Monday, October 08, 2007

A Translation of the "Fabeln" of Novalis

The Bear

"Where are you off to, Bre'er Bear?" said a wolf to a wandering bear. "I'm looking for a new place to live," he replied. "But you had a fine, roomy den; why did you vacate it?" "The lion claimed it as his own and took his claim to the Senate of the Beasts." "You had nothing to fear there: you had an open-and-shut case." "When a king is the plaintiff, Bre'er Wolf, no case is open-and-shut."

The Country Maid

A country maid, having abandoned her lover, appeared all but inconsolable! "Why do you cry so?" asked one of her girl-friends. "Ah! Because I left behind with him my lovely blue overcoat."

Ye swains take note!

The Mayfly
An elderly mayfly exclaimed, “I have been studying for 22 hours; my wisdom, my learning, are the greatest that an infinite being can attain.” “Wretched fool!” said a man who heard her, “a boy still wet behind the ears possesses ten times more knowledge and understanding.”
What mortal does not on occasion reason after the same fashion as the mayfly?

The Owl and the Sparrow
"You scoundrel! Stealing cherries in broad daylight, in plain view of all and sundry? What confounded cheek!" Thus cried an owl to a sparrow who was feasting himself on a cherry tree. "To be sure," replied the sparrow, "it is much nobler to go a-killing and a-thieving at night, when all the other animals are fast asleep."

The Fox
"Have you read this satire of you that the lion has written?" queried the wolf of the fox: "You should demand satisfaction of him as befits a gentleman." "I have read it, but I won't follow your counsel," said the fox, "for then the lion would demand satisfaction of me as befits a prince."

Corrupt Offerings

Jupiter was wandering in a forest, and all the trees shook loose their various fruits at his feet, and he blessed them. The poison tree likewise flung forth its fruit to Jupiter at this time. "No! I cannot accept your offering," said Jupiter, and forbore to bless the tree.

Ye princes! Smile not upon the genius who devotes his gifts to the corruption of morals!

The Tale of Hyacinth and Rosebud

(from "The Novices at Sais")

Once upon a time, well towards evening, there lived a very young man. He was most virtuous, but also odd beyond all measure.

He was forever worrying, time and again, about nothing; he passed his days in silence; he would sit by himself when others were frolicking and gay, and abandon himself to curious preoccupations. Caves and forests were his favorite haunts; and, moreover, he would unceasingly converse with the beasts of the field and the air, with trees and boulders--naturally in no intelligible language--and, more sonorously, with foolish old Zeus himself, to the point that he found himself fairly doubled up with laughter. But he remained habitually surly and serious, in spite of all the pains that the squirrels, the monkeys, the parrots, and the bullfinch took to amuse him and show him the true path. The goose told fairly tales, the brook babbled a ballad between times, a big fat rock cut droll capers, the rose genially sneaked up behind him and around him, slinking through the locks of his hair, and the ivy caressed his careworn brow. And yet his seriousness and despondency were unyielding.

His parents were quite dejected in his behalf; they hardly knew where to begin. He was healthy and well fed; they had never scolded him; he had, moreover, until a few years previous, been as merry and gay as could be, the champion in all sportive contests and the favorite of all of his female playmates. He was as pretty as a picture and as well-bred as a husband-to-be; and he danced like a true gallant.

Among these female playmates of his there numbered a certain one--a charming, picture-perfect child, a veritable wax doll--with hair like golden silk, lips of cherry red, and eyes like jet-black embers. So lovely was she that he who saw her was as good as lost. In those days, Rosebud--that was her name--bore a good will to Hyacinth--that was his name--and he was mortally in love with her. The other children knew nothing of this. A violet had first mentioned it to them; the house-kittens had taken full notice of it; their parents' houses were sited quite close to each other.

When of an evening Hyacinth was standing at his window and Rosebud at hers, and the kittens were out on the prowl for mice, they would see the two of them standing there and oftentimes laugh and giggle so loudly that they heard it and became cross. The violet had mentioned it in strictest confidence to the strawberry plant, who mentioned it in turn to her friend the gooseberry bush, who now forbore to withdraw her thorns when Hyacinth came walking by; thus presently the whole garden and forest discovered it, and whenever Hyacinth went out, all around him there would issue a murmur of
Rosebud is my sweetheart!

Hyacinth was annoyed by this, and yet he could not help laughing when the little lizard came slithering up to disport himself on a warm rock, wagging his tail and singing:

That darling infant hight Rosebud
Has eyes full newly bleared with mud.
Mistaking Hy'cinth for her mum,
She falls into his arms all dumb;
But on discov'ring her mistake,
Thinks but of him, does not fright take,
Departs, no words betok'ning aught amiss,
Now, as ever after, with a kiss.

Ah! Sic transit gloria mundi. There now arrived on the scene a man hailing from a foreign country, who was astonishingly well-traveled; he had a long beard, sunken eyes, hideous eyebrows, and a marvelous costume with strange pleats and shapes woven into it. He planted himself in front of Hyacinth's parents' house. His curiosity aroused, Hyacinth took a seat beside the man and fetched him some bread and wine. The man shook his white beard this way and that and told tales until the wee hours of the night, and Hyacinth stayed awake and never budged an inch or grew tired of listening. By all subsequent accounts, the man had much to say of of foreign parts and terrae incognitae, and of astonishingly strange events, and he remained in the area for three days, and went creeping into deep hollows of the earth with Hyacinth.

Rosebud roundly cursed the old sorcerer, for Hyacinth was absolutely smitten by his conversation and concerned himself with nothing else; he hardly even bothered to eat or drink anything. Finally the man took off, but he left behind in Hyacinth's keeping a small book that nobody knew how to read. Hyacinth, for his part, gave the man fruit, bread, and wine, and accompanied him along a good stretch of his journey. And then he returned in a pensive frame of mind, and began a new mode of life. Rosebud took great pity on him, for from that point onwards, she mattered but little to him, and he remained perpetually wrapped up in himself.

