About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 27 - D. H. Lawrence

As a novelist, Lawrence carries on where Thomas Hardy left off in Jude the Obscure. His novels continue and deepen the realist Victorian tradition in fiction (“the great tradition,” as Leavis called it, of moral realism, with its probing portrayals of men and women in society), and he does so in works that also embody modernist daring and experiment. Above all his novels explore levels of subconscious and unconscious motivation, particularly the role of sexuality in his characters’ lives. He renders this daring “primitivist” vision of passion’s role in our lives by means of an experimental novelistic language employing a stylized incantatory lyricism and a structure of repeated images which become abstract signposts of the unconscious. These strategies are joined – for example in The Rainbow, Women in Love, and The Plumed Serpent – with Lawrence’s dark and judgmental vision of the decline of western civilization, so that his readers and characters are made to face the decadence of western culture, often in comparison with African, Mexican, ancient, or folk culture; in this echt modernist strategy, he positions his fiction as an ambitious and censorious critique of civilization.

But what is most compelling in Lawrence’s work is his delving into questions of what makes us human, what drives us at the most primary level. To think about his novels involves our facing – with appropriate trepidation – the deepest level of our own psyche. The primitivism associated with his treatment of sexuality is bracing and disturbing, not least because it is part of his effort to delve into the hidden levels of unconscious motives. His works confront not only any hangover of fastidious Victorian repression; they also expose the efforts to simplify and reduce the deeper workings of our passions through antiseptic detachment and materialist allure or “packaging”[see his late essay “Pornography and Obscenity” - which can be found in any (used) copy of Portable D H Lawrence (Viking Portable Library)]. In a significant early letter to his editor Edward Garnett, he voices his aim to get beyond the portrayal of superficial characteristics of life, the glittering facets of what he calls “diamond,” and to dig beyond the surface to the level of the essential carbon of existence; Lawrence uses as the essential element of his novels just this sort of imagery (like coal and diamond), images which function like quasi-sacramental symbols and rhythmic incantations conveying his elemental insights into the passions which drive human beings, above all sexual passion.

These motifs of style and theme are evident in the story “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” in which a country doctor saves a poverty-stricken woman from suicide by drowning; in his rooms, she has been warmed in towels, and she responds with desperate neediness to his kindness. The souls of these characters are in danger of expiring, hers from despair and his from emptiness; as a result they are on the verge of doing something extreme, struggling confusedly, even grotesquely toward life. Here is a passage in which images as well as the individual words themselves are incanted as a means of summoning up the subconscious knot of feeling operating beyond the surface of the ego: “Her hands were drawing him, drawing him down to her. He was afraid, even a little horrified. For he had, really, no intention of loving her. Yet her hands were drawing him towards her. He put out his hand quickly to steady himself, and grasped her bare shoulder. A lame seemed to burn the hand that grasped her soft shoulder. He had no intention of loving her; his whole will was against his yielding. It was horrible. And yet wonderful was the touch of her shoulders….”  Carbon, not diamond: the “primitive” frankness of the passage points toward the full physical honesty of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which employs the Anglo-Saxon words for sex and excrement.

Diamond versus coal: these are logical images to employ for this son of a coal worker and the brilliant product of the working class miner’s passionate marriage to an ex-teacher from a failing middle-class family.  Lawrence, born in 1885, was raised by the coal mine in the “company town,” and as a gifted student, he was the beneficiary of Gladstone’s Education Act of 1870 (one of several bills which saved England from much of Europe’s revolutionary disturbances). Like Joyce, he was a working class or at least lower-middle-class genius; he came in first in the country-wide King’s Scholarship exam, enabling him to attend the University of Nottingham. He and his closest friend in late adolescence, Jesse Chambers, formed a small group, the Pagans, dedicated to the ideas of Pater, Wagner, and Nietzsche; his first publication was a group of poems Jesse sent to Ford Maddox Ford, editor of The English Review. In 1912, he met Frieda Weekley, wife of his French professor at the university, a German woman who had undergone psychoanalysis; she left her husband for him, and his relationship to her lasted the rest of his life, through travels to Europe, Australia, Mexico, New Mexico and back to Europe. Her influence is to be felt immediately in the Freudian portrait of mother and son in Sons and Lovers, and she contributes features to several heroines in his novels. His life was ever in exile – whether driven into a sort of internal exile by British hypocrisy and hostility, or embracing external exile in his travels and foreign residences, continually searching for a more living community, often with close friends.

An aspect of Lawrence’s ambition is this transformation of his intimate biography into the matter of his fiction, so that the novels cumulatively evoke an encompassing chronicle of his life experience. This is not only a matter of the extraordinary appropriation of himself as a character (akin to the gigantism of self in Joyce’s Stephen or Proust’s Marcel), or of the novels’ chronicle of his world travels, both physical and spiritual – from despair to rebirth. It is also a matter of his appropriation and transformation of the lives of his intimate friends – Jesse Chambers becomes Miriam in Sons and Lovers; Katherine Mansfield becomes Gudrun, and John Middleton Murray becomes Gerald in Women in Love.
I’ll try in my next post further to explore some of the features of Women in Love. [Here are some Amazon links to Lawrence's works: Selected Stories (Lawrence, D. H.) (Penguin Classics), Sons and Lovers (Vintage Classics), The Rainbow (Vintage Classics), Women in Love, Lady Chatterley's Lover (Penguin Classics)(Vintage Classics).]

