Mary Quite Contrary

I eased the seat back a few degrees, gazed fondly at the crumbs of my now-departed muffin, sipped at my piping coffee-of-the-day, and savored the accelerating embrace of the train as it sailed up the west side of Manhattan, up the Hudson. Soon I would be in Bard, fulfilling my duties to some aspiring pianists. Meanwhile, as in life: enjoy the ride. To that end, I picked up my book, which I had chosen in a time-honored manner, rooting around the crowded shelf while putting on socks, shoes, looking frantically around the apartment for keys, etc.: an impulse read. And in the book, a college president was lecturing a prospective faculty member:

… we don’t punch a time-clock here, Miss Rejnuev, but we must ask you, in all conscience, not to emulate Bard and Sarah Lawrence and treat us as if you were a commuter…

I swear, I looked around the train guiltily. (Perhaps for some perching ghost of Mary McCarthy? for some accusatory fellow passenger?) I, commuter I, had been BUSTED by my own book. At least, I mused, some things never changed (the book written in 1951). How had it known, how had it schemed to be picked off the shelf?

But never mind, I managed to forget this eerie coincidence with the following hilarious passage about a French professor taking his students abroad:

As he sat sipping his vermouth and introducing himself to tourists at the Flore or the Deux Magots, the boys and girls under his guidance were being robbed, eloping to Italy, losing their passports, slipping off to Monte Carlo, seeking out an abortionist, deciding to turn queer, cabling the decision to their parents, while he took out his watch and wondered why they were late in meeting him for the expedition to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Returning home, usually minus one student at the very least, he always deprecated what had happened, remarking that there had been “a little mix-up” or that the Metro was confusing to foreigners.

All of Mary’s wry, caustic appraisal of academic politics, her magnum opus of the faculty meeting, her “Tenure Lost”, did not however spoil for me the scene on arrival in Bard, which seemed a sincere, ideal “quiet Saturday.” The students seemed quelled, pacified, content with their hangovers; I spied a girl in torn jeans on sunlit dorm steps with a notebook open, a pen, a serious grappling look on her face… ignoring the alluring sunny outspread November early afternoon … I walked to the music building through breezes, empty campus roads, students scattered widely, dispersed, their voices from afar, laughing. I felt so jealous of the girl with her empty notebook, though I often stare at empty notebooks myself. I wondered what she would write.

On the train ride home I was forced to watch the sun of that afternoon set, to experience piece by piece, in dimming red-orange light, the close-parenthesis of the day. In the train you cannot evade the light and the ending of that day was sad; it had been so beautiful, so opportune.

In Berg’s Chamber Concerto, towards the end of the final, very complicated movement, a rondo, Berg prunes away the complexity for a few clear glimpses of the preceding slow movement. It is a hackneyed maneuver–the “reminiscence”–and easily (in some works of Liszt, say) falls into bathos. Perhaps it is a question of how the reminiscence is approached, how it is “justified.” In this case they are not surging re-arrivals but something like removals (like dimming light). Every time I hear these moments, or play over their chords at my beautifully rebuilt piano (which seems particularly to “take to” the harmonies of this sunset piece), I get a fresh ache. Did Berg mean for the rest of the movement to sound, at that moment, like insane modern chatter, like the “wrong answer”? (The piece refutes itself). I thought to myself, while hearing this moment on my stereo: yes, the modern world IS numbing. I had no idea how numbing, until now. Relief and overwhelming sadness simultaneously, a wonderfully Viennese, heartbreaking contradiction … a piece definitely for the evening, not for perusal over a muffin in the morning, a piece for when you are slinking down the Hudson in the last reddish moments of a beautiful day and about to emerge into fluorescent light, into the crowded, anonymous no-man’s-land of Penn Station. Forgive me my metaphors.

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  1. DO
    Posted November 14, 2005 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Please don’t apologize for your metaphors. You are a great, great writer.

  2. Erin
    Posted November 14, 2005 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I am reading this crazy monograph from 1918 (The Psychology of Clothing, by George Van Ness Dearborn; sometimes it is a bad, bad thing that I have a library card) and came across this passage that I thought you would enjoy:

    As example of one of these basal voluntary inhibitions closely related to the emotional tone-balance consider the checking of muscular movements when listening to real music. By real music is meant music with a wellmarked rhythmic beat. If one attend many orchestral concerts, even where the music performed is of the very “highest class” and the audience the most “cultured” group of society, it cannot fail to be noted that the spontaneous, that is real, enjoyement is greatest from the music with strongly marked rhythm, and least, with a forced fashionable applause if any, at the artificial concoctions which ramble instead of march. At a recent concert, for example Beethoven’s symphony in F Major (Eighth) was in contrast, after an intermission, with Stravinsky’s impressionistic and unrhythmic “Feuerwerk,” vastly to the hurt of the latter, bad as it is. Some of the modern music forgets or ignores this neuromuscular basis of musical emotion and offers concatenations of harmony when the truly appreciative listener craves only what his inevitable organism demands to satisfy it–sympathetic and synchronous activity. Thus music or that which pretends to be music now and then strives to express ideas when its sole language properly is feeling or feeling with a tinge of will.
    True music then, we are asure, has a well defined rhythmic beat and is met in the naïve and natural individual at whatever age by voluntary muscular movements of the feet, head, or hands; within oftentimes are corresponding but ill-defined contractions of the vegetative organism.

    The whole book is pretty much like this. Not enough about clothes at all; his main thesis seems to be Don’t Wear Your Clothes Too Tight (Unless You Are a Prostitute).

  3. R J Keefe
    Posted November 14, 2005 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    The Groves of Academe is great fun. And on the way to Bard, no less.

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