Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Cormac McCarthy's Music Lesson

I recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. One thing seemed very important and, more than interesting, essential to the novel: its form. I refuse to call it "structure", it's a very stiff concept. This work is very telling of non-european art. Its narrative doesn't push, it's not propelled towards something, to the inevitable conclusion/resolution/return. It is not your customary introduction to a well-balanced situation that turns into a conflict that finally dissipates into tranquility (or even not the customary tragedy that builds up and explodes at the end).

It dwells. No tranquil world is presented at the beginning. Instead, it submerges the reader into an apocalyptic world that father and son roam, and that world doesn't change. Actually, they do have a destination, south. That's all we know, and it's not much more than what they know. We can't be sure what happened, why is the world in such condition. We don't even know their names. But none of it is important, and that's the beauty of it (or at least part of it). It dwells in the human condition, in the bare elements of our existence.

It might not have an evident structure (the edifice that sustains a plot or in which a plot develops), but there is form, of course. Sometimes confusion may arise when structure and content aren't distinctly presented, which is the case here. There's a naughty habit of dividing things abstractly (some think that's being professional). We see ourselves as mind and body (and sometimes soul). Supposedly, a work of art has form and substance. By now we should know that, just like time and space aren't two separate things, these divisions are mainly abstract ideas. Sure, sometimes it's helpful to do it so one can better understand something. But the problem is that, when this happens, things are seldom put back together. This mind-set has taken artists, for instance, to automatically approach their activities in such a manner.

McCarthy gives us a novel whose form is its depth. Although there is always a sense of urgency due to the context, he creates long periods of stability, but you know it can't go on like that forever. And it doesn't. Sudden changes erupt, making your heart pump blood faster.

But what happens when stability reigns supreme? Are we just bored to death waiting for something interesting to happen? No. And here McCarthy takes us into a different dimension. Imagine being asked to draw the way in which a play or a piece of music evolves. We might try to do it in a cartesian way: left to right, up and down. That's not the way The Road evolves. Remember, it dwells. And when something dwells, it either starts going somewhere else or it dies. Here a new dimension appears, depth. The way he approaches details, smells, materials, sounds, desolation, love, it's sometimes breathtaking. But to make way into a different dimension has the implicit responsibility of affecting the whole, not just a part. As I mentioned, there's an immersion into detail, and to immerse also means to change the temporal scheme. The new motion determines different rates and graduations of change, as if straight lines began to reshape themselves into complex curves, accelerating and decelerating more subtly. So the traditional juxtaposition of contrasting parts does not determine the form of this work (that I would call structure). There's a beautiful cohesion of form and content in The Road.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg, form or substance? Unlike the chicken problem, I'm glad to know that in art, while either can exist first, they can be one and the same, interacting simultaneously, like life.

In music this has been very hard to do, or so it seems. Academies tend to present music in a fragmented way. They seldom say that, for instance, harmony, form and orchestration are closely related. They fail to bring it all back together, so what's left is just an autopsy. Music often dies on their desks, and they seem satisfied to manipulate its remains.

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