It now so happened that one day he came home and was as though newly born. He fell into the arms of his parents and began weeping. "I must set forth into foreign countries," he said; "the strange old woman in the forest told me how I must become healthy; she flung my book into the fire and urged me to go to you and seek your blessing. Perhaps I shall return soon, perhaps never. Give my regards to Rosebud. Somehow, whenever I try to think back on the old days, more powerful thoughts interpose themselves; peace lies elsewhere, together with heart and love; I must go seek them. Would that I could tell you whither; I myself do not know; yonder dwells the mother of all things, the veiled virgin. Towards her do tend all the stirrings of my soul. Farewell."

He tore himself free and set forth. His parents lamented and shed tears; Rosebud remained in her chamber and wept bitterly. Hyacinth made his way as best he could through valleys and wilds, across mountains and rivers, towards the mysterious regions of the earth. Everywhere and of everyone—men and beasts, rocks and trees—he enquired after the goddess Isis. Some of them laughed, some of them were silent; nowhere was an answer forthcoming. First, he passed through a savage, mountainous country; the road was traversed by mists and clouds; storms raged incessantly; then, he happened upon some unsightly deserts of red-hot sand; and the farther he wandered, in like proportion was his soul transformed; time slowed down for him and his inner tumult subsided; he became calmer, and the violent agitation within him by degrees became a gentle, albeit firm, urge to press on, an urge that absorbed his entire soul. He felt as though many years lay behind him.

And now the surrounding country became more fertile and varied, the air mild and blue, the road more smoothly paved; green thickets tempted him with winsome shadows, but he could not understand their language; nor did they even seem to speak, and yet they filled his heart with shades of green and a cool, silent essence. This sweet longing within him mounted ever higher, and the leaves grew ever brighter and calmer, the birds and beasts ever louder and merrier, the fruits ever more fragrant, the skies ever darker, and his love ever warmer; time passed ever more quickly, as though presaging his journey's end.

One day he encountered a crystal-clear spring and a host of flowers running alongside and between two rows of sky-scraping black columns. They saluted him in a familiar tongue.

"My beloved fellow countrymen," he said; "where may I find the sacred residence of Isis? It must lie somewhere hereabouts, and perhaps you are better acquainted with the neighborhood than I am."

"We are likewise merely passing through," replied the flowers; "a family of souls is traveling hither and beyond, and we are preparing them passage and lodging; en route, a few days ago, we happened to hear her name mentioned. Go upwards, in the direction whence we came; thus shall you surely come to learn more."

The flowers and the spring smiled as they said this, offered him a draft of fresh water, and proceeded on their way.

Hyacinth followed their counsel, kept on enquiring, and finally came to that long-sought-after dwelling, which was situated under a canopy of palms and other exquisite plants. His heart throbbed in infinite longing, and the sweetest dread pervaded him in this abode of eternal seasons. Under the auspices of a salutary celestial ether, he fell asleep, for only in his dreams could he be led into the Holy of Holies. In a most curious fashion, these dreams led him through an infinite succession of chambers full of strange objects, on rousing timbres and alternating concords. Everything seemed so familiar to him, and yet clothed in a splendor he had never before seen; then, the last trace of earthly materiality faded away, as though consumed by the air, and he stood before the celestial virgin; then, he lifted the weightless, lustrous veil and Rosebud sank into his arms.

The fond reunion, the effusions of longing, were attended and surrounded by a distant music, which banished everything alien from this enchanting place. Hyacinth lived long after with Rosebud among his joyful parents and playmates, and innumerable grandchildren gave thanks to the strange old woman for her counsel and fire; for in those days, people could have as many children as they wished.

The Mite

"Nothing is more true," said one mite to her neighbor, "than that our cheese is the center of the sublime system of the cosmos and that we are the especial favorites of the Almighty, inasmuch as He has created for us the perfect habitation." "Fool!" said a man as he devoured the cheese and the mites at one go. "You think as do many of my brothers: you of your cheese, they of theirs."

The Horse

A wolf said to a horse, "Why do you remain so loyal to man--who, after all, does nothing but harass you to the utmost--rather than seek your liberty?" "Who in the wild would defend me against you and your like?" replied the philosophical horse. "Who would take care of me if I were ill; where would I have found such good and plentiful fodder, or a warm stall? I cheerfully relinquish to you your phantom of liberty in exchange for everything that my slavery procures me. And as for the work itself: is it really such a curse?"

The Philosopher

Want of haste seldom makes waste.

"Teach Homer to my canary," said a tyrant to a philosopher, "so that he shall be able to recite the epics from memory, or hie thee hence from from my dominions; attempt the same task and fail, and thou needs must die." "I would fain teach him," said the sage, "but for this I shall require ten years." "Why were you so foolish," a friend of his subsequently asked him, "as to undertake something so impossible?" He replied with a smile: "In ten years' time, one of us--either myself or the tyrant or the bird--will be dead."

The Snail

Once upon a time, two youths went out for a walk and encountered in the middle of the road a certain snail, which they flung into a nearby bush for fear that it would otherwise be crushed under the wheels of the next passing carriage. "You wantons!" cried the snail, "Why do you disturb our tranquil repose and fling us so wantonly hither?"

Brothers and sisters, with what do you struggle when some petty misfortune befalls you? With the full weight of the world? Oh, how shortsighted you are!

The Old Sparrow

"Shame on you!" cried an old sparrow to a group of his juniors who flirted and pleasured themselves with sparrowesses of easy virtue; "You fail to understand how most unseemly and degrading this all is; you are spurning the very wisdom that elevates our soul to a state of immortality." "Keep plying your wisdom," cried the wantons to him, "and let us have our fun for now; when we are as old as you we, too, on account of our impotence, shall thus have need of recourse to wisdom, and of waxing philosophical on love and joy."

