European Madness in Search of a Name

A woman next to me on the plane was reading a magazine. I couldn’t help peeping. “It’s Never Been a Better Time to Be Big-Breasted,” it said. I secretly felt my own breasts, and I must tell you they seemed inadequate, and didn’t seem to be changing any time soon; in my exhausted state I could barely console myself. An hour later, the only thing I felt I could reasonably order from the hotel room service was a turkey breast. The beef seemed unsavory (even on the page!), the pasta dangerous, possibly fatal. So yet another breast (breaded, pounded) came, weighed me down, made me feel mentally inadequate. I went out of the hotel. Some mistake had been made in booking, and we were near Munich’s train station; the establishment next door was “SEXYLAND.” A neon woman with giant neon breasts stared at me (if an inert gas could be said to stare) out the window. I shuffled past. “Doner Kebabs,” the next sign said. “VIDEO PLEASURE,” the next sign said; shiny breasts on shiny paper adorned this window. Further shuffling. The next sign, again, read “Doner Kebabs.” I was terrified; a mammary conspiracy was everywhere, barely tolerable in its intimation of lactose menace; but the two-pronged alternation with Kebabs (so to speak) seemed unspeakable.

I ran back into the hotel, shut my door, huddled and shuddered near the minibar, crunched on paprika chips with chattering teeth. Fortunately I was deep asleep when another hotel staffer came in with a platter of leering figs, wrapped in plastic.

All in all, The Day After London was a bit difficult, since the pianist Jeremy Denk did not exactly go to bed early like a proper pianist should. I seemed to remember transposing Winterreise with an unnamed tenor at 2 AM, while clutching a glass of something, and moaning about “converging chromatic lines of death.” (Wegweiser, for those in the know.) But, nevertheless, against all odds, magnificently, bravely, wrapped in layers of insufficient technofiber, at 7:23 AM I sat in the chill of Paddington Station, my breath a fog, my mind a fog, sipping ascetically at a large Americano, looking into its blackness like the blackness of my heart, watching it waveringly reflect the distant arching lights of the station and sensing it stoke cynically the embers of my brain.

But also against all odds I reached into my messenger bag for the ONE THING that might have saved me from such a disastrous (and yet typical) moment in my life.

I had wearied of the wonderful Sartor Resartus of Thomas Carlyle. I just didn’t see myself plowing (ploughing?) further at that point. So instead I picked up my other seriously hardcore Dublin bookstore purchase: Samuel Beckett’s Watt. And this, my friends, was the best thing I could have ever possibly done. Only one book could have reached me at that moment, could have plucked me from my self-created abyss, could have reached deep down the well of rotating confusion and found the still simplicity of etched pattern within. Watt, and no other than Watt, which I now declare, without any hint of braggadocio or overreaching, to be the greatest book ever written.

Indeed. Later that evening, in the dressing room of Munich’s Gasteig, in that strange 30 minute window between the opening of the hall and the beginning of the concert, a period which I never know exactly how to occupy, in which sandwiches are eaten and cell phone calls are made and hands are washed and slightly smelly concert clothes are redonned and pageturners are instructed and music is tinkled over and many other inconsequential acts occur … in that strange wandering enclosed interval I reread one of my favorite passages:

For Watt now found himself in the midst of things which, if they consented to be named, did so as it were with reluctance. And the state in which Watt found himself resisted formulation in a way no state had ever done, in which Watt had ever found himself, and Watt had found himself in a great many states, in his day. Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr. Knott’s pots, or one of Mr. Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptionable adequacy, all the purposes, and performed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot. And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt. For if the approximation had been less close, then Watt would have been less anguished. For then he would not have said, This is a pot, and yet not a pot, no, but then he would have said, This is something of which I do not know the name. And Watt preferred on the whole having to do with things of which he did not know the name, though this too was painful to Watt, to having to do with things of which the known name, the proven name, was not the name, any more, for him. For he could always hope, of a thing of which he had never known the name, that he would learn the name, some day, and so be tranquilized. But he could not look forward to this in the case of a thing of which the true name had ceased, suddenly, or gradually, to be the true name for Watt. For the pot remained a pot, Watt felt sure of that, for everyone but Watt. For Watt alone it was not a pot, any more.

