Essay – Proust’s Way: Life and Romance in a Search for Lost Time

WHEN I WAS 12 YEARS OLD I READ SOMETHING more terrifying than anything I had read before. The only book series any of the kids in my year ever read of their own choosing was Goosebumps by R.L. Stein. It was a ridiculous pop-horror book for kids. The book that would keep me up for nights was recommended by my librarian after I shared a poem I wrote. She responded with the recommendation that I read Crime and Punishment.  I was twelve. I have since reasoned that this was a punishment in and of itself.

I don’t know if individuals can explain why they like the things they like, or why red is better to most Russians than the color blue. My own theory is that after so many centuries of fighting off the most dangerous armies in history, they have ironically fell in love with the sight of blood. And to a young man, it was the first book that ever made apparent to me that murder and violence is not always motivated by clear-cut villains who sing a song to explain why they’re the bad guys.

In our culture, the villains often have their faces masked, or hidden, covered in black—or they are aliens or terrorists or, for nostalgia, communists, and they’re all reduced to identical thoughts and attitudes and looks. Dostoevsky was the first author I discovered who made the killer the main character; he made the killer a hero. I wasn’t used to that. It changed the way I looked at motivations and my attitude towards simplistic depictions of good and evil. If Dostoevsky changed the way I looked at the nature of good and evil, Proust changed the way I looked at everything.

The more I read the more enamored I was. I was very fond of the Russian literature I read; Chekov, Turgenev, Lertmentov, Bulgakov (especially Master and Margarita,) Tolstoy, Pushkin, Nabokov, and Gogol. The explosive characters, the madness, the psychological complexity, all had a tremendous influence on how I would write novels.

When I was almost finished with this book, I was fortunate enough to go through a profound moral crisis and tragedy. I was put in the same situation as Ernest Hemingway was, at twenty-five, when all the work he had to show for his entire life was lost at a train-station because of a misplaced suitcase. Everything about Hemingway’s formative years that could have given us a better understanding of his method didn’t exist.

Hemingway was the antithesis to the bombast and platitudinous method of Shakespeare and the high drama of Goethe and I never found another writer who could write so gently with such force. The most important thing about Ernest Hemingway was how he made the ordinary seem almost mythic. After I went through pupation I discovered that I had no real affiliation with post-modernism. It seemed to be more focused on what can only be called more form and less art. It was a type of masturbation, a way to use words as a maze to amaze with flair of language and verve of the freedom that came with abandoning the rules of composition. There is a freedom in that kind of work, but cleverness is no substitution for tenderness, and genius is no substitute for beauty and true poignancy.

I had been writing for twenty years when I discovered In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. The first thing to strike me was how understated and natural it all was. There was no sense of bombast or overt melodrama. It is another case in which the deepest of meaning is achieved because life is shown in all its forms and from such scenes so much can be taken.

Proust’s epic is hard to relegate to a category. If I had to say what it was about, I’d say everything; time and space, love and loss—everything in the human sphere of experience.  In Search of Lost Time or alternatively, Remembrance of Things Past, is one of the longest popular novels in history. It comes in at over 4,000 pages. And not a word is wasted.

The importance of the unimportant is a unique characteristic of the French school of romanticism and naturalism among the more prominent of French novelists; Balzac, Flaubert, Chateaubriand. Stendhal. But none of them managed to reach the  heights of literature I had discovered in Proust. It’s a cliché now to say that reading Proust will change your life. However, in this case it has become cliché because it is true. And he does it unremarkably, conversationally, even recounting the seemingly unimportant details of his house in the fictional town he made immortal at the end of The Past Recaptured. The titles are literal.

Proust was a sickly and anxiety ridden man when he turned thirty and had but one newspaper publication to his name. This was before he found himself capable of pulling such a masterful tale out of that famous teacup. In doing so he fashioned what I believe to be the best work of literature of all time. It’s all a disappearing act;  a whole life in one book, wherein there is no death; time is defeated in these silent pockets of eternity in which Proust found that precious hawthorn bush; the sound of skipping rocks, the sound of toast; the heavenly music was the fountain of not only youth, but that which he had found in his search through time and self-diagnosis—a gradual undressing of the superficial and the shallow. The layers of characters fall away until you see bone

Proust not only unmasked himself. He unmasked the entirety of human history. Along with the Geurmentes, an idolized, almost deistic conception for Proust’s French universe made immortal by his hand. Balzac’s The Human Comedy collection is more decorative, concerned more with unedited nature than Proust and external translation, settings, set-pieces; Proust’s setting is the landscape of malleable memory.

His search for immortality became immortal; it is, in this regard, a precursor to Fellini’s 8 ½; both now considered untouchable works of art, beyond reproach. Another interesting fact is the reading within Proust’s books; his characters are always in the middle of one book or another, and art and affectation in the highbrow culture of the period was ripe for satire.

In a book I recently read, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the author [Johah Lehrer] makes a convincing case for the triumph of art over science in demonstrating discoveries of scientific truths in art long before conventional science could verify the discoveries. Proust presaged the findings of modern neuroscience intuitively. He understood the distortions and the way a building by memory could change in color, in form, in location; bringing up the obvious question as to how much of our lives are as we remember it to be. It’s a heavy question, and perhaps the most unanswerable. But tthese ideas are in the back seat, of characters and character moments. The mundane is transformed by its telling.

