Sunday 16 October 2016

Intensity in literature, music and elsewhere (c1978-81)

Intensity (my own term for it) was what I sought above all in my late teens, early twenties - epitomised for me by the composer JS Bach as performed by the pianist Glenn Gould.

Interestingly, initially I knew of Gould's intense engagement with Bach only via LP recordings, and liner notes - later by a few journalistic pieces. But I never had seen the video recordings which actually show Gould's intensity of absorption in the work.

[Note if you go to five minutes, you will see some of Gould's trademark syncopated (or triplet) trills in the right hand - which apparently enabled him to phrase the trill rather than just letting it provide a drone.]

Gould's engagement is 100 percent from beginning to end - almost exhausting to behold - and it makes you realise how seldom this happens - even among the greats of the concert hall.

So there was my word intensity, and then there was the word 'inspired' which I got from a musical friend - if a performance was judged to be inspired, then that was all that needed to be said in its favour; and if it was not then blah... Inspiration was what was sought - accurate mechanical reproduction was just a waste of time.

Intensity in literature and life as in music - but it was so hard to find and so hard to keep: so hard as to be impossible in practise, as I later discovered from the life of Glenn Gould (which involved such dissipation as hours long rambling telephone conversations, and hours long random drives around the city... filling in time, not intense).

In literature, intensity for me peaked in Hamlet; but not in the whole play - I regarded most of it as padding, and liked best the shortened movie version starring Nicol Williamson, because it was almost all intensity.

Among people, intensity of the kind I craved was in short supply - with most people it never happened at all. I would travel the length of the country to converse with a friend if I thought we might have a really intense talk.

In retrospect, there was something noble in this aspiration for intensity; but also something profoundly misguided. Because when intensity was achieved, for seconds or sometimes minutes, then the self was lost - so it was either the self or intensity but not both; and if intensity is achieved in the absence of the self then, well, it wasn't achieved by me - it was almost like being asleep.

So life was brief flashes of intensity then brooding on them, trying to honour them, recapture them or at least remember them (memory itself difficult and rare or absent, when completely absorbed - I would remember that I had been intensely absorbed, but not anything of what went on during it).

Also, as soon as the intensity was over then I was back to square one; because the fact that I had had an intense experience in the past was no use if I was not intense now. So life was an endless seeking after that which was of supposedly infinite value while it happened, yet no value at all when it was not happening...

And how to achieve it, anyway? Was there a 'method' to it? My only notion was artistic - performance or the actual business of creation; and I lacked the ability in either realm (or, at least, sufficient ability). So intensity was - conversation with rare people aside - a passive engagement with the work of others; which seemed like intensity-at-second-hand - almost parasitic; certainly second rate (yet, as I said above, this was in fact the case for everyone, even those who seemed best at being intense).

And how could I earn a living from being intense? Especially in medicine - where it was either unwanted or a positive hazard!

So what was I doing or aiming at? I was trying to find meaning and purpose while denying, metaphysically, the possibility of meaning or purpose - by being alert but 'lost' in meaning and purpose-full art. Yet art was a creation of Man, which meant that its meaning and purpose was a segment of a Man's life - the life of a Man being, (according to my metaphysics) itself meaningless and purposeless.

(Although Gould and Bach would have disagreed - both believing that reality has meaning and purpose as a consequence of deity; yet, apparently irrationally, I readily assumed that they were both self-deluded about this primary fact, despite that I was pinning my own life on their creativity...)

So intensity was a kind of evasion or confusion - but it did sustain in me an engagement with music and literature which has never been surpassed and seldom equalled in my life.


Nicholas Fulford said...

Very interesting comment Bruce.

I have to admit that intensity is something that I crave in art, music and literature. And you have a point about intensity in and of itself being an ephemeral thing. It has a certain quality that is similar to addiction. Is it that endogenous dopamine is released in high quantities in response to the effective intensity stimulated by an artistic form? If it is then really what we are talking about is a type of drug addiction, albeit one that does not require injecting, snorting or smoking.

My favourite fix is music. It has the most direct, potent and immediate hit. Literature, film and visual art all have their own capacity to evoke powerful states, but in my experience music stands alone in the intensity department.

But if all art is, is a means to get high on endogenous neural chemicals, I do think we cheapen it - a lot. Good art has layers and its beauty is not strictly a case of high intensity, but often embodies a subtle and harmonious patterns that support a unified whole. If we make intensity the aim, then without question art has been reduced to being a drug. I may as well just listen to the same high intensity piece over and over and over. The funny thing is, when that is done, the piece moves from powerful to irritating as the damn piece just replays in the mind - ceaselessly. What was intense becomes cheap tinsel through over and repetitive stimulation.

So then, what is a person who loves great art to do?

I will patiently and persistently add to the forms of art that I encounter, and do so not just on the basis of getting high but on the more subtle joy of realizing deeper, wider and more complex patterns that are meaningful beyond mere intensity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nick - I think you are sensing that nothing makes any sense except in the context of deity (note I say deity, not God) - without-which our habitual ways of thinking reduce everything to ephemeral and subjective patterns of atoms being perceived by other ephemeral patterns of atoms.

This is refuted by our deepest experience - which is of meaning and purpose and beauty; but modern metaphysics has pre-immunised us against the validity of our deepest experience - and instead we base our whole lives upon the propaganda of shallow and transient conventional wisdom; inculcated by the mass media and public institutions...