Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Blake

The monotonous periodicity of genius

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Yesterday, I read a passage from the book Music and Life by the critic and poet W.J. Turner that has been on my mind ever since. He begins with a sentence from the historian Charles Sanford Terry, who says of Bach’s cantatas: “There are few phenomena in the record of art more extraordinary than this unflagging cataract of inspiration in which masterpiece followed masterpiece with the monotonous periodicity of a Sunday sermon.” Turner objects to this:

In my enthusiasm for Bach I swallowed this statement when I first met it, but if Dr. Terry will excuse the expression, it is arrant nonsense. Creative genius does not work in this way. Masterpieces are not produced with the monotonous periodicity of a Sunday sermon. In fact, if we stop to think we shall understand that this “monotonous periodicity ” was exactly what was wrong with a great deal of Bach’s music. Bach, through a combination of natural ability and quite unparalleled concentration on his art, had arrived at the point of being able to sit down at any minute of any day and compose what had all the superficial appearance of being a masterpiece. It is possible that even Bach himself did not know which was a masterpiece and which was not, and it is abundantly clear to me that in all his large-sized works there are huge chunks of stuff to which inspiration is the last word that one could apply.

All too often, Turner implies, Bach leaned on his technical facility when inspiration failed or he simply felt indifferent to the material: “The music shows no sign of Bach’s imagination having been fired at all; the old Leipzig Cantor simply took up his pen and reeled off this chorus as any master craftsman might polish off a ticklish job in the course of a day’s work.”

I first encountered the Turner quotation in The New Listener’s Companion and Record Guide by B.H. Haggin, who cites his fellow critic approvingly and adds: “This seems to me an excellent description of the essential fact about Bach—that one hears always the operation of prodigious powers of invention and construction, but frequently an operation that is not as expressive as it is accomplished.” Haggin continues:

Listening to the six sonatas or partitas for unaccompanied violin, the six sonatas or suites for unaccompanied piano, one is aware of Bach’s success with the difficult problem he set himself, of contriving for the instrument a melody that would imply its underlying harmonic progressions between the occasional chords. But one is aware also that solving this problem was not equivalent to writing great or even enjoyable music…I hear only Bach’s craftsmanship going through the motions of creation and producing the external appearances of expressiveness. And I suspect that it is the name of Bach that awes listeners into accepting the appearance as reality, into hearing an expressive content which isn’t there, and into believing that if the content is difficult to hear, this is only because it is especially profound—because it is “the passionate, yet untroubled meditation of a great mind” that lies beyond “the composition’s formidable technical frontiers.”

Haggins confesses that he regards many pieces in The Goldberg Variations or The Well-Tempered Clavier as “examples of competent construction that are, for me, not interesting pieces of music.” And he sums up: “Bach’s way of exercising the spirit was to exercise his craftsmanship; and some of the results offer more to delight an interest in the skillful use of technique than to delight the spirit.”

As I read this, I was inevitably reminded of Christopher Orr’s recent article in The Atlantic, “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen,” which I discussed here last week. Part of Orr’s case against Allen involves “his frenetic pace of one feature film a year,” which can only be described as monotonous periodicity. This isn’t laziness, of course—it’s the opposite—but Orr implies that the director’s obsession with productivity has led him to cut corners in the films themselves: “Ambition simply isn’t on the agenda.” Yet the funny thing is that this approach to making art, while extreme, is perfectly rational. Allen writes, directs, and releases three movies in the time it would take most directors to finish one, and when you look at his box office and awards history, you see that about one in three breaks through to become a financial success, an Oscar winner, or both. And Orr’s criticism of this process, like Turner’s, could only have been made by a professional critic. If you’re obliged to see every Woody Allen movie or have an opinion on every Bach cantata, it’s easy to feel annoyed by the lesser efforts, and you might even wish that that the artist had only released the works in which his inspiration was at its height. For the rest of us, though, this really isn’t an issue. We get to skip Whatever Works or Irrational Man in favor of the occasional Match Point or Midnight in Paris, and most of us are happy if we can even recognize the cantata that has “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” If you’re a fan, but not a completist, a skilled craftsman who produces a lot of technically proficient work in hopes that some of it will stick is following a reasonable strategy. As Malcolm Gladwell writes of Bach:

The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, [Dean] Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great.