In Swann’s Way, a peculiar aspect of Marcel’s family is revealed: they come to dinner an hour earlier on Saturday than they do the rest of the week. It’s almost a throwaway line, but resolves itself in a memorable subplot. The lack of over-description, the lack of meaning to the overall plot, and its lack of importance is what makes it so important to consider when reading and interpreting naturalism. Despite the number of scholars who have made their careers discussing and interpreting Proust, he’s not particularly hard to interpret; it’s all right there. If you read the entire story, you’ll find the narrator happy to explain every detail of his conscience. This is what gives Marcel, as a character such nuance. It has been said that every disguise is a self-portrait. And because he says so much, he attempts to hide much more; whenever the story gets too close to the author we are deferred to another aspect of his consciousness, or another explanation. If ever a book was more adequate in describing what it is to be alive, I have yet to read it.

 

Other than that, it’s pretty good.

Essay (Literary criticism) – Lo-lee-ta: The exorcism of Vladimir Nabokov

LO-LEE-TA;

THE EXORCISM OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV

There’s no doubt that literature and writing is a form of catharsis. While that is certainly true, I believe that it can be much, much more. Not only is it a form of healing, or an escape, it can be considered an exorcism. We’ve discussed the biological nature of words and ideas and how they can possess; yet, once possessed, how does one rid themselves of this possession? As we saw with Dostoevsky, his exorcism of the doubt and sickness in himself was possible through Smerdyakov’s suicide in The Brothers Karamazov.

When artists have these addictions and impulses it is not uncommon for them to use their art as a means of exorcism, as a means of ‘killing off’ the part of themselves that returns to addiction. Lolita, as Nabokov once said, was more than his affair with the romance novel, it ‘…was a romance with the English language.’

I think it’s much more than that; it was a way for him to exorcise what he believed, either consciously or unconsciously, to be possession. Lolita was that obsession, that idea. Remember Marco Polio, I illustrated how it could be contracted, but for the purpose of this essay, how can it be cured?

In a course at Yale University in May of 2008, American Novels Since 1945, professor Amy Hungerford spent three lectures talking about Lolita, although the second was a guest lecture by Andrew Goldstone, and only freakin’ one lecture talking about a much more complex book by Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. The first thing she discussed was Vladimir Nabokov’s idea on the autonomy of a work of art, the idea that it could be alive and, transversely, if it could be alive, it could be killed. This reminded me of another of Nabokov’s novels, Pale Fire.

Pale Fire is a lesser known work from later in Nabokov’s career, yet it is revealing. The book is framed as a 999 line poem, the eponymous Pale Fire, by deceased poet John Shade. The poem is between an introduction and a critical study by Shade’s friend, Charles Kimbote; a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Zembla.  This has a close is similar to Nabokov’s own experiences as a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Russia.

In Pale Fire you have can see Nabokov’s identification with the character of a professor. His annotations of the poem reflect his published works Lectures on Literature, in which he writes about James Joyce, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Franz Kafka. He also produced Lectures on Russian Literature, which included Gorky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekov, and Bulgakov. Nabokov was very well read. As a sensitive connoisseur of world literature and essayist, Nabokov shows his acuity and understanding; he understood that art and literature placates a myriad of human needs myriad of human needs.

The best books and works of art allow us to better understand ourselves. By casting Charles Kimbote as a professor of literature in Pale Fire, he inadvertently, albeit subtly, confesses to a guilty secret: although the main character in Lolita may not be Nabokov himself, it is, at least, the personification of Nabokov’s guilt. The confessional nature of the novel is belied by the introduction by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D; in it, a psychologist named Blanche Schwarzmann, is quoted: Blanc is the French word for white while Schwarz is German for black. For linguists, this isn’t even subtle; Dr. Whiteblack. This is thought to be a slight on Freudian interpretations of the novel. I think it could be a playful way of commenting on and circumventing any potential over-analysis of the novel’s content. Nabokov loved these little word-games: a well-known bit of trivia about Lolita is also revealing: Quilty’s mistress is also famously implicative: Vivian Darkbloom—an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov.

Although Nabokov is believed to have gotten the idea for Humbert Humbert’s unique name from Edgar Poe, which may be consciously true, nconsciously, however, I believe it to be an accidental allusion to a more subtle attribute of the relationship between the books’ characters and its author. Quilty, the eccentric counterpart, also falls in love with Lolita. The difference between Humbert Humbert’s reserved obsessions and Quilty’s obsessions are their attitudes; Humbert Humbert is ashamed of his own behavior and sees Quilty as what he is in danger of becoming: indulgent, perverse, hedonistic, and unashamed.

A hint to this possibility is easier to identify in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel, the screenplay being co-written by Nabokov himself.  Kubrick did nothing without purpose and the same is true of his shots. So when you see elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home, it is there for reason, a very precise reason. ou can see the elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home. It’s filled with the kind of artifacts one would expect to find in the home of a history professor’s house—in Humbert Humbert’s home.

The last novel I wrote was written during a tumultuous period in my life. I had struggled with addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers since my early teens and had developed a seriously unhealthy habit. The book was originally conceived about six years before it was written. The idea was to do a story about a con-man; he would go from city to city, always giving a fake name and history, and the idea for the novel was for this conman to forget which of his life stories were true and he gradually forgets who he really is.

For me, the title is the impregnation; it gestates in your mind over time. Once I have a title, the novel is conceptually complete in my head within an hour and then, once I have the book cover, to continue to metaphor, I go through a grueling birthing process. You don’t need to have an outline. The important thing is to have a sense of where you’re going, not the exact directions. What came out half a decades later was Nobody, the story of a slave who kills his master, his master’s wife, and runs away, escaping to the north. Along the way, he encounters many manifestations of his slavery.

