01 March 2011

Mechanizing some more

A few days ago I quoted a bit from Clive James:

Mechanics of influence are hard to trace. Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature, and of course scholars make a living by following that same assumption. But a writer’s ideal of a properly built sentence might just as well have been formed when he was still in short pants and watched someone make an unusually neat sandcastle.
To which my esteemed friend Johan objected:

I like Clive James. But I don’t agree. What connects syntax and sand castle is structure. That’s all. There is an analogy. But to learn to write sentences, you’ll have to read a lot and write even more.
I see Johan’s point: whether in writing, or in music composition, there is technique which one learns by analyzing the literature — you aren’t going to acquire the tools by inhabiting pipedreams.

I don’t think that’s quite what Clive James was at. (Of course, the really responsible thing would be if I could find the context of that citation . . . but I ran across it at random, and although I did have a go at trying to find it again — hopeless. Of course, it’s an anthology which I shall read with great pleasure, and I shall find that errant quote again, some day . . . .)

Reading the citation anew, I think it was the opening word, mechanics, which into the works the spanner threw. It was a word which suggested matters of technique; and yet, when James writes of one’s ideal of a properly built sentence, it sounds to me more a question of aesthetics, of style, of tone, rather than of technique. (Of course, I don’t really suppose that we can hermetically seal technique off from aesthetics, style, and tone.)

Then, too, I suppose that my enthusiasm for James’s remark was partly a matter of it eliciting strong memories from my own musical past. To pay the dues to Johan’s point, I learnt a great deal about compositional technique from studying the music of Bach, of Beethoven, of Chopin. Yet the lessons I learnt from those past Masters, does not particularly yield immediately apperent similarities in my own music. (Thus, the question becomes in part a matter of what one means by influence.)

In short, I think (not that this is necessarily at odds with Johan’s response) that one can learn the tools, acquire the mastery by mastering the literature — and then, in finding one’s own artistic voice, one’s own path, throw the past off.

Which does not mean that one has not emerged from the tradition.


J.Z. Herrenberg said...

Thanks for the expatiation, Karl.

I have given a lot of thought and study to both influence and syntax the past 35 years. What I reacted against in the quotation is that it is built upon mere suppositions that want 1) to discredit what writers have said and simultaneously 2) to discredit academic study of literature (for which I have more sympathy...) What James is saying would have carried more weight if he had spoken from personal experience. Now he proves nothing.

My view on this complex matter is, simply and briefly put: that the artist is a person formed by life and art. His peculiar temperament bends the light of tradition; if he is great, the tradition is made new and other, for then he has remade tradition in his own image (this is what we call 'genius'). The tools of the trade are taught by the tools of the trade, and what is expressed in the work is the combination of personality, experience in all forms and tradition. If Clive James had said that he himself built sand castles in his youth and that the sense of structure he displayed then is, by analogy, still present in the way he builds his sentences, THEN I would have agreed. Now it is 'tend to think' and 'might just as well have been' - which proves exactly nothing.

Cato said...

Two stories: Bruckner commented to his students that they needed to follow the rules of Music, when they were in his class.

But if they came back after graduation and showed him something still obediently following the rules, he would boot them out!

In my literary efforts I have not used analogies to musical techniques, but have used them directly: treating certain phrases as themes, repeating them at crucial points, playing variations on them, etc.

Exactly how one would directly, rather than analogously, use the structure of a sandcastle in a short story is unclear, but I am willing to be persuaded!