Search Deeblog
Navigate through Deeblog
Categories and months of Deeblog
Login
Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries from January 1, 2012 - January 31, 2012

Tuesday
Jan312012

Kierkegaard, "Don Giovanni" (part 2)

The conclusion of a review by this Danish philosopher of an 1843 performance of this work of art.  You can read the original here.

Let a couple of years pass by then go and visit Mr. Masetto: you will find Zerlina essentially unchanged.  As she goes along and plays with him in the opera, so now she – pretty, beloved, etc. – is pottering about his house.  Were you to say to her, "But how was it then with that Don Giovanni fellow?" she would answer: "Yes, it was odd, it was an odd wedding day, such a hullabaloo, and I had to be on the lookout everywhere I went: suddenly Masetto would appear, grousing, suddenly Don Giovanni, who wanted to speak with me.  I firmly believe that if it hadn't been for me, they would have killed each other."  So must she remain in order to make herself a female character distinct from Anna and Elvira.  Comparatively, Anna is far less culpable than Zerlina.  She has confused Giovanni with Ottavio, nothing more.  But because she is considerably developed, this may end up troubling her for the rest of her life.  This she fails to disclose for as long as possible, and becomes crazed with the idea of vengeance. 

Yet Zerlina remains undaunted and proceeds, in carefree fashion, both to a dance with Don Giovanni and confession at Masetto's, which is altogether somewhat remarkable, and each of these gentlemen in due time will become stakeholders.   She is abroad in all parts and feels herself to be in the same circle of society as those noble ladies and just as important as any of them.  She is about to reel in Don Giovanni, not because he has seduced her, but because he has killed Masetto (it is significant that she confounds the physical and the moral), and therefore finds that Leporello is just as culpable, because he too has killed Masetto, her own little Masetto of whom she is so fond, and towards whom everyone else is rather nasty. 

Elvira is a vast female character with an absolute passion to know and understand what it means to be seduced.  She does not wish to save a modicum of her honor from the world, she wishes to stop Don Giovanni, naturally with the reservation that he wants to be true to her.  So she forsakes the mission's itinerant component – but in this way the mission likewise is stopped.  This is genuinely feminine, an exquisite invention.  Yet in a way, on her mission as a woman she is out of her depths, außer sich, and therefore there must fall upon her a comic light.  I am not thinking of her deeply tragic situation in the second act where she mistakes Leporello for Don Giovanni, about whom one writer has said that this is almost cruel, if for another reason.  She herself is seduced, and now she wishes to rescue others, without thinking that for such an endeavor one needs preliminary studies and numerous exams, whereby one might acquire the ability to take on others.  This she cannot do at all.  Nor, therefore, can she make herself understood to Zerlina, and in this respect Elvira remains a comic figure.  She transfers all her pathos to Zerlina and in the end, am Ende, Zerlina can better understand Don Giovanni than comprehend Elvira.  Thus an actress portraying Zerlina should not, as used to be done in this work, become appalled or seized by fear from Elvira's talk – that would be far too much.  She ought to marvel at this new surprise, and marvel that the good listener and viewer will almost smile upon the situation, while still detecting the tragic element in Elvira.

Now to Don Giovanni.  If the singer were to imbue his voice with imagination and use this performance for such an accompaniment, what then?  The situation would become a seduction scene; perhaps, but not in an opera.  On the other hand, in a drama where a seducer does not sing to the girl but for the girl, so by this method he can help out in terms of imagination.  I shall outline precisely such a scenario.  There would be no farm girl, but a lady, a Donna, a developed girl with considerable qualifications.  The seducer has the voice, he knows how to let his imagination infect it.  So sometimes he sings for her what she would like to hear.   And then one day – as is to be understood, coincidentally – he selects the performance as Don Juan.  This he performs with complete imagination and inspiration.  Naturally, he does not look at her, not a glance, not a desire, otherwise all would be lost.  He looks straight in front of him and his voice begins to rise and brighten as he sets the mood for the imaginary allurement and seduction.  So the Donna listens, safe and comfortable as she is, because she knows that he is not singing to her, that this is not about her, and this is where she gives in to daydreams.  And when these dreams are assumed to have taken effect, here is where the seducer procures the first rendezvous both in his imagination and in the imagination's view and the weakened notion of the face-to-face meeting.  Should this be portrayed, this would in essence no longer be an opera, but its transition from this situation to the seduction's reality as reflected in a drama or tale.  

