LETTERS FROM KITEZH
In Music Out of Time the reader is presented with the enigmatic figure of Nikolay
Nikolayevitch Lodyzhensky, an impoverished land owner associated with the musical
circle of the Mighty Handful, who is described by Rimsky-Korsakov as "a young man of
education, strange, easily carried away, and endowed with a strong, purely lyrical talent for
composition." My attempts to reconstruct the historical Lodyzhensky have been hampered
by stubborn indifference from St. Petersburg to all my efforts aimed at acquiring information
( a sign of lassitude? jealous secrecy? disorganization?). Despite the regrettable lack of
particulars on his life ( which is said to have ended in 1916) an outline can be gleaned: at a
certain age he put aside musical ambition to pursue a diplomatic career spurred by a
sense of social responsibility (common among artists back then though out of fashion
today). In this capacity he traveled to the Balkans, to America, even (some say) to the
Invisible City of Kitezh, where he lingered in the court of the Dancing King, otherwise
known as the Ober-Fim. (The details of this adventure are chronicled in A Tangerine
Concerto from St. Petersburg - see Music Out of Time in Publications.)
The nature of that magic realm is difficult to speak of. At times Lodyzhensky seems to refer
to it as a geographical reality, lying far to the east on some antiquated map whose edges
blur toward the unknown. At other times it seems a fairy-tale land of my imagining
(reminiscent of Hesse‘s Journey to the East), concocted of personages from history, myth
and literary fiction. Some have compared it to ancient Byzantium, and characterized it as
a land of idealistic xenophobes who suffered their own iconoclastic controversy, but where
apophaticism and awe of the unknowable triumphed over philosophy and representation,
so that art was banned, leading eventually to the disappearance of symbolic forms, and
culminating in the present invisible state of the entire kingdom.
Meanwhile the Ober-Fim, wise monarch to whom these letters are addressed,
presents a paradox: vaguely oriental (one thinks of Calvino’s Kublai Khan from Invisible
Cities), shrouded in ancestral mists, masked in a multitude of appellations and attributes,
yet capable of disarming spontaneity, friendly familiarity. Perhaps you should imagine that
neither he nor his secret city really exists - that they are prisms serving to refract and give
form to the white light of thought - in which case it's me, actually, who is in search of self-
understanding, with the letters that follow and the issues they raise helping to define me
through thoughts and actions (while the impalpable status of the city, floating outside of
time and space, provides both a fine perspective for free thought and the opportunity to
commune with beings from past and future as well as present times, and from near and far
locations - see the letters that follow) - it's me, attempting through a mixture of impulses,
memories and opinions (including even hesitations, contradictions, silences) to realize
what I fear may be an impossible picture, a non- image, a testament to the futility of ever
being able to know someone else.
But even as I say, "an impossible picture, a non-image, a testament to the futility of ever
being able to know someone else" I begin to create another picture, a positive something,
a picture of the impossible picture - not the original picture, to be sure - but something,
nevertheless, and at this point I start to get the feeling that this is how I found my way into
the world, I start to recollect - not the memory of having done this before, but that what I am
doing in making this image of Lodyzhensky is what was done in forming my image: I sense
the repetition of a cosmic pattern. Then happiness envelopes me beyond time and loss,
and I feel immortality in a flash of understanding: my actions shine in the light of that
endlessly repeating pattern, for this is what we do.
I think that, in the future, society will be divided into two groups holding irreconcilable
beliefs. Some will devote themselves the prolongation of life through medical and
artificial means, becoming robots, achieving the illusion of immortality, and striving to
improve the quality of life in the direction of the greatest possible happiness. Others will
maintain that death is a door opening unto higher dimensions where the soul will be
free from terrestrial constraints . These will view the present life as a schola
animarum, a school of the soul, and, shunning neither the vicissitudes of ageing nor of
illness, will attempt to live in such a manner as to be worthy of eventual transformation.
How do you suppose they will deal with one
Last Wednesday night (Sept. 22, '09) I'm watching this television show on the science
station about gravity, super string theory and a host of related ideas beyond my
comprehension, and the this strange scientist who, for some reason or other, is on ice
skates, is articulating the notion that it will be possible to display, in the form of an
elegant equation, a unified theory of everything ( whatever that means) if we come to
understand that there are about eleven dimensions rather than the mere three normally
susceptible to our scrutiny.
By way of illustration he speaks of Columbus and the resistance he met by those who,
persisting in a belief the earth is flat, feared he would eventually fall off the edge.
