The Aura and Assurance of my Dreams

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887).

There are times when my reading goes into a self-cancelling tail-spin, most often when a book sends me off tracking allusions and word origins. A single word can lead me to multiple volumes in the grip of excited etymologising.

Many curious words turn out be rather dull etymologically, but occasionally there are the thrills of the exotic. Fernando Pessoa writes, “After I’ve slept many dreams, I go out to the street with eyes wide open but still with the aura and assurance of my dreams.”

Although the etymology of aura is quite diverse, it commonly refers to the perceived halo surrounding an object or figure. Russian occultist, Madame Blavatsky, whose disciples included William Yeats, defined aura as a “subtle invisible essence or fluid that emanates from human and animal bodies and even things,” or, “a psychic effluvium.” Walter Benjamin used the word differently in his essays on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, writing of its protagonist, Prince Mishkin, “he is surrounded in a quite unobtrusive way by an aura of complete isolation.”

Surprisingly its origin is not from the Latin auris, from which we get aural, even though a less common use of aura is to describe the premonitory sensations that come before an epileptic fit, with occasional auditory hallucinations such as hearing music of words. Dostoevsky wrote of “ecstatic aurae” preceding his first epileptic seizure and recurring verbal and nonverbal auditory hallucinations, including the sound of someone snoring. (Freud controversially argued that Dostoevsky suffered not from epilepsy, but neurosis.) My OED asserts that aura is from Greek and Latin for breath and breeze. We could be said to breathe aura, to absorb it into our body, which is how Pessoa appears to embark on his walk, sustained by his dream aura.

A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.

 

Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

The Kreutzer Sonata

Leoš Janáček, of all composers, makes me wish for greater technical knowledge of musical form, as his music never fails to provoke surprise. His late music is against the grain of anything else happening at the time. One piece that I listen to often is The Kreutzer Sonata, based on Tolstoy’s novella of the same name. Tolstoy’s novella was in turn inspired by Beethoven’s violin sontata (Op. 47 “Kreutzer”), which is invoked in the third of the four movements of the Janáček, with an edgy canon between cello and violin.

In a letter to Kamila Stösslová (Faber and Faber’s Intimate Letters: Leoš Janáček to Kamila Stösslová relate one side of his unrequited and obsessive love. They are intense.), Janáček wrote, “I had in mind the pitiable woman who is maltreated, beaten, and murdered.” Composer and violinist, Josef Suk, wrote that Janáček intended the composition to be a protest against men’s despotic attitude toward women.

It is an uneasy but beautiful piece, always a pleasure to see performed live due to its complexity. I was fortunate to see a fine performance this week by the Julia Fisher Quartet.

The War Sonatas

Prokofiev’s letters to opera and theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold make clear the depth and enduring importance of their occasionally turbulent friendship. Their professional collaboration began in 1916 and lasted until Meyerhold’s disappearance in 1939. It was to emerge that Meyerhold was brutally tortured over a three-year period before signing a confession to being a follower of Leon Trotsky’s teachings, and executed by firing squad in 1940. Meyerhold’s wife, Zinaida Raykh, a close friend also of Prokofiev and his wife, Lina, was, a month after her husband’s arrest, tortured and stabbed to death in her Moscow flat.

Shortly after Meyerhold’s arrest and Zinaida Raykh’s murder, Prokofiev was requested to compose a homage to Stalin to celebrate his 60th birthday. That cantata, Zdravitsa, was performed to official acclaim at the end of the awful year.

This post is the second in which I’m sharing pieces that have shaped my love of music, if not quite a personal canon, then those proverbial Desert Island Discs perhaps.

Prokofiev’s deeper, darker response to those events of 1939 is, perhaps, embodied, not of course in the trite Hail to Stalin, but in the War Sonatas that followed, and particularly No. 7, which includes a musical allusion to the Schumann song, Wehmut: “I can sometimes sing if I were glad, yet secretly tears well and so free my heart. Nightingales . . . sing their song of longing from their dungeon’s depth . . . everyone delights, yet no one feels the pain, the deep sorrow in the songs”.

There are several fine, very different performances but, for me, no one quite ‘translates’ Prokofiev, especially this sonata, like Sviatoslav Richter.