The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part I

Finlay 01 Illustrating Leinster's Mad Planet Fantastic Novels Nov. 48

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): illustrating M. Leinster’s Mad Planet (Fantastic Novels, Nov. 1948)

In the 1954 Preface to his Universal History of Iniquity, Jorge Luis Borges defined the baroque as “the style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature.”[i] The baroque is therefore a self-conscious style par excellence.  According to Borges’ definition: “The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has said that all intellectual labor is inherently humorous”; and “this humor is unintentional in the works of Baltasar Graciàn but intentional, even indulged, in the works of John Donne.”[ii]  In the manner, then, of seventeenth-century church architecture – it might be in Spain or Bavaria – the spirit of the baroque piles ornament relentlessly on ornament, while cultivating trompe-l’œil for its illusion of depth, and while obsessively re-cuing every curlicue in anticipation of the fractal geometry of a Mandelbrot algorithm.  The baroque in music refers to the fugal style, in which again the artist, preeminently J. S. Bach, raises self-imitation to a structural principle.  Yet fugue also refers to a state of social disintegration and to an accompanying panicked mentality that drives forth the individual refugee from the incendiarism and bloodletting of civic breakdown.  Europe’s baroque centuries saw the religious wars, Puritanism, agitation of the protesting masses, and the inevitable massacres, for which music offers a counterpart in the stretto of the fugue.  Here the competing voices figuratively tear the subject to shreds in an aesthetic refinement of the Dionysiac sparagmos.

The novel arises with the baroque, in the Simplicius and Eulenspiegel narratives, in picaresque, and in the moralizing abyss of Don Quixote, where Part One is a topic of discussion, mostly inane, among the characters in Part Two.  The baroque therefore peculiarly trumps the modern in its exploitation of formal complexity; the modernist writers might match, but they never excel, their two- or three-century precursors in self-allusion and abyssal autoscopy.  Indeed, the Parisian Symbolists, those first modernists, remained keenly aware of their debt to the seventeenth century “Parnassians,” Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé assiduously practicing the sonnet, as though writing in the time of Louis XIII.  Later Max Reger (1873-1916) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) mimicked baroque-era models in music, as did M. C. Escher in graphic media.  Borges, in his Preface, “would venture to say that the baroque is the final stage of art,” a stage which some would call decadent.[iii]  Borges notes that the eighteenth century, which coined the term baroque, considered the seventeenth century, which invented the style, to have been in bad taste.  Borges omits to disagree, whereby one might consider that he adds an element of awkwardness or even of kitsch to the repertory of the baroque, as perhaps a studious awkwardness or an occasional deliberate pedantry in the articulation.  In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler asserts that the Western baroque strove towards the dissolution of genre in a movement of synesthesia: “Painting becomes polyphonic, ‘picturesque,’ infinity-seeking,” while “the colours become tones” and  “the art of the brush claims kinship with the style of cantata and madrigal.”[iv]  Again, “the background, hitherto casually put in, regarded as fill-up and, as space, almost shuffled out of sight, gains a preponderant importance.”[v]

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Notre établissement, notre révolution selon Offenbach

From Act II of La Belle Hélène (1864) by Jacques Offenbach (1819 – 1880): The mighty Kings of Greece introduce themselves.

From Act I of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867) by Offenbach: General Boum-Boum disciplines his troops.

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Raising the Fallen World: Richard Wagner and the Scenic Imagination

Giuseppi Tvoli (1854 1925) - Richard Wagner (ca. 1865)

Giuseppe Tivoli (1854 – 1925): Portrait of R. Wagner (ca. 1865)

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics.  As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology, and a theory of representation.  Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence.  Wagner worked out this anthropology, and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets in the 1840s and 50s.  In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal.  These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness.”[i] Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,”[ii] to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology; enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in thoughtless spreading imitation and the unconsciousness of the crowd.

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Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony: Art Transcending Politics

This essay originated a few years ago in a request by the Sydney Traditionalist Forum for articles on the topic of Politics and Transcendence.  The topic is not only compound but complex, associating itself with numerous difficulties.  The term transcendence, for example, usually associates itself with religion and art rather than with politics although writer-thinkers such as Gustave Le Bon and Nicolas Berdyaev have characterized mass political movements as relying on a type of pseudo-transcendence.  Yet insofar as such movements invariably establish themselves in dogmatic materialism an observer might better characterize them as anti-transcendent or immanentist.  In the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, indeed, the Western nations find themselves subjugated without exception under such anti-transcendent regimes.  The liberal elites of Europe and North America, like their Jacobin precursors, promulgate a totalitarian doctrine that opposes itself to all inherited hence also to all dissenting ideas or forms.  Among these ideas or forms are those of the aesthetic realm.  Modernity strongly prefers functionality to beauty and agitation of the emotions to genuine tragic pathos.  It prefers mediocrity to merit and therefore downplays the implications of art, and wherever it can it replaces art with politicized kitsch.  Art participates in the sacred, where it originates, and, as sacred, art poses a threat to the pervasive denial of transcendence.  Artistic achievement demonstrates, moreover, the inequality of talent; it establishes standards that undermine the regime’s goal of equality.  Modern life is nevertheless replete with shallow substitutes for transcendence in which the de-natured subject experiences physiological and psychological effects that he feels as type of ecstasy, but it is merely the pseudo-transcendence previously mentioned.  Fear and pity pose a danger; entertainment and diversion serve to mollify the masses.