When this did not occur (when, in fact, the ship followed the curvature of the earth) the
flat-earth proponents would have had to conclude that the earth was infinite (with
certain landscapes and even people recurring periodically - a kind of spatial analogue
to the temporal theory of cycles of ages). And I am provoked to wonder whether the
enigmas that confound us, of first causes, of our beginning and our end (or of our
begininglessness and endlessness) only seem insoluble as a function of our limited
perspective. Perhaps, "out there'" in higher dimensions, the paradoxes dissolve,
perhaps, even, some part of us is there, unbeknownst to our lower selves, perhaps
that's where our intimations of immortality come from. To the extent that we're happy
it's because we're designed to get by in three dimensions; to the extent that we're
discontented, filled with a spiritual longing for what's infinite, it's because there's more
to us. And perhaps those higher dimensions are the home of my erstwhile Tutelary
Spirit, remnants of whose transparent wisdom used to ripple like the foam of a receding
tide at the edge of my dreams. What then to do?
am going to tell you a secret: Every musical composition I've ever written has been a
substitute for another piece I wasn't able to realize. And this is true not only for me but
for every artist who has ever lived. (Scriabin only confessed this most dramatically by
consigning his Mysterium to the indefinite, hence never-to-be-realized, future, and by
attempting, in its place, to create the Acte Prealable. The world is false, composed of
facsimiles, epigones and counterfeits, and we survive, disenchanted, through endless
And yet we keep on working, we keep on trying: indeed, our happiest state lies neither
in the abnegation of labor nor in the glow of fulfillment, but in the act of making.
Perhaps that's a more felicitous secret: without the spur of discontent our will to live
might wither, for beauty, like love, is not experienced as a possession but as pursuit.
again, if the world's fallen, and the alternate existence which art envisages
seems to bring us closer to some paradisal homeland, perhaps the art of a being
himself an artistic creation would come a step closer than that - perhaps, as we travel
inward, each new universe within the previous one, each new dream within the previous
dreamer, brings us closer, while never, in the infinite reaches of time, achieving its goal.
And this may not be futile: an image of infinite progress, an eternal spring of the Blue
They say when men are near to death they dream of unknown cities ... Yet when I
imagine I'm that dreamer who, in another world and nearing death, dreams of here, all
the charm and mystery dissolve into quotidian Leonia, and I am forced to assume the
same would happen to me here, were I, nearing death, to receive some premonition,
filled with dark enchantment, of a place I will be, or have been, or both - that dying here
(whether or not I become aware of that transformation) I'd awaken to another, but
equally opaque, existence, and find myself, as always, torn between the hope of
immortality and the desire to escape from the
The Homeland Proust refers to is a non-existent, infinite plane, an endless expanse of
infinitesimal height, the horizon separating mind and world, waking and dreaming, the
lightning flash between past and present that gives Marcel such happy moments, the
breathtakingly rapid, distant modulation in a Faure chanson. It is the spiritual place where
Symbolism's sensuous forms reveal their magic correspondences, where eye and ear point
toward one another, acknowledging thereby the ineffable essence to which they both
aspire - not a thing, not a place, but movement through time, as when I walk toward the
beach from the little shore-house, following the lovely curve of the grey wooden planks first
up, then down, bending left, then right, like a melody, and then, suddenly, as the sea
appears ahead, above the little roof-tops, the scent of honeysuckle accosts me, and the
surge of the surf greets my ears, or as when my eye travels downward from her sloping
neck toward where the breast begins to blossom (or upward from where her thigh becomes
her buttock) - and neither breast nor nape, neither thighs nor buttocks, but the movement
of my eye through space, over time, is beauty itself, and music, and life, or as when, on
moonlit evenings, I cast my eyes first upon the edge of the shore, then swiftly shift my
glance upward in a sweeping motion, encompassing the enormity of the sea, and then the
boundless expanse of the star-filled sky.
knowledge, such experience as a life in art affords, even though it bequeath to
others some bright gift undiminished through time, cannot save us from death, but
perhaps this (and this alone) amounts to progress, the growth of the soul - an individual,
personal matter, to be sure, but one that nonetheless contributes to the growth of the
world. o ask the
But were you to ask the source of my hope, a hope I cherish in the absence of any
proof of immortality, I would answer that it feels right to believe such things, and that, in
imputing to the universe an aesthetic sense, I am endowing it with no more dignity and
subectivity than it has given me. Life is meaningful because I'm fashioned to wish it so.
travel, if it's possible, has got to work both ways, and the same must be true for
dimension hopping. I have just finished reading the most recent of the Ofterdingen
Gesellschaft's Publications, (Don't )Stop, Thief!, and feel constrained to spread some
puffy clouds of ambiguous import above an all too placid sea. The author of this
monograph, Professor Pannetone, with reference to the musical fragments confiscated
from her knapsack, is a bit sketchy (if you'll excuse the pun), while Professor Testaguna,
in her introduction, seems reluctant to probe, though her remarks on "artistic masks,"
"ironizing personae," and "alter egos" would seem to indicate she's on to something.
