02 March, 2007

Paradise enow

I'm in London for a few days. An interview at the Warburg Institute, and a test of my Latin—one hour in a room with Jean Bodin and a dictionary, the Droz suite, with a daubed Eugénie peering elegantly down at me. Waiting for me at home were books I'd ordered online—heavy, impressive volumes, like a Taschen facsimile of the Nuremberg Chronicle, and John Wilkins' Real Character. I could swim in an ocean of books forever, I think, never even needing to read.


My father and I take in a show, Beckett's Happy Days, starring Fiona Shaw. (I relish applying the expression 'take in a show' to a Beckett play.) It was the closing night, and the cream of London's intelligentsia, glittering and chattering, was out in full force. Saffron Burrows—Shaw's girlfriend—sat behind us.

In the interval we run into a friend of my father's. Pa expostulates on the idiocy of the audience, how they laughed at every possible moment, without a whit of comedy. I argue, and his friend agrees, that it was nervous laughter. 'They don't feel comfortable with long periods of silence', he says; 'they have to fill it with laughter. . . or coughing'. Nonetheless, he doesn't think Shaw 'had the rhythm of it at all'. My father is more convinced by her performance, full of discomforting grins and sudden, jittery postures. Later he asks me if she had made me understand the play any better. How to answer that sort of question? This is how people who like drama think; it is also the way music lovers think—'I find Gould's reading of the Goldberg Variations so terribly enlightening'. But it is not the way I think. Art for me is essentially a closed system. This is why I don't much like drama, and why I like Beckett. I'm uninterested in the performance. It's the words I want; all the rest might be stripped away, in pursuit of Essence. I think I'd probably be just as happy with Gordon Brown mumbling the script from a print-out. In fact, come to think of it, such a rendition would only heighten the pathos of Beckett's drama.

At Languagehat, meanwhile, the best comment-thread of all time.


Sir G said...

yes, i've noticed that about your precious brain.

Sir G said...

about the laughter: it's a pavolovian response; people have been trained to it by the lauigh track on American comedy shows. happens in opera, too. and outside my window, every night, when the street dogs do a group howl-out.

Robert said...

I was in London yesterday, we could have had lunch together.

Anonymous said...

"I could swim in an ocean of books forever, I think, never even needing to read."

What a painfully resonant phrase. I long ago realized that I am happiest and most comfortable when surrounded by books; not just arrayed on shelves (though those help) but piles surrounding me in bibliophilic nidification.

Sometimes I feel abashed that I haven't read them all, but that's not the point, is it? I know their number, and call them all by name. The private library is an extension to one's palace of memory, filled with unvisited rooms and unlocked doors.

Languagehat said...

I love that thread, and I'm sorry the Siganus/Noetica show seems to have closed. But we have the written record, which must suffice. Still, to have heard Berma intone "Non, vous ne tiendrez pas de moi la vie!"...

Anonymous said...

No, maybe it's not over yet. I suspect the echidna is just slowly walking round the backstage, looking in dark corners for someone called Godot, squeaking desperately, before coming back in front of the public to say that... that... Well, he'll tell us. Things might take time to happen, and patience is — apparently — a virtue.

Anonymous said...

And, er, maybe Noetica is currently busy patching up her/its/his beloved cimetière marin.

>>> “La houle a creusé sous le cimetière marin faisant s'affaisser des tombes.”

Blue Genes said...

I just left a comment on the Siganus/Noetica thread. Probably not worth reading, but I may have roused the beast... I mean the hydra.

Language, as for La Berma, Proust may be more aligned with Conrad after all:
" Ceux même qui ne la [Odette] connaissaient pas étaient avertis par quelque chose de singulier et d’excessif – ou peut-être par une radiation télépathique comme celles qui déchaînaient [what do you know, another use of this word commented at length in the thread. Proust catches everything!] des applaudissements dans la foule ignorante aux moments où la Berma était sublime – que ce devait être quelque personne connue.

And BTW, isn't the automatic applause the equivalent of the nervous laughter at the Beckett play? I think this is simply a human response. Come on Gawain, not *everything* worthy of ridicule comes from American pop culture! Surely the Babylonians must take their fair share of the blame for idiotic sit coms as well.

The narrator's first (and correct) instinct is to be disappointed by La Berma's performance. He subsequently changes his mind and starts to admire her, but his admiration for her is an extension of his admiration for Bergotte who praises her. In the end, though, he outgrows Bergotte, as does Bergotte himself in fact, right before he dies as he is admiring Ver Meer's "View of Delft."

Chris said...

Many composers of the twentieth-century avant-garde viewed music the same way you view art. The act of composing and the scores it produced were the important part, while performance was merely secondary, if desired at all.

I disagree with that attitude in the extreme. It makes music a museum object rather than an experience. It's so...bourgeois.

Methinks I have a blog post on that subject lurking on the horizon...

Conrad H. Roth said...

I stumble back here, only to rub my eyes in bewilderment, as if the madness of Sutor has infected the Varieties themselves. Still, mustn't grumble.

BG: automatic applause, yes. Personally I wish people wouldn't clap after certain (good) performances, it kills the mood. On my plane back from Phoenix the passengers clapped after landing--I could hardly believe it! But... Babylonians? What, you're down on Gilgamesh now? I'd prefer to attribute sitcom hell to Menander.

Grand: firstly, I didn't say I applied my feelings to music. I enjoy music, but I don't really appreciate it for the very reason of my aesthetic; nonetheless, I understand the importance of your 'performative' outlook for the full comprehension of music as a serious artform.

However, I don't think that my view makes music into a museum piece, any more than it makes the novel into a museum piece. As for 'bourgeois', I find this an odd accusation--and still more odd as a criticism--not that I am not 100% bourgeois, more that the bourgeoisie tends to value music and drama most highly of all. I can't think that this particular charge has much merit.

Anonymous said...

The great difference between musical pieces and novels rests in the fact that the novel is a static form while the musical piece must be continually reperformed anew. Drama takes this one step further in that stage notation is frequently minimalist and the new productions may differ drastically from the old. I appreciate this as a concept though, like you perhaps, I admire more the unchanging elements of the performance, found within the script.

(Paul: what a wonderful expression! "The private library is an extension to one's palace of memory, filled with unvisited rooms and unlocked doors". I heartily agree, and also feel that my collection of books provides me with keen joy, despite my inability to read them all)

Blue Genes said...

Conrad, it was a toss up in my mind between the Babylonians and the Etruscans. I chose alphabetically. It's not that I have anything against Gilgamesh but what can I say, I've always gotten a good laugh out of Noah's Ark.

Andrew W. said...

About laughter, I recently had a similar annoying experience at the opera.

However, it was more of a knowing laughter, the clever laughter of the operagoer pleased to see some speck of their knowledge sung back at them.

Grand, as someone who composes, and who has known many composers, I need to say something about your assertion that for many modern composers, the "act of composing and the scores it produced were the important part, while performance was merely secondary, if desired at all."

Although this "fact" was a piece of received wisdom when I was a composition major, and I too believed it, it's hooey, albeit superficially plausible.

Who wants their music sitting on a shelf, useless and unperformed?

Anyway, I'm just happy to see more musicians show up - perhaps we'll get Conrad over yet!