Contrasting Dynamics between Old and New Literature

I’ve recently been reading the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and the 19th century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev.  I’m finding a marked contrast in the development of the stories that each tell.  I am sad to say that I fail to understand the artistry of the contemporary novelist Murakami, while I am stimulated and captivated by the 19th century novelist Turgenev.

In the first chapter of Turgenev, there are four developing story tensions: 1) youth and age, 2) aristocracy and peasantry, 3) social grace and casual social insouciance, 4) science and art.  All this is evolving through four characters.  I can’t wait to see how these tensions play out.  By contrast, I am half-way through Murakami and there are no plot tensions; there have been a long succession of characters who appear then fall out of the narrative; and the story is a succession of episodes with nothing driving them other than the main character’s fascination with a woman who has something wrong with her.

The New York Times likes Murakami, and that makes me think that I’m missing something.  But I’ve read no critical commentary on Turgenev and I’m hooked.  Am I witnessing a clash of aesthetics between contemporary art and 19th century art?  Have my sensibilities failed to keep up with contemporary culture?

In my own aesthetics, a work of art commands attention by its own presentation.  I don’t need to read a book of art criticism to admire a Rembrandt painting–or a Monet landscape.  But I do, in order to appreciate Miro.  I don’t need to read criticism to enjoy Hemingway or Turgenev or Shakespeare or Tom Wolfe.  But someone needs to tell me why I should keep reading Murakami, because the author himself isn’t compelling my attention.

With so much art, I seem to leave off with early modernism.  Perhaps I am living witness to the plot tension in Turgenev between youth and age.  But then, that would commend Turgenev’s 19th century aesthetic.

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A WELL-LOVED LIFE

I treasure the measure allotted me, perhaps
Because I have known
Want and bitterness
Admittedly, self-imposed pursuant to
Higher education want and bitterness and isolation
The currency I’m currently earning renders
Me middle-class, statistically, actuarially, actually, without apology
I can buy my heart’s desire, for my
Wants and happiness
Are within grasp of my middle-class
Earning;–yearning not for all the world:
Some art, a guitar, travel to distant parts
On occasion; means for an artistic avocation
Wants and happiness
Gifts of a middle-class
Earning—living out my learning
Through a life well-lived, well loved life

THE LEXICON OF LANGUAGE

Human community is the lexicon of language
Shared speech defines word and syntax
I know holy language, spoken among
Those self-identified spiritual
The lexicon of holy books, prayer, chant, doctrines
To whom these matter
I know ecstasy and peace
I know sin and craving
Shadow only exists by sunshine
I know secular language, spoken among
Those self-identified disinterested to spirituality
The lexicon of sciences, literature, arts, pop-culture, ego-gratification, social standing
To whom only these matter, or matter largely
I know class, sophistication, cultivation
I act the fool, commit faux-pas, social blunders
What honest human doesn’t, can’t, won’t
Secular language grounds the holy
As bark encloses trees, skin encloses the body, callous
Only flowers are unprotected

Criticism, Personal Preference, and Enjoying Art

I think we all want to generalize our personal preferences into critical judgments.  When we mean, “I don’t like that,” we say, “That’s bad.”  For instance,mMy own personal feeling is that I don’t like heavy metal music.  So, naturally, I say that heavy metal music is bad music.  But the truth is, I don’t know enough about heavy metal music to make sound critical judgments about it.  I don’t know how to differentiate between good heavy metal music and bad heavy metal music.  Likewise, when we like something, we want to generalize our feelings into critical judgments.  When we really like something, we say, “That’s great!”  When I was young, I loved the music of Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and I still do.  So I claimed that those bands were great.  And I had the supporting argument that the music was technically sophisticated–in fact, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer played classical music in a rock idiom.  But to other people, their music was too analytical and intellectual.

I am a big fan of Andrew Wyeth’s art.  But during Wyeth’s life, critics didn’t know whether he was “great.”  When the elite in the art world were painting abstractions and pouring paint across canvasses–to great critical acclaim–Wyeth was painting amazingly realistic works of art.  I see abstraction contained in Wyeth’s realism, and Wyeth stated that he was uniting abstraction with realism.  But critics were suspicious of paintings that looked real in a world of abstraction.

The question comes down to what criteria a person uses in their critical judgments.  If a person begins with the assumption that all great art must be abstract, then they will not value realism.  But why would abstraction be the only measure of greatness?  Such critics would be able to distinguish between abstract works, and make judgments among greater or lesser abstractions.  But by their own criteria, they would not be in a place to make sound judgments between realistic artworks and abstract artworks.

