Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783): Fandango, played by Begoña Uriarte.
No, Madame Euterpe, thank you, they are all very nice, these girls and boys, but I must have Miss Begoña.
|The Drapers Guild||
Sheer pleasure; unalloyed pleasure; pleasure neither encumbered nor enhanced by other sources of pleasure like nostalgia, romance, culture, wit – not even beauty. No, the pleasure of this is not even aesthetic, although it is a piece of classical music. I’m sort of shy writing about sex, but the closest analogy I can think of is prolonged foreplay so delicious that what inevitably follows it, terminology be damned, can only be an anticlimax.
Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783): Fandango, played by Begoña Uriarte.
I went on line and listened to other pianists play this.
No, Madame Euterpe, thank you, they are all very nice, these girls and boys, but I must have Miss Begoña.
This time, two short story collections read consecutively. (Last time it was two biographies.) To tell the truth, I’ve only read the first story in the second book, The Library of America’s Henry James, Complete Stories, Volume Four, 1898-1910. The story was “John Delavoy” – a romantic comedy set in the world of high-brow magazine publishing. I came to it after reading Delmore Schwartz’ Successful Love and Other Stories.
In one way, the stories in the Schwartz collection and James’ story are similar: they share the same point of view, affectionate irony (James’ filtered through the first person), expressed in a wordy, meticulous style. They’re not similar in the ways that count. Reading the Schwartz was a slog; reading the James was a pleasure.
The stories in Successful Love are written in the dry, dispassionate prose of an uninspired academic paper or a bureaucratic report. It’s a good style for irony, but there must be openings between the lines, glimmers of life. That the story is not about its dryly depicted events but about its characters and events’ effects on them, should be implicit in such seemingly detached rapportage. It is not, in the nine stories of Successful Love. The characters are stick figures whose characteristics Schwarz sums up by listing the ways they differ from their stereotypes. A story on the comic side of the tragedy-comedy divide that is told in this way is a kind of joke – akin to a shaggy dog story. The sole purpose of Schwartz’ characters and what they say and do is to build up to the punch line. The punch line in Schwartz’ stories is: “See? The absurdity of life isn’t all funny, it’s melancholy too.”
Here is a bit from the novella-length “A Colossal Fortune”:
Monroe had slowly been overtaken by a sense of what he had done. And the realization made him want to tell Kitty what he had done as a way of confessing that he was, in all truth, wholly unworthy of her, he had violated the trust of his friends he had acted wantonly, foolishly and at the mercy of his own disappointment, he was without question a wholly worthless human being. He called Schenectady again and he told Kitty these things in a low tone and in a voice of resigned sincerity, and said again and again, as he described his sudden debacle, that he was obviously unworthy of her.
[Now you see how his style is like James’; and how it is not.]
While alive, Delmore Schwartz was known more as a poet than a short story writer. Unfortunately, he is primarily remembered as a sad case, a schizophrenic alcoholic who, for a decade or more, made a colorful and tragic nuisance of himself in Greenwich Village and became the subject of a Bellow novel. Secondarily, he is known as the author of the oft-anthologized short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”.
Much of that story’s fame is that it lives up to its grand, or grandiose, title, which has the same poignant resonance as the title of Gordon Lish’s renowned reworking of a Raymond Carver story: “What we Talk about when we Talk about Love”. Unlike Schwartz’ unsuccessful stories in Successful Love, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is not at all impersonal, detached and academic. It is the first person narration of a dream, as earnestly anxious and attentive to emotional detail as a patient’s relation of a dream to his analyst. Like a dream told to an analyst, the details of the dream have no more intrinsic value than do the details of a joke. What matters is what they all add up to at the end, what the dream means – spelled out in the story’s title.
“John Delavoy” is not great Henry James. Considering how high the bar is, it might not even be good Henry James. The plot is threadbare: the villain – a charismatic, yet shallow, literary lion, the editor of a celebrated literary magazine – outwits a pair of clever, principled innocents – the somewhat pompous unnamed narrator and the devoted sister of an important, yet insufficiently celebrated, novelist, recently deceased – but loses the girl. She marries the narrator and they live happily ever after.
Here is how lovers in the world of Henry James fall in love, marry and live happily ever after:
I placed my article, naturally, in another magazine, but was disappointed, I confess, as to what it discoverably did in literary circles for its subject. This ache, however, was muffled. There was a worse victim than I, and there was consolation of a sort in our having out together the question of literary circles. The great orb of The Cynosure, wasn't that a literary circle? By the time we had fairly to face this question we had achieved the union that—at least for resistance or endurance—is supposed to be strength.
I began to read “John Delavoy” after eleven at night. I was tired, my eyes were bleary, the back of my head ached. All I really wanted to do was go to bed. I told myself I would just read the Section I. After Section IV I promised myself I would go to bed when I finished Section V. I even dozed off briefly, but I could not put the story down until I finished it.
Why? That’s not a rhetorical question. I don’t know why. I certainly was not on the edge of my seat about whether or not the narrator’s essay on John Delavoy would appear in The Cynosure. My reluctance to stop reading had something to do with James’ style – not the style itself, but the use James puts it to: the dissection of conversations, gestures, motivations, into a continuous patter (as in a patter song) of emotive minutiae. I could not put the story down, not because I wanted to know what happened next, but through what intricate twists and turns James would take the feelings of the story’s characters – Mr. Beston, the crass editor, the self-important literary critic who was narrator, and Miss Delavoy. They and their problems were inconsequential. I simply had to see what the great virtuoso’s next trick would be.
