That all classical arts recognize each other (1)

November 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Perhaps Eco cannot help making observations like this:

The worst cases of befuddlement often occur when Westerners (and not just 15-year-olds) come across religious icons from other cultures — which happens increasingly often today as they travel to distant countries and people from those countries settle in the West.

I’m not talking about Westerners’ puzzled reactions when faced with an African mask or laughter at the sight of an enormously fat Buddha. The fact is that many shake their heads in disbelief when they learn that Hindus worship a deity with the head of an elephant, yet find nothing odd about portraying Christianity’s divine personage as a dove.

It is, of course, a semiotician’s professional disease — the focus on denotation:  art conceived of as manipulation of a set of symbols /meanings — whether mythological or political or otherwise.

Not that what Eco reports isn’t true:  enough people do respond to art the way he suggests (and perhaps does himself) — if they don’t get the story, they don’t get the art — “look, that’s the holy spirit”; but to me this is not the interesting story.

To me, the really interesting story is the (unnoticed) opposite:  that of a cultured western man coming — completely unprepared — face to face for the first time with Indian, or Chinese, or Indonesian art and — being instantly moved by it:  indeed, realizing its familiarity; perhaps not the political or mythological message, but something else, something much more fundamental, much more important.

All classical arts across the globe, no matter how isolated and how independently evolved, share certain features, certain conventions; they slot into our minds in the same way; which means that — sometimes, for some people — being steeped in one classical art is enough to access another.  A sitar raga is immediately comprehensible to some people with solid foundation in western classical music; many with good background in European baroque opera instantly grasp what is going on in Balinese dance drama; people familiar with Shang bronzes are often instantly moved by Benin plaques; some Iranian carpet lovers gasp when they see for the first time in their life Indonesian batiks.

Perhaps this has never happened to Eco; but this certainly does happen to some of those familiar with classical arts.  Perhaps this group are unlike Eco in that their appreciation of classical arts consists in paying attention to features other than those he pays attention to:  perhaps they don’t care what the dove means but about something entirely else; something of which Eco may have no inkling.


Regarding the literary flourish

October 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am myself guilty of the sin.  In my former life, when I wrote frequently for a largish audience, mostly female and with interests considerably more middle-brow than my own, I was often tempted to end an essay on batiks — or Villa Farnesina, or whatnot — with a pretty sounding something on the topic of love.  It worked wonders — my readers ate it up — and I managed somehow to pretend to myself that it was not a sin.

Yet, it is a sin:  human life is a wasting asset, to waste other people’s time pretending that you are telling them something while you are just feeding them drivel is well nigh a criminal offense.  (Yes, if you do not, your readers will find other ways to waste their life, but then the sin is theirs, not yours).

It is also a professional failure:  writers are makers of texts like cobblers are makers of shoes.  For a cobbler to make a useless shoe — i.e. one which cannot be worn — would be a professional crime; for a writer to make a text which cannot be understood — because it means nothing — must also be one.  How can it not disqualify him?

The entire second half of The Island of the Day Before is just that kind of empty flourish:  once Father Caspar has sunk in his hilarious diving bell (“how can it not go wrong?” we think as we read about it), it is apparent that Eco has spent himself; and, drained of all ideas, he is stalling:  he is playing for time.  The “Romance of Ferrante” manages to keep things afloat for a while, but eventually it becomes painfully clear that there is nothing there, only repetition:  take Robert’s inordinately long meditation on possible life forms on other planets — the topic has already been treated in the duel scene, 25 chapters back; Robert’s overlong meditation adds nothing to it — nothing, that is, except words.

Likewise, Pamuk’s My Name Is Red runs out of juice after chapter 11 (when, in a brilliant formal trick, following the story told by a painted leafless tree, the hero sees the love of his life through a naked tree sparkling with sleet).  While in this case the next three-quarters of the book are probably entirely due to the publisher’s insistence that one cannot make money printing a 90-page novella, and therefore he cannot print it; Pamuk’s Black Book is in its entirety his sin alone: no part of it ever needed to be written; certainly, no part of it ever needed to be published.  The publisher — mercenary like the rest of his trade — wanted to make a buck pushing text by a famous writer; but what was the writer’s excuse?  That he had a mortgage to pay?

It isn’t clear why Eco went on and on, once he’s run out of stuff to say.  Surely, since Eco’s stature allows him to force a publisher to print Diario Minimo; he could also have forced him to print an unfinished novel (hint:  market it as “open-ended”), a mere trifling 200 pages long?  Unlike Pamuk, Eco has sold movie rights to his other work:  surely, he has enough dough, if anyone does, to spare us drivel?

Is it possible that Eco wrote the entire second half of The Island of the Day Before not realizing that he had run out of ideas and that he was extemporizing?  Or are authors like certain kinds of birds (cf. Tetrao urogallus) who so love the sound of their own voice that they can not notice when they have gone off?


Surely, Lesser does have a point in her final pages when she says that there is something special about the silence which falls at the end of a Shostakovich string quartet.  In a way, this is true about all well-structured music: each string quartet, having established a key, then modulated away, then gone through all kinds of development, eventually returns to its point of origin — often to its opening bar; the satisfying sensation of completion which this brings about can only be appreciated when the last chord has sounded (obviously); which is why the silence which falls at the end of the quartet seems so rich, so resounding, so pregnant with meaning:  it is filled with reflection; our minds are busy digesting; only now do we appreciate the enormity of what he have just heard; and it takes time to take it all in.  Thus, the ovation always comes too soon and I welcome Borodin Quartet’s innovation to leave the stage silently without taking a bow, thus leaving the audience alone with its task of reflection.

I hope I have just demonstrated above that an OK paragraph can be written on the silence which follows a Shostakovich string quartet.  Clearly, it doesn’t take a genius to think of something to say and — to say it with as few words as possible.  But it is challenging to write eleven paragraphs on the topic, perhaps impossible (music being, after all, about itself alone and nothing else, perhaps all one can do in response to a cycle of string quartets is… to write one’s own?).  Whatever the case, certainly Lesser is not the person to do it:  the last four pages of her book come across as vacuous and repetitive, a kind of…  verbal froth.

Pretty, yes, but signifying not much.  In fact, the same could be sad for the whole Epilogue:  it is too long, it has too many words in it.  Half that length, perhaps a quarter, would have sufficed.

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