The Expressionist Chair

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA…After a lengthy and animated discussion in my German Film seminar about the chair in Das Kabinet des Doktor Caligari. I personally would take the expressionist version any day.

Expressionism, n: a term used to describe works of art and literature in which the representation of reality is distorted to communicate an inner vision. The expressionist transforms nature rather than imitates it.

Highly recommended if you like creepy, campy silent films from 1920s Germany. Also, the aesthetics of the whole thing were rather Kafka. Behold the original:

chair

Literature: B.H. Fairchild

durer-self_portrait-1500Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500

The second poem I heard read here at school was B.H. Fairchild’s Rave On. Someone declaimed it, almost shouting, in a house full of pictures of saints and students who thought that this poet was the closest thing to a hero we had. Rave On was everything we wanted to be, and Beauty too, perhaps more than the first.

There is a  B.H. Fairchild night here every semester, somewhere between Eliot and Shakespeare in the line-up of authors. His poems are hard-hitting, occasionally obscene, constructing a bridge between high art and the brutally quotidian. Machine-shop innuendos and carwrecks and dying midwest towns in the same universe as Dürer and Virgil and Bach. They always draw a crowd–students  leaning on the window-ledges and couch backs, thumbed paperback copies of The Art of the Lathe and Usher on the floor. And this semester, B.H. Fairchild was visiting the campus in April. B.H. Fairchild, the man, in person! We were elated.

He was as paradoxical as his poems, narcissistic in the way of very intelligent people who know they have led extraordinary lives. He gave a lecture and a reading in cowboy boots and a suit jacket, worker’s hands and lined face. His father was a machinist who didn’t read. He was enthralled by words and a professor of English at a prestigious university. He spoke about wanting to save his students and not being able to, about how poetic language was akin to the coming into Being-in-the-world, the thing itself, the going-on. All that he wished for his poetry, he said, was that it be a small thing done well.

At the off-campus house where he had been idolized for years, he rambled about all the shitty things he and the guys did in highschool, how the rest of them started a band and went to California and made it big (hot chicks and convertables) while he slogged away at his PhD in English. He doesn’t reccommend doing that, by the way–the college part, that is, not the California debauch. Not right away. Not if you are 18 and male and live through poems like Rave On.

He signed the wall of the off-campus house before he left, like the other visiting poets before him but twice as large. We were exuberant.

~~~~~

At the luncheon I told him that I had been to Nürnberg and had seen Dürer’s self portrait and had such a love of it and of his poem about the work, Blood Rain. Dürer as Christ, the artist as divinity–what a crazy, bold statement, a century before Hamlet and opera and the burgeoning of the human self as a worthy subject of art. He said that he thought Dürer must have been the smug, self-satisfied type, to paint something like that. I didn’t agree, and didn’t think his poem did, either.

 

Blood Rain

Like rust on iron, red algae invading rain.

And again, the plague. Nuremberg in ruin.

At home alone, the artist prays for grace

while, gates flung open, the neighbor’s geese

roam the yard in droves, and their wild honks

and the ravings of a servant girl bring Dürer

to the window. She stands there, her wet hair

clumped in black strands, and her arms fall limp

in a great sob, her head lolling, while the damp

shift she wears blotters the rain in red streaks–

like a wound slowly spreading, Dürer sees, to make

a sign: in the bleeding fabric of her dress

as if etched in copper hangs Christ upon His Cross

between two ghosts. Cruel miracles, God’s grace

drawn in God’s blood on the body of a girl who sighs

at him, swoons, and collapses in the mud.

~~~~~

Outside, gutters turning scarlet, the dead

hauled from house to wagon, cries of women

battering the window panes. Inside, the burin

drops from Dürer’s hand as the girl wakes

and rises from the bench below his portrait,

done in Munich the year of the apocalypse, but

never to be sold, never to leave the artist’s house.

She touches once more God’s message on her dress,

then turns and stares at the painting’s face

so solemn, so god-like in its limpid gaze,

that she backs away to study the long brown locks

spread evenly about His shoulders, the beatific

right hand held more gently than the blessing

of a priest, and the inscription in a tongue

she does not understand. This is Christ!