Now if Mr. Hansen were to be assigned this situation in a drama, then his performance would be the definitive version, the omnibus numeris absoluta, and every person who has a sense for such observations would certainly not deny that it is stunning to hear such a superb performance.  Calm and insinuating in his voice, wistful and dreamy yet clear in his expression, articulating every letter so that nothing is wasted and no time is lost, he engenders a rare effect.  But when it is in an opera, as in this case, the battle must be fought, and this sensational performance would not be in the right place, a golden apple in a silver bowl.  Don Giovanni is no pampered sitar player, but rather a seducer who has a need for such a mask at first approach.  Were one to take another moment in the opera, the guitar aria, for example, or Don Giovanni's aria as worked into Elvira's first part, "Poverina, poverina," then dwelling on this last point, I would say that here the performance could be put to use.  Nothing essential of what is Don Giovanni concerns this outburst, Don Giovanni who remains in a way based upon himself and in constant anticipation of pleasure.  For that reason should the voice be imbued with imagination, an ironic tinge should not arise in Don Giovanni's rumination about this relationship, although this will be precisely the impression made on the listener and viewer who understands Don Giovanni.  The actor must then also be sure to remain at peace until this moment, when the contrary then becomes correct and during the aria he will go back and forth in a certain tension.  But most of all he may not emerge when he sings these words, because Elvira won't hear them anyway.  Nor should he sing them to Leporello as the remaining part of the aria.  The essential here is that Don Giovanni is in the mood.  The unique effect in this situation should not result in reflections or assessments by Don Giovanni, but in the search for the total effect, which one writer has demonstrated. 

In the duet with Zerlina, Don Giovanni sings to Zerlina.  This is Don Giovanni, and Zerlina is the adorable little farm girl.  Compared to the Donna in the hypothetical situation outlined above, it was necessary to begin in such a manner because the attraction was not immediate.  For that reason it all began as innocent reverie and this holds true for the entire seduction: one moment of premature passion and all would be lost.  Just because Zerlina is now a farm girl, it does not follow that Don Giovanni ought to begin with rascally mischief; Don Giovanni never does that.  Naturally, with natural power and no posing or study, Don Giovanni always has a certain dignity and grace.  Even the recitations before the duet are flavorful in the good sense.  This is completely correct because Don Giovanni is a man who acts without reflection.  And to understand a farm girl on such a broad plain of the imagination and in an idealizing surtout when one, like Don Giovanni, is certain that she is in the process of seeing and admiring this handsome man, is a superb method of making her dazed in the head.  A fellow quick to his fists would be understood all too rapidly by Zerlina and would put her on her guard, since in all her naïveté Zerlina is honorable and does not understand jokes.  And she does not at all understand the man she sees.  At the same time, however, one may see Don Giovanni's haughtiness here as an important commentary on the text, see him catch flies with candy, see how he in a certain sense is right when he says to Elvira: "that was only in jest."  This replique is neither vicious nor ironic, but forthcoming and direct.  Don Giovanni considers Elvira to be too powerful to be affected by a little fling with little Zerlina; she the seduced par excellence, ϰατ' ἐξοχην, and Zerlina!  It is still easy to allow Don Giovanni some reflection, and in the opera the art is precisely in keeping this tendency at bay, for a Don Giovanni without the slightest reflection would be a meager figure and the opera would fail in its construction.  The actor must embody haughtiness in his posture, his expressions, his gestures, his presentations, in all his figure's finality.

Then the duet begins.  One feels that one hears the accompaniment's dreamy plainness (owing to the fact that music is a universal medium) in Don Giovanni's application of his charms in which he seizes Zerlina, in his and the accompaniment's natural power.  As he stands there, the very best, and sees her giddy and confused, he sees that her non-willingness is a cloaked surrender, and so he musters all his haughtiness in almost commanding omnipotence.  This is the self-esteem of natural force.  The accompaniment on the first part, "Be mine," is therefore not ingratiating but energetic and decisive.  Now she gives in.  Don Giovanni, of course, does not do things this way.  Here again one must notice his haughtiness.  Compared to Anna, Elvira and others of their type, it is not unthinkable for Don Giovanni to enjoy a pleasure so greatly in the moment in which he has become victorious, as if he were a lover who gave as much as he took, and then revert a moment later to a seducer.  But Zerlina is captured and served in another way.  Here there is jest and pleasure and Don Giovanni is directly and purely musically in his element.  Zerlina is no more insignificant to him than any other woman, but simply something different from Elvira and Anna, and, actually, in her own way just as attractive, and essentially just as preoccupying for him.  Therefore I shall reiterate that Zerlina must be cast and held as such.  When she is seen and heard in relation to Don Giovanni, a certain elation will be evoked in the good listener and viewer because he, in vain, will use this serious category against her.  When she is seen in relation to Masetto, a smile will be coaxed out of the same listener because Zerlina is essentially neither seduced nor saved, but constantly dangling in the wind.

