My wife and daughter-in-law are in the kitchen making lefse, winter solstice prompting their Nordic behavior. If you're clueless, lefse is the happy obverse of lutefisk — potato bread to die for if our fish by fame alone hasn't already turned your stomach. Next week I think we'll dispense with lutefisk, but bring on lefse.
You know my "Keep-It-Simple-Stupid" style — but Soulful's fuller, richer style suggests I might fatten mine.
I mean here's the too lean note I thought to start on:
Season's Greetings from Ourfinetown. With our trips and activities so fun this year, we thought they deserved some modest trumpeting.
What can I say, that it sustained, even in summer, my "summary" refrain?
In late July and August we helped Smart and Soulful with a new roof, Suave working a week in July. With borrowed scaffolding and harnesses, pneumatic nailers and hydraulic equipment, problems seemed even "professionally" solved. At least we had no serious injuries, and if beer was our only pay, family bonding was our bonus.
By way of contrast, now compare Soulful's far more musical
Season's Greetings Form Letter — Installment No. 5
Hello and Happy Holidays from our House(s) to Yours
You may have noted the plural in the above salutation. Yes, it's true — we are still fixing up the fixer-upper, slogging back and forth between two addresses, drill set and paint brush in hand. But we're close. Although close only counts in some cliché that we no longer remember. Not that we remember much of anything due to the off-gassing of various paints, adhesives, and caulks. Off-gassing was our theme for 2006. Soulful employed the term frequently as she embraced her inner granola and researched "green" building products; Smart gave new meaning to the word while "commenting" on said research. Or maybe it's the beans and rice that have fortified our efforts, preserving precious resources that have been used to fund the work. Please join us in singing: Twelve packs of insulation, eleven sheets of drywall, ten gallons of interior latex, nine palets of shingles, eight bottles of Advil, seven counseling sessions, six coils of Romex, five trips to Lowtrope Lumber (in one day), four packs of bamboo flooring, three Velux skylights, two pairs of earplugs, and a gray cat to perch on the window sill.
Makes Styles want to take a big whiff, or bite, of lefse!
Oh, if you've wondered why I've posted so little lately, here's my too-simple answer: analagous office moves, bad rain storms, house repairs, bike farkles, belated Christmas chores, and my Soulfully-Smart, Savvily-Suave, and, I hope, Stylishly-Stylechoice writing.
So to everyone today, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
As John Denver sang to us some years ago, "All my bags are packed / I'm ready to go." You know, "Leavin' on a Jet Plane." And I am, too.
I'm seeking "pastures in another lattitude" tomorrow, like those quadrupeds noted in The Volatile Truth of Our Words, since I'm tiring of Texas here. I'm longing for something more bracing, more adventuresome, more inspiring. Alhough I "Don't know when I'll be back again," in my next post I'll be noting brighter sights and sounds — with Colorado as but a prelude. I'll be adding Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington, too.
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."
This past week I've been something of a music teacher. I've been reminding students to use their ears more, and it's difficult work. Students are always inclined to use their eyes instead, reading left to right, as they've been taught, for key words at sentence starts — mostly sentence subjects, verbs, and connectors. Although these are all quite essential, I've in mind sentence ends rather, where the more subtle music of stylish prose resides.
In "The Harmony of Prose" from his book Style, F. L. Lucas focuses on the topic. He denotes it, musically speaking, in heard stresses. As Lucas claims, "the sound and rhythm of English prose seem to me matters where both writers and readers should trust not so much to rules as to their ears." He cites even Flaubert to the effect that "a good style must meet the needs of the respiration."
In illustrating as much, Lucas focuses on word order, "which concerns both rhythm and clarity alike. . . . Just as the art of war largely consists of deploying the strongest forces at the most important points, so the art of writing depends a good deal on putting the strongest words in the most important places." As Lucas claims, they are often at the end. To illustrate, he cites a short passage from Alexander Bain, revising it for better, more pointed stress. His improvements are marked in this
The Humour of Shakespeare has the richness of his genius, and follows his peculiarities. He did not lay himself out for pure Comedy, like Aristophanies; he was more nearly allied to the great tragedians of the classical world. . . . The genius of Rabalais supplies extravagant vituperation and ridicule in the wildest profusion; a moral purpose underlying. Coarse and brutal fun runs riot. . . . For Vituperation and Ridicule, Swift has few equals, and no superior. On rare occasion, he exemplifies Humour and, had his disposition been less savage and malignant, he would have done so much oftener.
