Brad Bucknell. Literary Modernism and Musical Aesthetics: Pater, Pound, Joyce, and Stein.
Brad Bucknell's Literary Modernism and Musical Aesthetics is one of a bevy of recent interdisciplinary studies of literature in relation to other arts. This trend is probably a consequence of the spread of digital technologies throughout the developed world. After one experiences the fusion of text, image, and sound on a DVD or the World Wide Web, mixed-media communication ceases to seem impure or exceptional. Artists' books, visual poetry, film inter titles, lieder cycles, book illustration--the genre-wilderness between art forms is now open to academic settlement.
Most inter-art forays concentrate on particular case studies. Brad Bucknell's Literary Modernism and Musical Aesthetics is no exception. The book's centerpiece is an extended analysis of the perversely speech-imitative, madrigal-inspired score for Ezra Pound's opera Le Testament de Francois Villon (1923). Nearly as absorbing is the final chapter's argument that Virgil Thompson's score for Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) is "a kind of inscription of the first and perhaps ... ideal reader" of the "language landscape" of Gertrude Stein's libretto (181). These virtuosic readings show Bucknell to be thoroughly, soberly trained in musicology as well as literary criticism.
The true excellence of Literary Modernism and Musical Aesthetics, however, lies in its acute awareness that boundary-crossing between media is value-neutral. Its results can be laudable, mediocre, or kitschy. It can proceed intelligently, waywardly, or mistakenly. This principle leads Bucknell to adopt a welcome, corrective skepticism toward his subject matter. Unlike, say, Daniel Albright in Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts (20o0), he is not content to provide a celebratory overview of lesser known mixed media or collaborative works by major modernists. Instead, he begins with the fact that Anglo- American literary modernists tended to be ill-informed about chromaticism, serialism, and twentieth-century art music more generally. Indeed, they rarely invoke music in the sense of a living, evolving corpus of artworks that build on or dissent from conventional rules governing polyphony, counterpoint, and tonality. They most often talk about music in retrograde, romantic-expressivist terms, as an art that "transcends referential or lexical meaning" and possesses %tree kind of excessive, yet essential, element to which the literary may point, but which it can never fully encompass" (1).
This stereotypically nineteenth-century conception of music persisted among literary modernists, according to Bucknell, because it offered a possible solution to a daunting representational (and vocational) crisis, namely, a loss of confidence in the ability of traditional literary forms to convey "inwardness" accurately and persuasively (3). Serious music, in contrast, as even a casual concert-goer could affirm, had retained the ability to stir subtle shades of passions in a listener. Perhaps a writer, too, might--through careful craft and formal experiment loosely modeled on musical precedent--overcome the deadening weight of cliche and achieve a comparably "deep symbolic reverberation" between author and reader (5).
This argument is full of holes, of course. How can a purely lexical work ever approximate the wordless symmetries and strategies of music? Do composers really intend to provide transparent access to their interior lives? Has music truly been more successful than poetry or prose at resisting modernity's baleful influence? Why should anyone want to convey ineffable inwardness in the first place? Why not strive for less murky-mystical ends? Literary Modernism and Musical Aesthetics is wonderfully alive to all these questions. In fact, it makes the provocative claim that writers' acknowledgements and occasional repressions of these objections constitute the specifically modernist dimension of their project. Unlike romantic authors, who could with reasonable "assurance" refer to music as "the art of an inscrutable completeness and presence of the inside," modernists have only an "imperfect guarantee" that relying on music "as a model of art" will fulfill their "desires for a surface with a depth!' Music ultimately "offers language no way out of its own sense of inadequacy, but rather reinscribes the growing modernist concern with the reestablishment of depth" (36).
Bucknell does not explore the historical narratives and ruptures implicit in this argument. He makes no grand, causal assertions about modernisms emergence, nor does he contrast modernist texts to competing, contemporary non- or antimodernist examples of verbal-musical interchange. His working definition of modernism--a body of "thought and practice" with "transcendent predilections" shot through with "epistemological and representational anxieties" (37)--is static and synchronic, as well as canon-affirmative and high-art-normative. In short, Bucknell is not writing in the historicizing "new modernist" vein associated with the journal Modernism/Modernity and the Modernist Studies Association. His methodology instead recalls Yale School deconstruction. After noting a given figure's recourse to "musical-expressivist" rhetoric, he shows that such rhetoric complexly conceals, displaces, replaces, and signals a host of other, context- and author-specific problems and anxieties (3). And, as in much good deconstructive criticism, the inevitable eventual moral--that modernist play with the "surfaces of language" does not express authentic emotion so much as generate the illusion of it--is usually anticlimactic, whereas the richness of detail and the intricate byways en route to the apercus make for unfailingly rewarding reading (222).
