Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: December 2003 (page 1 of 4)

Favorite Music of 2003

It’s the holidays, so I’m going to slack off, geek out and do a top ten music for 2003. This is pretty arbitrary given how much stuff I didn’t hear, so look at it as inclusive, not exclusive. This is stuff that struck me.

List is in rough, rough order of preference. Impressions have been boiled down to two words.

Werner Dafeldecker / John Tilbury / Franz Hautzinger / Sachiko M – Absinth (Grob)
Integrated, stretched.

Manon-Liu Winter / Franz Hautzinger – Brospa (Grob)
Figure-ground reversals.

Keith Rowe/John Tilbury – Duos for Doris (Erstwhile)
Cathartic, eventually.

Guenter Mueller – 8 Landscapes (For 4 Ears)
Dense, coherent.

Keith Rowe/ Thomas Lehn / Marcus Schmickler – Rabbit Run (Erstwhile)
Violent, worldly.

Werner Dafeldecker & Klaus Lang – Lichtgeschwindigkeit (Grob)
Singular, myopic.

Nmperign & Guenter Mueller – More Gloom, More Light (Rossbin)
Liquid, smoothed.

Hubbub – Hoop Whoop (Matchless)
Non-dogmatic, open.

Otomo Yoshihide / Martin Tétreault – Studio, Analogique, Numérique (Amb. Mag.)
Classical, noisy.

Andy Moor / Thomas Lehn / John Butcher – Thermal (Unsounds)
Punk fun.

Repeat – Pool (Cut)
Fixed, intimate.

Well, top 11…the Repeat record is one of the best of its kind. I guess this list is pretty narrow, but most of the non-improv stuff I liked this year was old (Prisoners and Essential Logic reissues) or ancient (Grigory Sokolov plays “Art of the Fugue”). A few of my favorite pop stars released mediocre records, though Melt-Banana’s new one and Sightings’ “Absolutes” nearly made the list, as did several Fred Frith cds. This must be what they call growing old.

2.2.1 Place-Names: The Place: Balbec

The action shifts to Balbec, a peaceful seaside town where Marcel comes to recuperate from his asthma. His grandmother and Francoise (who used to be his Aunt Leonie’s maid) accompany him. Most of the characters up until this point disappear, and for the first time, there is the sense of a real break. Given how tied “Madame Swann at Home” is to what went before it, as well as the sense of closure and expansion it provides over the entirety of Swann’s Way, the real division in the first two books lies here, not at the end of Swann’s Way.
The tone is considerably breezier and less intense, for which I’m grateful. Balbec is more sparsely populated than Paris or Combray, and Marcel himself begins to become a more active participant in what goes on around him. Unlike his affair with Gilberte, which seemed almost hermetically isolated from the larger community, Marcel himself has more prominence in the sparser landscape. He quietly matures in this section, primarily through his interactions with, first, his friendship with two boys, Saint-Loup and Bloch, and second, his involvement with the titular group of young women. He also, crucially, makes the acquaintance of the painter Elstir, who functions as a counterweight to the writer Bergotte, who dominated “Madame Swann at Home” but does not appear here.
I did feel a tone of liberation in this part, as though, free of the comings and goings of all the socialites in Paris, Proust can get down to Marcel’s individual development without detailing the constant movements of the society around him. Tied mostly to a hotel full of elderly shut-ins, there’s a sense of expansiveness and linearity. Even cheeriness, as evidenced in passages like this, which shows a sunny facility that hasn’t been dominant since Combray:

I felt on seeing her [a tall girl] that desire to live which is reborn in us whenever we become conscious anew of beauty and of happiness. We invariably forget that these are individual qualities, and, mentally substituting for them a conventional type at which we arrive by striking a sort of mean among the different faces that have taken our fancy, among the pleasures we have known, we are left with mere abstract images which are lifeless and insipid because they lack precisely that element of novelty, different from anything we have known, that element which is peculiar to beauty and to happiness. And we deliver on life a pessimistic judgment which we suppose to be accurate, for we believed that we were taking happiness and beauty into account, whereas in fact we left them out and replaced them by syntheses in which there is not a single atom of either. (705)

Maybe not completely sunny, but at least a yearning for it that is fulfilled later on. (There are hidden allusions: this passage rephrases an observation made about the novelty of Bergotte’s speech, on pages 592-593.)
The more abstract philosophizing recedes, but Proust still hammers some of his earlier themes, though he mostly doesn’t elaborate on them until the last hundred pages or so of “Place-Names: The Place.” In short: the role of our own images of people and things, the evolution and mutation of these things and images over time, and the uncertainty of the present moment. Above all of these, the refuge in the aesthetic and the imagined, rather than the reasoned and felt.

