June 14th, 2006

The theme and variations vs. the symphony: on love

I try to do about three miles of brisk walking every day for exercise. On rainy or snowy days, I’m off to the gym and its treadmill, which feels like–well, like being on a treadmill. But on beautiful days or even halfway decent days, I prefer to be outside.

I live in a beautiful area, and there are a wide variety of choices for walking. But, somehow, I almost always end up at the same place: a park by the ocean. It’s convenient, only a two-minute drive from my house. I know exactly what route to follow to get in my requisite three miles. It has just the right combination of flats and hills, sun and shade, dogs and owners, parents and children. Part of the walk lies in a wooded area, but most of it is open and within sight of the water, some cliffs and crashing waves, and even a couple of lighthouses. The sort of thing people journey to New England for from all over the world.

So, how could I ever ask for anything more?

And yet, to walk along essentially the same route, day in and day out, for several years? Doesn’t it get boring?

Well, every now and then I guess it does get boring–like almost anything can, even dessert. But mostly it’s not boring at all, even though it’s the same walk and the same scene. Because, like that proverbial river that one never steps in twice, it’s somehow ever-changing.

Some of this is due to variations in light and weather. When the sun is out, the place is transformed from the landscape when the sky is overcast. The wind whips the waves on a turbulent day, which is different entirely from a calm sea. The dogs change, although not so much as the weather; the canines and their owners are nothing if not creatures of habit. The babies get older. The seasons work their magic, especially the brilliant falls.

So yes, it’s the same park and the same ocean. But it’s never really the same. And, although walking repeatedly in the same place is very different from traveling around the world and walking in a new place every day, is it really so very much less varied? It depends on the eye and mind of the beholder; the expansive imagination can find variety in small differences, and the stunted one can find boredom in vast changes.

And I submit that love is like that, too. Some people spend a lifetime with one love, one spouse; plumbing the depths of that single human being and what it means to be in an intimate relationship with him/her. Others go from relationship to relationship, never alighting with one person for very long, craving the variety.

It would seem on the face of it that the second type of person has the more exciting time in love. But it ain’t necessarily so. Either of these experiences can be boring or fascinating, depending on what we bring to it: the first experience is a universe in depth, and the second a universe in breadth. But both can contain multitudes.

I’ll let author Milan Kundera take over on the subject now, since he was actually my inspiration in the first place (from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting). Here he is describing his musicologist father who, during the last ten years of his life, had lost the ability to speak:

Throughout the ten years of his illness, Papa worked on a big book about Beethoven’s sonatas. He probably wrote a little better than he spoke, but even while writing he had more and more trouble finding words, and finally his text had become incomprehensible, consisting of nonexistent words.

He called me into his room one day. Open on the piano was the variations movement of the Opus 111 sonata. “Look,” he said, pointing to the music (he could no longer play the piano). And again, “Look,” and then, after a prolonged effort, he succeeded in saying, “Now I know!” and kept trying to explain something important to me, but his entire message consisted of unintelligible words, and seeing that I did not understand him, he looked at me in surprise and said, “That’s strange.”

I know of course what he wanted to talk about, because it was a question he had been asking himself for a long time. Variation form was Beethoven’s favorite toward the end of his life. At first glance, it seems the most superficial of forms, a simple showcase of musical technique, work better suited to a lacemaker than to a Beethoven. But Beethoven made it a sovereign form (for the first time in the history of music), inscribing in it his most beautiful meditations.

Yes, all that is well known. But Papa wanted to know how it should be understood. Why exactly choose variations? What meaning is hidden behind it?

That is why he called me into his room, pointed to the music, and said, “Now I know!”

And, somehow, Kundera the son finally understood (or thought he understood; the father wasn’t telling) what his father meant:

I am going to try to explain it with a comparison. A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. In one of his pensées, Pascal says that man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the abyss of the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into the other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world hidden in all things.

…Variation form is the form in which the concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme for variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.

The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the marvelous depths of the atom. With every variation Beethoven moves further and further away from the initial theme, which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope.

Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack that other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach….

It is not surprising that in his later years variations become the favorite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well…that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and the interior world of their infinitude of possibilities.

22 Responses to “The theme and variations vs. the symphony: on love”

  1. neo-neocon Says:

    As I said in today’s post, I will be dealing with the troll problem in a little while, probably after I get back from vacation (perhaps even sooner, if I can get around to it). It requires some reorganization, so please bear with me. But I agree that other approaches are no longer working and something needs to be done. Rest assured, it will be.

