Written by Phil Guarnieri Friday, 11 January 2013 00:00
The literary and social critic Edmund Wilson, one of the 20th century’s great men of letters, wrote the famous essay The Wound and the Bow about the relation between art and suffering. To make his point, Wilson employs a mythological character from a Greek tragedy written by Sophocles, Philoctetus, who on his way to the Trojan War is bit by a serpent. The odor that emanates from the wound is so noxious that he is exiled to the island of Lemnos to live out his remaining days as a pariah. After the war starts, the seer Cassandra prophesizes that without the bow of Heracles which was passed on to Philoctetus, the Trojan War would be lost.
Wilson modernizes the story by tying the wound to psychic trauma and the bow to inspiration whereby interior agony of the suffering artist is transmuted into monuments of artistic creativity. Wilson chooses several luminaries of the Western canon to illustrate this point but in re-reading the essay it strikes me that he omits the most self-evident subject of all.
At the end of each year, the Classical radio station WQXR has their countdown of the greatest 100 classical music pieces as chosen by their listeners. The list is routinely overrepresented by the works of the most iconic of all composers, Ludwig Van Beethoven. Possessed of a musical genius that is almost inexplicable in ordinary circumstances, Beethoven beguiled the world by producing his greatest music while going stone deaf. Deafness, more than blindness, cuts us off from the world, but the affliction is most punishing in the musician whose ear must be preternaturally attuned to the pitch and cadence of sound. John Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost, but blindness for the writer is not remotely comparable to the despotism of deafness in the composer.
Even before his affliction, Beethoven was a miasma of tempestuousness, a cauldron of such ferocity and hot bloodedness that his very sanity teetered on the abyss of anarchy. A more timorous soul would have crumbled under the blasphemies mocking his genius, for the music that filled his soul was as vital to his existence as the very breath in his body. Bloodied but unbowed, he roared back at the gods unrepentant, defiant and audaciously contemptuous of a destiny not of his own making. He was only 26 when tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, invaded his auditory canal and attempted to steal the flint that stoked the fire of his genius. But inspiration springs from more than the senses. A deaf musician is as oxymoronic a concept as a married bachelor, but Beethoven lived to defy the odds. It was both pitiable and awe-inspiring to see the overwrought, unhearing maestro manically pounding upon the ivory keys of the piano, his ear pressed down upon the abused instrument desperately trying to discern even the faintest of vibrations.
Music is the highest of the arts; the language of God whose power immediately and transcendently touches the human spirit. The French novelist Stendhal called an encounter with great music an indescribable exhilaration akin to the feeling of falling madly in love for the first time. The confection of notes that elicit rhythm, melody and harmony into an organized and seamless whole seemed an act of sorcery transporting the listener to those celestial Elysian Fields where only heavenly choirs have a right to domicile. Where does such fertility begin amid such a forest of possibilities and infinity of choices, since creative genius is as much about drawing boundaries as it is the unfurling of a fired imagination? As in a temple, a veil covers the sanctuary of creative power, its curtains drawn and windows shuttered. Mortal eyes glimpse only the shadowy silhouette of these mysterious, sacred works cobbled in the dark and deep caverns of the creative mind.
For Beethoven, music suffused his every waking hour; like Banquo’s ghost it haunted his dreams. The language of music came more naturally to him than the language of the spoken word. In that Universe he was a reigning God amused by thoughts of lèse-majesté: If I understood the art of war like the art of music, I would conquer Napoleon.
“They are happy men,” Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “whose natures sort with their vocations.” Happiness, however, had little to do with Beethoven’s compositional exertions. There was nothing benign in the alchemy between thought and execution; molten and fiery materials were poured into the cast iron vessel of his soul, where inner storms billowed ready to burst upon an unsuspecting landscape. His written compositions were an act of war, nothing like the pristine and unscathed masterpieces that characterized Mozart’s miraculous spontaneity. Beethoven’s milieu would be the battered white sheets of paper that were pockmarked by furious scratches and redactions; amid the strife and ferment you could smell the smoke of battle and hear the distant cannonading. Beethoven’s compositions were killing fields; myriads of notes executed in cold blood, the paper scarred by lines savagely crossed out while scribbled revisions littered the margins of the score like graffiti on a subway car.
Isolated, unmarried, set asunder from his most affectionate filial attachments, Beethoven’s bilious nature was tormented by the pervasive silence that enshrouded him. Some musicologists have suggested, not unpersuasively, that Beethoven’s deafness nourished his genius by creating a solitary, sonic universe that he alone inhabited with the grandeur of his music. Half-mad, irascible, hygienically challenged, he elided caricature as a buffo, an actor in a self-created harlequinade and perhaps avoided even the gated asylum had not his music been perceived as something other than an act of divinity. In his prologue to Witness, Whitaker Chambers relates that while listening to a recording of the Ninth Symphony his son, heretofore an oblivious adolescent, sat wordlessly next to him moved by that sublime moment when Beethoven, like Adam in Michelangelo’s painting, stretches out to the heavens to touch the finger of God.
When reflecting on Beethoven as a modern day Philoctetus, I’m not suggesting that genius and pathology are inextricably tied together. J.S. Bach appeared to be exclusively motivated by making his art an altar for the “Greater Glory of God.” But I’m convinced that Beethoven’s music was in some important way influenced and colored by the depth of his pain and deprivation. I can hear it, or at least I think I hear it in much of his music, especially the second movement of his Fifth Symphony. The strains of anger and hurt, the taste of bitter grief and loss are all there in a plaintive cry that is unimaginably affective and moving. Taunted by these inner demons his rite of exorcism was his music. Whether his art gave him a measure of peace is purely subjective, that it gave the world an unparalleled landmark of Western art is a timeless truth.