Thursday, December 21, 2006

Big Dipper

Night! Between the houses a torchbeam processes, it is a waving
anemone's tooth. It briefly illuminates a polar star hawthorn garages
with the pyre of a summer insect. We had drawn up our feet steady
in the near to the ecliptic slatterns of a tree's attic;
we launched into night, ash-wings beat seedfully into the universal fog that
Kyle smoked dark lanterns damp graves as long as we did not talk
inched onto a shroud, the tartan of black colourways interwoven,
we potted, bent against the nap, on a "cloth of cold"
feet logged above corrugated slope, and twin gradient, triplet descent,
quarter fallow. Black rails, folds in the silent county,
distant flood-shadow, distant pitch, insistent whistle
that is owl, beer, otter and vole, all headed electro-sensitive
limb-contriving mouthers. The bang of a van door discolours minutely,
breaks forth like a shoulder where a colony of apetalous shadow-forms
creep into their mother's lull; a wave-crest, and this was also how
the ruled-in reminders, worries maybe longings,
flashed on our lines of thinking, regular knots under the weave,
head in black glass shattered; fixed in it; shattered; unbroken,
for the whole yard was in a mirror.

The cold like any big thing impedes a voyage into itself.
Our feet slip rimily, cursing; his, mine, a pause, mine, his...
then I know our feet are revolving it into a way of feeling
out each other's determination and of deterring it. Stop -
impedes a voyage into itself,
this is what its love is worth,
it does not concern itself with us, what it amounts to; this
at first is to freeze us out; freedom to give up the struggle,
freedom is that which is not given, thus freedom is given.
Low in the looping pastures I can smell its force,
conceive being ice-glad, being then
two sacs of colliding metal drawn from a shy brook
nothing but that, all my extremities ripped away
with the tackle of No. 2 Lifeboat, that black hulk
opening a black space, my fingers so still, so unfingered
that glass may have no envisaged surface and so no sheen,
be total, one solid coat the distillation of wind-chill.

Friday, December 15, 2006

the sun grows dark

Is it the way of this December, or is my sight failing more quickly? Or am I confused from sleeping with the radio commentary from Perth in my dreams all night?

"The sun grows dark" is the name of one of the many sections in Richard Strauss' final symphonic poem, An Alpine Symphony (1915).

Adorno remarks about the opening:

"The poverty of the sunrise of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is caused not merely by banal sequences, but by its very splendor. For no sunrise, not even the one in the high mountains, is pompous, triumphal, stately, but each occurs faintly and diffidently, like the hope that everything may yet turn out well, and precisely in the inconspicuousness of the mightiest of all lights lies that which is so poignantly overwhelming." (Minima Moralia 72, 1945)

Someone on the Gramophone forum adds:

"As ever Adorno is so precise and insightful. The crass pomposity of Strauss' Alpine Symphony is, for me, quite the most superficial attempt to depict nature in all music. But then to quote Stravinsky 'I would like to admit Richard Strauss' music to whatever purgatory punishes triumphant banality'."

The Alpine Symphony had occupied a similar cultural role in Germany to, say, the Georgian poets in the UK. - A sort of whipping-boy, but perhaps with even greater animus. That the aged Strauss had not seen fit to exile himself from Germany during the Nazi era left bitter feelings. And as a Wagnerite he provided a convenient substitute - a subject on which to confirm one's moral high-mindedness - for those who found Wagner's own music too formidable to sacrifice. Then there was that Viennese chocolate-boxiness that was suddenly making everyone feel horribly unwell; and the alpen-worship, the homeland-soil-worship that had so easily been perverted, and programme music itself, which had long formed (with the usual glaring inconsistencies) a useful social fireside where wits could compete amicably in a spitting contest.

How variably the ear can hear things! I don't find the Alpine Symphony pompous - quite the contrary, I find it - breathtakingly - balanced. Where others hear second-rate musical ideas, I hear music doing things it had never done before ("The sun grows dark" being one good example). Where others hear superficiality I hear delicacy, where others hear crassness I hear originality. (- And I do consider myself fairly well-versed in the music of both crass pomposity and visionary nature-realization!) But never mind what I hear. What you might not expect from Adorno's words is that there are other ways of hearing this music. Straussians of course admire it; you'd expect that. More surprisingly there are others, like me, who admit to not really liking Strauss yet consider the Alpine Symphony something else altogether.

[- It is not adequately described as programmatic - long sections like the summit and the finale gradually dissipate their programmatic openings - they begin when you stop moving and your heart slowly stops its thumping, but then they transform into unapplied music.]

I feel embarrassed on Adorno's behalf, for this reason: the paltriness of the argument. Even supposing it true that Strauss's music is pompous and empty, even supposing it true that all sunrises are in some sense as diffident as Adorno claims, even supposing that all humans confronted with a sunrise register that diffidence and nothing else, even supposing that the human imagination had never conceived and never would conceive of sunrise as warmly triumphant - even so, can Adorno's argument be understood as anything more than the crudest naturalism? When the hidebound bourgeoisie filed through the Salon des Refusés laughing and poking each other in the ribs, Why, the sun was not green, the fields were not pink! .. - isn't that the intellectual level of Adorno's "precise insight"? Logically speaking.