The Humour of Shakespeare has the richness of his genius. He did not, like Arisophanes, lay himself out for pure Comedy; he was more nearly allied to the classic Tragedians. . . . The genius of Rabalais shows a wild extravagance of satire and ridicule, underlaid by moral purpose. His work is a riot of coarse and brutal fun. . . . In vituperation and ridicule none have surpasssed and few equalled Swift. But he rarely shows humour; he might indeed have done so oftener, had his temper been less savage and malignant.
Lucas's stresses give marked, italicized substance to Swift's famed dictum about "proper words in proper places," and with that in mind, consider an example I've just made, one adducing, on a separate page, the still subtler stresses of my own recent music teaching. Do enjoy.
· Nature's Double Bill, Locally and Stylishly Displayed ·
In only three days this holiday I've seen thousands of migrating shore birds, two Italian operas, and the subtle operations of Nature in the fullness of her motherly moods, suggesting today that spring has really sprung. Mama mia! Talk about your unity in variety!
It's of course the old life-death theme; for you should have seen the dog-fight of a Merlin chasing a small Western Sandpiper Friday. Even at telescopic distance, it was like no aerial ballet I had seen. Much like the mother-birders on our boardwalk, I was rooting, myself, for the sandpiper.
But then Saturday night, hearing the often-paired productions of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, I knew that death's cold knife can pierce human life forms, too. Those sopranos, I mean, knew what they're doing, but, oh, what glorious singing!
Then today, in celebrating Mother's Day — happily the Seventh Sunday of Easter this year — to be having, along with Stylish, a breakfast courtesy of a loving son, well, it doesn't get much better than that, does it?
Best of all, both of us shared blue cheese and champagne at lunch before heading to a nearby nursery for our pick of summer plants. Indeed, we're going to have ourselves a pleasant, colorful place this year.
· Musical Paper Grading: Joseph Haydn to the Rescue ·
I've been marking student papers recently. Always trying work, it's nevertheless pleasant, particularly so if, when fortified with coffee, I can pen comments to the accompaniment of Joseph Haydn's fine piano sonatas. They've long been favorite marking aids — especially as interpreted by Sir Alfred Brendel. Brendel's recordings, 11 Piano Sonatas, I've almost burned through with the intense laser light shed on Haydn in sunrise bouts with student writing. In fact, I'm listening to the man now, and he's again having his salutary effect: calming, regulating, teasing, stimulating, provoking, ironizing — all, of course, what teachers most need to mark, beyond accuracy and correctness, what Robert Frost once called "the part where the adventure begins."*
It was yesterday that I began to understand Haydn's heretofore mysterious effect on me. The revelation came from the book I quoted just last week, Russell Sherman's stylish Piano Pieces. Since there's no rule against repetition — especially with some theme and variation — I've thought to share Sherman's grasp of Haydn's use. Though he approaches his own work from a musical standpoint, I can by analogy, at least, mark mine also from a literary. Both go hand-in-hand.
[A]ll teachers are likely to recommend certain favorite composers and pieces deemed useful [Sherman writes] to the growing-up stages of their students. To promote discrimination of ear and execution, some teachers assign Bach; others start with Chopin as the ground of touch and control. For me, the exemplary guide and mind-opener is Haydn.
Haydn instructs in thinking: heart-thinking and brain-thinking. Haydn instructs in faith; Haydn instructs in skepticism. Haydn instructs in resolve and in resignation; in structure and strategy; in caprice and tenderness. Haydn instructs, above all in that which is root, premise, and condition of all else: composition, or how the notes are put together, broken apart, reassembled, and transformed. Everything is up-front, exposed. Life is tragic, life is amusing; things come and go; one is at the center of the storm, and at the periphery.
For the notes are alive. They create and crumble right in front of our bloodied nose.
Haydn provides a pedagogical example in one other respect [Sherman adds], a lesson imperative to contemplate in this day of media glut, of the siren call of cheap fame, and of the triumph of notoriety over talent. In his writings Haydn reflected on the fortunate fact of his relative isolation at the Esterhazy estate, where he served as music man to the prince. For a crucial period of maturity and growth, he was thankful to be distant from Vienna, from the center of fashion and commerce, and thus allowed him to develop his own ideas, personality, and vision.