The Tiger and the Fox

"Tiger," said the lion to his favorite, "I can no longer endure the fox; he mocks and jeers incessantly; get rid of him for me." The tiger cheerfully ran off to the fox: "Villain! You have affronted the King." "When did that happen?" said the fox. "I know nothing of it." "And yet you defamed him but the day before yesterday." "That's as abominable a lie as the first one," cried the fox. "Oh! You accuse me of lying. For this I must be avenged." And with these words, he gobbled him up.

Once upon a time an ass complained: "How unlucky I am! I have no horns"; a fox standing nearby: "Really? I am still more unlucky; I have short legs." "Be silent, the pair of you!" cried the mole, "I am practically blind."
"He is without doubt a fool," said the wise horse, "who regards himself as the most unfortunate of all creatures."

Tit for Tat

In hot pursuit of the quaking dove, a hawk followed his quarry all the way to the dovecote. There he was apprehended by the squire, who expressed his intention to kill him.

"What did I do to you?" cried the hawk? "What did the dove do to you?" was the squire's reply.

Translation Copyright © 2007 by Douglas Robertson

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Translation of "Beethovens Instrumentalmusik" by E. T. A. Hoffmann

(For a PDF version of this translation, go to The Worldview Annex).

Beethoven's Instrumental Music

In considering the subject of music as a self-contained art, ought one not to confine oneself to instrumental music; given that the latter, in disdaining any admixture of that other art known as poetry, expresses the peculiar, the uniquely intuitive, essence of this art? Music is the most romantic of all the arts; one might, indeed, almost call it the only truly romantic art, for it takes the infinite itself as its sole theme. Orpheus's lyre opened the gates of Hades. Music discloses to man an uncharted realm: a world that has absolutely nothing in common with the external, empirical world, a world that comprehensively encircles its empirical counterpart, a world to which the latter abandons all distinct sensations for the sake of surrendering itself to an inexpressible yearning.

Doubtless you, too--you long-suffering instrumental compositions, who take such great pains to depict distinct sentiments (and what is more, actual events)--have at least dimly surmised this peculiar essence? How, then, did it ever occur to you to busy yourself so materially with the materials of an art so frankly at odds with this essence? Your sunrises, your thunderstorms, your batailles des trois empereurs, etc., were, to be sure, quite laughable aberrations and have been deservedly consigned to utter oblivion.

In vocal music, wherein poetry verbally intimates distinct emotional states, the magical power of music acts like a marvelous melodic elixir, the merest few drops of which render each and every draft immeasurably more exquisite and delicious. Music clothes every passion supplied to us by the opera--love, hate, rage, despair, etc.--in the purple luster of romanticism, and, by way of the transient sensations of life itself, leads us out of life and into the realm of the infinite.

Such is the ever-crescent power of music's enchantment, that it needs must have rent asunder all fetters imposed on it by any other art.

To be sure, it is owing not merely to the facilitation of their means of expression (i.e., technical improvements in the instruments, greater virtuosity of the part of the players), but also to their deeper, more intimate perception of the peculiar essence of music, that certain composers of genius have raised instrumental music to its present heights.

Mozart and Haydn, the creators of modern instrumental music, were the first to exhibit the art to us in its full glory; he who first beheld it with undivided love and penetrated its innermost essence is: Beethoven! The instrumental works of all three masters are imbued with a single romantic spirit, wherein resides a correspondingly singular, intimate understanding of the peculiar essence of this art; nonetheless, each master's oeuvre is markedly different in character from those of the other two. In Haydn's compositions, the expressive idiom of a serenely childlike soul holds sway. His symphonies lead us into a boundless sylvan grove, into a merry, colorful, tumultuous throng of happy people. Round-dance formations of swains and maids flit past; laughing children eavesdrop from behind trees and rose bushes and playfully bury themselves in flowers. A life of untrammeled love and bliss, a prelapsarian life of eternal youth; no sorrows, no pain: only a bittersweet longing for the beloved form that hovers off in the distance, in the twilit glow of the sunset, and that neither draws nearer nor disappears; and while that form remains there, inasmuch as it constitutes in itself that very sunset by which the hill and the grove are so tenderly illuminated, night will never fall. Mozart leads us into the depths of the spiritual realm. Here terror surrounds us, but in the absence of its attendant torments, it is more of a presentiment of the Infinite.

Here, love and sadness resound in winsome spiritual concords; night ascends in lovely shades of iridescent purple, and, with an inexpressible yearning, we chase after a succession of forms that genially beckon us onwards as they fly through the clouds in the eternal dance of the spheres. (See Mozart's Symphony in E-flat major, also known as the "Swan-song" symphony.)1

Beethoven's music, on the other hand, discloses to us the realm of the colossal and the immeasurable. 
Beams of incandescent light shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we become conscious of enormous shadows; shadows that, in the ponderous weight of their alternating ebb and flow, ever-more-narrowly constrain, and, ultimately, annihilate us--without, however, annihilating that pain of infinite yearning upon which each and every pleasure that has fleetingly come into its own in the exultation of melody founders and then perishes, and it is only in virtue of this pain—this pain of mingled love, hope, and joy that is intrinsically consumptive but not destructive, this pain that strives to tear our breast asunder in a full-voiced concord of all the passions—that we survive the ordeal as enraptured communicants with the great beyond!

The romantic temperament is rare enough, but rarer still is romantic talent; hence it comes that there are so few proficient players of that lyre whose sound discloses the marvelous realm of the romantic.

Haydn conceives of the humanity in human life romantically; he is, for the most part, more intelligible and comprehensible.