One person or another, various people, perhaps even many people might think it somewhat insignificant that one almost never sees Zerlina made into an object of aesthetic interpretation.  I personally tend to see this as insignificant, and therefore feel obliged to apologize to Mr. Hansen – in the way he knows that he will see his name in print, perhaps then he will do himself the inconvenience of reading what has been written here – and to beg Fædrelandet for forgiveness that I, curiously enough, am still struggling with such a contribution,  if the shortcoming is precisely that it is no longer hard to write.  Mr. Hansen can with little difficulty forgive me.  What luck when one has the desire and has made one's choice in life to have then precisely the singing voice that he has; what luck when one has the desire and has chosen one's job as an actor to have so many good qualifications as he really does have.   When one has so many gifts and has also made something of them, one may with little difficulty squander some rehearsal time on one's gait and posture.  The truth is that I would not believe that my legs or my gait stood in any relation whatsoever to my understanding of the most immortal of operas.  Soon I should get a few other legs to walk on.

Sunday
Jan292012

Kierkegaard, "Don Giovanni" (part 1)

The first part of a review by this Danish philosopher of an 1843 performance of this work of art.  You can read the original here.

Don Giovanni has been staged yet again.  Compared to many other warmed-over, refined, and not at all nutritious pieces, with this opera the theater has, as our colloquial language puts it, a tasty chunk of meat that will tide you over for a long time.  And the public would be happy to know that there is such a thing, even if it were performed less frequently.  The papers have already voted about the performance both as a whole and in its details, thus about that I will not risk developing so quick an opinion, or one at all about the newspaper's audit and evaluation.  There is a lovely old rule traced to the long-dead Socrates: one should modestly deduce from the little that one knows rather than from the innumerable things that one doesn't.  The newspapers' theater reviews command me to assume the greatest possible modesty and an aesthetic abstinence from any conclusions.

If Mr. Hansen's performance is one which says a lot with universal applicability and admirable skill, it is also one that is ready-made and complete.  And I do not dare to have a general opinion on the matter so ready-made.  On the other hand, there is a single point that caught my interest, on which I would like for a moment to dwell and thereby request the reader's attention, as I do not wish to delay anyone in a hurry, nor waste any businessman's precious time.  I would rather dwell on this detail because I do not consider it a high-water mark in Mr. Hansen's interpretation and version, about which in general I have no opinion apart from the fact that it is indeed a high-water mark, perhaps something this actor performs everywhere at the same level (which, of course, cannot darken a detail's genuine brilliance) or at a lower level elsewhere (which, of course, could only reasonably make the high-water mark more eye-catching).  This point is the duet with Zerlina in the first act where we see, even if we may be of another opinion regarding the performer's importance in the scene, that this ought to be considered an absolute success.

The first thing required of a singer is voice.  The second is presentation, which is the union of voice and mood, as well as something else apart from the voice's suppleness in the coloraturas or roulade, since this is in theory their mutual commensurability and in reality the voice and mood's harmony in the presentation.   The last thing that is required of a dramatic singer is that his mood and feelings be correct given the situation and poetic individuality.  When a singer loses the mood and feeling of his part, he comes off as in the throes of artificial passion; if he is also an actor, he can still incorporate opposites at once into his gestures and movements.  The more he has reflected and practiced managing his voice against the mood's piano, the more combinations he will have at his disposal and, in such a way, the more fully he can give vent to the composer's demands (only when, of course, the composer's work understands when to make demands upon the singer's presentation and is not simply one of those intolerant and unperformable operas).  If he has taken less time to reflect, his mood and character will not have as great a significance.  Yet one thing remains: the universal, all-encompassing reason for mood and feeling, to be able to have voice determine imagination, and to be able to sing with imagination.  Such was the performance by Mr. Hansen which I beheld and admired at the aforementioned point.

