Essays About


At concerts, moved by a beautiful song, we are drawn to the songmaker's soul, the wellspring of the song's beauty. If the glow she gives off in melody and words is so wonderful, how luminous it must be in the inner chamber of her being! Most likely, though, her soul's hearth is cold, for she has sung this song nightly to audiences for six months straight. Habit has deadened her to every feeling except loathing for another repetition. She was moved once, when she wrote the song, when she was the surprised and admiring audience of her own inspiration. But now she is only another instrument she herself plays, a flute deaf to its own sound.

Before my first visit to Rome, I bought a book surveying the sculptures and paintings of the Vatican Museums. I studied the reproductions, read the commentaries and artist biographies, and learned the history of the museums—readied my mind to enter the holy of holies of Western culture. My actual visit was more productive as a study of crowds than of art. I went in the sweltering heat of mid-July, with Rome under a barbarian invasion of tourists. Unlike my leisurely review of the photographs at home, I had two hours to gulp down the originals amid a standing-room-only crush of twenty thousand visitors. Viewing art in tourist season is like visiting Mount Fuji under low clouds. Thick walls of fellow visitors' heads obscured the bottom halves of statues. Packed tour groups, like colonies of penguins, waddled, not walked, through the halls of tapestries. In the Sistine Chapel, cloaked in a miasma of human body odor, I craned my neck to see on the high ceiling the famous frescoes that at home I had held in my lap. The originals seemed faint copies of their reproductions.

Mobs of humanity consecrate a football game but desecrate an art museum. Besides getting in our way, loud families in matching T-shirts deflate our sense of sophistication as art connoisseurs. As one of the tourists, I had to acknowledge myself a contributor to the annoyed expressions of tour guides and security guards. I noted with displeasure that two of the armpits I smelled were my own. On my pilgrimage to culture, I felt like a philistine.

Playing my music albums in my car, I hum half-indifferently, too familiar with the melody to be intrigued by it. Why then, if I hear the same song played by a sidewalk musician or coming through department store speakers, do I instantly wake with admiration for it, my ears strangely gaining a new delicacy to feel the contours of every note? Similarly, why do concert-goers scream at the start of every song they recognize, when they never screamed at home? Is this our vanity saying to the world, behold me, I know this? The song we snubbed in solitude is now being honored, and we wish to assert our association, like a man who never desired his wife until his neighbor paid her interest. Our complacency as owners is replaced by our longing as outsiders.

It must grieve dead composers that their symphonies and concertos are regarded by the masses as perfectly suited for background music. The compositions worthiest of analysis go not only unanalyzed but almost unheard, merely filling awkward silence in elevators and waiting rooms, or setting a mood for sipping cocktails or making love. Subtlety and complexity in art sadly tend to undermine themselves. They cost more labor with less effect. They are hard to notice, in proportion as they are hard to create.

The more I read old books, the more I discover the source of the thoughts in new books. No writer is absolutely original. Every writer's ideas are mostly recombinations of others' ideas. A novel book is a novel amalgam of previous books. Still, great and mediocre writers differ in how fully they fuse and transform their borrowed materials. A mediocre book has the consistency of vegetable soup. The still-visible chunks of others' thoughts soak in the watery broth of the writer's own voice. The writing follows no recipe except to throw in every desirable dish, which produces an undesirable dish. The book has no identity, through having too many. Great books are like vegetable juice. The blender of genius liquefies the ingredients of prior reading into a uniform drink, with a texture and taste no single part possessed. Out of many flavors comes only one, the author's. Lesser writers emulate what they read, great writers assimilate it—merging masterpieces into a masterpiece.

For the young, music is an intimation of life. Each sonata or concerto cracks, but does not fully open, the door to worlds not yet experienced. The violin, singing of unknown desires, stirs desire. The cymbals' crescendo resounds with heights of elation not yet relished. The bass drum booms a cryptic proclamation of great events—happening where? For the old, music is a memoir of life. The buried strata of past experience, loosened by the mysterious psychoanalysis of sound, erupt into consciousness. Sorrows and joys which played singly through time now harmonize into a grand symphonic impression of the tremendousness of living. Must not the brittle self shatter to have been poured so full of experiences?

In a concert hall, the girl in bloom closes her eyes and imagines all she may be, while beside her the wrinkled widow closes her eyes and remembers all she has been.

Young writers are often guilty of contriving passion. They begin their work in earnest, but then they overstep the limits of their real feelings, adorning their hard-won experiences with borrowed ideas in the hope of enhancing the impact, yet actually diminishing it. Nevertheless, this youthful erring toward artifice and overextension is rooted in genuine ardor. Because young writers feel so impassioned, they try too hard to impassion their readers. Should not the reader then forgive this falseness born of authenticity?