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.]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beethoven vii (on the sublime)

Certain art forms may seem broken up into juxtaposed fragments and are yet still capable of developing, something like a plowed field that is simultaneously upturned and the site of possible growth. The upturning exposes the disruptions and actualities beneath the surface, and it simultaneously readies the field for new growth. Such a process can be likened to what happens in Beethoven’s late works, which unite an exposure of basic ordering forms (an upturned baring of essential conventions) with unconventional lyric upwellings and improvised-seeming imaginative eruptions. Before considering that process in more of the late works, I’d like to explain as clearly as I can the relevance of an idea I’d mentioned in one of my earliest posts, the idea of the sublime.
Recently I taught a “Senior Scholars” course to a group of about forty or so people, some of whom are retired, some nearing retirement, and some widowed; early on in the course I tried to suggest the bearing of the idea of the sublime on modernity and specifically on Conrad’s evocation of the jungle and sea among other vistas and also on Freud’s idea of sublimation (Walter Kaufmann, Stanley Cavell, and Harold Bloom among others have of course made the connection between sublimation and the sublime in Nietzsche and others).

Examples of the sublime in Romanticism are a storm at sea or the dwarfing vista of the Alps, as in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting “Wanderer above the Mist” – the untethered human here is dwarfed by the snowy peaks and the seemingly limitless power of external nature. However, the human imagination is not simply “dwarfed” but is stirred to witness and give form to this power; "sublime" then is the name for both a particular occurence and a particular form of imagination, which heeds the call to create “sublime” art or, in Freud’s terms, to sublimate the power of such vistas. To mention Freud is to register that those "vistas" or forces exist not only externally in nature but internally in the psyche, in the instinctual forces of erotic love and of aggression, of Eros and of Thanatos (or the death instinct). So it is that the looming and supercharged forces of both nature and human myth can be termed sublime and are subject to sublimation. For example, in 1900 (the year Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams”) Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” gives form and voice both to the primeval jungle and to the figure of Kurtz, with his nearly mythic god-like arrogance – both contain emanations of the sublime. Similarly the sublime force of Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19) evokes the terror both of the encompassing sea and of the dying and dead men stranded on the raft.

Kant’s “Critique of Judgment” codified (in 1790) this idea of the sublime as a “representation of limitlessness,” existing in a region outside the normal bounds of beauty and beyond the reach of reason – a region of “chaos,” “the ugly,” and “the negative.” A storm’s threat of chaos and terror, for example, evinces an absence of the rational, a negation of order which challenges the imagination to encompass it. In its turn, the sublime work of art then “represents” such a vista of infinite power in order to draw the phenomenon into the compass of autonomous art. In a sense God-like nature meets its match in the Kantian “genius,” whose transformative representations reveal the existence of “soul” in nature. The composer of the Fifth Symphony and the Appassionata Sonata (circa 1805) embodies a version of that “genius.”

At one point in “Critique of Judgment” Kant writes that “perhaps there has never been a more sublime utterance than the inscription from the Temple of Isis” evoking the sublime as the infinite power of nature: “I am all that is, and that was, and that shall be.” It is no accident that Beethoven kept this Kantian inscription in his rooms during his “heroic” period, for the immense power of his middle-period symphonies and sonatas projects this form of encompassing sublimity. Late Beethoven, however, explores a different form of the sublime, one associated more with torn-apart Osiris than the earth-goddess Isis – a sort of sublimity of dismemberment.

Beethoven’s late works thrive in the midst of disparity and open-endedness. It is as if a bargain is being made: organizing forms become more and more objective, the ordering conventions of fugue or variation are made more and more explicit, while the driven process of “heroic” mastery and the will undergoes a sort of disappearance and death and gives way to a new musical process. Beethoven’s “objectifying” of his earlier subjective mastery is – in Hegel’s thinking – to confront death. Hegel’s ideas, developing beyond Kant, can help further to illuminate Beethoven’s late music.

What emerges amid this new “objectivity” is, in Hegel’s conception, a new comprehension of “incompleteness,” “fragmentation,” and “process” – an opening up to another way of being. These qualities well characterize Beethoven’s late aesthetic yielding newly improvisatory invention, a sort of sublimity of “dismemberment.” “The life of the spirit,” Hegel writes in his Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), “endures and maintains itself” in the face of the death of the self, of identity; the spirit “wins its truth only when it finds itself in utter dismemberment.” Here then is the Hegelian sublime, which can help us comprehend what Beethoven is composing in the last decade of his life as he embraces objectivity and passes through the negation of his earlier aesthetic. To endure the death of the form to which the grand, heroic self had been committed yields “the magic power” which converts the “dismembered” self into sublime form: such at least are some Hegelian terms to describe Beethoven’s wonderful late productivity, and these terms help also to illuminate elements of the creative process in modernity (not least in D. H. Lawrence’s explicit evocation of Osiris in his late novella “The Man Who Died”).

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