I just finished reading two biographies. Ronald Hayman’s biography of Jung and Edna O’Brien’s biography of James Joyce. They couldn’t have been more different. A Martian literatum, sitting down to categorize Earth’s literature in a way that would make sense on Mars, would not slot them in the same genre. All they have in common is that in June, 2017, some person somewhere read them consecutively.
I had only a vague notion of what Carl Jung was all about – archetypes, the collective unconscious, the betrayal of Freud; I loved Hayman’s biography of Proust; I thought I was in for a treat.
Not to be. Hayman’s A Life of Jung is not very good. I read it through, for its biographical details and its account of Jungianism, but became more and more annoyed. It became clear, one chapter in, that Hayman disliked Jung – a difficult mindset in which to write a successful biography. Hayman’s attitude toward Proust was one of indulgent affection, and it made for a nicely tuned book.
For some reason, probably because he’s immersing himself in the world of psychiatry, Hayman uses pop-psychology to analyze Jung’s words and actions; something he didn’t do in his Proust book. Besides the fact that pop-psychology is a mainly Freudian exercise, considering Jung’s deep and detailed probing of human behavior, and Freud’s, and their colleagues’, Hayman’s explications come off as shallow and catty.
Like a son telling his father he has done nothing wrong – and even if he has, contrition has already hurt him more than punishment could – Jung [in a letter to Freud] refers three times within four sentences to hell and the devil.
Naturally, he felt ambivalent towards people who year after year counted on him for emotional support.
On this trip to the USA, Jung did not have to share the limelight with Freud, and being lionized helped to consolidate his self-confidence.
There is little difference between these remarks and something like, “Stepping ashore at Missolonghi, Byron sensed a chill of foreboding.”
Hayman’s book was published in 1999, so he and his editors cannot fall back on the excuse of customary practice to explain the patronizing misogyny behind Hayman’s habit of identifying his male characters by their surnames and his female characters by their given names.
Jung had a habit of turning his female patients into Jungian analysts. Some of them were very good at it – so good, in the case of Toni Woolf (patient, then analyst, author – Studies in Jungian Thought – and for a number of years the third in a Jung domestic ménage), that some patients preferred to consult her rather than Jung. Still, throughout his book, Hayman refers to her as “Toni,” while to males who appear briefly and then vanish, for example, rich, silly American patients and the husbands of rich, silly American patients, he does the courtesy of referring to them by their surnames.
Hayman’s Jung was worth reading, though, if only for one striking revelation. One evening in 1902, William James dropped in on Stanley Hall, the president of Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., and there met Hall’s houseguests, Jung and Freud. On imagining this strange encounter, a door in my mind, between the New England compartment and the Viennese compartment, swung open.
While Hayman goes into great detail about many aspects of Jung’s personal life (nothing wrong with that; that’s what biography does), the most intriguing story he tells he leaves hanging at just this:
In 1901, [Jung] wrote to Emma [Rauschenberg], asking her to marry him, but she told him she was engaged to a man in the village. Her mother liked Jung enough to arrange a meeting in a Zurich restaurant, where she explained that Emma was not engaged. Inviting him back to the estate, the Rauschenbergs sent their horse-drawn carriage to collect him from the railway station. He again proposed to Emma, and this time she said yes.
It’s the plot of a Chekhov short story. What tender and pathetic dynamics drove this little bourgeois comedy? Hayman, who usually does not balk at a little motivational speculation, has nothing to offer. Occasionally, he tries to grasp and convey Emma Jung’s feelings and her attitude towards Carl and their marriage; knowing, or even making an educated guess about, what occurred between her refusal and her acceptance back in 1901 would have helped.
I have become a huge Edna O’Brien fan, thanks to my friend Dennis who keeps lending me her books, so you’ll have to excuse me if I gush. Except for Philip Roth, I can’t think of any other living writer in English who churns out book after book after book, of her caliber. Ian McEwan’s novels are thin, dry things in comparison.
I get the impression that O’Brien is considered as a bit disreputable, in literary circles and/or academia. Maybe that’s because of her persona, which is a tough cookie – more Mae West than Virginia Woolf. It is understandable how such irreverence might get up highfaluting noses. How does this sharp, orange-haired, bejeweled bitch get to be the one to write such colloquially exquisite, sensitive prose, with the knack, which Jewish and Irish writers seem especially able to pull off, of emulsifying comedy and tragedy so thoroughly that readers never know whether to laugh or cry?
O’Brien loves James Joyce – Joyce, the writer, that is. She makes no judgments about Joyce, the man; he’s just a character, grist for storytelling. No, I take that back. O’Brien is aware that there is a sorry judgment that could be made, but she excuses Joyce’s ill-treatment of his family, his friends and his supporters (notably the downtrodden Harriet Weaver) on the grounds that he is an obsessed artistic genius.
