Thursday, 23 April 2015

Epoch Fail

If I'm a little slow to actually tell you what my dissertation is about, it's because—as you'll soon see—I'm not *quite* sure myself. It's about musical expression in the sixteenth century, that much is sure, but that topic is far too broad to write a book about in two years' time. It's more of a career project, and I hope it will work to my advantage that the dissertation feels like a beginning and not an end. I think I will probably narrow it down to looking at the expression of melancholy 1510–1530 or so. I will probably narrow it down to certain types of music too, defined by nationality, text (or lack thereof), and performance context, but I hope what these ought to be will emerge through my reading. 
I've been continuing on with Christine Ross' book today—not because it is most important (in fact it is almost tangential), but because it has been recalled to the library and I have to return it tomorrow. Her book, The Aesthetics of Disengagement, deals with problems of sadness in contemporary art. Art historians have been discussing the aestheticization of pain seriously for centuries—in music, from what I can see, we have been slow to follow. There are art history books and articles much closer to our time period–notably Panofsky and Saxl's famous 1923 study of Albrecht Dürer's engraving from 1514, Melencolia I, and the reactions to it by Walter Benjamin (1928), in Giorgio Agamben's Stanzas (1977), Max Pensky's Melancholy Dialectics (1993) and most recently, Laurinda S. Dixon's The Dark Side of Genius (2013). By looking at reactions to this single engraving over the last 92 years, it is easy to see how it is interpreted in light of our own times.
 In case you've forgotten, this is what Dürer's print looks like (it is the desktop image to the other dissertation workspace—there's not a chance of writing it with only a single screen!).

Albrecht Dürer: Melencolia I (1514)

I have yet to read Panofsky and Saxl's take on this print, but from the summary and reactions to it by Ross and others, it looks as though their study takes the stance that the winged angel has succeeded in transforming melancholy from a disease of contemplation into a kind of contemplation that more befits an artist, hence the symbolism of the tools of making and measurement. (Expect a corrected version of this reading sometime in the future.) They base their ideas on Ficino's statement that turning voluntarily towards Saturn, i.e., engaging in "divine contemplation," is a way to counter the detrimental effects of melancholia. Walter Benjamin challenged this idea of the angel as a heroic figure because in Ficinian terms, Saturn is still a malefic influence, and melancholy is still an unhappy state. Rather than interpreting artistic genius as existing on a continuum with pathological melancholy (as suggested by Pseudo-Aristotle in Problemata XXX), Panofsky and Saxl suggest that the first triumphs over the second somehow.
It seems to me that Benjamin is accusing Panofsky & Saxl of over-romanticizing this melancholic angel. I tend to agree—I was a bit surprised to read that she might be a heroic figure, and Ross seems to agree. To me, if Dürer had wanted to show her in some kind of Divine Contemplation, he might have raised the point she is looking at a little higher—though it is worth noticing that she isn't looking at the ground either. (I shall need to find a real art historian to find out if these are indeed relevant!) 
If Panofsky and Saxl are being overly Romantic about Dürer's angel as some kind of suffering artist, Benjamin seems to be a bit more influenced by the psychoanalysis that was so prevalent in his day. Ross doesn't say this—it's my conjecture—but she does say that Benjamin "argues that the art historians' concentration on the individuality of the subjective melancholy genius prevented them from understanding that genuine creativity comes about not in the individual but, as Pensky has observed in his study on Benjamin 'between subjectivity as such and the phsyiognomy of its object realm,' between contemplation and pathology, between creative access to order and a fall into dead nature." [tracing this discourse is getting a little complex—Benjamin was writing in 1928, Pensky in 1993, and Ross in 2006, if that helps!] 
I think this is linked to psychoanalysis because what Freud did at around this time—as far as I understand—was to take the idea of the human soul and start to understand it in relation not just to itself and to a romantic, quasi-religious concept of genius (divine genius coming from a transcendent place even if not heaven), but as something shaped by all the relationships that people have over the course of their lives, to people, objects and ideas. 
It had apparently been traditional at their time to interpret the unused instruments of geometry in Dürer's painting as an expression of the inadequacy of geometry, essential though it may be to artistic craftsmanship, as falling short, unable to bring art into the realm of the sublime. This strikes me as very Romantic indeed, and I am now quite curious to read Giorgio Agamben's rebuttal of this idea. Is it possible that Panofsky and Saxl's ideas were so shaped by being formed at the very tail end of Romanticism, that we might think of their attempt to understand Renaissance thinking as an Epoch Fail?
(Sorry. In academia you get extra points for that sort of thing.)
Ross seems to suggests that Romano Alberti's 1585 discussion of phantasm—I think she means remembered impressions of objects stored in the imagination—might shed some light on why this misinterpretation took place, but ultimately sees his description of the melancholy of an artist in a different light. I'll quote it in full:
 "Painters become melancholics because, wishing to imitate, they must retain the phantasms fixed in the intellect, so that afterward they can express them in the way they first saw them when present; and being their work, this occurs not only once, but continually. They keep their minds so much abstracted and separated from nature that consequently melancholy derives from it. Aristotle says [he means pseudo- of course...but didn't know], however, that this signifies genius and prudence, because almost all the ingenious and prudent have been melancholics." (Quoted in Agamben)
It would be relatively easy for a Romantically-influenced reader to think that R. Alberti is writing about the impossibility of representing transcendence—this was a very big deal in the 19th century. But it is also possible that Romano Alberti should be read with a more classical bent—a platonic view, for instance that even concrete objects are some kind of imitation of their ideal form. They seem to have understood melancholy as a kind of disconnection, so it seems possible to me that the cumulative effect of substituting imagined objects for real ones might over time make someone feel disconnected.
Just to be sure, even though Ross brings Romano Alberti into this discussion, she is also quick to say that Leon Battista Alberti, writing over one hundred years before in 1535, wrote that painters simply painted what they saw! 
(The discussion of mimesis in art will of course be hugely important when we get to word-painting—which is where I will begin becoming mildly coherent, as it is the topic of an upcoming conference paper. Apparently it is discussed in detail in Sarah Kofman's La Mélancholie dans l'art (1985)).
I haven't even got to Laurinda Dixon's study of Dürer yet, but I've more than filled my quota and have practising and administrative tasks yet to accomplish today.  But I'll conclude today by saying that perhaps it is not so bad that I am starting with a book on contemporary art. I have been in Early Music long enough to have discussed dozens of times the impossibility of recreating authentic listeners, let alone authentic performances, and yet I am swayed by Bruce Haynes' argument, put forward in The End of Early Music (2007), that just because you can't attain a perfect understanding of older ways of thinking doesn't imply that it would be sensible should give up altogether. He called Romanticism "a veil" that distorts our concept of the past. By reading about twentieth and twenty-first century views on melancholy and aesthetics, I am more likely to be able to see what biases I am inevitably reading into my sources. If Panofsky and Saxl's analyses of Dürer suffered by being too Romantic, it's also possible that Benjamin's suffered from being too rooted in other ideas distinctly foreign to the Renaissance. And of course I am too, so I'd best attempt to understand what they might be.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Dissertation Writing!