This is not to say, of course, that I'm not going to enjoy fashionable San Francisco.
But while I'm gone — all of you, please — do give Joseph Haydn a listen.
*"You have got to mark, and you have got to mark, first of all, for accuracy, for correctness. But if I am going to give a mark, that is the least part of my marking. The hard part is the part beyond that, the part where the adventure begins."
· Pianoforte-Style: Russell Sherman on Spontaneity and Tension ·
When I last wrote on music in November I collected in my Soul Music of the Night some random thoughts on pianists, classical and modern, black and white — all the way from Ray Charles to Rachmaninoff — and I have thought to extend my theme by focusing on Russell Sherman, a player whose book I've been reading recently.
Long with the New England Conservatory, Sherman is also a fine teacher and, for me, in Piano Pieces, his rare gift of bringing theory to practice is what makes his writing appealing. Take these elegantly, neatly styled two paragraphs on "fluid sponaneity":
Heralitus said that you can never step in the same river twice, a chilling insight into the evanescence of all things. But even the flow of water abides by certain principles, an illustration of the more comforting perception that chaos itself has laws.
The sponaneity of Artur Schnabel or of Thelonious Monk does not flow from unrehearsed consciousness, or because they never thought about things. It flows because they thought about things so hard and honestly that they were attuned to the puzzles and contradictions which demand a leap of faith, or play. Only from a thorough preparation which teaches all and the limitations of all can the conditions arise for inspired "accidents." Only the anguish and amusements of hard work can train one to perceive the charms of chaos, the dynamics of its properties and improprieties.
One sees here that Sherman asks much of his students, and rightly so. But in such cerebration look also on what he asks of their working a "distributive tension" into their performing bodies. It reminds me of Frank Conroy's Body and Soul (1993), a fine novel by another pianist, and, indeed, by yet another teaching writer.
The bouncing up and down of happy hands [Sherman writes] represents the physical analogy to feel-good methods for boosting the psyche. The bogeyman here, as always, is vile tension, lean as Cassius and mean as Iago. But, in fact, how does tension develop?
Tension arises from insecurity, and insecurity arises from ignorance. Ignorance, in our line of work, means not knowing the notes — an umbrella charge covering a multitude of sins, such as not knowing how the notes are organized, related, structured, and composed. That is, one's not knowing the composition leads to a good deal of insecurity even if all the tactile and mnemonic devises are functioning. Spurious gestures of liberation superimposed on a shaky foundation and insufficient grounding in the detail provide only a film of authority.
If, however, the notes are securely fastened and the mechanism is orderly, the answer lies not in the elimination of tension, for tension is the sword and glue of music, but in the distribution of tension. The spine, the arms, the shoulders, the legs, the torso all must share in the musical enterprise, and by their breathing and coordination convert it into a statement of convictions. Tension, nerves, psychic and metaphysical uncertainty are in fact the actual ingredients of musical pathos if properly balanced and exploited.
Today I've thought to note Sherman's book not so we can perform on his keys, but so that we can grasp "the keys to performance" — in writing and music alike.
I'm sorry if recently I've been a Phantom here. Up with paper grading and down with some necessary spam control, I've neglected posting, though I have not been totally styleless. In two weeks I have improved my time by haunting theaters and listening, both high and low, to some near Soul Music of the Night.
Just two weeks ago now, I heard the classical pianist Vassilis Varvaresos at Olympia's Washington Center, in a concert featuring Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, Rachmaninoff's The Corelli Variations, Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Liszt's Hungarian Rapsody No. 1. Should you think I'd somehow not quite heard soul music, maybe recalling my own Sweet Sound of Silence, that would be untrue, since I've heard darker, soulful sounds, too.
Take last Saturday night. I saw the new Taylor-Hackford film Ray, the Hollywood bio-pic about Ray Charles's satisfying "all night long." Recall, perhaps,
Well, tell me what'd I say, yeah
Tell me what'd I say right now
Tell me what'd I say . . .
Well, "it doesn't get much better than that now," does it? — unless, say, you'd heard Bob Milne (just days before) bring down the house. For Bob can get low-down and high-flown, too, and when I heard him in a concert of stride, boogie, barrelhouse, and ragtime, I knew in my heart of hearts that, even here, Bob Milne's deft left hand also prolongs the pleasure.