For the duet with Zerlina huge demands are made spontaneously.  The first scene with Anna is too stormy for one to recognize Don Giovanni properly; but here everything lies in perfect order, the surroundings have been removed, and we anxiously and attentively wait to see how he will manage his first attack.  And we think: here we are going to learn whether Don Giovanni is a dandy and a windbag (what a person becomes when he wishes to be a Don Juan) who has in Leporello a faithful trumpeter and in Mozart a powerless troubadour, or whether he is indeed the famous Don Juan and whether this opera is indeed our composer's most renowned work.  The composer performs what has to be performed.  The accompaniment is ingratiating and convincing, like a stream's purling recurrence, charmingly returning, whereby the orchestra seems to supervise itself, hold in that pattern, and not allow itself to be concluded.  

All this has a dreamy yet captivating effect, as the scent of a flower may become like a sedative; it leads on into the endless, not with the energy of desire, but with silent craving and aspiration.  Mozart knows full well what he is doing, and the individual personality of a Zerlina does not seem to possess prerequisites that would condition another interpretation, such as, for example: a most powerful arousal of passion in a union of desire, where female lust would translate into energy and the risk of almost competing with Giovanni's natural might; or a female damnation of Giovanni, in which there would arise a boundless female realm; or a vanquished rebellion that founders in its pride; or the whole thing performed with noble simplicity, or defiled with heightened purity; or that same meek intensity that offended once now offends for a lifetime; or that deep faith in God, once disappointed, is now disappointed forever; or infinity's holy passion, led astray into perdition; or female recklessness that enters the light itself, and so forth.  

Zerlina's seduction is at a quiet wedding which proceeds without being called off.  Thus the essential comes to pass: she does not know how it came to be, but it did come to pass and she was seduced.*  And the result of Zerlina's greatest effort in the exercise of reason is this: one cannot explain it.  Now the interpretation of Zerlina is of great importance.  It was therefore a mistake by an otherwise meritorious actress, Ms. Kragh, to sing the replique "No!  I shall not," with strong emphasis, as if it were a decision which had been brewing in Zerlina.  Far from it.  She is bewildered, dizzy in her head, curious about her heart from the very beginning.  If we imbue her with thoughts in this respect, then the whole opera appears erroneous and mistaken.**

The following words, "Masetto's soul will bleed," deal with the same.  If this sympathy had a category, the whole thing would not be possible.  The replique must therefore not mean more and not be sung in any other way than to remain at the level of sudden gestures, such as, for example, staying in one's apron and pushing away Don Giovanni's embrace.  Precisely this makes her beautiful and lovable, and her relationship with Masetto correct.  To detect a work of atonement in the aria "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto" would be pure misunderstanding.  She is still not quite in possession of level-headedness, which can always extend, and quite abundantly, into Masetto's household, but not into Don Giovanni's snare.  She sees that Masetto is angry, so there's nothing else left to do, and she has to speak well for herself, both for his ears, and for her own.  For what this whole thing was is still not clear to her, and in her innocence her innocence is utterly doubtless.  She must be kept in this naïveté; she can only be very wise to Masetto, and he can only be so angry.  Thus neither character should have any atonement to make, as she was just redeemed.  By no means.  This begins again as soon as she sees Don Giovanni, and so again must she go and whimper a bit for Masetto, comfort him, and trust herself finally, that it is Don Giovanni and Masetto who have become enemies, God knows what for, and she has become the person who will have to satisfy them with her talk.

------------------------------

* Therefore Leporello and Zerlina would be able to engage in splendid conversation when he says to her what he used to say in bygone days to Elvira regarding Don Giovanni, and what most revolted her: "Yes, oh yes!  It is so strange, because as quickly as he is here, so is he gone."  And then Zerlina would say: "It is not that at all, I tell you; one really has no idea how it all comes to pass."

** The system in such an instance would be altered and we would move towards the profound and the Greek, in that Don Giovanni would stumble over a straw, over a little Zerlina, while he fell under the sway of wholly other powers.  The complete effect and the complete unity of the story would be disrupted.  Anna's passion, the murder of her father the Commendatore, the reunion with Elvira, all of this is against Don Giovanni; he is in the process of being stopped and for the first time in his life he is left gasping for air.  All of this has happened so early on, in the first two scenes, that the opera is still at its beginning.  What now of the seduction that is to take place in the play?  One of two: it shall involve either a seduction so complicated and dangerous that he is motivated purely by the thrill, which incites his greatest desire and greatest strength (which, nevertheless, will weaken the effect and be weakened by the impact of Anna and Elvira), or an insignificant, lovable little farm-girl imbued with natural roguishness and childlike qualities, a type of woman that one may find in the north and for whom the Catholic Church has a dubious category.  Don Giovanni is well in his element here, with the impact on the rest of the play not weakened.  This is Mozart's intention, and in this intention the play has its own beautiful unity and Mozart his own joyful mission.  Don Giovanni and Zerlina relate directly to one another like natural force and natural destiny, a purely musical relationship.

