I well remember distinctly asking myself on my turning thirty-six: "Well, what have you accomplished? Mozart was dead now!" Here today on his birthday, I thought we might all, young or old, likewise reply: "Not much!" For Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the gold standard of real human achievement.
Lest you alloy any regret in artistic appreciation, I thought to offer here a famous pianist's take on the great musician's art. It comes at the end of Charles Rosen's 1971 National Book Award winning study, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. Rosen's subject is, I think, more perennial still, and it gives us perspective, whatever our own genius, on what it means to make, and then release, such a "classical" style.
A style, when it is no longer the natural mode of expression, gains a new life — a shadowy life-in-death — as a prolongation of the past. We imagine ourselves able to revive the past through its art, to perpetuate it by continuing to work within its conventions. For this illusion of reliving history, the style must be prevented from becoming truly alive once again. The conventions must remain conventional, the forms lose their original significance in order to take on their new responsibility of evoking the past. This process of ossification is a guarantee of respectability. The classical style could originally bring no such assurance. Don Giovanni and the Eroica were scandalous, the London Symphonies sublimely impertinent. . . . just as the Handelian fugue in Mozart served to match the high seriousness of a sacred ritual, the sonata-forms in the symphonies and chamber music of Mendelssohn and Schumann are essays in decorum and respect. In these works, sadly out of favor today, the evocation of the past is only incidental: the intent was to attain the prestige of the style imitated. The sense of the irrecoverable past, however, is omnipresent in the music of Brahms, resignedly eclectic, ambiguous without irony. The depth of his feeling of loss gave an intensity to Brahms's work that no other imitator of the classsical tradition ever reached; he may be said to have made music out of his openly expressed regret that he was born too late [or maybe lived too long]. For the rest, the classical tradition could be used with originality only through irony — the irony of Mahler, for example, who employed sonata-forms with the same mock respect that he gave to his shopworn scraps of dance-tunes. The true inheritors of the classical style were not those who maintained its traditions, but those, from Chopin to Debussy, who preserved its freedom as they gradually altered and finally destroyed the musical language which had made the creation of the style possible. [emphasis added]
Isn't it good to know that even Mozart first failed to get (if you'll forgive the pun here) a "Handel" on things?
But then again, when Mozart did get a grip on his own style, he just couldn't — as we now must — at last "Let it go."
· Ben Franklin at 300 — Our Colonial PowerPoint Man ·
I hear Philadelphia is powering up "Benergy" this year, and on Benjamin's Franklin's birthday, it's good to draw on it. Though Boston may still claim his birth, Philly, of course, owns his work. Indeed, think libraries, fire houses, nations, universities, post offices — even humble lightning rods.
Did I say humble? Alas, only advisedly! For if you conduct Old Ben's virtue to ground in Quaker Philadelphia, you'll understand still another point: "Benergy" is only an electrifying figure for something more methodically stylish.
In the fifth letter, Franklin described how discharges between smooth or blunt conductors occur with a "Stroke and Crack," whereas sharp points discharge silently and produce large effects at greater distances. He then introduced what he viewed to be a "Law of Electricity, That Points as they are more or less acute, both draw on and throw off the electrical fluid with more or less Power, and at greater or less Distances, and in larger or smaller Quantities in the same Time." Given his interest in lightning and the effects of metallic points, it was a short step to the lightning rod:
I say, if these Things are so, may not the Knowledge of this Power of Points be of Use to Mankind; in preserving Houses, Churches, Ships, etc. from the Stroke of Lightning; by Directing us to fix on the highest Parts of those Edifices upright Rods of Iron, made sharp as a Needle and gilt to prevent Rusting, and from the Foot of those Rods a Wire down the outside of the Building into the Ground; or down round one of the Shrouds of a Ship and down her Side, till it reaches the Water? Would not these pointed Rods probably draw the Electrical Fire silently out of a Cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible Mischief!
Clearly, Franklin supposed that silent discharges from one or more sharp points might reduce or eliminate the electricity in the clouds above and thereby reduce or eliminate the chances of the structure being struck by lightning. From his earlier observations, he knew that point discharges work best when the conductor is grounded and that lightning tends to strike tall objects. Therefore, even if the point discharges did not neutralize the cloud, a tall conductor would provide a preferred place for the lightning to strike, and the grounded conductor would provide a safe path for the lightning current to flow into the ground.
· My Boilerplate Baptism Unto Death, Seahawk Style ·
I signed using my full name, Styles Stillwell Stylechoice, and even the law clerks brought in to mark my competence couldn't tell I was attending to a loud rain pounding on the roof. Maybe they were interested, like me, only in getting home to watch Judge Alito's hearings on TV or, with their husbands, to see my Seahawks training to meet the Washington Redskins Saturday. I mean, after twenty-three days of rain, who can endure on a dark and stormy afternoon signing "boilerplate" wills and testaments in law offices?