No, it’s me, he says, touching hand to chest,

~~~~~

the rough right hand, the human chest, the heart’s dream

of art’s divinity as death rolls down the street.

 

B. H. Fairchild, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, 2003

 

Robert Musil: The Failure of Words

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

Robert Musil is taking over the world. Or the semester, anyway. There is such a peculiar thrill in the first engagement with a great artist, the headiness of a burgeoning love-affair with a thinker you know will follow you for the rest of your life. I will be studying Musil until school lets out, reading almost all of the shorter prose and hopefully a good chunk of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities). It is the perfect follow-up to Thomas Mann last semester.

Who is Musil? Another one of those towering creators of Mann’s generation, exhaustive and exhausting, fighting for a heroism of weakness and making art in a country on the edge of decay. He spent his life in Austria and Germany and died in Switzerland in 1942, ever eluded by the fame and security that Mann won so easily. He was Mann’s opposite in more than just physical circumstances–his is a world of the subjective and impressionistic, blurred outlines and shifting boundaries to Mann’s lazer-sharp precision. Though no traditionalism, Musil’s religiosity is real and aching, to Mann’s ironically God-less, classical universe. There is a fragility about Musil that is lacking in Mann, an ambiguity that makes him peculiarly unsuited for normal literary criticism. And extraordinarily, mind-blowingly difficult to read.

~~~~~

We began with Törless (English: The Confusions of Young Törless), Musil’s first work and the only one he was ever really well-known for during his life. What was it about? There are a hundred themes I could write on—sadomasochism and Eastern religion, Bildung and the duality of the soul. Those are all on the surface, there for the taking.

What, then? For me, the most pressing question Törless raised was something less direct, inherent in the very structure and method of Musil’s writing–what can language do, and what happens when it fails? Törless was, in a sense, a book about the process of writing itself, about the power or powerlessness of the author, about the attempt to bring anything to words. What sort of an ability did language have, in the end? Are words in essence strong or weak? How much of human experience can they really contain?

And again, most hauntingly, what when words simply fail? When that which the artist seeks to portray is unreachable with language? When the part of human life he wants to get at lies completely beyond the realm of words?

All of those questions were there already behind the motto that opened Törless, a quote from Maeterlinck—when we speak something out, we devalue it curiously. Something vital is lost in the process of verbal transmission. When we dive into the depths (of the sea, the self), the drops of water we bring to the surface on our fingertips are pale and lacking. Later, Törless himself expressed the problem most clearly, and made the connection to language:

He remembered that he had once stood with his father before some landscape or other, and suddenly cried, oh it is beautiful–and was embarrassed, when that pleased his father. Because he could have just as easily have said, it is horribly sad. It was a failure of words that tortured him, a half-conscious knowledge that the words were only chance elusions of that which was felt.

Aside: the sometimes-inseparability of beauty and horrible sadness–don’t we all know this? The first and penultimate time I heard Wagner’s Parsifal I was depressed for days. Continue:

And now he had the desire to search unrestingly for a bridge, a correlation, a simile and a compromise—between himself and that which stood wordless before his soul.

It seems to me that Musil’s work is the perpetual search to span that gap, to find the bridge. To plunge into the depths (of the sea, the self), and make words express what lies there. Musil’s medium is that of language, but his subject matter something else entirely–that which is felt and not reasoned, psychological, intimated, having to do with a thousand unspoken nuances of soul and mind. His artistic territory is that of the wordless.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

If Törless sets up the problem, the question of wording the wordless, then the two short stories of Vereinigungen (Unions) are Musil’s attempt to find a solution. There the tension, here a potential resolution–just what would a bridge between language and the unspeakable look like, at the practical level of literary creation? How to work around, even transcend, this failure of words in the composition of an actual text?  How to make the wordless into prose? What details of style and syntax to draw on?