O’Brien has offered a similar excuse for her own character flaw, her bitchiness – not going so far as to proclaim herself a genius, but anointing herself as an obsessed artist. A further reason for all those writers and academics who, true to the modern mode, are thoroughly polite, thoroughly domesticated, to resent her.
...After months of begging and cajoling Budgen obliged by coming in person to Paris. The revels got headier. They stayed out late, still later, Joyce insisting when the bar closed that they be admitted to an upstairs parlor and in the small hours when they did make their way home, Joyce in his straw hat and cane performed his Isadora Duncan impersonation, a matter of whirling arms, high-kicking legs, and grimaces which Budgen likened to the ritual antics of a comic religion. They laughed a lot, wakened the neighbors and returned to an irate Nora Barnacle shouting out the window and demanding that these revels stop. They didn't. They couldn't. Nothing could dampen Joyce's abundance of spirit and laughter during those his richest and most exhaustive years. In one of these night fracases, Nora told him that she had torn up his manuscript and it sobered him enough to ransack the apartment and find it. The book "ist em Schwein," she said. Carousing was only part of the saga; there was another side to him that very few saw, hurrying from one tuition job to the next, or one creditor to the next, not laughing, not smiling but as the novelist Italo Svevo noted, "locked in the inner isolation of his being."
Details are O’Brien’s métier. She doesn’t care much about the big picture. In one chapter of her book, Joyce may be in Trieste; in the next, Zurich; then Paris; then he’s back in Trieste. The reader has no idea why one city rather than the other or even when one city rather than the other. It’s as if Joyce owned a private helicopter that transported him, at the drop of a hat, from one miserable slum hovel to another. O’Brien’s novels often are similarly vague about why and how the narrator finds herself in one locale rather than another. All locales are poignantly and meticulously described, of course.
O’Brien’s critical take on Joyce is that he was a mad virtuoso of language. If that does not describe someone who took it upon himself to write Finnegan’s Wake, I don’t know what does. O’Brien, too, is a virtuoso of language – but not mad. Her goal is intimacy, not grandeur.
Edna O’Brien’s James Joyce is a compact (178 pages), handsome duodecimo hardback. It is a pleasure to look at and a pleasure to hold. It makes you want to own more of like it, subject matter aside. It is part of the Penguin Lives series. Only ten remain in print; only one, Nigel Nicolson’s Virginia Woolf, maintains the series’ original classy design. If this were the 20th century, a uniform series of biographies by a major publisher would remain in print until it was finished and for some time afterward, at which point the complete series, with a bookshelf to fit, could be purchased.
Penguin Lives offers biographies written by writers, not – as they usually are – by academics or reporters. "Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc" is a particularly brilliant choice. I see two or three whose content (and that includes the author) suits my taste, that I might check out ABE Books for. Still, it is the books in this series, as objects, that are attractive. I chose those two or three in the same spirit with which a collector of early Delftware depicting monkeys might browse through a couple of stacks (or web pages) of Delft plates.
O’Brien’s James Joyce begins with a short introduction by Philip Roth. I haven’t read it – yet, or maybe ever. Introductions can be spoilers, and not in only the word’s current meaning as a buzzword, but in its general sense.
The beauty of music of the classical period depends on its emotional restraint, on the contrast between the music’s emotional content and the narrow vocabulary in which it is expressed. (This contrast is the source of the melancholy that Stendhal detected as the underlying characteristic of all of Mozart’s music.)
Beethoven’s genius was to use the classical music vocabulary to develop a new musical language, one without an inclusive vocabulary. Every composition of Beethoven’s has a vocabulary all its own.
I always assumed that this was as breathtaking an accomplishment, as much of a leap, as that of the Cubists. The Cubists broke through the constraints of pictorial form; Beethoven broke through the constraints of musical content.
The Cubists were inspired by African art. What inspired Beethoven? Was it Baroque music in which composers, in a quest for a more refined discrimination of emotional content in their works, developed the phraseology which eventually was codified into the classical style? No. While Cubist painting reflects its debt to the primitive, there is nothing Baroque about Beethoven’s romanticism. Beethoven’s music was a leap into the void. Like the pioneer Romantic poets, Beethoven expanded the field of artistic expression: to reverence (religious or political) and love (moral or erotic), he added contemplation (profound or ironic).
Yesterday I listened to (as opposed to simply heard) Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A Minor, K.310. About half way through the second movement, I realized that Beethoven’s leap into Romanticism was not as formidable a leap as I had thought.
(I’m not making value judgments. It doesn’t in the least detract from Beethoven’s leap that other composers were beginning to test the limits. Nor am I saying that the fact that K.310 is Beethovenesque adds to its status as a Mozart piano sonata.)
I decided not to try and dig up something of Beethoven’s to pair with the Mozart. Nothing immediately sprang to mind, and to browse through Beethoven’s piano music looking for just the right clip would have been the kind of exercise in mindless information retrieval that I try to avoid. I figured that anyone who bothered to read this will be familiar enough with Beethoven, without having listened to a clip, to come to an opinion about my opinion.
Then, serendipitously, immediately following the Mozart sonata, came this:
I recently read William Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age. I may have read some Hazlitt in college, when it was the Romantics’ turn to appear before us and bow to our undergraduate sophistication, but I don’t remember having done so. Early Romanticism is not a phase of English Lit that I feel much connection with.