For the purpose of this essay, I looked for (and found) a paper from a former student in which Nobody is being analyzed:

The name of the slave Neddy is taken from the Sanskrit term Neti Atma, which means Not Myself. Begins to feel guilty after seeing photos, is tormented by the memory of what he has done (murdered the Master and wife) [sic] … Neddy experiences Nirvana for the first time. … The narrative changes from straightforward prose into fragments of Neddy’s thoughts are right over another, disconnected and out of order. … Nobody is beginning to talk as his thought processes begin to break down.

Begins fabricating stories about who he is, feels ashamed (he is trying to escape from what he has done. … Halfway through the book the author began withdrawing from heroin and morphine leading [to] further paranoia and disjointed images. …

All of these obvious associations weren’t so pronounced in my mind during the writing process; none of it was directly connected to drugs; but each character that acts as an intermediate protagonist (the protagonist itself is not an external person or system) can be seen as embodying characteristics of different feelings related to withdrawal.

I’ve said that one of the benefits of schizophrenia is to understand your subconscious.

On the 22nd chapter, I took my last shot. For the first twenty-one chapters, the novel is somewhat straightforward. Once I started writing while going through withdrawals, it inadvertently became an homage to Dante’s metaphysical journey through hell. Except I didn’t have Virgil as a guide; I had one person, my editor Katie Chiles, a bed and a bucket and a notebook. What came out of that pen was not something one would consider coherent writing, but it changed my philosophy in regards to metaphysical writing in creating the inner-world of a character’s mind. When I realized how this was done, Finnegan’s Wake began to make a lot more sense.

The novel ended three weeks after I took my last shot with the Slave committing suicide. I later realized that this was a way of using literature as means through which one’s demons could be excised; it’s how I externalized the addict and killed that aspect of my character, that slave inside of me.

I didn’t think this was a common practice in art and literature. I believed that Dostoevsky’s externalizations were ways of contrasting philosophical perspectives. While that is certainly true I didn’t know at that point the extent of writing’s. Looking back with this perspective made me further consider the idea that Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha, as the mind, body and soul, were intended to parallel the Christian trinity. When I first shared the essay with a friend, a creative writing major, she thought the essay was incomplete. And it was. Smerdyakov’s exclusion in the representation made his character something else: it made him an antagonizing agent of the trinity and most importantly—the lamb on which all sin is leveed in order that its sacrifice brings redemption of the rest of the flock. It was a thematic echo of the Biblical account of Jesus and it made sense for Dostoevsky to draw this analogy; his whole schtick is the necessity for suffering in salvation—something even casual fans and non-readers of Crime and Punishment know about Dostoevsky by now.

Dostoevsky wasn’t fond of the epileptic bastard and atheist Smerdyakov because Dostoevsky was all of these things: he was an epileptic, his father was murdered by servants, and he was an atheist for a time. As such I wasn’t particularly proud to continue selling all of my nice things for drugs or hanging out in rundown apartment buildings where groups of less dead people robotically move from the floor to the flame throughout the day. And Nabokov, being a charming emigrate and professor in upstate New York at Cornell, surely found himself the object of attention and respect of many young and lovely female students.

In the film, the first sign of attraction occurs while watching a horror film when Lolita grabs his hand. It the book, however, the attraction begins because Humbert Humbert of which Lolita was fond. Another difference is substantial in giving credence to this theory: the hotel at which Dolores and the stage-play by Quilty, which Dolores prepares to perform at her school is called The Enchanted Hunter in the book, a reference to Humbert Humbert; in the film, the play is renamed The Hunter Enchanted. This changes the dynamic between Humbert Humbert and Dolores. The Enchanted Hunter puts more emphasis on the hunt; The Hunter Enchanted puts more of an emphasis on the hunter’s enchantment. By enchanting the hunter, it puts a distance between his condition and his goal; while in the book the focus is more on his goal as caused by his condition. In the book Lolita is only used by Humbert Humbert as a pet name, as prey; she is the object of his pursuit. In the film Lolita is a named used by more than one of the characters and the title change alleviates some of Humbert Humbert’s guilt, making the focus on Lolita as a seductress, not Humbert Humbert as a hunter. This title actually suggests she may be conscious of what she is doing, while the other title is only indicative of Humbert Humbert’s desire. With the combination of these two titles, both of them are responsible for what happens.

This isn’t just the result of Stanley Kubrick’s desire to put a personal touch on the adaptation. Nabokov co-wrote the screenplay so, while it is possible that it didn’t occur to Nabokov that Lolita was a confession when he was writing the novel, it is also possible that, upon reflection, Nabokov realized this and shifted the emphasis and blame to the object of desire.

Vladimir Nabokov was a professor of Lit 312 course at Cornell University in upstate New York. Nabokov, as an aging author and academic, would have been highly susceptible to a friendly face, a flattering young woman. Writers, more so than perhaps any other workman, are particularly susceptible to flattery. And there are some very, very lovely young ladies in at Cornell University.

It’s also possible that this assessment only serves to further demonstrate the problem with allegorical extraction and application in the interpretation of popular literature. Lolita is a great book, a work of art and, as I’ve said, the best works of art mean what we, as readers and evaluators, need it to be. And Lolita succeeds for this very reason; it reminds us that our sin is impermanent, soluble through that unique witchcraft art.

