up in a superficial way, emboldened to do so, I’ll bet, by the existence of the movie. But it’s not a superficial book. It is an ambitious work of art that asks to be taken seriously. It aims high. Or wide, anyway.

The difficulty is that there are several things going on here, braided together and alternating, and while it’s easy enough to track them separately, it’s not clear how to synthesize and unify them. The descriptive imagery, the historical panorama, the philosophical digressions, the love story, and the life story are all in complex negotiations with one another for airtime. Given 550 pages, they each get enough room to have their say, and they manage to coexist stylistically without too much jostling. But the things they’re saying don’t seem quite consistent with one another. The ungenerous way to resolve the resulting complexities is to conclude that Pasternak didn’t have enough control for so large a work, wasn’t a natural novelist and so ended up writing something philosophically and aesthetically diffuse. It’s also possible that he thought of internal tension and heterogeneity as aesthetically valuable; rich soil for the mind — this certainly seems to be an attitude shared by many poets. The other possibility that I have to consider is that the various elements do resolve into a coherent field of meaning, but that I just haven’t seen how.

On the one hand we have something a bit like The Plague: people’s lives are overturned and threatened by great tidal forces beyond their control, and our good doctor goes among them trying to do the right thing and live according to humble principles, a heroic figure of humanism in a vast landscape of cruel abstractions. But a revolution is not a plague from above; it is a congregate expression of human will. The panorama of struggle and suffering through which Zhivago wanders is the product of his society, not of indifferent nature. Of course it’s admirable that Zhivago loves life, but surely so too do the desperate people around him; the real question is, what is this mess and how did they end up in it? All Quiet on the Western Front, which I read recently but didn’t write about, was about the inhumanity of war but also about the nature of war. It took it upon itself to address “what is this mess and how did we end up in it?” But Zhivago, and Doctor Zhivago, with its poet’s-eye-view of the world, seems skeptical of any kind of analysis, anything that would have a whiff of sociology or history about it. The only “big picture” Pasternak is willing to show us is the alien force of fate, manifested as a dense web of meaningless coincidences that intertwine all these lives; the big picture is a realm of inscrutable mystery.

Zhivago is an intellectual but his beatific humanism is old-school Russian: a little lyricism, a little Christianity, a little mysticism, a little folk. Fairy-tale-ish. That sort of thing, warm and loving though it may be, is no match for a force like the revolution. And Pasternak acknowledges as much: Zhivago’s life taken as a whole is pretty depressing, and after his family and then his mistress are torn from him by circumstance, he declines and dies in a kind of emeritus irrelevance, having had no real impact on events. But it’s also clear that Zhivago’s writing of poetry is meant to be seen as a heroic act. His poems capture the spark of humanism on the page and are like a seed of the human spirit, waiting to be reborn in society, or something.

To me, at least, the realistic descriptions of people starving, freezing, murdering one another, etc. etc. make the idea of poet-as-hero seem awfully flimsy. Isn’t this sort of romanticization of art and intellectualism just as ideological and removed from real life in its way as the sloganistic politics the book laments? The final paragraph, suggesting vaguely that perhaps from these poems, a new day will dawn in the cold Soviet Union, just seems like pie in the sky.

Seeing as Zhivago pretty much is Pasternak, it’s a little self-aggrandizing, as is the fairly overt implication that Zhivago is a Christ-like figure, his pure spirit having died for Russia’s sins. Also distasteful is the fact that the whole book, from a certain point of view, is a justification — sanctification, really — of cheating on your loving wife with the pretty blonde you met at work. The universe conspires to make Zhivago do it, of course, but the romance-novel aspect of the book starts convincing us that it’s fated and desirable long before it is morally excusable. And it’s Pasternak’s universe doing the conspiring, after all. Supposedly his wife and his mistress knew each other and got along well in real life.

Just as Zhivago embodies the values of the old-school Russian thought, the book is a throwback to (or a holdover from) the old-school Russian novel. Not having read War and Peace (which I suspect is the major forebear to Zhivago in substance and form), I feel ill-equipped to guess at Pasternak’s intentions — whether he was writing the only way he knew how, or was making a point by resurrecting a dead style, or was explicitly writing a modern echo of the classics, or what. But I suspect that such distinctions are different in Russia, where Tolstoy and Pushkin still play a far more central, scriptural role in contemporary national pride than, say, Melville and Twain over here in the US. On the issue of style, taste and anachronism, I was reminded of Rachmaninoff, whose music is often dismissed as over-the-top kitschy sentimentalism, but who was actually quite a serious and tasteful composer doing subtle things; he just happened to be one of the last men standing, still working within a frame of reference that was all but extinct, that favored heightened emotion and the intensification of beauty. Likewise, Doctor Zhivago has more than a touch of the soapy melodrama in it, but it comes by it honestly, by way of the craft of an earlier time.

I think. Then again sometimes Rachmaninoff does sound a little cheap even to me. And sometimes I had my doubts about whether Doctor Zhivago was really any more dignified or deep than the movie version that overshadows it. The question remains open. An AMC classic Hollywood movie can be “real art” too, if it’s done well enough. Maybe this book was that kind of achievement?