Mozart lays a greater claim to the superhuman, the marvelous, that dwells in the inner spirit. Beethoven's music turns the handle of terror, tremulousness, dread, and pain and awakens that infinite yearning that is the very essence of romanticism. Hence he is a romantic composer through and through; and hence may we not account for his comparative paucity of achievement in the genres of vocal music, which genres will perforce have no truck with the vague yearning that is perceived and depicted in the realm of the infinite, but only with such distinct emotional states as are expressible in words?

Beethoven's mighty genius crushes the music-loving rabble; the latter's wishful protests against it are in vain. But as for those arbiters of taste who prudently survey their surroundings with a superior mien, for reassurance's sake--one cannot but take them at their word that they are men of great understanding and profound insight--such a fertile and active imagination has not fallen to B's share but that he knows well enough not to curb it! For any mere selection and molding of ideas is quite beside the point in his case; to the contrary: he has overtaken the so-called creative method to such a degree that he is instantaneously inspired by the fiery workings of his imagination. But how is it that the profound coherence of every Beethoven composition has eluded your purblind gaze (for you have only yourselves to blame if you cannot comprehend the master's consecratedly intelligible language, if the gate of his inner sanctum remains shut to you)? In truth, and by way of fully comparing him to Haydn and Mozart in point of presence of mind, the master separates his ego from the interior realm of sounds and rules over the latter like an absolute monarch. Aesthetic geometricians have long bemoaned the lack of inner coherence and inner unity in Shakespeare's works, wherein the more searching gaze discerns the beauteous maturation of a tree whose leaves, sap and fruit have all sprouted from a single seed; in like manner, it is only after one has delved as deeply as possible into Beethoven's instrumental music that it evinces that superior presence of mind that is inseparable from true genius and that can be gleaned only from a proper study of art. None of Beethoven's instrumental works corroborates all of the above more affirmatively than does the incomparably excellent, meditative Symphony in C minor.2 Oh, how this wonderful composition urges the listener onwards and upwards, along an ever-rising slope leading to a single climax, into the spiritual realm of the infinite! Nothing could be simpler than the opening Allegro's two-measure-long principal motif, which, in its initial unison appearance, does not even grant a sense of key to the listener. The character of restless, uneasy longing that this movement bears within itself is rendered still clearer by its lyrical second theme! The heart, oppressed and alarmed by menacing forebodings of monstrosity and annihilation, seems to have willingly cast its lot with the atmosphere of vigorous, strident sonorities; but now comes along this genial, iridescent form that illuminates the deep, gray-cast night. (The lovely theme in G major, first touched on by the E flat French horn.)3 How simple--let it be said again--is the theme that the master lays down as a foundation for the whole, but how wonderfully the accompanying and transitional phrases, in virtue of their rhythmic proportionality, successively conjoin and utterly subordinate themselves thereto; such that they come to evince the fundamental character of the allegro, to which this principal theme is but an allusion. All of the phrases are short--consisting almost entirely of two or three measure-long units--and, moreover, divided in constant alternation between the winds and the strings; one would have supposed that only a collection of unintelligible fragments could emerge from such elements; whereas, to the contrary, it is precisely by way of this disposition of the whole, along with the constant, consecutive reiteration of phrases and individual chords, that the sense of ineffable longing attains the highest intensity. Quite apart from the fact that the treatment of counterpoint bespeaks a profound understanding of that art, the transitional passages, the continual allusions to the principal theme, also show how the master has conceived and planned the whole with a view to each and every one of the soul's passionate lineaments. But here, too, treads that terrible spirit that so ineluctably harried the heart in the Allegro, now menacing us from behind cover of the storm-cloud into which it vanished, a cloud whose lightning-flashes put to flight the genial forms by which we were previously encircled. What shall I say of the minuet? Hearken to the peculiar modulations, to the cadences closing on chords in the dominant major, which the bass adopts as the tonic of the ensuing theme in the minor mode--yes, that selfsame theme, constantly extending itself a few measures at a time! Are you not once again overcome by that restless, ineffable longing, that foreboding of the marvelous spiritual realm over which the master rules? But oh, how the splendid theme of the finale radiates blinding sunlight in the exultant jubilation of the full orchestra. Here, again, what marvelous contrapuntal intricacies are woven into the fabric of the whole. For many people, all of this will simply rush past like an ingeniously contrived rhapsody; but the soul of the thoughtful listener will doubtless be seized in its innermost depths by a feeling that constitutes the very essence of that ominously ineffable longing, and right on through to the final cadence--nay, even after that selfsame moment--he will be incapable of extricating himself from that spiritual realm wherein he is surrounded by sorrow and joy made palpably manifest in pure sound. The intensive organization of the individual movements, their execution, their instrumentation, the manner in which each one succeeds its predecessor, everything converges on a single point; but above all it is the intimate interrelationship of the themes that begets that unity that alone is capable of arresting the listener in a single frame of mind. Often this interrelationship is made clear to the listener if he follows the transition from one passage to the next or discerns that two passages share a common bass-line, but a more profound interrelationship, such as cannot be divulged in this fashion, is communicated only from soul to soul, and it is precisely this interrelationship that reigns sub rosa in the two allegros and in the minuet, and proclaims the genius of the master in its full glory.

