MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Walk on the Wilde Side


Creating quite the stir was of course second nature to Oscar Wilde, and he set many tongues wagging throughout the course of his extensive North American tour in 1882. Nowadays we have complex PR machines. Back then it was Oscar giving interviews to the local papers to generate buzz for his series of lectures on “the science of the beautiful.” He set the tone immediately upon disembarking in New York after his less-than-pleasing encounter with the Atlantic Ocean by (allegedly) proclaiming to the customs agent: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

Wilde ended up making some 140 appearances at cities and towns across 15,000 miles of the continent, alighting in gilded age salons and mining town saloons alike. Anthony Paletta sums up some of the press reaction to his first lecture, in New York, billed as having something to do with the “English Renaissance”:

[It] seems to have faltered in its prepared elements and shone in its improvisational bits, attracting praise from some quarters (“The Cincinnati Enquirer”) and dismissal from others (“The Nation,” grumpy even in the 1880s, observed that Wilde “can hardly succeed in this country”). “The New York Times” commented on the “aesthetic and pallid young men in dress suits and banged hair” in the rear of the venue — banged-hair an attribution with some whiff of the homosexual demimonde at the time.

Caricature from the San Francisco Wasp, March 31, 1882.

Caricature from the San Francisco Wasp, March 31, 1882.

But no one quite matched the savage disdain penned by the journalist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce following Wilde’s first lecture at Platt’s Hall in San Francisco in March:

That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers. He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it—says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. Therefore is the she fool enamored of the feel of his tongue in her ear to tickle her understanding.

The limpid and spiritless vacuity of this intellectual jelly-fish is in ludicrous contrast with the rude but robust mental activities that he came to quicken and inspire. Not only has he no thought, but no thinker. His lecture is mere vebal ditchwater—meaningingless, trite and without coherence. It lacks even the nastiness that exalts and refines his verse. Moreover, it is obviously his own; he had not even the energy and independence to steal it. And so, with a knowledge that would equip and idiot to dispute with a cast-iron dog, and eloquence to qualify him for the duties of a caller on a hog-ranche, and an imagination adequate to the conception of a tom-cat, when fired by contemplation of a fiddle-string, this consummate and star-like youth, missing everything his heaven-appointed functions and offices, wanders about, posing as a statute of himself, and, like the sun-smitten image of Memnon, emitting meaningless murmurs in the blaze of women’s eyes. He makes me tired.

And this gawky gowk has the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swinburne, Rossetti and Morris—this dunghill he-hen would fly with eagles. He dares to set his tongue to the honored name of Keats. He is the leader, quoth’a, of a renaissance in art, this man who cannot draw–of a revival of letters, this man who cannot write! This little and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons, whom the wicked wits of London, haling him dazed from his obscurity, have crowned and crucified as King of the Cranks, has accepted the distinction in stupid good faith and our foolish people take him at his word. Mr. Wilde is pinnacled upon a dazzling eminence but the earth still trembles to the dull thunder of the kicks that set him up.

Today’s shock jocks have nothing on Ambrose Bierce. But just what stirred him to such an extremity of umbrage?

Filed under: literary criticism, literature

The Cursed Clown Returns: Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto

Marco Vratogna; photo by Elise Bakketun

Rigoletto (Marco Vratogna) at work in the court; photo by Elise Bakketun

It’s no surprise that general director Speight Jenkins opted to reprise Seattle Opera’s production of Rigoletto, staged by the American director Linda Brovsky, for his farewell season (which also coincides with the company’s 50th anniversary). Introduced a decade ago, this Rigoletto is of fine vintage and remains hands-down the most satisfying Verdi production I’ve seen at Seattle Opera (a close tie being the Falstaff directed by Peter Kazaras).

Seattle can hardly be called a Mecca for Regie opera in the usual sense in which that term is bandied about. But that doesn’t mean it’s a haven for boringly conservative “traditional” stagings. The company actually is director-centric in that it places a high premium on theatrical values: it prizes directors who can contribute a sensitively close reading so that musical and dramatic meanings enhance each other. (Jenkins is, after all, a Wagnerian, and a good deal of the success of Seattle’s Ring has hinged on director Stephen Wadsworth’s ability to do just that.)