The book begins with a comparison between Richard Wagner and Stephane Mallarme. Bucknell argues that Wagner's theory of musical drama obeys the Derridean logic of the supplement. Words are inadequate to express the sublime without the accompaniment of music; music is insufficiently communicative unless granted semantic force by language. In addition, both words and music depend upon "gesture" that is, the specifics of theatrical performance, to achieve their full effects--but gesture, of course, is incapable of expressing much apart from libretto and orchestra (29). In such a scheme, the fullness of meaning is never isolable or graspable. At each juncture, it is deferred, and an interpreter is directed elsewhere. Throughont Literature and Musical Aesthetics, this supplemental relation between media remains a recurrent topic. Writers run up against, resist, or in the case of Stein exploit the elusive never-here of meaning, which undermines any attempts to create transparent access to authors' interior lives.
Mallarme, like Wagner, serves Bucknell as an introductory figure, though he is presented less as a precursor than as a limit case, a blazer of a path that others chose not to follow. His poetry strenuously, ascetically resists the illusion of meaning's presence. Works such as Un Coup de des (1897) substitute "mystery" for interiority, that is, an opening-out into indeterminate suggestiveness that conveys the affect of measureless depth while in Pact sending a reading wandering across a variegated language-surface (31). Such verse is musical in a uniquely non-expressivist sense: "the relationships among elements," not "their referential capacity," point toward a "transcendence" that amounts not to lucid insight but obdurate "obscurity" (32-33).
Subsequent chapters on Walter Pater, Ezra Pound, and lames Joyce recount their elaborate, occasionally oddball attempts to avoid Mallarme's extremes of unmeaning. Bucknell analyzes Pater's fascination with music's temporality in The Renaissance; Pound's pseudoscientific "polemical idea" of a "Great Bass" to all rhythm (77), and Joyce's "collapse of words back toward sound" in the Sirens chapter of Ulysses (133). Along the way we learn about such subjects as the "essential" calculated "vagueness" of Pater's famous declaration that "all art aspires towards the condition of music" (47), Pound's efforts in the Pisan Cantos to equate "word," "bird," and "musical note" so as to ground his fascist aesthetics in a myth of Nature (118), and critics' humorously amateur attempts to apply musicological definitions of "fugue" both to The Cantos and Ulysses.
"The book concludes with its analysis of Stein and Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Here, music provides no answers, real or illusory. The musical's faux-naive "ironic tonality" suggests a teleological course of development that Stain's antihierarchical, nonmimetic writing stubbornly resists. "file irresolvable contradictoriness of this collaboration offers an alternative both to romantic expressivism and Mallarmean mystery: an "articulation of the complexities of meaning and expression" that invites contemplation of "the problems of perception and knowledge ... without the desire for prospective fulfillment" (222). Although Bucknell does not use the word, this dramatization of the never-ending, conflictual process of meaning-production seems to represent a nascent, potentially "postmodernist" end-run around modernist anxieties about self-expression.
Inwardness becomes irrelevant: the artwork's chief interest resides in how it is put together and how it is staged.
Literary Modernism and Musical Aesthetics leaves a reader wanting more. The final chapter cries out for a companion study of John Cage's Europeras 1-5 (1987-1991). After the sections on Wagner, Mallarme, and Pater but before the chapter on Pound, there is a golden missed opportunity for a study of T. S. Eliot. There is also the question of how Bucknell would extend or alter his arguments when grappling with such later but relevant figures as John Ashbery, Steve McCaffery, and Jackson Mac Low. How, too, would he tackle such troublesome postmodern works as Samuel Beckett's and Morton Feldman's monodrama Neither (1976), or Yoke One's hybrid poem-scores in Grapefruit (1964)? Works of academic criticism rarely make a reader impatient for a sequel; there are few higher praises available to a reviewer.
University of Washington
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2004|
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