Because it was even more clear that the realm of Vereinigungen lay outside of language. The physical happenings of each story could be recounted in a sentence–the actual plot took place within the soul itself, in some half-conscious realm of memory and association that the characters themselves were barely aware of. Feelings happened, not events.  The subtlest of psychological shifts was epoch-making–and out of all this the narrator crafted the language and syntax to tell a story. How did he do it?

First there were the similes. Both stories were saturated with them, these comparisons of a few words or several sentences introduced by like or as when, sometimes a dozen or more to a page.  Often they were beautiful, sometimes funny, nearly always puzzling.

In all that happened, she had a feeling like a guest who enters a strange house only once and gives himself over, thoughtlessly and a little bored, to everything that confronted him there.

The crowd shoved her slowly here and there like a great, heavy swell of dishwater.

And she began to long for the abused and exploited lives of strange men, as after the pale, weak vigil during a sickness when the sounds wander from one room to the next and listen nowhere and, freed from the soul’s own weight, somewhere carry on a hovering life.

Her thoughts wandered slowly in the snow outside, without looking back, ever farther and farther, as when someone is too tired to turn around and walks and walks.

It is out of this dense net of images that Musil builds his text. His characters and narrator are unable say how it all is in and of itself, because the it lies outside of language–so they must say it is like something else, something we can read off a page. We can relate to Musil’s similes–they give us something to go on, something we can internalize, verbalize, discuss. A bridge over the wordless.

And then the sentence structure, Musil’s choice of vocabulary–the prose style is dominated by subjunctive case verbs, by the word maybe (vielleicht) and the word feeling (Gefühl). What she says was only maybe so, or not, because it had to do with feeling. He could perhaps see the world that way. The words are themselves pointedly ambiguous, Musil’s imprecision allowing language to come closer to containing what was behind it.

~~~~~

But how much of Törless’ failure of words does Musil overcome, in the end? In the second story, the struggle to bring to words is even more pressing. The conversations between Veronika and Johannes are more full of silence than of language. When Veronika does speak, her words are again pale, misunderstood, poor representations of the area of the self she seeks to bring to the surface and express.

Veronika gasped after words….and silence arose again.

“I’m going out now, indeed, and perhaps I will die.” But he knew there too, that wasn’t what he meant.

And Johannes didn’t know how to say it–there were too many possibilities in his head.

They hardly spoke to another any more.

Wordless, unspeakable, inexpressible, hesitating, silence–this is Musil’s vocabulary. In the end, one has the feeling that the words he gives his characters are still only poor stand-ins for what is really behind them, masks in front of the true face of being. In German the expression “to put into words” translates to “in Worte kleiden”—to clothe in words. As if words are only something put on, some outer garment that is not and cannot be a true part of the body and soul.

~~~~~

What is the effect of all this? This wording of the wordless, this headstrong determination clothe with language things usually left outside of it? Where does it leave the reader? who can, after all, only read words?

Es ist komisch….komisch, Emily, oder? says the enigmatic German Professor. He thinks Musil is too intimate, too close for comfort. The books are somehow deeply unnerving, Musil’s constant trying to make language fit disturbing, almost irritating. But shouldn’t great art be irritating sometimes? Yes, of course it should.

And then I say, going rather far out on a limb–is Robert Musil fundamentally unsuited to the literary medium? Is his project out of place in a language-based form of expression? His artistic territory—feeling, intimation, soul—is usually left unspoken—or left to music. Would he not have made a better composer? Listen to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony, or the fourth movement of his 5th. There, perfectly, effortlessly, is everything Musil wanted to get at, with those silences in Vereinigungen, with the interchangeable beauty and sadness in Törless. The most intimate of psychological states made vivid,  without the restriction of words or language–wasn’t that the realm of music, not literature?

It’s a funny and disturbing thought, that a great author is unsuited to his artform. But so it goes. There are no conclusions–this is only the very beginning of the dialogue. Give me a decade to think about it. What is the power of words? In the end, I’m not sure that even Musil had an answer.