But oh, great master! How deeply have thy piano works impressed themselves upon my heart; how commonplace and insignificant does everything belonging neither to thee, nor to the ingenious Mozart, nor to the mighty Sebastian Bach now seem to me! With what delight did I first acquaint myself with the score of your Opus 70, of those two splendid trios, knowing full well as I did what splendors--pending a few rehearsal sessions--awaited my ears! And, indeed how felicitous it is that as of this evening I remain like one who, having wandered into some fantastic park, finds himself plunging ever deeper into its maze woven out of all manner of rare trees, plants and flowers; so incapable am I of abstracting myself from the wonderful turns and intricacies of your trios. The enchanting sirens' voices of your melodic phrases, in their variegated multiplicity, lure me ever deeper and onwards. The intelligent lady who earlier today played so splendidly for me, Kappellmeister Kreisler, in especial honor of your Trio No. 1, and at whose piano I am still sitting even as I write, allowed me plainly to perceive how one must value only what is imparted by the spirit, the remainder being positively harmful. At this very moment I have just played through by heart a few striking modulations from both trios. It of course remains the case that the piano (i.e., the pianoforte, as against the harpsichord4) is a much more useful instrument for the articulation of harmony than for that of melody. The subtlest expression of which this instrument is capable does not impart to the melodic line those myriad expressive nuances that the violin-bow and the wind-player's breath manage to differentiate with such agility and vitality. In vain, the performer wrestles with the insuperable difficulties presented to him by its mechanism, which sets the strings vibrating and resonating at a single touch. On the other hand, there is no certainly no other instrument (apart from the even more expressively-straitened harp) that, by way of fully-manipulable chords, circumscribes the realm of harmony and yields up its treasures to the connoisseur in such marvelous shapes and forms. If the master's fancy conceives a full-fledged tone-painting composed of an abundance of figures, brilliant shafts of light and deep gradations of color, he can can bring this painting to life at the keyboard of his piano, such that it emerges from his inner world in all of its original iridescent brilliance. The orchestral score, that veritable book of musical charms in whose symbols is preserved the whole miracle of music, the mysterious choir of manifold instruments, comes to life at the piano under the master's hands; and one may perhaps liken this miniature of the full score comprising all of the latter's instrumental voices to a well-executed copperplate reproduction of a large painting. Hence the piano is preeminently suited to improvisation, to sight-reading, to solo sonatas, to chords, etc.; secondarily, such genres as the trio, the quartet, the quintet, etc., to which the conventional string instruments contribute, likewise assuredly belong entirely to the realm of piano composition, inasmuch as they are actually composed in four parts, five parts, etc., such that here it is entirely a question of harmonic development, which is automatically precluded by conspicuously florid passage-work on the part of any of the individual instruments.

I harbor a savage animus against all proper piano concertos. (Mozart's and Beethoven's are not so much concertos as symphonies with piano obbligatos.) Here, the virtuosity of the soloist, in the execution of passages and in the expression of the melody, is bound to assert itself; the best player on the finest of instruments futilely strains after that which the violinist in Beethoven achieves with the most negligible exertion. Every solo sounds stiff and feeble after the full tutti of fiddles and winds, and one marvels at the fleetness of the finger-work, and so on and so forth, while one's heart remains utterly untouched.

But how thoroughly the master has apprehended the unique spirit of the instrument, and what correspondingly especial pains has he taken on its behalf!

A simple, singable--albeit fecund--theme, amenable to the most diverse contrapuntal turns, abbreviations, etc., constitutes the foundation of every movement; and all residual accompanying voices and figures are related to this principal theme, such that everything, courtesy of each and every instrument, is ultimately intertwined and arranged in the service of a perfect unity. Such is the structure of the whole; but within this artificial edifice the most marvelous images alternate in restless flight; and by way of this alternation joy and pain, sadness and bliss, consecutively and interpenetratively present themselves. Strange shapes commence an ethereal dance, in the course of which they now soar convergently up to a focal point, now scatter in brilliant coruscation, and pursue each other in manifold combinations; and in the midst of this newly-revealed spiritual realm the enraptured soul eavesdrops on an unfamiliar language and understands all of the most mysterious presentiments by which it is moved.

Only the composer has truly, thoroughly penetrated the mystery of harmony by means of which the human heart can be influenced; to him alone have been vouchsafed the numerical proportions--which to the ungifted grammarian remain but so many fixed, lifeless arithmetical templates--those magical chemical compounds out of which the enchanted world can arise.

Notwithstanding the good nature that is especially prevalent in the first trio--its wistful Largo not excepted--Beethoven's genius retains its essentially serious and solemn character. It is as if the master is suggesting that even when one's spirit feels itself raised to a pitch of merriment, one cannot discourse on matters profound and mysterious with which one is intimately familiar in the vernacular, but only in noble, lapidary utterance; the musical accompaniment of the dance of the high priest of Isis can only be a hymn of celebration in the high style.

Accordingly, instrumental music must exert its effects only qua music; it ought not to subordinate itself at hazard to any distinct dramaturgical design or have any truck with trivial clowning and trifling lazzi. It plumbs the depths of the soul in search of such intimations of ecstasy--such visitors from an unknown country, fairer and more glorious than anything hailing from this straitened world--as arouse a life of inner bliss in one's breast; in search of a more exalted expression than that of mere words, which vouchsafe only terrestrial pleasures. To be sure, in virtue of its seriousness, the whole of Beethoven's instrumental and pianistic oeuvre forswears all of those neck-breaking, two-handed ascending and descending passages, all of those bizarre leaps, those droll capriccios, those sky-scraping high notes with bass complements five or six strokes below the staff, which abound in piano compositions of the most up-to-date sort. In point of sheer digital dexterity--those little runs, triplet figures, etc. that every expert player must have ready to hand--the compositions of the master present no especial difficulties; hence the quite severe difficulties presented by their execution. Many a so-called virtuoso has dismissed the master's piano compositions, protesting, first, All too difficult! and then adding, And all too pointless to boot! The difficulty involved in achieving a faithful, suitable rendition of a Beethoven composition amounts to nothing less than this: that one must penetrate the core of its essence, that one must boldly venture to step into the circle of magical phenomena called forth by its mighty incantation, in full consciousness of one's preordained privilege to do so. He who does not feel this sense of pre-ordination in his bones, who regards this sacred music as nothing but a childish pastime fit only for the whiling away of an idle hour, or the momentary entertainment of tin ears, or the display of his instrumental prowess, should let it well enough alone. Such a person alone is within his rights to protest, Supremely pointless to boot!