Gustave Le Bon remarks in his study of The Crowd (1895) that when the suggestible individual loses himself in the irrational multitude, he enters into a mental phase “hovering on the borderland of unconsciousness” which is characterized by “violence of feeling.”  It is no wonder that the crowd’s appetite should run to the insipid and at the same time to the nasty.  Regimes want this result, as it increases the malleability of the masses, immobilizing them temporarily in simple satiety, while convincing them of a specious independence.  Le Bon writes that, “the improbable does not exist for the crowd,” which falsely regards itself as a superhuman entity.  Nicolas Berdyaev, the Russian religious thinker, agrees with Le Bon.  In Freedom and the Spirit (1927), Berdyaev writes of the pseudo-mysticism typical of political movements in an age of crassness and a purely materialist worldview: “There are orgiastic types of mysticism in which the spirit is swallowed up by the ‘psychical’ or corporeal elements, and remains wedded to them.”  According to Berdyaev, “true mysticism frees us from the sense of oppression which arises from everything which is alien to us, and imposed, as it were, from without.”  In modernity, real transcendence is vanishingly rare while false transcendence is a common – one might say the commonest – occurrence, existing in many only slightly varied and equally jejune forms.

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Berlioz: Musical High Romanticism

Berlioz

Hector Berlioz Later in Life

My essay on the composer Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869), entitled Musical High Romanticism in an Age of Technical and Ideological Correctness, appeared at the Berlioz Website back in 2007. Berlioz, perhaps best known for his Symphonie fantastique (1830), rather eccentrically took inspiration from English and German sources. He adored Shakespeare, writing a “Dramatic Symphony” (1839) on Romeo and Juliet and an opera (1869) on Much Ado about Nothing. Goethe was as important to him as the English bard. He composed his “dramatic cantata” La damnation de Faust (1845) to a French translation of Goethe’s masterpiece. Berlioz considered his grand opera in two parts, Les Troyens (completed in 1858), to be the summit of his achievement. A lifelong worshiper of Virgil’s Aeneid, he wrote his own libretto, which recasts the epic story as Shakespearean dialogue. It is a remarkable moment in musico-dramatic art. I reproduce the first two paragraphs of the essay below, followed by some music-videos of Berlioz’s compositions in performance. —

Before he became a Teutonic enormity and an artistic prophet, before he had made his own mark in the world of music and well before he had conceived his monumental Ring of the Nibelung, while writing during his Paris sojourn of the early 1840s, a sharp-witted Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) declared keenly of the Gallic composer Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869) that he stood out against the prevailing un-musicality of the French capital both as a phenomenon and a paradox. “Berlioz is no incidental composer,” Wagner writes in a dispatch for the Dresden Abendzeitung; “he is in no way related to and has nothing whatever to do with the pompous and exclusive art institutions of Paris: the Opéra as well as the Conservatory hurried to close their doors at the very first sight of him.” As for Berlioz’s not being “incidental,” this means for Wagner that he boasts no organic relation to metropolitan musical life but constitutes rather something sui generis within it – “within it,” one might say, spatially or phenomenally while yet existing spiritually apart from and artistically entirely beyond it. Wagner hesitates to call Berlioz either a Parisian or even a Frenchman; he seems so antithetical to his scene: “Berlioz was forced to become and to remain an absolute exception to long-established rules, and such he is and always will be, both inwardly and outwardly… You will hear Berlioz’s compositions only at the concerts which he himself gives once or twice a year.” Wagner notes that “nowhere else will you hear anything by Berlioz, except perhaps in the streets or in the cathedral, where he is summoned from time to time to take part in some politico-musical state occasion.” Not even government acknowledgment, whether Republican or Imperial, served however to guarantee critical respect; official notice could indeed exacerbate critical hostility. The Conservatory professor F-J Fétis wrote meanly of Berlioz in 1837: “His rare melodies are deprived of meter and rhythm; and his harmony, a bizarre assemblage of sounds, not easily blended, does not always merit this name.” In Fétis’ snide opinion, “What Monsieur Berlioz writes does not belong to the art which I customarily regard as music, and I have the complete certainty that he lacks the prerequisites of this art.”

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