As an aside, I am fascinated by the similarities between Musil and Mahler. They were both Austrian, in Vienna at almost the same time. They both were intimately familiar with the drive towards the immense, the desire to encompass everything in a work of art. Mahler said, “The symphony must be like the world; it must contain everything within it.” Whence this desire for the exhaustive, the all-encompassing? What was it about the Austrian fin de siècle artistic consciousness?

Translations are my own, from the beautiful Rowolt 1968 edition in the first picture above (only $6! and shipping from America!).

Listen to Mahler.

That is all.

Profile: St. Sebastian and Der Tod in Venedig

guido reni SebastianGuido Reni

One thing that makes reading Thomas Mann such a toilsome joy is the depth of allusion behind his prose, the resonance that stretches from Antiquity to Mann’s own contemporaries.  Dürer and Perotinus in Doktor Faustus, say, or Shakespeare in Tonio Kröger and Homer in Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice)–a thousand references dropped so easily, seemingly casually, demanding that the reader hunt them down and fit them into the larger story of Mann’s opus. They must be hunted down, too, because Mann didn’t write anything accidentally. His allusions always have some pressing import, afford some flash of insight, some backstory that draws out meaning and sets the whole plot of the book in another light.

And so one of the most transfixing allusions in Der Tod in Venedig was Saint Sebastian, whom I had never heard of. He turned out to be absolutely arresting, and here is his story. But first, here is appearance in Mann:

Early on an observant critic had described the new type of hero that this writer [Aschenbach] preferred, a figure returning over and over again in manifold variation: it was based on the concept of “an intellectual and youthful manliness which grits its teeth in proud modesty and calmly endures the swords and spears as they pass through its body”….For meeting one’s fate with dignity, grace under pressure of pain, is not simply a matter of sufferance; it is an active achievement, a positive triumph, and the figure of St. Sebastian is thus the most beautiful image, if not of art in general, then surely of the art under discussion here.

antonio de bellis 1650Antonio de Bellis, 1650

Heroism, triumph–the most beautiful image in art? Who was this Sebastian? His life was simple enough, I found. He was an officer in the Roman army during Diocletian’s 3rd century persecution of the Christians. When his own conversion to the faith was revealed, he was sentenced to be bound and killed by the arrows of his fellow soldiers. He miraculously survived his wounds and returned to confront Diocletian, but was recaptured and stoned to death.

In the early Middle Ages Sebastian was still innocent enough, invoked by soldiers and those seeking to ward off the plague, associated with the resilience that had saved him from his first death sentence. His image started to soften in the first years of the Renaissance, however, as his portrayals in art transitioned from bearded soldier to effete young man.

Somewhere in the Renaissance–and here was something closer to Thomas Mann’s saint–Sebastian became the Apollonian ideal of male beauty, all white flesh and thinly-veiled eros. The greatest of opposites were bound together perfectly in him, the physical with the spiritually ecstatic, tenaciousness with ravaged fragility, masculine and feminine at once. Great will and great weakness, beautiful even in torture. Was this Mann’s perfect form?

St-Sebastian-Mattia Preti 1660Mattia Preti, 1660

Of course it was this chiaroscuro Sebastian, and not the middle-aged army officer, that demanded the attention of Mann’s generation of artists and thinkers. He seemed to have been born for the 19th century, all isolation, suffering and desire, overtones of sadomasochism and androgyny. Here was real decadence, the stuff of Romanticism and then fin die siècle. His story fueled a cult, desperately attractive to those looking to push down walls between eros and religion, purity and lust.

And further, perhaps most tellingly for Mann’s own backstory, there was Sebastian’s transition in the 1800s from an image of male beauty to a direct homosexual icon. What had been subtext in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was celebrated and exploited, his isolation and persecution re-imagined as a sort of “coming out” narrative, the perfect form of the Renaissance painters re-drawn as the ultimate homoerotic symbol.

There were a thousand examples of such appropriation in Mann’s own decades, at the turn of the 19th century. Dorian Gray wore a cloak with a medallion of St. Sebastian, Oscar Wilde’s penname was Sebastian Melmoth. Freudian analysts reveled in the imagery of arrows-and-flesh. Early photographers and filmmakers used Sebastian’s story to blur the lines between spiritual and sexual ecstasy.

