“All that is I see”

Do you see nothing there?

Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.

  • From Hamlet, III, iv

Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes has entered our consciousness, and we are quick to point our finger at those who claim to see that which isn’t there. But there is also its direct opposite: there are also those who, unable to see anything at all, are convinced that there is nothing to see. For how can there be, when they are so utterly convinced, as Gertrude is, that “all that is” they see?

Steering a judicious course between the two opposites can be a tricky business. For instance, an artist dropping paint-filled eggs from her vagina some consider “art”, while I find myself both amused and bemused by the whole tawdry business, and cry “Emperor’s New Clothes”. But then, I find myself utterly entranced by Elliott Carter’s Symphonia, and those many to whom this is merely random noise similarly point their fingers and cry “Emperor’s New Clothes”. Now, there is no proving by algebra that I am right and that others are wrong. I am not even very willing to put it to the vote, as whatever music is currently fashionable, or even much that is currently unfashionable, is likely to get more votes by far than anything composed by Elliott Carter. And so it goes, each of us defending what we value from attacks by philistines, while ourselves attacking as “pretentious” that which may be valued by others.

And I am not really sure that debate and discussion can take us too far towards breaking this impasse. I could, I suppose, try to put into words what, say, Elliott Carter’s Symphonia makes me feel, but I have neither the vocabulary nor the technical understanding to go beyond that. And if someone feels nothing on hearing that music, then a mere description of what I may happen to feel will mean little.

The easy way out is to say, as many do, that it’s all subjective, that there isn’t any absolute criterion to judge these things, and that, taken admittedly to extremes, one cannot even say with any objectivity that Rembrandt’s drawings are superior in any way to my own lazy doodles. But, for various reasons, I have never been at all satisfied by this solution. “I like this and you like that.” Far from being the start of the dialogue, that’s the end of dialogue, for there’s nowhere further we can go. The concept of excellence itself becomes redundant. And we all find ourselves, each one of us, stuck in our own individual bubbles, unable to enter anyone else’s, and unable equally to invite others into our own.

So, when faced with that which others find of artistic value, but which means little or nothing to me, I tend to keep quiet. I tend to accept that my own horizons are far from all-encompassing, and that there may indeed be much of value that escapes me. (Although I do draw the line at dropping eggs from vaginas, diverting though this may be.) I would prefer not to join the ranks of “reviewers”, as they are known, on Facebook and Goodreads, and, no doubt, book boards and reading groups around the world. I would prefer not to peremptorily dismiss works created by minds greater than my own with such withering criticism as “It was boring” or “Nothing happens” or “I could not relate to it”, or some such.

But there is more to all this than pretending to see what isn’t there, or failing to see what is. There are also cases where one does see what’s there, but finds oneself not caring much for what one sees.

Recently, a good friend of mine, someone who is steeped in Western musical culture and whose understanding and discernment in musical matters really are beyond dispute, told me that he didn’t much care for Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, a work often regarded as one of the high points of Western civilisation. He wrote to me (and I quote with his permission):

I’m really not that fond of it, never have been. I can’t see, as it were, the point of it. … By making this confession I’ve at last been honest with myself, obviously it doesn’t matter a jot what I think, but I’ve been plaguing myself all these decades, wondering, and there! Now I’ve said it.

In the section of his mail that I have replaced with three dots, he gave a brief explanation of what he disliked about the work. I will not reproduce those lines here, since this post is about our responses to art in general, and not specifically about the Hammerklavier sonata. But his comments are not the unthinking “it was boring” of Amazon reviewers. This is the view of someone who can see quite clearly what is there, but who, even having seen, finds himself not caring for it.

As he says himself, what he thinks about it makes no difference to the wider picture: the Hammerklavier sonata will continue to be regarded as one of the high points of Western musical culture. But his view of the work, outlier though it may be, nonetheless highlights an important point: although I have spent much time insisting, mainly in reaction to unthinking condemnation, that “all is merely subjective” is not a very tenable position, subjectivity does indeed have a place, a very necessary place, at the feast.

And yes, I too have what may be termed “blind spots”. But this particular piece of terminology may be defective: there are times when, like my musical friend, the problem is not that I am blind, but that I just don’t care for what I see. I tend not to write on this blog about those things I don’t care for. For one thing, I find I am less perceptive on things I don’t like. And more importantly, what’s the point? There is so much I do love and can happily write about, why waste my energies rubbishing what I don’t?