That Pasternak was a poet shines through very clearly, both for better and for worse. The images are conveyed with force and distinction; the prose, even in translation, is strong and rewarding. Most of the individual scenes are quite fine, and even the soapy, melodramatic stuff was full and well-crafted enough that I got into it. But the relationship between part and whole is always oblique, unstated, as in a poem, and so the whole never quite gelled for me; the murk never quite cleared. And I’m not going to read it again to make better sense of it, though I almost certainly would. It’s just too damn long. Since that’s my choice, I will in good faith grant that it’s entirely possible that this book is not flawed, but rather very rich, and that I have fallen short in exploring it. Probably that’s true… to some degree.

It is a worthy and impressive book. But my gut tells me that my problems with it were its problems, and this is my site, so what I say goes.

I am moved by the formal idea of having the book end, but then to offer, as postlude, Zhivago’s poems. We’ve watched the man’s whole life and seen how these poems represent only the briefest few days of oasis in his existence, and yet here they are, still burning with the life of those few days on the page — apart from, but bound to, the book of his life. I was braced to be deeply moved by the poignancy. But, sadly, the poetry suffers in translation more than the prose and the experience is underwhelming.

I’m also interested in Pasternak’s attempt to write poetry “by Zhivago,” an issue discussed in the comments way back here. I think he does all right. But there’s still a sense of distance between the character in the novel and the author of this poetry, since the only thoughts we’ve heard in Zhivago’s head have been quite directly expressed, and yet here he is being oblique and allusive. Perhaps that’s simply what it is to be a poet? Or perhaps Pasternak hasn’t played the role of Zhivago quite well enough? Once again I’m not sure how to evaluate.

Introduction in this edition by John Bayley is very good, I thought, and makes a fine case for the book. But it should come with a spoiler warning!

Here’s a choice passage for you — the pivotal scene where Zhivago writes. But of course this is actually Pasternak the poet describing inspiration and the writing process, and it has a satisfying “Inside the Actor’s Studio” quality.

Last night he had tried to convey, by words so simple as to be almost childish and suggesting the directness of a lullaby, his feelings of mingled love and fear and longing and courage, in such a way that it should speak for itself, almost apart from the words.

Looking over these rough sketches now, he found that they needed a connecting theme to give unity to the lines, which for lack of it fell apart. He crossed out what he had written and began to write down the legend of St. George and the dragon in the same lyrical manner. At first he used a broad, spacious pentameter. The regularity of the rhythm, independent of the meaning and inherent of the meter itself, annoyed him by its doggerel artificiality. He gave up the pompous meter and the caesura and cut down the lines to four beats, as you cut out useless words in prose. The task was now more difficult but more engaging. The result was livelier but still too verbose. He forced himself to even shorter lines. Now the words were crammed in their trimeters, and Yurii Andreievich felt wide awake, roused, excited; the right words to fill the short lines came, prompted by the measure. Things scarcely named in the lines evoked concrete images. He heard the horse’s hoofs ringing on the surface of the poem, as you hear the ambling of a horse in one of Chopin’s ballades. St. George was galloping over the boundless expanse of the steppe. He could watch him, as he grew smaller in the distance. He wrote in a feverish hurry, scarcely able to keep up with the words as they poured out, always to the point and tumbling into place of themselves.

The resulting work is one of the poems that appears at the end of the book, but the same tight meter that made it exhilarating to write surely also made it very difficult to translate well, and the English version, at least, doesn’t make any very great impact. Sadly.

Oh, hey, look, someone made a movie out of this book I just read, even though it seems like nobody ever reads it! Hey, it’s got really high production values! I get to see all the scenes I just read come to life! Cool!

I had never seen it before — who ever wants to watch a sweeping epic, really? — and pairing it with this reading was ideal, since I was able to focus on the execution, which I think is the movie’s strong suit, rather than the content. I’m just not sure what this story is worth to anyone.

I was very impressed with the adaptation; respectful and thorough but also streamlining, clarifying. Of course, it clarifies the political question by falling decidedly against the revolution in a way the book never does; a few “bad guy” moments are added in that make all the difference. But it never goes outside the bounds of the book’s spirit; it just retouches it so that ambiguities are washed away. Having Evgraf narrating in flashback to the daughter, and having Zhivago’s poems be “the famous Lara poems,” both are, I thought, cleverly unobtrusive ways of giving a roundness to the form that the book never provides.

Music was a little silly. Good casting though — Rod Steiger was a more interesting Komarovsky than the one in the book. Alec Guinness gives a much-needed sense of wisdom to the whole endeavor. Klaus Kinski is in it!! Julie Christie is a lot less of a person than the Lara in the book but that’s how movies work — the prettiness is the message, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan. Likewise, Omar Sharif does exactly what he needs to do as our protagonist by smiling a little and having watery eyes, and that feels like it does justice to the book, which I think is exactly what’s wrong with this material.

Hey, who here wants me to stop talking about Doctor Zhivago? Show of hands? Okay then.