Rigoletto is certainly an opera amenable to directorial transposition, and the concept applied by Brovsky and the design team is to set the swiftly moving plot in the lurid “court” of a Benito Mussolini-like duce in the 1930s, at the height of Italian fascism. Rigoletto serves as a kind of spy who can feed him information and of course also as his procurer. The decadence of the duce/Duke of Mantua and his cronies turns out to be an expression of their unchecked power — the way they “loosen up” when not arrogantly terrorizing the citizens into submission.

Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto, Nadine Sierra as Gilda, Sarah Larsen as Maddalena and Francesco Demuro as the Duke of Mantua; photo by Elise Bakketun

l to r: Marco Vratogna (Rigoletto), Nadine Sierra (Gilda), Sarah Larsen (Maddalena), Francesco Demuro (Duke of Mantua); photo by Elise Bakketun

Robert Dahlstrom’s sets and Thomas C. Hase’s lighting dramatically contrast the two poles of Rigoletto‘s world. The palace, thrumming with lust, is sleekly decked out with the spoils of art (a version of Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina sculpture serves as a prop littered with dirty champagne glasses), while the dimly lit, claustrophobic backstreets where the jester lives with his daughter Gilda are creeping with menace, an underworld that mirrors the cynical brutality of the rulers — only without their stylish veneer and classical trappings. The scenery of the last act, with its storm-swept cityscape across a river, is especially evocative. Marie Anne Chiment’s elegant gowns and chic suits make exceptionally eye-catching costumes.

All this provides more than a mere backdrop against which the familiar melodrama plays out. By anchoring what otherwise might seem a far-fetched series of unfortunate coincidences in a repulsive political and moral order, the fascist setting pushes buttons. When the nobleman Monterone reproaches the Duke for “seducing” his daughter — it’s clear that she’s been traumatized — Brovsky shows the old man wearing a yarmulke and dragged off to prison on the Duke’s orders: a voice of protest silenced by anti-Semitic thuggery. (Could this explain the family secrets Rigoletto keeps hidden from Gilda, including the mystery of her mother?)

Rigoletto will find himself in the same position as Monterone when he mourns the ruin of Gilda. The opera’s denouement is fueled by the jester’s plan for vengeance, his realistic version of the curse pronounced by Monterone. Marco Vratogna portrays an uncommonly sympathetic Rigoletto, making for a harrowing final scene. The problem is that he’s essentially too “nice” for the production’s milieu — particularly in the opera’s opening scene, where Verdi shows his cynical persona at work. The less-than-imposing curse delivered by Donovan Singletary’s Monterone should be the climactic focus of the scene, but the jester’s reaction barely registers.

Vratogna’s baritone admirably balances sturdiness and lyricism — it can be thrilling in a cabaletta wrap-up — but on opening night didn’t display the variety of colors essential to making this character vivid. You need to experience Rigoletto’s jabbing viciousness for his final sorrow to earn its full impact. Vratogna’s pivotal second-act solo lacked the differentiated phrasing Verdi calls for when Rigoletto, accustomed to his role as a performer, at last gives vent to his rage but then quickly changes tack to plead for his daughter.

Francesco Demuro as the playboy Duke; photo by Elise Bakketun

Francesco Demuro as the playboy Duke; photo by Elise Bakketun

A similar drawback applies to Francesco Demuro’s depiction of the Duke. A lyric tenor with a gorgeous command of legato, Demuro brings out the careless playboy side of the role quite convincingly. It’s just that he’s too suave, too effortlessly mellifluous to generate the effect of a feared, ruthless leader. In fact, the emotional depth Demuro gave to his richly sung “Ella fu mi rapita!” scene (the Duke’s most interesting solo and the one eclipsed by the popularity of his other two famous numbers) ends up jarring against the rest of his characterization. The Duke’s moment of interiority of course goes nowhere — and that’s one dramaturgical lapse Brovsky’s smart production doesn’t solve.

On the other hand, the really, really dark side of this Rigoletto is supplied in spades by Andrea Silvestrelli as the assassin-for-hire Sparafucile. His bass sounds as fathomless as an unlit, echoing cave, and Silvestrelli telegraphs noirish menace with just a flick and boot crush of his cigarette. As his sister and partner-in-crime Maddalena, Sarah Larsen channels a touch of Carmen, working out an entire character transformation in the course of her one scene.