These are only snapshots from a fascinating history, a 1,000-year narrative of tension between eros, art, politics, and religion. Sebastian’s was quite the story.

el grecoEl Greco

But back to Thomas Mann. Where did Der Tod in Venedig fit into all of this? Why Sebastian, this creature of Catholicism and fin die siècle, in a work where the other allusions were so rigorously pagan, Classical? He seemed like an odd choice.

But then again, he was perfect. Like Mann’s other allusions, Sebastian’s presence in the narrative was revelatory, throwing hidden motives into relief, reflecting, foreshadowing, connecting to the broader philosophical motifs of the story.

The most blatant thematic tie-in to Der Tod in Venedig were the homoerotic aspects of Sebastian’s story. Mann’s choice of the saint fit in with his own desperately repressed biography and the basic plot of his novella, the love of a male artist for a 14-year-old boy. It matched the work’s philosophic backdrop, too-Plato’s dialogues on eros, Symposium and the Phaedrus, where Socrates sat under a plane tree and taught the workings of love to a boy.

There were ties, too, between Sebastian and Tadzio himself, the child Aschenbach fell in love with on a beach in Venice. In both figures perfect youth and masculine beauty were bound to extreme weakness, even unto death. As Aschenbach said, Tadzio wouldn’t live much longer. And like Sebastian, Tadzio was not really human in the end, but rather consecrated to the realm of symbol and transcendence, the stuff of icon, saint, divinity, Form.

But above all, Sebastian was the perfect hero for Aschenbach, the embodiment of his life’s philosophy and everything he wanted for his art. In his credo Aschenbach spoke of a creator on the edge of exhaustion, overburdened, worn down to the point of annihilation, but still standing tall. An artist holding himself upright through ecstatic feats of will, winning greatness and overwhelming beauty through a heroism of weakness–this is what it meant to create in the 20th century. And what was the art that would come of it? It would be art as Despite, Aschenbach wrote, beautiful and worthy creation despite grief and suffering, infirmity, affliction, passion, terror, pain.

And this–this Despite-philosophy, this heroism of weakness–was Sebastian. He gave Aschenbach’s credo form, and that form was perfect. He had it all, seemingly effortlessly–the exhaustion uplifted by will, the proud modesty and calm endurance, the beauty Despite torture and exhaustion. He was the most beautiful image of Aschenbach’s art because he was the apotheosis of that art. As creator and creation, Sebastian triumphed.

Nicolas Regnier, Saint Sebastian 1590-1667Nicholas Regnier, 17th c.

So there it was. Sebastian’s image in Der Tod in Venedig was an overwhelmingly powerful one, in the end, reflecting the themes of the story and the artistic worldview of the main character, giving form to both the ideal creation and the ultimate creator.

But of course, even that would have been too simple for Thomas Mann. Sebastian was beautiful, yes–but the credo he embodied, Mann informed us with the most punctilious irony, was why Aschenbach failed.

Look again.

Art as Despite–what sort of creation was that, really? It was somehow dishonest, this artistic avoidance of everything messy and painful in life. Creation despite grief? Despite passion? That was art in spite of life itself, and as such could only be one-sided, sterile, destined for the very frigidity Aschenbach found himself trapped in on a May afternoon after his 50th birthday.

And so he went to Venice and cast away all his Despite-philosophy by falling in love with a boy. But still he failed.

This was the unbearable tragedy. There was a balance to be had, and Aschenbach never found it. In throwing off all Despite he swung too far the other way, falling off the edge into delirium and self-abasement. In the place of sterile endurance there was debauchery, indignity, excess–no middle ground, no sign of the covenant between dionysian eros and standing-tall Despite that would have propelled Aschenbach to the creation of real beauty. Instead, the eros he found was criminal. His wish that the world perish in flames so that he could have his way with a child–there was no art in that.

