Single Form

I began by walking through Battersea Park, a beautiful place next to the ruined towers of the power station. The park has been richly planted with cycads, banana trees, tree-ferns, pampus grass and bamboo, which provide a suitably defamiliarised setting for Hepworth and Moore sculptures. A heron looked out over one of the lakes while coots nest next to the shorelines (and an odd pochard duck, with a brown head and deep red eyes). Apparently, the park is having a duck race tomorrow. In time, I arrive at the peace pagoda, a wonderful contrast of white Portland stone, gold Buddha statues and dark Canadian fir. Crossing back into North London via the Albert bridge, I pass by Chelsea Old Church (and Hans Sloane’s tomb) and Crosby Hall before walking up to the Albert Hall. Today’s Prom consists of Wagner’s Meistersingers, Barber’s lyrical Knoxville and Prokofiev’s music for Alexander Nevsky. As a piece, it seemed to me to illustrate some of the problems with Soviet realism; though this is clearly a composer of the same period as Weill and Bartok much of the tone is nonetheless familiar with Borodin and Mussorgsky.

Following a walk to watch the Pelicans in St James Park (descendents of a gift bequeathed by the Russian Ambassador to Charles the Second) around the Jewel Tower and a visit to the top of Westminster Cathedral’s bell tower (which did rather confirm many of my prejudices about London, with the most beautiful buildings obscured by modern office buildings; Nelson’s Column was barely visible, for example), I arrived at Cadogan Hall. Formerly a church (though its tower rather resembles a minaret), it combines gothic and celtic revival designs (especially in the stained glass) with art-deco sensibilities. The interior is beautifully light and airy and I settled down in the pews for a performance of two of Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos and some pieces by Mozart showing the influence of such ‘ancient music.’ The concert, performed by the Academy of Ancient Music, was extremely pleasant before leading up to an evening performance of Janacek’s Taras Bulba, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (derived from his wartime film music) and some Sibelius (not to my taste though Pohjola’s Daughter had its moments). The following day saw more travels in London, from Temple to The Strand, before arrving at the Albert Hall for an organ recital. Mozart and Back again figured prominently, with the former represented by his Fantasy in F minor for mechanical organ. This is something of a curiosity, being written for a mechanical instrument that renders it impossible to be played as it was written (reminding me somewhat of Nyman’s sonata for six fingered hands from Gattaca); this version had been adapted. Another oddity was a quietly beautiful Shostakovtch piece from The Gadfly. A Bach chorale prelude was the foremost representative of liturgical organ music, while many of the other pieces typified its use in Romantic music, such as Glazunov’s Fantasy. However, the performance was very dominated by Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,’ combining both traditions in a piece that was originally written for an instrument that was a cross between a piano and organ.

One of the advantages of the Proms is the closeness that one has to the orchestra and conductor. When the conductor happens to be John Adams, one is left with the distinct feeling that this is what it must have been like to stand next to Wagner or Stravinsky when they conducted their own works; the comparison is perhaps a little precipitate and somewhat awe-struck, but it was nonetheless rather difficult to keep out of mind. Like Barber’s Knoxville, My Father Knew Charles Ives is a homage to smalltown America, pastiching the Ivesian style in its first part before proceeding to something closer to what we think of as minimalism. Pastiche also features in Harmonielehre, which draws on the romanticism of Mahler and Schoenberg, but draws it within the ambit of minimalism. Where the former normally has crescendos and glissandos while the latter only gradually and subtly varies its notes, Harmonielehre builds itself up to peak and simply remains there. The frenzied music simply holding itself at what should have been a point of climax reminded me oddly of the insistent thudding and Dionysiac quality of dance music. Finally, Adams’ setting of Whitman’s The Wound Dresser was especially beautiful, a poem that perfectly illustrates the gap between the homosexual and the homosocial.

