See For Yourself

Writers are, by nature, an envious lot. They envy their peers; they envy past masterpieces; they envy the inhabitants of any perceived golden era – pre-Kindle, pre-recession, pre-The Death of Publishing. But they reserve a separate, special envy for painters and musicians: artists who do not rely on language to move their audiences. Proof of that envy can be found in the frequency with which allusions to painting and classical music (and, increasingly, pop music) appear upon the black-and-white silence of literature. For all the force that language has, it still must, as every writer knows, pass through the digestion of the brain before it is felt; whereas music and painting flow directly into the deepest ventricles of feeling. One’s flesh reports the effect.

So writers like to write about music and art. Examples abound endlessly. Updike built a career within a career writing about art; Zola and Balzac wrote minor works about the Impressionist generation of painters (and about Cézanne in particular). Kazuo Ishiguro’s new suite of stories, Nocturnes, revolves around music and musicians. Ian McEwan, in Amsterdam, the best example of fictional prose about classical music I know of, endows the composer Clive Linley’s reflections on a work-in-progress with a dense material richness. And so on.

For all the beauty of these works – these and so many other works – none replaces the direct experience of a painting or a string quartet. If any writer were ever equipped with the necessary emotional tackle to describe his contact with a great painting, it was Rilke. (This was a man capable of noticing the way ‘the dahlias and the tall gladiolas and the long rows of geraniums shout the contradiction of their red into the mist.’) In the slim, remarkable volume Letters on Cézanne, culled from letters he wrote to his wife Clara during the fall of 1907, he reports almost daily on his visits to the Salon d’Automne, in Paris, to see a posthumous exhibition of Cézanne’s paintings. Part of the pleasure of reading the letters is Rilke’s expansive, precise delight in the presence of Cézanne’s work; and part of the pleasure is seeing poetry’s most durable emotional acrobat fail at the task he has set for himself.

In the letter of 22 October, he writes, of a portrait of Madame Cézanne:

Already, even after standing with such unremitting attention in front of the great color scheme of the woman in the red armchair, it is becoming as irretrievable in my memory as a figure with very many digits. And yet I memorized it, number by number. In my feeling, the consciousness of their presence has become a heightening which I can feel even in my sleep; my blood describes it within me, but the naming of it passes by somewhere outside and is not called in.

Is there any better elaboration of the feeling imparted by great art and music than ‘my blood describes it within me’? But it is an account of Rilke in front of the picture – of his memory of being in front of the picture – rather than of the picture itself. He cannot ‘name’ it. As he wrote the next day in a letter on the same painting:

I’m not sure that I even managed to describe the balance of its tonal values; words seemed more inadequate than ever, indeed inappropriate; and yet it should be possible to make compelling use of them, if one could only look at such a picture as if it were a part of nature – in which case it ought to be possible to express its existence somehow.

For any poet to call the use of words ‘inappropriate’ is remarkable, and it cuts to the core of the problem: the experience of art cannot be reproduced in language, because language, for its comprehension and enjoyment, relies on the very faculty – verbal thought – that a painting manages to elide in its route to one’s consciousness; words make a detour. If words, as Beckett famously put it, are a ‘stain on silence,’ then words that seek to express the qualities of a work of art are a particularly vibrant stain. What’s the point?

Take one of the still-lifes by Matisse hanging at the Barnes Foundation, in Merion, Pennsylvania. The painting’s contents can be summarized in a single sentence: ‘On a white cloth sit a lemon, a glass of water, and a spoon.’ Even that sentence can be reduced; its verb is superfluous. ‘A lemon, a glass of water, a spoon.’ But the compositional facts of the painting tell you virtually nothing about it. Picasso would have painted those same objects very differently; so would have Masaccio. What attracted me to this particular still-life by Matisse – which could only have been painted by Matisse – was the bright strange liveliness with which he invested the three objects, particularly the lemon, by the use of thick limits of black to circumscribe each. The contrast of the black makes the lemon’s yellow even more vivid, and fills it with a kinetic quality: the fruit looks as if it wants to rattle and jump.

And yet I have told you nothing of the painting; I have told you only a little. When one writes about a piece of art or music he begins, inevitably, to write about himself: his own state of mind.

It is a problem that Eva Hoffman handles in her intricate, involving recent novel Appassionata. Its protagonist, Isabel Merton, is a concert pianist of international renown. She naturally carries a library of music in her head:

Her fingers drum unconsciously on the café table. They’re moving through a Chopin Nocturne of their own will. She notices and tries to stop, but the melody, winding and elongating itself into an elegant, elegiac line, is too deeply encoded in her to be halted. It seems to follow some furrow in her mind that has been laid down through countless repetitions, a physical incorporation. It is in her body, in corpore. . . . The nocturne’s gesture of wistful tenderness has attached itself to her inner cells.

The passage tells us only that the nocturne is ‘elegant’ and ‘elegiac’ and that it makes a ‘gesture of wistful tenderness.’ These are not so much direct descriptions as they are oblique shadows pouring off the music; we know what it is like to listen to the music but not what the music is like.

Hoffman, like Rilke, directly confronts this tension, in one of several passages where she records the streams of consciousness of various concertgoers during Merton’s performances. One of these eavesdrops on the anxieties of an aspirant writer:

. . . ah, listen, the tenderness, poetry, the distillation, thinks Sunil Patel / pure lyricism, no dross / how to do that in my novel, writing so prosaic that’s the problem / no lift-off, oh God why can’t it lift off like music, into pure motion / listen, new section, ah, interesting, short sections maybe that’s the answer / why spell everything out stupid words, stupid story business, this happened then that happened, plod plod plod

It’s a funny sequence because it deftly and accurately captures the admixture of fidelity to the music and wandering inattention that fills a person’s mind during a performance, the slipping in and out of rapt listening, the mind’s refusal to shut up; and also because, placed within a novel about a concert pianist, it is an admission by Hoffman of what her own novel cannot do, what no one’s novel can do: authentically reproduce the sensation of listening to music. Against a piece of music by Brahms or Schubert, or a painting by Matisse or Cézanne, literature’s powers can seem uncompetitive. Words offer at best a shallow equivalency; a proxy.

As I write this, I am listening to a recording of Pablo Casals performing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6, in D. It is one of my favorite pieces of music. I can tell you that it makes me think of morning sunlight, which at this moment is streaming through the window of my room, and of the subtle, confused emotional transitions between morning and noon, between afternoon and evening; between summer and autumn, autumn and winter. But to understand anything I have said you first have to know the particular piece of music.

Similarly, after a recent visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I have the urge to tell anybody who will listen about a certain painting by Degas, After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself). The painting fixed me to the spot for minutes on end; I could not walk away. Why? Because of its color, a clay-like, roughly suffused red, red everywhere; because of the casual beauty of the woman’s form, seen from the back, its strong grace, its paradoxical awkwardness; because it looks like no other Degas I have seen. What more can I say? It’s a remarkable painting; you have to see it for yourself.

Degas, After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself)

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~ by mackenz on July 22, 2009.

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