MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Finding the Key: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But… really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible,” is the lesson that beams in on the short-wave radio. The hyper-curious, gifted, white-haired German orphan Werner Pfennig and his sensitive sister Jutta listen in, escaping through the invisible waves for a moment from the coal-mining town of Zollverein.

This is just one of many memorably etched moments in Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See. I became a fan of Doerr’s writing last year when his short story collection Memory Wall fell into my hands. Doerr possesses the rare gift of a distinctive style that avoids mannerism and that endows his characters — well, most of them — with depth and compassionate believability.

The beauty of Doerr’s fiction is both stylistic and structural. His lyrical, keenly observed prose in All the Light We Cannot See supports a meticulously crafted and layered narrative. The narrative follows a more or less old-fashioned model, using a thriller plot as the engine for what is really of interest: the development of its two main characters, the blind French girl Marie-Laure and Werner, as the horrors of the Second World War grimly unfold around them.

Doerr dextrously interleaves different points of view while time-warping back and forth from the climactic scenes in the walled port city of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, just after D-Day in the summer of 1944. The tone similarly blends aspects of a fable with penetrating realism.

I agree with William T. Vollmann‘s assessment that one major flaw is the two-dimensional portrayal of Sgt. Maj. Reinhold von Rumpel: an almost comic-book Nazi villain hell-bent on his quest for a rare blue diamond known as the Sea of Flame. This Nazi’s “wickedness and physical loathsomeness are offset by nothing that could make him into a rounded character,” observes Vollmann. “His unbelievability exemplifies a mistake writers often make when describing monsters.”

And Vollmann captures the “old-fashioned” quality of Doerr’s achievement here when he notes that All the Light We Cannot See “is more than a thriller and less than great literature. As such, it is what the English would call ‘a good read.'”

Here’s how the author explains what he means by the title:

It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant).

It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.

Why continue to write about WWII? Doerr from his NPR interview with Arun Rath:

We’re losing thousands of people for whom World War II is memory every day. In another decade, there will be nobody left — very very few people left — who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.

And I worry about how my own sons, my 10-year-old sons, are learning about the war, whether it’s through video games or the History Channel. Often, particularly politicians, they’re often presenting the war as a very black-and-white narrative. I worry that that’s dangerous. I think it’s important to empathize with how citizens come to a certain point, and you know, that might be a more meaningful way to try and avoid what had happened.

Filed under: book recs, literature

Interviewing Sam Harris

Sam Harris

I ran into this old interview I did years ago with the brilliant and hugely controversial neuroscientist, philosopher, and gadfly thinker Sam Harris.

It’s actually a decade old, from when I was still an editor at Amazon (and when Amazon was, let’s just say, a very different place). The subject was the first book by the prolific Mr. Harris, The End of Faith, which went on to win the 2005 PENN Award for Nonfiction.

Interview with Sam Harris: The Mortal Dangers of Religious Faith
Not long before the birth of Christ, in an age of violence and turmoil, the Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher Lucretius wrote an epic masterpiece titled De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). His goal, in part, was to liberate humankind from the religious superstitions that he believed stood in the way of true peace of mind and happiness.

Author Sam Harris plays the role of a contemporary Lucretius in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Harris received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and is a doctoral candidate in the field of neuroscience.

Well aware that a book about the inherent dangers of institutional, dogmatic religion would court controversy, Harris wrote The End of Faith out of a sense of urgency regarding what he argues constitutes perhaps the greatest threat we face today. He shared his thoughts about the character of dogmatic faith versus mysticism, the role of reason in civil discourse, and the hope that humans can overcome the propensity toward religious violence before it’s too late.

continue reading

Filed under: book recs, interview, philosophy, religion

War Time: Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane, c. 1896

Stephen Crane, c. 1896

Reviewing Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire, Thomas Powers observes:

Something had changed in Crane since the publication of ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ It can be seen in all of the Cuban pieces but most clearly in ‘War Memories,’ a partly fictionalised account as long as a novella. In it, along with much else, Crane describes the fate of Dr John Gibbs, a naval surgeon shot in the night when guerrillas attacked Crane’s detachment at Guantánamo:

‘I heard somebody dying near me. He was dying hard … The darkness was impenetrable. The man was dying in some depression within seven feet of me. Every wave, vibration, of his anguish beat upon my senses. He was long past groaning. There was only the bitter strife for air which pulsed out in a clear penetrating whistle with intervals of terrible silence … I thought this man would never die. I wanted him to die. Ultimately he died. At that moment the adjutant came bustling along erect among the spitting bullets. ‘Where’s the doctor?’ … A man answered briskly: ‘Just died this minute, sir.’ Despite the horror of this night’s business, the man’s mind was somehow influenced by the coincidence of the adjutant’s calling aloud for the doctor within a few seconds of the doctor’s death. It – what shall I say? It interested him, this coincidence.’