The Kandinsky exhibition at the Tate proved unusual; while much modern art is centred on Western Europe, he is the only Russian representative of note. At first, the patterns in his work appear essentially chaotic, like a surrealist Rorschach test but stochastic is probably the better term as it becomes clear what the patterns represent (angels of judgement, icons, halos, crosses etc). Influenced by muscians like Wagner and Schoenberg, by ethnographic study of peasant art, like Blake, Kandinsky has constructed a private symbolic language in his work, introducing religious symbolism into an otherwise abstract form in an attempt to perceive the inscape of things (many of his paintings suggesting patterns like butterflies, birds or even musical notation). However, unlike abstract art, his work retains depth of field and perspective. Kandinsky’s opposite is the protestant, reductionist style of Modigliani, whose portraits, like those of Lempicka, are conventional in how they depict their subjects (though influenced by Cubism, he never fragmented his figures, merely distorted them). Unlike her, his work has a mask-like, impersonal, ritualistic quality to it, like the Benin bronzes. As in Byzantine art, the eyes are striking, often with the ‘windows to the soul’ blanked out, missing their pupils. Equally, they often retain a disturbing intensity, as the viewer is directly stared at.

Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk makes subtle changes to the original novella that leave one wondering if Stalin’s verdict of ‘muddle, not music’ might not have been correct. To accommodate the ill-defined idea of Soviet realism, Shostakovitch satirises and dehumanises all the characters into contemptible vermin except the heroine, Katya. But he fails to turn Katya into a rebel against bourgeois society, fails to overturn her betrayal by her working-class lover, and his tendency to satirise authority figures cannot have endeared him to the totalitarian regime. Had Katya been beated and oppressed, she could have become a tragic heroine in the way Shostakovitch appears to have intended but without that the lack of sympathy for the other characters simply leaves the text unabalanced between tragedy and satire, a combination that works for the music but not the text. The opera was preceded by a screening of Kozintzev’s film of Hamlet (where the music was written by Shostakovitch to a screenplay by Pasternak), its black and white eloquently emphasising the melancholy of the play to the same sort of effect as Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. Kozintzev fills the play with fire and water imagery, placing scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the castle walls. In tragedy, fate is normally an ineluctable entity; Oedipus and Orestes have already had their destiny cast for them; it only remains for them to fulfil it. For Shakespeare, living in an age whose metaphysical certainties had been upturned by state decree, no such conviction is possible. His characters instead defy augury, dramatising their consciousness and examining their own roles. Hamlet is the overreacher, the machiavel, the fool and the wronged hero, failing to become, as Eliot had it, a clear objective correlative for the events of the play.

Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther presents an interesting dialectic between Romantic ideas of nature and rationalist ideas. Werther speaks of "my resolve to keep to Nature alone in future. Only Nature has inexhaustible riches, and only Nature creates a great artist." Nonetheless he also later reverts to a less idealised conception of nature when he writes; "Nature, which has brought forth nothing that does not destroy both its neighbour and itself." Werther’s fall is characterised by his loss of feeling for nature (though the editor speaks of Werther’s ‘natural powers’ being confounded) but it equally suggests that Nature has a dual role within the novel. When debating with Albert he defends the Romantic individual against the contempt of the mundane masses, only to be told; "a man wholly under the influence of his passions has lost his ability to think rationally,"before Albert states that suicide is simply a display of weakness where fortitude was called for.

Rather perversely, La Dame Aux Camelias reminded me of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of the Wildfell Hall, not in terms of any novel attitude towards gender but in terms of its belief that the sinner is inevitably brought back to the path of salvation, with Marguerite repeatedly being described as saint-like before her eventual martyrdom; "to any woman whose education has not imparted knowledge of goodness, god opens up two paths to it; these are suffering and love." Nonetheless, the novel denies the possibility of redemption within Marguerite’s life; she dies as surely as a sinner condemned to the fires of hell.