But midway in Milne's performance, when he started talking about a player named "Blind" Boone, whose long career included having a standing bet of nearly forty years — playing six nights a week, ten months a year — that nothing high or low was really beyond him, classical or modern (and Boone never once lost!) — well, I thought you should meet him.
Returned from the East, I'm afraid I have lapsed into the sweet sound of silence. Not, of course, that I have heard nothing out West or back East. On the contrary, Monday was the wettest, stormiest day on record here. I heard leaky drips in my attic and, outside, the impressive, steady howling of North-Pacific gales. My younger son even begged me hear drops falling on the stage he graced last February with the sweet sounds of music — and they weren't, of course, proper piano sounds.
But last week back East they were. On the stage of Avery Fisher Hall in New York two Saturdays ago, I heard Zoltán Kocsis play Béla Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945), and, again, last Tuesday there, I heard Murray Perahia play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795). Last Thursday at the 92nd Street Y, I again heard Kocsis play two Schubert sonatas [E minor (1817) and B-flat Major (1828)], these anchoring, brilliantly, a varied set of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies.
What prompts my recollections, however, is my understanding that words are simply inadequate to my musical experiences. Happily, I was put onto this theme by the fitness of David Wright's program notes for Thursday's Kocsis recital. Here is Wright's trying — and admittedly failing — to catch the very essence of the middle movements of the Schubert B-Flat Sonata:
Again, the unexpected key of the Andante sostenuto, C-sharp minor, can be "explained" as the "minor mode of the enharmonic flatted mediant" of B flat — or one can just appreciate it as a subtle change of light, foreshadowed by the development of the first movement, which begins in C-sharp minor. It is the key of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, veiled, romantic, sensual — tendencies that Schubert counteracts by writing the left-hand accompaniment in bare four-octave unison arpeggios. Except for a more active middle section, this movement creates a kind of frozen landscape by the use of near-identical rhythmic patterns in every bar — which makes its ability to convey great, wrenching emotional shifts all the more astonishing. And what could be a greater contrast than the blithe, unpredictable Scherzo? Here nothing is what it appears to be: a theme begins, then turns out to be a digression, and vice versa. Again, analysis is futile; the net isn't made that will catch this butterfly.
But of course it doesn't stymie the creature. The sweetest sound I heard last Saturday, for instance — in Palmer Square in Princeton — was from a waitress (a lovely soprano at Westminster College Choir of Ryder University) who, in serving me a rich chocolate fondue dessert, happily heard me and a friend say, "Yes, chocolate."
Although she only nodded, if you ever chance to hear Sarah Sweet, do. I think I've caught the essence of her style.
· Blue End Note: Louis Menand Sings "Chicago Blues" ·
I saw the PBS documentaries on The Blues last week. Seven independently-directed films produced by Martin Scorsese, they had me tapping my toes and singing "Sweet Home, Chicago" like a blues brother. I especially liked Clint Eastwood's series-ending "Piano Blues" — capped off by Ray Charles doing "America the Beautiful" with an orchestra. There's nothing like Ray's going low-down and high-flown at once.
It is 2:30 a.m. of a Monday, spring semester . . . Things are looking extremely good. Forty-eight hours of high-intensity stack work and some inspired typing have produced the thirty-page final paper for Modern European History . . . you are satisfied that you have turned out, in two days, the intellectual and moral equivalent of three months’ steady application . . . Only the notes and the bibliography remain. . . . Two-thirty is by no means an unreasonable hour of the night. You anticipate a decent five or six hours of sleep before class time. And you are, of course, so wrong. You are not nearing the finish line at all. There is a signpost up ahead: you are about to enter The End Matter.
Foreshortened, you can almost hear old Muddy Waters wailing, strumming, and beating out the 12-bar blues:
Baby, you've found us the right source
Do, Da Da Da, Duh
Baby, you've found us the right source
Do, Da Da Da, Duh
But, Baby, you gotta cite us that source!
Do, Da Da Da . . . Duh?