Andrea Silvestrelli (Sparafucile); photo by Elise Bakketun

Andrea Silvestrelli (Sparafucile); photo by Elise Bakketun

But no one else matched the art of transition displayed by American soprano Nadine Sierra, making her Seattle Opera debut as Gilda. It’s not hard to discern what wowed the judges when they chose her as the youngest-ever winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Councils a few years ago. Sierra — and you’ll most definitely want to pay attention to her name — has an alluring, immediately identifiable voice that encompasses dark-hued deep notes as well as spectacularly spun, floating light notes at the very top of her range.

And that’s only a starting point for Sierra: her remarkable control allows her to venture an exciting variety in her phrasing. Her characterization complements this vocal richness: Sierra shows Gilda not as the innocent “tabula rasa” we usually see at first but as a loving daughter who already has desires of her own. The pain of her humiliation in the second act is so palpable it’s hard to watch. And her Gilda’s persistent attachment to the Duke isn’t a sentimental weakness but a desperate attempt to salvage some kind of meaning within the opera’s heartless environment. An especially effective touch is the shudder of terror she reveals even after she’s resolved to sacrifice herself.

Nadine Sierra; photo by Elise Bakketun

Nadine Sierra; photo by Elise Bakketun

Another indispensable contribution is made by conductor Riccardo Frizza, doing the best work I’ve heard from him. The orchestra itself wasn’t on quite the same level on opening night, and some sloppy intonation crept into the mix, but the musicians are clearly responsive to the conductor’s reading of the score. Frizza understands that these immortal melodies get their punch precisely from the contexts Verdi creates. As a milestone experiment on the way toward the mature Verdi, Rigoletto is all about restyling the conventions of Italian opera within a context of breathless, dramatically compelling momentum.

Frizza was able to stretch a phrase here and there, effortlessly accommodating the singers, but all the while maintaining the needed tension. He also has a terrific ear for the telling, sometimes ironic details Verdi uses to punctuate the lyrical flow. The first scene especially benefited from a snarling energy that supplied in sound what the staging meant to evoke. The chorus (prepared by John Keene) also used details to excellent effect in the two palace scenes, hinting at a whole spectrum of implicit back stories for the audience’s imagination to supply.

One especially memorable detail from Brovsky: her treatment of “La donna è mobile,” the opera’s most-famous (and ironic) number, as a kind of prop. Here it’s a pop hit that obviously gets a lot of play on the state radio. We hear it (i.e., the orchestra’s preliminaries) as the Duke tunes in the radio while he’s out slumming for sex, prompting him to sing it himself. It’s when Rigoletto hears the Duke’s version again, after his presumed stabbing, that the corpse’s identity becomes a chilling question.

Brovsky’s conceit is right in keeping with Verdi’s own “high concept” interpolation of the tune, which refuses the expected cadence but has the melody fade away. Verdi begins the tune with a false start, and it never really ends — the Duke is left unscathed, ready for his next conquest, leaving us with a catchy tune. Fascism, as Walter Benjamin famously pointed out, is the “aestheticization of politics.”

Seattle Opera’s production of Rigoletto runs through January 25. Tickets available here.

Review (C) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved

Filed under: review, Seattle Opera, Verdi

A Dose of Bach

Book I, Prelude No. 1 in C major

Book I, Prelude No. 1 in C major

I’ve referred to my skepticism regarding “best-of-the-year” lists, and I admit I’ve started to feel something similar about New Year’s resolutions. But there’s one resolution I made a few years ago (and I think that was a reboot of an impulse from way, way back) which has begun again, quite expectedly, to fascinate me. Namely, to listen closely to a new prelude and fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier each day before focusing on other music.

Of course this is merely borrowing an idea that inspired me when I came across it in Pablo Casals’s memoirs (Joys and Sorrows, if I remember correctly). Casals got into the habit of starting each day by playing some Bach at the keyboard — I believe this was before he’d made his own epochal rediscovery of the Cello Suites.

It’s unquestionably a wonderful regimen. I’ve only worked my own way through a humiliatingly small portion of the WTC and am badly out of practice, so close listening will have to substitute. I can’t explain why, but from my substantial treasure of Bach recordings, I’ve gravitated toward Rosalyn Tureck. (I hadn’t realized last month marked the centenary of her birth.)

