"The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac".
January 18, 2006 12:15 PM   Subscribe

The Niagara Fortissimo. “Mahler was to conduct in Buffalo, New York, and we took advantage of the trip to visit Niagara Falls. We spent hours near and even under the roaring falls... and then with that roar still in his ears Mahler went to conduct Beethoven’s ‘Pastorale’. I was waiting for him as he stepped off the podium. ‘Endlich ein fortissimo!,’ he said, ‘At last a fortissimo!’” The fortissimo in question is Beethoven's, not Niagara's. The point, as Alma elaborates it in her memoirs, is that music can offer experiences more overpowering than Nature itself — a kind of extreme aestheticism that Oscar Wilde also propounded in "The Decay of Lying" when he said that most sunsets are attempts at second-rate Turners. More inside.
posted by matteo (8 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
From Wilde's Decay of Lying:
Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy. The Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a purely literary product. He was invented by young Tourgénieff, and completed by Dostoieffski. Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau as surely as the People's Palace rose out of the débris of a novel. Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose. The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.
posted by matteo at 12:16 PM on January 18, 2006

"The point ... is that music can offer experiences more overpowering than Nature itself...."

This is only surprising if you think that sunsets have beauty in themselves -- without having it given to them by a viewer. Everything we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, after all, we do so within a context: Of what we have done that day, what we've heard, seen, smelled, tasted, touched, that day, and every day before. And beyond that: We see it all in the context of our own being. Call it self, consciousness, mind -- the name isn't terribly relevant for this purpose. It's whatever is last and inescapable. Whatever it is of ourselves that, when we cease to believe in it, does not go away.

While it's less obvious, the same is true of art. We walk to the gallery on a cold grim darkling January afternoon, and see a Turner on the wall, and we are struck by its beauty; or on the opposite end, we are faced with a testimony to natural power, and we are then presented with a clean, clear execution of the distillation of power's symbolic essence. How we see the latter cannot help but be colored by the former. The only questions are how much, and how.

The relationship between what we see, and what we make of it -- which for the sake of argument, I'll call art -- is not simple. It's a tangle of influences. It's what we were read in the cradle, the colors in our chidlhood paintbox, our father's and mother's genes, and the choices we've made since we could make choices.

To place primacy on one side or the other is an act of need: Wilde needs to see literature as the driver; he needs to not see "anti-aesthetic" drivers. Similarly, Dawkinsians need to see the
origins of folly as religion, biologists (may) need to see the origins of inspiration as chemical, the devout religionist may need to understand all inspiration as coming from God.
posted by lodurr at 1:38 PM on January 18, 2006

Alma Mahler-Werfel was a very interesting person in her own right. She married three of the most influential creative people of her time and place. She was even immortalized in song by Tom Lehrer:

"Alma, tell us. All modern women are jealous..."
posted by pjern at 2:39 PM on January 18, 2006

posts and threads like this are why i first started haunting the blue some years ago.

matteo: your posts are always amongst my favorites--always teaching me something.

im mapping over to this where 'music' is the 'language of the spheres':


"The interdependence of thought and speech makes it clear that languages are not so much a means of expressing truth that has already been established as means of discovering truth that was previously unknown. Their diversity is a diversity not of sounds and signs but of ways of looking at the world."-- (karl karenyi, dionysus)

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language... all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated."
— (Benjamin Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality pp. 212–214).
posted by oigocosas at 3:39 PM on January 18, 2006

It stands out more because the flow of energy is directed and to a point its the difference between sunlight and a spotlight shone in your face.
Language has absolutely nothing to do with how people process art , people experience art , not process it or dissect it , to do otherwise is to completely miss the point.
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:21 PM on January 18, 2006

sgt.serenity: ...
Language has absolutely nothing to do with how people process art , people experience art , not process it or dissect it , to do otherwise is to completely miss the point.
That you can say that is nevertheless interesting....
posted by lodurr at 7:23 PM on January 18, 2006

I tend to think people use words to block out the effect of a piece of art.
It's called 'attachment' i think , Anthony De Mello goes on about it all the time.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:07 AM on January 19, 2006

> The late Hans Neuberger surveyed over 12,000 paintings dated from between 1400 and 1967 to chronicle climate changes and found high frequencies of cloudiness and darkness during the Little Ice Age (approximately 1560–1850). The shift from the medieval climate optimum to the Little Ice Age is clearly discernible from the painted characteristics over these epochs. For example, the blue of the sky and the visibility undergo a distinct decline.

Many other researchers have also used a spike in paintings using bright sky colours or portraying rare optical phenomena to infer the atmospheric impacts of large volcanic eruptions. Many of Joseph Turner's works depicted sunsets. It is now clear that he was painting glowing skies caused by sunlight scattering off volcanic dust from the immense eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815.

So, indeed, the sunsets of the later 19th century could not match those of Turner's era. [see also] Of course, there was a later eruption that also likely had an effect on art, to wit, Munch's The Scream. There were some spectacular sunsets after Pinatubo as well.

The interplay of nature and human perception was, on the other hand, a key interest of Turner, whose paintings probably at least also reflect that:
One series of experiments involved staring hard out of the window of fast-moving trains, rapidly disembarking, and immediately looking back to observe the scene.

It occurs to me that this is not, in principle, much different from the Mahler anecdote.
posted by dhartung at 6:13 AM on January 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

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