Essay: Art / Language: A Legacy from the Baroque

THE BAROQUE WAS AN ERA IN WESTERN
civilization characterized by various movements in art, literature, and popular music in which broad strokes and generalizations were replaced by intricacies, ornate and self-aware arabesques, bringing out the devil in the details. Traditional ideas were questioned, overturned, and art and architecture underwent profound metamorphoses. Men and women of great ambition fought for the most trivial of positions in what was essentially a political chessboard in which every pawn  decided to wear the clothes of a king.

The word Baroque, as is the case with all periods of note in human history, would be invented later by critics and historians. The etymology of the word has a unique history; it is a French translation of the Portuguese phrase perle barroco, which roughly translates as ‘irregular pearl,’ or more literally as ‘false jewel.’ A similar word is used in Roman dialects to convey the same idea:  barlocco or brillocco. The idea being that, as sometimes pearls are by chance and circumstance shaped differently, more common forms, having no axis for rotation, are in need of a new taxonomic classification. So the irregular forms are baroque pearls. The word’s history may have been influenced by the mnemonic term baroco which serves to denote, in the scholarly tradition, a supposed labored form syllogism.

What would lead historians to classify this period with so unique a word? Originally it was a derogatory term meant to underline what was thought to be affectation and excess, a maligned celebration of self-awareness and anaphoric abundance as opposed to clearer edifice on which stood the sober rationality of the Renaissance. It was first rehabilitated by the Swiss-born art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin in his study Renaissance und Barock; in this work, Wölfflin identified the Baroque as a ‘…movement imported into mass.’ It was a unique artistic antithesis to the edifices of art established by the Renaissance. Originally Wölfflin did not make distinctions between Mannerism and the classification Baroque as modern historians do; he also completely ignored what is now classified as the later phase, the ‘academic Baroque’ which moved into the 18th century. Writers in French and English did not begin to treat our inheritance from the Baroque period as something of great worth until Wölfflin’s study made German scholarship preeminent.

Baroque art began to take shape during the same years that the world’s expanding economies were laying the basis for the age of Western expansion in America and the high-stakes game of duck-duck-goose started accidentally by Europe as a financial pissing contest which somehow provoked the masses, the starving peasants, to rebel and kill these despotic assholes. Despite this, it was a fascinating age of richness in the arts—literary, visual, and musical. This intense circulation of ideas, happening as new national schools took form, allowed for this new age to unite a Europe in a golden age, a golden age in which none living during the age described as golden were aware of this goldenness.

Painting alternated between references to the chiaroscuro (the finer areas of shade and shadow) and the realism of Caravaggio and La Tour and a more purely baroque use of fantasy and color; architecture oscillated between the courageous inventiveness of the avant garde and the traditionalist reliance on the preservation of antiquity’s ideals and philosophies in regards to idea and execution.

In theater, the most spectacular aspects of the stage came to dominate the taste of the period, becoming the models for figurative and architectural expression. If the goal of Baroque art was to amaze the viewer, it was the world of the theater that provided its most successful special effects. This historical and artistic story is lushly illustrated with works by the greatest artists of the period; Bernini, Boucher, Caravaggio, Gainsborough, Hals, Hogarth, Poussin, Rembrandt, Rubens—along with works by minor artists who made important contributions.

The baroque period actually expressed new values in the culture of the arts. These are often summarized in the use of metaphor and allegory, widely found in Baroque literature, and in the research for the maraviglia—wonder and astonishment in the manner of Marinism—and the use of artifices. If Mannerism was first breached with the Renaissance, Baroque was an opposing force with a unique and distinct language.

The privilege given to external forms had to compensate and balance the lack of content that has been observed in many Baroque works: Marino’s Maraviglia, for example, is practically made of a pure mere form—whatever that means.

The prevailing philosophy was simple: an active fantasy and imagination should be cultured, evoked in the spectator, in the reader, in the listener. All was focused around the individual, a straight relationship between the artist and the beholder. Art is then less distant and by definition closer, closer to us and therefore more real.

The increased attention on the individual made possible new methods of approaching art, such as the Romanzo—and, in Italy, this movement was a cultural descent; some believed it to be a betrayal, disrespectful to the traditions established in the Renaissance. Apparently, an age of revolutionary and new ideas, like the Renaissance, was, without irony, used as a basis for what new art should be. This culminated in the definitive replacement of Latin by the more widely understandable and spoken dialect of Italian.

Writers in the Baroque are framed in Siglo de Oro in Spain. Naturalism and sharp criticist points of view about Spanish society are common with conceptista writers like Quevedo, while culterano authors emphasize the importance of form with complicated images and the use of hyperbaton. In Catalonia the Baroque took hold in Catalan language, with representatives including poets and dramaturgs such as Francesc Fontanella and Francesc Vicenç Garcia, as well as a unique emblem book Atheneo de Grandesa by Josep Romaguera. Spanish theater was extensively developed by authors like Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca. Overall, Cervantes is considered the most accomplished author of Spanish literature due in no small part to Don Quixote. In Colonial Spanish America two of the best-known baroque writers were Sor Juana and Bernardo de Balbuena.

In the Portuguese Empire the most famous baroque writer of the time was Father António Vieira, a Jesuit who lived in Brazil during the 18th century. Secondary writers Gregório de Matos and Francisco Rodrigues Lobo were popular too.

Though the Baroque era is most famous for its music, it is nevertheless an era in which many noted figures emerged. Artists such as Rembrandt and Velasquez were prominent during the period. Galileo Galilei was persecuted by the church because of his ideas regarding the universe, and prominent philosophers, such as Descartes, Spinoza, John Locke, and Voltaire also lived and died in the Baroque, and Paradise Lost and Hamlet came from the minds of William Shakespeare and John Milton, respectively.