Like Casals, Tureck — the so-called “high priestess of Bach” — was a key player in reclaiming Bach for 20th-century listeners. It’s hard to imagine that when she was coming of age, Bach was still thought of by many music lovers as the music you played to get your fingers in shape and master coordination.

The Chicago-born Tureck, who liked to hang out with Oxford intellectuals and was friends with Bertrand Russell, represented a dramatically contrasting approach to that of Glenn Gould. The meditative quality she brings to her classic account of the WTC belongs to a class of its own. From the start, Tureck knows how to shine a gentle light on what she calls “Bach’s genius for creating a latent richness, implied rather than stated, within a simple framework.” There she’s referring specifically to the “eternal enigma” posed by the opening C major Prelude: “It can be regarded as very simple or as mysterious as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.”

Here Tureck discusses and illustrates Bach’s enormous influence:

Filed under: Bach

Rising Up with Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus

Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus

Songs of Ascension is one of Meredith Monk’s creations of the past few years. If you don’t know her incomparable music yet, this is a wonderful place to start exploring it.

Monk’s unclassifiable art is grounded in a unique understanding of the flexibility of the human voice. She loves to create new contexts in which to fathom its expressive depths. The result is music that sometimes sounds as if it had been quarried from an archeological dig or beamed in from a distant future. Both impressions emanate from Songs of Ascension, the tenth project Monk has recorded for ECM since her path-breaking Dolmen Music was released three decades ago. That discography charts her intrepid forays “between the cracks,” as Monk likes to put it, where different ways of perceiving the world through art converge.

On one level, Songs of Ascension encapsulates Monk’s aesthetic outlook over a long career, one in which the voice serves as a guiding thread for her interdisciplinary performance pieces. But it also reveals the undiminished curiosity of her artistic quest by incorporating the expanded musical language Monk has evolved over the past decade. With Possible Sky (2003), her first work for orchestra, Monk began to apply her intuitive sense of the voice as a complicated instrument to larger ensembles, teasing out the feedback between singers and instrumentalists in ways that rethink the very bases of composition.

Songs of Ascension represents an ambitious example of this development in her work. One stimulus for the work was Monk’s encounter with poet Norman Fischer’s translation of the Psalms into a Zen-infused language. His imagery led to further reflections on the trope of worshipers ascending a mountain and pausing periodically to sing a psalm of praise. A simultaneous invitation to collaborate with visual artist Ann Hamilton further clarified her evolving musical images, adding a site-specific dimension. Hamilton’s project involved performing while ascending a new tower the artist had designed in Sonoma County, California, inside which a pair of staircases that resemble a double helix spiral upward. In this form Songs premiered in October 2008.

To explore her fascination with the connection between worship, transcendence, and images of ascension, Monk interweaves a fabric drawn from her recent experience writing for string quartet and the signature extended technique of her own vocal ensemble (with the added contributions of The M6 and the Montclair State University Singers). Other threads she includes are woodwinds, an array of percussion, and a blend of Western and Eastern sonorities (with a prominent role for the harmonium-like shruti box, which is associated with Indian music).

In place of a libretto the “text” consists of unpredictable patterns of abstracted phonemes, fluid vocalise, and shaman-like incantations. Yet even as non-sense replaces the logic of language, the vocalizations by Monk and her collaborators seem to imply the origin of speech rather than the disintegration of Babel.

The effect is especially enchanting at the beginning of the piece, which the string quartet inaugurates with sustained whispers of just a few pitches: a gentle fog which rises to reveal the echo of human voices. These “clusters” (in Monk’s terminology) set the stage for the sprouting of song, the blossoming of harmony. The interlinked sections are the first two of 21 that comprise Songs. Monk’s titles cue us in to recurrent patterns—and are also provocatively enigmatic (why are the seasons out of order, and why are winter and autumn instrumental-only while summer and spring include voices?).

Monk’s continual intercutting of highly varied textures builds a sense of larger-scale momentum. The section “mapping,” for example, suddenly introduces a new tone of festive tintinnabulation, while the gliding swoops of strings and voices in “falling” convey the curious sense of whimsical archaism that tempers the more meditative sections crisscrossing through the work. The range of Monk’s vocal idiom is literally breathtaking: a strangely beguiling repertoire of aviary microtones, robust yodels, insectoid whispers, and (in the penultimate “fathom,” a lengthy solo for Monk as she accompanies herself with a shruti box), dusky, low-range chanting. The final number, “ascent,” makes for an inspiring conclusion to the adventure, its layered sonic tapestry suggesting an endless procession/quest as solo lines leap in ecstatic figures from the drone-like foundation.