2.1.7 Mme Swann at Home: Vinteuil’s Sonata

Proust spends some time in Within a Budding Grove on Vinteuil’s sonata, the one which Swann came to associate with Odette, which contained a certain passage that sent him into a reverie. Marcel himself falls under its spell in “Mme Swann at Home” and describes how it offers itself up in pieces, with its most apparent aspects also being the least rewarding. It’s some sonata–Proust compares it to Beethoven.

In “Swann in Love,” Vinteuil’s sonata appeared to offer Swann glimpses of the noumenal; it came as close to Truth as anything he experienced. Now, with the sonata tied to an unhappy, finished past, its effects on him have changed. They are no less vivid, but less transcendent:

“It’s rather a charming thought, don’t you think,” Swann continued, “that sound can reflect, like water, like a mirror. And it’s curious, too, that Vinteuil’s phrase now shows me only the things to which I paid no attention then. Of my troubles, my loves of those days, it recalls nothing, it has swapped things around…What the music shows–to me, at least–is not ‘the triumph of the Will’ or ‘In Tune with the Infinite,’ but shall we say old Verdurin in his frock coat in the palmhouse in the Zoological Gardens. Hundreds of times, without my leaving this room, the little phrase has carried me off to dine with it at Armenonville. (575)

And so Swann’s glimpse of the absolute turns out to be bound in time to a very particular context. It holds the power to transport him, but not to another plane of reality, only to another place in his memory. Since this passage comes after pages praising the internal beauty and structure of the sonata, it’s not as though the sonata’s merit is completely relative. But its merit is something not quite beyond the reach of humanity, not as a gift from a genius to the peons, but as an object of depth and subtlety from which some people (those deep people of substance, Proust says) can draw a profound aesthetic experience, by lashing it to their own experiences, past and present. Thereafter, Swann can have differing associations with the sonata, but he maintains a relationship with it as he carries it with him.

But why stop at a sonata? We can invest great significance in the most trivial of things: a pop song, a knick-knack, a prized material possession signifying status or rarity. In this case too, it is our investment, our personal feelings, that have the significance, that make an amalgam that dwarfs the original object. And whatever connection to the heavens someone proclaims through their own or someone else’s work of art is filtered through that, so any declaration of universality should be treated as suspect. Proust seems to violates this constantly by making grand poetic generalizations, but he tends to catch himself by later contradicting whatever he said.

Coincidentally, the reason I decided to take a subjective, digression-laden approach when I was keeping this journal was to avoid the dictatorial tone of much criticism, that analysis which plies its trade with ostensibly factual analysis of the text, presented as scientific and descriptive. I don’t understand why that tone persists in light of all the relativistic theorizing that’s gone on over the last century. (Actually, I sure do, but that’s a sociological topic.) Fortunately, we have Proust to show us, at great length, that time will undo such authority, in people and in art.

2.1.6 Mme Swann at Home: Bergotte Himself

There is something very particular about Bergotte that I want to point out because I believe it illustrates how cagey Proust is about letting “authority” seep into his novel. I’ve already mentioned how the people who have most influenced young Marcel, like Bloch and Bergotte, but also Swann and Odette, are invariably undercut by being painted in a very different light, either in their interactions with others, or through being seen differently in the past or the future.
In the case of Bergotte, you have the first character who could be considered a genius. His effects on people are mixed. He can be so novel in his verbiage that people are disappointed, because they cannot attach it to anything in their experience. The impression he makes is decidedly not rational:

Doubtless again to distinguish himself from the previous generation, too fond as it had been of abstractions, of weighty commonplaces, when Bergotte wished to speak favourably of a book, what he would emphasise, what he would quote with approval would always be some scene that furnished the reader with an image, some picture that had no rational meaning. “Ah, yes!” he would exclaim, “it’s good! There’s a little girl in an orange shawl. It’s excellent!” or again, “Oh yes, there’s a passage in which there’s a regiment marching along the street; yes, it’s good!”…And it is true that there was in Bergotte’s style a kind of harmony similar to that for which the ancients used to praise certain of their orators in terms which we now find hard to understand, accustomed as we are to our own modern tongues in which effects of that kind are not sought. (598)