Monday
Jan162012

The Dunwich Horror

What is the Dunwich Horror?  It surfaces late in the eponymous tale, and whether it meets the reader's expectations cannot be determined until one determines the reader.  There are many people who worship Lovecraft for his style; indefinitely more who just like him because, well, he writes about gooey stuff; still others who may be seeking what his characters invariably seek, which cannot under any circumstances be recommended.  Indeed, Lovecraft's style sets him distantly apart from other purveyors of the fantastic, with the possible exception of James, although James's cobwebbed ghouls could not be any more distinct from Lovecraft's extragalactic behemoths.  Which brings us to a wretched little town in Northern Massachusetts by the name of Dunwich.

Dunwich, now and then (to wit, at the time of "the Horror," the Fall of 1928), cannot pride itself on its hospitality.  It is rather the type of place you approach in slow dread, sensing somehow that evil's winds caress more than chimes and porch lights.  An early description confirms the narrator's fears:

Without knowing why, one hesitates to ask directions from the gnarled, solitary figures spied now and then on crumbling doorsteps or on the sloping, rock-strown meadows .... Outsiders visit Dunwich as seldom as possible, and since a certain season of horror, all the signboards pointing toward it have been taken down.  The scenery, judged by any ordinary aesthetic canon, is more than commonly beautiful; yet there is no influx of artists or summer tourists.  Two centuries ago, when talk of witch-blood, Satan-worship, and strange forest presences was not laughed at, it was the custom to give reasons for avoiding the locality.

The kinship with these trials is hardly coincidence, and Dunwich's actual proximity to Salem suggests that inexplicable phenomena were a daily occurrence in this troubled region.  One of these phenomena will be the birth of Wilbur Whateley on Feb 2, 1913, a "date recalled because it was Candlemas, which people in Dunwich curiously observe under another name," and what name this may be needs no mention here.  Young Wilbur – he will remain ever young despite the astounding growth he will evince – develops both height and speech of near-inhuman dimensions, as guided by his maternal grandfather (as it were, his paternal ancestry is more than hinted at from the very beginning of the tale: "he was ... extremely ugly ... there being something almost goatish or animalistic about his thick lips, large-pored yellowish skin, coarse crinkly hair, and oddly elongated ears").  As we learn more about Wilbur, about the nightly shrieks that rattle a clapboarded attic, about his vanished, hysterical mother, about the nature of the types of books he wishes to borrow from some of the world's finest libraries, we understand as much as can be understood from the situation.  Namely, that a smart person should walk quickly away, and if to speculate, then very far away as well. 

Alas, we cannot help but read on.  At length an old professor called Henry Armitage, a scholar at this fictional university, rejects Wilbur's in-person request for a Latin copy of the Necronomicon, a wicked tome Hellenists can tell you bodes poorly for all of us.  Wilbur, at this point, a "bent, goatish giant .... [and] probable matricide .... almost eight feet tall," retreats to his hellish estate with little argument.  His next appearance, in the same library, will be somewhat more dramatic, as Armitage and two other university professors can attest:

It was partly human, beyond a doubt, with very man-like hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateleys upon it.  But the torso and lower parts of the body were teratologically fabulous, so that only generous clothing could ever have enabled it to walk on earth unchallenged or uneradicated.  Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest ... had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator.  The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes.  Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began.  The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.  Their arrangement was odd, and seemed to follow the symmetries of some cosmic geometry unknown to earth or the solar system.  On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings, and with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat.  The limbs, save for their black fur, roughly resembled the hind legs of prehistoric earth’s giant saurians; and terminated in ridgy-veined pads that were neither hooves nor claws.  When the thing breathed, its tail and tentacles rhythmically changed colour, as if from some circulatory cause normal to the non-human side of its ancestry .... Of genuine blood there was none; only the foetid greenish-yellow ichor which trickled along the painted floor beyond the radius of the stickiness, and left a curious discolouration behind it.