In the end, Aschenbach lost his humanity and his life. By the final scene, is he even an artist any more? The image of Mann’s last page has little to do with Sebastian’s grace and dignity in the face of weakness. There is only a boy in the water and a fevered old man grasping towards something he can not attain. 

roberto-ferri-st-sebastian-1346685541_bRoberto Ferri, b. 1978

st-sebastian-2002 anthony gaytonAnthony Gayton, 2002

_____________________________________

Yes, this was supposed to be published a month ago. I didn’t post it because I didn’t know if it made sense; I still don’t. If you have feedback, please send it my way.

When I took what I had found out about St. Sebastian in to the Professor he said, “Well, those nuns back in Germany certainly didn’t teach me that in 2nd grade!” 

Here is an excellent article on the history of St. Sebastian as a homoerotic icon in art. The translation of Der Tod in Venedig is Clayton Koelb’s. Also, Guido Reni is simply astounding. And that is all.

Kunst: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sankt Sebastian

Guido Reni Sebastian 2

Wie ein Liegender so steht er; ganz

hingehalten von dem großen Willen.

Weitentrückt wie Mütter, wenn sie stillen,

und in sich gebunden wie ein Kranz.

*

Und die Pfeile kommen: jetzt und jetzt

und als sprängen sie aus seinen Lenden,

eisern bebend mit den freien Enden.

Doch er lächelt dunkel, unverletzt.

*

Einmal nur wird eine Trauer groß,

und die Augen liegen schmerzlich bloß,

bis sie etwas leugnen, wie Geringes,

und als ließen sie verächtlich los

die Vernichter eines schönen Dinges.

 

Saint Sebastian

So he stands like someone lying down; fully

held back by his great will.

Distanced, reveried, as mothers when they nurse,

and bound into himself like a ring.

*

And the arrows come: now and now

as if they sprang from his own loins,

iron-quaking with their free ends.

Still he smiles darkly, not yet wounded.

*

Only once is his sorrow great,

his eyes laid bare in pain

until they deny something slight and mean,

as if they scornfully set free

the annihilators of a beautiful thing.

 Rilke_Signature

_______________________

A lovely and disturbing poem. [Poor] translation my own. Painting from Guido Reni. More to come later on St. Sebastian and Death in Venice.

Being: Language, Virginia Woolf, Sugaring Season

IMG_2136

The thing about studying this beautiful foreign language is that it leaves me starving for English. After oral exams and sight translations I want to collapse into familiarity, into the comfort of Shakespeare or Nabokov or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  For all the intoxication of foreign languages, there is always for me an underlying level of disquiet, a persistent feeling of having the rug pulled out from under one’s feet. There such a luxury in one’s own speech, really, in the ability to fly through paragraphs unencumbered by dictionary and pocket grammar. The resonance behind the words, cadence and illusion–all there for the taking. English majors are spoiled, I think.

The desire to flee into English was strongest last August when I returned from Germany. I was weary of my own ineptness in the language, of stumbling through small-talk with bus drivers and trying to read between the lines in Kleist, who never meant what he wrote anyway. Petulantly, I wanted beauty and familiarity, wanted to be able to read a hundred pages in one afternoon. So I fell into Nabokov on the iron daybed on our porch, reading, reading, reading, too hot, with my eyes half-shut and the neighbor making hay across the road. Nabokov’s prose was sick and beautiful, and above all searingly good English.

