1. Proust somewhere writes about the experience of returning to a hitherto incomprehensible work, with new ease & understanding. He says that, in a sense, this reading could be called the first time, since we jettison the preparatory stages. i’ve experienced this with books (Hart Crane, Rilke), music (Bitches Brew, Messiah), and films (The Thin Red Line). Crane was probably the first such, in 1998, when i was 22 – i have no memory of reading him the first time, absolutely nothing, which is unusual for me. The second time, a few months later, i was gripped with a fierce pleasure in the reading, and something like awe – and distrusted my memory – i knew i had taken the book out, and read it, a few months prior, but recalled nothing of the first reading, not even my reactions, and wondered how i could have read, for example:
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty–
Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
–Till elevators drop us from our day . . .
without a chill of apprehension. But there it is.
2. i bought a bilingual Sonnets to Orpheus in 2004, feeling particularly oppressed by my page-of-figures job (having no idea this would only worsen over the next 4 years). i felt, inchoately, that Rilke was what i needed; and yet the poems disappointed me. i had to re-read them half a dozen times over the next few years before i could respond. Learning German now, i can go a little deeper, and feel the original power, which is usually lost in translation. For example:
Tiere aus Stille drangen aus dem klaren
gelösten Wald von Lager und Genist;
und da ergab sich, dass sich nicht aus List
und nicht aus Angst in sich so leise waren,
sondern aus Hören. Brüllen, Schrei, Geröhr
schien klein in ihren Herzen
has a force lost in MD Herter Norton’s generally competent translation:
Creatures of stillness thronged out of the clear
released wood from lair and nesting-place;
and it turned out that not from cunning and not
from fear were they so hushed within themselves,
but from harkening. Bellow and cry and roar
seemed little in their hearts.
To read and feel Rilke is a privilege, and for me doubly so since i have had to learn a language to come here – a language notably harder than Italian.
3. My sociopathic tai chi tutor said that if you practice tai chi enough, “the form teaches you”. i’ve found this to be true: over time movements become more economical and powerful, as the body learns easier and better ways. i think it is similar with art – so reading poetry will teach you how to read poetry. One needs the right attitude: respect and expectation. Thus when i heard Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew the first time, i didn’t recognise it as music:
Being, however, a commendably humble young man, i assumed it was indeed a great work of genius and proposed to listen to it with this in mind. After a week or so i suddenly heard it as music. i think, had i listened to it angrily, despising it as fancy bullshit, i would never have heard this – no matter how many times it played. The music itself taught me to hear it. But for this one requires a receptive mind.
4. Without this respect, it is hard to really understand art. Too many people are lazy, idle, and arrogant, supposing anything they don’t get at once is worthless; and even the more discerning are often exaggeratedly fastidious, too ready to despise, to reject, in order to reinforce their self-image as discerning men of taste. A pre-emptive, defensive contempt. A typical rejection will consist of a casual, scornful dismissal – of a writer they’ve never read, or barely know; maybe, they read 5 pages once and fell asleep – this suffices for them to reject the author thereafter, as if it could only indicate an inadequacy in the book. Naturally, they wouldn’t waste their time on a 2nd or 3rd rate crock of shit so they gave up after glancing at the cover, and their total ignorance is, therefore, a point in their favour.
i met a classic of this kind when i was 20 – a nightgown-clad Muslim called Jav, who conveyed a sense of profound mastery and judgement, by rejecting almost all music with a shrewd: “Its okay but to be honest the only good album he did was [insert the only one he’d heard of].”, for example: “Hendrix….the only good thing he did was a live concert a week before he died. His studio albums are all shit” or “Santana’s only decent album was their debut. After that, it was all downhill” and “Dylan’s only good album was Bringing It All Back Home. After that, he sold out.”
Over time i realised he often hadn’t heard the allegedly one good album and was, to put it simply, a prime bullshitter.
5. i find these types increasingly obnoxious, with their supposed wisdom and right to dismiss everything they are incapable of appreciating. The other type – lazy and disrespectful – is more common. Here, my exemplar is my Catholic Chemist friend the Viking. It’s not that he hates art – but for him it’s just cheap entertainment. Three anecdotes:
i) He told me he had read The Brothers Karamazov. Then it turned out he had flicked through it to the Grand Inquisitor section (which represents about 3% of the whole) and skimread it because someone had said it was good. He couldn’t understand why i felt disgusted and horrified. This is a man who often writes in text-speak abbreviations (IIRC, IMHO, ICYDK, DTOKAB, SFAIAA, etc.) because as a filthy Catholic scientist all reality is algorithmically compressible – it’s all just information; the texture, the grain and heft of reality has no importance. Hence, he would skimread 20 pages of The Brothers Karamazov, no doubt while playing computer games and eating mashed potato and performing sickening experiments, because all he wants is the information – to extract the core and discard the rest.
ii) i lent him 7 Samurai. He didn’t watch it despite having oodles of free time. Finally, we sat down to watch it together. i miscalculated and i had to take my bus back home about an hour before the end, exhorting him to finish it on his own. He enjoyed the first 2 hours but made no effort to finish watching it, despite having plenty of free time. He said he hadn’t got round to finishing it. He probably just read the Wikipedia entry for the film and then felt he knew everything he needed and went on to eat a big cauldron of mashed potato like a paedophile.
iii) i showed him Excalibur, a must-see for all Vikings and Englishmen. Given that his cinematic tastes run to decapitations and explosions i thought he would at least half-like it. At the end, he merely grunted dourly: “It was difficult to enjoy because i knew how it would end.” And then he thrust his head into a mound of mashed potato.
And so on.
6. i take heart that art still exists, hasn’t yet been eradicated by do-gooder socialists and paedophiles. For as long as it exists, it can teach us the art of attendance – as with Rilke’s animals. It makes the way:
Und wo eben
kaum eine Hütte war, dies zu empfangen,
ein Unterschlupf aus dunkelstem Verlangen
mit einem Zugang, dessen Pfosten beben, –
da schufts du ihnen Tempel im Gehör
And where there had been barely a hut to receive this, a deep shelter from darkest longing, an entrance and trembling pillars – you, you built temples in their hearing. (my rough translation)