Hazlitt is considered a witty and perceptive prose stylist. (Every literary generation has one or two of those.) Just my cup of tea; I wondered why I had been avoiding him. There was no Hazlitt on my bookshelves, so I went to ABE Books, where there were tons of Hazlitts in “very good” condition for under ten dollars, shipping included. I ordered a copy of The Spirit of the Age.
The Spirit of the Age is eighteen character sketches, more critical than biographical, of prominent contemporaries of Hazlitt. Some deal with two personalities, so there are twenty-three subjects in all – all men, of course. Ten were familiar to me, but the rest, although some of the names rang a bell, I had to google. The most interesting of these was William Godwin. I feel it was a flaw in my education that he had not been included, along with Bentham and Malthus (also discussed by Hazlitt), as one of the era’s important social philosophers. Godwin’s main claim to fame these days is that he was the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley.
The book I had ordered turned out to be a large print edition, with the size and heft of a coloring book. Each page is a dense rectangle of text, with miniscule margins. It is not a pleasant book to read.
I don’t think that the ungainliness of the book tainted my judgment of Hazlitt, but you never know. Anyway, I think he’s great – sometimes. And “great – sometimes” is plenty good enough for me. Just today I tucked his Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays – in one of those nice old Everyman’s Library editions – in among my unread books, between Jeffrey Hart’s Smiling through the Cultural Catastrophe and F. H. Heinemann’s Existentialism and the Modern Predicament.
Sometimes great; but in what way great?
First of all, you’re reading Hazlitt – at least, I’m reading Hazlitt – for style as much as content, or even more for style than content. Hazlitt is a master, and can sometimes (when he is great) create exquisite verbal artifacts.
The author of Waverley might just as well get up and make a speech at a dinner at Edinburgh, abusing Mr. Mac-Adam for his improvements in the roads, on the ground that they were nearly impassable in many places "sixty years since;" or object to Mr. Peel's Police-Bill, by insisting that Hounslow-Heath was formerly a scene of greater interest and terror to highwaymen and travellers, and cut a greater figure in the Newgate-Calendar than it does at present. — Oh! Wickliff, Luther, Hampden, Sidney, Somers, mistaken Whigs, and thoughtless Reformers in religion and politics, and all ye, whether poets or philosophers, heroes or sages, inventors of arts or sciences, patriots, benefactors of the human race, enlighteners and civilisers of the world, who have (so far) reduced opinion to reason, and power to law, who are the cause that we no longer burn witches and heretics at slow fires, that the thumb-screws are no longer applied by ghastly, smiling judges, to extort confession of imputed crimes from sufferers for conscience sake; that men are no longer strung up like acorns on trees without judge or jury, or hunted like wild beasts through thickets and glens, who have abated the cruelty of priests, the pride of nobles, the divinity of kings in former times; to whom we owe it, that we no longer wear round our necks the collar of Gurth the swineherd, and of Wamba the jester; that the castles of great lords are no longer the dens of banditti, from whence they issue with fire and sword, to lay waste the land; that we no longer expire in loathsome dungeons without knowing the cause, or have our right hands struck off for raising them in self-defence against wanton insult; that we can sleep without fear of being burnt in our beds, or travel without making our wills; that no Amy Robsarts are thrown down trap-doors by Richard Varneys with impunity; that no Red Reiver of Westburn-Flat sets fire to peaceful cottages; that no Claverhouse signs cold-blooded death-warrants in sport; that we have no Tristan the Hermit, or Petit-Andre, crawling near us, like spiders, and making our flesh creep, and our hearts sicken within us at every moment of our lives — ye who have produced this change in the face of nature and society, return to earth once more, and beg pardon of Sir Walter and his patrons, who sigh at not being able to undo all that you have done!
Second of all, while Hazlitt’s ideas seldom rise above the level of clever and interesting (as in the example above), sometimes they flash with a revelatory brilliance.
Mr. Coleridge is too rich in intellectual wealth, to need to task himself to any drudgery: he has only to draw the sliders of his imagination, and a thousand subjects expand before him, startling him with their brilliancy, or losing themselves in endless obscurity--
"And by the force of blear illusion,
They draw him on to his confusion."
What is the little he could add to the stock, compared with the countless stores that lie about him, that he should stoop to pick up a name, or to polish an idle fancy? He walks abroad in the majesty of an
universal understanding, eyeing the "rich strond," or golden sky above him, and "goes sounding on his way," in eloquent accents, uncompelled and free!
Persons of the greatest capacity are often those, who for this reason do the least; for surveying themselves from the highest point of view, amidst the infinite variety of the universe, their own share in it seems trifling, and scarce worth a thought, and they prefer the contemplation of all that is, or has been, or can be, to the making a coil about doing what, when done, is no better than vanity. It is hard to concentrate
all our attention and efforts on one pursuit, except from ignorance of others; and without this concentration of our faculties, no great progress can be made in any one thing.
Hazlitt is an inventive and unconventional thinker. Unfortunately, the intellectual sphere in which he exercises his inventiveness and originality is small; it is hemmed in by a larger, denser, sphere of late Georgian prejudices and constraints of his time which, while many of his friends were probing and testing them, he takes for granted as absolutes.
