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TRUTHS OF LIFE, AND OF THE CLASSROOM
December 17, 2009 - 1:26pm

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UD

"You're excited," said my husband to me as I entered the car last night after my second Messiah rehearsal at the Landon School here in Bethesda. I'd only said a sentence or two, nothing special. He was responding to my tone of voice, my body language.

"Well, we ended with the Hallulejah chorus," I said, "and that's insanely exciting. Plus the director said it'd been a very good rehearsal, and it had. I mean, to my ear the whole thing sounded crisp and strong and amazing, but you never know what it's like from the front of the room. ... Plus I finally got close to singing the opening Yoke is Easy run correctly. I'll never really get it, but I'm not bad..."

At one point, toward the middle of the rehearsal, the director told us to sit back and relax for a few minutes. "This piece is so intense. Sometimes you need to calm down to get through it."

For me the excitement wasn't just the mix of beauty, complexity, and energy in the piece itself; it was the fact of successfully singing along with an experienced chorus. I wasn't screwing up! I was hitting the entrances and nailing the exits. I was sitting next to a far superior soprano, letting her do all the really high notes, but otherwise doing my part.

A lot of the choral Messiah is excited shouting under control, if you know what I mean. Aesthetic excitement. Formal excitement. Synchronized excitement. But still true excitement. Very close to lack of control.
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An hour before the rehearsal, I was on the metro reading a student paper -- final papers were due a few days ago.

One particular paper riveted me, not only because it was angry and well-written, but because it reminded me of papers I wrote when I was an undergraduate.

The student, in my Novels of Don DeLillo class, had grown to dislike DeLillo intensely, and his paper was an extended complaint, a denunciation. He attacked DeLillo for failing to excite him in the way Messiah had excited me:

... I want to come to love characters, relate to them, fantasize about them. And then I want to see them suffer; left broken, stabbed, and beaten. I want to see their friends, their world, come crumbling down, their secret perversions revealed. I want to watch like Descartes' demon as they stumble through a sick gauntlet of clubs and makeshift knives. I want to watch them fall in love, the head-over-heels kind, the plummeting-stomach kind that keeps you up nights and dreaming days. I want to watch two lovers laugh, drink, and fuck because the reader is the ultimate voyeur.

DeLillo denies everything I want to see. ... Words that are dangerous and disturbing and sometimes beautiful are wasted on superficial reflections of materialism and [on] privileged nitwits. [DeLillo] doesn't probe into motivations or emotions. And there's so much potential for the language, to see characters struggle through it and fight it, to see them just as lost and confused and jolted as the reader. But instead it's just a satire, not a survival story.... DeLillo is clearly intrigued by death. All of his characters are obsessed with the idea; it's the only thing that can break them out of their small little worlds. But death never gets any kind of humane treatment. Characters don't care when other characters die. And worse, you don't care when characters die.

DeLillo's idea of a writer alone in a dark room is right. But it's because [writers have] got too much humanity and it pours out in their writing, all this booze-soaked sadness. Like every word was chiseled out of their body and every page is a miraculous testament to human will. Those are the writers alone in the dark with letters of the lovers that crush them, [writers who] drink too much and [who smoke] all the cigarettes down to the filters, burning their lips....


I remember reading James Agee -- the ultimate sad, booze-soaked writer -- for the first time, and writing about him exactly like this in a paper for an English class at Northwestern. I cited these two pages from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, pages about Agee's response to Beethoven, and I agreed vociferously with his intensity of response. This was art, both a powerful conviction from an artist which goes to the ground of human and transcendent reality, and a powerful response from a listener or reader, who recognizes the conviction and the reality. "He who understands my music can never know unhappiness again." Agee quotes Beethoven writing this, and it's clear enough to me that what I've been calling "excitement" and "intensity" throughout this post is indeed some sort of deep-lying, imperishable happiness.

In any case, my Northwestern University professor threw quite a lot of cold water on my excitement and intensity; my language was inappropriate for a formal paper, yadda yadda.

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I hated that response then, and I hate it now. Long ago I resolved never to do that to a student. Respond to the intensity in a student's writing, sure, but respect it.

As I read this student's paper, I was torn between delight at his strong aesthetic sensibility and an impulse to defend DeLillo - and, by extension, all writers who for various reasons fail to conform to the artist-ideal at the heart of the student's philosophy.

I take it my student agrees with Jim Morrison, who wrote: "I believe in a long, prolonged derangement of the senses to attain the unknown. Our pale reasoning hides the infinite from us.” My defense of writers like DeLillo who proceed differently would have at its heart the subtle and important theme of the balance between intensity of feeling and the necessity of containing and formalizing that feeling within some recognizable genre so that it can become a work of art. Does DeLillo, above all a novelist of ideas, throw cold water on the roiling human emotions that underlie abstractions? Or does he, as I think, create an excitingly unsteady balance between an underworld of yearning feeling, and a cultural landscape that in various ways blocks that feeling?

What exactly did Agee get so excited about in Beethoven? Doesn't Dmitri Tymoczko, a music theorist, get at some of it here?


... Especially in his late pieces, Beethoven frequently wrote music that was difficult, if not impossible, to play: for example, the very high vocal passages in the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony, or certain near-impossible leaps in the Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106. In these passages, the musical score seems to be in conflict with the human beings who are trying to perform it. What is unusual, even unique, about the Tempest is the way the music seems to portray its own limitations. Instead of a conflict between the music and its performers, or between the desire of the composer and the abilities of the players, the Tempest is a piece of music that is in conflict with itself. While we can at least imagine a flawless performance of the Ninth Symphony or the Hammerklavier, the Tempest intrinsically contains a symbol of its own unrealized goals. ... It is as if Beethoven were suggesting that, while no amount of effort on his part would enable him to leap beyond the limits of his piano, his music demands that he try – as if the world of sticks and wires, the ordinary physical realm in which pianos exist, cannot be reconciled with the world of Beethoven’s aspiration...

Aren't we all - my student, Beethoven, Agee, Tymoczko - playing variations on the fact that, as Tymoczko concludes, "we can have tremendous, Beethovenian passions without losing all sense of our own limitation"? The most exciting art, in this way of thinking, would at once express the truth of our imperfection, of each ego's inability to get over personal and cultural blockage, and our occasional capacity to be sufficiently "deranged" to break through to William Blake's human infinite.

I sense, and respond to, precisely this tension in DeLillo; my student does not.

Yet this particular difference between us doesn't really matter. What matters is what we have in common.

The exciting truth of the classroom is that occasionally it generates, for a professor, an entire underworld of affinity.

 

 

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