Monday, November 27, 2006

The Write Way?

This is an impassioned piece by Edmund Morris that came in The New York Times last year and is reproduced unabridged. It’s about the lost art of penmanship and how creativity can become depersonalized in this age of computers. Interestingly, I didn’t read this from the paper but on the online edition of nytimes. Paradoxical, but there you have it.

Beethoven's Paper Trail

MY first reaction to the announcement last week that a major Beethoven manuscript had been discovered in a Pennsylvania seminary was an aching desire to see it. (The ache will not be gratified until the work goes on exhibit at Sotheby's on Nov. 16.) To see it. How often we use that phrase in a tactile sense - as when, for example, we ask a jeweler to unlock his cabinet and bring out a Rolex so we can feel its cold, thrilling weight on our wrist. Eye contact is enough, though, when we cannot gratify our animal desire to caress whatever is unattainable, inimitable or worshipful.

Beethoven's manuscripts are revelatory, because he was an intensely physical person who fought his music onto the page, splattering ink, breaking nibs, even ripping the paper in the process. Not for him the serene penmanship of J. S. Bach, whose undulant figurations sway like ship masts over calm seas, or the hasty perfection of Mozart, or the quasi-mathematical constructs of Webern. Their writing is the product of minds already made up.

Beethoven was so full of ideas that to fire them out - to see which were precious metal and which mere dross - was a process in which he needed to involve his eyes and his hands (not to mention his heels drumming out rhythms, and his voice howling and groaning: landlords were forever giving him notice). Long before he went deaf, he was perhaps the most prodigious sketcher in musical history, unable to walk around a room or, I regret to say, sit down on a toilet without doodling hieroglyphics on every reachable surface. Even when perambulating around Vienna at a hyperactive clip, he was always stopping to scribble something in a notebook that seemed to be an inseparable part of his left hand.

One such scribble was the "lightning flash" theme that begins the second movement of the Ninth Symphony. It struck Beethoven one night as he was emerging from a bright interior into darkness. To page through his sketchbook of the period, and see it suddenly appear amid clouds of murky musical thought, is to feel the electricity of genius.

The newly discovered manuscript - an 80-page piano version of his famous "Grosse Fuge" for string quartet, Op. 133 - dates from 1826, the last full year of Beethoven's life. It is reported to be typically three-dimensional, with erasures worn into holes, and a large patch of rewritten music spackled onto one page with sealing wax. Since the "Grosse Fuge" is the single most pugnacious movement in Beethoven - 15 minutes of furious contrapuntal combat, adored by Stravinsky - what we will be seeing at Sotheby's promises to be as much an artifact as an autograph.

Somebody who still works like Beethoven is the French artist Bernard Dufour. His drawing hand substitutes on camera for that of the actor Michel Piccoli in Jacques Rivette's masterly film "La Belle Noiseuse," about a painter struggling to execute his final masterpiece. One notices, as the hand reaches out to select a pen and jab it into the ink bottle, the violence of its movements, impatient yet tentative, as if wondering in which direction to discharge its energy. The sketchpad lies white, waiting to be savaged by the looming nib.

Then down the sharp thing comes, at a deliberately obtuse angle, so that the first line is not so much drawn but dug out of the paper. Nor is there as much ink running as you would expect; the artist seems to be daring his inspiration to dry up. More swoops and gougings, then suddenly a deliberate splash of ink, which the heel of the hand smudges across some cross-hatching ... and lo, the curve of a naked woman's thigh materializes out of the whiteness, and art begins to happen.

It is moving to watch, because we can feel Mr. Dufour's love of struggle, his sheer joy in being bespattered, stained and even resisted (when a sketch obstinately refuses to cohere) by the materials at hand. Such relish is of course characteristic of workers in the plastic arts. But with the decline of painting and drawing in recent years, in favor of hands-off processes like video recording, performance art and installations farmed out to contractors, even artists are putting less and less of themselves into their work - with the result that what there is of it, is cold. I had to spend a few weeks earlier this year looking down from my window at Christo's orange hangings in Central Park, and got back from them nothing but a sense of manufactured lifelessness.

