In Denver the other day, Zac and I were talking about ‘cognitive music,’ an idea that’s stayed with me ever since I encountered it Harold Bloom’s giant book on Shakespeare. Bloom uses it to mean the pleasure that audiences take from the unique contours of a fictional (or, presumably, real) mind — specifically Hamlet’s. Bloom insists that Hamlet is smarter than any human can possibly be: impossibly quick-witted, terrifyingly insightful, genuinely engaging with cosmic questions while negotiating intrigues of heart and court. Whatever other pleasures the play offers, the chief attraction of Hamlet is Hamlet, specifically his modes of thought. We sit through four hours of variations on the question ‘To be or not to be?’ for the same reason we listen to B.B. King going up the blues scale and back down: the music the mind makes in motion. (Or the ‘heart,’ though that’s a complicated metaphor for another day.)
David Mamet sez we go to the theatre to bear witness to acts of will, of courage — and that the purpose of art is only delight.
On top of being a beautiful turn of phrase that reminds us that Harold Bloom used to rap about bop and modernist poetry with Bud Powell, ‘cognitive music’ throws light on the appeal of ‘boring “literary” novels about self-loathing academics in which nothing actually happens,’ i.e., High Literary Fiction. If you see the great triumph of Hamlet as the creation of a vast cognitive machine, or I guess simulation, then you can probably guess why a book like Franzen’s The Corrections would ship with both the masterful domestic chapters about the old midwestern couple and their children (good!) and the sub-Pynchon horseshit that passes for Franzen’s ‘comic’ material (bad!). The way of conceptualizing (the state of a relationship, or an industry, or a nation) is the appeal.
Digression: The difference between Franzen and, say, DFW or Pynchon in this regard is that the latter two are/were vastly smarter and, at least in Pynchon’s case, vastly better-adjusted than Franzen — plus much, much funnier. Pynchon’s characters run around inside his books, rather than painstakingly posing. They’re alive because he so very much is. In the fiction I’ve read, DFW sometimes seemed to be obsessively describing each movement of his action figures rather than just playing with them; the solution to this problem, of course, is to play with something more complex than an action figure, or to get over yourself; and for some people the latter is impossible. Digression over.
The reason Ulysses matters is that it depicts real human emotions in obsessive detail, partaking of codes/modes of representation that engage you in a startling variety of ways all at once — not for nothing are Joyce’s two big novels called ‘symphonic.’ Every register, every timbre, tempo, rhythm, language of harmony, melodic contour…unlike the claustrophobic Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses seems to’ve been written (for the most part) unself-consciously, Finnegans Wake even moreso. (The Wake might be the most selfless piece of art we’ve got.) Joyce’s big books proceed according to logics that don’t feel stagey or manipulative. To me, anyway. I love his writing because I love the voices he thinks in. I don’t mind that, in conventional plot terms, little happens in Ulysses (which I read with life-changing joy in college) and nothing at all in the Wake (which I regularly read parts of with day-changing joy), because a novel isn’t a recounting of events but a machine for generating states of mind.
The most effective way to wreck people’s hearts with words just happens to be representation of comprehensible human action. Stories, in other words. But that needn’t be essential to us to be the best-yet strategy for mind alteration. The only standard for whether a book works is whether/how it works on you.
Art is machinery for psychotropism-at-a-distance.
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The pleasure of music is music.
The pleasure of improvisation is cognitive music.