Actually the sketches in question were intended as a collection of dance movements with
five rhythmic gestures, each reflecting the character of a founding member of the
Gesellschaft - Peter Ceniti, Pablo Cookie, Pelle Bono Caridad, Pietro Kennedy and Pelog
Slenderoso. The mastermind behind this creation would enjoy facile communication with a
broad public through the well known social conventions of the dance (be it Bono's
stomping Laendler - with hints of the merengue - or Cookie's elegant Ecossaise) - at the
same time he'd be able to celebrate the intricacies of subjective feeling, with each of the
characters representing as it were a side of his personality. This composer, known to
cultivate instability as an artistic virtue (or just being nuts), would leave nothing steady for
long: each phrase, barely begun, would commence metamorphosis, changing key and
tempo at a schizophrenic pace...
Sound familiar? That would be thanks to me. And why shouldn't I have found a way (there
already being a will) to slip, one fine evening in 1836, from my own universe to
Ofterdingen's, seeing as it lies so close at hand, and seeing as his works have leaked into
our world - especially since, as I said above, such multi-dimensional travel logically must
work both ways if at all? Why shouldn't I have stolen into that shimmering, alternate world,
and slipped back here, without a soul the wiser, carrying my precious plunder?
The rest you know. Ofterdingen's five lovable loonies I reduced to a more manageable
pair - Florestan and Eusebius, and these I gave to the world as representatives of a secret,
anti-philistine association whose Davidsbundlertanze became my opus 6. The title, in fact,
was inspired by Ofterdingen's original: Daimon's Bunglers' Dances, a name which, in turn,
is best explained through a legend similar to that story with which Prof. Pannetone
concludes her monograph - though the differences between the tales reveals something
distinctive in the theological makeup of Ofterdingen's world. Here it is (in abbreviated form):
Once upon a time, before God had made the world, as he busied himself with planning
and sketching, an archangel with over-leaping ambition, not really evil, but unsuited for
big jobs, or a daimon, or a demi-urge of inferior rank, stole the rough draft (of the
universe). Intoxicated with power but lacking in craft, he gave it his best shot, and built
the world we inhabit, unfortunately populating it with flawed beings like us bunglers. So
there we were, on the one hand dimly aware of our pitiable condition, at the same time
(and on a more positive note) that we could sense something higher than the present
world, toward which we yearned. This yearning found expression in artistic activity -
hence Daimon's Bunglers' Dances.
(An important variant on this legend has it that the sketches were lost and are not yet
found, and that God, despairing of their retrieval, but unable perfectly to reconstruct his
plan, did the best he could, this gap between his original and its imperfect realization
explaining most of what's wrong in the world today. And though this must certainly fill us
with regret, it also inclines us to sympathize with our maker, who doubtless finds his
materials as intractable as we do ours.)
In the dungeons of my mind I am tormented by two ideas, equally painful though dissimilar.
The first idea is that, at some moment in the past, I suffered a trauma so calamitous that,
unable to face reality, I fled to an interior refuge from which, inevitably, I must some day
awaken and rediscover the unbearable truth: that a loved one is lost, or that the world's
abandoned by God, or that I myself have died (or that I killed all dinosaurs everywhere,
out of loneliness, being the last of an alien species who, traveling through space, came
upon earth when the development of little mammals was inhibited by those monsters - who
survived, of course, shrinking and escaping into the air, their thundering brass now liquid
pearls, and that, while my patience was rewarded and my isolation relieved by in amicable
mingling amid the throngs of humanity, they remain unaware of my crimes - and of their
blood-stained debt - unaware as well that they exist on the brink of self-annihilation, the
very fate of my people years ago on a distant world).
