Sunday, July 24, 2011

Recent Disappointments

In each of the first five years of my ten-year plan, I've scheduled what seem like the tougher things mostly in the first half or two-thirds of the year, leaving stuff I know I love for the end of the year. I do this partly for the sake of delayed gratification and partly because my fall semester is much busier than my spring or summer. But this annual plan runs the risk of putting me in a Slough of Despond if I end up with too many books I don't enjoy in the first six or seven months.

And that's just what happened this last week. My interest in Lorna Doone waned as I read more of it (or never fully waxed, perhaps), and Spengler's Decline of the West has not captured my sympathy at all. By the end of Lorna Doone, it seems that the virtues Blackmore rewards are physical strength, rage, beauty, money, and ownership of weaponry. I had hoped that John Ridd's humility, wisdom, or love of Shakespeare might play a part in the climax, but that hope was disappointed. In the end, John kills all his enemies, making sure to get a valuable necklace from one first, and then lives happily ever after with his beautiful wife.

I thought of the Slough of Despond a minute ago because a slough plays a part at the end of Lorna Doone. John drops his gun and wrestles with his last enemy, literally tearing his muscles off his bones, until they find themselves in a bog. John jumps out in time and then watches his nemesis sink "joint by joint" without a thought of helping him. I just saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 a couple of days ago and watched Harry risk his life to save the life of his supposedly mortal foe, Draco Malfoy, and I was reminded that acts such as these are what make me root for Harry. But by the end of Lorna Doone, I no longer had any reason to root for the character I had spent three weeks with. Mark Twain said that, while in a good book the reader wants to see the good characters rewarded and the bad characters punished, he wanted to see all the characters of The Last of the Mohicans drowned together. And I must confess that I thought of Mark Twain while I watched John Ridd standing by that bog letting the other man drown alone.

Spengler actually seems a little crazy so far. He calls the West a "Faustian" culture, but only explains that term on page 97. By that expression he means a culture that has adopted empty space as its chief symbol. He finds empty space in gothic cathedrals, Bach's counterpoint, Rembrandt's colors, Descartes's geometry, Newton's physics, and Kant's philosophy. Nevermind the common understanding that the spaces of gothic cathedrals were filled with light, that Kant denied the concept of empty space, or that the system of abstract spatial coordinates that Descartes and Newton and other in the seventeenth century used seemed like innovations at the time; Spengler says our declined culture is all about empty space.

I was willing to go along with his idea and his manic, ill-organized presentation of it to see if it helps make any sense of history even if not totally accurate. But I read something Friday that pulled the rug out from under my generous intentions. In the service of some argument I didn't quite follow about vision and extension and fear of death (or something), Spengler said that form in western music was based entirely on variation and that expansions and contractions of time had absolutely no place in music. Here Spengler has stumbled onto a subject I know a little bit about, and I can say that he's quite simply wrong. The Bach whose music he says represents empty space often manipulates a motive or even an entire theme in such a way that it takes twice as long to unfold. This kind of temporal expansion (and correlate methods of contraction) pop up all throughout the "Faustian" period of music history: in the twelfth-century compositions of Notre Dame, in the fifteenth-century proportional motets of Ockhegem, and in the nineteenth-century hemiolas of Brahms and Chaikovski, to name just three other examples. Theme-and-variation form, on the other hand, never played the prominent role he claimed for it in the Classical period of Haydn and Mozart, not to mention the rest of the Faustian Era.

The bright side of my situation carries both short-term relief and long-term hope. For the present, I'm finished with Blackmore, and I can kick my reading speed of Spengler into a higher gear. I'd rather skip some of the words all the way through the rest of the book than give up and skip all the words of the second half. And then after I finish Decline of the West, I have nothing left to read this year but books I know I love -- Plutarch, Durant, Boswell, Catton, Lewis, and others among my favorites -- and then I end the year with the Great Man himself.

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