This “kind of harmony” is more insidious than the substance of what Bergotte is saying. We’ve already seen his impact on Marcel, which contained as much of Marcel as it did of Bergotte, and Bergotte’s attunement to a certain type of intellectual disposition at the expense of his interactions with those around him, but the emphasis on his mode of speaking further points away from the substance of what he says and more towards the style, one which fosters agreement even when the reader isn’t sure with what he is agreeing. The influence of the style seems unavoidable:

There were other characteristics of his elocution which he shared not with the members of his family, but with certain contemporary writers. Younger men who were beginning to repudiate him and disclaimed any intellectual affinity with him nevertheless displayed it willy-nilly by employing the same adverbs, the same prepositions that he incessantly repeated, by constructing their sentences in the same way, speaking in the same quiescent, lingering tone, in reaction against the eloquent and facile language of an earlier generation…His way of thinking, inoculated into them, had led them to those alterations of syntax and accentuation which bear a necessary relation to originality of mind. (598)

What the younger writers take from Bergotte is not his ideology, which they reject, but the power in his style. Yet it is through his style that he wields his influence, both over people who cannot quite comprehend what he is saying, and in the next generation of writers.
The notion of speech that is more about style and influence than ideological substance puts me in mind of Mynheer Peeperkorn, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Let me start by saying that I find Mynheer one of the most irritating characters in literature, and he’s a good part of my low estimation of the book. But his flaws and Mann’s flaws are relevant to what Proust does with Bergotte. Let’s take a look at some of Mynheer’s speech:

“Gentleman–,” the Dutchman said, raising his lance-nailed captain’s hand in a gesture that both implored and commanded. “Fine, gentlemen, agreed, excellent! Asceticism–indulgence–sensual lust–let me say that–by all means! Eminently important! Eminently controversial! And yet, permit me to say–I fear that we are about to commit a–ladies and gentlemen, we are avoiding, we are irresponsibly avoiding the holiest of–” He took a deep breath. “This air, ladies and gentlemen, this day’s foehn air so rich in character, so tenderly enervating, suggestive and reminiscent of spring’s fragrance–we should not breathe it in merely so that in the form of–I implore you: we should not do it. That is an insult. For its own sweet, simple sake, we must totally and fully–oh, and with our highest and most perceptive–settled, ladies and gentlemen! And only as an act in purest praise of its properties should we then release it from our–but I must break off, ladies and gentlemen. I must break off in honor of this–” (582)

(This surely must be less annoying in German.) After thirty pages of this sort of thing, you can’t wait for the impotent old life force to off himself. Yet in the book, this sort of logorrhea gains him a little cult following who cheerfully follow him and his irrational ramblings off the cliff of reason. The protagonist Hans Castorp decides that the rational characters “simply shrank beside Peeperkorn” and discusses how Mynheer being drunk “only made him grander and more awe-inspiring,” and it’s all very uninspiring, no more so than when Mynheer opens his mouth. That he’s patently saying nothing is a fact; it’s his mystical life force or whatever ineffable thing Mann was thinking about on that day that is the attractive force. It’s unconvincing because there is nothing of that attraction communicated in the book.
Bergotte, on the other hand, does come across as a great spirit, less in what he says or what he does, more in the description of that effect. It’s made more convincing by the portrayal of it as only part of his nature, and the description of how his particular genius can sometimes estrange him from people as much as enamor people of him. With Mann, Mynheer is the nonnegotiable life force, while with Proust, Bergotte is presented in terms of his effects on particular types of people. There’s some, but not much, “there” there.
So while Mynheer Peeperkorn belongs to a line that eventually extends down to Jubal Harshaw and “Henry Miller” the character(not in their positions in the novel, but in their universal effects on those around them–see also Wyndham Lewis), Bergotte is Oz and the man behind the curtain simultaneously, as well as a heterogeneity of experience that does not permit him to be one thing to all people.
The contrast is deeper than the nature of the individual character; it’s a question of approach, and it reminded me of a passage from way back in “Combray” in the first volume:

