Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Concerning Paul and Brahms"

I thought I had lost two essays I wrote in the pre-blog era; they must have been on the PowerMac 7600 that I abandoned in my old office. I find that the one called Apomnemeumata (Reccollections), which was indeed the inspiration for my beginning a blog, has been substantially recapitulated in my first dozen or so postings.
I want to post the second one, very strictly verbatim, now. It goes with and in some senses validates some recent ones: it is almost exclusively questions that have occupied me for many years that I break out with here, and the language is fundamentally the same, although the earlier essays (there are only two) were carefully written and revised, and the blog posts are not.
The reference to a then new CD by contralto Nathalie Stutzmann means that it dates to Autumn 1996, at a time when I was buying her recordings as soon as issued. It is not that hers are the only Brahms that I love. At that time I had never collected a single coin and had not read Christopher Hitchens (just to name one). My mind-set on ultimate questions, however, even then was not new.
So here it is.
CONCERNING PAUL AND BRAHMS
If Saint Paul heard the Brahms setting in the "Four Serious Songs" of I Corinthians 13, even granting him the gift of tongues for its language, he could hardly understand its spirituality or its music, and on the evidence of his epistles he would be shocked to hear a female voice proclaiming his message, let alone one so eloquent and rich as Nathalie Stutzmann's. Brahms was no traditional churchman. After a century, however, those who know the song will contend that only he, of all those who have set it, has enhanced the depth and exaltation of Paul's most memorable text, most memorable in Greek, in Latin, in Luther's German, which Brahms set, or in English. Two millennia of western musical and intellectual culture separate us from Paul, and nearly as much Brahms. Remarkably we take Paul's epistle as something of our own (we learned it as children), forgetting that there is nearly nothing truly ours that Paul could grasp or come to terms with. Leave aside technology, from motors and plumbing to telecommunications and compact disks; in one life I have lived through innovations enough to know how quickly assimilated they are. Paul could adjust to television as easily as any Papuan. Our cosmology rather than our space shuttles would undo him, our voluminous and promiscuous reading more than our semi-nudity, our aesthetics, finding profound meaning in a few dozen bars of Webern or Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie, not to mention conceptual art, more than our cellular telephones. Even admitting that Hellenistic philosophers and poets (considering the literary sophistication of their contributions to the Greek Anthology) would fare better among us than Paul of Tarsus, the mental gulf between the Zeitwende and the present is enormous.

It is not that we have changed much more, except technologically, in the last century than in previous ones. Consider the gulf between the best spiritual thought of ca. 2,000 BC and that of Paul. Even in Egypt and Akkad there was no real literature but cosmogonies so early as that. Two millennia, some 60 generations, seem to amount to almost unimaginable intellectual and aesthetic change in the history of mankind in the northern hemisphere (and perhaps in the southern as well, had we comparable records). From the end of Early Bronze to Paul, from Paul to ourselves, some four millennia encompass nearly everything by which we identify ourselves, perhaps most particularly our interest in identifying and formally defining ourselves. Paul's concern to do so may be read between the lines of all his epistles; compared with what we fancy we know of the mid-set of Ur Nammu or of Mentuhotop I, he seems rather like us after all, as if civilized mentality had changed more profoundly in the generations between Abraham and him than in those between him and Ms. Stutzmann's magisterial interpretation of Brahms.

The point is, what we think of as human history (for history, as distinct from tradition in general, is verbal and hardly survives unless recorded) is a very brief episode in the tale of humankind. Still briefer, whether in China or the West, are the whole of literary writing, of music to be listened to rather than danced to, of visual objects existing in their own right rather than to adorn rulers or objects of communal worship, and of human spirituality considered as such (cultivated by ourselves), as Brahms did, rather than as a spiritus inspired by grace.