Thucydides’s The Pelopennesian War presents some interesting challenges to conventional views of the ancient world. Firstly, that for all of the antipathy towards Persia, the Spartans were as willing to ally themselves with Persia as they had been to ally themselves with Athens at Marathon. Secondly, that it was largely Athenian imperialism rather than Spartan militarism that led to the war.

In the case of a figure like Pythagoras it is comparatively easy to distinguish his theorems from the religious credo that were formulated to prove. In the case of Plato, whose thought uses the principles of logic in the service of a view that sees philosophy as an essentially ascetic and religious function (a means of purging onself of the corruptions of the body), the matter is not so easy. I tend to regard Plato in the same manner as I do Paul or Augustine; as a dreadful mistake. Through christianity, Plato produced a philosphical tradition that disdained empirical experimentation and observation in favour of a focus on the causes of causes (i.e. the forms), disdained the body as a prison and which distinguished itself in opposition to sophistry’s concern with descriptions of the world that meet our needs rather than conceptions of absolute truth. Socrates repeatedly scorns those who deal in paradox, viewing their arguments as being concerned with power rather than with truth, but is far from reluctant to marshall sophistical violence in his own arguments.

For example, within Euthyphyro, Socrates deconstructs good and evil into unknowable categories in order to lay blame on Euthyphyro for having laid a case against his own father for the death of a slave (an argument that leaves him open to the modern accusation that he is indifferent to the fate of anyone who was not a citizen. Conversely, in the Phaedo the claims of duty to the law and the state are absolute and transcend those of kin and friendship (equally, the product of a view that placed such emphasis on the role of the philosopher-king and none on the autonomous subject). Nonetheless, Plato regards philosophy as a process rather than a doctrine, suggesting in Phaedrus, that reading philosophy is a poor second to doing it; one can reject a conclusion, but it is much harder to reject a process of imaginative expansion.

Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation is essentially predicated on the argument that "Western man may be said to have been undergoing a massive sensory anesthesia.. with modern art functining as a form of shock therapy for both confounding and closing our senses." Rejecting the idea of naturalism, Sontag sees art as a means of conveying sensation rather than of imparting information. Her Notes on Camp advocate stylised art as a means of obectifying content. Conversely, criticism should not concern itself with content and hermeneutics but with form and the erotics of art. In practice, what this aesthetic translates into varied considerably; the objectified films of Bresson and Goddard with their lack of concern for personality on the one hand and the more convulsive work of Artaud on the other. The difficulty with her work is that she had essentially minsinterpreted the spirit of her age, which was better described in Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle as not suffering from sensory deprivation but from a veritable surfeit of images; "the ever more triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote–indeed, impose–the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating for quite different reasons," as she wrote in a later preface.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake posits a world where genetic engineering is used to root out the most aggressive aspects of human nature, creating a new species and leading to the extinction of the old. Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island follows a similar path, though Houellebecq disdain’s Atwood’s ‘ecologism,’ seeing nature as a far more resilient force than human civilisation. Instead, he is concerned with what could be called the engineering of the psyche. Houellebecq cites Peirce in identifying personality and memory, identifying language as the conduit of memory, leaving open the issue of how language can be unbiased and objective (much of the text shows the cloned ancestors of the contemporary characters writing commentaries on their predecessors and attempting to cross-reference them to establish the truth; often failing totally to understand the inherently alien emotions being expressed). His ancestor is later to cite Godel in opposition to the rather mechanistic view of the self being developed. This immediately leads to the difficulty of establishing the unbiased conditons; the central character of Daniel begins the text by complaining of being mistaken for a humanist or a progressive (he later calls himself a rightwing anarchist, although in practice, much of what he achieves throughout the text is precisely that, the sort of progress familiar from Comte and positivism). Accordingly, Daniel spends much of the text advancing a cause that will lead to the extinction of desire in the interests of gaining a form of Buddhist serenity, whiel still fiercely pursuing both love and desire. Equally, Daniel follows his discourse on Peirce by noting that much of his memory, such as why he married his first wife, has simply been erased.