Music from the period varies in style and comes from many different countries. There is English, French, German, and Italian Baroque music—all of which are uniquely distinct and were utterly new. There is early, middle and late Baroque music—all unique and utterly new.

When compared with its predecessors, Baroque music can be seen as being highly ornate, lavishly texturized, with sometimes affectictious intensity. The music of the period was characterized by a counterpoint and melodic line, being one of many defining characteristics of the period, including the use of basso continuo and the belief in a specific doctrine of affections. The doctrine of affections was a new way for composers to add color and personality to their compositions. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Baroque was the emphasis on contrast:  volume, texture, and pace. The Renaissance was a large-scale, rubbery portrait—the Baroque zoomed in on the picture all the way to the pores.

And finally, a sacred yet secular type of music was now in abundance and used as widely as those of the liturgical musical tradition. Imitative polyphony (more than one line of music) was still, however, an extremely important factor in writing and playing music, while the homophonic method (a musical technique that displays a vast separation amongst the melodic line and the accompaniment) was gaining acceptance and aplomb.

The homophonic style eventually became dominant in all instrumental forms. Musical works containing a continuo—in which a keyboard (usually an organ or harpsichord) and a bass instrument (usually a bassoon or a cello) helped to convey the harmonic support of chords under melodic lines.

Despite the increasing popularity of homophonic music, it occurred amidst evolving forms of polyphonic music. Similar to the composers of the Renaissance, the composers of the Baroque felt that the art of counterpoint was an essential aspect of artistry. Despite the avant garde’s freedom, formalism in imitative polyphony, cannons and fugues, were very popular; another ironic establishment based on what was meant to encourage uniqueness in the evolving characteristics of the period.

It is important to note that opera and the orchestra were both conceived during the Baroque. Around the year 1600—wherein Shakespeare was alive in England—what we know as opera came about because of the desire Italian intellectuals to recapture what they believed to be the spirit of ancient Greek drama in which music played a key role. Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo debuted in 1607, and was perhaps the first great opera. The characteristic homophonic musical style played a significant role in this as soloist vocals focused on the perceived listener’s concentration of a pronounced melody.

By the mid-1600s the orchestra and orchestral arrangements were evolving into a unique and insular entity and one of the offshoot animals in this family tree was the concerto. The concerto is defined by a solo instrumentalist, or small ensemble of soloists, playing in opposition to the orchestra; this fortissimo added another interesting contrast in texture, color, and volume.

Renaissance composers had invented imitative polyphony, which Baroque composers fashioned into the fugue, perhaps the most developed musical form of the era. Bach became the undisputed master of the fugue. Bach’s Invention No. 1 in C Major, written in 1723, points in the direction of all of his magnificent contrapuntal compositions.

As a composer, teacher and performer of the organ, harpsichord, violin and viola, Bach had an astonishing ability to blend a variety of national styles into existing musical forms in an accessible, engaging manner. Composing solo works for organ, harpsichord, violin, cello, and flute, Bach’s extraordinary abilities allowed him to create music that has remained popular and critically acclaimed, being also the subject of the unique and important study Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter—who approached Bach mathematically, as [Carl] Sagan did in his Voyager plates designed to represent humanity to any potential extra-terrestrial civilizations, as math is the universal language.

The Prelude and Fugue in D Major from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier provide an excellent example of his superb craftsmanship and the sort of mathematical approach for which he is now widely known among the modern intelligentsia. His Prelude grandly introduces us to the key of D Major. This sets up an expectant ear, eager for what is to follow: a spirited, complex, and eloquent fugue.

French composers of the era excelled in music written for solo harpsichord. A tradition that had begun with solo lute music was continued with the harpsichord, in some senses a mechanical lute, after the lute fell from favor at the end of the seventeenth century. They delighted in music that imitated the sounds of nature and in the character piece, that is, a musical portrait of a friend, colleague or patron.

Francois Couperin, court composer to Louis XIV, wrote charming and endearing harpsichord music which remains popular. Le dodo ou l’amour au berceau and L’evapore are excellent and characteristic examples of Couperin’s musical ambitions and sensibilities. The first is undoubtedly the musical portrait of a patron’s cherubic sleeping infant. The second would be a description of one of the ebulliently frivolous ladies of the French Court. The first piece is a rondo, a form developed during the Baroque. The first theme, or rondeau—it is here that the tune, from a popular French lullaby, is repeatedly presented alternatively with other material in the popular ABACADA pattern.

Domenico Scarlatti was a Neapolitan who spent the most important and productive part of his career in service to the Queen of Spain. He is remembered for his harpsichord pieces, as Chopin would be, a century later, remembered for his compositions for solo piano. Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas have an enormous emotional range, evoking lyrical mellowness, languid hours, somber solemnity, dazzling pyrotechnics, and cheerful sprightliness. Scarlatti is often considered merely the author of sonatas of insuperable technical difficulty, but this important composer’s real power lies in his dynamic strength, pouring forth in scale runs and elaborate cascades apropos to the overall harmonic richness. In this respect he is a precursor to Franz Liszt and Charles-Valentin Alkan, in his ability to create multiple melodies for soloists.

