Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Beauty by Mistake

I’ve been rereading Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and was struck by one passage. Franz and Sabina are comparing European and American ideas of beauty, in particular the beauty of European cities and the beauty of New York, and Sabina says: “Unintentional beauty. Yes. Another way of putting it might be ‘beauty by mistake.’ Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake.”

Probably the cool thing for me to say at this point is that I like “beauty by mistake,” but I think the truth is I like what Franz likes in Unbearable Lightness—what he calls “premeditated” beauty. The first section of my new book is called “Engulfed Cathedral” after Debussy’s prelude. I probably love more than anything the sort of heartbreaking beauty I find in some classical music and nowhere else.

What does it mean that I can easily imagine finding a soul-mate who has no interest in poetry, but not one who has no love for classical music? It’s not that I don’t like rock and jazz. Someone who likes Chopin but not Elvis Presley or Fountains of Wayne would seem like a snobbish hypocrite, or at least a sad person who doesn’t know what they’re missing. But I can’t help feeling that someone who’s never really listened to Beethoven’s quartets is missing a depth and richness and complexity of feeling that I’m not sure can be found anywhere else.

The sound track for the film of Unbearable Lightness is the chamber music of the Czech composer Janacek, and the longest poem in my book is also about Janacek. Like a lot of people, I took piano lessons as a child. Sometimes it was exciting, sometimes torture, but a few years ago when I felt unable to write, I found myself going back to take piano lessons for a couple of years, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It didn’t take long for me to realize how little talent I had, but that didn’t matter: it was so amazing to get inside the music, maybe a sonata by Janacek, the way you have to when you’re painstakingly struggling to work out the notes with your own hands.

I’m not sure why I’m thinking about this, except that it’s strange that music can mean so much to people. If I’m at a concert listening to Chopin, I could be sitting next to someone who loves the music as much as I do and we might not even know what to say to each other if we had dinner together. But if there’s one chord I particularly love that they love too, it feels for that moment as if we’re not only feeling the same emotion, but feeling an emotion that many people in the world may never have felt, as if we’re seeing a shade of green no one else has ever seen and that I don’t want to disappear from the earth.


C. Dale said...

I completely understand. Music is a great Art. I have even, at times, argued it is the greatest Art. I cannot imagine a world without Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, Rachmaninov, etc.

Diane K. Martin said...

And I am very sad, because I want to understand, but I don't. I don't know how to listen to classical music. John says it's all because of my father who put on music and forced us to listen to it. Classical music always has overtones to me of infinitely long Sunday afternoons after a greasy roast and the paternal authority of my dad and the snobby radio announcers.

I enjoy playing in an orchestra, though it's been decades since I have, and hearing the thread of my flute weave in and out of the fabric of a larger sound, but mostly I don't know how to listen to classical music or know how to hear it.

Robert said...

Fathers and pot roasts have definitely ruined a lot of things for a lot of people. It reminds me of a terrible, boring organ recital I went to years ago. All I remember is even from the balcony I seemed to see flakes of dandruff drifting from the organist's balding head onto his tuxedo.

Looking back on my original post, I see I left out that Kundera's whole point was that "beauty by mistake" is the characteristically American, New York style of beauty.

Diane K. Martin said...

I'm thinking of that term "beauty by mistake" and I'm not sure I get it. The beauty of flowers, trees, all natural occurences can, arguably be termed "beauty by mistake," or in any case by accident. If we're talking the beauty of architectural creations or even the grand vistas of landscape, that is, undoubtably, on purpose.

I don't know New York any more (and do not remember much I would call beautiful--NYers, forgive me), but, for instance here in the Bay Area, if you climb the Marin Headlands and view the bridge and bay, you have done it intentionally, so even if you have not created the view with the fog and sailboats and so forth, it's not by accident or mistake.

Getting back to music--a sticky subject--I don't think jazz or blues--or rock, in its moments--is less beautiful than classical. Different, not less. And improvisation is not accident or mistake.

I really like Kundera--perhaps I would have to better understand the context his character says this in.