Standing with Josipovici: “The Story of a Moment”

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“Britain’s First Book Blogger” (see link to the right) wrote about this little book and made me think I’d like to read it. There were intimations of the standing metaphor in his account and I thought I’d check them out.

An interviewer speaks with the manservant of a deceased Sicilian composer, Pavone. They talk about the man and about his work, about the exacting and related tasks of art and of caring for Pavone’s suits and shoes:

“Think of what this would do to the work, he said. If you got up to take a drink of water or to fulfill a need of nature and one heel was lower than the other, causing you to limp as you crossed the room, think what this would do to the music. Think how, when you returned to your desk, that limp would be lodged in your body and would emerge in the music you were writing. We do not want music that limps, he said. We want music that stands foursquare on the ground” (8).

The discussion continues about cleanliness, about Pavone’s wife, and about his aesthetics: “Each sound is a sphere, he said. It is a sphere, Massimo, and every sphere has a centre. The centre of the sound is the heart of the sound. One must always strive to reach the heart of the sound, he said. If one can reach that one is a true musician” (14).

Talk returns to the standing metaphor when Massimo relates his master’s attraction to the sculptures of the Ife: “The most remarkable sculptures of the Ife, though, he said, the memory of which has never left me in the course of my life, are the stone sculptures found in the groves or religious sanctuaries that are dotted about the periphery of the city of Ife. There are remarkable standing figures, such as the one called the Gatekeeper, a hideous dwarfish creature who guards one of the groves” (57). Even more remarkable, he remembers, “was a granite slab some two metres high by forty centimetres broad and about ten centimetres thick, with five holes drilled into its upper half, and which ethnologists have called the Shield. Why that should have made such an impression on me is difficult to understand, he said, but felt the moment I saw it as though I was standing at the confluence of all the waters of the world, I felt an immense pressure on all sides, which was keeping me upright and keeping me stable, but only because the pressure was so evenly distributed. . . . You feel, he said, as if at every moment you are going either to be crushed or swept away, but you also feel as if you are in touch with the secret pulse of the universe. It is an extraordinary sensation, he said, a compressing into the moment of everything that has ever been and ever will be. It is this that I look for in each sound I imagine, he said, it is this that is at the heart of every note” (57-58).

The standing works of art resonate in the viewer to make him stand, to keep him upright, to make him human.

Four pillars on the cathedral of Orvieto similarly appeal to him: “I want you to concentrate on the pillars of the west front, where we are standing. There are four of them and on them you will see what is perhaps the greatest sculptural masterpiece of the Italian Middle Ages” (65).

The visits to the cathedral tire Pavone and one day after such a trip Massimo finds him lying on the floor: “one minute I was standing up,” Pavone says when he has recovered a bit, “I was crossing the room, my mind was busy on important things, and the next I was opening my eyes and seeing you standing there looking at me with undisguised terror. Our mothers help us to stand upright, Massimo, he said, and then they help us to walk. But one day, when our mothers are gone, we find we can no longer stand up. We can no longer walk” (69).

Life and art are thus connected by the standing metaphor. What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? What has Gestalt, standing form, erection against the pull of gravity?

Later Pavone comes back to the standing stones in the Ore Grove: “There is a mysterious figure standing there, he said, his features rubbed away by time, his hands clasped round his stomach, protecting a sort of pouch which hangs there. . . . The greatest stone carving of Ore, he said, is one I have already talked to you about before, Massimo, because it made such an impression on me. It is the granite obelisk, standing almost two and half meters high, with five holes bored into it running from near the middle to the top. In that block of granite we find a miracle taking place, he said. For what we have here is pure stone, primal matter, which has been touched, but only touched, by the human. In the normal course of things, Massimo, he said, for the human to leave a trace upon the earth is to civilise it, and thus to weaken it. But the marks of the human, in this case, he said, the cutting of this massive block of granite and the boring into it of five holes, is so minimal, and has been carried out with so much respect for the materiality of the stone, that it takes nothing away from its primal power” (73-74).

That a musician is taking inspiration from standing stones and columns, that so much of his discussion of aesthetics and human response to works of art is related to sculpture, is a bit surprising until he speaks further about his music: “When you have entered the world of music, he said, when you are penetrating to the heart of each sound, then time ceases to matter. You are no longer working with time and you are no longer working in time. Each sound in itself, he said. Each passing moment in itself. That is the secret, Massimo, he said” (90).

The sphere, rather than the straight line, is the form of his music, and the sign for infinity is circular (104). The sphere contains everything in one as opposed to the line that moves from one to the other. The sphere is timeless where the line marks motion through space and time. And the metaphor used often to describe such an infinite moment is the Scholastics’ nunc stans, the “standing now.” Thus the standing stones as inspiration, standing through time, standing against gravity, defying entropy, standing still through the great effort and skill exerted to stand them up.

“To write music that is and is not static, that is and is not in motion, that both sounds and is silent, that goes inwards and that goes backwards and that does not go anywhere at all, that is the idea” (111).

The sound of the cicada, Pavone explains, has this quality: “What is it saying? Now, it is saying, and eternity. If you can hear the now, he said, you can hear eternity. That is what I have tried to do, he said, to write a music of now which would be a music of eternity” (113).

And thus the photo of the standing book. The novel is Josipovici’s creation. It stands there thin and tall and golden. Reading it one feels immense pressure from all sides that keeps one upright and stable.

Homo erectus in the art of Homo sapiens.

And now a diversion, a peripheral thought.

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This is my German/English, English/German dictionary, purchased in 1968 and used extensively through the years. I had it in my hands yesterday while translating a text by Peter Handke and marveled at the softness of the pages. They have developed, over time, the feel of human skin. And yet the book can still stand. It will, eventually, completely lose its rigidity and its pages will fall out of their useful order.

But still, for now, it stands there, as do I.

About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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