But the main reason why I tend not to write about what I do not like is my uncertainty on these matters: I am never quite sure whether I have failed to see, or whether I have seen, but didn’t much care for what I saw. There have been instances enough of the former: those with sufficient time and patience may look back on older posts where I have been less than admiring of certain writers, whom I have later gone on to praise. We all change over time, and our perceptions change even as we do. And that is as it should be.

But sometimes, I do feel I know a work adequately, but I still fail to admire. Or, at least, to admire as much as others admire. Or to admire as much as I think I should. So let me get it off my chest (confession is good for the soul, after all): I have never much cared for The Tempest. There. Having plagued myself with this for decades, now I, too, have said it.

Of course, there are passages of exquisitely beautiful poetry throughout. When it comes to the art of creating verbal music, Shakespeare seemed able to turn it on as and when he wanted. But is this admittedly beautiful poetry saying anything very profound? I frankly doubt it. And the drama – where’s the drama? The exposition is achieved through a very long and boring narration – so boring, that Prospero has to keep interrupting himself to tell his daughter to stay awake. Even now, when I read it, I can’t help wondering what Will was playing at: even a novice playwright would have known better. And where’s the dramatic tension? What little tension there is in the play  dissipates completely by the end of Act 3, so the fourth act is mainly taken up with a masque, and the fifth shows us what we knew all along was going to happen. As for the comic scenes, they’re the most tedious and the most unfunny since all that palaver with Launcelot Gobbo back in The Merchant of Venice.

Once again, my view of the play doesn’t matter a jot. The Tempest will continue to be seen as one of the great peaks of our civilisation. And it may well be that some time in the future, I will read over the above lines with profound embarrassment. But I have known this play for some four and a half decades now, both on page and on the stage, and while I have no doubt I have further discoveries to make about it, I doubt very much whether any of these discoveries will make me like this play significantly better than I do now.

For many, The Tempest is the culminating point of Shakespeare’s art, his parting gift to mankind before his well-earned retirement to New Place in Stratford. But for me, that parting gift is The Winter’s Tale, which ends with a vision of the Resurrection itself. It is true that this Resurrection is a mingled chime: it is subdued, and is, perhaps, more melancholy than joyous. Not even the Resurrection, in Shakespeare’s vision, can atone fully for our guilt, or restore all the losses that we have suffered in the course of our lives. But it is the best we may hope for. And this subdued and melancholy joy, this radiant half-light, seems to me a more fitting and more moving end to Shakespeare’s dramatic career than the forced and bitter reconciliation at the end of The Tempest.

None of the above, incidentally, is intended as a critique of The Tempest: it is intended merely as an example of our refusal, given our individual temperaments, to respond to things that are far outside our scope. It is true that we expand our scope by taking in things that had initially been outside it, but certain things are too far outside: there are limits to how far our perspectives may be expanded. Confessing to this may not matter a jot in the wider scheme of things, but there it is for what it’s worth. In the time-honoured phraseology of Amazon reviews, I couldn’t relate to it.

I shall now go away and listen to Maurizio Pollini’s recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, which, despite the views of my far more knowledgeable and discerning friend, I continue to find thrilling. There really is no accounting for tastes, is there?

7 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve come to view my literary/art/musical perception as a kind of sphere, within which lie the things I respond favorably to. The outer limit is permeable, and so not a true barrier, allowing authors, composers, artists to move in or out by osmosis. So, for example, while Irvine Welsh may reside on either side at different times, Mahler’s symphonies are firmly on the interior. Along with a selection of Beethoven’s sonatas, including ‘Hammerklavier’.
    (Have you listened to Baltic composer Pelecis? Mind blowing stuff.)

    Latest addition to the inner circle is Simon Montefiore, whose non fiction (Jerusalem and Romanovs) I’ve sampled, but currently loving his novel Sashenka.

    Somewhere in the near future I’m going to read Brecht’s ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’ which has been sitting awhile on the shelf near the bed, in a collection of modern German Theatre bought in the early ’80s. Also’Wozzeck’, another work successfully reimagined in several genres.

    The thing is, our personal cultural landscape is always evolving along with our perspective, under many disparate influences, and thank heavens for that, I say.
    – [ ]


    • I hadn’t actually realised Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote novels. All I have read by him is his book on the young Stalin.

