Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Walt, Oscar, Roland

Daphne Carr asks for suggestions of great writing about music. I wrote back a few suggestions, including this passage from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:

I hear the violoncello, ('tis the young man's heart's complaint,)
I hear the key'd cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music—this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the train'd soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess'd them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick'd by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep'd amid honey'd morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

Walt ain’t afraid let himself be ravished, deliously and sexually. He nails it, what it’s like to be swept up in the musical flow and vortex. There’s a heavy undertone of spiritual orgasm here -- or maybe not merely spiritual -- and clearly Walt is the one being done unto, not the one doing the doing. To which I can’t help myself but say, Rock on!

An elaboration on Whitman’s line, “It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,” appears, uncredited, in Oscar Wilde’s philosophical dialogue The Critic as Artist:

After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins
that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were
not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It
creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills
one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one's tears.
I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing
by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering
that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed
through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild
romantic loves, or great renunciations.

Of course Wilde anticipated a central theme of rock criticism in one of the first lines of his play The Importance of Being Earnest, when Algernon describes his piano playing to his servant:

I don’t play accurately - any one can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression.

It’s all about the passion, man -- I hear that! Dig it -- Oscar Wilde, punk rocker! “Let’s give it ‘em right now!”

Roland Barthes spun his own amateur piano playing in a different direction. For him, the only virtue of his playing was the lack of expressivity. From his “autobiography,” Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (Richard Howard, translator):

I record myself playing piano, initially, out of curiosity to hear myself; but very soon I no longer hear myself; what I hear is, however pretentious it may seem to say so, the Dasein of Bach and of Schumann, the pure materiality of their music; because it is my utterance, the predicate loses all pertinence; on the other hand, paradoxically, if I listen to Horowitz or Richter, a thousand adjectives come to mind: I hear them and not Bach or Schumann.

I can’t say definitively whether Barthes had Wilde in mind when he wrote this passage, but I would guess that he did, since not only did Barthes re-write Wilde’s joke, but by equating inexpressivity with faithfulness to the musical text, he refuted a contention Wilde put forth in a later passage in “The Critic as Artist”:

When Rubinstein plays to us the Sonata Appassionata of Beethoven, he gives us not merely Beethoven, but also himself, and so gives us Beethoven absolutely--Beethoven re-interpreted through a rich artistic nature, and made vivid and wonderful to us by a new and intense personality.

As a listener, I’d have to go with Oscar on this one. I don’t know that Barthes would disagree, and I know Walt wouldn’t; Walt, for whom no pleasure was guilty:

I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious

All so luscious, my friend, all so luscious.

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