For example, Hazlitt accepted the mundane notion that the proper role for a woman was to be the embodiment of an airy-fairy spiritual ideal. The Whig thinkers he admired – we would call them liberals – saw past that notion to one degree or another. To Hazlitt, it was the touchstone by which he judged the characterizations of women in the poetry and novels of his period.
More shocking is Hazlitt’s complacent acceptance of class hierarchy. One of the best pieces in The Spirit of the Age is the one on Byron. It is remarkable for combining a sharp critical acuity about Byron and his poetry with prissy, thin-lipped censure. “Perhaps the chief cause of most of Lord Byron's errors is, that he is that anomaly in letters and in society, a Noble Poet,” says Hazlitt. It is that “and in society” that gives Hazlitt away as a class-conscious snob. A fault, incidentally, of which he accuses Byron – unconvincingly. (Byron was a snob of another, familiar, neuro-poetic sort.)
Here is Hazlitt at his best and his worst, all at once:
Perhaps the chief cause of most of Lord Byron's errors is, that he is that anomaly in letters and in society, a Noble Poet. It is a double privilege, almost too much for humanity. He has all the pride of birth and genius. The strength of his imagination leads him to indulge in fantastic opinions; the elevation of his rank sets censure at defiance. He becomes a pampered egotist. He has a seat in the House of Lords, a niche in the Temple of Fame. Every-day mortals, opinions, things are not good enough for him to touch or think of. A mere nobleman is, in his estimation, but "the tenth transmitter of a foolish face:" a mere man of genius is no better than a worm. His Muse is also a lady of quality. The people are not polite enough for him: the Court not sufficiently intellectual. He hates the one and despises the other. By hating and despising others, he does not learn to be satisfied with himself. A fastidious man soon grows querulous and splenetic. If there is nobody but ourselves to come up to our idea of fancied perfection, we easily get tired of our idol. When a man is tired of what he is, by a natural perversity he sets up for what he is not. If he is a poet, he pretends to be a metaphysician: if he is a patrician in rank and feeling, he would fain be one of the people. His ruling motive is not the love of the people, but of distinction not of truth, but of singularity. He patronizes men of letters out of vanity, and deserts them from caprice, or from the advice of friends. He embarks in an obnoxious publication to
provoke censure, and leaves it to shift for itself for fear of scandal. We do not like Sir Walter's gratuitous servility: we like Lord Byron's preposterous liberalism little better. He may affect the principles of equality, but he resumes his privilege of peerage, upon occasion. His Lordship has made great offers of service to the Greeks--money and horses. He is at present in Cephalonia, waiting the event!
What comes next is Hazlitt at his very best:
We had written thus far when news came of the death of Lord Byron, and put an end at once to a strain of somewhat peevish invective, which was intended to meet his eye, not to insult his memory. Had we known that we were writing his epitaph, we must have done it with a different feeling. As it is, we think it better and more like himself, to let what we had written stand, than to take up our leaden shafts, and try to melt them into "tears of sensibility," or mould them into dull praise, and an affected shew of candour. We were not silent during the author's life-time, either for his reproof or encouragement (such us we could give, and he did not disdain to accept) nor can we now turn undertakers' men to fix the glittering plate upon his coffin, or fall into the procession of popular woe.--Death cancels every thing but truth; and strips a man of every thing but genius and virtue. It is a sort of natural canonization. It makes the meanest of us sacred—it installs the poet in his immortality, and lifts him to the skies. Death is the great assayer of the sterling ore of talent. At his touch the drossy particles fall off, the irritable, the personal, the gross, and mingle with the dust--the finer and more ethereal part mounts with the winged spirit to watch over our latest memory and protect our bones from insult. We consign the least worthy qualities to oblivion, and cherish the nobler and imperishable nature with double pride and fondness. Nothing could shew the real superiority of genius in a more striking
point of view than the idle contests and the public indifference about the place of Lord Byron's interment, whether in Westminster-Abbey or his own family-vault. A king must have a coronation--a nobleman a funeral-procession.--The man is nothing without the pageant. The poet's cemetery is the human mind, in which he sows the seeds of never ending thought--his monument is to be found in his works:
"Nothing can cover his high fame but Heaven;
No pyramids set off his memory,
But the eternal substance of his greatness."
Lord Byron is dead: he also died a martyr to his zeal in the cause of freedom, for the last, best hopes of man. Let that be his excuse and his epitaph!
Hazlitt’s essay on William Gifford is a merry diatribe – great fun to read; invective naturally lends itself to cleverness. Evidently, Hazlitt and Gifford were engaged in an ongoing verbal feud revolving around rival periodicals, the Whig Edinburgh Review, to which Hazlitt contributed regularly, and the Tory Quarterly Review, which Gifford edited. However, Hazlitt’s basis for what he obviously believes are unanswerable attacks is Gifford’s lower class origins.
Here is the start of Hazlitt’s “Mr. Gifford”:
Mr. Gifford was originally bred to some handicraft: he afterwards contrived to learn Latin, and was for some time an usher in a school, till he became a tutor in a nobleman's family. The low-bred, self-taught man, the pedant, and the dependant on the great contribute to form the Editor of the Quarterly Review. He is admirably qualified for this
situation, which he has held for some years, by a happy combination of defects, natural and acquired; and in the event of his death, it will be difficult to provide him a suitable successor.