Further, however trite these reflections may seem, they are consistent with my own life-long mentality, which persists in marveling at ordinary and universal things. I do not simply despise gawking at miracles; miracles seem to me cheap simplifications of infinitely intricate commonplace existence. The marvelous commonplace naturally includes Nature, from stars of the nth magnitude to biological reproduction, but even as a child I never made nature poets my own, holding in contempt one teacher for reciting Joyce Kilmer to the class, another for proclaiming (chin out, eyes turned upward) how very small man was relative to Everything. That was in the 7th grade, when children normally start feeling contemptuous. Yet I still have no evidence of Half Dome (in Yosemite) pondering the meaning of all nature other than itself or of ancient trees in any way like Tolkien's Ents, or, for that matter, of a sentient creature other than my own species making imaginative works out of primal fears. I need not subscribe to the religion underlying Tolkien's work to hold his work in awe, regarding philological and imaginative work as one in the human mentality that I adore. When the Hobbits turn cute and sentimental enough to embarrass the Disney Studio, they still aren't so vapidly silly as pantheists ranting. All the faults real or imputed of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle are nothing compared with a man's devoting all his creative intelligence and most of his energy to bring it to completion. And condemnation for evil done in the name of such Romantic interpretations of ethnic myths or legends is misplaced. Corruptio optimi pessima covers the perversion of the best that inheres in 19th-century Romanticism; that all Romanticism is unsound, so far as soundness goes, and its worst aspects terribly attractive to unsound minds, is also arguable; that limiting emotional and intellectual expression to what is reasonably safe limits art and thought to the reasonably banal is obvious. Saint Paul, for example, remote as he is from the mental world of Romanticism, like Wagner has potently enthralled minds prone to enthrallment and could be deemed equally unsafe. His is the only many-sided, complex, tormented, fully human mind in the whole Book; once grasped his is forever with us as a real person, as surely as Dante or Hugo or Wagner or Woolf. It is the authenticity apparent in the expression of their consciousness that makes them enduringly valuable to the rest of us, at least to as many as want them, rather than the congeries of sentiments, illusions, information and misinformation, passions and repressions that, as fallible as each of us, each was subject to. An important artist or thinker, then, may be one of the rare psersons who can find the formal means to transmit to us his or her whole uniqueness, not the persona but the real actor who wears it. Paul was one such, Brahms was another, but it is the privilege of the later man to richly understand (not to fully understand, of course) the earlier. So I see why I feel that it is not being free of faults and vices that makes one worthwhile, any more than having vices enhances one's real interest, but the capability of imparting one unique humanity to other unique human consciousnesses. It may be humanity's one reliable solace, being able to know another's authenticity.

Years ago, it seemed to me certain that Henri Bremond's asserting the identity of poetry and prayer must be radically true. Bremond did not write of visual or musical poiesis in these terms, but I would. I would assert, too, that the pursuit of such authenticity is the mark of, and justifies the concept of, high culture in any civilization. Considering how recently it has emerged, and how much antagonism it has aroused, suggests that the maintenance of this pursuit is difficult, and it is as fragile as it is precious.

I cannot write winged words. I can dream of what and how I would write, but when I do my best the result is plainest prose. To hope to write anything that matters even to myself, I must simply take pains to be accurate and true, without regard to whether my thoughts are original or trite, intelligent or stupid. In writing memories, all I can do is try to write only what I think that I actually remember, with no scenario. No writer can do more. A gifted writer forges magical-seeming formal means that awaken in a reader the latter's own inchoate authenticity, just as the sculptor of Riace Warrior A (whether or not he was Pheidias) makes one understand that bodily beauty is not limited to natural pulchritude, and the Brahms setting is more than, perhaps other than, Paul's intent in addressing the church at Corinth. Because Paul was a great writer, if nothing else, his words themselves transcend the theological points they convey, awakening more in serious meditation on them than almost any of the famous commentaries on that chapter. Yet authenticity, truth to one's own inner consciousness, is not necessarily easier for the gifted writer than for me or anyone else, nor for the gifted visual artist or musical composer or interpreter. Indeed, possessing spiritual gifts, however defined, may not facilitate authentic prayer. And in writing, or in any other art, the primary value is always in genuine endeavor, as with prayer: not only Augustine or Proust or Jane Austen, but every writer must write because Bremond's insight is true.

Though tempted to change a word here and there, I promise that I have keyboarded this scrupulously as I found it this afternoon. I think I needed an extra word in the last line, but you'll have to guess what it might have been, if so.
As for who Natalie Stutzmann is, however, here is the Wikipedia address: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathalie_Stutzmann