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Sad to remember, sick with years

January 26, 2015

[Vaguely listening for a half-remembered theme.]

Three brief anecdotes.

1. In the early 1760s, the Scottish poet James Macpherson published a number of “Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language,” which he eventually collected in the 1765 The Works of Ossian, named after the epic cycle’s putative author. “Ossian”‘s poetry was immensely successful, greatly influencing numerous Romantic poets like Walter Scott, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Johann Gottfriend Herder, as well as numerous painters and composers. Many others, including Samuel Johnson, disputed the works’ authenticity, and the consensus nowadays seems to be that The Works of Ossian were really the works of Macpherson, although based loosely–“inspired,” perhaps–on various Scottish Gaelic ballads. Ossian doesn’t attract much interest nowadays, except as a curiosity.

2. In 1958, the Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto published an “Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ, on Two Thematic Ideas and on a Figured Bass by Tomaso Albinoni,” a lesser-known Baroque composer. The piece has been wildly popular ever since its publication, showing up on the soundtracks of numerous films, and in compilations with titles like “50 greatest pieces of classical music”. Though originally credited as “composed by Albinoni, arranged by Giazotto,” the piece was not, Giazotto eventually admitted, written by Albinoni at all; rather, Giazotto reconstructed the piece based on a few bars of a melody and basso continuo found in a manuscript fragment. Doubts lingered as to whether even this story was true, until (after Giazotto’s death) an independent transcription of the lines from Albinoni was discovered, apparently confirming Giazotto’s account.

3. In 2014, a friend of mine entered an “atelier,” i.e. an art school seeking to revive the nineteenth century Academic tradition (think the illusionistic naturalism of William-Adolphe Bouguereau). His training includes meticulously copying other drawings and paintings and working from a live model. Excellence in painting in such places is associated with such things as “the highest standards of draftsmanship,” “discipline gleaned from careful study,” and “practical application,” and opposed to things such as being enslaved to “intuition” and lacking “direction, clarity, and purpose.” Needless to say, traditional ateliers are highly eccentric by the lights of the contemporary art world, their numbers seem, if anything, to be growing. Many of these people do manage to sell paintings; some of them, apparently, even make a living doing so.


A fourth anecdote.

4. Stanley Cavell once (in “Music Discomposed”) asked the question “Why can’t one still write like Mozart?”, and suggested this answer:

No one does now write that way. But perhaps somebody does, living at the edge of an obscure wood, by candlelight, with a  wig on. What would our response to him be? We wouldn’t take him seriously as an artist? Nobody could mean such music now, be sincere in making it? And yet I’ve been insisting that we can no longer be sure that any artist is sincere–we haven’t convention or technique or appeal to go on any longer: anyone could fake it.

Modernism, for Cavell, means no longer being sure what criteria we have for knowing what is “authentic” art and what isn’t. In other words, modernism means no longer being sure what, if anything, art, and our calling it “art,” is good for. If we knew what it was for, we would be able to tell (even if the telling took some time) when it succeeded, and when it didn’t.


The existence of people like Macpherson, Giazotto, my friend the painter, is a symptom of artistic modernity. In other words, none is imaginable in an artistic world that is pre-modern in Cavell’s sense. Each in his own way instantiates Cavell’s would-be-Mozart, and each in his own way demonstrates that we can and do take such people seriously as artists–whatever that means. They tell us nothing, however, about whether we should. Should we?

Well, surely the answer will have more to do with the particulars of the case than with the birds-eye-view observation that he’s trying to resurrect an “antiquated” form. Does it matter how, exactly, the desire for past greatness finds expression? Perhaps–there are differences between deceiving your audience, misleading your audience, and creating your own counter-audience. Does it matter whether its poetry, music, or painting? Perhaps–to take someone seriously as a poet, a composer, and a painter, needn’t be the same thing. Does it matter that one is made by a friend, one a piece I like, and one I’ve never read? Perhaps–apart from half-remembered doctrines of artistic “impersonality,” why think that it’s desirable, or even possible, to make artistic judgments abstracted away from the particulars of your own life?


A fifth.

5. W.B. Yeats, in his youth, wrote a poem called “The Wanderings of Oisin” (Oisin being Ossian before his name was Anglicized). It’s full of the pagan spirit of the (eighteen) nineties, the sense that, whatever beauty was once in the world, it has faded like a dream, and all art can do is recall its memory with intricate spells and decadent harmonies:

Sad to remember, sick with years,
The swift innumerable spears,
The horsemen with their floating hair,
And bowls of barley, honey, and wine,
Those merry couples dancing in tune,
And the white body that lay by mine;
But the tale, though words be lighter than air.
Must live to be old like the wandering moon.

Oisin speaks these lines, and in his mouth they mean that the memory of happy youth finds its consolation in the recounting of that youth. The spears, the horsemen, the bowls, the couples, the body: these things are rediscovered as the tale is retold.

Yeats, too, however, speaks these lines, and in his mouth they have a very different meaning. He finds it sad to remember, not the spears and horsemen themselves–Yeats, born in 1865, never knew a world with traditional mounted warfare–but the “spears,” the “horsemen,” the “body”: the fact that poetry could once, without self-deception, speak of such things. Once we knew what art was for: glorying in the swift innumerable spears; now, sick with the weight of innumerable years, and with the failure of art to fulfill any of the messianic prophecies it made for itself, we have no use for it but to remind ourselves that art was once possible. Thus Yeats.


Today, it is far from obvious that there is anything–even itself–that art is good for.

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