You are in "Muddy Waters" indeed. As Menand has it you're in fact sailing into trouble. Included are such odd arcana as whose citation form is it? (MLA, APA, or Chicago's?); what do you do with those punctuations and abbreviations? (,:;.* loc cit, ibid, et al.?); where do publishers today really do their thing? (New York, Chicago, London, Cambridge, Toronto, Sydney, Delhi, or Cambridge, MA?), and why can evil Redmond (I know it well) make your life so miserable today? ("First of all, it is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program.").
Though I can't begin to carry Louis ("The Delta Dart") Menand's bluesy tune, I can at least essentialize its point. It smiles in his last paragraph:
The "Manual" is not too long. It is not long enough. It will never be long enough. The perfect manual of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly coterminous with its subject, containing a rule for every word of every sentence. We would need an extra universe to accommodate it. It would be worth it.*
*What Robert Nozick once said of philosophy could now be said of all academic subjects: They're
beset by the temptation to say everything explicitly.
And what J. David Bolter noted of their latest media equally applies:
The network can never be fully explicit.
Between the temptation and the reality we have, of course, "Chicago Blues."*
It's fortunate the instrument Bartolomeo Cristofori invented some three hundred years ago is known nowadays only as the piano. Pianoforte better marks its real appeal, of course — soft and loud — and its proper achievement, hammering home (literally via a technical trick called an "escape mechanism") a new musical experience, one I suspect Prince Ferdinando de'Medici of Florence recognized: the sounds of love and war at once.
I got thinking about all this at my son's piano concert tonight. I'd earlier been following the news. Between Blix and Bush, of course, I'm glad my escape mechanism was just musical. I couldn't help thinking, though, that the distance between love and war — between Debussy's "L'Isle Joyeuse" and Liapunov's "Lezginka," say — isn't really that far. In my generation making love not war seemed the thing, but today "studying war no more" isn't quite our forte.
Still, I'm hopeful that like Suave's encore, we might in fact rest in the piano peace of Grieg's "Arietta."
· Space and Transcendence in Bach's Fantasia in G ·
You might recall the imagined high note I ended on two weeks ago. In Art, Thought, and Technology on Nicholson Baker's "Up" Escalator, I fancied a metaphorical "tenor" (foot)noting his "vehicular ride" on an ordinary escalator through the third movement of a musical sonata. The form, of course, was my thought not Baker's, so my idea employed Baker's The Mezzanine effectively to transpose "notes" in virtual space with a still larger, deeper significance. Today I thought to mark such "notes" directly — indeed, in musical form itself.
Actually, since I can only represent the "sounds" indirectly, I'm forced here to be metaphorical, especially so since the musial thought I've in mind is actually my son's, and the "note" he would mark is a profounder one of J.S. Bach's. What I particularly have in mind is a brief essay written in appreciation of Bach's Fantasia in G (perhaps Bach's greatest organ work). What captured Suave's imagination, however, is only found in the score, not in the sound of Bach's work, and so I'm permitted a wider meditation on themes and variations fit to the still larger space of Bach's own musical imagination. For the theme is space itself — and how music marks its very transcendence. You'll see that very idea expressed in Bach's music.
Insofar as it depends on the related concepts of boundary and limit, the word space seems to suggest the reciprocal ideas [my son writes] of expansion and contraction. Metaphorically, we can perhaps see as much in music. When a performer employs rubato to make a steady beat more flexible and interesting, he actually makes the music more understandable by expanding or contracting upon the representational limits of the composer's score, drawing the listener's attention to what we call musicality — to the very essence, that is, of live performance. The printed score can only suggest it.
Likewise, in order to make the most of the spaces of our lives, we must also expand and contract our sense of existence, weighing and considering especially our sense of freedom and responsibility. Personal and social realities are ever changing, always flexible. Bound by spaces we inhabit, we struggle to maintain balance between what is possible and what is impossible. But the very things that are possible can be defined only through the bounds we set on the imagined worlds we choose to live in. To lead a full life, a satisfying life, a human being must strive to transcend the many personal spaces he occupies, expanding his chances, opportunities, and possibilities in life.
Although I cannot fully represent the scope of Suave's essay — which turns successively from music to photography to literature to life and to music again — its concluding paragraph catches perfectly the essence of the point (the stylistic "note") both he — and I think Bach and Baker, too — would suggestively sound. Indeed, you might even hear it in Bach's music.
