Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Illuminations of Reading

In my stack of books, I usually have several that I'm reading at once.  I'll have some nonfiction that illuminates the times and trends of Soul Weather, which is set in 2011, the year of the Occupy Movement.  I'll read all kinds of things:  economics, news reports, studies about our networks and technologies and the effects they have on us.  Then I'm likely to have a "serious" novel on the go:  in the last couple of weeks, it's been Esi Edugyan's brilliant, brutal and hopeful Washington Black and Timothy Findley's 2003 novel The Piano Man's Daughter, which has been on my "to read" shelf for years and which has altogether too many gratuitous wounds and deaths.  Then I'll need some gentler reading that has a sunnier view of the world.  Over Christmas, I turned to my shelf of nonfiction favourites, pulling off Eric Siblin's book on Bach's Cello Suites which intertwines three narratives, that of his own discovery of Bach (Siblin was pop music critic at the Montreal Gazette when he was seduced by a performance of the Cello Suites), that of Pablo Casals' life as seen through his performances of the suites, and that of J.S. Bach.  Intriguingly, the Cello Suites are often viewed as the most abstract of Bach's compositions, yet both Bach and Casals were profoundly political figures, affected by historical events that they needed to push back against.  That finished, I have picked up Molly Peacock's The Paper Garden:  Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life's Work at Seventy-two.  After reading Siblin's book and talking to my friend dee Hobsbawn-Smith about her prize-winning essay on Wiebo Ludwig and about how the best nonfiction contains distinct traces of its writer, I thought I'd compare how Molly Peacock worked her life into The Paper Garden with how Eric Siblin did so.

Occasionally the strands of my magpie reading interact to create a small explosion of insight.  This time it was Siblin's book, a three-page article from the January 1, 2012 The Globe and Mail on "the protestor," a figure that Time Magazine dubbed the person of the year for 2011, and an essay from The Journal of Happiness Studies that Katherine Arbuthnott sent to help me understand the characters in my novel.

For me the central story of The Cello Suites is that of Pablo Casals, who introduced the Suites to the world when he recorded them in London and Paris just as the Spanish Civil War was escalating and it looked like Spanish Fascist Francisco Franco was going to win.  Casals is both Catalan and deeply independent and humane, so Franco's success was an anathema to him.  When the fighting came close enough to his home to be a threat, Casals trekked over the mountains to set up his studio in southern France, from where he gave concerts and organized music festivals, the proceeds of which were spent on whatever was needed in northern Spain and could be trucked over the Pyrenees.  Franco's men knew what Casals was up to and vowed that if they ever captured him they would cut off both his arms at the elbows.  This is how threatening art is to fascists and dictators. 

After the war, when Franco's government was recognized in Europe and North America, Casals vowed never to perform in a country that supported the fascist dictator.  He was finally convinced to perform at the United Nations because it stands on neutral soil, and for John Kennedy because Kennedy agreed to talk with him about Franco's illegitimacy.  This is a striking illustrations of something my generation of English types, raised on New Criticism, is not inclined to entirely credit:  that art and politics are inevitably intertwined, to the detriment of neither.  Thankfully, subsequent critical schools have sussed out that relationship, though it remains a vexed one. When does art turn into propaganda?

But it was Siblin's life of Bach that I found most interesting.  I'm passionate about Bach:  I'm always working on something new, his French Suite No. 4 at the moment.  (And I'm not the only passionate one.  I've been listening to BBC Radio 3 today, and I've heard three pieces of Bach programmed by three different producers.  One of these was a movement from the Cello Suites.) There is something about Bach's transparency, his clear yet surprising treatment of his materials that gives me a sense of tranquillity.  Veronica tells a story about the woman who lived above her in her old apartment.  Particularly in the summer, Veronica could hear this person talking to herself, mostly berating herself.  Veronica would put on Bach's Goldberg Variations just loud enough to be clearly heard on the balcony above, and the self-abuse would stop.

Siblin's account gives flesh to something I vaguely knew:  that Bach was out of date even during his lifetime.  This is seen not merely in his difficulty securing good appointments toward the end of his life that left him time to compose, but in the way his manuscripts were treated.  After Bach's death, these were divided among his sons who, at the time, were much better regarded than their father.  During this process, many things were lost, chief among them the text of the Cello Suites.  There are apocryphal stories about his manuscripts being used to wrap cheese or fish.  Bach's music quickly fell out of favour, only to be resurrected by the Jewish Mendelssohn, who organized a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, "kick-starting," in the words of one website, Bach's posthumous career.

