The Combined Beginning-Ending Moment

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Bach’s cello suites¬†you see a lot of phrases like this:

bach prelude 4

…where the low note you land on (the one in the middle here) is the first note of the next measure, and the beginning of the next phrase. Here, that low note, the E-flat, is at once the end of the E-flat major chord preceding it and the beginning of the A-flat major chord following.

The impression formed is of a continual flow and progression from one chord into another, and it kind of feels like the musical analogue of watching colors change in a sky or a movie or a screen saver. Each internal punctuation isn’t really an ending — it’s the beginning of the next thing. His music is always moving.

The technique can be very powerful in storytelling, which, if you believe Aristotle, is supposed to be premised on a beginning, middle, and end. But really good writers can plunk their endings down where they please and use them as beginnings. They recognized, in the Chekhovian mode, even before Chekhov existed, that a character’s thoughts or actions never really end. One simply leads into the next.

Madame Bovary, for example, appears episodic — Emma and Charles move from one city to another every few years, and the story is, at a high level, segmented by two trysts. But the progression of the story is finely calibrated, moment by moment. A good example of the beginning-ending note in Bovary is the end of Part 1 in the afterglow of an aristocratic party Emma recently attended with Charles:

The memory of this ball, then, became an occupation for Emma.

Whenever the Wednesday came round she said to herself as she awoke, “Ah! I was there a week–a fortnight–three weeks ago.”

And little by little the faces grew confused in her remembrance.

She forgot the tune of the quadrilles; she no longer saw the liveries and appointments so distinctly; some details escaped her, but the regret remained with her.

The fading of this memory is, for Flaubert, a beginning for the materialistic sadness defining the story that follows. Emma and Charles move on to the next city shortly after this, on to Emma’s next desperate attempt to seize something rhapsodic out of her life. Throughout the rest of the book Emma’s self-inflicted oppression and unhappiness squeeze around her, decision by decision.

If you prefer plays, an equally excellent example of the “continuous ending”, so to speak, is in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Acts 2 and 3 both end with the same refrain: Moscow, an of course unfulfilled dream that runs through the whole play.

Here’s Irina at the end of Act 2:

IRINA [left alone, in dejection]. Oh, to go to Moscow, to Moscow!

…and at the end of Act 3:

IRINA. My dear, my darling, I respect the baron, I think highly of him, he’s a fine man — I’ll marry him, I consent, only let’s go to Moscow! I implore you, please let’s go! There’s nothing in the world better than Moscow! Let’s go, Olya! Let’s go!

No one uses the ending of an act better than Chekhov. The closing refrain is there, the note of finality and the mournful sigh offered up. But the wistfulness of the lines is precisely the instrument of continuing the play’s action, of conveying these characters’ destinies to go on, and on, in their lives.

Something more fluid than Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end persists in real writing, especially in real prose, which is drawn irresistibly¬†to the constant change and fixed flow of real life.

Polyphony in the “King Lear” Mock Trial

March 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

For fun, I asked myself, what are the ineluctable advantages music has over literature, as far as technical elements? I came up with two:

  • Silence
  • Counterpoint, i.e. multiple simultaneous voices

Other elements of music, like timbre or tempo, can be approximated via the musical elements of language itself, but silence and counterpoint are structurally incompatible with a string of words.

Shakespeare tried, though, and there’s a great famous mock trial in King Lear, Act 3, Scene 6, where Lear and his posse of followers put his daughters Regan and Goneril on trial for forsaking him. It’s a sort of literary counterpoint: there are four voices of madness or oddness in the scene — Lear, his court Fool, Edgar posing as a mad beggar, and Kent posing as a servant — all speaking in rapid succession, almost at once over each other and to each other and alongside each other. I always figured writing plays would be too restrictive, being purely dialogue, but Shakespeare takes that limitation as a premise and uses the dialogue as voices.

When the four of them first enter, each of their voices is introduced in turn: Kent considerate, Edgar raving, Fool jesting, and Lear frothing:

All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience: the gods reward your kindness!

Frateretto calls me; and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend.

Pr’ythee, nuncle, tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman?

A king, a king!

Sometimes they talk to themselves, each in their voices:

To have a thousand with red burning spits
Come hissing in upon ’em, —

The foul fiend bites my back.

He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a
horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.

And sometimes two different voices are focused on a single subject. Here’s Fool’s playful directness set against Lear’s bluster:

Come hither, mistress. Is your name Goneril?

She cannot deny it.

Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool.

This is a great bit because between Lear and the Fool, each character, in his own voice, is being similarly direct yet wildly different.