Mr. Gifford has no pretensions to be thought a man of genius, of taste,
or even of general knowledge. He merely understands the mechanical and
instrumental part of learning. He is a critic of the last age, when
the different editions of an author, or the dates of his several
performances were all that occupied the inquiries of a profound scholar,
and the spirit of the writer or the beauties of his style were left to
shift for themselves, or exercise the fancy of the light and superficial
reader. In studying an old author, he has no notion of any thing beyond
adjusting a point, proposing a different reading, or correcting, by the
collation of various copies, an error of the press. In appreciating a
modern one, if it is an enemy, the first thing he thinks of is to charge
him with bad grammar--he scans his sentences instead of weighing his
sense; or if it is a friend, the highest compliment he conceives it
possible to pay him is, that his thoughts and expressions are moulded
on some hackneyed model. His standard of ideal perfection is what he
himself now is, a person of mediocre literary attainments: his utmost
contempt is shewn by reducing any one to what he himself once was, a
person without the ordinary advantages of education and learning.
The charge of lackeyism, of sycophancy, is Hazlitt’s favorite charge against Gifford, and he makes it over and over again in “Mr. Gifford”. It is a charge that depends on Gifford’s lower-class origins. Hazlitt and the literary figures he most admires come from middle-class backgrounds. (The fathers of Hazlitt, Coleridge and Godwin were parsons; Wordsworth’s and Lamb’s were lawyers; Southey’s, a linen draper.) A tendency in his cohorts to cultivate aristocratic connections would, in Hazlitt’s eyes, not be lackeyism and sycophancy, but honest, agreeable ambition, an effort to better themselves.
There is so much more interesting stuff woven into Hazlitt’s luscious prose – for example, the way his assessments of Crabbe’s and Wordsworth’s poeticizing of the mundane differ, because the former portrays the everyday (which Hazlitt takes for granted as “the little, the disgusting, the distressing”) as a painter would, while the latter universalizes and ennobles it. And have you ever heard of Horne Tooke? “The whole of his reasoning turns upon shewing that the Conjunction That is the pronoun That, which is itself the participle of a verb, and in like manner that all the other mystical and hitherto unintelligible parts of speech are derived from the only two intelligible ones, the Verb and Noun.”
I could go on and on, but this thing already is much too long.
It’s intriguing, the transformation that loan words sometimes go through as they’re adopted from one language into another. For example, in France un smoking is a dinner jacket or tuxedo. It is borrowed from the English “smoking jacket,” attire rather less formal than more, by country house standards – at least those set by Agatha Christie and Masterpiece Theater. (This evening’s Wikipedia informs me that not only in French, but in “Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, German, Greek, Hungarian, Spanish, Polish, Czech, Russian, Danish, Turkish, Swedish and other European languages, the term smoking indicates a tuxedo.”) And while an entrée on our restaurant menus (accent mark and all) is a main course, in France un entrée is an appetizer.
Recently, I came across another interesting example of borrowed-and-transformed: “louche.” I had supposed that “louche” meant the same thing in both its parent language, French, and in ours. Not at all.
The meaning of “louche” is nicely put by the Oxford English Dictionary: Disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way.
This, I thought, was the epitome of louche:
In France, though, there is nothing appealing or even rakish about someone who is louche. Its earliest meaning is cross-eyed or squint-eyed. From there (think of our “shifty-eyed”) the sense of louche expanded to mean disreputable, suspicious looking, sleazy. Google likes to translate louche as “shady.” I’ll go for that; “shady” even maintains a smidgen of the ocular element of the original French.
How did a disreputable, suspicious looking and sleazy person in French eyes become an appealingly rakish person in ours? I can only surmise, but I think it must be the result of that person also being, or seeming, French.
Imagine some sleazy character, shady, untrustworthy, shifty-eyed, disreputable, sneaky, duplicitous. You could conjure up any number of imaginary types, from a sinister manipulator along the lines of Richard III to Peter Lorre’s Cairo in The Maltese Falcon. Now, imagine that person as French or, at least, French in style (as you would if you described him as louche). Your villain is now a great deal less threatening, menacing, nasty; in fact, however threatening, menacing, nasty he remains, there still is something charming about him.
(Yes, stereotyping is a sort of prejudice. But it cannot be avoided if we are considering a human characteristic in the abstract. If we hear or read of someone described only as French or Chinese, as WASP or black, as Jewish or Methodist, or whatever, the image that comes to mind is, by definition, a stereotype. Fortunately, stereotypes are fluid. They adjust as our experience and understanding mature; we even can consciously work at changing them.)
Just as the stereotype of the charming Frenchman is likely the mechanism by which the French louche became the English louche,” my guess is that the stereotype of the reserved Englishman is behind the transformation of the English smoking jacket to le smoking.
(Like anyone trying to write stuff in the 21st century, I had to waste time and mental energy trying to figure out how to phrase my ideas, above, in gender-neutral terms. I gave it up – not only because I am weary of it, it’s a stupid charade, but because I realized that most of the adjectives I used as synonyms of “louche” are used to describe women much less frequently than they are used to describe men.