We must learn to travel [Suave continues] in a new dimension of space, an intellectual dimension. That dimension has never been better or more artfully represented, I think, than in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I am thinking particularly of his great organ work, Fantasia in G. It is a magnificent piece, exploiting all the intricately complex resources of the instrument. Opening with a playful toccata-like figure, it slowly develops into a methodical five-voice Grave section, gradually crescendoing to a shaking thunder, where it falls off abruptly into a serene, reflective meditation. Whenever I listen to this piece, I am ecstatic. It is today my favorite piece. But what most fascinates me about it is not necessarily heard, but rather seen. Bach wrote in the score an impossible low B in the pedals, a half step below the range of the instrument then or now. I learned this on the dust jacket of my recording; Claire van Ausdall, commenting on that low B, wrote: "It is not so much a case of Homer's nodding, one suspects, as of the composer's contrapuntal vision momentarily effacing such earthbound restrictions as the limits of a mere mechanical boundary." Bach's reaching to that low B, pushing at the boundaries of musical space is, I would add, still very much with the space of music itself. For in reaching beyond the space of his instrument, he is, I like to think, approaching there the more mysterious essence of music itself.
You should know that as I've been writing this, I've been listening to my son's own fine music. He's practicing for a Valentine Day's piano concert. One work, triply distant from the Fantasia in G, is Bach's great Partita No. 2 for violin, BWV 1004 — called "Chaconne" — arranged for left hand by Johannes Brahams. But on whatever instrument — and by whatever hand — it goes ("Andante," say), marked also in Suave's essay, "only by the grace of God."
· Art, Thought, and Technology on Nicholson Baker's "Up" Escalator ·
Today my two previous posts have prompted a third on footnotes. I'm sorry if apologies are due. I take up from the musical world of footnotes sounded first in Adorno's Philosophie der neuen Musik — and reechoed in Bloch's The Historian's Craft — two added notes sounded by Nicholson Baker in his clever first novel, The Mezzanine (1988). If Ode Owed to the Low Art of Footnotes and Footnotes: From Low Art to High Science make my noted theme old, I hope my variations are at least semi-pleasing. Please consider them an allegro, adagio, and presto "set" — with my belated "movement" being too long here.
Baker's first novel, you may know, describes a man's brief ride at the end of his lunch hour from the ground floor to the mezzanine on an escalator. Although Baker's text meditates on the man's brief ascent and, more, on his own needed noon-time purchase of a new pair of shoelaces, the text so well delineates much of what I have said recently that I have thought to share it — especially since citation and acknowledgment epitomize Baker's key themes, namely, physical-textual-dialectical displacements in vertical space and the old debt of consciousness to "the quotidian" — of art and thought to "the technological-scientific everyday."
Here foreshortened from 3 pages, Baker's notes are just 2 among 49 in a text of 135 pages. So fully "contrapuntal" and loopily "digressive" are they, that you might also be prepared for some slight "misquotation" — recalling my U & I post maybe — since the thought is riffed as subtly, cleverly, and trickily as that of a blues musician on speed. To help you follow, I've indeed had to largoize these notes, cutting them down some. So if you want your Baker "up," consider popping on down fast to buy The Mezzanine. After all, your next job is to recheck my notes.
Although Baker's first note aims clearly to link "shoelaces" and "footnotes," its note-referring sentence — "A glowing mention in William Edward Hartpole Lecky's History of European Morals (which I had been attracted to . . . by the ambitious title and the luxuriant incidentalism of the footnotes* . . . )" — also adds other crucial elements: the central notion, first, that artists and philosophers have quirky habits (I cite just two), and second, repeated news that Baker's narrator had earlier purchased a (Penguin) copy of Aurelius's Meditations, which text provides Baker with an epitomizing theme for all his notes: namely, "Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!" Here foreshortened to essentials, then, is the narrator's 46th note:
*In one footnote [he starts] . . . Lecky quotes a French biographer of Spinoza to the effect that the philosopher liked to entertain himself by "dropping flies into spiders' webs . . ." I crave knowledge of this kind of detail. As Boswell said, ". . . Everything relative to so great a man is worth observing. I remember Dr Adam Smith, in his rhetorical lectures at Glascow, told us he was glad to know that Milton wore latchets in his shoes, instead of buckles." (Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Herbrides, Penguin, page 165. Think of it: John Milton wore shoelaces! ) Boswell, like Lecky (to get back to the point of this footnote), and Gibbon before him, loved footnotes. They knew that the outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph, but is encrusted with a protective bark of citations, quotation marks, italics, and foreign languages, a whole variorum crust of "ibid.'s" and "compare's" and "see's" that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a moment in one's mind. . . . Digression — a movement away from the gradus, or upward escalation, of the argument — is sometimes the only way to be thorough, and footnotes are the only form of graphic digression sanctioned by centuries of typesetters. . . . It is true that Johnson said, . . . "The mind is refrigerated by interruption; . . . the reader is weary, he suspects not why; and at last throws away the book[.] . . . " ("Preface to Shakespeare.") . . . But the great scholarly or anecdotal footnotes of Lecky, Gibbon, or Boswell, written by the author of the book himself to supplement . . . what he says in the primary text, are reassurances that the pursuit of truth doesn't have clear outer boundaries: it doesn't end with the book; restatement and self-disagreement and the enveloping sea of referenced authorities all continue. Footnotes are the finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wiser reality of the library.
