Edouard Godard & Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie, Les plantes potagères, 1904. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
I sit at the long blond pine table I use for a desk. Nothing happens. Maybe I can make something happen.
A few years ago there was a popular self-help book called How To Make Sh*t Happen, never mind that peristalsis is involuntary. I eat some mango slices and a green apple and a banana. I drink twelve ounces of whole milk with a scoop of whey protein. I find a leftover fried artichoke in the fridge, wrapped in aluminum foil.
I listen to Michael Gielen conducting Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, but it’s not loud enough.
“Have you seen the ghost of John?” we used to sing at my elementary school. “Long thin bones with the skin all gone. Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?” It would be red. My inner life is none of my business.
Now I’m listening to Otto Klemperer conducting Bruckner’s Seventh, turned up loud enough that it’s antisocial.
In the beginning was the plan, and my plan for this culture diary was seven days of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.
Seven different conductors: Böhm, Klemperer, Gielen, Sanderling, Haitink, Barenboim, and Celibidache.
Seven friends: Barry, Andy, James, Hank, Michael, Billy, and Mark, all of them Bruckner hounds.
“Seven, Seven, / Seven is my name,” as Glenn Danzig howled when I was in high school in Kentucky. But the plan failed, as plans do. I thought it might.
My first full-time job was on an assembly line. We made furniture-moving pads: quilted them, sewed their edges shut, pressed them flat and packed them in clear plastic bags, and loaded tractor trailers full of the bags. One day the kid at the next machine asked if he could listen to the cassette I had in my Walkman. He pressed Play and he made a face. “What is this?” he said. “Classical music, like Beethoven or some shit?”
The job paid minimum wage, and it wasn’t safe. One day my machine jammed and kicked and spat needle fragments at me that cut my face near my right eye. But I liked throwing the bags into the trailers. It made me feel strong. At lunch I could walk across the train tracks to Xpressway Liquors—which was run by flinty, mulleted twins who kept a pair of bratty cockatoos in big cages in the store—and buy a box of fried chicken livers and be back at my machine on time.
Now I am listening to Bruckner or some shit, highfalutin as can be, drinking a cold beer on a summer day, thinking of all the decent people who loved me, encouraged me, taught me, helped me, and were patient with me, who wished the best for me, who wanted or even demanded that I leave my family behind and become someone completely different from my father, who was my hero—all those well-meaning people who insisted that I would enjoy being a class traitor in the air-conditioning, educated beyond my station.
But I remember Eden. Eden was green and it was called Fern Creek, south on Bardstown Road until the super-Kroger parking lot before you run into I-265/KY-841, the Gene Snyder Freeway.
My interest in Bruckner’s symphonies comes from the scroungiest source possible, a 1969 science fiction novel by Colin Wilson called The Philosopher’s Stone:
I came across Furtwängler’s remark that Bruckner was a descendant of the great German mystics, and that the aim of his symphonies had been to ‘make the supernatural real’ … I put on Furtwängler’s recording of the Seventh Symphony, and immediately understood that this was true. This music was slow, deliberate, because it was an attempt to escape the nature of music—which, after all, is dramatic; that is to say, it has the nature of a story … Bruckner, according to Furtwängler, wanted to suspend the mind’s normal expectation of development, to say something that could only be expressed if the mind fell into a slower rhythm.
The book’s hero develops supernatural powers of focus and attention, beginning by listening to Furtwängler conduct Bruckner’s long symphonies. He uses his insight to rip the veil, to see through the mask, to penetrate our world’s inner life. Wilson wrote the story on a bet, having mocked H. P. Lovecraft until August Derleth, executor of Lovecraft’s estate, dared Wilson to produce something superior.
Most of us know how a Lovecraft-style story goes. A terrifying secret exists. The secret is a secret by virtue of its being unnameable. Are words adequate to the task? This permanent secret can be called God, and God, an unknowable creator-origin, is generative to the point of being unsanitary and self-contradictory, perceptible only as a flickering, disjunct, climactic-orgasmic list of characteristics. The cost of a revelation of God is a shattering insanity and a need to escape from life, whether into institutionalization or through death, but in any case to no longer exist in an unmasked world. A Lovecraft story is the discovery of an insight that brings only unhappiness and terror.
All this to say that twenty-five years ago, I set out to develop my own powers of insight by listening to Bruckner symphonies. Dumb.
I can’t stand the stench of this orchestra any more. I call Jean at Guitar Stop, and we special order the Gretsch G5700 Electromatic lap steel I’ve had my eye on since May.
I listen to The Economist’s podcast on how to prevent a war between the United States and China, as if anyone, anywhere, knows how to do that. It’s like Daron Acemoglu’s book Why Nations Fail. I read it. But did I learn why nations fail?
I give up on Kultur for the day and listen to James Burton and Ralph Mooney’s Corn Pickin’ and Slick Slidin’, Sonny Clark’s Leapin’ and Lopin’ with Billy Higgins on drums, and the Jesus Lizard: “Why don’t you set up a camera to record your own death, dear?” Maybe I will.
No culture consumed today. Closed until further notice.
To-do lists are bogus. What you want is a to-don’t list. The most important part is knowing what to leave out.
Socrates, in the marketplace, said: How many things exist that I do not desire.