The authentic artist lives only in the works, which he has comprehended in the mind of the master and now brings to their realization. He scorns to assert his personality in any way whatsoever, and all of his efforts are directed solely towards summoning up in a thousand iridescent colors, and in their full vitality, all of the sweetly glorious images and phenomena that the master with his magic powers has concealed in his oeuvre; such that these images and phenomena enfold his fellow men and women in luminous, coruscating circles and bear him aloft--his heart of hearts and his fancy alike quickening all the while--in speedy flight towards the far-off spiritual realm of sounds.


1. Presumably No. 39, K. 543, hardly a "swan-song" given that it was followed by two further symphonic opuses, three operas, and numerous chamber works, most of these being of comparable or surpassing stature.

2. The famous No. 5, Op. 67.

3. I. mm. 59-62. In fact, this horn motif is transparently derived from the principal theme and serves as a transition to the second theme proper, which is introduced by the strings in mm. 63-66.

4. In this parenthesis, Hoffmann does not explicitly mention the harpsichord: rather, he merely specifies the instrument at hand as the "Flügel-Pianoforte"; thereby forestalling any construable application of his remarks to a keyboard instrument incapable of dynamics (i.e. more than e.g., at this point in history, the harpsichord).

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Every Man His Own Eckermann

dr: On the evidence of the typographical quirkiness of the initials to the left of the colon, I can already tell what I'm in for.

DR: Oh really?

dr: Really and absolutely. I can tell I'm in for being an unwilling formal constituent of yet another of your tiresome pastiches.

DR: Indeed?

dr: In deed and in word.

DR: Well, with all due deference to your interlocutionary paranoia, I should venture to hazard that a merely typographical pastiche of the idiom of e. e. cummings is a bit too arid an exercise even for the admittedly anaerobic likes of me.

dr: You should know full well by now that I wasn't alluding to the idiom of mr. cummings, inasmuch as the typographical humdrumness of the intials to the left of the colon inaugurating your intervention in this dialogue categorically rule out the emulation of that particular model, and inasmuch as I would surely have availed myself of my last turn to point out that signal divergence from the model, had that model (i.e., mr. cummings's idiom) been the one I'd had in mind.

DR: A fair hit. But what, then/pray, was the model you had in mind?

dr: Why, that illustrious (or is it "notorious"?) literary genre inaugurated and virtually patented by Mr. Glenn Gould: the self-interview.

DR: Indeed? I really do wonder if the world has yet been been graced by a more succinct exemplum of that rhetorically-interrogatively-guised truism "I'm paranoid, but am I paranoid enough?" than that embodied by your last interjection.

dr: Howzzat?

DR: Well, inasmuch as, had you seen fit to think outside the box in the most literal, grain-chafing sense of the idiom, and extended the compass of your self-preservative survey as far as the title of the present post, you would doubtless have sussed out that I have bigger--or, at any rate, other--pastichial fish to fry than that of the Gouldian self-interview.

dr: Let me see here: "Every Man His Own Eckermann"? I must confess to being throughly nonplussed. Well, perhaps not thoroughly--because of course I'm well familiar with Eckermann's handle of "the German Boswell," i.e., to Goethe's Johnson--

DR: --Oh, for heaven's sake, can we keep it above the waist, please, at least for starters--

dr: --You know what I mean. But as to this particular phraseological (and implicitly narcissistic) circumscription of the Eckermannian metiér, why, yes, I am at more than something of a loss.

DR: Very well, then. Let me explain: "Every Man His Own Eckermann" is the title of a short, that is to say, essay-length, piece penned by the long-dead (note well that I did not say late) Edmund Wilson, the Great Cham and Grosser Tatenfuerst (or whatever epithet was bestowed upon Goethe by his contemporaries) of mid-twentieth-century American letters. Mind you, Wilson himself rather resented such comparisons--

dr: --Really, now, this is straying rather far afield of the topic, even for the digressive likes of you. However strongly EW may have resented such comparisons, it is axiomatically clear that he positively, categorically invited them in virtue of his choice of title for this essay-length production; that in so titling it he was, however uncomfortably, settling himself de jure into the Johnsonian-Goethean hot seat, and that, in following his titular lead you are accordingly following his footsteps--

DR: --shouldn't that rather be "conforming to his ass-mold" according to strict metaphorical logic?

dr: Of course it should be, but I trust you will agree that metaphorical logic ought ultimately to yield pride of place to decorum?

DR: I suppose so. I mean, whatever blows your skirt up--

dr: --that's quite enough smut for now, thank you. Anyway: to obviate the whole metaphorical cloverleaf log-jam by recasting my point in strictly literal terms, I don't see how either Mr Wilson or you, his disciple, can avoid the imputation of declaring himself to be a figure on par, in point of contemporarily-merited prestige, with Johnson or Goethe; of setting up shop as the sage of the age, the know-it-all's know-it-all, the arbiter of absolutely everything under the sun-and-moon combined, the--'

DR: --I think I'd better cut you off before you compound that "setting up shop" bit with a second metaphorical strike that's obviously just lurking in the wings--I mean dugout--

dr: --Surely you mean pitcher's mound?

DR: I suppose so, although it'd be hard for anyone or anything to do much lurking in such an exposed space. In any case, it's just as well I cut you off when I did, for it seems to me that, as of now, you've picked up on only half of the allusive resonance of Wilson's title.

dr: Which other half consists in...?

DR: ...It consists in, or is made resonant by, the two words to the left of "His Own."

dr: Viz. "Every Man."