The solo sonata and the trio sonata were very popular forms of composition with Baroque composers. Consisting of one or two solo instruments supported by a continuo for rhythmic and harmonic definition, the sonatas gave ample opportunity for the soloists to show off their virtuosity. Soloists developed their technique with pieces such as The Sonatas for Violin and Continuo by violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli.

These pieces were published January 1, 1700, and quickly became a standard teaching tool for violin technique and musical inventiveness. Corelli’s Folia Variations offer a rousing example of the musical effectiveness of solid violin technique and of the variation form. The violin begins quietly, builds to a musical climax, and then returns to the calmer atmosphere in which it began.

This unique yearning, this striving and reaching for ever greater, more personal, more pure forms of art is behind every movement for which we have a pronoun. Biologically there may be little in our genome to distinguish us from other members of the primate family, but in the power of our expression we ascend to something penultimate to more than just an animalistic creature of instinct. This period brought admiration once reserved for frauds and magicians to genuine bringers of light, to secular prophets whose work has shaped the world and in doing so left it brighter than it was before.

Humanity wrestles with methods of expression because of what it does for our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world. Once something is understood the natural fear surrounding it diminishes. It is a way to bring us together. It is a unique aspect of character to set out with the knowledge that what will be for us the product of years, perhaps decades of research, drafting and revision, painful deliberation and punctuated periods alternating between cautious optimism and utter desolation, will be born into a world wherein there is a healthy and moneyed community of critics who by definition exist to pick apart the meat of what is, in a very true sense, the offspring of an artist.

Our inheritance from Baroque, that irregular pearl, that charming era replete with unique and important developments in our exploration of expression and the ways by which it can give voice to the unspoken subtleties that have no official language. The scientific, biological purpose to this—in deep time, the time-scale evolution works on—is the ability for these songs, the poems and paintings, the way they bring us together; the stories of ancient India and Mesopotamia live on in a digital, intangible library of information which cannot be burnt down—a permanent, unbreakable, fireproof Alexandria.

Radio waves have broadcast our thoughts and art into space where they continue traveling at the speed of light; perhaps it is the echo of a species alone in a quiet universe of wasted space, or a particularly loud section in the cosmic chorus: regardless, through this process the genetic and biological impulse of preservation is achieved in a way that nature has so far denied us: immortality is the reward for a life given to these pursuits, despite our ephemeral ambitions, these books and portraits and songs are love letters to posterity; a love letter to a love letter in a sea of similar songs unsigned.

Essay: ‘Dreampool’ – The Immortality of Meaning

PHENOTYPIC CHARACTERISTICS OF ANIMALS ARE determined by genes lined along chromosomal loci, slots along the chromosome, where genes compete with alternate genes called alleles. All gene combinations are taken from an ancestral pool which allows for innumerable possibilities in the assemblage of genetic traits. The genepool is a good parallel for the dreampool as both allow diversification in nature and (eukaryotic) ideas, respectfully; and, conversely, the requisite standards found in the structure of language, of alphabets and declension, punctuation, syntax, context and form.

As each animal can be traced to the beginning of life, ideas are built upon past ideas and use other ideas as a foundation for new ideas. Identity and individuality are so defined by the content of the dreampool, as inherited ideas pass from one person to another, generation after generation, from one to the next forever until it is replaced by that which evolves from it and extinction when it no longer applies to the world in which it lives. As living organisms, ideas have ancestors; satire was born in the tradition of Dionysian theatre, where comedy in art began. Satire is from the Greek word satyr; this may be the memetic ancestor from which Orwell’s pig Napoleon would evolve.Those cuneiform tablets are the ancestors of what you now hold, the bound book — itself a descendent from other methods of story distribution which predates written history. Oral lit, ancestral legends.

As eukaryotic ideas contain specific information, as do most books of this variety, for viability and function there is a replacement of new, better thought out ideas; another mimicry of character based alphabets that allow for different phoneme groupings necessary to use predefined terms in the arrangement of new ideas. New ideas, as new hatchlings in a pond, enter into a dangerous and predated world; this is a world of strict competition in the marketplace of ideas, the dreampool; each idea born is another tadpole looking for a way to crawl from the sea like we and on land be much more than what they were; meaningless and non-viable like that tadpole, like a caterpillar chrysalis into pupa, into beauty.

Similarly, our schools put together our dreampool chromosomes; our interlocutor is influenced by contrasting opinions and put to a unique, internal check, a test to which all ideas new ideas are unconsciously put. For a Buddhist aspirant, the idea that wealth is worth the effort to strive under a hot sun daily is somehow errant because of transience, the temporary joy of earthly riches which do not justify the labored suffering for a temporary anodyne, a Band-Aid attempting to cover the wounds caused by need and desire. For a venture capitalist, the idea of wealth and prosperity is very much worth the effort under the sun, and if you find the right one, a Band-Aid can cover a bullet wound.

To a Buddhist aspirant, in the tradition of that Great Monkey King, the jewels do not denote nobility; compassion and moderation does. To the Romanov dynasty, to Queen Victoria—the Jewel, the crown diamond, is worth more than the gross domestic product of many countries. By what machination do we divide the worthy and the worthless? Human beings do what evolution prepared us to do: choose what makes us feel safe, for what makes us feel safe is a genetic response to surviving long enough to pass on our own genetic inheritance, imperfectly translated by a tadpole into a less imperfect frog.