Though the original Songs of Ascension was conceived as an “immersive experience” with video and site-specific movement, Monk’s music is thoroughly evocative on its own terms. ECM’s engineering gives the music rich, warm resonance and even manages to convey something of Monk’s spatial acoustic. The recording was made in 2009 at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. The booklet includes a smart essay by composer Kyle Gann and a color-photo essay from the premiere in Hamilton’s tower. Songs is further confirmation of the musical treasure we have in Monk, who shows no signs of slowing down.

(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, CD review, new music

Master Class

What happens when you put Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, and Luciano Pavarotti together, with Richard Bonynge on hand to ask them about bel canto?

Filed under: opera, singers

Portrait of the Artist as a Young-at-Heart Man

Randolph Hokanson, 2013; photo by Thomas May

Randolph Hokanson, 2013; photo by Thomas May

The pianist, composer, and sage Randolph Hokanson is a font of wisdom and a remarkable human being — with much to teach us as he approaches the age of 99 this June. Here’s my new profile of the artist for Crosscut:

“I’ve seen it all!” announces Randolph Hokanson before losing himself in a mischievous gale of laughter. With someone else, you might be tempted to indulge that as hyperbole. With Hokanson, who was born in 1915 in Bellingham, it’s tempting to take it literally.

This gifted pianist and teacher has witnessed almost a century of not just ceaseless but accelerating change: epochal shifts in technology, in education, in how music and the arts are valued.

Yet underneath the maelstrom, the things that really matter have managed somehow to endure.

continue reading

Filed under: composers, piano

Shakespeare’s Ruthless Dream


Reviewing Julie Taymor’s highly touted new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kate Havard floats some
provocative ideas about “the more unpleasant aspects at work” in a play that’s all too often taken for pretty fantasy and screwball identity mix-up.

Dream, writes Havard, “is actually a ruthless play: all four couplings marred with traces of compulsion, faithlessness, pettiness, and cruelty.”

According to Havard — a recent graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis and a Tikvah fellow — Taymor emphasizes the forest “as a staging ground for the parts of the soul where reason rules not.”

The forest in “Midsummer” is not only the backdrop for chaos, it is full of spirits who egg on the passions, which helps to make us more aware of what must be tamed within us.

It is false to say that what the forest reveals in these Athenians is the true human nature, because reason is what makes us humans. But the unreasoning parts also tell us a lot.

To put it modernly, the forest is to Shakespeare what dreams are to Freud.

Havard draws out the implications of that analogy:

The symbolism isn’t subtle. Taymor’s taking the Frank Underwood approach to psychology: Everything is about sex except for sex, which is about power.

What Freud told us about our desires, the Greeks already knew: Dionysus and Aphrodite can only be contained and educated, not eradicated. They will always be there, just outside the city gates. And if you try and ignore them, it is at your peril.

In a recent interview in Smithsonian Magazine, Taymor describes what she thinks happens when Shakespeare shows these emotions getting “unleashed”:

I think that Shakespeare’s saying that’s how easily we can switch our passions. A little thing can do it. Whether it’s love juice, a psychedelic drug or somebody swishes by in a different way—that love is extremely fickle. I think a lot of this is about all different levels of love, just like “Titus [Andronicus]” is about every single aspect of violence.”

Filed under: Shakespeare

What Makes an “American Composer”?

I was just researching an orchestral piece by Walter Piston and wondering why his music is hardly ever programmed nowadays. In the mid- twentieth century he was all over the place, winning TWO Pulitzers and getting prestigious commissions year after year from the Boston Symphony. Merely an adept player at musical politics?

In fact, Mr. hard-to-please Igor Stravinsky singled out Piston and Aaron Copland as exemplary American composers: “They have good musical ideas,” Stravinsky wrote in 1945. “They also have the requisite techniques. They are fine orchestrators, too.”