This Christmas break the desire for familiarity was the same, after a semester where the only prose in my language I studied was secondary articles on Cicero. Boring, oder? So I looked forward to a few weeks of literary English, Plato word lists be damned. This time, there was Virginia Woolf–The Waves, on the recommendation of a friend who copied out a quote for me that was too arresting to ignore.

~~~~~~

I finished The Waves in two afternoons in front of the wood stove, moving a bronze bookmark back and back to the last page. It had been three years since I had read Virginia Woolf, and I had forgotten the beauty of her English–heady stuff, prose not as red-blooded as Nabokov but equally as musical.

The first time I read Woolf–To the Lighthouse–I was 17 and a senior in high school, making notes in the margins for a presentation on art and atheism. My recollection of the book had since receded to only a sense of the prose, vague outlines of imagery like the wedge of darkness before the sea.

Memory is funny, though. The book and author are, for me, unalterably bound to another recollection, one still piercingly vivid. It was late March in Vermont–maple sugaring season–and I was reading To the Lighthouse in the tiny sugar house across from the barn. I copied out the quote about the wedge of darkness and wrote a little more.

I am sitting in the sugar house, looking out the white-washed door into the last clean light of day. Luke is on the step, spitting into the yard and melting the edges of his rubber boots on the door of the arch. This is a terrible season for sugaring, and all the neighbors gather to commiserate. Too warm–too early–the sap is not sweet. The Beedes made 9 gallons out of 400 taps, and Jim Curtin burned his new front pan. The Cute Farmer Down the Hill once again drank more beer than he made syrup.

There is something about the light in March in Vermont, like it is filtered through air that is is thinner or sharper or something. As clear as Woolf’s prose, or clearer, perhaps the apotheosis of clarity. And the whole world is flowing, water, mud, sap, everything is liquid flowing downhill. My sister and I scratched Elvish into the arms of the plastic chairs inside the sugar house, raw-cheeked and smelling like smoke. The steam off the boiling sap curled the pages of anything we were reading. The wind was coarse but warm enough for sweaters and no hats. There were lambs in the barn.

~~~~~~

Now reading Woolf again, in January when nothing flows, this memory of sugaring comes back and the vagueness of To the Lighthouse is also filled out. There are the same themes, I think, running throughout Woolf’s entire opus like a symphony.

For instance there is always the sea. The descriptions of ocean and light that run through To the Lighthouse and The Waves are like worded versions of the sea interludes in Benjamin Britten’s opera, I think. Dawn, Morning, Moonlight, Storm.

 

And time. Time is romanced in Woolf, ebbing and flowing like snowmelt in March, or like music, but certainly not like history or clocks. What was she getting at? Perhaps Wagner had it right in his Parsifal. Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit–Here time becomes space. Or perhaps it was the opening lines of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

In Woolf one is never certain. A day, a life–which has passed? And was the one as long as the other? And time lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. What does that mean?

And one more thing, that struck me as especially oxymoronic, dreadful, somehow misplaced in the clear light in March, and also now in the firelight in January. In Virginia Woolf there is such darkness at the edge of being. The roar of blackness just within consciousness was louder than any spring flood, measureless, burning. I was disturbed, and tried to get at that in the art and atheism presentation. And now, here it was again, writ large in The Waves.  Now I say there is a grinning, there is a subterfuge. There is something sneering behind our backs. That was frightening.

And so Virginia Woolf’s sea broke itself, her nights were full of wind and destruction. But the destruction, whatever else it was, was beautiful.