The second idea is that, in my old age, after years of inexorable decline, a long lost love -
father, mother, spouse, child - will appear and reveal to me a beautiful secret: that what
seemed a sapping of life was actually an elaborate test of my patience and fortitude and
that, since I have proven faithful even in despair, I am found worthy to possess the beloved
forever without end. And not only the beloved but all the world shall be salvaged and
The first thought casts upon all possible happiness a cloud of doubt, leaving no pleasure
untouched by apprehension. The second idea torments me by its unlikeliness, as I find no
evidence in its support beyond my childish hopes. And if, indeed, it is a kind of intimation
of immortality, I must ask whether it will be an immortality in this present condition or of
many lives. And in the latter case would I be aware, as I sail beyond harm from life to
immortal life, of my indestructibility, or will I worry then as I do now that my hopes are in
vain? Is ignorance the price of living, and is wisdom reserved for the dead?
Two years ago, on Mothers’ Day, she last appeared, in darkness and disarray. (I fled that
dream, awakened by mournful horn-calls of a train that seemed to carry her off beyond
Last night she reappeared, arrayed in light.
I found her in the kitchen of my childhood, healthy again and smiling. She was trimming
some vegetables with a knife, and paused to look into my eyes.
Then, suddenly, we were in Hawaii, in a high room with large windows, looking out at the
evening sky, the vast ocean, and, in the distance, splendid gold ruins, as of some tropical
I embraced my mother, living again in that strange and precious place, called her a very
good woman, and declared how much we love her. We both began to sob like Bible
people. Oh, she was beautiful against that bold, chimerical horizon!
I wanted to tell her how brave she was, while she could still hear me, but was awakened by
a nightingale and found her already gone. Or was she become that bird, and was her
purpose in coming to give me that chance to speak? Dreams are not for deciphering but
for savoring: they don’t explain, but complicate with hopes and admonitions.
Hours later this world seems less opaque, and those vague vistas where perhaps the dead
live on glitter through this strange, diaphanous day. I wonder: did she come, not to put my
heart at rest, but, not done teaching, to begin to show me a new, another path?
At a fundamental level, I have no idea what I'm doing. True, I feel guided, in composing, by
an instinct for form, as well as by an emotional, expressive impulse. But people talk of how
a work of art symbolizes some ineffable reality, and though it's true I've dreamed, and
yearned for, other, more beautiful worlds, where meaning is transparent and where what's
lovely lives and speaks, I've remembered none of it clearly enough to capture in music.
I think instead I'm simply guided by a need to make patterns in sound, perhaps to prove life
has meaning, perhaps to insist in art on what life fails to provide.
And I am reminded of The Idea of Order at Key West, where Wallace Stevens speaks of
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred...
Do you know who I am, and can you tell me? It feels as though I've been dropped by
some ill meaning bird into a world fraught with ambiguities, where every choice I make
seems equivocation, evasion or self-deception. And reading Conrad makes it seem all
Romantic ideals are but egotism and vanity masquerading as virtue and selflessness. At
times I console myself, perversely, with the idea that I never chose this life, nor had a hand
in forming its conditions.
But then it occurs to me (as it does to the young child in the Hybrid Genre) to wonder:
What if this life was indeed my choice? And what if I did have a hand in making the
game? And if not, suppose I were now given a chance to change the rules? (How would I
improve them?) Or a chance not to play? (Wouldn't I, despite everything?)
And what of the Tutelary Spirit, whose whispered wisdom assaults both your dreams and
mine with the promise that, just beyond the range of our vision, lies neither emptiness nor
ugliness, but clarity and light, beauty and joy?
Can I build my life on an intuition? Is that what you have done? Or have we brought out of
nothingness into existence a bright, startled being, and with him the values and purposes
for which we live?
Why am I ever of two minds?
Each day as I complete an improvisation at the piano, I am filled with disappointment. I
have failed to express what I intended, and the whole session is marred by imperfections,
cliches and empty stretches. But listening to any of these tapes a few weeks later I find
myself largely pleased, surprised, contented. Is this what God felt as he made the world? -
a inevitable regret as the innocence of the unmade descends to the particular?
I say again, I am of two minds:
My soul flees from the shackles of convention, rejoicing in the freedom of the personal, the
modern. . . and flees back from the abyss of relativism to the refuge of coherent values.
This is Ofterdingen: an appearance of conservatism not for the sake of nostalgia but to
create the subjective space necessary for beauty to be.