As Simonton puts it: “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.” But if there’s a risk involved, it’s that an artist will become so used to producing technically proficient material on a regular basis that he or she will fall short when the circumstances demand it. Which brings us back to Bach. Turner’s remarks appear in a chapter on the Mass in B minor, which was hardly a throwaway—it’s generally considered to be one of Bach’s major works. For Turner, however, the virtuosity expressed in the cantatas allowed Bach to take refuge in cleverness even when there was more at stake: “I say that the pretty trumpet work in the four-part chorus of the Gloria, for example, is a proof that Bach was being consciously clever and brightening up his stuff, and that he was not at that moment writing with the spontaneity of those really creative moments which are popularly called inspired.” And he writes of the Kyrie, which he calls “monotonous”:

It is still impressive, and no doubt to an academic musician, with the score in his hands and his soul long ago defunct, this charge of monotony would appear incredible, but then his interest is almost entirely if not absolutely technical. It is a source of everlasting amazement to him to contemplate Bach’s prodigious skill and fertility of invention. But what do I care for Bach’s prodigious skill? Even such virtuosity as Bach’s is valueless unless it expresses some ulterior beauty or, to put it more succinctly, unless it is as expressive as it is accomplished.

And I’m not sure that he’s even wrong. It might seem remarkable to make this accusation of Bach, who is our culture’s embodiment of technical skill as an embodiment of spiritual expression, but if the charge is going to have any weight at all, it has to hold at the highest level. William Blake once wrote: “Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.” He was right. But it can also be a vehicle, by definition, for literally everything else. And sometimes the real genius lies in being able to tell the difference.

Quote of the Day

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Self portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Enthusiastic admiration seldom promotes knowledge.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Seven Discourses on Art

Enthusiastic admiration is the first principle of knowledge, and its last…It is evident that Reynolds wished none but fools to be in the arts; and in order to this, he calls all others vague enthusiasts or madmen. What has reasoning to do with the art of painting?

William Blake, in a marginal note in Reynolds’s book

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January 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

“The hood came down over her head…”

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"A sort of code..."

Note: This post is the twenty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 25. You can read the previous installments here.

A section break in a novel, like the end of a chapter, is like the frame around a painting: it’s an artifact of the physical constraints of the medium, but it also becomes an expressive tool in its own right. When books like the Iliad or Odyssey were stored in scroll form, there were inherent limits to how large any one piece could be, and writers—or at least their scribes—began to structure those works accordingly. These days, there’s no particular reason why a novel needs to be cut up into sections or chapters at all, but we retain the convention because it turned out to be useful as a literary strategy. A chapter break gives the reader a bit of breathing space; it can be used as a punchline or statement in itself, like an abrupt cut to black in a movie; and it allows the patterns of the story to emerge more clearly, with the white space between scenes serving as a version of William Blake’s bounding line. This is particularly true of novels made up of many short chapters, which allow a rhythm to be established that creates an urgency of its own. We associate the technique with popular fiction, but even a literary novel like James Salter’s Solo Faces, which I’m reading now, benefits from that kind of momentum. (To be fair, more than one reader has criticized the chapters in my own novels as being too short.)

Elsewhere, I’ve defined a chapter as a unit of narrative that gives the reader something to anticipate. Ideally, every element should inform our expectations about what happens next, and as soon as that anticipation assumes a concrete form, the chapter ends. This is really more a guideline for writers than an empirical observation: in practice, chapters open and close in all kinds of places. But it’s a useful rule to keep in mind, along with the general principle that scenes should start as late and end as early as possible. And it’s often something that can only be achieved in the rewrite. When you’re writing a first draft, a chapter may simply be the maximum amount of narrative that you’re capable of keeping in your head all at once. The lengths of the chapters in my novels are organically connected to how much I can write in one day, which I suspect is also true of many other writers: “It isn’t at all surprising to write a chapter in a day,” John le Carré says to The Paris Review, “which for me is about twenty-two pages.” (I love the precision of that number, by the way—that’s the mark of a real novelist.) Later, you go back to see how the rhythms enforced by the writing process can be converted into the ones that the act of reading demands, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find that the two coincide. As Christian Friedrich Hebbel says:

Whoever absorbs a work of art into himself goes through the same process as the artist who produced it—only he reverses the order of the process and increases its speed.

"The hood came down over her head..."

What’s true of a chapter is also true of a larger section, except on a correspondingly grander scale. I’ve said before that when I start working on a novel, I usually know all of the major act breaks in advance, but that’s only half correct: more accurately, I have a handful of big moments in mind, and I know enough about craft to want to structure the act breaks around them. A major turning point that occurs without propelling one section into another feels like a waste of energy. (Any good novel will have more than three or four turning points, of course, but you intuitively sense which ones deserve the most prominent positions, and build the rest of the story around them.) There are times, too, when I know that a section break ought to occur at a certain position, so the scene that leads into it has to be correspondingly built up. A moment of peril, a cliffhanger, a sudden surprise or revelation: these are the kinds of scenes that we’ve been taught to expect just before a section ends. Sometimes they can seem artificial, or like an outright cheat—as many viewers felt about the end of a recent episode of True Detective. But if you learn to honor those conventions, which evolved that way for a reason, while still meeting the demands of the story, you often end up with something better than you would have had otherwise. Which is really the only reason to think in terms of genre at all.