A microcosm of speciation is variation among clade [and subclades]; a macrocosmic evolutionary metamorphosis becomes itself an itinerate species to be tested. Ideas that survive the criticism of individual evaluating interlocutors become predators, predators that seek and destroy other ideas. The idea of evolution has remained alive despite one-hundred fifty years of varied attacks by individuals and institutions having inherited different memetic traits; some of these contain unverifiable yet untouchable strains of dubious wisdom verifiable by instinct and the idea itself. The holder of an accepted idea concentrates on what gives the idea its validity because of what it means, ensuring its memetic perpetuation. This is known as confirmation bias; defined as,

In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirm one’s own preconceptions. 

Ideas found to be un-true by oneself can be just as passionately thought true by another. What accounts for this discrepancy in universal truth without interpretation, meaning without equivocation, and unconditional waivers of possible contradictions? The connection-correlation-conclusion system, what I call The Three-C Truth.

Human beings have twenty-six chromosomes, inherited from an ancestral genepool, to genes responsible for blue eyes or brown, dark hair or fair; the phenotypes of an animal’s genotype which provide the architectural plans for our body. It is obvious in the analogy to consider that for an idea to occupy a position considered truth that one idea, for belief, competes with the alternative idea for disbelief. This competition takes place in the building, not of phenotypic traits, but the building of the thinking individual.

How much of what we choose or select as truth can be traced to the collective culture from which it originated without stuttering or translation, static or contention? The dreampool is an abstraction, the meta-construct of the sum total of a culture’s accepted and rejected wisdom accessible at any time through mental exercise and interlocutor evaluation in regards to what is meaning, what is true, what is objective, what is true for everyone—is there such a thing? Consider: there is one truth beyond dispute; not all truth is absolute.  Ideas are open to interpretation; meaning does well to engender debate about what the actual debate is about.

In most cultures, one of the first books one encounters is the A to Zed, a Bible and a dictionary. The childcare center which I attended had three books which were intended to impart to the average person, young or old, not only what, in my culture, was considered the authority on morality, but a book that defines what the other book about morality—which must be defined by a book not using the term, outside of itself—means with its sentences, what sentences mean and how the true meaning should be evaluated.

As I discussed in an earlier essay on allegory, as I have in the essay preceding this one, what is said is not only gifted an assumed quality based on attaché; it can have a second layer of clothing to cover naked expression. By what standard do we hold information endorsed by others to be true? How much is worth worth? If a book is ‘worth’ something, it is published. The degree of worth determines something more important than the number of units sold: it determines what a person believes they’re worth.

Worth has been the strongest motivating factor behind everything I do: my studies and education; my novels and my essays, and all of my artistic aspiration. Even now, in this very essay, the worth is the biggest consideration because that is what ultimately determines publication. This ambition has changed through time and, with a chip on one shoulder and a devil on the other, it remains. The devil hasn’t quit, but he has gotten quieter.

A book is how we hide a piece of our soul away and survive our death. In my favorite novel, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I think the same desire burns within the character of Marcel (though the book is not autobiographical, it is written by the fictional Marcel at the end) there is this desire to find worth and meaning. Marcel (the character) realizes this as the highest value of the novel—the immortality of meaning, of encapsulating an entire life within one work of art, hiding part of ourselves inside it that it may never be destroyed, that it may live forever.

Before talking about hiding one’s soul in an object, I will first address the elephant in the room.

J.K. Rowling, author of the acclaimed Harry Potter series, introduced a magical object in the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, called a horcrux; this object allows a practitioner of black-magic to split their soul and hide part of it within an object. This allows them to survive a fatal attack, as the part that is hidden lives on.  In the series it is used by the primary antagonist as an attempt to become immortal.

The first horcrux made by Voldemort (a French portmanteau intended to mean flight from death) was a ring; the second one is what made me realize not only what Proust’s real achievement was, but also what a book really is: the second horcrux was a diary. The written word is a horcrux, a horcrux which doesn’t require the splitting of one’s soul, that is to commit murder murder to create, as it did in the work of J.K. Rowling. All artists are magicians and each diary and book, each symphony and painting, all are a means by which we put a part of our soul into an object, objects with survive us. We survive our deaths through this process, waiting to come alive each time a book is opened.

Although Harry Potter and In Search of Lost Time are miles away in style, content, and story, there is a link between the character Marcel and Voldemort; they’re both afraid of death and go to extremes to prevent it. To these characters, Time is something to be defeated, the greatest of all mass murderers. Although their motives for trying to escape death couldn’t be more different, Time is the antagonist. Voldemort loses his life in search of immortality; the reason for its pursuit, for Voldemort, was a means to an end and the end was more power. Proust’s character Marcel has very different motivations.

In the last book of In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained, or, alternatively, The Past Recaptured, Marcel Proust sees Combray rearrange itself and rise into the sky above him. Throughout the series, which may be the first four-dimensional books ever written, Time is the antagonist. It takes away everything he loved; his mother and his father, the fictional town of Combray and the love of his life, Albertine. His mother, his father, the hawthorns he loved so much; but they come back to him, such as the Madeline cake in tea. In the end, he begins the book we’ve finished and, in that moment, Death and Time are defeated; he has survived death through hiding his soul away in a book. And if you want to listen, if you are inclined, open a volume of In Search of Lost Time, and Marcel Proust will speak to you. Across time and space, he’ll speak to you.

