Raymond MONELLE: "Musical uniqueness as a function of the text" (3/17)


Originality, then, together with particularity, thisness, inscape: these are the signs of artistic eloquence, the traces of symbolic truth. This kind of truth has nothing to do with observation, experiment, rationality. It is something of which we are convinced, something to do with confidence and trust, something imaginative and indefinable. But it is a little paradoxical to invoke signs of such an infinitely variable quantity, since a sign is perforce a general feature. In recognizing a sign we are conforming to a learned experience. How can one possibly learn to respond to a sign, the meaning of which is always radically different? or rather, how can one imagine a conventional sign of radical difference?
Classically, reason is thought of as an abstraction from life. Life is chaotic, but abstract thought brings order into the chaos. Our sense of reason, then, is gratified by the reduction of chaos to order, but our apprehension of the real is more at home in a world of particularities. In observing the special quality of style in a poet like Hopkins or a musician like Beethoven, we seem to encounter a trace of the irreplicability of real life. There is a sense of truth -- not rational truth, but a kind of lively verisimilitude -- in the peculiar tone and gesture of the original artist. We observe, in Hopkins and Beethoven, also in Austen, Eliot, Ives, a distinctive personality that feels like the closeness and intimacy of a living mind, and also a portrayal of the real world which seems uncannily true. This truth is usually linked with representation in the works of literary artists; the level of representation in music is less prominent, though the peculiar immediateness of Beethoven's nobility, Schumann's poignancy, Mahler's irony touches us as we are touched by life's emotions.
Realism, then, and personality; these are the signs of imaginative uniqueness, the tokens of perceived truth rather than rational truth. The truly eloquent piece of writing is unique because, first of all, it is true to life, and secondly because it reflects the particular personality of the author. Real life is tricky and constantly changing. Anything that reflects it is bound to be full of the surprises and inexplicable accidents of the real world. Similarly, each human is fundamentally original, and indeed we expect artistic creators to be the most outstandingly original of humans. In literature, there was traditionally conceived to be a dialectic between form and realism, in which form gave clarity to the observation of life in its chaotic variety. The quality of the artwork derived from the reconciliation of formal perfection with verisimilitude.
Life is chaotic, art is orderly. The novelist's problem is to evoke an orderly composition which is also a convincing picture of life. It is Jane Austen's triumph that she solves this problem perfectly, fully satisfies the rival claims of life and art (Lord David Cecil, quoted in Leavis: 1962, 15).
As well as verisimilitude, the particularity of the artist's character gave uniqueness, and thus depth of meaning, to the work. George Eliot, for example, brought to her novels an element of Puritanism from her Midlands lower-middle-class background, according to Lord David Cecil. F.R. Leavis places a gloss on this:
[...] It is misleading to call her a Puritan at all [...] There was nothing restrictive or timid about her ethical habit; what she brought from her Evangelical background was a radically reverent attitude towards life, a profound seriousness of the kind that is a first condition of any real intelligence, and an interest in human nature that made her a great psychologist" (Leavis: 1962, 23-24).
Such a detailed discussion of the artist's character (as opposed to the character of the text) is matched in music by the respect for Ton, the inimitable personal style of the composer, the "strongly individual character" of Schumann, for instance, which "is more easily felt than defined" (Radcliffe: 1960, 247).

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AS/SA Nº4, Article 4 : Page 3 / 17

© 1997 by AS/SA

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