There are also various meters used among the voices. Iambic pentameter is less common here. There’s just as much of prose and of Fool’s and Edgar’s various singsong rhythms. Sometimes Lear manages iambic pentameter and it’s a send-up of the psuedo-lucidity of his bluster:

It shall be done; I will arraign them straight.
Come, sit thou here, most learned justicer;
Thou, sapient sir, sit here. Now, you she foxes!

Compare this to one of the more truthful bits in the scene, where Fool sings a song directly mocking Lear.

So these few examples illustrate, I hope, how Shakespeare uses different dimensions of the notion of a “voice” — content, form, mood and tone, rhythm — some musical, some literary, to organize the chaos of a scene with four liars and/or madmen, each with his own aims. I think the attention paid to Shakespeare’s supposed breadth of understanding of humanity — his ability to understand drinkers and bards and lords and serfs — is a pointless kind of scorekeeping when applied across his work. To see him bring very different literary/musical voices — creative manifestations of individual characters — to bear within a single scene is much more interesting.

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.

Lit vs. Everything Else

January 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

Let’s pit the art forms against each other in a grisly melee. Life being what it is, I could’ve ended up with an interest in anything else: music, sports, motorcycles, whatever. But straws were drawn and I got books as my passion. How does that stack up against other possibilities?

In the interest of counting my blessings, I’ve thought about the advantages and disadvantages of being a reader, and of the literary art form. There’s so much to explore in life that even if you pursue all your interests with the deepest energy and effort you have, you’re only getting one or two flavors of creative enjoyment from your years. To love deeply is to love a sliver of things.

First, the bad stuff. Language is always changing, so compared to other art forms, like music, literature is thoroughly doomed to obscurity. Even if we optimistically assume the permanent dominance of the English language, your writing is not going to survive as it is. Shakespeare is only four centuries old, and even his work, the crown jewel of the canon, is heavily annotated today.

So all writing is inherently doomed in the long run. What else? Literature is obsolete, compared to movies or video games. The art form is pretty well established and even corporatized. It has no hold over the public imagination and — don’t underestimate this one — doesn’t gain the direct and exciting benefits of advancing technology the way music or movies do. It’s inherently more static than other art forms because of the simplicity of its means, words on a page.

But there are serious upsides. They just require a lot of work on the part of a writer or reader to manifest:

Anyone Can Write

You don’t need an early introduction to writing, the way violinists start at age three. You don’t need to gain entry into a conservatory or art school, you don’t need to be born into an upper-class life that sanctions frivolous pursuits, and you don’t need a formal education. Because writing is a skill acquired in some form by practically everyone, everyone has the foundation to explore the art form if they’re so inclined. And (this is a big one for me personally since my childhood was so scattershot) you can pick it up in your teens or twenties or thirties and it’s not too late to become a great reader or writer. So there’s less luck involved.

A Blanker Slate and a Freer Range

Music works within an abstract system of scales and harmony and what not. Painting is bound to color and line and space. Motorcycling follows the laws of physics. But an individual piece of writing sets its own rules for harmony or color or physics. It also sets its own logic, its own sense of time, and its own definitions of possible and impossible. In The Metamorphosis, a man may turn into a beetle. In In Search Of Lost Time, time is an imaginative process rather than an administrative or entropic one. In Coleridge’s poetry, Xanadu is vividly felt and real life is a hazy interruption. Who knows what the stuff of a real book may look or feel like, or how it may behave, or how it may delight? Who knows? That’s the fun of it. (That’s also what makes writing really hard, by the way. Why do you think the publishing industry and creative writing classes are so obsessed with restraint and convention? Because the threat of freedom is so large.)

Varieties Of Subtlety

The fine, nearly inexpressible subtleties and details that transform mere narration into an amazing imaginative act can take any shape. This is harder to explain than the previous two points. In Gogol’s writing, artistry is the digression that gives the backstory for the “freshly laid egg” in a simple analogy like “Her pretty face was as oval as a freshly laid egg.” In Dickens, artistry is the aggregation of soot-marks — on the windowsill, on the floor, in dirty London — before discovering a character has spontaneously combusted. Neither of these is a prescribed pattern — like, say, recitative in opera or a slice serve in tennis — but an artistic form newly and wholly created for the sake of a single book or passage or image. There is a dizzying and exhilarating exploratory quality to all great writing, since we are seeing what strangeness an individual mind can produce and still get away with under the humble guise of a “novel”.

There’s probably more, but I hope I’ve made enough points. If my points have anything unifying in them, it’s probably that, since language is and can be twisted to so many ends of so many minds, books occupy a special closeness to the dizzying variety and strangeness of thought and imagination.

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