Friday, 20 November 2015

Getting underneath


“There is no better way of becoming aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself that which a master has experienced. In this profound effort that we make, it is our own way of thinking, together with the master’s, that we bring to light.” Thus the great novelist Marcel Proust described the process of tradition in the arts, which is so different from postwar modernist ideologies, which wanted a break with the past as thorough as possible, focussing on renewal - in fact, renewal of both the means and the aims of art. But that disrupts the chain of stimulation and emulation, and refers the works created in the past to a psychologically inaccessible territory, as if it were ‘another country’. It created the ‘museum culture’ as a glass box, to be admired, but without any direct relevance to art of the present. It also destroys the means by which a value framework can be maintained, because value assessment (the most important critical means of an artist) is not a rational process, but encompasses the entire personality, including intuition, emotion, and the cultural heritage the artist brings with him to the work. Critical value assessment can only be learnt through comparison with what obviously has demonstrated value, a learning process in which achievements of the past play a crucial role.

Absorbing influences does not exclude the individual touch.... it is the lack of personality and talent which makes it impossible to use influences to one's own advantage. The traditionalist attitude in art is based both on modesty and ambition, modesty towards the achievements that are already there, and ambition to emulate them. Also, based upon extreme immodesty in spotting who is, or was, a master, completely independent from generally received wisdom. This combination of modesty and ambition is the reason why Brahms bowed his head before Beethoven and Schubert (which inhibited him but also inspired him to great works) and why Debussy remained fascinated by Wagner and catapulted himself boldly into opposite directions. Bernd Alois Zimmermann, the German postwar composer who wrote the complex opera 'Die Soldaten' - a gruesome digestion process of war trauma - and who committed suicide due to extreme psychological problems, came-up with the idea of a 'Kugelform der Zeit', the spherical shape of time, in which past, present and future exist together, and where the future is the only element to be invented but in the presence of what is already there, independent of historical context. The relationship with Proust's celebrated novel 'In Search of Lost Time' is clear: the voices of the past tell us something about ourselves, and will always have to say things that are universal because they belong to the essential ingredients of the human condition. Proust turned a long period of wasted time and lots of nonsense into a spiritual awareness of timelessness and profound human insights.... showing the process by which the gold is emerging from the transitory processes of life and from the conventions and folly of the world.

I must have read Proust, but only remember getting into the novel and leaving it at the other end. Some people are drawn away from daily life while embarking on that sea, comparable with audience members during and after a Wagner opera. Once I met an acquaintance who stared at some invisible horizon over coffee, and when I asked whether he was allright, it appeared he had gone to Parsifal a couple of nights before and still had to recover, being in a dream-like state and ‘not really there'. Also I know of stories of french readers disappearing for months into Proust's novel, locking themselves up in their appartment - claiming to be on sick leave from their work - and reappearing as a different person. One could not suffer from such condition after listening to Beethoven or Bach (maybe a bit after the Goldberg Variations), but it is possible that the lack of contemporary art speaking to us with such soul-searching makes modern generations vulnerable to such voices from a tradition which cultivated what was formerly called 'the soul'.


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