When it came to the end of Part I of Eternal Empire, I knew more or less what had to happen before I began writing a single word. The novel opens with the mystery of why a painting was defaced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this seemed like a good time to resolve it. Until now, my two leads, Maddy and Ilya, had been moving along separate paths, and I had to set things up for them to intersect—which meant placing Maddy in real physical danger for the first time. Either of these story beats could have served as a decent ending for a section, and common sense dictated that I put them both together. Hence the footstep that Maddy hears behind her, and the hood that comes down over her head, a few seconds after she’s figured out the true meaning of the painting. Neither moment is necessarily related, except by the logic of the structure itself. (There’s also a sense in which I made the circumstances of Maddy’s abduction more dramatic because of where it fell in the book: it could have just been a tap on the shoulder, but it was better if it was shocking enough to carry the reader through the next stretch of pages.) Story and structure end up influencing each other in both directions, and if I’m lucky, they should seem inseparable. That’s true of every line of a novel, but it’s particularly clear at these hinge points, which are like the places where a building has to be reinforced to sustain the stresses of the overall design. And those stresses are about to get a lot more intense…

The bounding line

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Ancient of Days by William Blake

The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: that the more distinct, sharp, and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art, and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling. Great inventors in all ages knew this: Protogenes and Apelles knew each other by this line, Raphael and Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer are known by this and by this alone. The want of this determinate and bounding form evidences the want of idea in the artist’s mind, and the pretense of the plagiary in all its branches.

How do we distinguish the oak from the beech, the horse from the ox, but by the bounding outline? How do we distinguish one face or countenance from another, but by the bounding line and its infinite inflections and movements? What is it that builds a house and plants a garden but the definite and the determinate? What is it that distinguishes honesty from knavery but the hard and wiry outline of rectitude and certainty in the actions and intentions? Leave out this line and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again, and the line of the Almighty must be drawn out upon it before man or beast can exist.

William Blake

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July 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

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William Blake on invention and execution

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Death mask of William Blake

No man can improve an original invention, nor can an original invention exist without execution organized and minutely delineated and articulated either by God or man…I have heard many people say, “Give me the ideas; it does not matter what words you put them into,” and others say, “Give me the design; it is no matter for the execution.” These people knew enough of artifice but little of art. Ideas cannot be given but in their minutely appropriate words. Nor can a design be made without its minutely appropriate execution.

William Blake

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March 15, 2015 at 9:00 am

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Quote of the Day

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Death mask of William Blake

He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars:
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer,
For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.

William Blake

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January 15, 2014 at 7:30 am

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My twenty favorite writing quotes

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It’s hard to believe, but over the past two years, I’ve posted more than six hundred quotes of the day. At first, this was simply supposed to be a way for me to add some new content on a daily basis without going through the trouble of writing a full post, but it ultimately evolved into something rather different. I ran through the obvious quotations fairly quickly, and the hunt for new material has been one of the most rewarding aspects of writing this blog, forcing me to look further afield into disciplines like theater, songwriting, dance, and computer science. Since we’re rapidly approaching this blog’s second anniversary, I thought it might be useful, or at least amusing, to pick out twenty of my own favorites. Some are famous, others less so, but in one way or another they’ve been rattling around in my brain for a long time, and I hope they’ll strike up a spark or two in yours:

Be well-ordered in your life, and as ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert

An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.

Edgar Degas

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

Linus Pauling

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from such things.

T.S. Eliot

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Luck is the residue of design.

Branch Rickey

The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes.

Francis Ford Coppola, in an interview with The 99 Percent

Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.

Lionel Trilling

The worst error of the older Shakespeare criticism consisted in regarding all the poet’s means of expression as well-considered, carefully pondered, artistically conditioned solutions and, above all, in trying to explain all the qualities of his characters on the basis of inner psychological motives, whereas, in reality, they have remained very much as Shakespeare found them in his sources, or were chosen only because they represented the most simple, convenient, and quickest solution of a difficulty to which the dramatist did not find it worth his while to devote any further trouble.

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

David MametSome Freaks

Great narrative is not the opposite of cheap narrative: it is soap opera plus.

Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama

You must train day and night in order to make quick decisions.

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

Kurt Vonnegut, to The Paris Review

The best question I ask myself is: What would a playwright do?

Dennis Lehane, to The Writer Magazine

Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.

William Blake

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.

—Attributed to Leonard Bernstein

If you have taken the time to learn to write beautiful, rock-firm sentences, if you have mastered evocation of the vivid and continuous dream, if you are generous enough in your personal character to treat imaginary characters and readers fairly, if you have held onto your childhood virtues and have not settled for literary standards much lower than those of the fiction you admire, then the novel you write will eventually be, after the necessary labor of repeated revisions, a novel to be proud of, one that almost certainly someone, sooner or later, will be glad to publish.

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

Stephen King, On Writing

You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the f—king game.

Harlan Ellison

He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.

John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2011 at 6:00 am

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Quote of the Day

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January 1, 2011 at 1:39 am

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