Monday, May 11, 2009

Sublimity vs. Delight

One of the characters in the previously mentioned A Mixture of Frailties is the self-proclaimed chameleon of belief, Sir Benedict Domdaniel. The knighted conductor, originally of Jewish descent, apparently adopts whatever passion is required by his art, but his earliest soliloquies in the book suggest that he in fact an unabashed Nietzschean, who scorns the union daughter’s distrust of wealth and sees all the world divided between Eros and Thanatos (those who are for life and those who are against it). And so he provides me with a more succinct summary of Nietzsche’s take on music than I have yet to find in the latter’s writings:
That’s what music used to be for, you know—to capture the beauty and delight that people found in life. But then the Romantics came along and turned it all upside down; they made music a way of churning up emotions in people that they hadn’t felt before. Music ceased to be a distilment of life and became, for a lot of people, a substitute for life—a substitute for a sea-voyage, or the ecstasies of sainthood, or being raped by a cannibal king, or even for an hour with a psychoanalyst or a good movement of the bowels. And a whole class of people arose who thought themselves music-lovers, but who were really sensation-lovers.

The difficulty of discerning between distilling the beauty of life (Nietzsche speaks of idealization, but it seems to be the same idea as Domdaniel’s distillation) and creating effect or sensation is apparent in Davies’ work itself. He probably thinks he is telling quite the Nietzschean tale, but as I suggest below, it seems often like a romance.

What this all means for how I listen to music, I’m not sure yet, but I mean to find out. I have Nietzsche and Wagner’s entire correspondence sitting on my desk and A Tribe Called Quest and The Cocteau Twins on my iPod. I want to find what these things have to do with one another.

Of artists, archetypes, and wealthy benefactors

I am reading Robertson Davies again. Every time one of his novels appears in a used book store I can’t help but buy it. I have already purchased several copies of The Rebel Angels, only to give them away and buy more – a practice which has been long modeled to me by my sister, and seems to be one of my most active forms of proselytizing (dwarfed only by the need to give much-too-carefully-crafted mixed CDs even when they’re not entirely wanted).

It’s A Mixture of Frailties this time, which rounds out Davies’ first trilogy with a move from small town southern Ontario to his later much-beloved European world of the arts, a world which has likely never existed. This seems to me the problem with Davies. He writes what I have on occasion affectionately called “academic smut”. He excites his quasi-educated, partially-cultured reader with fantastical romps in which all the characters have in depth knowledge of Rabelais, Jung, and the lesser known operas, and in which all young women of some talent have enlightening affairs with their mentors. Christianity is come upon in great paintings and great music, and morality is something like the noble virtues of the Renaissance, or maybe even the Greeks who they attempted to model. This humanism is far from the democratic humanism which it has become, but the kind that demands individual greatness, and voracity for soaking in the greatness of ages past. It leaves me with a rather feverish desire to enter such a world, to commit myself to some work of genius and to all the characters I would meet along the way.

Of course, as with all smut, the desires Davies instills don’t correspond to any reality. Reality is filled with fewer artists and quaint small town folk, and many more bureaucrats. Reality requires a lot more patience. As filled as his books might be with some real insight on the development of character, the hard work never seems particularly like hard work and the existential struggles seem more romantic than actually agonizing. I love reading Davies for all these reasons, but I am suspect of this love.

Incidentally, I know someone who seems to me very much a character out of a Robertson Davies novel. Originally from a small Canadian town, he is full of stories of the illustrious personages he has known, from vaguely lascivious encounters with Oxford spinsters to the time he baptized several Huguenot children in a remote city in Switzerland. He personally knows the Archbishop of Canterbury, likes to carry on long conversations about gin and sherry, and still wears cuff links. He has spent the last eight years studying the drunkenness of Noah. I once spoke of my love for Robertson Davies in his presence and he grimaced; it seems he has no liking at all for Davies’ novels, and I find this rather telling. Those closest to the world Davies inhabited see only a heavy-handedness in his opinions: there is no subtlety here. Davies embraces the plain speech that his most well-loved character preaches (Dunstan Ramsay of the Deptford Trilogy), which, though a very affective sort of storytelling, makes it difficult to enjoy his works if one really truly disagrees with him. And those who have had any taste of the reality of these matters must undoubtedly disagree with him at some point because, as I strongly suspect, there is very little reality in the particulars of his stories. These are fairytales, or perhaps fables, for they contain the plainest morals I’ve encountered in novels of late. (Davies' conflation of religion and art, which intrigues me but is likely much too simplistic, is also part of the problem for the man I'm speaking of, and it's something I would love to write more about at some point.)

So whether fairytale or grad school harlequin romance, I’m not sure, but the flush on my cheeks won’t propel me to the hard work of genius. Finally this flush only engenders the voracity for more Davies.