Wednesday, July 06, 2016

part 3 - Some things we can only leave unsaid

PART THREE. Improvisation in Homage to Stravinsky

Music is "powerless to express anything at all: a feeling, an attitude, a psychological state," says Stravinsky in Chronicle of My Life (1935). This assertion (surely exaggerated, for how can one deny music's ability to arouse feelings?) is elaborated and refined a few lines later: music's raison d'etre, says Stravinsky, does not reside in its capacity to express feelings. It is curious to note what irritation this attitude provoked.
The conviction, contrary to Stravinsky's, that music's raison d'etre is the expression of feelings probably existed always, but it became dominant, widely accepted and self-evident, in the eighteenth century; Jean-Jacques Rousseau states it with a blunt simplicity: like any other art, music imitates the real world, but in a specific way: it "will not represent things directly, but it will arouse in the soul the same impulses that we feel at seeing them." That requires a certain structure in the musical work; Rousseau: "All of music can be composed of only these three things: melody or song, harmony or accompaniment, movement or tempo." I emphasize: harmony or accompaniment; that means everything else is subordinate to melody: it is melody that is primordial, and harmony is merely accompaniment, "having very little power over the human heart."

Ansermet proceeds from criticism of the music to criticism of its author: if Stravinsky "neither made nor tried to make his music an act of self-expression, it's not out of free choice, but out of a kind of limitation in his nature, a lack of autonomy in his affective activity (not to speak of his poverty of heart, a heart that will stay poor until it has something to love)."
Damn! What did Ansermet, that most faithful friend, know about Stravinsky's poverty of heart? What did he, that most devoted friend, know about Stravinsky's capacity to love? And where did he get his utter certainty that the heart is ethically superior to the brain? Are not vile acts committed as often with the heart's help as without it? Can't fanatics, with their bloody hands, boast of a high degree of "affective activity"? Will we ever be done with this imbecile sentimental Inquisition, the heart's Reign of Terror?

And I think, too, of the Adagio of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto (a work of his last, his sad, American period). The hypersubjective theme, ineffably melancholy, alternates with a second, this one hyperobjective (which incidentally recalls the fourth part of the Out of Doors suite): as if a souls sorrow could find consolation only in the nonsentience of nature.
I say, indeed: "consolation in the nonsentience of nature." For nonsentience is consoling; the world of nonsentience is the world outside human life; it is eternity; "it is the sea gone off with the sun" (Rimbaud). I remember the gloomy years I spent in Bohemia early in the Russian occupation. I fell in love then with Varese and Xenakis: those pictures of sound-worlds that were objective but nonexistent spoke to me of a life freed of human subjectivity, aggressive and burdensome; they spoke of the sweetly nonhuman beauty of the world before or after mankind moved through it.

An image hounds me: according to a popular belief, at the moment of his death a person sees his whole life pass before his eyes. In Stravinsky's work, European music recalled its thousand-year history; that was its final dream before setting out for an eternal dreamless sleep.

What is ecstasy? The boy banging on the keyboard feels an enthusiasm (or a sorrow, or a delight), and the emotion rises to such a pitch of intensity that it becomes unbearable: the boy flees into a state of blindness and deafness where everything is forgotten, even oneself. Through ecstasy, emotion reaches its climax, and thereby at the same time its negation (its oblivion).
Ecstasy means being "outside oneself," as indicated by the etymology of the Greek word: the act of leaving one's position (stasis). To be "outside oneself" does not mean outside the present moment, like a dreamer escaping into the past or the future. Just the opposite: ecstasy is absolute identity with the present instant, total forgetting of past and future. If we obliterate the future and the past, the present moment stands in empty space, outside life and its chronology, outside time and independent of it (this is why it can be likened to eternity, which too is the negation of time).

The classic example of ecstasy is the moment of orgasm. Think back to the time before women had the benefit of the pill. It often happened that at the moment of climax a lover forgot to slide out of his mistress's body and made her a mother, even though, a few moments earlier, he had firmly intended to be extremely careful. That second of ecstasy made him forget both his determination (his immediate past) and his interest (his future).
The instant of ecstasy thus weighed more heavily on the scales than the unwanted child; and since the unwanted child will probably fill the lover's whole life span with his unwanted presence, it may be said that one instant of ecstasy weighed more than a whole lifetime. The lover's lifetime faced the instant of ecstasy from roughly the same inferior status as the finite has facing eternity. Man desires eternity, but all he can get is its imitation: the instant of ecstasy.

Living is a perpetual heavy effort not to lose sight of ourselves, to stay solidly present in ourselves, in our stasis. Step outside ourselves for a mere instant, and we verge on death's dominion.

I remember the Picasso exhibition in Prague in the mid-sixties. One painting has stayed with me. A woman and a man are eating watermelon: the woman is seated, the man is lying on the ground, his legs lifted up to the sky in a gesture of unspeakable joy. And the whole thing painted with a delectable offhandedness that made me think the painter, as he painted the picture, must have been feeling the same joy as the man with his legs lifted up.

