THE TASK WILL REVEAL ITSELF - THE MUSIC OF WHAT HAPPENS
@tvansantana @ellowrites @kseniaanske @pelldoherty @annemio
Preamble: I have not done any posting here for a couple of months, but it has nothing to do with my dissatisfaction about Ello as an institution. I'm not dissatisfied and I'm not into grumbling here. I do enough grumbling as it is these days. My reason for this extended silence is that I have a life, as do many of us. So there was the renovation of the little room behind the kitchen, formerly known as the little room behind the kitchen but now renamed as the pantry. This involved a lot of D.I.Y and a few contractors, who did their job and then left. Expensive, messy, but in the end deeply satisfying. Then there was the long road trip, which involved a family wedding in Louisville, attended by many Swedes from Sweden who were family friends of the groom’s parents. There were stops in Columbus, Ohio along the way and in Chicago on the return trip. Anyway, I wasn't in the mood. I don't do this out of any sense of duty. I am a little bummed lately because a fair number of my favorite readers have gone silent, although they still have accounts. However, I went ahead and tagged a few people whose writing I admire, although I have not been particularly conscientious about saying so, because I’m interested in finding out what they think about the music of what happens in their art. And yes, I consider Anne Mio’s photography to be musical, whether it is akin to writing or not.
I’ve been reading a book by Haruki Murakami called Absolutely on Music. It’s a series of interviews with the orchestral conductor Seiji Ozawa, or I guess I should say it’s a translation of the interviews he did with Ozawa in 2011. Murakami is a record collector and he likes to play his records and listen to classical music while he’s busy staying at home writing his novels. He says there is a connection between music and writing. “. . . you can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music. . . So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm. No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.” I once got the idea in my head that I would ask different people I know what they mean when they say some author they like is a good writer, or maybe they say, oh I just like her writing. I do not recommend trying this yourself. It puts people on the defensive, as well it might, because for the most part people do not have the least idea what they mean when they say “I like the writing,” not even if you give them a hint by saying something like, “is it the vocabulary?” or “is it the rhythm of the prose that you like?” That just gets them more irritated. Frankly I don’t think people always pay much attention to “the writing,” whatever that means, because their attention is focused on what, for want of a better expression, we might call the “thematic content.”
When I started reading À la recherche du temps perdu in French a couple of years ago, it was basically because I wanted to find out if I would even be able to do it. Although I live in a French city, my spoken French is not that good - what’s the French word for crumble? I found out that émietter is a verb that you could translate as "to crumb", and that a crumble is just a crumb - miette - but this was only after I got home and looked it up, too late to be particularly useful with my efforts to find the right kind of blue cheese at Maître Boucher. Take note @crumbled, your name would be @émietté, something that has a very different rhythm, much lighter than your English name, and yes I went to a bit of trouble to work this out, although I only just thought about this connection when I was doing the final copy-editing of this post. I really did have to ask the nice young woman who was trying to help me if she knew the French word for crumbles, which sort of put an end to an otherwise enjoyable bit of French conversation. Your name, whatever it may be, did not come up. Reading French has always been easier for me, and I thought Proust might even boost my confidence with ordinary conversation. I already read the English translation, which I thought was going to be make things easier, but it didn't, not really. Because what surprised me about reading Proust in French was not that something was lost in translation, but that kind of everything was lost in translation, which makes me ask myself what I’m really reading when I read one of Murakami’s books, which were written in Japanese, and what on earth would that be like? And for that matter what is Murakami seeing when he goes to see a Shakespeare play translated into Japanese. So the Proust thing, it turned out to be that the music was completely different from what the English translation felt like and I came to realize, to my dismay, that Proust in English is just kind of lame and also fussy in exactly the way you would expect it would be if you take the time to think about it. À la recherche du temps perdu is a lot sadder and a whole lot funnier in French than anything you get from the English translation and way more pleasing musically speaking. Adam Gopnik once wrote a piece for the New Yorker about how not that much of a book is really “lost in translation” because pretty much all of the semantic content is fully translatable. The only thing missing is what he calls the “flavor” of the original. I already heard all this from Adam’s father many years ago, but I’m thinking they don’t really get how important the flavor really is, unless we’re talking about the instruction manual for a toaster or a clock radio.
Helen Vendler thinks poetry is “the music of what happens” and she even wrote a book about it once called The Music of What Happens. I am a big fan of her edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a truly crazy account of an absolutely crazy work of art. I once met her in person if sitting in the same room at a committee counts as meeting someone, under some rather difficult circumstances, and although I agreed with what she had to say, I did not find her particularly congenial. I heard a story once about a guy who lost his job at a well-known university in New England for making an egregious sexual comment right to her face at some kind of academic reception. He had never met her before. I knew this guy had very poor impulse control, so I believed the story and I also knew he definitely lost his job at a well known university in New England. It was not Harvard - the university where he lost his job - so that should narrow it down for you. Well, the comment itself would probably have been something you could say to an intimate partner in a tender moment, although in a less crude way, but it wouldn’t be the first thought that should come to mind when you’ve just been introduced to someone at a professional gathering. This happened maybe 45 years ago. The lesson here is if you can’t think of any other reason for not acting like an inconsiderate and abusive jerk, and there are quite a few, you might want to consider the possibility that the person you have just insulted might have a lot more power than you do.
Where was I? Yes - the music of what happens. I have had occasion to say, or perhaps I should say I have gone out of my way on many occasions to say that if I don’t like the music I won’t believe the words. When I told my friend Elaine about this she thought I was talking about maybe Barry Manilow, but actually my idea has nothing to do with anyone who sings popular music or even Schubert Lieder. I’m talking about the music of the spoken word and how you can tell by the sound of his voice that what the dictator is saying is malicious bull-shit. He is not subtle; it's like he's going out of his way to make his utterances sound exactly like malicious bull-shit. Evidently this is not so easy to recognize, or maybe people aren’t really listening, unless they basically like the malicious bull-shit themselves and agree with it or else they see no reason to think much about it which might be worse. Phoniness has a particular sound - or music I guess I would say - that is not very hard to detect. In French they call it langue de bois, which means “tongue - or language - of wood,” vapid, conventional, banal. You can tell when somebody you’re listening to doesn’t really believe what they’re saying, and then why on earth would you believe them yourself? Because you agree with them? Is that it?
So there we have at least a rough idea of what you mean by “a writer’s voice” which is kind of a metaphor since you can’t really “hear a voice” when you’re reading, unless you’re reading to yourself out loud. It was once a commonplace habit for people to do exactly that, reading their letters out loud when they were alone in their closet, a word that at one time meant something like your bedroom or your private study. Now we read silently but we nevertheless recognize the freshness or the authority or, alternatively the phoniness of the voice.
I don't have a twitter account, but you've already guessed that I suppose.
If you were alive at the same time as Shakespeare or John Donne and you went to grammar school you would learn all about the properties of language, including how to use different figures of speech, which are about controlling and modulating the rhythm of natural language. While you were learning that you were probably learning how to sing and how to listen to music. I have no idea if Shakespeare could sing, but for sure he knew how to write blank verse and his lyrics can be set to music in very satisfying ways. There are times I think that all he ever had to do was concentrate on creating blank verse and everything else would take care of itself. Anyway, if you had that kind of an education then your writing would have a strong rhythm, and you would have a distinctive voice. Read some of John Donne’s sermons if you want to see what I’m talking about. Read Sir Thomas Browne while you’re at it. It can’t do any harm and who knows - it might make you a better writer.