DR: Exactly. Now, the inclusion of these two words at minimum--that is to say, quite apart from their echoic evocation of the most famous English morality play (an evocation that, in virtue of their counterposition to the monographemic "Eckermann," Wilson positively encourages)--suggests a fundamentally democratic bias on Wilson's part. It suggests, in other words, on the one hand, that it was not only such Johnsonian-cum-Goethean figures as himself whom Wilson regarded as standing in need of an Eckermannian interlocutor--that, according to his lights, pretty much everyone and his or her grandmother could have done with the occasional chit-chat with an acknowledged near-equal.

dr: Fair enough (and only enough, as I've a hard time not taking that "acknowledged near-equal" personally), but surely true democracy no less than true charity begins at home. Why did EW of all people, the preeminent literary critic of his day, find himself in need of such an occasional chit-chat?

DR: Presumably because, for all of his Johnsonian-cum-Goethean standing, he felt at least marginally constrained by the editorial exigencies of the periodicals (viz. The New Republic, The New Yorker, and [eventually], The New York Review of Books) in which he was permitted essayistically to hold forth with a greater degree of freedom than was granted to any of his contemporaries--a presumption that is explicitly borne out by his animadversions, within the body of "EMHOE" itself, on the intellectual poverty of contemporary literary and quasi-literary magazines and journals.

dr: Ah, I see. But that was then and this is now. One can't help but surmise that had EW lived on into the present micro-epoch, when he would be permitted to hold forth essayistically ad nauseum at on any topic that struck his fancy, he would have come to disown "EMHOE" as a quaint period-piece. As, for that matter (again to bring it all back home) you by all rights should disown the present dialogue, or at any rate, consign it to the lumber-room of jokey pastichiana, alongside your homage to Boswell. For, after all, you operate here at in the complete absence of editorial exigencies; here, you are the editor: here you call the shots, and need pull no punches.

DR: Why, of course, here I do thus operate: and here, of course, I do thus call and need not pull. But what's it worth to me? And what, for that matter (again to take it all away from home), would the sole editorial proprietorship of have been worth to Wilson? Something of lesser stature and prestige than a hill of beans, I would venture to say. You see, it seems to me that what EW was trying to point up in penning "EMHOE" was a certain crisis--if that's not too hyperbolic a term for the SOA in question--that had come to beset not so much specicifally the professional man of letters as more generally the historiographically-cum-culturally well-informed person of his time; a crisis of ethos that (I would venture to say) has been rather more aggravated than assuaged by the intervening decades and their attendantly emergent fora of expression (e.g., the bl*g).

dr: I'm afraid that, being your mere near-equal, I'm comparatively either unlearned or slow on the uptake, take your pick of the two. In either case, I could do with a bit of elaboration vis-a-vis this "crisis of ethos" you just now alluded to. In fact, to cut the whole assignment into easily-digestible bite-sized pieces, I could do for now with a clear-cut, rough-and-ready definition of ethos, a word whose precise denotation I must confess I've always had a great deal of trouble disentangling from that of such plebian dictionary-entry-headers as lifestyle and job-choice.

DR: As well you might, given that its precise denotation fairly straddles those of your two plebian lexemes; straddles them, I say, and yet at the same time transcends them. You see, vis-a-vis the original heyday of classical rhetoric--wherein it enjoyed a triumviral share of the rule of the rhetorical roost, along with pathos and logos--ethos could be roughly translated into present-day terms as "one's place in the community," the community in question being that of the citizenry of Athens or Rome, and the place in question comprising a pretty hefty catalogue of every office you had ever held and every familial tie a genealogist could either trace or plausibly fabricate. And so you--say Demosthenes or Cicero--would stand there in the agora or the forum exhorting your fellow Athenians or Romans to repel some invading army or quash some internal conspiracy, and your audience would automatically know wherefrom you spoke vis-a-vis the currently-constituted city-state and its history. That's not to say they would equally automatically defer to your credentials on either score--they could always demur that you'd been a lousy consul back in 53 B.C., or that your great-granddad had bilked the republican treasury of a cool 10,000 sesterces to finance the construction of his villa in Cremona or Mantua--'

dr: --Surely for parallelism's sake, that first subordinate clasuse ought to read something to the effect of "could always demur that you'd been a lousy...erm, Field Marshal, in 353 B.C--?"

DR: Surely it should; only, you see, I don't know enough about post-Socratic Athens to supply such a clause; and, in fact, it was only by dint of a quick thumb-flip through my Cambridge Paperback Encyclopedia just now that I managed to fix Demosthenes's dates to the second half of the fourth century, thereby availing you of a slightly less gormless interjection than the "But...phhthhh..." that would otherwise have stood in its stead. Come to think of it, I'm none too sure of the historical verifiability of the first clause: I mean, would 10,000 sesterces really have sufficed for the construction of a villa in 53 B.C.? And while I'm pretty sure Mantua already existed then (Virgil was born there ca. 70, right?), I can't say the same for Cremona...

dr: ...Let's assume for expediency's sake that you can.

DR: Yes, let's. Anyway, as I was saying: while they--your Athenian or Roman audience--might have seen fit to challenge your argument, they would always have a pretty good handle on the means of challenging it, and on the precise range of legitimacy of those means, which range would perforce have been defined by their own collective or individual ethos. They couldn't simply dismiss you ad hominem as some random schlub shooting his mouth off, because no such random schlub would have been granted a hearing in the first place--

dr: --Whereas, in antipodially marked contrast, today, in the agora or forum of the so-called bl*gosophere, such random schlubs abound.