Being: Christmas Break and Thomas Mann

Home! The Sister and I flew in last week, back to wood floors and fireplaces and gourmet pizza, to tramps through the woods in rubber boots and an excess of fuzzy cats. The house smells like moth balls and pine branches and fires and hay. I can discard tailored wool blazers and ironed blouses and dress like a hippie for a month. The Brother has perfected a dozen new yoyo tricks to perform to Rod Stewart turned up too loud. We all have to spend inordinate hours making Christmas cookies and watching Dr. Who. It is simply good to be here.

~~~~~~

Everything is more or less Thomas Mann. He was my independent study topic with the enigmatic German Professor, and took up every spare moment of the semester, as well as many moments that were not spare, to the general bereavement of the research projects. The study was fantastic, one of the best things I have done at the college–a four-month-long discussion of art, music, philosophy, criticism, literature, auf Deutsch, all per Thomas Mann. And he is astounding.

The first half of the semester was Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice)–fin de siecle and classicism, a heady and haunting synthesis of pagan gods and decadence and the music of a dead composer from Vienna. And Plato’s Eros, which may well have been the most thrilling discovery of the semester. Read the Symposium and Phaedrus. Creation in Beauty, possession of Beauty–are they all that different? And why does Aschenbach fall so tragically short of both?

Next came the question of salvation, redemption–Erlösung–in Mann. Where was it? Certainly not in Art, that much was certain. Mann  was no Romantic, and those who loved Art in his world strayed towards damnation. What then? I was discomfited.

We ought to look at Irony, said the Professor. That was as much a solution in Mann, as much a redemption, as anything he could think of. So we did, in Tonio Kröger and then Beim Propheten (At the Prophet’s), where the Novelist (Mann himself?) day-dreamed about a ham sandwich in the middle of the most mystical revelations. The Professor laughed until he had to wipe his eyes, and said that–ironic laughter–was as good a redemption as any, Emily, and didn’t I agree? I, being a good Wagnerian and thus rather in love with the idea that Through Art All Men Are Saved, didn’t, really.

And then the women. Gerächt (Revenged/Avenged) was Mann’s feminist manifesto, at first glance. Or was it? Was Mann’s treatment of women–in his other works–really any different than that narrow and laughable view he exposed to such ridicule in Gerächt? It all tied into my general uneasiness with the women in the works we were reading in 19th Century Lit, going all the way back to Goethe’s Ewig-Weibliche…..

I got a little carried away.

“You should write a feminist interpretation of Thomas Mann,” said the Professor. “But that’s boring.” I said. “And sad.” I don’t want to be a feminist, I want to be a humanist. And it is ever so much more productive to love these great artists, through and beyond all their short-sightedness and prejudice. Cynicism, disenchantment, and bitterness get one precisely nowhere, as a student, critic, and human being.

~~~~~~

But there was a broader tension, behind it all, something discomfiting about the discussions. By taking Thomas Mann so seriously, by letting him be so vitally important, by allowing–by even demanding–that he speak in the 21st century, were we not at least a little outdated? Are his artistic, cultural, political questions–the questions of nearly one hundred years ago–the questions of today? Could they be? Have we moved beyond Mann’s Munich, Mann’s America?

After the Doktor Faustus discussions, the Professor asked if anyone can create great art now without the Devil. Where can valid artistic inspiration come from, anymore? I wanted to know if he was posing the questions as Thomas Mann or himself, in 1945 Germany or now, in mid-western America at a liberal arts college that believes in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. He didn’t know. Neither did I.

I asked  if he thought Germany would ever produce another towering, all-conquering Artist, Künstler, along the lines of a Goethe or Wagner or Mann. “Welt-erobernd…” he says. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think they can. That time is long past.” That is heart-breaking, I said. What happened to Faust? What happened to the future?

On the final day of classes, we read the last page of Doktor Faustus, this final book, aloud. Almost impossibly difficult. Is it not a novel for the end of the world? What can follow such final chapters? When art is its own criticism, when the novel as a genre is consummated and destroyed by the very act of its creation–as Wagner did, I said, with Tristan und Isolde–what can come next? It is an end, not a beginning.

But, in differing ways, both the Professor and I came to the conclusion that there is some small hope, some way out. He pointed to the final sentence of the novel, a prayer–one must have hope, he said, one must believe in something, to pray. Prayer, like the question that ends Der Zauberberg, looks towards the future.

And I said, whether blindly and youthfully optimistic or not, that there is often an ending, but always an answer. Mann’s Faustus is not the last ending, nor the first. What about Greek Tragedy, that narrows and narrows and narrows human experience into a dark and endless point? What about King Lear, where they kneel and pray to a God who never comes?  Where Howl, Howl, Howl are the only honest words left? Nihilism, denial, renunciation writ large, long before Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Art could have ended right there–but it didn’t, I said, it didn’t. Look at everything that has come since. I’m not going to go through life believing that Western Culture is in decline because Adrian Leverkühn wrote a twelve-tone Lamentatio and went insane.

~~~~~~

And there it was. A wonderful, difficult semester. And best of all, we are going to start all over again with Robert Musil next year–from what I can tell, a very different creature. Lyric to Mann’s epic, perhaps, all sparkling inner-ness and Gestalt psychology, pace classicism and irony.