These were the events taking place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Francoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a “real” person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of “real” people would be a decided improvement. A “real” person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for these opaque sections, impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate…It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change. (91)

What is Proust doing if not to portray, first, the repetitions and lack of change amongst characters, and second, the simultaneous coexistence of contradictory characteristics in a character depending on the situation?
I find this to be the best answer to the charges of myopia that I and plenty of others have leveled against the novel, of asking why the vagaries of these high-class French people have any significance. Well, to do the sort of examination here, I believe that Proust had to stick very close to his own past experience, mutating it but hardly abandoning it. I don’t see how he could have constructed such elaborate characters except by starting from known exemplars and then reconstructing/reshuffling them. I could be wrong, but that’s my best guess. Proust’s endless efforts to detach his writing from one particular view of his situations also goes a way to redeeming the choice of subject matter, since it becomes secondary to the approach.
This is probably the penultimate entry on “Mme Swann at Home,” which is by a wide margin the richest section in the first two books. (The remaining section of Within a Budding Grove is thankfully much more linear and breezy.) It’s hardly self-contained, so it’s bizarre that it begins the second volume, but there you have it. The message that I take from it, above all else, is that everything–past, present, and future–is subject to revision over time. Of course, a thousand pages of showing that principle in action over everything and everyone Proust can think of has a far more profound effect than just saying it.

2.1.5 Mme Swann at Home: Bergotte and Marcel

Bergotte is the author who cast a spell over young Marcel in the Combray section, and via Swann, he is now able to meet him. It comes at such a crucial point in the book, when Marcel is undergoing feverish revision of what had gone before, that Bergotte’s dialogue with him almost solely redeems the possibility of writing, after Marcel had become disgusted with it earlier.
It is not altogether a positive portrayal: Bergotte is an intellectual visionary possessed of a singular vision, even a genius, but he is myopic. He doesn’t quite have clay feet, but one of the overriding themes of Marcel’s interactions with him (roughly pages 592-618, maybe my favorite sequence so far) is how he moves from being Marcel’s idol of earlier years to a incisive, cranky man very different from the image that Marcel had as a youth. More specifically, the earlier image of Bergotte was not that of a person, but of an ideal, the author of words in which he had seen himself perfectly reflected, when in fact what he was seeing was himself in a mirror he had constructed partially out of Bergotte’s words, but which was mostly a projection of his own mind.
I think that for anyone who develops a particular affection for reading in their early teenage years, there is that set of authors which seem directly in tune with our thoughts. They appear to express inner truths that were previously thought unshared by anyone. These authors usually disappoint us later when it turns out that they were aiming at something else entirely, and somewhere in college, we figure out that we have to be a lot more careful before verbal intoxication leads to overly zealous identifying of kindred spirits. After that, those authors go into a very special category where we neither criticize them nor praise them, since we know we’ll be talking more about ourselves than about the authors. And there’s a little bit of resentment to the authors for tricking us so badly, when we were so vulnerable. I’m not yet ready to divulge who’s on my version of that special list.
Bergotte does not disappoint Marcel in such a severe way, though he is acutely aware of the gap between the man he meets and the author he read:

I had told him [Bergotte] everything that I felt with a freedom which had astonished me and which was due to the fact that, having acquired with him, years before (in the course of all those hours of solitary reading, in which he was to me merely the better part of myself), the habit of sincerity, of frankness, of confidence, I found him less intimidating than a person with whom I was very uneasy about the impression that I must have been making on him, the contempt that I had supposed he would feel for my ideas dating not from that afternoon but from the already distant time in which I had begun to read his books in our garden at Combray. (611)

And so he tells Bergotte, after Bergotte remarks on how precocious he is in appreciating the “pleasures of the mind”:

I felt how purely material was everything that I desired in life, and how easily I could dispense with the intellect. As I made no distinction among my pleasures between those that came to me from different sources, of varying depth and permanence, I thought, when the moment came to answer him, that I should have liked an existence in which I was on intimate terms with the Duchesse de Guermantes and often came across , as in the old toll-house in the Champs-Elysees, a fusty coolness that would remind me of Combray. And in this ideal existence which I dared not confide to him, the pleasures of the mind found no place. (613)