Crane had caught a clear glimpse of what he was seeking, the thing beyond ordinary experience. It wasn’t just the death of Gibbs, but the coincidence, and the man’s interest in the coincidence, despite the horror of the night’s business. The change in the writing, the ‘maturing’ noticed by Conrad, is the addition of Crane himself, what he is feeling and experiencing – ‘no longer a cynic. I was a child who, in a fit of ignorance, had jumped into a vat of war.’ He is not only describing war but using himself as an instrument to calibrate the quality and effects of war. Over time this has become a principal technique for writing about war and other extreme experience, widely used by writers as different as Salinger in ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’ and Michael Herr writing about Vietnam in ‘Dispatches.’

Filed under: biography, book recs

The Latest from Martin Amis

Amis

Last night I attended the reading by Martin Amis at this year’s edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I haven’t had a chance yet to get to his latest novel, The Zone of Interest — from which Amis read an extended excerpt — but it sounds a good deal more substantial than Time’s Arrow from 1991, which also concerns the Holocaust.

Last night’s interview with Alan Taylor, editor of The Scottish Review of Books, included discussion of what drew Amis to such a bottomlessly grim subject, the virus of ideology vis-à-vis religion (and its contemporary manifestations, e.g., Isis), the insights of Primo Levi as a survivor, the writing process, the novelist’s famous “war against cliché” (with a brief excursion into Joyce, recapping some themes from his essays — such as a reading of Ulysses as essentially “about cliché”), and a brief tribute to Christopher Hitchens (by way of a joke that surely would have been more effective when stretched out in Hitchens’s characteristic manner).

There were some very thought-provoking reflections on the nature of evil, the terrible historical “fusion” that led to Hitler and the Nazis, and the impossibility of finding an “explanation.” Amis stated, “What I do reject is the claim that it’s easy to understand — that this kind of brutality and fanatical hatred is simply atavistic human nature at its root, waiting to come out.”

The subject was not one he “decided on,” Amis explained, referring instead to Nabokov’s notion of the “throb” — the moment of recognition an artist gets when it becomes clear that “here is something I can write a novel about.”

In his review, Taylor ventures that The Zone of Interest might be Amis’s “greatest book”:

What Amis has achieved through fiction is to illuminate that which history can only hint at. By and large, we do not know what those who prosecuted the genocide in the first half of the 1940s thought or felt. Their testimonies were compromised, their accounts self-serving, designed to save their skins or excuse the inexcusable. Like Doll, Rudolph Hoss, who was in command of Auschwitz for three years and who presided over the extermination of a quarter of a million people, was insensitive, apathetic and obsessed with notions duty and efficiency. Killing had no effect on him. Everything could be explained by quoting numbers. Amis puts us where we would rather not go, into the head of someone like him, someone emotionally dead, to whom life is actually meaningless.

Filed under: book recs, novelists, Uncategorized

Uplifting

IMG_0749

Reviewing cultural historian Andreas Bernard’s Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator, David Trotter singles out the role of individualized control:

The clue to the elevator’s significance lies in the buttons that adorn its interior and exterior. Its automation, at the beginning of the 20th century, created a system of electronic signalling which brought the entire operation under the control of the individual user. In no other mode of transport could a vehicle be hailed, directed and dismissed entirely without assistance, and by a touch so slight it barely amounts to an expenditure of energy. The machine appears to work by information alone. Elevators, Bernard says, reprogrammed the high-rise building. It might be truer to say that they reprogrammed the people who made use of them, in buildings of any kind.

There were, as Trotter points out, many revolutionary consequences: making the skyscraper possible, the “recodification of verticality” (Bernard) — meaning the migration of the “top” class hotel rooms from the bottom literally to the top — the influence on urban planning, etc.