Baker's "finer-suckered" image sounds a profound library note, in effect, that sounds "The Bathos," so to speak, "of the Bibliothek." For though it's happily occasioned by an earlier-mentioned (I'd say "Puget-Sound-locked") "octopus," Baker seems rather to anticipate a higher, but still lower, note — one pardoxically ending The Mezzanine. I'll cite it later myself. But for now, with such a "finer-suckered" grasp, Baker turns himself to a reflective understanding of his 49th note, wherein his narrator aptly invokes some "periodicity" (though I'd more simply call it his "style") "ratings." Baker's referring sentence reads: "It was impossible to predict which of the two, Aurelius or shoelaces, would rank higher in my overall lifetime periodicity ratings upon my death.*"
*I am fairly certain now [he avers] that shoelaces will rank higher. In the course of preparing the present record of that Aurelius-and-shoelace noon [essentially epitomizing The Mezzanine], I lived through a rigorous month in which the subject of shoelace-tying and shoelace wear came up 325 times, whereas Aurelius's sentiment cycled around only 90 times. I doubt very much that I will ever concentrate on either of them again, having worn both of the thoughts out for myself. But these sudden later flurries may not count, since they are artificial duplicative retrievals performed in order to understand how the earlier natural retrievals had come about. The very last instance of shoelace thought happened as follows: by chance, I was flipping through the 1984-1986 Research Reports of MIT's Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at my office, and I noticed . . . the subject of the "pathology of worn ropes" . . .
And then [later at the library], checking the 1984 volumes of World Textile Abstracts, I read entry 5422:
Methods for evaluating the abrasion resistance and knot slippage strength of shoe laces
Two mechanical devices for testing the abrasion resistance and knot slippage performance of shoe laces are described and investigated. Polish standards are discussed. [C] 1984/4522
I let out a small cry and slapped my hand down on the page. The joy I felt may be difficult for some to understand. Here was a man, Z. Czaplicki, who had to know! He was not going to abandon the problem with some sigh about complexity and human limitation after a minute's thought, as I had, and go to lunch — he was going to make the problem his life's work. Don't tell me he received a centralized directive to look into a more durable weave or shoelace for the export market. Oh no! His very own shoelace had snapped one time too many one morning, and instead of buying a pair of replacement dress laces at the corner farmacja and forgetting about the problem until the next time, he had constructed a machine and strapped hundreds of shoelaces of all kinds into it, wearing them down over and over, in a passionate effort to get some subtler idea of the forces at work. And he had gone beyond that — he had built another machine to determine which surface texture of shoelace would best hold its knot, so that humanity would not have to keep retying its shoelaces all day long and wearing them out before their time. A great man! I left the library relieved. Progress was being made. Someone was looking into the problem. Mr. Czaplicki, in Poland, would take it from there [my emphasis*].
*Here is room, perhaps, to say that Baker's last chapter shows his narrator returned from lunch — at the "top" of the escalator — looking down finally: "I looked down," Baker's narrator says, "the great silver glacier to the lobby. The maintenance man was at the bottom. I waved to him. He held up his white rag for a second, then put it back down on the rubber handrail." Permit me, but could this itself be a proper acknowledgement of some "tenor" to his "vehicular ride"? It's a good "high note" to end on, at least, and perhaps "sustain" . . .