UNDISCOVERED GENIUS

A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Genius According to J. D. Salinger

Genius According to J. D. Salinger

Much has been said in these first few blog entries about the authentic self expressed in the work of genius. In fact, the expected emphasis, on revelations of towering intellect or of brilliant intuitive connections, has been largely missing from this discussion. I have indicated that if it is honest, true to itself and true to its creator, a work of art will affirm its own validity by transmitting divine truth to its open-minded audience. The introduction of pre-existing formulae compromises the "truth quotient" of a work, only if the formulae self-consciously rely on the external "effects" built into them, rather than on integral relationships discovered between them--
relationships created out of:

affinities of the internal forms each with each other,
affinities inherent in the nature of internal forms--
a relative weighting of archetypal artifacts,
a weighting which depends, for its sense, upon some
cosmic super-structure to fix the artifacts in their proper
place in the arrayed continuum
of the collective unconscious.

What is this gobbledygook about "relative weighting in the collective unconscious?
Well, it's really not gobbledygook. There can be no doubt that there is a kind of electromagnetic cloud of consciousness, surrounding the earth, that is created and used by the corporate mind of man. Residing in this cloud is the library of ideas which have been brought forth from the void by human consciousness, and become common property; these ideas are fixed in place from constant use by, and constant reinforcement of, the collective mind of man.

My teacher Herbert Brun had no patience with music that contained obvious references to earlier works or styles; but perhaps he forgot that the force, that establishes the system of relative weights between the parts of a work of art, is the MIND of the creator; (the anomalous mind of the creator).
NOW HEAR THIS: the relationships found in any sequential system, ultimately make sense only SUBJECTIVELY--we can PERCEIVE truth objectively, but we can only EXPERIENCE it subjectively. There is an inevitable logic that drives all literal, (perhaps literate?) systems, and similar conclusions are arrived at all the time, simply because there is a certain a prior knowledge that consistently predicts the same conclusions over and over again.

Brun did not allow for the possibility of a dilettante composer stumbling onto the same truths that were previously discovered, quite independently, by somebody else. If it's been done, we ought to know about it. (Sound familiar?) Brun also had no patience for naivete--to him, the only socially responsible composer was the one who was as well-educated and erudite as himself. The innocent discovery was not valid because innocence itself was to be deplored.

And yet I have heard pieces written by college students that capture the spirit of Chopin just as truthfully and just as legitimately as Chopin himself. Who's to say that the logic systems of Chopin are Chopin's exclusive intellectual property just because he found them first? Indeed it is the innocent, accidental discovery that most completely validates a work of art--the excitement of discovery that uncovers some cosmic secret. There is no shortage of cosmic secrets.

The J.D. Salinger connection for this week comes, of course, from Catcher in the Rye. The anti-hero of this famous work is a screwed-up teen-ager who has an hysterical fear of phonies. He finds himself entrenched in a society that does not encourage intimacy--a society in which formulation is an accepted substitute for intimacy. He can't get close to anybody, because he can't trust the language of formulation to honestly express or create intimacy. Alienation ensues, and all the world informs against his isolation, even the art:


"Ernie's a big fat colored guy that plays the piano.
He's a terrific snob and he won't hardly even talk to you
unless you're a big shot or a celebrity or something,
but he can really play the piano. He's so good he's
almost corny, in fact. I don't know exactly what I mean
by that, but I mean it. I certainly like to hear him play,
but sometimes you feel like turning his goddamn
piano over. I think it's because sometimes when he plays,
he sounds like the kind of guy that won't talk to you
unless you're a big shot." (p. 146)

One of the problems with the academic musical mind set, is that it tends to fiercely and territorially cherish those stylistic artifacts which most dramatically alienate their music from anything like a popular, or even average audience. The thing about Ernie's self-esteem, is that it projects itself into the expressions of his fingers, and flaunts itself like a prostitute flaunts her carnal wares. Ernie has lost the innocence of the child discovering its private truth for the first time--he has become a professor of truth. Those who can't do, teach--and their lessons always proclaim their superiority to all other lessons in the universe.

I used to play at a country club a few nights a week, and I always played the theme from the Goldberg Variations, at the end of the evening, because I wanted those last few diners to get sleepy and go home. This aria is ornately embellished by Bach, and is the type of tune that invites further embellishment by the performer. Consequently, it is easy to become mannered and insincere in the way you play all the trills, and turns, and appogiaturi; I had to remind myself every night to open myself to accidental experience and hear the piece as though I were playing it for the first time. When I consciously put myself in that mind set, I could truly hear the piece for the first time, every time--it's the same kind of mind set I put myself in when I'm getting ready to play jazz.


"In the first place, I hate actors. They never act like
people. They just think they do. Some of the good
ones do, in a very slight way, but not in a way that's
fun to watch. And if any actor's really good, you can
always tell he knows he's good, and that spoils it. . .
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the old couple,
and they were very good, but I didn't like them much.
They were different, though, I'll say that. They didn't act
like people and they didn't act like actors. It's hard to
explain. They acted more like they knew they were
celebrities and all. I mean they were good, but then they
were too good. When one of them got finished making
a speech, the other one said something very fast right
after it. It was supposed to be like people really talking
and interrupting each other and all. The trouble was,
it was too much like people talking and interrupting
each other. They acted a little bit the way old Ernie,
down in the village, plays the piano. If you do something
good, then, after a while, if you don't watch it, you start
showing off. And then you're not as good any more."
(p. 210)

There is a saying among performers that:
"the music must be exciting, but you must not be excited." This rule of thumb speaks for the objective attitude toward performance that forbids emotional involvement with the performance for fear that physical equanimity will be lost, and thereby technical flaws will be introduced. For instance, there is this choral piece by Mendelssohn that I can't sing because I always start to cry--some technical flaw, right? Sobbing through a high tenor line? But to me those tears of sincerity are worth every right note on the page--those tears are showers of truth.

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