A gender-related social issue lurks there, far more pertinent than the difference between louche and louche, but I am not competent enough to unravel it.)
Hey, Hey! I’ve discovered a great new CD – a set of two CD’s, actually.
I love Baroque keyboard music; but I can’t stand the harpsichord. (The notable exception being Yannick le Gaillard’s set of Duphly’s keyboard works.)
I’m a purist by nature and by confession so, let’s see... How can I rationalize my predilection for harpsichord music played on the piano?
What is called “world music” makes me gag. I regard musical fusion, such things as – and I really saw these on Youtube – a trio of folklorically attired middle-aged Balkan women singing one of those close-harmony Slavic folk songs so old that you can hear its pagan roots, accompanied by a digital drum track, or a flamenco guitarist accompanied by a bass player, as a crime against the culture akin to rape and battery.
Yet, I seem to have no objection to any re-instrumentation of classical music. One of my favorite CD’s is Satie played on medieval instruments. I enjoy hearing orchestrated chamber music and orchestral music arranged for chamber ensembles, and I was perfectly able to judge on its own merits a recording of Haydn played by a saxophone quartet. (Its merits did not amount to much.) I am breaking no personal taboo by listening to harpsichord music played on the piano.
The primary art of folk music is its performance; the music itself – its melodies, its harmonies, its text (if there is any) – is secondary. The primary art of Western classical music is its composition (in the big meaning of the word, as well as the narrow one) – melodies, harmonies, text; its performance is secondary. The Goldberg Variations is the same Bach composition, whether it is played on a harpsichord, a piano, or an accordion. (It is not the same composition if an attempt is made to render it on an instrument which plays only one note at a time.) That is my rationalization for accepting re-arranged classical music. It’s a pretty solid one, if you ask me.
Not so easily explained is my dislike of the harpsichord. It’s just a matter of taste, I guess. The harpsichord is, to my ears, just too plinkety-plunk.
The keyboard music of some of the big boys of the baroque has become standard piano repertoire.
There’s Bach, of course. My favorite all-round Bach performer is Ivo Janssen. Perahia’s Bach is lovely; his Goldberg Variations is a masterpiece. Kempff’s performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier is my favorite right now. Angela Hewitt’s Bach, which everyone was so excited about a few years ago, is pedestrian. Glenn Gould does not wear well.
There is so much Bach on piano out there that a stylistic outlier like Samuel Feinberg’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the soaring romanticism of which would be excoriated if it were applied to the one and only piano recording of Duphly, let’s say, can be savored as a lush and profound marvel.
The usual piano repertoire also includes Scarlatti – who’s as delightful to hear as a virtuoso bluegrass banjo – and Handel’s suites, and... I think that’s about it. Thanks to the cornucopian Naxos label, the collected Scarlatti-like keyboard music of Antonio Soler is available on piano. Angela Hewitt has recorded Couperin – nothing to complain about, since it’s the only game in town.
Searching the internet for more Baroque keyboard music on piano, I came up with the keyboard works of Rameau performed by Marcelle Meyer. Amazon sells the digital download, so I was able to preview bits of it. It sounded good so, for what the download would have cost me, I ordered it used on CD.
Marcelle Meyer playing Rameau is my newly discovered great CD. Her piano has a little something of the sound of Feinberg (who taught his students at the Moscow Conservatory that the piano is not a percussion instrument, but a string instrument), but Meyer plays with the definition which Baroque music requires (for German music, we call it clarity; for Italian and Spanish music, we call it animation; for French music, we call it delicacy) and has a marvelous knack, which I’ve not heard so clearly before, of suggesting the differing qualities of three registers – low, middle, treble – of an elaborate pedal harpsichord.
Meyer, who lived in Paris, recorded eleven pieces by Rameau in 1946, at the end of the occupation. Those were released on 78 rpm, of course. With the advent of the 33 rpm record, she returned to the studio and recorded all of Rameau’s keyboard music. The recording – in a easy-to-come-by Erato set or as a download – includes Meyer’s 1946 recording as well as the later one.
Meyer’s Rameau has brought a little joy into an otherwise fairly gloomy spring.
Yesterday, I downloaded the keyboard music of Giovanni Benedetto Platti played on the piano by Abelardo Galang II. I haven’t listened to it yet. I did sample it and can confidently say it will not make my short list of great performances. But it will have what I look for in baroque keyboard music played on the piano: an emotionally resonant expression of enlightenment wit.
How objective can you be? Here is a test.
Sometimes, late at night, when I’m too tired to read any longer, and I have watched my limit of one or two spy or detective shows, I browse through Youtube. Lately, I have been watching documentaries and home movies from the early 20th century. It started with my searching for old movies from Joseph Conrad territory and found a bunch of movies shot by a serious amateur cinematographer in Malaysia between the wars. Youtube, of course, noted my interest so each time I pull up Youtube on my Apple TV, there are new suggestions for vintage movies, many of them the kind of travelogues that, along with cartoons and newsreels, once were shown in movie theaters, before the main attraction.