But of course it's not about logic. What Adorno was writing about was triumph itself. Triumph, jackbooted at the Brandenberg Gate, Triumph that Prussian, Hitlerite, Roman old enemy had to be snuffed out altogether. Triumph was a deadly enemy, an obscene joke, Triumph must form no element at all in our conception of reality. When the empty rhetoric, the stale evil of Triumphalism was still heard on the concert-platform then one must make a demonstration. And one must.

When evil comes, artistic comprehension is one of the small things that gets ruined.

Yet Adorno, pupil of Berg, was a great music critic. Reading the passage again - by the way, the context in Minima Moralia doesn't help much - it begins to feel evident that Adorno's attack is pitched just where it is exactly because he does hear the splendour of that sunrise, and exactly because he does perfectly understand the relevance of Strauss' work to the country of the high mountains. He wants us to know that he knows what it's like on mountains. (25 years later, a mountain summit played a material part in Adorno's death.)

But can Adorno have been "wrong"? I don't think so. I believe the "banal sequences" that Adorno mentions without further specification were really there, though for me they are undiscoverable. It was like a tone of voice that grated - a tone whose meaning, far beyond anything so conscious as an intention on the composer's part, was then unmistakable. Contemporaries have a cultural hotline into the work of their time. Later the language of that moment gets lost.

Friday, December 08, 2006

the history of her commons

They steamed into the Gravesend Basin crowned with gulls wheeling.

The sky was overcast and mild for late September but as yet there was little sign of Sunday strollers along the shore. True, it was only ten-thirty; no, nine-thirty; MacArthur swiftly adjusting his timepiece.

"Back to watching the clock again. Back to tight rations and that damned thieving government," he complained. "I tell you something's finished about old England."

"Be quiet, dear." Joan's eyes shone out of her tan; she was looking tired, absolutely worn out, but marvellous.

"Wouldn't you like to go back home? I don't see why we should hang around."

"Back to Capetown? I would, of course I can hardly wait, but we've talked about this."

"Why not? Look! - there's a P&O boat just sliding alongside us now."

London River was getting busier. Tan-sailed barges and lighters bearing heaps of coal and crushed stone under stretched tarps were making slow headway close to the Kentish shore. Excise craft, wide-prowed with their cabins forward and big windows flashing, darted across the tide.

"And what about Cassell, the little matter of that book?"

They were wrapped up in each other and the excitement of making port, yet still David's eyes looked over her shoulder. A young woman of extraordinary beauty, a woman who made Joan of all people look practically dumpy, had advanced to the rail.

Miss P. Lindkvist cast a glance in return. No doubt about it, he was good-looking, well into his forties though. Those Navy years had given him a hungry look that two months of touring Sweden had satisfied but not done away with.

He even reminded her a little of the hero in that absurd film, so lean and brilliantined. But why was it two huge diamonds he'd snatched from the vault in Scotland Yard? They represented balls no doubt, like the thunder-stones in the stone circles of Mälaren. And Farbror Erik, he was as unsure of himself as another man, he had pocketed plenty of diamonds! She had been shown the pictures of Wimbledon Common. She would disappear in that house. But could it really be so close, could it really be somewhere in this vast, dirty city?

Even down-river the signs of the war were everywhere, coast defences, bombed-out sites. Further in, London was ramshackle. Blackwall Docks was a rubble zone, St Katharine Docks might not be rebuilt at all. Whole streets of the East End were ruined, citizens of the Commonwealth's heartland living in barracks and dormitories on farms. This was what Stan had gone home to, Jimmy Barnes too.

They found themselves elbows together in the gangway, the morning light churlish through salt on the glass.

"Have you been long out of England? Ah, - " he saw her name-tag "Förlåt, jag trodde inte att ni var Svensk..."

"That is all right. As you see, I speak English quite well."

"You don't look Swedish - according to our silly ideas, you know."

"Of course my black hair, I understand."

“It’s far from black,” he protested and then paused, embarrassed.

They were down among the cabins. There was a change of motion; Saga was warping into her berth. "Your first time in England?"

Suddenly she looked vague. "Yes - I have some things to do here. It is psychological work."

"And I have been studying the Swedish psychology! It's a fine country."

"I don't know. We don’t speak of it easily. We never used to have flagpoles everywhere, but now, we seem to need them."

After disembarking he forgot about her, watching for the car to be hoisted on to the quay-side. As the crane swung it up he enjoyed its rakish dustiness. For this moment it still remained apart from the life he felt closing back in on them.

"Well, we've got our notes."

As soon as he thought of the precious notes, Joan's and his hand-writing side by side, all spotted with mosquito-blood and rain, he felt repelled at the thought of working them up into a clean-typed manuscript.

"You'll be busy in no time. I know you." Joan felt for him, how deflated he'd suddenly become. "As soon as we've been home and seen the dogs, I say we meet up with Bill and find a drink somewhere."

“Good idea – so long as the R.A.C. have done their homework. Steel is more in my line than a type-writer, I'm afraid. It isn’t really what I call work. Lord, how I envy Nils! But there's nothing for it. It's going to take an age to clear the car. Ach, Jennie – I wish we could just – book into a vandrarhem."

"In the middle of Westminster! Besides, vandrarhems did have one or two drawbacks...”

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