But for all these more or less obvious transformations, Trotter also refers to the elevator’s uncanny symbolic significance in modern life:

Safety first was not so much a motto as a premise. No wonder that the closest high-end TV drama has come to Sartrean nausea is the moment in “Mad Men” when a pair of elevator doors mysteriously parts in front of troubled genius Don Draper, who is left peering in astonishment down into a mechanical abyss. The cables coiling and uncoiling in the shaft stand in for the root of Roquentin’s chestnut tree.

Filed under: book recs, cultural criticism, urban planning

Nietzsche vs. Dawkins

Spencer

The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having ARRIVED as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet WHAT this event really means — and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our European morality.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft

Michael Robbins cites that passage in his recent review of Atheists: The Origin of the Species by Nick Spencer, who directs the London-based, Christian think-tank Theos.

Spencer ventures an historical traversal of the intellectual history of atheism, wherein “one of his most trenchant themes is that it is more proper to speak of atheisms and of various species of atheist.” (It’s worth noting — as the classical scholar Barbara Graziosi does in her excellent and highly recommendable “reception history” of the pagan Greek gods, The Gods of Olympus: A History — that for the ancient Greeks, the alpha-privative word “atheos” [ἄθεος] didn’t normally connote an unbeliever, but rather “someone whom the gods had abandoned.”)

Robbins describes how Nietzsche’s atheism is positioned historically by Spencer:

Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority of the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem. [sic*])

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism.

(*”sic” because this reads like a caricature of Dawkins’s theories — precisely the kind of superficial, gross misunderstanding of which Spencer is accusing the new atheists.)

More and more, Nietzsche’s importance for Mahler begins to make sense…

Reviewing Spencer in The Guardian, meanwhile, Julian Baggini observes:

Spencer is here promoting the conception of “religiosity as pattern of life rather than a set of verifiable propositions”. On this view, what matters is not whether difficult doctrines such as eternal damnation or even Christ’s resurrection are true or false, but that a life guided by such ideas is somehow richer, more complete, more directed towards a higher good.

If that is right, then atheists who have criticised religion for its doctrines have spectacularly missed the point, “tilting at theological windmills”. But as Spencer himself argues, we didn’t see “theological liberalism redrawing the lines” until the last decades of the 19th century, and, even then, only a minority accepted the new map.

Filed under: book recs, philosophy

Robert Hughes on the Impact of the American Revolution

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

The late, great Robert Hughes — one of my favorite critics — offers an art historian’s perspective on the American Revolution and its aftermath in his essay “The Decline of the City of Mahagonny” (from the anthology Nothing If Not Critical):

The American Revolution had held, deep in its heart, the vision of a corrupt Europe, a Europe whose hold was long and tenacious but which could be demystified by showing its moral obsoleteness. The idea that Europe was culturally exhausted was an important ingredient of American self-esteem. Its ancient craftiness, its subtlety, its strata of memory, its persistent embrace of elitist against “democratic” cultural values: these, in American eyes, were grounds for suspicion and even hostility…. Europe must be transcended, outdone.

Thus the power of Bernard Berenson’s appeal to the plutocrats of Chicago, New York and Boston at the turn of the century … was his promise of a new American Renaissance which would outdo the old, whose paintings and sculpture would nevertheless furnish indispensable refinement to the new.

Filed under: art history, book recs

Literary Criticism as Science?

Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti

Franco Moretti’s new collection of essays, Distant Reading, has been generating a lot of buzz. The National Book Critics Circle just honored it with its award for criticism last month (winning out over books by Jonathan Franzen and Janet Malcolm ).

Few critics, writes the Times Literary Supplement are “as hell-bent on rethinking the way we talk about literature.” Wired declares that “if his new methods catch on, they could change the way we look at literary history.” And Joshua Rothman recently offered this reflection on the revolutionary critic in The New Yorker:

Should literary criticism be an art or a science? A surprising amount depends on the answer to that question…. Almost no one…wants to answer the question definitively, because, for a critic, alternating between one’s artistic and scientific temperaments is fun—it’s like switching between the ocean and the sun at the beach. Franco Moretti, a professor at Stanford, fascinates critics in large part because he DOES want to answer the question definitively. He thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science.
[…]
Moretti’s impulses are inclusive and utopian. He wants critics to acknowledge all the books that they don’t study; he admires the collaborative practicality of scientific work. Viewed from Moretti’s statistical mountaintop, traditional literary criticism, with its idiosyncratic, personal focus on individual works, can seem self-indulgent, even frivolous.