DR: Yes, they do; but that's quite beside the point for now. Let me remind you that our epoch of reference is not the twenty-oughties but the 1950s, or, at latest, the 1960s, when, typographically speaking, the sententiae of such random schlubs were as yet confined to the letters-to-the-editor pages of provincial newspapers. Nonetheless, it was hardly an epoch of ease even for such select schlubs as Edmund Wilson--whence my allusion to an epochal crisis of ethos. As if the semi-millennial era of print had ever witnessed an epoch altogether unmenaced by such a crisis! You see, the whole point of the introduction of ethos as a term in my argument is to drive home the dependence of all subsequent writing (whether expository, narrative or poetical) on this classical rhetorical ideal--the ideal of a respectable citizen addressing his fellow citizens--and of the inherent fragility of this dependence. More specifically, of course, I'm thinking of that literary genre known as the essay, inaugurated in 1570-or-80-something by Michel de Montaigne, and which has served as the genre of choice ever since for not-so-random schlubs harboring slightly more exalted aims than that of merely shooting their respective mouths off--

dr: --Although, of course, it could be argued that old Monty saw himself as just such a random schlub, and harbored no more exalted aims than those justly appertaining thereto.

DR: Why, yes, provided that the predicates of randomness and schlubhood are understood as being duly circumscribed by the supervening predicates of land-ownership, classical literacy, military service, and local officialdom. To be a decorated, Cicero-quoting, ex-mayoral provincial squire of a random schlub in sixteenth-century France was to be one in, let's say, a hundred thousand whose random vocabulary volleys (or "mouth off-shootings" as you would put it) were guaranteed a readership numbering in the tens of thousands, in virtue of the fact that you had a built-in ethos that automatically commanded respect from those who were merely literate in the vernacular. The fact is, you see, that for all the traditional ballyhooing about the "democratization of literacy" brought into being by the printing press, for the first couple of centuries of the age of print, those who were literate by the standards of the old manuscriptural curriculum enjoyed pride of place or rule or rule of the roost in the eyes of the readerly public (which public during these selfsame couple of centuries would not, incidentally, have been exponentially larger than that commanded by your average silver-age Latin poet). The classically-literate country gentleman of 1500 or 1600 or even 1700 may very well have been encouraged, courtesy of the wider and more immediate dispersal of his writings guaranteed by print, to succumb to certain liberties of expression that his Roman patrician antecedent would never have had occasion to be tempted by, and yet for all that he saw no need to sacrifice an iota of the authority guaranteed to him in virtue of his social and intellectual position.

dr: And yet again, I beg leave to emphasize, with well-nigh Krushchevian boorishness, this ur-essayist, Montaigne, at least made a formal pretense of sacrificing that authority wholesale, and of speaking only of and on behalf of himself, i.e., not on behalf of all decorated, classically-literate, ex-mayoral provincial squires. In other words, it seems to me that there is a residue of lowest-common-denominator random-schlubness inherent in the very form of the essay that no amount of ex-post-facto sociological evidence can eradicate; that to set up shop as an essayist is, and always has been, to leave oneself at least theoretically vulnerable to the sling-shot mud-volleys of the nearest minimally-literate troglodyte.

DR: That's a fair point, and one that--at least superficially--is borne out by the practice of the next great exponent of the essay, Addison; I mean, inasmuch as he takes great, albeit brief, pains in the second number of the Spectator to establish his random-schlubberly credentials: he says, "I know this one guy who's a country gentleman, this other guy who's a lawyer, this fourth guy who's a an ex-army officer, this fifth guy who's a foppish man about town--and they're all bosom chums of mine." But mark you well: no sooner has he got the reader hooked with this dramaturgical sop to his plebian amour-propre than he embarks on his original program of telling him exactly what to think about absolutely everything under the sun, and persists in it (with a little help from his decidedly non-schlubberly friends) for 500-and-umpteen numbers in succession. The single significant exception to this program--i.e., the quasi-novelistic collection of numbers centering on the escapades of Sir Roger de Coverley--only serves to confirm the programmatic rule, drawing so masterly-ly as it does on Addison's own firsthand experience of that stratum of society with which he was all too content--nay, smug--to affiliate himself.

dr: So then, what you're saying is that there inheres in the genre of the essay a certain formal tension between its democratic rhetorical obligations (its burden of ethos, if you will) and its fundamentally elitist, didactic end (its entelechic logos).

DR: Even so.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Now Out on DVD...

Desire of Wings [Ausfahrt über Frankfort] (1990). 322 mins. Director: Wim Wenders. Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Hunter Carson, Nel Carter, MC Hammer.

Widely-panned sequel to Wenders's masterpiece, Paris Texas. Stanton and his now-fully-grown son embark on a transcontinental odyssey in search of the perfect recipe for Buffalo wings. The real-time performance of Hammer, captured in his prime at a gig at a Kentucky barbecueria, is not to be missed. Rated NC17 for a highly graphic, Tabasco-saturated defecation scene.

Mr. Washington Goes to Smith (1968).

A male, afro-sporting incendiary matriculates at a notoriously androphobic girls' college and proceeds to convert the student body--or, rather, bodies--to the twin causes of heterosexuality and Black Power at one go. Somewhat understandably overshadowed by Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in the light of post-Stonewall-era backlash.

Black-Tie Breakfast (1991).

Huggable family flick often mentioned in the same breath as A Christmas Story. On retiring to 1930s Peoria, Illinois "for tax reasons," writer/junkie Guillermo Vilages is delighted to discover in the town's wholesome whitebread Stadtsgeist an-unhoped-for opportunity to shake off his jones once and for all. Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Special Effects category, chiefly on account of its exploitation of the then-novel digital morphing technology; as exemplified by such transformations as that of an ulcerated-anused cockroach into a typewriter, and an eight-foot-tall anthropomorphic maggot into a local schoolboy selling tickets to an apple-pie raffle.

Little Lamms Eat I. V. (1954).

Criminally neglected noir classic. Nuff said.