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  • Endless Melody
  • Jed Rasula

“Far be it from me to deny the seriousness of art,” Thomas Mann’s narrator—the whimsically named Serenus Zeitblom—says in Doctor Faustus, “but when things get serious one scorns art and is no longer capable of it.” So he begs an exception for his account of the grim fate of his home-land (Zeitblom is writing near the end of the Second World War) and the Faustian bargain of his childhood friend, composer Adrian Leverkühn. “I can only repeat that the paragraphs and asterisks in this book are simply a concession to the reader’s eyes, and that if it were up to me, I would write the whole thing out in one fell swoop, in one breath, without any divisions, indeed without paragraphs and indentations” (187). Mann, if not his narrator, knows that such a book already exists in French. It’s not as if Proust provides the only instance, but what’s behind Zeitblom’s helpless accession to breathlessness as narrative trope? Despite its legacy of fragments and ruins and granulated bits, modernism seems to have an irrepressible thirst for going on, and on, and on.

By contrast, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam reflected of Proust’s precursor, “The reason Flaubert wrote it so slowly and so painfully is that after every five words he had to begin all over again” (98). Beginning again and again, or writing in one fell swoop: what’s the difference? Each reflects in its own way the challenge of expansiveness, a challenge squarely met in the theoretical pugilism of Richard Wagner—to say nothing of his musical compositions.

An expedient way of approaching Wagner is through his concept of “endless melody.” Melody, too often consigned to tunefulness, is a familiar aspect of music that may extend by analogy to other domains. Neurologists, for instance, speak of “kinetic melody” when an otherwise impaired patient smoothly executes a task, when the malady is momentarily alleviated (Sacks 270). But what might melody mean for literary modernism? We speak of the lyric occasion in poetry, or lyrical passages in a novel: are these the sanctuaries of melody, insulated from the clumsy stagecraft of literary production? The lyric, being a diminutive form, casts melody in its own wee glow, and is therefore of little help in thinking of melody as it might pertain to the Cantos or Ulysses or À la recherche du temps perdu.1 [End Page 36] Regarding works of such scope, reference to melody can be much more fruitfully linked to “endless melody.” Arthur Symons, who appreciated the leitmotif as a method for giving the inner lives of characters a “preponderance over outward event,” thought that endless melody further substantiated “Wagner’s aim at expressing the soul of things”: “it partakes of the nature of thought; it is the whole expression of the subconscious life” (310, 311).

Wagner’s term is coined in “Music of the Future,” an open letter to a French friend in which he provides an uncharacteristically succinct and lucid summary of his outlook on the dismal state and future prospects of operatic composition. The venerable Greeks of antiquity, Wagner claims, achieved a union of the arts, but over time the arts drifted apart and each art pursued its own ends. Wagner’s aspiration is to draw them together again, with music as the guiding light. In his historical reckoning, Wagner understands Beethoven to have reached a pinnacle of instrumental—and particularly orchestral—music, and in his ninth symphony he pioneered a reunion of music and poetry. Of course, poets provided librettos for operas, but for Wagner this is like affixing a label to a painting. Rather, the poet should play a central role in the desired reunion once it is understood that poetry has its highest destiny in music (Wagner charts two possible courses for poetry: an alliance with philosophy or with music). Conventional operatic practice, with its fixation on arias, reduced the bulk of the music to so much filler. By conflating melody with aria, the potential of opera had been stunted. Wagner proposes, accordingly, to extend the melodic activity invested in arias to the entire composition. By doing so, he thinks, the role...


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