gall and gumption

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Supreme Fiction

I remember the last time I had dinner with Marvin, at Max and Elaine's house. He was writing a review of a book on Schubert, and in the course of his research (his technique for writing a review of a book on an author was to read every single word by that author -- for a start -- taking detailed notes. The entire project would be done in three months. He just did it.

Anyhow, at the dinner he told this story, which he told on a few other occasions because he loved it so much. You can look it up in old Hudson Reviews for 1985 maybe 1984 and you will find it told much better there by him than it will be told by me. It wa the basis for his theory of the "anti-genius" -- that the way you could identify a genious was from the howl of horror that went up from the anti-genius whenever it encountered genius.

So Schubert had finished his song Die Erlkoenig (scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page to the Lieder section), which you should really listen to because it is so spooky and wild and sudden and pitiless and true, all at the same time. It is just a little song, really short and now merely considered one of the greatest examples of lieder of all time, from the guy who wrote most of the great lieder of all time. He sent it off to this music publisher, who read it and being merely a mediocrity, took no interest in it.

Well, incredible as it may seem, there was another Franz Schubert in Germany at the time, a music critic and composer, and to our knowledge he is only remembered for the fact that the publisher accidentally sent him our Franz Schubert's manuscript for the Erlkoenig. The anti-Franz, as I like to call him, was a made man, a big respected figure in the music business and when he received the manuscript, with what appeared to his name attached to it, he sent off a letter full of vituperation, in the highest style of offended academic dignity (see letters to the NYRB) that is his only immortal work.

Marvin told Al Stephens and a bunch of us this story over at Max and Elaine's one night not long before he died. I never saw Al, who had always seemed so extremely reserved, laugh so hard. When he got his breath he pointed to the ceiling and said, "There is a god! There is a god!"

And I will confess that this is the sort of person I speak to when I address the Supreme Fiction. I am that low, yes.

I did not ask myself "Why does God allow these things to happen?" when the tsunami occurred. I am more the sort of person who wonders why they haven't happened more often. (Wondering why they haven't happened more often is not the same as wishing that they would, you know.)

I think I am really lucky to have been born into a time when the earth was not a great ball of boiling lava and boiling all sorts of things where only bacteria that liked to be boiled stayed alive. It would have been unpleasant. Or on another planet, let's say, where it's freezing cold and constant winds blow dust all over the surface. Cold and dusty places remind me of New York in winter. I imagine that if you emptied all the people out of New York, leveled all the buildings as far as the eye could see, no trees, no river, no ocean, no nothing but just the cold and the dust and the wind blowing it into chinks in your outer layers and that lonely feeling you can get in some neighborhoods, it would be like one of those planets.

Did you ever read those space exploration books, about the different layers of earth's atmosphere and how at certain distances blood would boil just from the low pressure? I remember reading some such fact, seems to me that the book included a beaker of boiling blood to make the point, and at the time I distinctly remember feeling that it was a good thing I wasn't up there in that thin air right now.

I don't know why I should have taken every single scary fact in the universe so personally. After frightening myself reading about the giant prehistoric sharks that were as big as semi trucks it was an enormous comfort to know that they had all been dead for millions of years. Good and dead. Of course if they were still alive now I'd be all for protecting them and would feel, as I do with most of the animal kingdom, that they are entitled to as much of us as they can get. But I would not go in the water. I probably would not go on the beach.

Come to think of it, I don't go on the beach now either. I mean these Northern California life-threatening beaches. They are beautiful but they seem to be sending the message, "Do not get out of your car."

Being is good. You put the thought like that and it sounds so stupid. But it isn't stupid when you get all your attention and your judgment and feeling lined up right and you are actually conscious for a few minutes. But that said, you have to say that being is not personally good to you. Or not in the way that you personally expect. So these people who thank god for helping them win a football game or for giving them their precious triplets Brittany, Chelsea and Connecticut after a year of fertility treatments, they just seem like cretins to me. I don't see any basis for thinking yourself entitled in that way, it is nothing but a brainfart of a vulgar mind. But this obese sense of entitlement persists.

There is a god, I think these days, because otherwise we'd have to invent Muriel Gray. If we'd invented her -- we humans I mean -- we would have done as crap a job of it as we have with inventing God.


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