Over at Nautilus, the science writer Dana Mackenzie considers Moretti’s approach of “distant reading” in the context of the “topic modeling” trend:

Topic modeling looks beyond the words to the context in which they are used. It can infer what topics are discussed in each book, revealing patterns in a body of literature that no human scholar could ever spot. Topic-modeling algorithms allow us to view literature as if through a telescope, scanning vast swaths of text and searching for constellations of meaning….

Other revolutionary aspects of topic modeling for humanities students, according to Mackenzie: it brings “quantitative arguments into the humanities,” allows scholars to “mine for new themes and topics,” and introduces the tool of falsifiability via statistical analysis.

Digital humanities technologies can help us see gradual changes, whether in literature or elsewhere. Humans have difficulty comprehending change that happens on the time scale of a human life, or longer. If Underwood’s hypothesis is correct, we need computers to help fill in our blind spot. Topic modeling does not overturn or replace our previous ways of seeing; it enhances them.

Filed under: book news, book recs, literary criticism

Bleeding Together, Falling Apart: Marc Weidenbaum on Aphex Twin

aphex-twin

There are some real gems in the innovative, ongoing 33 1/3 series from Bloomsbury (which now numbers 90 crisp little volumes) — and I’m not claiming that just because I personally know several of the authors. Or because two of the most dazzling of those gems are by friends: Mike McGonigal on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and the latest in the series, on Aphex Twin’s seminal Selected Ambient Works Volume II by Marc Weidenbaum.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, I also highly recommend Weidenbaum’s fascinating and long-running webzine disquiet — named in honor of the Portuguese poet, critic, and philosopher Fernando Pessoa — where you can find his fascinating collaborations, interviews, experiments, and musings on ambient and electronic music.

Just published last month, his new book is already harvesting a bumper crop of impressive reviews — and deservedly so. Any in-depth consideration of a musical landmark needs to offer the simultaneous perspectives to which Weidenbaum alludes when he writes that Selected Ambient Works Volume II, as Aphex Twin (aka Richard D. James) enigmatically titled this 1994 album, “may be timeless music, but it is still very much a product of its time.”

Weidenbaum gracefully sustains that double focus through his close listenings to each of the 25 tracks and his evocative contextualization of the album’s origins, recounting, for example, its emergence amid “the populist flowering of British occultism, a rave-era echo of the Summer of Love.” He also deftly weaves into his discussion points about the cross-connections between ambient music and classical composers and ensembles like Alarm Will Sound.

When the composer Caleb Burhans (a member of Alarm Will Sound) was assigned the project of scoring the “Blue Calx” track for his group with only acoustic instruments, he played on references to the beginning of Mahler’s First Symphony; the music of John Tavener and Ingram Marshall provided other classical precedents as well.

Paul Gleason points out that this isn’t just another exercise in music criticism: “both the album and the book stretch listeners and readers to develop new definitions of what music means.” He continues:

One of the most compelling sections of Weidenbaum’s book is on the so-called “beatless” nature of “Selected Ambient Works Volume II.” To put it country simple, when people first heard the record back in 1994, they had a hard time hearing beats. This, of course, was anathema to any electronic music fan back then. But what Weidenbaum shows in some truly deft and exciting passages is that – get this – the record’s beats emerged over time. This analysis is so cool because it shows that a record’s meaning and innovations (the beats are subtle) emerge over time and that, more generally, the meaning of a work is created in time. I don’t know whether Weidenbaum was thinking about Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutics, but I certainly was.
[…]
Like all good critical studies, [his book] doesn’t provide the illusion of closure; rather, it expands minds, fostering the creation of textual meaning.

