Being and Struggling in Writing

January 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here’s Glenn Gould making a subtle but profound distinction between the “state of ecstasy” in Bach’s music and the sense of struggle and progression and striving in later music such as Classical:

I’m not a musical expert, but I believe you can hear Gould’s characterization of Classical music in, for example, those Beethoven sonata-form movements that are predicated on starting on the tonic and moving away into the dominant or the relative major or some other harmonic center before finding a way home. Explicit modulation and transition are essential in marking out the sections of a movement.

Compare this to Bach, whose harmonies are in such constant motion that they can’t really be described in sections or progressions. The sense of progression or movement, if you’re looking for it, is so constant that a whole piece of his is rather a state of being — a “state of ecstasy”, as Gould describes it around the 6:15 mark in the video.

That notion of “static” music, that distinction between music that struggles to go somewhere and music that merely is, is what I find so profound. And of course, I think it applies to writing.

I think the literary analogue to this idea can be summed up in that famous line from Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica”:

A poem should not mean / But be

A real story — a living, full-blooded one — isn’t caught up in the obligations of taking readers from one exciting event to another or describing some amazing situation. An ordinary story is concerned with introducing us to a more or less normal “home” state, and then subjecting it and us to some conflict, keeping us in tension for long enough that we feel sufficiently relieved and gratified at the restorative ending. The pattern of progressing inevitably from home to a strange place and, comfortably, back home again reminds me of the exertions of a classical piece with its tonic-dominant-tonic harmonic transitions.

There is a total and consistent richness in a great literary world that doesn’t proceed in sections — indeed, doesn’t really proceed at all. The profound serenity of a Chekhov play or story consists precisely in his writing’s lack of machinations. We’re not whisked along a plot. Rather, the characters are allowed to live and breathe, and the constant (not chunky and artificial) modulations of their lives form the substance of the story.

For another example of writing that merely is, see the associative, memory-driven structure of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which there is no start and end goal for the story, but rather one episode, long or short, wells naturally out of another. Or see the first four acts of Hamlet, which Hamlet spends, in a way, clowning around and making an ambiguous mockery of his own reputation for brooding. That ambiguity is the story, before the fifth act comes and kills everyone off for closure’s sake.

All these stories are round, not linear, worlds, in the spirit of how Gould described Bach’s music as capturing the “immutable totality of existence” in that video.

If you want to appreciate writing that is, you have to let go of all the most common fundamental values: a beginning, middle, and end; excitement and intrigue; moralizing and lesson-teaching; good guys rising up from their darkest hour. These feature are machinations — struggling, rather than being. They serve to distract you from the author’s choice to pass the time rather than create something.


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