The delight of the painter painting the man with his legs lifted up is a double delight; it is the delight of contemplating delight (with a smile). It is the smile that interests me. In the delight of the man lifting his legs up to the sky the painter glimpses a wonderful tinge of the comical, and he rejoices in it. His own smile spurs him to a merry, heedless invention, just as heedless as the gesture of the man lifting his legs to the sky. So the delight I'm talking about bears the mark of humor; this is what sets it apart from the delight of other ages in art, from the Romantic delight of Wagners Tristan, for instance, or from the idyllic delight of a Philemon and Baucis. (Is it a fatal lack of humor that makes Adorno so unreceptive to Stravinsky's music?)

Emigration Arithmetic
The life of an émigré - there's a matter of arithmetic: Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (famous under the name Joseph Conrad) lived seventeen years in Poland (and in Russia, with his exiled family), the rest of his life, fifty years, in England (or on English ships). He was thus able to adopt English as his writing language, and English themes as well. Only his allergy to things Russian (ah, poor Gide, incapable of understanding Conrad's puzzling aversion to Dostoyevsky!) preserves a trace of his Polishness.
Bohuslav Martinu lived in Bohemia till he was thirty-two, then for thirty-six years in France, Switzerland, America, and Switzerland again. A nostalgia for the old country always echoed in his work, and he always called himself a Czech composer. Yet after the war, he declined all invitations from back there, and by his express wish, he was buried in Switzerland. Foiling his last will, in 1979, twenty years after his death, agents of the motherland managed to kidnap his corpse and solemnly install it beneath his native soil.
Gombrowicz lived for thirty-five years in Poland, twenty-three in Argentina, six in France. Yet he could write his books only in Polish, and the characters in his novels are Polish. In 1964, during a stay in Berlin, he is invited to Poland. He hesitates, and in the end, he refuses. His body is buried in Vence, in the south of France.
Vladimir Nabokov lived in Russia for twenty years, twenty-one in Europe (in England, Germany, and France), twenty years in America, sixteen in Switzerland. He adopted English as his writing language, but American themes a bit less thoroughly; there are many Russian characters in his novels. Yet he was unequivocal and insistent in proclaiming himself an American citizen and writer. His body lies at Montreux, in Switzerland.
Kazimierz Brandys lived in Poland for sixty-five years, moving to Paris after the Jaruzelski putsch in 1981. He writes only in Polish, on Polish themes, and yet, even though since 1989 there is no longer a political reason to stay abroad, he is not going back to live in Poland (which provides me the pleasure of seeing him from time to time).

This hasty scan reveals, for one thing, an emigres artistic problem: the numerically equal blocks of a lifetime are unequal in weight, depending on whether they comprise young or adult years. The adult years may be richer and more important for life and for creative activity both, but the subconscious, memory, language, all the understructure of creativity, are formed very early; for a doctor, that won't make problems, but for a novelist or a composer, leaving the place to which his imagination, his obsessions, and thus his fundamental themes are bound could make for a kind of ripping apart. He must mobilize all his powers, all his artists wiles, to turn the disadvantages of that situation to benefits.
Emigration is hard from the purely personal standpoint as well: people generally think of the pain of nostalgia; but what is worse is the pain of estrangement:
the process whereby what was intimate becomes foreign. We experience that estrangement not vis-à-vis the new country: there, the process is the inverse: what was foreign becomes, little by little, familiar and beloved. The shocking, stupefying form of strangeness occurs not with an unknown woman we are trying to pick up but with a woman who used to belong to us. Only returning to the native land after a long absence can reveal the substantial strangeness of the world and of existence.

I think often of Gombrowicz in Berlin. Of his refusal to see Poland again. Distrust toward the Communist regime still in power there? I don't think so: Polish Communism was already falling apart, cultivated people were almost all involved in the opposition, and they would have turned Gombrowicz's visit into a triumph. The real reasons for the refusal could only have been existential. And incommunicable. Incommunicable because too intimate. Incommunicable, also, because too wounding for the others. Some things we can only leave unsaid.

Emigration: a forced stay abroad for a person who considers his birthplace his only country. But the emigration stretches on and a new loyalty develops, this one to the adopted land; that's when the break occurs.
…Without a doubt, Stravinsky, like all the others, bore within him the wound of his emigration; without a doubt, his artistic evolution would have taken a different path if he had been able to stay where he was born. In fact, the start of his journey through the history of music coincides roughly with the moment when his native country ceases to exist for him; having understood that no country could replace it, he finds his only homeland in music; this is not just a nice lyrical conceit of mine, I think it in an absolutely concrete way: his only homeland, his only home, was music, all of music by all musicians, the very history of music; there he decided to establish himself, to take root, to live; there he ultimately found his only compatriots, his only intimates, his only neighbors, from Perotin to Webern; it is with them that he began a long conversation, which ended only with his death.

Testaments Betrayed (1993) - An Essay in Nine Parts By Milan Kundera
Translated by Linda Asher

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