The Idea of Order and the problem of Stravinsky

(x-posted to The Valve)

Dear readers,

The heated, often deeply antagonistic exchange that has developed at The Valve in the comments to my post on David Foster Wallace reminds me of something from the recent past of my graduate studies. Tom Mellers writes:

[Kugelmass] should possibly watch a little less television, though.  I know that whenever I watch too much TV, my sense of order and logic suffers.

My response to his comment was focused on literary works that challenge order and logic, works like those produced by Antonin Artaud and Arthur Rimbaud. Meanwhile, his comment reminded me of something else: two periods of time when I tried to listen exclusively to music that reinforced my sentiments of order and my faith in the logical development of ideas.

Both of these moments came at the same point in the year: mid-Spring, which is a peculiar time for me every year. On the one hand, I am looking forward to teaching back East, at an academy hundreds of years old that was founded on humanistic principles of reason and service. On the other, it is a stressful period, since I have rarely accomplished everything I set out to do at the beginning of the year in terms of my own scholarship. It is usually the time of year when I sleep least and drink the most coffee, leaving me in a state of quivering anxiety interspersed with moments of intense exhilaration.

Out of this muddle-headed striving one idea emerged clearly: I needed to be supremely rational and brilliant to cope with the challenges ahead, and the way to do that was to create an environment that encouraged the furthest flights of intellect. Rather than getting stuck in the emotional, instinctual thrashings of pop music, I needed to climb up to the Olympian heights of classical purism: Mozart, Bach, some Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Scarlatti, and then other acceptable works by Dvorak et al. In Steppenwolf, hadn’t Hesse praised Mozart for his golden serenity, and Scarlatti likewise in The Glass Bead Game? At times, I sincerely believed that this would become most or all I would listen to, and I would even go surfing around on the Internet to find essays where the authors expounded helpfully on the “simplicity” of rock compared to the compositional virtuosity of the old masters. Of course, it was easy to find just these sorts of essays.

After about a month of this, though, I started to feel there was a problem. First of all, what was I going to do about Mozart’s <i>Requiem</i>? It was written by the master, and it was absolutely thrilling music, but I knew that a piece like the famous “Dies Irae” wasn’t really leading me towards enlightened calm, but rather leaving me abject and shattered. This paled, however, next to The Problem of Stravinsky (who will have to stand in for all his fellows, like Bartok or Shostakovich, notwithstanding the great differences between them). Right there, alongside all my wonderfully smooth quartets and concertos, was The Rite of Spring in its horrible, tempestuous majesty, sounding mostly unlike the other (especially the earlier) compositions I had, yet indisputably classical music by somebody familiar with his predecessors. It was even a classic, one of classical music’s greatest hits.

Of course I at first refused to listen to it, offering myself various lame excuses, including the idea that I would listen to Stravinsky when I was doing absolutely nothing but concentrating on the music, but Mozart or Bach when the music was partly ambiance. But at that point I started to feel suffocated. I had a whole music collection, and now I was cutting it down to perhaps 45 compositions that I felt were sufficiently ennobling to hear. Thanks to Stravinsky, the project imploded. I love the story of old St. Saens walking out of a performance of The Rite of Spring, complaining that Stravinsky was torturing the instruments. Well, he was right about the implications of the piece, its radical potential.

It is sort of amazing that during all this time I was even allowed to get near a classroom or a critical project, considering how oppressive my thinking about music had become, and how that might have distorted my responses to other media. Looking back on it now, the whole project seems very feeble and childish, and even a little nuts. Nonetheless I do not believe that it is very far removed from our uncomfortable response to the fact that most of the culture around us (regardless of medium) comes out of modernism and post-modernism, and so out of a tradition of uncompromising hostility towards the status quo and mistrust of the humanist tradition. It strands us in an emotional landscape permeated by alienation and despair. It is exhausting to continually face up to the agony contained in these works: to go, in the course of a single day, from listening to Not A Pretty Girl to reading Céline to watching, say, Amores Perros. Of course the culture of distinctive personal style (“hip”) helps insulate us from the explicit meaning of these things by making them fashion accessories, but it’s not nearly enough to blunt the sharp edge.

The individual is right to feel that, in ostensibly seeking smart entertainments, he or she is in fact signing up for a weight of grief that fits in badly with the business of the day. It is natural to want to manage this exposure. It does not help us maintain logic and order within the private universe of our life. It is, however, a rite of spring. Ask anybody who lives at the snow line. The rivers turn white with fury when the thaw begins.