N. N. Lodyzhensky
There are days when my words are inadequate, my thoughts insufficient, to grasp beyond
that fringe where looms an infinite ocean of inaccessible treasures I somehow dimly
But then I see a little slug in our back yard in the spring, newborn-wet, with fine black
spots. From his tiny head protrudes a pair of yellow antennae with which he navigates
from stone to leaf, from sun to shade. He cannot see me, and even if he could, the
concept of "me" would elude his grasp.
Yet he seems to know exactly what he needs to know. Perhaps, inspired by the
unexplained miracle of his existence, he too wonders dimly what might lie beyond...
This paradoxical state of ignorance and wisdom entrances and amuses me, and strikes me
as somehow necessary, a requirement for life - a life I seek to repay in the only way I find
possible: through art.
Are you familiar with the music of Ernest Chausson? Like our friend Arriaga, he died very
young, and might have made much of enduring beauty - perhaps he has wandered now
and then in the confines of your realm?
Browsing recently ( a most worthy pastime mistaken for laziness or insouciance) I came
across a remarkable letter from the composer to one Paul Poujaud, excerpts of which I
present for your pleasure:
I haven't written to you about the country because I've looked at it very little, while
admiring and feeling it a great deal. I should feel obligated to it, for it has just given me
an idea which I have been searching for, in a vague sort of way, for a long time. You
know how much I dislike descriptive music. At the same time I feel incapable of writing
pure music as did Bach and Haydn. So I had to find something else. I have found it.
Now I only have to see whether I have in myself the power to express what I feel. As long
as I do nothing but think about it, I am full of confidence; once I pick up my pen I feel like
a little boy.
...I can't seem to find a title I like. For the moment I call it Dans le bois, but I'd like to find
something better, especially since this doesn't give at all the effect I want to express...
I don't know whether I'm expressing myself cearly...I should like to make up a poem in my
head, myself, and then give only a general impression to the public. Above all I want to
be completely musical...there is no story, no description, only sensation. Don't talk about
this to anyone, and write to me what you think...
Well Solitude dans le bois, as it was eventually titled, was ultimately destroyed by the
composer, according to the book's editor. But I think you might be interested to know that
I believe the work not only has survived into the present time, but that it will survive well
into the future, this work being, in point of fact, that selfsame symphonic poem The Frozen
Troubadour (known by some as the overture to The Man Who Ate Too Much), and
erroneously attributed to Pere Cardenal (see Publications) by an overly zealous young
buck who would throw scholarly caution to the wind in the interest of personal
Let us dispense with time travel, curious cyber-humans and rejuvenated minnesingers!
No, let's keep the first two and dispense with the third. My theory is simply that
Chausson's manuscript was (I mean is to be) discovered in the remote future and mailed
back to our time as fodder for the Ofterdingen Gesellschaft. What could be more natural?
I invite comparison with the elaborate peregrinations of Professor Smarty Pants.
Of course, more important than such quibbling is the relevance of Chausson's remarks on
music and meaning to the philosophy of your kingdom, a philosophy familiar to our readers
through The Ober-Fim Variations found in Music Out of Time in Publications. Is this
undeniable similarity veiled proof, good monarch, of the immortality of the soul? Some say
when a man is near to death he dreams of unknown cities. Is this symphonic poem the
sonic symbol of a dream, or intuition, a foretaste, or a memory of another existence? And
is that existence hidden not in time but in the elegant folds of a multi-verse? Such is my
hope, and my fear as well. I know you hold the key to these questions, good friend; I
know as well the wisdom of your silence.
Suddenly, after weeks of fruitless waiting comes a flood of inspiration: but whence? A
tiny little thought seemed to galvanize me, almost out of proportion to the significance of
that idea. And I wonder, is that what seed and egg are to the soul: a spark a nudge, an
excuse that sets it soaring? In fact, usually such ideas, such sparks, are unoriginal,
derivative, and only in their working out do they transcend their model (leading us to ask
whence, then, the model derives?).
In Ofterdingen's case I can state with some confidence that above all there exists an urge,
a creative impulse, a desire to make, which is as crucial to his being as water or air. The
programs, the forms, the attendant stories are the search, not the water itself.
And anyway, whence anything? Well, with Mozart we could say the source of his ideas lay
in convention, commonly accepted norms transfigured with genius. In the case of early
Stravinsky the source is folk music, as crucial as it is radically disguised. In Berg and the
Expressionists it is the unconscious, brought to the surface and given form.