  2. stumbley Says:

    Our main mistake with you has been treating a troll like a poster.

  3. Senescent Wasp Says:

    There is no way given the current configuration of Blogger to ban by IP address or login name. Many other bloggers have moved to hosted formats that require some up front set up and continuing upgrades and management but give the blogger more flexibility in controlling their own blogs.

    As an aside, the Free Speech doctrine only applies to government controlling speech. It is a credit to American’s that they have internalized the precepts but as everyone with an un diseased brain knows, someone spewing bile in your house forfeits any rights to speech in that house. That’s what gutters are for. To keep the trash headed for the drains.

    I expect that what the current spewer is waiting for is for neo to begin to delete its’ comments so it can rise up in righteous indignation. However, it may think that Neo will tire of the whole thing and quit blogging. It is obviously reality challenged so its’ motivations are not clear and may be more glandular in nature.

    I suspect it will just squat here, glowering and spewing the occasional burst of spittle as is the nature of these beasts.

  4. Sally Says:

    Sorry to further sulley neo’s fine post with comments on the troll, but it occurred to me that he may be looking for martyrdom — but isn’t too keen on the, you know, death part. So he might be trying to get banned in the hope that maybe a metaphorical blog-death might be worth, if not the whole 72, at least a virgin or two. You think?

  5. maryatexitzero Says:

    ..it’s also the reason I banned the one and only person I’ve ever banned from my own blog, but since this isn’t my blog, it’s just a personal observation..

  6. Goesh Says:

    …oh

  7. maryatexitzero Says:

    was that a nudge or a hint, Mary?

    It’s just a personal observation..

  8. Goesh Says:

    was that a nudge or a hint, Mary?

  9. maryatexitzero Says:

    confudeforeigner – a blog really isn’t really comparable to newspaper, so commenting isn’t a free speech issue. A newspaper is a public thing, run for profit, accountable to the public.

    A blog is more comparable to a dinner party, where, if politics are the subject, guests are expect to have dissenting views. The amount of rudeness involved depends on the host’s tolerance.

    However, when a guest starts shouting his views regardless of the general subject, abusing the host, defecating on the rug and vomiting all over everyone’s shoes, there’s a problem. At that point, a bouncer or a diaper is required.

  10. stumbley Says:

    Here’s a little gem from Lileks (www.lileks.com):

    “The little time I spent on the internet consisted of random clicking on various blogs, most of which were unreadable Serious Deeply Concerned and Troubled accounts of things that Ought to make the Murcanpeeple Angry, but don’t, because they’re all fat-bottomed idiots who run Bill O’Reilly transcripts through the shredder and roll the pieces into small, informative suppositories. Whatever. Thaaaat’s right. Everyone who doesn’t want impeachment is an idiot, just like everyone who didn’t think Bill Clinton personally dragged dead boys onto train tracks to cover up his coke ring was a Commie-Nazi who probably believes Vince Foster killed himself and Ron Brown wasn’t shot down by Chinese spaceships. When I’m in this mood the entire Internet is annoying, and I should just go sit outside and throw grapes at the squirrels.

  11. al fin Says:

    Trolls want to destroy what they see as complacency in their ideological opponents. Trolls are generally unoriginal, and repetitive. Trolls are typically uninteresting, and substitute crudity and profanity for wit.

    Trolls frequently act as dirty mirrors of trivial reflection. Consider a troll who chooses a name which mocks a blog host, then proceeds to parrot posts of others with minor (very minor) variation.

    Trolls sometimes post under different names so as to make favorable comments about themselves under another name, and to favorably compare their “other names” to the less enlightened commenters present.

    Trolls generally have nothing interesting or important to say or do. But if trolling keeps them off the streets where they would be doing mischief . . .

    Anyone can recognise and ignore a troll. Trolls can be useful, in providing counterpoint to more thoughtful postings, and often become foci of humour, unintentional on their own part.

    For the blogs with few commenters and trolls who dominate the board, simply choose comment moderation, and selectively delete comments that detract from your blog.

  12. Senescent Wasp Says:

    (Odd, Blogger took my preview and posted it before I was finished and then kept glitching, displaying only a paragraph or two of the main page.)

    There are those of us who are lucky enough to find a theme in a relationship that can engage us for a lifetime, never running out of variations. But, a musical theme is set in the intial opening bars and remains set. A relationship is a duet and the theme needs to be rich enough to engage two people over time and will change.

    Neat little problem you set your readers here, Neo. It could almost be voyueristic but I suspect most here will dance around self revelation. I know I will.