Bergotte finds this surprising, and though Marcel is disappointed, he is still encouraged that such discussions can take place, and that the dead image of literature pushed on him by the staid M. de Norpois (around page 488 or so) earlier is not the limits of writing as practiced. Bergotte, not the man (or spirit) that Marcel had imagined, is still able to bring about a meaningful dialogue. Of course, just to emphasize the gap, Bergotte then trashes Cottard and Swann, which hits Marcel like an earthquake:

“[Swann’s] typical of the man who has married a whore, and has to pocket a dozen insults a day from women who refuse to meet his wife or men who have slept with her. Just look, one day when you’re there, at the way he lifts his eyebrows when he comes in, to see who’s in the room.” (615)

But what about Bergotte himself? Though initially appearing aloof, like the locked container of infinite knowledge, he shortly comes off as judgmental, amoral (in how he treats those around him), and petty. (More so than Swann)
His singular, unique vision, as described, should be a tip-off that he’ll eventually be painted as limited by that singularity of his vision. In Proust, strength and depth of feeling in a single direction invariably reveals a corresponding deficit in other directions. The judgment comes down most harshly when Proust pulls back to describe Bergotte’s later years:

[Bergotte] would say also, with a shy smile, of pages of his own for which someone had expressed admiration: “I think it’s more or less true, more or less accurate; it may be of some value perhaps,” but he would say this simply from modesty, as a woman to whom one has said that her dress or his daughter is beautiful replies, “It’s comfortable,” or “She’s a good girl.” But the instinct of the maker, the builder, was too deeply implanted in Bergotte for him not to be aware that the sole proof that he had built both usefully and truthfully lay in the pleasure that his work had given, to himself first of all and afterwards to his readers. Only, many years later, when he no longer had any talent, whenever he wrote anything with which he was not satisfied, in order not to have to suppress it, as he ought to have done, in order to be able to publish it, he would repeat, but to himself this time: “After all, it’s more or less accurate, it must be of some value to my country.” So that the phrase murmured long ago among his admirers by the crafty voice of modesty came in the end to be whispered in the secrecy of his heart by the uneasy tongue of pride. And the same words which had served Bergotte as a superfluous excuse for the excellence of his early works became as it were an ineffective consolation to him for the mediocrity of the last. (599)

This is such a sneaky technique, and Proust loves it. (He did the same with Swann, and there are frequently other references to the futures of other characters.) To pull back drastically and look at Bergotte years later, a self-deluding shadow of his former genius, pulls the rug out from any authority Bergotte once had. Whatever follows from Bergotte–and what follows does have a profound effect on the young Marcel–has its authority weakened. It is only a variant of Proust’s techniques elsewhere, where he destabilizes authoritative words and thoughts by revising them, but this nearly seems cheap. What redeems it is the idea that the same words, and indeed the same thoughts, could be used by a single man at different points in his life and carry completely different implications: at one time false modesty over one’s genius, at a later time a sad excuse. It makes the later Bergotte, whom we haven’t met yet, explicable and sympathetic in the terms of his current self.
For comparison, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities deals heavily in the irony that the great plans of his Austrian political figures in 1912 will come to nothing when the war breaks out, but he only refers to it sparingly. The only reference that comes to me offhand, in fact, is almost in passing. I’ll quote the passage, if only to illustrate how differently Musil deploys his judgments (and also because I like it so much):

Had Arnheim been able to see only a few years into the future, he would have seen that 1,920 years of Christian morality, millions of dead men in the wake of a shattering war, and a whole German forest of poetry rustling in homage to the modesty of Women could not hold back the day when women’s skirts and hair began to grow shorter and the young girls of Europe slipped off eons of taboos to emerge for a while naked, like peeled bananas. He would have seen other changes as well, which he would hardly have believed possible, nor does it matter which of those would last and which would disappear, if we consider what vast and probably wasted efforts would have been needed to effect such revolutions in the way people lived by the slow, responsible, evolutionary road traveled by philosophers, painters, and poets, instead of tailors, fashion, and chance; it enables us to judge just how much creative energy is generated by the surface of things, compared with the barren conceit of the brain. (443)

Is it just me, or is there actually a bit of overlap here in their concerns, if not their tones? It reads like a defense of Marcel’s lack of interest in Bergotte’s “pleasures of the mind.” Now, Musil truly isn’t interested in the surfaces he references, while Proust makes them the center of the novel. If Proust does have an affiliation with one of the German writers of that era, it’s Mann, who I’ll get to next time.

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