I just started to write my dissertation, and decided that rather than attempt to deal with the immense pressure of actually writing a dissertation, I would write a journal instead, but make it mostly about my dissertation. A few paragraphs in, I realized that I could write this stuff into my blog instead... Of course I have no idea if this is a good or bad idea yet—surely it's a terrible idea! Because what is sure that while I'll write in prose (I have copious notes elsewhere), it won't be particularly coherent until much later on. But at least it may be more amusing for me if I post a picture now and again and allow myself to be entertained by mild digressions. Here's what I've done so far. 

First day of real writing—I suppose I mustn’t clog this up so much with journal, but why not write a bit about the process as I go? That sentence was interrupted by choosing an appropriate desktop image with which to work—not a minute in and a distraction! Maybe the inclusion of a wee journal will help minimize these? On to the writing itself!
Reading Christine Ross’s book on Melancholy vs. Depression in Art. She makes the point that the link with melancholy and genius began to dissipate at the end of the 19th century because of the medicalization of depression, and the view of it as a subjective deprivation of creativity rather than an intersubjective (her word) creative but sad state. This makes some sense—the first is disconnection, and the second a sense of connection to other people feeling the same. She points out that treating depression with drugs changes the emphasis from mind to body. 
One of the more interesting things for me was the notion that the melancholic is engaged with a lost “other,” while the depressed person is constantly preparing for loss. The melancholic is therefore in a state of deep connection, while the depressed person is numbing themselves as a defence against a nebulous but impending loss. One is highly emotional, the other highly disconnected. 
Aesthetically, what is interesting is that we associate Romanticism with subjectivity and call the Classical and Baroque the Rhetorical, emphasizing the communal nature of the passions—we say abstract now though. But communal is perhaps more accurate, because abstract implies a disconnectedness, but rather I think that when someone looks at the depiction of melancholy or listens to sad music, they are engaging in a shared experience. Of course. Why do we say abstract? Maybe we say idealized... People who like art tend to have an idealist streak so that makes sense.
Anyway, Ross's book is making the case that the kind of intense individuality and subjectivity we associate with Romanticism (think Beethoven) actually came about some time later. This makes a lot of sense—it's also when I found, in my paper on when and why performers became obsessed with following scores to the letter, the idea that it was necessary to negate one's own personality in order to do justice to the composer. Suddenly there is no shared experience, just a sole subjective one to be honoured. I'm thinking around WWI, by the way.   
I'm sure you're wondering why I'm starting with this book, when my dissertation is about musical expression in the Renaissance. There's a simple answer—because it's just been recalled to the library! It is not the first book I've started reading, but it's important to get a little way in, I think, to rack up enough confidence to start publishing one's own ideas and interpretations to the Internet. 

It occurs that writing into my blog might make dissertation writing a less lonely process than I fear it might be—I'm sure that is the main reason many people have for avoiding it. Not that I expect you, loyal readers, to comment in order to entertain me, but I am likely to be a bit better of a writer knowing you might be reading. I just realized I ought to be making notes of page numbers and such for myself—I'll put those in the comments. Oh, and I can use the tagging function to help me later on too. Interesting experiment. And here's how it continues...
I've been astonished to learn that the connection between melancholy and the idea of genius or divine inspiration didn't start with the Romantics, but way back as far as Plato ("divine frenzy") and Aristotle—actually pseudo-Arisotle, in his "Problema XXX" which starts with the quote: "Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of an atrabilious temperament, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile, as is said to have happened to Heracles among the heroes?" (Problemata XXX.1 953a10-14)
These writings (and others) were carried through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. They became really important again with Marsilio Ficino, who was both a court physician (to the Medici, I think) and a musician—he recited Orphic Hymns to the lira da braccio. (Quite a new reconstructive recording of this little-known repertoire has just come out and is getting all sorts of stars: Sulla Lira.) Ficino had good reasons for combining music and medicine, which I'll tell you all about tomorrow, as I sum up Brenno Boccadoro's chapter on the same. 
It's 10 already—I didn't expect I could do more than 20 minutes, but I think it is more fun to write into a blog. When I was writing my notes this morning (I am now trying to read a mere 45 minutes a day—not nearly enough but just over the threshold of worthwhile). I mused in my margin that it would be far more entertaining to read a dissertation in the form of correspondence. Such a better literary genre than the essay. I think this blog will have to be the halfway point—the final version will become an essay of course—it must—but perhaps I'll be able to write it in a digestible way.

Re-reading a tiny bit "They became really important again" seems too far off in the other direction—reads like a children's book, no? I'll try to become a better writer in the course of all this.

Here's the picture I put on my desktop, btw. From a hike near Interlaken in 2009 I think. The first crocuses are just starting to bloom in the front garden here.

(Shortly after...)
 It occurs to me (and now I really have to go into McGill, so, quickly!) that the medicalization of melancholy is not a 20th-century phenomenon at all, but that "black bile" is a bodily syndrome too. I wonder if there is a parallel between Ross' ideas and the ideas of melancholic temperament vs. melancholic disease that were being thrown about by poor old pseudo-Aristotle (better to be forgotten by posterity or be pseudo someone else?)—the former still had associations to genius, but the latter was a bodily thing to be cured (all from Saxl et. al.—will surely rehash later. So much to investigate!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

I have a hankering to write, which is a good thing, because it's time to start thinking about the big "D" word: "Dissertation." Last year—a barren wasteland as far as blog posts go—I conquered "Comps" or "comprehensive exams." And yes, we do refer to it as the "C" word, from time to time.

I should have been delighted to finish the coursework part of my studies and plunge into dissertation-land, but apart from the basic exhaustion to be expected after absorbing information on 6 topics (actually 8, but I took a risk and abandoned two before reaching "expert" level), there was something about comps which took a while to get over, i.e., becoming so involved in something that I didn't have any time for myself.

Those of you with kids can stop snickering.

With music-making it's more comfortable: you try to become immersed in your rehearsal, concert, practice session etc. for concentrated stints. In comps preparation, you get the feeling that if you step back for a moment, you'll never recover your momentum. Thinking about stuff starts early in the morning and continues into the night, and any time not reading or reviewing is laced with anxiety. I think a lot of academics feel this way, and am glad I became a musician first. I find the idea of being enthralled by anything rather terrifying, and at least with music it comes with an end-time and a lot of dopamine along the way. After a resistance I did not imagine I possessed, I finally let myself get sucked into my comps for the last two and a half weeks or so, when I finally decided not to treat it as a loop I had to jump through, but as an immersion in the study of writings on music that actually, when I stepped back for a moment, I loved.

If the lack of posts over the past years missed documenting anything, it would have been the slow transition to accepting that I can be a scholar as well as a musician. There is still a lot of BS in academia—a lot of politics, navel-gazing, buzzwords, and sadly a lot of dashing to publish material when it is still too green to know how it may ripen—but there is also a lot of honest delight in scholarship. I am trying to remind myself that this is what has to carry me through—and to a certain extent it's working, I think.