A couple of nights ago I watched a 30-minute color (or colorized) silent film of Germany in 1938. The first ten minutes were of Berlin on the day of Hitler’s speech in the Sports Stadium, in which he declared war on Europe over Czechoslovakia.
Nazi flags are everywhere. Large flags and banners drape down from the roofs and windows of office buildings, smaller ones festoon the entranceway and windows of almost every shop and flutter from streetcars and taxis. A little boy being pulled in a wagon holds what looks like a flag with a crisscrossed square instead of a swastika, then you realize that the sun is shining through the flag and you are seeing the shadow of the swastika on the other side.
From every lamppost on Unter der Linden hang long red banners, the black on white swastika positioned about one-third of the way down. The position of the swastika on the banners seems to have been carefully considered, and the design of the banner as a whole is classic, simple, discrete. (After all, why not a swastika at the top and another in the middle? Why not make the swastika as large as it can be in that space?)
As soon as I began thinking along those lines, it dawned on me that the Nazi flag was a beautiful example of early art moderne design: the bold colors; the abstract, yet evocative symbol; the audacious simplicity.
I wonder if Raymond Loewy – born in France, with a Jewish father, who had fought in WWI against the Bosch – had allowed himself to be impressed?
If you are having trouble reaching the requisite state of objectivity to appreciate the aesthetics of the Nazi flag, perhaps an injection of schadenfreude will help.
The same city, Berlin, in 1945:
I love Handel. In fact, his Nine German Arias are at the top of my list of favorite classical music. They are delightful. (As long as they are not performed as if they were arias in a ponderous oratorio or in one of his Italianate – that is, stylishly heartfelt – Italian cantatas.) Delightful, yes; humorous, no. Unless I am missing something, Handel is unique in having no sense of humor – or rather, in whose music there is not the slightest hint of a sense of humor.
In Marian Van Til’s George Frideric Handel – A Music Lover’s Guide (thank you, Google Books), the author writes, “If Handel could be irascible, he was fundamentally kind, compassionate and generous, and had a brilliant sense of humor.” Van Til cites the following passage. from Charles Burney, as “[describing] Handel’s penchant for humor:”
His countenance, which I remember as perfectly as that of any man I saw but yesterday, was full of fire and dignity; and such as impressed ideas of superiority and genius. He was impetuous, rough, and peremptory in his manners and conversation, but totally devoid of ill nature or malevolence; indeed, there was an original humour and pleasantry in his most lively sallies of anger or impatience, which, with his broken English, were extremely risible. His natural propensity to wit and humour, and happy manner of relating common occurrences, in an uncommon way, enabled him to throw persons and things into very ridiculous attitudes. Had he been as great a master of the English language as Swift, his bons mots would have been as frequent, and somewhat of the same kind... Handel's general look was somewhat heavy and sour; but when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud. There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good humour, beaming in his countenance, which I hardly ever saw in any other.
Well, Handel may have been a funny guy, but I get the sense from Burney that he was at his wittiest when lambasting someone or something and that it was his broken English which got the most laughs.
With Haydn being the exception that proves the rule, humor is not an important component of classical music.
(It is an essential element of literature, where it appears even the least comic works – the darkest and most tragic dramas and novels and such dry non-fiction as philosophy and history. It often is used as comic relief, a leavening agent when things get too heavy. Usually, humor appears simply because something funny occurred to the author while writing which, after some deliberation, was deemed suitable for inclusion.)
Despite its minor role in classical music, every composer – except Handel – occasionally composed a humorous work or a humorous movement or a humorous passage, or at least a work, movement or passage intended to be humorous: the use of an incongruously plebian melody (Mahler’s funereal minor-key Frère Jacques in the First Symphony), a slapstick rhythm (Scarlatti’s Fugue in G Minor, L.499 which, so the legend goes, is based on the notes played by Scarlatti’s cat, Pulcinella, as she walked across the keyboard), parody (Ravel’s La Valse), self-parody (many of Beethoven’s Bagatelles), or some other comic trope.
Much of classical music humor is lost on us. Schubert’s Der Geistertanz (Ghost Dance), D.116, was a macabre hoot back in 1814, but we don’t get the joke. Both Schubert’s music and the poem he set, which describes the grotesque antics of some frolicking ghosts, chortle-making back then, seem now to be just some less distinguished examples of the predominant sensibility of early romanticism: genteel swooning.
Handel’s music can be joyous or bucolic (as in the German Arias) or bumptious or brazen or, occasionally, sweet as honey; but it is never funny. It is never intended to be funny.
(Or perhaps I am missing something. I’ll happily change my mind, if someone were to point out to me a humorous passage in Handel.)
Of course, the fact that Handel did not write any humorous music doesn’t mean that Handel’s music is never funny. It’s trenchantly funny here.
Giulio Cesare, in an early production by Peter Sellers.
(Unfortunately, for some viewers the brash humor of this production – so inimical to Handel – gets in the way of their enjoying an absolutely beautiful performance. The singers are brilliant. The countertenor who sings Caesar, Jeffrey Gall, is twice over a virtuoso – not only is his singing exquisite, his presentation of the character, Caesar, is impeccable: he is “presidential” -- present president excluded – to a T, ramping it up, just enough, with a dash of farce.)
A lot of it can be found here (with a case of disappearing subtitles, unfortunately).