YES! I’m not sure I can communicate the glee I felt as I read this and other passages, a prolongable glee which in the pressurized confines of various vehicles melted and burst into bubbles of giggles and snorts which made a German woman on the plane say “What’s so funny in your book?” in that very serious German way which is sometimes the funniest thing ever. At the thought of explaining this last passage to her, a conversation where she would reply archly “What do you mean a pot is not quite a pot? that doesn’t make any sense!” etc. usw., I sensed more giggling coming from afar like timpani rolls or weather fronts or bird migrations and put the book down with joy and teary eyes, because every sentence I read was somehow another door to madness in the eyes of the world.

Even Josh took notice and asked if I would please substitute a verbal “LOL” for my erupting, unlicensed emissions.

Pots which were not quite pots. At once, I felt, I was capable of describing my happy dissatisfaction with the whole of musical/analytical vocabulary, and possibly, the entirety of my education, and possibly, the entirety of my life. I suddenly realized … no, I suddenly felt, deeply, intensely, that Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn were all engaged in a massive project: which was to write phrases which are not quite phrases. They didn’t set out, either, to write non-phrases (let’s be firm about that, at least!). But they didn’t want to write phrases of which you could say “phrase, phrase” and be comforted. Oh, surely, there are many many phrases which are phrases, good old fashioned phrases, which had better be good, to compensate for being old-fashioned and dull (structurally speaking, whatever that means). But there are so many phrases which perform “all the offices” of a phrase and yet the more you look at them, the less they want to be called phrase. That which they are not becomes that which they are. Their “not quite” becomes their identity.

Watt is anguished that “pot” the word no longer names the pot. And the non-phraseness of certain phrases in Beethoven, for instance, is also a kind of pain, a kind of aesthetic scrape which sends shivers of questions down your spine.

Take the first six bars of Beethoven Op. 96. Stare at them for a while, until your eyes go blurry. It’s all right there on the page, isn’t it? It’s kind of a four bar phrase with a inconclusive cadence producing a 2 bar extension or it’s a four bar phrase with a 2 bar lead in (motivic imitation) or … AAAAHHHHH I’m doing it, already. It is in vain that I say, phrase, phrase. Something in there, though it performs all the offices of a phrase, seems like it ends too soon, rounds off before anything can happen: it seems to undermine its own phraseliness. But then, the second time around, precisely conscious of this, Beethoven strays off on the path he sketched, so far afield—so beautifully far afield, in mesmerizing circles—such that in effect there is “no ending” to it at all; it ends far too late, or refuses to end, is again “not quite.” An ending which is superfluous/premature and an ending which never comes. And the not of the one calls to the not of the other: is this classical symmetry?

How many times are there the correct numbers of bars in Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven, but somehow (nonetheless!) you feel the phrase ends “too soon,” or “too late”? For me this soon-ness or late-ness, especially amid visible symmetry, especially at the right time, the sense that a moment comes at the “wrong time”—this is just as important to an interesting performance in the Classical Style as the much more talked about elements of “inevitability,” and “timelessness.” No, less inevitable and timeless, I want to say; more accidental and momentary! In theory class so often the students seem attuned to the weirdness or notness of the phrase, but the teacher shows them that in fact it’s a “normal” 4-bar phrase with some sort of add-on or interpolation or distraction. Beauty is, then, interpolated into structure? The student is wrong in a studenty way and the teacher is wrong in a teacherly way. They are like dogs gnawing on opposite ends of the inexpressible bone.

I got to thinking: what about the Romantics? Did they still see the pot as “pot”? Mendelssohn, now he knew what a phrase was, and what it should be. He is no Watt. The pot is always a pot for him. But Chopin, perhaps, he wasn’t so sure … what it was, or what it should be. Schumann was conflicted between what he thought a phrase should be and what he wanted it to be. He had ethical issues with pots.