  13. Goesh Says:

    Beethoven and Janis Joplin, two of my favorites – both so desperate for what they could never have.

    Tom Grey – can I be a troll in your blog? You are blessed to only have one…..

    exercise – I pump iron in a storeage shed, then sweating and ponderous I sit on the deck and watch hummingbirds feed, their grace and speed and agility and gentleness eases the pain of the contradictions in my life

    Neo, I think you are starting to lose some readers. There is a time to kill, a time to sit perfectly still and a time to run. Pull the damn trigger, lady.

  14. The probligo Says:

    Neo, I have always had difficulty listening to Beethoven’s music – my favourites would be the Choral (remember “Song of Joy”?) and Pastoral. His piano music I can listen to but “enjoy” is not a description that would be appropriate. Perhaps it is the anger / sadness contrast that gets to me; I do not know.

    Elgar (sorry senescent wasp) and the Enigma Variations in particular just leave me cold. Far too heavy, too “big”.

    But…

    The Musical Offering, the Goldberg Variations and Well Tempered Clavier are literally music to my ears. JSB rules; there is none better. It is not “simple” music by any means; some of the variations must be fiendishly difficult to get “right” in tempo, tone and projection.

    But, that is also what I was brought up with… Each to their own.

    Neo, I am glad you found Beethoven.

    Now, please gentle ladies, it is hands over ears time for just a couple of seconds or ten.
    ___________________________________

    confude,

    You have no redeeming feature that I can see.

    You are like the spoilt little five y-o brat who is so desperate for attention that you end up wrecking the afternoon tea and wake following the funeral of an elderly aunt. You disgrace yourself. You disgrace your parents. You disgrace your family and name.

    Grow up.

  15. douglas Says:

    There’s a parallel in doing menial tasks- some see deadening and boring repetition- others find a chance to focus one one simple thing and trying to perfect it; and in getting absorbed into the task at hand, get relief from the other concerns and troubles one has.

    Zen has many good lessons on this.

    It also brings to mind the old saying that ‘only boring people are bored’…

  16. Senescent Wasp Says:

    Elgar’s Variations On An Original Theme Opus 36, known as the Enigma Variations captured me many years ago. It is always the same but is ever different. I can usually find something new by losing myself in it.

    I too, do a morning walk and seasonal variations and minor changes in my path through one of the older residential districts in my town usually never fails to reveal something I’ve missed or that is new.

  17. Ymarsakar Says:

    When people are not punished for misbehavior and instead rewarded, misbehavior becomes the rule.

  18. Tom Grey Says:

    Those unwilling to commit to, and love, one other person — don’t really know love of the other. Only a variation on love of self.

    Which also seems relevant to trolls, alas. I have my own anon troll, and don’t know what to do either … a harder decision for me, since I have far fewer comments!

    Mrswhatsit, please consider elaborating what it is that draws a troll and keeps them insulting their host.

  19. David Says:

    Reminded me of this passage from Chesterton:

    “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique….The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell”

  20. MrsWhatsit Says:

    Oh, Neo, I’m so sorry about what your comment section has become. It’s painful to turn from your lovely and thought-provoking post about the familiarity and unfamiliarity of ocean walks and long marriages and Beethoven to the spittle and venom of your trolls.

    Some comfort: the rest of us can see the contrast between what you are and what they are, though the trolls themselves, apparently, cannot. Also, something in you is drawing them close and holding them here. I suspect that I know what it is, and that you know, too — while the trolls would run away, screaming, if they ever began to suspect it themselves.

  21. Elmondohummus Says:

    Neo, from Ann Althouse’s blog about deleting posts:

    “And tough if you don’t get my standards. It’s my blog. I’m not going to spend my time analyzing the principles behind the deletions and reasoning about them in public. You’re guests here. Stop cluttering the space with things not worth reading and things that drive away people who do write things worth reading. If you think your writing is so fascinating, what with allusions to song lyric, write your own blog.”

    I’ll be honest, ma’am: You need to start deleting some of the toxic posts that have been appearing lately. They are really bringing down the quality of the conversation here.

    Confud: The Gaza thread can be found here. Show basic consideration and post opinions about that event there. This thread is not for that. Do not hijack. This blog is not about you and your opinions. You are being inconsiderate by tarnishing Neo’s post with an off topic commnet. Stop doing it. If you cannot stop, then leave.

  22. Cappy Says:

    It didn’t take long for foreign drunken trash to respond! At least he/she/it isn’t causing real trouble while trolling!

    …Still celebrating Flag Day, as well as Zarquawi’s death …

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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