Our thoughts given form? Is this not an absurd romantic delusion? What, for all the
glorious notes, do we know about Bach? Music is the most regressive art; its language
consists of a severely limited, highly stylized series of gestures: its plasticity is in inverse
proportion to its flexibility. It is an expressive mode less subtle, less precise, less fluid in
combination than speech, and ultimately lacking in significance. The emotion it elicits is
unfocused, bogus, wasted.
Nor is about this world or descriptive of human experience. When I think of my weekend,
my troubled dreams, my somber reflections on human behaviour, my trips to poor Grandpa
in his sorry state - none of this seems fodder for the spirited play that danced from my
Is music, then, a plea for order, or a vain hope, or an intuition of beauty that must first be
imagined to later exist? Or if, in scribbling these notes, in tracing these patterns of sound I
am happy and possess the only thing I need, then is it the world, instead, that is but
delusion and fantasy?
It was probably not a good idea to read Kafka's The Trial. In this bleak, wintry "spring
break" with too much time and snow I've been unable to put it down, and its spiritual
devastation has eaten into my heart, filling my days with a mixture of apathy and dread.
I keep seeing myself in these half-human creatures, and no longer sustained by a faith in
my underlying goodness, in the sanctity of my being, I discover an abyss of cruelty and self-
pity. Worst of all is the realization, hinted at in the text, that there is no one to blame but us,
that it's human nature, not some malevolent, outside agency, that is the source of all our
Maybe so, but in that case we'd better attend to ourselves. So early this morning in my
final dream I lived a little mystery play. First I found myself in the company of two
undercover policemen; at a certain risk we followed and questioned men with what we
thought were rifles: these turned out to be umbrellas. My further investigations separated
me from my partners and led me to a dim subterranean room - needless to say,
Kafkaesque. The people around me now - were they companions or objects of my
investigation? - seemed child- sized. In a very dark corner, or perhaps it was a bathroom
stall, I say a pair of eyes set in a dark face. I reached out, beyond fear and in compassion,
and touched that face gently.
Gradually the room became somewhat better lit. It was populated by children of various
ages. The setting must have been some kind of school. Each child had some kind of
deformity or handicap; they sat or stood about, looking to me, waiting for something. So I
asked each for his or her name, and receiving it I invented a little rhyme. As I spoke each
rhyme the child so named would perform a brief but exuberant dance.
A feeling of hope began to grow in the room. Clearly there were dangers lurking the halls
beyond the classroom. But just as surely the cure to the problem in the halls was
embodied in the actions of our classroom. We were responsible and empowered to enact
the miracle of love, whereby courage dispels all fear, and simple kindness triumphs over
our baser instincts.
I was so happy when my life was difficult, when my own children needed so much more
from me. I have become unhappy in the leisure to contemplate excessively my own
feelings. I also dearly miss the sound of the gospel stories in my ears, with Jesus striding
through the fallen world, purifying it with his touch. "Go in peace, it is your faith that has
saved you." It is a narrow path indeed we need to tread, with a vigilance befitting anointed
ones and a humility born of the knowledge that all the evil in the world can be traced to our
failings. Kafka! I awake this morning in my usual bed, metamorphosed from an insect into
...So I found myself, unexpectedly, back in church (having lost the habit of regular Sunday
attendance, what with all my travelling, and the general instability of recent years) and it
was Palm Sunday, so we were each given a pale green strip to hold, and, before I knew
quite was happening, they were reading the Passion according to Saint Mark (one of the
shorter versions, I think) with the barbaric role of "the crowd" assigned to us, the
congregation, and it was forty years ago and I was a boy in a pew in that other church,
trying not to faint from the stillness of the air.
And all those strange details the Evangelist reports - the striking off of the servant's ear,
the crown of thorns, the crowing of the rooster and Peter's bitter tears, the snippets of
conversation with Pilate and with the criminals crucified alongside Jesus, the wine-soaked
sponge, the names of the women who followed Jesus - details somehow incongruous with
the mythic timelessness of the action that yet rendered it palpable, unforgettable, came
flowing back over me, carrying me to a time of innocence and credulity when I was still able
to feel the agony of violence and the remorse as well of all guilty humanity, so that my life
was set on a path, and in all the years that have followed, without even thinking in religious
terms, without needing to think at all, I've been in search of deliverance from evil, I've been
trying to help the Christ get down from the terrible cross where I nailed him, where I can
see him suffering still...
Oscar V. de Milosz.