      Our very enterprising English teacher had us reading the Caucasian chalk Circle at school. We read the translation by James & Tania Stern, and by WH Auden (although Ihow much input Auden had in this, I don’t know). I later read the translation by Eric Bentley, which seemed to be of a fuller version of the text (there’s one particularly indecent passage that doesn’t appear in the Stern-Auden version).

      Wozzeck is a tremendous play. (It’s a great opera as well, of course.) Have you seen the Werner Herzog film version with Klaus Kinski? Kinski is arguably a bit too old for the role (given the environment Wozzeck is in, and given his situation, he simply would not have lasted into middle age) but he gives a characteristically intense performance. I’d love to see this play on stage.


      • Thanks for that.
        I did see the Herzog Wozzeck, quite a few years ago, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Kinski was certainly enjoying a good spell of employment with the director around that time. Don’t fancy the pea diet much myself!
        Reading the paper this morning only to discover I’d missed a very good Mahler 1 with NZSO & Edo de Waart at the weekend, which had slipped under the radar. Never mind, sure there’ll be another along some time. Been to any Proms this year, looks like some very good stuff on the programme.

  2. The only thing we can do is to accept the diversity of opinion, though I prefer it to be expressed in a way which allows others to gain a glimpse of a different perspective. After all, isn’t this why we spend so much time and effort reading/watching/looking at various forms of art – to gain a wider appreciation and understanding of human life (including our own)? The least enjoyable conversations I’ve had regarding theatre productions have been with those people who only seem to want to hear their own opinion echoed back to them; even when they’ve agreed with me, there has been nowhere to take the discussion. Fortunately I know a number of people who take differing opinions in their stride, and I find it fascinating to hear why they liked a particular interpretation, or why something I found wonderful didn’t work for them.


    • Hello Sheila, I think I am happy accepting diversity of opinion. What I think I am less happy about accepting is that personal opinion is all there is to it, and that it is, therefore, final.

      I have possibly spent more time than has been good for me speaking to people, both online and off, who think nothing of bashing some of the highest peaks of human achievement – Hamlet, Anna Karenina, you name it – without the slightest understanding in what the works were about (or even much interest), and treating any challenge to their opinion as a personal affront. “It’s just my opinion,” they’d say, implying that’s the end of the argument, and that there’s nothing more to say. And indeed, if everything is purely subjective, they’d be right: there really is nothing more to say. I like X and you like Y: who could argue with that?

      It is indeed fascinating when people argue cases different from your own. Since starting this blog, my own opinions on various matters have changed. This is partly because I am now some seven years older than when I started, and that, over that period, my perceptions have necessarily changed, even as I have. But it is also in great part because I have come across people whose arguments have offered me new insights, and have given me opportunities of looking at things from angles I had previously not considered. Like yourself, I really love this sort of dialogue. But such dialogue assumes our minds are capable of considering and absorbing things from other people’s minds, and that we have some common ground in our perceptions and in our assessments. “It’s all just a matter of opinion” seems to me a sterile dead end, which doesn’t allow for this kind of dialogue.

      “It’s all just a matter of opinion” is a stance I have long been unhappy with. However, neither do I subscribe to the idea that there exists a set of definitive objective criteria against which a work of art may be judged. I am trying to see – and it is only when I write that my own thoughts start becoming clear to myself – whether I can define a coherent “middle ground” between the two extremes. I don’t think I have yet: my post above is just a tentative first step.


  3. Posted by alan on August 31, 2017 at 12:22 am

    Most people wouldn’t dream of criticising a work of literature written in a language they don’t understand, so why would they think it reasonable to have an opinion about all music? Is it because they see the language of music as universal?
    I hate to pull the age card but I think it does take some years to appreciate that there might be separate ‘languages’ within music that need to be learned in order to gain greater insight. When dealing with matters not susceptible to proof it is easier for me to respect an opinion that has been formed from experience than an opinion formed without it.
    Perhaps your appreciation of Elliott Carter’s Symphonia has been formed by nostalgia for your years of listening to young people practising musical instruments…


    • Yes, I agree: culture needs to be cultivated, and to comment on anything meaningfully, one needs first of all to have an understanding of the idiom – the “language”. But then, what do I say to those who insist I cannot appreciate the paint-eggs-dropped-from-vagina act because I do not understand the language of performance art?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: