Fiction and Musical Form

Context N°24

Peter Dimock

I asked Peter Dimock to write a short piece about novels that would also serve as an apologia pro labora sua, in light of the expected accusation that his own novel could have somehow been made simpler, more reader-friendly, and more entertaining—John O’Brien, Publisher.

I subscribe to the theory of the novel as the literary genre in which everyday speech gets road-tested as a vehicle for vernacular culture’s ability to represent and communicatively engage the history being lived in the present. I will not take up your time attempting to argue this theory’s superiority over others. I offer it to you as a preliminary bid for your patience and as a defense of the principle underlying the composition of my fiction.
The conceit behind my novel, George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, is that recent American history is most accurately and usefully represented from within a language that on its surface imitates and mirrors our present, everyday language’s spectacular failure to adequately or accurately represent the harm of the history we have been living over the last fifty years and more. This is to say that recent American history is most truthfully represented from within a common language saturated by a failure of historical self-consciousness. I use the adverb “adequately” here in a hopeful sense: I believe that the novel and its traditions of reading are still available to us as a means to excavate real but unrealized possibilities of more adequate—and new—representations of present history that remain latent in our everyday speech. But to mobilize these possibilities I believe it can become necessary to estrange ourselves from our own common use of words in order to put us in immediate contact with our own, often coerced, complicity in the destruction that flows from our own everyday language’s enforced historylessness.
I have fairly extensive and intensive training as a classical musician. My mother wanted to be a professional cellist and passed on to her children an inchoate sense that in classical music resided a realm of transcendence accessible to those who could appreciate, or much better, execute its technical demands well enough to experience directly the musical thought of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms. I have played the cello from the age of nine. In graduate school, while becoming paralyzed by the presence of blank pages when trying to write a dissertation on the creation of a national narrative for American history, I studied cello for three years with Aldo Parisot and attended his weekly master classes at the Yale Graduate School of Music. I was invited to play for the master class once and performed Beethoven’s 7 Variations for Cello and Piano on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” (“In Men Who Feel Love” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute).
As a historian I wanted to understand how the triumphalist American national democratic narrative and the national experience of slavery were related at the level of American vernacular language’s ability to represent the present as the result of the legacy of the collective historical experience of slaveholding. Studying classical music while writing a bibliographical essay on the historiography of “the subjectivity of slavery,” I was continually haunted by my own lack—or refusal—of any knowledge of jazz as a musical form.
When I asked a friend where I should start if I wanted to teach myself about jazz, I was struck by how quickly he answered, “John Coltrane’s Crescent.” “How were you able to answer so immediately?” I asked. “That album once saved my life,” was his answer.
So I listened and read and eventually came across the passage in the Coltrane biography by musicologist Lewis Porter in which he quotes Coltrane, explaining that three of the five songs on Crescent came to him first in the form of words (this may have been true, in fact, for a great deal of Coltrane’s music). Only when the songs had been completed as musical sound did the words fall away and become superfluous. (Most of the sheets of paper on which the original words were jotted down were left lying around and have been lost. Coltrane himself seems not to have remembered them.) In interviews he conveyed the sense that he felt that all the work of the words had been done once the musical notes came to him. It was as if the words as distinct units of meaning became wholly dissolved within the tonal relations of the melodies he discovered for them.
Both as a historian and as a musician, I found myself asking, “What must it be like to create meaning inside a language whose immediate construction and use for centuries had been partly devoted to denying—formally, legally, practically—the speaker’s capacity, status, and right to create the meaning and value of his own autonomy and coherence from the words he spoke and wrote in his own voice?” This question seems to me to pose an extreme aesthetic and ethical problem of form from within the American language itself. I, who am a beneficiary of all the advantages that unreserved trust and rigorous training in the capacities of the language I was given to use, now realized there might be some value—some necessity even—in considering what it would be like to experience directly—and then create meaning within—a language whose dominant formal properties were devoted to betraying my entitlement to full humanity.
What would a work of homage to a 1964 recording by John Coltrane, which had saved my friend’s life, by a beneficiary of American history sound like if written from inside a strictly accountable democratic historical knowledge of that language’s always structurally immediate—but always repressed by its beneficiaries—bad faith?
This formal aesthetic experiment was the original impulse behind the writing of George Anderson—a source for the book that is now no longer visible from inside the novel itself. My hope is that I know enough about music theory—and am myself a good enough musician—to be able to have used musical form to create a revalued sound of American vernacular public and private speech that registers in an accurate and resonant way the destructiveness of the assumptions behind American triumphalist historical narrative that I believe is embedded in most moments of contemporary American daily life.
I have no illusion that I have successfully accomplished any such delusionary, eccentric formal aesthetic ambition in the composition of George Anderson. But I do not regret a single moment spent devising the novel’s formal exercises with which the narrator attempts to compose a democratic musical method for American history under present circumstances and conditions. I provisionally recommend that readers try this half-daft and disorienting experiment for themselves. The music I recommend without reservation.
Why do I accord the novel such formidable powers to create or repress historical consciousness and to accurately register the state of social coherence in the face of the history that is being lived in the present? Maybe because I have worked in book publishing so long, I find myself continuing to believe in the persistence of emancipative possibilities in the Enlightenment tradition of print literacy as a social technology that can foster imaginative freedom. Inherent in that tradition of freedom, I believe, is a logical commitment to democratic social equality that the communicative reciprocity of close literary reading both establishes as a value and partially enacts through its practices.
The questions I was asking myself as I was writing George Anderson were, “How is the emancipative tradition of literary fiction to be continued and forwarded in our present?” and, “What would that Enlightenment tradition of emancipative literacy really sound like if it were naïvely insisted upon and rudely imposed on the present by a narrator of absolute sincerity but one who had perhaps become unhinged inside his own motives, desires, and ambitions living as a beneficiary of American power at the beginning of the twenty-first century?”
The text I have written is my best, provisional answer to those two questions. The device of using musical form as the novel’s structuring principle was my best effort to create a contemplative place from inside American language—but outside the American triumphalist national narrative—in which to consider imaginatively—and perhaps even to experience in an estranged but recognizable form the psychological toll and ethical costs—of that still potentially emancipative tradition’s current abuses and misuses.

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