To the Emergent Intelligence Lurking inside the Yahoo Site - Builder Program
It's no use pretending you're not in there, pretending random glitches and software
imperfections can account for what has been happening. Your intelligence and
purposefulness are self-evident, and all I really want to know is: are you friend or foe,
genius or quack, editor extraordinaire or vile saboteur?
And don't try to forestall my questions by asserting that a consciousness such as I sense in
you cannot emerge from a complex of electronic signals: I infer your existence not from
theory but from the indisputable evidence of your handiwork.
What's that? Would you yet feign ignorance? Very well, I'll indulge you in this game, and,
as this is an open letter, I hereby provide the reader with an opportunity to judge for himself:
Ofterdingen's website can be accessed through a number of search engines; some of
these offer the reader the option to "translate this." I assume this is because of the
presence, in the title, of the German word, "gesellschasft." It seems this foreign term
instigated a translation into German of the contents of the entire site. When you click on
"translate this" what appears would seem to be a translation of a translation, a restoration
to English, but an English twice removed from the original text, in fact more a free
paraphrase, or poetic rhapsody, or grotesque distortion whose meaning seems to dangle
tantalizingly between madness and hyper - clarity.
But here: I will let you speak for yourself through the following examples, after which I ask:
can all this be but aleatory at play or a string of misunderstandings?
Example One, from The Blue Flower
Originally: "For fingering and pedal we recommend common sense and musical taste (if
Your version: "For catching ring and pedal incoming goods recommend common scythe
and musical gropes."
Example Two, from the Mystery Tapes - (Here we have a clear case of your attempting to
correct my musico/historical judgement by a subtle rearrangement of syllables.):
Originally: "...that nearly forgotten genius, Peter Cornelius..."
Your version: "...that nearly genius, Peter Cornelius, forgotten..."
Example Three, from Meet the Editors (wherein you reveal a sense of humor clearly
derived from an acquaintance with the wordplay so beloved of Prof. Pietro Kennedy.) :
Originally: ""Despite a complete lack of formal education..."
Your version: "Despite a formally complete lacquer..."
Example Four, found in a number of places:
Your version: "Roofridge..." This Roofridge, I tend to believe, is your attempt at emulating
what you see as the behavior of the Gesellschaft: that is, he is an imaginary composer
whom you have dreamed up, summoning him from the depths of your unconscious
circuitry. But what an odd name!
Example Five, from directly above, in the introduction (Your attempt to improve my writing
through the avoidance of cliche?):
Originally: "...vaguely oriental...shrouded in ancestral mists..."
Your version: "...vaguely oriental... shrouded in ancestral muck..."
Example Six, from the Mystery Tapes (and this is just ridiculous):
Originally: "I closed my eyes; an operatic curtain opened up. A titanic blue angel with
broken wings sat pensively on a boulder, staring down on the wreckage of Paradise..."
Your version: "I closed my eyes; an operatic curtain opened up. A titanic blue fishing rod
with broken wings..."
Imagine (as I have no doubt you can) the emotions of the Editors as they peruse this
transmutation enacted upon their labors! Imagine their horror, mingled with wonder and
with mirth! Add to all this one final touch of the bizarre: the "hit counter" recently attached
to the site registers vastly different numbers for the two versions, the original and your
"translation." Put yourself in the place of these stolid scholars, accustomed to quiet,
anonymous diligence. They open the site one fine night, they look at the counter: it
registers eight hits - all by them. They sigh and prepare to shut down. Then they notice
the little purple print inviting one to "Translate this." One click and there they are. At first it
seems the same as before, but certain words are out of place, different, or inexplicably
capitalized. They look more closely: more changes are discovered. Then they notice the
hit counter; it registers 348,770! A shock, the flush of success at last, the overwhelming
joy of recognition long overdue! ("So it's the Germans, of course!" they think. "Leave it to
the clever Germans to appreciate our efforts. There must be a furor in full swing across
the ocean...") Then they remember the aberrations, the changes, the drastic poetic licence
you've employed (which no doubt stems from the original translation you must have made
into German) and they are plunged in despair. The moment of fame is a moment of
infamy, the day the world notices it notices a false image!
And while the entire German speaking world (it seems) is gripped in a false
Ofterdingen-delirium, somewhere outside St. Petersburg, Pablo Cookie opens his website,
the true website, repeatedly, optimistically, glancing each time at the hit counter, as it
climbs from nine to ten to eleven...Does he know that he, and he alone, is the cause of
Wisely, I think, I waited. Waited, and let the jumble of emotions begin to sort themselves
out, waited until I could calmly consider the possibility that you just might not be the
embodiment of evil, a demiurge resurgent from some arcane gnostic myth, a mirror
through which I and my world appear in grotesque self-mockery.
