Wednesday, November 14, 2012

high c

It's very clear
Our love is here to stay.
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

-- Ira Gershwin

He never met me, but I feel the death of Leonard Bernstein as if I had known him.  I could never be cool like he was, but he helped to raise me.  He confided his passions to me in countless television appearances.  And here's something even stranger: the death of George Gershwin, gone in his youth ten years before I was born, pummels me every time I hear a song of his.  If Bernstein was an uncle, Gershwin is a lost elder brother, his framed portrait taunting me from the top of my bureau.

It's not their accomplishments, their welthistorische Kunstwerken, that so inspire and berate me.  It's not so much what they did as what they were.  In youth they captured something I still chase in my age.

In the theatre there's a long and unprofitable argument about the head and the heart, between supposedly authentic emotions and the skill required to infect others with those emotions.  We rarely admit the scandal: those emotions of which we make such a fetish are manufactured, and the person to whom they adhere doesn't exist.  Lear and Loman are, quite simply, not here.

And yet --

Something is supposed to happen.  Something so compelling that we pretend we don't know that Lear is absent, that Willy never existed, just so that we can experience that event.  This is what Coleridge meant by "suspension of disbelief."  In another context, he called it "temporary half-faith."

It's a tall order.  The "act" of an actor is emotional; he is moved by it, but the emotion is his own and ours, not the emotion we take it for.  The gasp, the sob, the guffaw and roar of the crowd, are not Lear's feeling but a tertiary effect of an imagined feeling, as signified, presented, by an impulse of the celebrant's body.

After quantum mechanics we know that vision is always revision, and seeing changes what it is.  There is truth, but it rises to meet our vision of it.  Every fool knows that truth appears, is born, as the curtain goes up.  It is called into being.  It is revelation.  "Words words words" says Hamlet, when asked what he was reading.  When words leap off the page and become an act, giving rise to what Herbert Blau called "blooded thought," in the theatre as in a church we might call this the incarnate word.  A tall order.  But not impossible.  From time to time, incarnation happens.  Which is why people keep coming back to theatres.  And to churches.

I know for a fact that people do not die speaking blank verse or bellowing a high C.  The fact of death isn't like that, but that's how art represents death, and art speaks truly because our seeing of death changes what it is.  If I come to a deathbed, I am there to translate, traduce brute fact into an act.  I am there to change it by seeing it, a healing by vision rather than medication.

I once read a post-apocalyptic story, in which the ruined world was saved by a pianist who played a sonata the way -- for once -- it should have been played. What is at stake in art is the redemption of real life.  Art is a sacred matter, and sacred matter must be artful.  God cannot, as a matter of fact, be here.  God's busy, and would burst our flimsy integuments by appearing among us.  It's no wonder then that those famous shepherds were "sore afraid," which is a polite and sonorous way of saying that their bowels were giving way.  We must remove our sandals, and perhaps visit the water closet, before we approach.

Incarnation, whenever and wherever and however, would therefore be the greatest of prestidigitations, a shabby timeless song and dance in the biggest house of all.  So my uncle and my older brother closed the gap of head and heart, high and low, master and servant, classical and popular, soul and body, discretion and passion, domination and subversion.  These two musicians model the life-long goal of an intuitive introvert.  Blessed or cursed from birth with an intellect and with the schemes of others for its fruition, I'm still getting a clue how to own that power and put it to the work of passion.  Poets keep hoping that their words words words will stay stay stay put, that their amor will survive their vitam brevem in an arte longa.  But perhaps this purpose is itself a distraction; if the word once becomes flesh, who cares if it lasts?  That would be for sure an eternal now.

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