I am a fan of jazz and blues music.  And I believe myself capable of making reasonably sound judgments regarding solos.  That is, I believe myself capable of identifying a good solo from a bad solo.  There is a current ideology that if one doesn’t like a work of art one doesn’t understand it.  One often hears art and literature students say, “I don’t understand it,” when they are confronted with a work of art that they don’t like.  This ideology promotes “appreciation” and considers judgment about art quality antiquated.  But there are qualitative differences among artworks.  And one can make judgments about better or lesser creations–provided one understands one’s own personal likes and dislikes.

But all this talk about critical judgment overlooks one important approach to art: do we enjoy it?  There are times when we let go of our critical minds, and decide to enjoy art rather than judge it.  These are times when we get authentic and say, “I like this;” or “I don’t like this.”  And we don’t generalize our feelings.  We simply enter into relationship with art and leave our experience as enjoyable or unpleasant.

I am not commending one or the other way to approach art.  We grow and learn when we stretch our likes and dislikes into new material.  We grow when we try to understand material we don’t like.  We may well decide that we still don’t like it despite our best efforts to understand.  But we will know more from the effort.  And we live a fulfilling life when enjoy and withhold judgment.  However we encounter art, art is an invaluable contribution to the human experience, and something I treasure, pursue, work at, and enjoy, and commend to others.

Pygmalion and the Artist’s Love Affairs

When I first heard the myth of Pygmalion, I took it literally.  I thought it was about a sculptor who made a statue of a beautiful woman.  She was so beautiful that he fell in love with her.  Pygmalion (the sculptor) implored the gods to bring his statue to life, so that he could have a life with his creation.  I first thought that the sculpture being a beautiful woman was what caused Pygmalion to fall in love with her.  I read the story differently now.

An artist falls in love with each creation that comes out well.  Deeply in love.  I have some songs of my own which I love deeply.  I listen to them with enraptured delight.  I have certain poems that I feel the same about.  Now a poem or a song can’t come to life.  But that doesn’t change the love affair that the musician or poet enters into with these creations.

There is, of course the matter of public’s reaction to an artist’s creations.  That would be more like a parent’s feelings about her or his children.  And that would be a different myth.

Critical Theory

Critical Theory

Poetry is about the imagination

Language is about itself

Words about words

Art is about form, hue, and value

There is something in that

But not the whole

Words come from other words in a sequence

But why the sequence?

And why the form, hue, and value?

Meaning clothes itself in words, form, hue, and value

We read, we view

We bring meaning to the meaning

Which is clothed in word, form, hue, and value

–Neither meaning unviewed wholly

Nor the reader’s meaning wholly

Neither exclusively words about language

Nor exclusively the readers’ meaning

But an encounter, dialogue, relationship

There’s something of the artist in art

And we come away more that we were

After reading, after viewing

Art Has No Limitations

I remember how disappointed I was when I heard the last symphony of Beethoven’s 9 total.  I was 18 years old then.  One by one, I had discovered each symphony that I’d never heard before.  I would so look forward to hearing another symphony of his that I hadn’t heard yet.  I don’t remember what order I heard them in, but I still remember how sad I was that there were no more Beethoven symphonies to discover.

Then, a few years later I listened to the third symphony again.  For some reason, now I heard things in it I’d never heard before.  Then I heard the sixth symphony played live when I was in Ohio.  Again, I noticed sounds I hadn’t heard before.  When I told this to the conductor at the reception after the performance, he raised his eyebrows as if I were suggesting the orchestra played some wrong notes, which I wasn’t.

Then there is the ninth symphony.  For the longest time, I never understood the first movement.  I have struggled, trying to find a melody.  Melodies are so plain in the other works.  So even though I’d heard the first movement many times, I didn’t get it.  Then I heard a Cleveland Symphony Orchestra performance conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi.  His interpretation finally made sense to me.  Now, I had a glimpse of what Beethoven was doing in it.  I was hearing it for the first time, in a way.

I read a critic from Beethoven’s own time period, Carl Maria von Weber, who complained about the sustained “e” in the first movement, “Always that miserable e,” Weber writes and suggested that Beethoven must have grown deaf to the “e” and was now ripe for the madhouse.  That gave me a new way into the 7th symphony.  I listened intently and heard that sustained “e” I’d never noticed before.  It was like hearing the 7th for the first time.  And as I wrestled, trying to think up with horn lines for my own compositions, I listened intently to Beethoven’s orchestrations–yet another way to hear his symphonies afresh.

Beethoven wrote that the true artist could have no pride.  While he might be admired by a world-wide audience, he realizes that art has no limitations and awaits the time when the greater genius will shine forth like a blazing star.  Art has no limitations.  Great art holds so much that one can return to works of great art again and again and hear, see, read and experience it as if for the first time.  While my ear has listened to all 9 of Beethoven’s symphonies, my soul hasn’t heard all that is in them.  I can keep coming back, and discover Beethoven’s 9 symphonies for the first time.

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