Tuesday, May 03, 2005


It's the last track on a CD of American 20th century choral music that DK had passed on to me, a song by my homeboy Leonard Bernstein. The disc happened to be in my car CD player this morning when NPR started wheedling for donations and shilling Mother's Day flowers. Annoyed, I stabbed at the CD changer button and the music came on. It was the lovely song from Bernstein's opera, Candide, that begins --

You've been a fool and so have I,
But come and be my wife,
And let us try before we die
To make some sense of life.

We're neither pure nor wise nor good;
We'll do the best we know;
We'll build our house and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow.

Before long I was -- as, come to think of it, I often am lately -- driving and blubbering. It's our 18th anniversary today. The song, in its simplicity and honesty, struck me as the perfect marriage song. It's got it all: folly, death, imperfection, the search for meaning, the vow of domestic comradeship.

Neither pure nor wise nor good. The phrase shot through my heart. Is there anything more romantic ? Love that clearly sees and accepts the full reality of the beloved, rather than insisting upon some pure and wise and good fantasy ?

It brought to mind another beautiful love song I've listened to during other lachrymose drives, Ralph Vaughn Williams' Tired. It's a setting of a poem by his wife, Ursula Vaughn Williams:

Sleep, and I'll be still as another sleeper
holding you in my arms
glad that you lie so near at last.

This sheltering midnight is our meeting place,
no passion or despair
or hope divide me from your side.

I shall remember firelight on your sleeping face
I shall remember shadows growing deeper
as the fire fell to ashes and the minutes passed.

"No passion or despair or hope divide me from your side." What a remarkable statement ! Love is traditionally the prime arena of passion, despair and hope. Of desire, of thwarted desire, of imagining futures of desire. Just read the novels, listen to the ballads, watch the soap operas ! But in this song there is simply meeting. Presence. Attention, devotion. No division. All in a shadowy vallombrosa in which death is implicit.

Finally, taking a long, looping detour to delay the inevitable arrival at work, I put on another disc. The Well-Tempered Clavier. Glenn Gould.

And there it was again, the same thing I'd heard in Bernstein's and Vaughn Williams' songs. The same thing, but wordless now, in the counterpoint of Bach's C# Minor fugue. Something abstract, almost mathematical, yet something corresponding to the most intimate movements of the heart and mind. Something wordless, restrained, expressive, even stoic. Something beyond fretting about God, transcendence and meaning. I suddenly thought of the final chapter of one of my ur-texts, Sartre's Nausea in which the hero, Roquentin finds release from the nausea of the absurdity and contingency of existence in the melody of a jazz song.

This is what he says:

Now there is this song on the saxophone. And I am ashamed. A glorious little suffering has just been born, an exemplary suffering. Four notes on the saxophone. They come and go, they seem to say: You must be like us, suffer in rhythm. The voice sings:

Some of these days/
You'll miss me honey.

Someone must have scratched the record at that spot because it makes an odd noise. And there is something that clutches the heart: the melody is absolutely untouched by this tiny coughing of the needle on the record. It is so far -- so far behind. I understand that, too: the disc is scratched and wearing out, perhaps the singer is dead; I'm going to leave, I'm going to take my train. But behind the existence that falls from one present to the other, without a past, without a future, behind these sounds which decompose from day to day, peel off and slip toward death, the melody stays the same, young and firm, like a pitiless witness.

Today I finally heard it, too. The exemplary suffering. The pitiless witness.

It was a glorious anniversary gift.

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