The immortal mother theory, the theory that all animals from every species go back to one mother, is compatible with the concept of the immortality of meaning. Different letters can be arranged to produce different expressions in phylum and language. But what is meaning? Does it exist independently of human beings? The answer to the prior question must be the answer to the following: is there emotion elsewhere, in other species? Yes. The answer is yes. Elephants mourn the dead. Alpacas can die from loneliness. Meaning is something that is to be applied after consideration of action, thought, and behavior

Meaning is immortal and requires only sentient beings, who can evaluate, of course, to be able to extract meaning from what they think. The meaning behind the great works of literature, unlike the works themselves, is in the air, intangible, capable only of being recognized, plucked from the ether to imbue our work with light and worth. And it leaves us here, haunting pages, year after year through the ages.

Bite Sized Philosophy, 24 July 2015: Writing

Big questions, small answers: Bite Sized Philosophy for 24 July 2015: Writing

(A little late on this one, was lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of a Jack the Ripper documentary before posting.)

To be a writer is not a conscious choice I remember making. I liked rhyming words together as far back as I could hold a pen. Just stringing same-sounding words together as a 5 year old, that’s how I started. Original stories wouldn’t be finished until I was 11 or 12. Nothing that I would be consider properly written stories. I made the choice to write for a living after selling a science-fiction stories when I was 17. It was craft, from that point, and to be good at any given craft, you have to see the craft done well. I’ve read a lot, and extensively. Seeing a thing done well helps an aspiring writer, to help them understand what makes great books great books and how to tell one’s own stories well.

To be genuine is as important as it is to be talented, as it is to be hardworking. The quality of hard work is as important as talent because without hard work, none of that talent comes out; it is of no use. I don’t know why I continue writing. It takes forever to do something substantive, and the research and revisions and drafting — this is all laborsome stuff, none of it tremendously fun. When I don’t get something down, however, I feel like a day is wasted. So I feel that I must get something done every day, and I always do; there are on-going projects, one-off essays and – what I still enjoy – writing down words that rhyme, things we in the biz refer to as ‘poems.’

It has a higher calling, that of art, of course, and the literature of a culture greatly shapes and help define that culture. And it is a great source of catharsis for the stereotypical tortured artists of the world. It is one of the most persistent, long running traditions in sedentary human culture, that of chronicling, since the early epic of Gilgamesh and Holisheads chronicles of the English, a source of history from which Shakespeare took ideas for plays and poetry.

If it gives you a purpose, to write, to partake in the creation of art, of whatever form it takes, then it is a profession of nobility and purpose. It is to me personally, and in aggregate, historically. For me, the restlessness of needing to write is like the persistence of having to take a shit. It is a great motivational feeling, leaves you feeling nauseous and uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable when you can’t find somewhere to get it done. It is sometimes a long and painful process. You can feel great relief, even if you’re not always proud of the result. After all, sometimes it’s just shit.

Siamese Solution – short, 22 July 2015

Marie and Jean were conjoined twins born into a society that had never before seen such an oddity: Marie was in control of all physical function, hand-movement, motor-control, and, though Jean had ambitions and desires of her own, as she could feel all of the same sensations as her twin, she could not act on them independently; they had the unusual arrangement that when Marie was feeling kind, she’d let her twin, head poised to the side – on her left shoulder – she’d do what Jean found exciting and pleasurable, but only to the extent to which she found it pleasurable as well. If Marie held a flame to the palm of a hand Jean couldn’t control, she still felt the fire; if Marie had indigestion, Jean felt it in her stomach, the nausea. Though they shared the same physical receptors, their responses to pain and pleasure, what one would love the other would hate, were sometimes wildly inconsistent. As were their attitudes towards the murder of another person.

One night as Jean slept, unaware that Marie was moving through the night – a barely lit figure, a cape and cowl disguising the sleeping head that rested on her shoulder – she had uncomfortable thoughts, images of a woman shouting out and suddenly being silenced. She woke to find herself beneath the cape and desperately trying to move the hands she felt but could not control, as her sister Marie stabbed their mother repeatedly; Jean’s shouting woke their sleeping father, who had been drugged. Marie stuffed the linen cape into Jean’s mouth to stop her shouting, but she was too late to stop her father from over-powering them both, locking them in a small closet, and calling the authorities.

They were put in jail, trial arraigned, and all along – Jean was there beside her, suffering the effects of malnutrition from the prison food, the traumatic stress of being locked away from human contact, and Marie, talking to her jovially at first before, soon tired of Jean’s cries and, finally, refused to write the letters to their father, to say the things Jean most desperately wanted to say; to apologize, to ask for forgiveness. At long last, Marie, annoyed with Jean’s struggles to attempt to take control, began to make a series of cuts along Jean’s mouth, stopping her from speaking; she threatened her inside their cell, threatening to cut the head from her shoulders. So she went quiet until her voice got softer and softer still, and finally her vocal-chords atrophied, leaving her unable to speak.

When the trial came along, Jean was unable to protest the sentencing of her sister – despite what a sentence would due to her, as a feeling, thoughtful human being – as Marie was unrepetant in her mother’s death, and she was unable to speak on her behalf. Her father appealed to the conscience of the jury, asking them to consider the ‘mostly’ silent suffering of Jean, who could not speak, control her sister’s movements, or those actions:

‘Should she – dear, sweet Jean – be put to death along with her sister, cruel Marie? She had no control over the death of her mother and my wife and had she not screamed, I surely would have died as well. I urge you to not put her to death to revenge the death of my wife through the death of my Marie. Is this justice?’

Bite Sized Philosophy, 22 July 2016: Identity

Bite Sized Philosophy: Large questions, small answers: after some failed attempts to get a concise and coherent article together on this topic, I decided to (best) portray it as it best reflects my identity: scattered, disjointed, all-over-the-place, and poorly edited Continue reading