Monday, January 10, 2011

Significant Moments: A Grandiose Analogy?

My book Significant Moments opens with the following quotations:

Those with an intimate acquaintance of Hebrew texts will recognize immediately that this one is written entirely in melitzah, a mosaic of fragments and phrases from the Hebrew Bible as well as from rabbinic literature or the liturgy, fitted together to form a new statement of what the author intends to express at the moment. Melitzah, in effect, recalls Walter Benjamin's desire to someday write a work composed entirely of quotations. At any rate, it was a literary device employed widely in medieval Hebrew poetry and prose,
then through . . .
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Freud's Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable.
             . . . the movement known as Haskalah, Hebrew for “enlightenment,”. . .
Herbert Kupferberg, The Mendelssohns: Three Generations of Genius.
                        . . . and even among nineteenth-century writers both modern and traditional.
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Freud's Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable.
What is so special about this particular . . .
Adam Baer, The Music Language.
           . . . literary device?
Ken Ham, Where are you, metaphor?
In melitzah the sentences compounded out of quotations mean what they say; but below and beyond the surface they reverberate with associations to the original texts, and this is what makes them psychologically so interesting and valuable. In the transposition of a quotation from the original (in this case canonical) text to a new one, the meaning of the original context may be retained, altered, or subverted. In any case the original context trails along as an invisible interlinear presence, and the readers, like the writer, must be aware of these associations if they are to savor the new text to the full. A partial analogy may be found in Eliot's use of quotations in The Waste Land.
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Freud's Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable.
If he is successful in . . .
Donald P. Spence, Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis.
           . . . his use of melitzah, . . .
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable.
                         . . . the Author . . .
Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation.
                                   . . . will arouse in the reader a particular set of images and associations which will add a certain texture and tone to what is being described—the chordal accompaniment, so to speak, to the melodic line.
Donald P. Spence, Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis.

The manifest content of this opening passage defines a literary technique, known as Melitzah, in which a writing comprises fragments and phrases (quotations) of other texts to create a new text.

Upon closer inspection, the careful reader will see that subsidiary themes -- themes that will be elaborated in the remainder of Significant Moments -- are foreshadowed.

(a.) The Hebrew Bible is expressly referenced in the opening sentence.  Later, the quote "the Author" written with a capital "A" indicates that the Author is God.  The word "Author" denotes God as the Author of the Bible and, symbolically, as the Author of Life.  Significant Moments includes several biblical stories and allusions to Old Testament figures.

(b.) The quote "fragments and phrases" manifestly refers to the technique of Melitzah, but also suggests DNA, a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms (with the exception of RNA viruses). The main role of DNA molecules is the long-term storage of information.

DNA consists of two long polymers of simple units called nucleotides, with backbones made of sugars and phosphate groups joined by ester bonds. These two strands run in opposite directions to each other and are therefore anti-parallel. Attached to each sugar is one of four types of molecules called bases: adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). It is the sequence of these four bases along the backbone that encodes information. This information is read using the genetic code, which specifies the sequence of the amino acids within proteins. The code is read by copying stretches of DNA into the related nucleic acid RNA, in a process called transcription.

(b-1.) DNA is often compared to a set of blueprints (as for Wagner's festival theater)

(b-2.) or a book (such as the U.S. Constitution that establishes the Office of President of the United States and the U.S. Supreme Court), since it contains the instructions needed to construct other components of cells, such as proteins and RNA molecules. The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in regulating the use of this genetic information.

(b-3). The role of DNA as a storehouse of information suggests an archive, such as The Sigmund Freud Archives or a library.

(b-4.)  DNA is inherited by organisms over the generations and it symbolically suggests the inheritance of property in a legal sense, as in the passage of The Sigmund Freud Archives from K.R. Eissler to Jeffrey Masson.

(c.) The phrase "among nineteenth-century writers" suggests an important theme of the book, namely, nineteenth-century history including the relationship between Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner; the origins of Zionism in the work of Theodor Herzl; the beginning of the Dreyfus Affair in France; and the life and writings of Henry David Thoreau.

(d.) The phrase "Eliot's use of quotations in The Waste Land" foreshadows the later discussion of some of the central themes of T.S. Eliot's masterpiece and it's relationship to Wagner's opera, Parsifal.

(e.) The phrase "the chordal accompaniment, so to speak, to the melodic line" is a metaphor for Melitzah (namely, the manifest and latent meanings created by that literary device) that is transformed in Significant Moments into its referent, music, which is an important theme of the book, specifically, the operas of Richard Wagner.

(f.) The phrase "the chordal accompaniment, so to speak, to the melodic line" is a metaphor for Melitzah that also suggests the fundamental precept of psychoanalysis, namely, the existence of a bifurcated mental apparatus comprising conscious awareness (symbolized by the manifest content of Melitzah) and the dynamic unconscious (symbolized by the subtext, or "interlinear presence," of Melitzah).  Thus, the opening quotes of the book point symbolically to Sigmund Freud and the origins of psychoanalysis.

So we may say that the single idea of the opening passage -- the literary technique known as Melitzah -- foreshadows at least ten remotely-related themes that are elaborated throughout the book.

I am reminded of Maynard Solomon's analysis of the first two measures of Beethoven's third symphony (the Eroica).  The first movement of the third symphony begins abruptly with two identical E major chords.  "Owing to this extreme thematic condensation, critics are on occasion unable to specify what Beethoven's 'themes' are.  Indeed, in the first movement of the Eroica, Riezler believes that what is usually regarded as the main theme or principal motif may actually be "the melodic unfolding" of the notes already heard simultaneously in the form of chords.'  By extension, the 'motif' or thematic 'cell' may consist of the two 'curtain raising' chords in measures 1 and 2.

It is even possible that here Beethoven did consciously attempt to "write without themes," to exploit the energy locked within the basic harmonic unit--the chord.  The dissonant C sharp (or D flat) in measure 7 acts as a fulcrum compelling a departure from the common chord, thus creating a dynamic disequilibrium that provides the driving impetus of the movement, an impetus that continues almost unbroken until the restatement of the tonic chord in the final cadence. The result is music which appears to be self-creating, which must strive for its existence, which pursues a goal with unflagging energy and resoluteness--rather than music whose essence is already largely present in its opening thematic statement.

Overlapping with this process is Beethoven's innovative procedure of developing a movement, and even an entire work, out of a single thematic motif."  Maynard Solomon, Beethoven at 195-6.

The two opening chords of the symphony contain the germ cell of the entire first movement:

Significant Moments may be seen to follow a similar form in which the single theme of Melitzah implicitly contains and opens the door to a host of subsidiary themes that comprise the entire book.

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