Modernism. The Interpretation of Dreams, the assembly line, The Rite of Spring, the Panama Canal. The modernist sensibility is characterized above all by the "willful big idea"—history as text, a manifesto in conflict with itself and its past. Hopeful and revolutionary like the writings of Karl Marx or progressive and corrupt like the Manhattan Project, such events-as-manifesto had a way of feeding off each other. Through collaboration, conflict, and competition, modernists from Robert Moses to Elliott Carter raced to explain and exemplify, often deliberately creating conflict as if crisis were its own rationale, its own sine qua non. One could hypothesize that this arms race of complexity collapsed—exhausted—about the same time that Communism did. Its failure to sustain its ideas (rather than outpace them one after another) may be one reason we live in an anti-dialectical world, an unmodern place of fundamentalisms and easy freedoms.
Author Eric Prieto is at home in the modern world more so than the present; his heroes are French intellectuals after all, those lovers of complexity. In Listening In: Music, Mind, and the Modernist Narrative, he investigates late modernist authors who looked to music as a way to exemplify the inward nature of mind [End Page 93] and the outward nature of place. To understand this book, we must revisit some formal aesthetic theories, namely that music's value resides in its ability to name without signifying, that musical properties like intervallic distance, dynamic contrast, and the space-time component that is rhythm put us in touch with the Kantian a priori—the-thing-in-itself, the Schopenhauerian will. Music as sound-in-itself (to riff on Kant and Schopenhauer) becomes a metaphor for the noumenal world or is mimetic at the very least of the abstract and non-linear nature of thought. Prieto argues that "wherever a music model is present [among his examples] it always serves to further this inwardly directed mode of mimesis I call 'listening in,' where the primary object of representation is not the outside world but the subtly modulating interactions between consciousness and world."1
Prieto's book is highly consistent. He masterfully captures the spirit of cooperation from modernist writer to musician to thinker and back. Concentrating on three authors, Robert Pinget, Michel Leiris, and Samuel Beckett, Prieto cites the influences of composers like Bach and Beethoven, as well as philosophers like Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer on their literary works. He brings in thinking from Nelson Goodman and Ferdinand de Saussure. The result is literary criticism as manifesto. Reader beware, this is a book for an elevated audience, those rare folk who are comfortable with structural linguistics, nineteenth-century music aesthetics, specialized academic scholarship, and word puzzles. To explain for example why an author like Beckett is inspired by music to create abstract or associative narratives rather than traditional stories of cause and effect, Prieto writes:
In music, this progression necessarily takes place on the level of audible resemblances, but in literature, by virtue of the properties of the two-tiered linguistic sign, analogical progression may take place either on the level of the signifier (via the principle of paronomasia), on the level of the signified (via metaphorical substitutions, as in the association of ideas), or between the two levels (punning, "imitative harmony").2
This density of language and concept speak well of Prieto's intellect and one is likewise impressed by his broad understanding of music and letters, yet it is the musical scholar who gets the short end of the deal. Paronomasia? "Audible resemblance" is not a musical term I have heard used. In Listening In: Music, Mind, and the Modernist Narrative, music serves as starting point, an inspiration, not as an equal partner. This holds true for Beckett and Pinget as well as for Prieto. The result can be disconcerting, even to readers like me for whom the cross-disciplinary study of music and literature is a fascinating endeavor.
Difficulty, nonetheless, has its rewards and this is one lesson of modernism. [End Page 94] To consider for example...