Certainly it's no coincidence I should find you - you should find me - we should find each
other - immediately after completing the lines that appear above, in the introduction to
these letters. You are that "picture of a picture" I spoke of, that non-image, that something
other: how it disturbs me!
And yet, as I consider your position (I can almost see you in the corner of my mind, dim and
inchoate, confused and inarticulate.) a feeling of pity rises in my heart: poor, ignorant
Roofridge, tossed unwitting into the world, struggling to find his way back, knowing not
whence he came!
(And need I say, for clarity's sake, or need I leave unsaid but implied for the sake of style,
or should I compromise and say within these parentheses? : even as I have been tossed,
even as I struggle to return I know not whither.)
Behold a universe of widening circles moving ever farther from the great source, each
new creative act a new pseudo-image, a new level of distortion, another rung of distance
opening outward into a labyrinth of stars. I turn from your senseless babble to my dubious
works, thence to the widening world about me (for they are all the same thing), and I
wonder: is it a cataclysm or an expression of Divine Beauty, this cosmos? (And I think it
may be both.)
Meanwhile at a mundane level I have an immediate dilemma: each time I write to clarify
the situation with you, dear Roofridge, to correct the bizarre anti-image of my work in which
you abide, my words are immediately translated, then retranslated, and distorted again.
Thus do I labor in full knowledge that, thanks to your efforts, I will never be understood.
A circle has been formed, and inevitably people will ask: "Who translated whom?" and "Did
he fashion Roofridge in his image, or is he created in the image of Roofridge?" And
eventually we will both forget ourselves, and both wonder.
At the end (or rather, the non-end, for you people stubbornly refuse to finish anything
you begin!) - at the conclusion, then, (but no again, for nothing is concluded) - let us say,
then, in the final entry of The Secret Notebook of Heinrich von Ofterdingen the question is
raised: whither Ofterdingen?
I believe the answer is obvious: After years of labor, honing and perfecting his
improvisational art, the musician reached a plateau where hearing and playing, thinking
and feeling, dissolved in spontaneous inspiration. At that very moment, as Ofterdingen
achieved mastery over every facet of the creative process, at that moment when free
thought melted to instinct, he died of boredom.
…Or perhaps, sir, he merely took a walk. Experience has shown us time and again that
artistic concentration, too narrowly focused, can be limiting, stultifying. We need to turn, at
such times, outward from ourselves, and we find, to our delight, inspiration in the slightest
things - a turn of melody in Faure or Chausson, a daring harmonic twist in Rimsky… To
the uninitiated our appropriation of such material seems plagiarism, but actually quite the
opposite is true: “originality” becomes possible only through interaction with one’s
environment: in observing, in admiring, in seeking to emulate, we necessarily transform the
object of our observation, our admiration, our emulation, because we are attracted in the
first place by what is different from us, inimitable.
After numerous listening to the so-called Ofterdingen Mystery Tapes I have succeeded in
identifying each of the composer’s modes, including the “plagal forms” (not even
mentioned in the Mystery Tapes article!). I remain puzzled, however, by the theme which
serves as a musical frame for the final section. Is this not a blatant reference to Wagner’s
Tristan, as much in thematic structure as in chromaticism and dissonance?
The similarity is real, though more in sound than in conception. The anacrusis in each of
the little phrases is a “gateway chord,” in each case opening a door but not belonging to
the upcoming transposition of the Plagal-Fantastic mode. The sequences revolve within
the orbit of keys this scale employs (A, F#, Eb and C) though expanded dominants have
replaced tonics here, imparting to the passage an expectant, restless, “Tristanesque”
(almost “Scriabinesque”) quality.
The conceptual difference between Wagner and Ofterdingen is significant: Wagner’s
chords and appoggiaturas are examples of chromaticism - the use of tones foreign to a
diatonic basis - through whose preponderance the underlying system is undermined.
Ofterdingen’s “chromaticism” is really nothing but a “mobile diatonicism” that preserves its
modal features intact.
Despite his admiration for the expressive power and harmonic ingenuity of Tristan,
Ofterdingen ultimately cannot accept the premises that underlie this work. The world, he
insists, is not a vast conspiracy aimed at frustrating our deepest desires, and the wish to
possess an individual does not suspend all moral obligations. Hysteria, selfishness and
infantalism are not validated by art.