What is described in the above passage is very much Wilbur Whateley in the earthly form he bore for the duration of his life in Dunwich; it is his genetic admixture that we cannot ascertain.  Armitage does not really want to know, either, but takes it upon himself to decipher an ancient text and,with the horrible knowledge therefrom obtained, avert a catastrophe. 

The curious will already have used another intergalactic tool, Google, and acquired a notion if not a rendering of the beast, and so be it.  The Dunwich Horror, while suffering through far too many paragraphs in what Lovecraft concocted as a northern Massachusetts dialect, represents his genius at its peak, even if the plot has much of the straight path of destiny.  These types of stories engage the fancifulness of the curious, because it is only through re-imagination, through the reasoned categorization of images and meanings in the conscious and well-tuned brain that permits that same brain to become saturated with fear.  Such is Lovecraft's gift: even when his characters could not possibly be of benevolent origin, real suspense nevertheless builds as to the degree of their evil.  Some agenda-toting critics have alleged that for all his sublime sense of the eerie and the otherworldly, Lovecraft himself could not believe in anything greater than the coarse desert sands of the mirage-plagued materialist.   While we may accept his own doubts (these same critics declaim all Lovecraft's quotes that even imply a hesitation in this regard) as to his faith in something akin to a monotheistic deity, to insist that Lovecraft believed in nothing greater than the ambition of his five senses would be blasphemy itself.   No writer has ever portrayed the demonic undercurrent of horror with as much verve and composure.  And no one could imbue his reader with as much apprehension of what "kind of force ... doesn't belong in our part of space," and instead exists "not in the spaces we know, but between them."  And even if you turn to Lovecraft for the gooey stuff, I think you know exactly what I mean. 

Thursday
Jan122012

Democrazia e arte

An essay ("Democracy and Art") by this Italian man of letters.  You can read the original here.

In my opinion we commit an abuse, if not a play on words, when we say 'aristocratic art.'  In every work of art there is always a technical part that cannot be penetrated, understood or savored except by those who have at least been initiated, or by those whose studies specialized in the field.  But this work of art always contains an ideal foundation, an arsenal of sentiments, all of which triggers such passions and breathes life into such images that the populace gains an understanding.  Through these sentiments the populace feels itself to be in spiritual communion with the work; that is why the populace feels part of it, relives it, and receives from it an illusion of a better life.  And for this reason it palpitates and rises with a force of ascent that it did not know it possessed, all of which is akin to the effect of a suggestion.

In order that the artist place himself in a direct relationship with the soul of society, precisely this power of sympathy, which both influences and dominates this soul, constitutes the popularity of a work of art.  So when we say 'aristocratic art' we cannot but mean that artificial and well-crafted art consisting solely of an ingenious combination of words, of verses, of rhymes, made in accordance with the precepts and caprices of a special poetic code, manipulated and accepted by a privileged cenacle, and living outside the movement of contemporary life.  The art, in short, of the Euphuists, of the Alcovists, of the Parnassians, of the Pre-Raphaelites, of the Decadents: the mechanical art of John Lyly and de Góngora, of Marino and Bainville.

Now if democracy could come to kill this art of the refined and the haggard, we should have nothing to complain about; in fact, we should be elated since everything that is false does not have a right to human life.  But democracy probably will not even notice these loons, who confuse a work of art with a rebus or a puzzle, and will leave them to delight and indulge themselves in their void.  If democracy could destroy art, it ought, first of all, to destroy the organic and physiological conditions of genius, restrict the concomitant cerebral convolutions, and diminish the weight of the brain.  But the day that democracy were to produce in the populace such a cerebral degeneration would be the day the populace would vanish from history.  The struggle for life is the supreme law of the populace; the most powerful force in this struggle is precisely intelligence, and if democracy decreases intelligence and suppresses genius, it will deprive itself of all possibilities of triumph and survival.  This seems to be a steep price to pay. 

On the other hand, we see that the nations or peoples who triumph in terrible battles are exactly those which manufacture the greatest number of ingenious devices, namely, instruments and arms more precise or better suited for victory.  Could it be said, then, that scientific genius in such a case may be the product of the new democratic society and that poetic and artistic genius would not have a reason to exist?  Yet nothing reasonably induces us to imagine a society of men so alien to all elevated and generous passions, so deaf to all the great emotions that the spectacles of nature produce in all living things, that it would not concede any place to the manifestations of art.  Science itself, considered the enemy of the life of art by hypochondriac or superficial minds, constantly opens new horizons to the genius of the poet and the artist, and liberates for him more and more the flight towards the infinite.