I worry that further withdrawal of the body will increasingly depersonalize creativity in our computerized age. It is already a given that many young architects can't draw, relying on circuitry to do their imaging for them. Nor can many of them model, never having built things with their hands as children, and felt the pliancy and fragility of structures, the interrelationship of empty space and solid mass. Recently my wife and I bought a country house designed by just such an architect. It looked great until we discovered that the main floor sagged in the middle because it lacked the kind of central support that a child, 40 years ago, would have sensed was necessary in the foundation.

Writing does not, of course, rate high on the tactile scale of things. But a screen of glass impregnated with pixels now gleams in front of practically every young person who wishes to commit words to - I was going to say paper, but will avoid the anachronism. Today's words, dit-ditted downward, flash off somewhere at the speed of light and assemble themselves in electronic limbo. Seen through the glass darkly, they look seductively perfect, every character proportional, every paragraph in alignment. Why mess around with them? In any case, if their orthography is not quite correct, a default "word processor" (ghastly phrase) will alter them to its liking.

A couple of years ago I had a disillusioning residency with students at the University of Chicago who wished, or thought they wished, to master the art of narrative nonfiction. Cyberspatial innocent that I am, I was at first puzzled by the weird uniformity of their written "style," if that's the word for prose equally composed of I.M.-speak and catchphrases downloaded by the megabyte. At last, like the girl in "Stage Door Canteen," I caught on. But what was even weirder was the way these not-unintelligent seniors looked at me as I lectured them on Tolstoy's frenzied chicken-scratches all over proofs of "War and Peace," Capote's yellow-paper drafts of "In Cold Blood" and Nabokov's exquisite watercolor diagrams, illustrative of metric schemes in poetry yet at the same time touchingly reminiscent of butterfly wings. What freaked me out was the students' collective gaze, not uninterested, but uninvolved. They weren't listening so much as watching. To them, I was just the latest in a lifetime's succession of images, another talking head.

I doubt I'll see any of them when I go to look at the "Grosse Fuge" manuscript next month. Why should they bother? They can already "access" it on the Internet. But without seeing the real thing, with actual light falling on its scuffs and blotches, will they ever feel the desperate energy of a dying Beethoven, imprisoned in the cavern of his own disability?

Credit: Edmund Morris/NYT

The Nightie Nightmare

It has the sturdiness of sackcloth, the durability to outlast repeated washings and a deserved reputation as the ultimate male repellent. Ladies of Kerala, we are talking about your favorite dress: the ubiquitous nightie. Not to be confused with the skimpy negligee or any itsy bitsy item with lace and frills, the nightie is commonly defined as a simple housecoat, usually oversized and in single colors. A staple of the middle class, this forbidding apparel (as the name itself makes amply clear) is meant for nighttime dressing. But such narrow sartorial definitions have never put off the nifty keralite woman. So the nightie is worn round the clock, day in and day out. With such devastating results, that it gives a whole new meaning to the word eyesore.

Why is it so popular? It is the perfect dress to slip on (literally!) for the long hours of backbreaking housework that most women have to endure. The inevitable stains, sweat and grime are easily assimilated. Men hung up as they are on matters like beauty and high fashion never mull over such practical details.

The nightie has even traversed the generational gap and class distinctions. An eighty-year-old grandmother is as likely to wear a nightie as a ten-year-old girl. Women, who labor in the sun and do grueling manual jobs to make a living, often go to work in a nightie. Just as their middle class counterparts, ensconced in their comfortable homes, go through the daily grind of housework in this popular battledress.

So who should have the final word on nightie? Those who argue that high fashion should be sacrificed at the altar of comfort and utility? Or should we listen to those who plead for esthetic dressing, for attire that is sensible and sensuous?

What say ladies?

All Time Favourite Books

  • Dracula (Bram Stoker)
  • Sophie's Choice (William Styron)
  • Portnoy's Complaint (Philip Roth)
  • Rabbit at Rest (John Updike)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M Cain)
  • A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)
  • Herzog (Saul Bellow)
  • Ham on Rye (Charles Bukowski)
  • The Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger)
  • The Secret History (Donna Tartt)