I think that most artists, particularly those of us worried about the quality of our work and the recognition and attention it garners or does not garner, could benefit from thinking about Bach's career.  The quality of Bach's work did not change between the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig in 1736 or his death in 1750 and the performance organized by Mendelssohn in 1829.  Was the Passion in particular or Bach's work in general too complicated?  Too polyphonic in an age when music was developing thicker harmonies and melodic lines with less movement?  Was it just out of style in the always changing history of styles in art?  This question even lurks around Casals' performance of the Cello Suites.  The manuscript has notes only, no tempi or bowings:  it is very open to interpretation.  Casals' performance is now regarded as entirely too thick and romantic in an age that is turning to the lighter timbres of historical instruments.  Despite the fact that he brought this transcendent music to our attention, many cellists have major quarrels with his interpretation.

The article in the Globe needs much less discussion (thank heavens! you think to yourself).  It highlights the work of  seven groups or individuals who were notable for their outsider status in the age of Occupy.  These run the gamut from Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, Kalle Lasn of Adbusters, The Pirate Party in Sweden, and Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei.  Most of these individuals, the Globe concludes, are Occupied in the task of reminding us that human beings need to keep seeking progress, seeking happiness and freedom for as many of their fellow human beings as possible.  And they call neo-liberalism to task, reminding us that "The relentless pursuit of new stuff is bound to be dissatisfying and dehumanizing.  You can't buy liberty and happiness at the mall" (TGAM January 1, 2012).  Of course that sentiment implies and liberty and happiness are goods in and of themselves.

This sentiment segues nicely into the third reading, "Living Well:  A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on Eudaimonia" by Richard Ryan, Veronika Huta, and Edward Deci.  I can get a little righteous when I write about people who seek hedonia, the immediate pleasures of our senses, or who think "the good life"--which we first find discussed in Aristotle--consists of money, power, personal beauty, and status.  But my righteousness risks ignoring the fact that much aesthetic pleasure, including that which I take from Bach's Cello Suites--is hedonic.  So without that righteousness, I will simply say is that a eudaimonic approach to life champions many of our psychological needs:  "the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  The need for autonomy refers to a sense of choice and volition in the regulation of behavior.  The need for competence concerns the sense of efficacy one has with respect to both internal and external environments.  The need for relatedness refers to feeling connected to and cared about by others." The eudaimonic life seeks intrinsic goals that are good in and of themselves:  "courage, generosity, wisdom, and being fair and just in relation to others."  The person who is eudaimonic actively chooses his or her goals with an eye to their personal expressiveness (Ryan 145).  In the fairly robust research on the effects of a hedonic or a eudaimonic lifestyle, eudaimonia is consistently associated both with happiness, that deep satisfaction we feel when we step back to evaluate the lives we are living, and with lives that benefit others.  Intriguingly, people who cultivate a eudaimonic life have a smaller environmental footprint.

Not surprisingly, a eudaimonic life is mindful and reflective.  Like the outsiders I mentioned above, we can't make autonomous decisions without considering the values of our society and deciding whether they reflect our own desires.  In our reflections on our choices or our behaviour, we exercise our autonomy, define what our personal values are--not those of the marketplace--and consider whether we are living up to them.  Also not surprisingly, interactions with art are one of the ways we are mindful and are prompted to consider what we value and even whether we need to consider aspiring to something altogether larger, more transcendent when compared to the last time we undertook such reflection.

Visible Cities has been out nearly a year.  There has been one generous review.  And award season is just around the corner.  As a writer, I need feedback on whether I am doing the best work I can.  But the part of me that wants recognition lacks autonomy and skates perilously close to extrinsic motivation and a hedonic approach to life.  But if I think of Bach's life, I realize that a culture--seventeenth and eighteen-century Germany--can be way out in its estimate of works of art.  So perhaps the thing to do is to embrace my outsider status, which is possibly my greatest gift to my readers.  When I write a poem, I promise my readers that I won't be giving them "off the rack" perspectives.  Rather, as one who believes both in eudaimonia and in the outsider's urge to provide a space where readers can finding surprising perspectives, my job is to give readers a place to reflect.  I need to remember that one of the major contributions any work of art makes is to prompt people to consider their lives--or in the case of Visible Cities, the places where they live. 

And that, even more importantly, like the Occupiers, the artist does not do this alone, but in concert with all the other artists of her age. I have often thought of humility as a cloak or as the freedom to do what you need or choose to do without worrying overmuch about what people think.  But humility also acknowledges that, like the outsiders of Occupy, artists are part of a large chorus, each one contributing his or her own song or harmony.  It is that rich, varied chorus that matters.

(I have no idea whether I can link the amaryllis above to my thoughts, but it seemed significant that it decided to put out six rather than the usual four blooms, embodying life's richness.)     

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