Weidenbaum has gathered together here all of the pieces he posted separately on disquiet for each of the album’s tracks (which were originally untitled, except for “Blue Calx”). In an interview with his publisher, Weidenbaum explains what attracted him to writing about Aphex Twin:

What drew me in particular was the album’s deep, resounding, unrepentant murkiness — which is to say, its absence of what might be considered particular. The record evades the idea of particular, except to the extent that its pronounced murkiness is particular to it. Tracks seem to bleed together, and to fall apart … … Ambient music is often packaged and promoted as being ephemeral, ethereal, but this album is more so than most; it’s tantalizingly difficult to get a grip on.

He also refers to one of the many challenges he has taken on here — and so beautifully addressed. Selected Ambient Works Volume II is almost entirely instrumental. Weidenbaum says:

One of the great benefits of a record with no words is how it doesn’t respond directly to your writing about it — it doesn’t purport to explain itself in the way that records that consist of words, such as a traditional rock and rap records, explain themselves. This is very enticing to me.

Filed under: aesthetics, book recs, music writers

Another Look at Bach

Possibly the young J.S. Bach c. 1715; or possibly not; painting by J. E. Rentsch, the Elder

Possibly the young J.S. Bach c. 1715 — or possibly not; painting by J. E. Rentsch, the Elder

J.S. Bach has been much on my mind of late. I need to make time to plunge into John Eliot Gardiner’s new book on the composer, especially after George B. Stauffer’s review in the recent New York Review of Books has whet my appetite.

In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Gardiner distills a lifetime of devotion and study to the music of the Thomaskantor (one of the epithets by which Germans refer to Bach). According to Stauffer, this weighty tome basically revolves around the great question of “just how Bach managed to express the inexpressible, especially with regard to death, and what life experiences stood behind his compositional decisions.”

Gardiner recently started serving as president of the Leipzig Bach Archive and has managed to create a controversial portrait by drawing on recent findings of the archive — a portrait dramatically at odds with the longstanding image of an obedient musical citizen:

Moving beyond the hagiographies of the past, he presents a fallible Bach, a musical genius who on the one hand is deeply committed to illuminating and expanding Luther’s teachings through his sacred vocal works… but on the other hand is a rebellious and resentful musician, harboring a lifelong grudge against authority — a personality disorder stemming from a youth spent among ruffians and abusive teachers. Hiding behind Bach, creator of the Matthew Passion and B-Minor Mass, Gardiner suggests, is Bach “the reformed teenage thug.”

What sounds especially fascinating is that, according to Stauffer, Gardiner roots his speculations in the music (though he apparently omits discussion of the instrumental and keyboard pieces), since he views the music as “the anchor to which we can return again and again, and the principal means of validating or refuting any conclusion about its author.”

The result is that Gardiner “forces us to rethink Bach’s life and how adversity and faith affected his vocal compositions. And [he] takes us inside his world, allowing us to see the works from the standpoint of composer, performer, and listener.”

Over at The Guardian, Peter Conrad points out that Gardiner takes Bach’s intense faith for granted in his exploration of the sacred music, yet “he still makes the effort to account for the emotional force and consolatory balm of Bach’s music in ways that are humanly engaging.”

He treats the cantatas as psychodramas, and thinks of the Passions as three-dimensional versions of opera which, rather than exhibiting the vocal and histrionic antics of sacred monsters in a fictional world onstage, address us directly when the soloists perform their hortatory arias and require us, in chorales that were sung by the entire congregation, to participate in Christ’s tragedy and in the divine comedy that is its sequel. Gardiner’s analogy for the way the Passions work comes from a literary form that could not be less spiritually exalted: he draws on theorists of the novel such as Bakhtin to explain the “dialogic threads” and complementary “subjectivities” that Bach draws together, and despite his own orthodoxy he makes frequent allusions to Philip Pullman, for whom art is our demonic repudiation of an oppressive God.

While the title Bach in the Castle of Heaven suggests something emphatically pious, Conrad adds, “Gardiner’s is a festive book, enlivened by the ‘joy and zest’ of Bach’s ‘dance-impregnated music.’ Those dances are sacral but also rowdily profane… Quoting the sociologist Émile Durkheim, he defines religion as a ‘collective effervescence,’ a shared ecstasy – more readily available, perhaps, in the mud at Glastonbury or clubbing under the arches in Vauxhall than at a church service in 18th-century Leipzig.”

Just like Shakespeare, Bach will always be the mirror of our own age as well.

Filed under: Bach, book recs

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