The Elohminite movement depicted in the novel itself rests upon a number of internal contradictions, particularly in the way it depends on a consumer society that turns youth into a commodity that can be indefinitely preserved only for this expectation to be inevitably disappointed. Its force depends entirely on what it opposes, just as Daniel’s career depends on the sensibilities it deliberately provokes and outrages; "if the fluidification of forms of behaviour required by a developed economy was incompatible with a normative catalogue of restrained conduct, it was perfectly suited to a celebration of the will and ego". The consequence of this ambiguity is that the new species of neohumans find themselves leaving the calm of their habitations and exploring a post-nuclear wasteland inhabited by savage humans for whom the collapse of civilisation has been total and complete. The neohumans are both revolted by these creatures (the culture of the mind being impossible in a society locked into struggles for existence) while remaining unsatisfied by their own lack of will and consequent stagnation. As a species they achieve nothing and their lack of suffering effectively leaves them as an evolutionary dead-end.

Orwell’s novels often depict the fall of a cause and the hero that propounded it, as in Burmese Days and 1984. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell appears to be attempting, like Forster in Howard’s End, to write a modern Victorian novel which values ideals of discipline and humility rather than individuality or non-comformism; "Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning anymore except failure and success." Gordon’s defeat is as total as Winston’s (especially given his comments about how it is women that force men to live by the money-code) but it would strain the novel to read it in the same terms as 1984 (as much as it would read to read The Taming of the Shrew as a parable of abuse or Shylock as a tragic victim). The same depiction of the udnerworld that animates Hamsun’s Hunger simply manifests itself as petulance here. It also casts an odd light on Orwell’s socialism, with him describing it as youthful fixation when "one can’t see the hook for the stodgy bait." The character of Ravelston, is depicted as using a vaguely defined socialism as a lifestyle (where Gordon describes socialism as Huxley’s Brave New World), something he can afford but others cannot; when matters are pressed his "class instinct" simply revert.

Mark Twain’s Roughing It is a revisionist account of the American Dream, covering all aspects of the mythology of westwards migration (Indians, outlaws and gold mining, for example) through to his travels to Hawaii. However, in spite of rejecting his own misspent youth and the romanticisation of the West (instead depicting it as uncomfortable, lawless, unstable and dangerous) he remains far from immune on that score; "we are descended from desert lounging Arabs and countless ages of growth towards civilisation have failed to root out of us the nomadic instinct. We all confess to a gratified thrill at the prospect of camping out." Equally, his account of one outlaw finds him admiring his "splendid courage" and "peerless bravery." Nonetheless, Twain’s astringent brand of realism is not without its attendant problems, particularly in his depiction of the Indians; "if perchance I had been over-estimating the Red-Man, while viewing him through the moonshine of romance… left him treacherous, filthy and repulsive." Twain has no time for the idea of the noble savage but is perhaps not entirely prejudiced in this regard. His account of the Mormons often treats them in the same terms, depicting them as "ignorant, simple, of an inferior order of intellect," and perfidious in their attempts to disguise the massacre of a hundred and twenty people as the work of Indians. Conversely, he praises the disenfranchised Chinese community for their industry and diligence. Nonetheless, his travels in the wake of Captain Cook form the greatest source of interest on this score. Describing the native transition from paganism and scarifice to christianity, Twain writes "the missionaries braved a thousand privations to come and makes them permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and blissful a place Heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there." Twain appears to be somewhat affected by romantic primitivism after all, in spite of an acute awareness of the previous practice of human sacrifice and his statement that "the benefit conferred upon this people by the missionaries is so prominent, so palpable," in recognition of their ending tyranny, sacrifice and war (while noting that the native population had plummeted since the introduction of christianity). Finally, Twain makes an especially interesting comment about Captain Cook; "plain unvarnished history takes the romance out of Captain Cook’s assassination and renders a deliberate verdict of justifiable homicide." Cook is seen as both treacherous and ruthless in his dealings with the natives.

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