So what's the word today, you ask? Well, water — though maybe not quite as viewed, "thereunto," in Better Than It Ever Gets. That needs even some fine grain "brewing" in the sun to take. So I've thought to offer my own unlegal boilerplate on death and taxes — those in light of a theme I thought to mark in terms of a question, "How have stylish literary artists used water 'symbolically'?"
At least thematically, Martin Luther best answers this question. "For all our life should be baptism," he writes, "and the fulfilling of the sign, or sacrament, of baptism; we have been set free from all else and wholly given over to baptism alone, that is, to death and resurrection." Although I offer this sentence without sectarian pleading, I find it suggestively resonant. Charles Schulz's memorable Peanuts strip of January 2, 2000, renders its theme with some well-drawn water. In ten reiterating panels of pouring rain, Mr. Schulz plays with his own then-acknowledged leave-taking, not only of life but of art. To begin, Peppermint Patty says: "Hey, Chuck, it's a great game isn't it? . . . We're having fun, aren't we, Chuck? . . . It's still your ball . . . Fourth down . . . What are you gonna do, Chuck . . . You gonna run or pass? . . ." Then under an umbrella, Marcie says: "Everybody's gone home, sir . . . You should go home too . . . It's getting dark." To which Peppermint Patty replies: "We had fun, didn't we, Marcie?" And Marcie, "Yes, sir . . . we had fun." And Patty, "Nobody shook hands and said, 'Good game.'"
From that vale of tears we call life, Schultz suggestively distills for us the essence of the old art of "singing" in the rain — of smiling, playfully, in the face of death. Great or good, every artist of course plays the game well. In his Moby-Dick, Melville plays it perfectly in his chapter entitled "The Grand Armada." "But even so," he writes, "amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mild calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy." So does Thoreau in Walden. When he buys in imagination "all the farms," as he says in "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," he aims to die by water first, "so," as he says, "it may please me the more at last." These artists seem to say, "Come on in, the water's fine. But, please, 'Don't kick the bucket.'"
Of course, these "Waters of Separation," as Annie Dillard calls them in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, haven't much to do with size, as one can drown as easily in a backyard spore as in a small pond, in a nasty virus as in a vast, vacant sea. But for artists herein lies the fascination of rivers — for they always run in medias res. And from small to large — from "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi — their watery message is ever the same: the snag of death downstream and the current song of life. Think here of Walt Whitman's East River in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," or of the gentle-cycling "embrace" of the River Liffey in James Joyce's Finnigans Wake (wherein his "riverrun" goes "round and round").
And of course, that's our own recurring theme. And I hope we all drown in it — joyfully and sadly — maybe along with Norman MacLean, whose A River Runs Through It ends with this arresting sentence: "I am haunted by waters." Just think about it. In a strictly non-sectarian sense, it's like Luther's, especially as our theme "passes away" and our new one "runs" — but doesn't "punt" — now into eternity. I'm here for the plunge.
That Redskin who goes down in Moby-Dick at last — Tashtego is his name — is not quite taking another Seahawk with him. Care to bet on that? For win or lose, there's always-already, folks, another game, or year, or life to look forward to.
I learned students' names today. It's always my task the second day of a new term. Classes go better on an all-first-name basis, especially if students figure out (fast) that academic literary criticism needn't take itself so seriously.
My trick is simple. Since "writing about reading" is our common theme, I ask everyone to mark in a paragraph the experience of "getting lost in a book." Next I've the task of linking faces to texts — applying names and joking with everyone about their getting suckered by "virtual reality."
I start everyone out with
A Slam Dunk for Thomas Mann
That I missed a basketball game is all I remember. The year was 1962 and Reading University, my alma mater, was playing a home game across the street when one of my dormmates, Bill Keyes, griped loudly of my lackluster enthusiasm: "You mean you are going to stay here in your room while we go off to the game?" Sure enough, I was letting them go off to the game while I sat there reading. I had just begun a translation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice to support my beginning studies in German. Perhaps because I was so rudely interrupted, I have only a vague memory of the book now. All I have in mind is the sad image of poor Gustav Aschenbach, a famous writer on vacation in Venice who, in tarrying over a vision of ideal beauty in the form of a young boy, succumbs to a cholera epidemic his Italian hosts have hidden from the guy as he soaks up a few rays on a sunny beach. I now think he might have gone to the game. In any case, old Gustav's experience serves to raise an interesting question: "Why should any beautiful work of the human imagination so fascinate us?" With Mann's considerable authority behind me, all I can say is that ideal beauty gets us all at last, as does the grim reaper. Only basketball provides the form for some, and, for others, books do.
You'll be interested to know how I learned today of a "Brandy" who started a small kitchen fire by solving a Who-Done-It one night here, and of a "Leah" who ran her car out of gas to the sound of her husband's reading Riptide over the "Continental Divide" in Wyoming.
As both discovered coasting thirty-seven miles to safety, literary criticism, naturally, I suppose, always goes downhill from there.