In the 1930s, Copland, six years younger than the New England-born and -bred Piston, listed a sort of posse of prominent American composers that (along with himself) included Piston, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, and Roger Sessions. (Thomson apparently liked to refer to this as Copland’s “commando unit.”) Yet of this bunch (“Les Six” made such bands fashionable at the time), it’s really only Copland who gets heard with any frequency today.

But Piston’s definition of “American music” may have actually been closer to today’s multicultural sensibilities than Copland’s — in the sense, that is, that there can be no grand “master narrative,” no single identifiable American style. Howard Pollack, who wrote his dissertation on Piston and a very fine bio of Copland, quotes the following from Piston, who, like Copland, had studied at the “Boulangerie” in 1920s Paris with Nadia Boulanger:

Copland and I had a friendly war about American music. Aaron and I were very thick. We practically grew up together. He had hopes of producing an American music that was just as recognizable as French and German music. I told him that America had so many different nationalities that it would be nearly impossible, I felt that the only definition of American music was that written by an American. He had to agree, but he felt there ought to be a vernacular.

(That obviously echoes – or was echoed by – Virgil Thomson’s famous dictum that American music was ““any music written by an American” — I don’t know who said it first.)

Piston certainly left an indelible mark through the students he influenced during more than three decades teaching at Harvard: the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, etc. (not to mention his many-times-reprinted textbooks on theory and orchestration).

Piston’s stylishly neoclassical Toccata for Orchestra, a curtain raiser for Charles Munch and the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française (who played it at 41 stops on their 1948 American tour), gives you a good morsel-size sample of the fine craft that musicians like Bernstein valued. Bernstein admired his former teacher’s compositions for showing “the highest standards of craftsmanship and clarity of sonic intention.”

So here is Piston, an American composer, trying to evoke what he describes as “those qualities of clarity and brilliance which are so outstanding in the playing of French musicians.”

Filed under: American music, Bernstein

The Budding Buddhist


Like modern physicists, practitioners of contemporary literary theory of the post-structuralist persuasion trade in ideas that can seem uncannily reminiscent of the ancient insights of Buddhism: ideas like the slippery elusiveness of language, the self/author as an illusion.

But even without the filter of once-fashionable theory, certain artists themselves trigger comparison with aspects of the Buddhist quest. Beethoven’s final piano sonata, the Opus 111, replaces the conventional design with a two-movement dialectic that is frequently likened to a transition from Samsara (the stormy world of struggle of the C minor first movement) to Nirvana (the serene variations of the Arietta). “The farewell of the sonata form,” as Thomas Mann’s character Kretschmar in Doktor Faustus puts it.

According to the writer Pico Iyer, Marcel Proust is another artist who brings Buddhism to mind. Proust “ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection on subjectivity, but brings his understandings back into language and archetypal episodes that anyone can follow.”

The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.

A recreation of Proust's cork-lined bedroom (Musée Carnavalet in Paris)

A recreation of Proust’s cork-lined bedroom (Musée Carnavalet in Paris)

Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of them might be wishful thinking, and what they owe to illusion and the falsifications of the mind? Marcel Proust never formally meditated, so far as I know, and he never officially quit his gilded palace to wander around the world, practicing extremes of austerity and cross-questioning wise men. But if I want to understand the tricks the mind plays upon itself—the ways we substitute our notions of reality for the way things are and need to dismantle the suffering false thoughts can create—I can’t think of a better guide and friend than the author of “À la recherche.”


Proust’s genius, like that of his compatriot Cartier-Bresson (who called himself “an accidental Buddhist”), is to register every detail of the surface and yet never get caught up in the superficial. Here is the rare master who saw that surface was merely the way depth often expressed itself, the trifle in which truth was hidden thanks to mischievous circumstance (or, others would say, the logic of the universe). It takes stamina, bloody-mindedness, concentration, and a fanatic’s devotion to stare the mind down and see how rarely it sees the present, for all the alternative realities it can conjure out of memory or hope. Proust had the sense to belabor us with little theology, academic philosophy or overt epistemology; yet nearly every sentence in his epic work takes us into the complications, the false fronts, the self-betrayals of the heart and mind and so becomes what could almost be called an anatomy of the soul. I’m not sure sitting under a tree in Asia 2,500 years ago would have produced anything different.

Filed under: aesthetics, Beethoven, Buddhism, creativity, Proust, spirituality

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