I wish I could go on and on about this, since all the phrases in the world suddenly seem like enigmatic pots. But I am a bit busy playing and eating crayfish and rocket sandwiches and staring at poignant families and young couples and rereading Watt and ?

Part of Beckett’s delight depends on the idiotic rhyming of Knott, not, Watt, and pot. While the logic of the description (not unlike certain passages in certain music theory textbooks, delineating one type from another) pursues its tortuous, seemingly superfluous course, this silly accident of sonority does something delicious, if I had to say: it keeps sticking its tongue out at meaning, or at you. A kind of counterpoint … because who, in fact, ensured that pot, Watt, and Knott all rhymed? It seems like something out of Watt’s control, a nasty hilarious trick of the narrator or of the author or of God. A musical trick, separate from meaning, which means something.

I’m tiredly fond of my little analogy, here, between phrase and pot. I keep mulling it over like a hot whiskey in my mind.

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  1. Posted November 23, 2007 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I’d give my last shirt for a doner kebab right now … lucky you!

    Regarding your little analogy (very cute, by the way), why do you anchor your understanding of a phrase in the 4-bar model? Why can’t it be 6 bars or even more? Why not 8, 12, or 16? Habit? Theoretical conditioning?

    If I were to read Beckett against any music, I’d probably pick one of Satie’s more ironic piano pieces or his “Salonstuecke,” like “Je Te Veux” or “Poudre D’Or”–the idea, as I see it in both, is to disengage meaning from the phrase (something that Hindemith and Schoenberg tried to restore in different ways) and to ponder the meaning of meaning(s) separately from the sound/ painting qualities of language. But Schumann works for me, too–even though I have always thought of him as the desperate genius who couldn’t quite put the entirety of his genius on paper. Something’s always lost beyond the page.

    Anyway, if you like Beckett’s _Watt_, you might like to move on to Gertrude Stein’s _Tender Buttons_ afterwards. It’s tempting to read her along with Schoenberg’s piano pieces op.11, I think.

  2. Laura
    Posted November 23, 2007 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    I like your analogy.
    It’s clever.

  3. Zack
    Posted November 25, 2007 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Mr. Denk,
    Regarding Watt, there is so much we will never know more than naught. However, regarding Watt, I have continually sought… that is so tempting, but I’ll leave it to the artist. Anyway, have you ever been able to make anything of those bewildering, sanity-depriving “?”s?
    One reads along and suddenly ?
    Along with the oral defense section, it drove me mad as I read, which I believe was the idea. But I ?

  4. Posted November 25, 2007 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Mr. Zack,

    I will try to ? the ?. The oral defense drove me a bit off the cliff as well, esp. the bit when Mr. Fitzwein can’t look Mr. Magershon in the eye, despite all his attempts. But perhaps my favorite moment is when Watt is looking at the picture in Erskine’s room, the circle and a centre not its centre looking for a circle and its centre, which brings him to refreshing tears.

    Delighted to find another reader of Watt out there in ?.


  5. Posted November 25, 2007 at 6:35 am | Permalink


    I don’t mean to anchor the phrase in any model, though I think a four- or eight-bar model is pretty common, and is often “referred to” by the abovementioned practitioners of Classical Style, sometimes humorously, sometimes absolutely earnestly. (This model is “exploited” for their purposes?) In this case the two bars of “pure motive” seem to play against the idea of the phrase, against the proportions of the phrase, teasingly… like a phrase searching for its beginning, and realizing that it has already begun.

    I have to say, though I admire Satie, his work does not seem as earthshaking as Beckett’s… as profoundly moving in its ironies … however I am in the midst of being smitten by Beckett and am utterly unobjective.

    Beckett’s prose is so musical in Watt that any superimposed music would end up being a major obstacle?

    My jetlagged thoughts, why am I up so early?


  6. mila
    Posted November 25, 2007 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Denk, A friend and I were having a far more literal discussion of pot/pots and their functional uses. I so enjoyed the snippet from Watt, I sent it to her and hope to find a copy of the book for myself.

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