It has also been observed that for a work of art to be born and to live, it has need for certain societal and political conditions which democracy would not be able to furnish.  Thus has the last trench of the pessimists been gloriously broken by the arguments of Vittorio Alfieri and Ugo Foscolo, by now so old and doddering in all its elements that I really do not know by what shamelessness on our part they may be confined.  For an artist to be able to work he mainly has need for liberty.  This liberty is doubtless greater in a democratic government.  Thus it does not make sense as to how democracy could possibly be the enemy of art when it affords it the primary and most essential condition of its existence, that of liberty.  Furthermore, the artist has need for a certain independence from the daily necessities of living: there are activities, in other words, from which came the mouthfuls of food that Berlioz would eat at the feet of the statue of Henri IV. 

Now the artist who can and knows he can use his talents freely in a democratic government and produce works worthy of the attention of a greater number of citizens, is certainly in a better position to earn his mouthful of bread that day than both the artist constrained to placate a despotic government or the artist obliged not to displease a prince, from whom, in the end, one may expect meager subsidies, a quandary that has persisted for many centuries from the satire of Ariosto, to the weepings of Tasso, to the adulations and threats of Aretino.  If the life of poets and artists at the courts of princes – especially Italian princes – was miserable, it has now become a most common thing: and the portent of democracy reducing them to greater misery is contradicted not only by logic, but also, on a daily basis, by facts.  Indeed, the more that States approach the democratic ideal, the less difficult will become the life of all men of genius, for whom the nascent liberty always opens new pathways and honors for their livelihood, increases those conditions favorable to the impartial appreciation of their works, and provides the tools for the rapid and broad diffusion of these selfsame works.  This liberty also protects their rights and augments their compensation in accordance with the pleasure and utility which these works bestow upon the greater number of persons.

Now it not infrequently happens that the most sublime and brilliant works are misunderstood, or not understood, or neglected.  This occurs at the present time as it has in every other era, in Italy and elsewhere, because a work of genius is essentially rebellious and anarchic.  It tends to modify the social environment, and will never be able to be fully appreciated until the conditions of this environment have been changed and the minds of men are driven by historical forces towards that luminous ideal first espied from the darkness by the genius with other eyes.  An ideal towards which he turns all the power of his flight and all the enthusiasm of his generous soul.  Moreover, if history offers us very few examples of geniuses fully understood during their time, I do not believe that library and archive researchers of any countries can boast of having discovered geniuses who remained not understood and obscure for many centures in their respective nations.  Genius is sooner or later recognized; and if its epoch does not come to understand it, it will also leave us traces which will reveal it and make it admired in the future.

In centuries past the greatest danger to an artist and to a philosopher was to see, along with his body, his work devoured by flames, damned by errors and predominant prejudices.  But in this case we also see his work, if not his life, emerge victorious from ruination, and from the sacrifice of the author, we see it succeed as something almost sacred and imposing to the hearts and minds of mortals.  In fact, I do not believe that it would be possible to name a work of any scientific or literary value which has been destroyed and erased from the memory of man by the efforts of political or religious fanaticism, which have committed so many works to abomination and to the flames.

And so, if a work of genius always emerges victorious from the innumerable obstacles and dangers it has traversed surrounded by tyranny, one is forced to conclude that the improvement of political and social conditions in accordance with democratic ideals will make the manifestation of genius even easier and its power more widely diffused.  And its victory less hard-won.

Sunday
Jan082012

Akhmatova, "Годовщину последнюю празднуй"

A work ("Our anniversary we'll mark") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

Our anniversary we'll mark – 
Our last; today, you know, was then:  
That snowy night of diamond spark,   
Of our first winter's sweet content.   

Imperial stables give off steam,
In darkness sinks the Moyka's flow, 
The stifling sky spites moonlight dreams,    
And where we're destined I can't know.

Between grandpa's and grandson's tombs, 
A weed-strewn garden so unfurls. 
As prison's madness nearby looms,  
Funereally the lanterns burn.

The Martian Field in icebergs shines,  
Lebyazhii nests in crystals clear. 
Whose lot can then compare to mine,
If in his heart are joy and fear?

And like that wondrous bird in flight, 
Your quiv'ring voice my shoulder charms.  
And, heated by the sudden light,
The snowy ash turns silvery warm.