Monday, June 6, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 26 - the modern use of folk and popular art (Brecht/Weill and Bartok)

From its beginnings, classical music has made use of folk and popular melodies and dance forms – the waltz, the minuet, the gavotte, the sarabande, etc. In the visual arts, too, communal sources and the “populace” provide the audience and origin of much art – religious art, for example, like a classical statue of Athena or a painted or sculpted Jesus, even as these art objects may aspire to high art. In the modern period, Picasso (along with, of course, many others serious artists) adapts and distorts folk images – the African masks in “Desmoiselles,” for instance – as well as quotidian popular motifs from Paris, Spain and elsewhere.
In modern music, as we discussed earlier, Mahler travesties lullabies and marches. Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” (composed during World War I; here's a cd link - Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky: The Mono Years) plays with and parodies various military marches and dances, and “The Rite of Spring” adapts Russian folk melodies. An example from modern literature is Joyce’s Ulysses, which incorporates popular songs, advertising jingles, and much slang in its effort to encompass the entire world of modernity, past and present. Eliot’s The Wasteland “do the police in different voices,” echoing everything from that bit of Dickens to “O O O O that Shakespeherean Rag,” etc. 
Modernist adaptations of popular and folk materials involve an active distortion, making the source motifs ironic and “difficult.” This process is partly a sort of estranging of popular materials, but it’s also an assimilation of those motifs into the larger forms and aims of the artwork. Brecht and Weill offer a key example of the estrangement technique, and Bartok’s music provides a brilliant instance of the process of assimilation into “serious” art.

In Brecht/Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (1928), for example, there is the “avant-garde” use of what Bertolt Brecht calls the “alienation” effect, which here mixes the aims of art music with lounge and music hall tunes and employs, too, the noises of the culture (blowing police whistles at the audience, for instance). All these ironies invite (or force) one to see the links between the opera’s criminals and the economic establishment (which “eats up the poor man’s bread,” in Eric Bentley bitterly poignant version: “For the ones, they are in darkness and the others are in light. And you see the ones in brightness. Those in darkness drop from sight”). The sharply ironic transformation of pop music aims to expose the society’s decadence and to “alienate” the normally passive popular consumer of such music. This alienation technique aims to stir the audience’s active critical engagement, yet simultaneously – like travesty – Kurt Weill’s mocking and brilliantly inventive transformation of popular materials holds onto them, in a double irony, as offering all that is left of expressiveness in a corrupt society. Mockery becomes the necessary added ingredient to restore their expressive potential. Here is “Mack the Knife” sung by Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife, who appeared in the original production of the opera: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpMh5auMaVQ&feature=related. This is a recent, fairly idiomatic version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0HZsiFNxN0&feature=related. And here it is sung by the popular “alternative rock” singer Nick Cave: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3_2zbZwDlM&playnext=1&list=PLD97706DDFA894823&index=1. Here is a cd link to the opera: Weill: The Threepenny Opera.
Travesty and mockery are not emphasized in Bartok’s music, which synthesizes and assimilates (“holds onto,” but not as travesty) Eastern European “folk” music of which, as a young musicologist, he made a careful record. In his powerful and beautifully conceived music, these unfamiliar “folk” elements are radically transformed into core motifs and experimental harmonies; as well, “primitive” dance syncopations and percussive rhythms are often driven to the edge of violence. Here are examples from his Piano Concerto No. 2 (first movement – Ranki, pianist, and Kocsis): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_36cPkLyvI&feature=related – and the Piano Concerto No. 1 (first movement – Pollini, pianist, and Boulez) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMwH3011tTk&feature=related (a cd link: Bartok: The Piano Concertos).  Here is an example of this driven, demonic quality joined also to inventive whimsy and to destabilizing, dissonant modernist harmonies, in the Violin-Piano Sonata No. 1 iii (Kremer and Argerich): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4DzOzckOpg&feature=related. And, for a final YouTube illustration, here is a similar combination operating at the most ambitious, complex, and abstract level of classical form in the String Quartet No. 5, i: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2diuSD2pLic&feature=related. There is a wonderful early Perahia recording of Bartok's Piano Sonata (1926), which contains this extraordinary synthesis of classical form and folk elements – and which was important in prompting my description of the character Petrov’s performance in my novel Hungry Generations; the cd is available at this link: Murray Perahia Performs Béla Bartók (Piano Sonata; Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs; Suite; Out of Doors; Sonata for 2 pianos & 2 percussion).

Just a final note on modern music: the image I used above of “music being driven to the edge,” as if of a precipice, suggests a quality I’d like to try defining a bit further. As an art form, music rises above material reality, even as human beings commission and produce it; as pure sound, it is the most immaterial of the arts. From its vantage point, it places our material world at a distance and, as a result, seems more “hospitable” to the life of the spirit – of consciousness and imagination. The extraordinary achievement of music, from at least Bach to Stravinsky, is – in Erich Heller’s words – “the speechless triumph of the spirit in a world of words without deeds and deeds without words.” Beethoven represents a sort of mid-point in this apotheosis of the human spirit; his attunement to matters of the will, to the value and force of what Adorno calls “the revolutionary bourgeoisie,” is complicated and in a sense made ironic by the fact that he could not “hear” the music he composed as well as by the fact that the power of his music “explodes the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society” – that’s to say, the music expresses a transformative force and masterful beauty that the  society lacks. Both “facts” confirm the god-like or at least Prospero-like quality of what his music seems to convey, that it exists at a level of transcendent fiction which positions us, his listeners to, “reflect critically on the world and on themselves.” The notion that abstract (and in the case of the modern, experimental) form challenges the perceiver is made more palpable and intense when music seems “driven to the edge,” destabilizing and demonic, as I've tried to show with regard to Bartok and other modern composers.