Day 3: Love Meets Livestock (G-rated)

My favorite scene in Don Quixote: Sancho is telling a story to calm himself and his delusional master. It’s about a goatherd, Lope, who’s in love with a shepherdess:

… Torralba, the shepherdess, who was a stout girl, and wild, and a little mannish because she had something of a mustache…

But eventually, despite this sizzling babe-itude, he gets over her, and decides (reasonably) to skip town, in order never to see her again. And at that moment:

when she found herself rejected … [she] began to love him dearly, though she had never loved him before.

Whereupon, Don Quixote offers his magnificent wisdom:

That is the nature of women … They reject the man who loves them and love the man who despises them.

… this sage cliché offered up by a man, one feels, who has never ever gotten laid. The layers of irony, absurdity, oh, and yet the familiarity: how many times have I, too, pronounced confidently and yet vacuously on topics I barely understood? A million humiliating moments from my life suddenly flash before my eyes, and I am willing to own up to them. I am sitting at Bear’s Place in Bloomington, Indiana with various drunken Sanchos or Dons, telling wandering stories and drawing conclusions from them that I have simply ladled up from the giant well of things I have already heard said by people who also don’t know anything.

Anyway … resuming the story: the goatherd is fleeing town with his goats (naturally) and Torralba is running, wildeyed, after him. He comes to a river. And with this, subtly, brilliantly, the poetry and emotion of the story get mired in the practicality of goat transport. Lope has exactly 300 of them, we come to learn, and we find ourselves discussing the size of the ferry boat, the muddiness of the riverbanks, etc. etc. … Meanwhile Torralba looms, ever closer, the baleful Lover, trying desperately to remind us of the “point of the story,” which narrator Sancho blissfully ignores, though he requests that Don Quixote count the goats as they get ferried across.

Now suppose you are the Don. Sancho’s request is really a violation of his listener’s rights. If you are hearing a Mahler symphony, you do not file away your reactions in color-coded folders (do you?). And anyway! If anyone should be counting the goats, it’s the storyteller, right? … cause he’s the one in charge of making sure the story “makes sense.” Accounting concerns and the joys of narrative are smashed in a trainwreck of genre and function. The Don (reasonably?) ignores his request, with this result:

”How many have gone across so far?” asked Sancho.

“How the devil should I know?” responded Don Quixote.

“That’s just what I told your grace to do: to keep a good count. Well, by God, the story’s over, and there’s no way to go on.”

“How can that be?” responded Don Quixote. “Is it so essential to the story to know the exact number of goats …?”

“… as soon as I asked your grace to tell me how many goats had crossed, and you said you didn’t know, at that very moment I forgot everything I had left to say, and, by my faith, it was very interesting and pleasing.”

I LOVE how Sancho rubs it in at the end! Bravo! Fantasy meets the humdrum counting of reality and neither gives ground.

The way this story undermines itself is fantastic, and you realize that this story of the disintegration of the story is far more entertaining than the actual story would have been. What would have awaited Lope on the far riverbank, with his three hundred goats? Perhaps a trip to the feed store? Who wants to know? Lope and Torralba vanish into thin air, and good riddance.

In Balzac’s short story Sarrasine, a man agrees to tell his mistress the story of a mysterious stranger, in exchange for sex. But as he tells the story, his mistress is horrified by it, and when the story is over—Catch-22!—she refuses to sleep with its teller. So speaks Roland Barthes:

Caught in his own trap, the lover is rebuffed: a story about castration is not told with impunity. This fable teaches us that narration (object) modifies narration (action) … there is no question of an utterance on the one hand and on the other its uttering …
Sarrasine is not a “story about a castrato” … as meaning, the subject of the story harbors a recurrent force which reacts on language and demystifies, ravages the innocence of its utterance: what is told is the “telling.” Ultimately, the narrative has no object: the narrative concerns only itself: the narrative tells itself.

I began to write a post about the Allemande of the D major Partita … and it seems I have now written a post about Don Quixote. Let’s see.

Yesterday I told a story about the Allemande; it went something like “the Allemande is about the appearance of blue notes;” the day before it was “the Allemande is about the wonderful extension of triads into seventh and ninth chords;” and if you had to ask me, what do I do when I practice?, it seems to me that much of what I do is tell stories to myself. Not stories like: I’m in love, but X doesn’t love me; or, I’m happy now but life is short; I tell those stories, tediously, to my friends over drinks or on the phone; no, none of that crap (though occasionally these things help to set an atmosphere). No: musical stories that have to do with notes, configurations of notes, relationships of notes … things that often seem on the written page a bit like technicalities, like counting goats.

But the music keeps reneging on the bargain, either, like Balzac’s listener, horrified by the story I have told, or like Sancho, presenting another tale mysteriously in place of the compelling one I was following. The Allemandes particularly love to wend, and wander. They are stories that are not hung up on themselves as stories, or on one storyline.

Near the end of each half, the D major Allemande oddly coalesces, becomes patterned:

It is very beautiful, rising, hopeful, not so clouded as the rest; and further more, the sequence is simpler, easier to see and count! One counts, 1, 2, 3, 4…

and then the pattern stops (so close to the end!), something new, minor-key, more halting, harder to grasp, takes over …

If you are a super good listener, you realize that you can be counting bass notes, now, descending, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (the narrative has shifted) …

And then that pattern too ends … and at that impasse it’s as if Bach asks “how many?” and the listener is frustrated, perhaps; doesn’t know between the two very different stories which to follow, which is “the story;” you are entranced, stunned, in the middle of many different accountings, or maybe you’ve simply lost track, and you say “How the devil should I know?” or “isn’t that your job, JS, to hold this whole thing together?” … and the composer stares back at you the performer or the listener too, says no it’s your job, and at that moment, of course, the story ends:

I don’t think of this movement as funny at all, of course; and yet there is some redemptive touch of the comic in here, something touchingly bizarre, hunched on the edge of the impossible, or the unworkable …as if Bach has to ferry all 300 goats across in a one-seater, and manages … One more dissonance (one more storyline) is piled on, like the last fateful piece of bologna on a massive teetering Dagwood sandwich, and yet the cadence still arrives. What was it all about, lovers or goats, major or minor, beauty or distortion? You cannot decide. In your perplexity, you have been drawn into the story; you are one of the characters, whether you like it or not.

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One Comment

  1. Anonymous
    Posted May 12, 2007 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    As soon as I stop laughing at the title to Day 3 I’ll read what you wrote.

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