Friday, June 02, 2006

76 Days and Counting Down...

What am I doing to prepare for law school? Listening to folk music.

I know, I'm supposed to be reading A Civil Action, or a biography of a supreme court justice, or watching Paper Chase or working on a political campaign or touring Europe by bicycle. But for some reason I'm more interested in Clarence Ashley even than in reading about the latest atrocity George Bush's country's army has committed over in ... wherever the hell they are.

So interested, in fact, that I'm wading through Greil Marcus's overwrought and barely comprehensible book, The Old, Weird America. This, at least, should be good practice for law school.

In Marcus's vision of ... whatever he happens to be talking about... the words take over. It's a tradition, seemingly, of rock criticism, that it be all purple and cosmic and that it build so elaborately upon both the music and the critic's idiosyncratic perception of the music that the two become one in the mind of the reader... so that if one hasn't actually heard the music in question, if it is not fresh in one's mind, one runs the risk of being sucked down in the purple quicksand. And quicksand takes forever to get out of your clothes and hair.

Here's Marcus on the fragmentary nature of some folk lyrics:
What appears to be a singer's random assemblage of fragments to fit a certain melody line may be, for that singer, an assemblage of fragments that melody called forth. It may be a sermon delivered by the singer's subconscious, his or her second mind. It may be a heretic's way of saying what could never be said out loud, a mask over a boiling face.
Holy shit. A boiling face? And then -
The banjo could be from another song or another world. The music seems to have been found in the middle of some greater song: it is inexorable. The opening and closing flourishes on the banjo seem false, because the figures in the music make no progress, go from no one place to any other; the sound was here before the singer started and it will be here when he's gone...
And so on, and on, until Clarence Ashley looms up in your mind, archetypal, almost demonic, beyond good and evil, picking on the strings of his banjo as if they were the strings of your soul, if your soul had strings, only it doesn't.

Oh, but then - to your great relief - you listen to the song. And it's just a song. Thank God. Maybe my sleep tonight will be untroubled.

It's not just him, though - it's Lester Bangs, everyone on Rolling Stone's staff (past, present, and future), in fact seemingly it's everyone who writes about music. Here's Robert Cantwell, quoted by Marcus:
Listen to 'I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground' again and again... learn to play the banjo and sing it yourself over and over again, study every printed version, give up your career and maybe your family, and you will not fathom it.
Oooh... spooky. Deep. Even true. Though of course the song is also - and perhaps more signficantly - just a song, in a world of songs, about any one of which one could say the same thing.

Hundreds of pages of this may be more than I can stand.

It's good, though.


At 6:49 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

I've imagined Ruskin's writing like that. I've read Ruskin alleged to be the inventor of literary criticism, but gratefully have not had to read Ruskin himself. I guess you could also call it Romanticism. I really like romanticism when it's me doing the romanticising.

At 6:54 PM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

Oh, here's a romantic Ruskin gem:

"The best work never was and never will be done for money."[1]
-- John Ruskin (1819-1900).

At 4:22 AM, Blogger Zuska said...

i really think it's bullhockey that you should be reading things to prep for law school. it's not like they'll *really* prep you. and they're not written for you. they're written for kids going to law school 76 days after they graduate from college, and infinity # of days since they were last employed.

Skip it. But jeez, find a fun novel.

At 10:52 PM, Blogger rain_rain said...

Wasn't Aristotle the inventor of literary criticism?

At 11:56 PM, Blogger rain_rain said...

When Ruskin said "the best work never was and never will be done for money," he went on (in "The Political Economy of Art") to claim, more specifically:

"A great work is only done when the painter gets into the humour for it, likes his subject, and determines to paint it as well as he can, whether he is paid for it or not; but bad work, and generally the worst sort of bad work, is done when he is trying to produce a showy picture, or one that shall appear to have as much labour in it as shall be worth a high price."

In other words, if I may interpret the interpreter: money may make the work possible, may in fact be the reason the work was undertaken; but art which is undertaken solely for monetary gain - which does not, in the actual event, arise from some affinity or true feeling of the artist - will never be of the caliber of the best art. Money can buy an artist's skill, but to engage his genius requires something more.

Admittedly there is a suspicious whiff of post hoc about this reasoning. I think I rather agree with Ruskin, though.

At 11:58 PM, Blogger rain_rain said...

Oh, sorry. "The actual event?" Who wrote that?

At 12:04 AM, Blogger Murky Thoughts said...

"Literary-style criticism"? "Criticism as literature?" Anyway, whatever Aristotle didn't do first.

You might well be right that the quote isn't as romantic as I thought. But could those contextual practicalities you've provided be not a constraint on the famous quote but rather, indeed, the springboard by which the author attains the dizzy heights of romanticism?


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