A quick look back at my summer reading. The Financial Times, The Economist, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The High Sierra: A Love Story, Stephen R. Donaldson’s five-volume Gap series, Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, David C. Lees and Alberto Zilli’s Moths, the London Review of Books, The New Yorker, Harper’s, the Times Literary Supplement, Michio Kaku’s The God Equation, Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s God: An Anatomy, Meghan O’Gieblyn’s God Human Animal Machine, Jack Miles’s God: A Biography, John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society, Martha Wells’s All Systems Red, and Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Firebreak.
It’s too much. Closed systems starve, open systems drown. That’s why you feel like you’re drowning, Johnny: because you are. I need more nothing in my life.
Mary Gaitskill reports a conversation with George Saunders: “Who looks out the window and thinks about trees? Only people in books do that.” More proof, if more proof were needed, that I am a person in a book.
Coleman Hawkins on WHRB 95.3 FM’s The Jazz Spectrum.
If the most important part is knowing what to leave out, then what now? What next? What is culture? What is a diary?
That sounds kind of familiar. I consult my Paris Review culture diary of August 2010. Day three: “I am always inquiring into origins—what is culture, what is a diary—why not just make a mess of things. Stop preparing and act.”
I can’t stop sweating. I turn on Daniel Barenboim conducting Bruckner no. 7. It has a majesty that Sanderling and Klemperer’s interpretations lack. Often they seem merely dutiful, but maybe they are subtle and restrained where Barenboim is obvious or overemphatic. I’m no connoisseur—I can’t even spell that word. But we can’t quite call Barenboim bombastic, because no force of expression could be too great for Bruckner’s ideas. After all, his Ninth Symphony is dedicated “to my dear God, if He accepts it.”
Shut up about God. Shut up about God!
The problem is that religious devotion, as a habit of mind, is portable and nonspecific.
Jay Nordlinger writes that Bruckner was “a very, very religious man … When he heard church bells ring, he would drop to his knees, even if he was teaching a class.”
But Bruckner also “worshiped Wagner, and I do not intend much of an exaggeration: On his knees, he once said to the older composer, ‘Master, I worship you.’ ”
Bruckner had a habit of worship. And he didn’t pay much mind to whatever happened to be on the altar.
Barry’s in New Jersey, Andy’s in Vermont, James is in Quebec, Mark’s in California, Michael’s in Ohio, Hank is in Qatar.
Now Bernard Haitink conducts no. 7. This version is James’s favorite. “Very crisp brass,” he texts me, and it’s true that the articulation of many phrases is sharp, clipped, even bitten off. Many performances of these symphonies evoke the ocean, with a constant danger of blissed-out gloppiness. But Haitink is architectural, orthogonal, even gawky in moments. I like the sharp edges. Like Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro, sometimes I need a scratch to awaken me.
When I ask Barry for his favorite conductor of no. 7, instead he tells me the one he likes least: Sergiu Celibidache. “Made a career of excruciatingly slow performances … Almost parodically attenuated.”
As for slow, yes, the performance takes 33 percent longer than any version I’ve heard. But I wouldn’t call it excruciating. That’s not what pain means to me.
Long blank summer days. The silence between the notes is the most important part of the music.
When my friend S. got killed, I helped his sister clean out his house. It was full. Full of “art,” sure, whatever, but mostly just packed full, tumorized, slam-crammed. Hard to breathe in there. Horror vacui.
Opposing view: Douglas Coupland said, “I hoard space.”
Now Sanderling conducts no. 7. It really is a lot of Bruckner. Tell me what you hear, I will tell you who you are.
That’s enough Bruckner for the day. Instead, Paul Humphrey drumming with Zappa on “The Gumbo Variations,” and a video that always makes me feel happy: Dan Weiss’s “Drumset/Speech pairing” of Big Pun’s “Twinz.”
“Even as Thou, Eternal Spirit, hast seen me, so have I laid bare my soul”: thus Rousseau.
In 2018, Stig Abell compared me to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the Times Literary Supplement. “Rousseau certainly did not invent the literary confession (one would not wish to snub St Augustine in any credit-giving stakes), but he did establish a new tone of honesty and chaotic inclusivity … Daniels is a worthy descendant, then, of Rousseau himself.” Abell did not mean it as a compliment, but I have rarely received a more flattering insult.
My playlist laid bare. The CD player and record player don’t keep score. What are the last hundred-odd tracks I listened to on this laptop?
Bruckner, Miff Mole, Jay-Z, more Bruckner, Glass Animals, Kodak Black, Kanye, Zappa, Richter playing Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Guitar Slim, Gary Burton, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Ron Jarzombek, Lloyd Green and Jay Dee Maness, Waylon Jennings, Clarence White, Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky, Turnstile, AC/DC, Anthrax, Kvelertak, more AC/DC, Ogdon playing Scriabin, Mastodon, Pantera, Twin Temple, Haydn’s String Quartet no. 63, still more AC/DC, Rob Zombie, the Jesus Lizard, Eric B. & Rakim, Lil Wayne, John Coltrane with Red Garland, Nicki Minaj, Kate Bush, Rich Homie Quan, UGK, Stan Getz, Kid Ory, Artie Shaw, Theo Hill, Wayne Shorter, Jay McShann, Thelonious Monk, still more Bruckner, more Jesus Lizard, more Waylon, Merle Haggard, Bach, the Flying Burrito Brothers, New Riders of the Purple Sage, John Scofield, Jack Teagarden, Lee Morgan, Charlie Parker, Superwolf, more Scofield, Steve Reich, and even more Bruckner.
This is the end.
I haven’t developed new Brucknerian powers of insight. I feel as smashed and scatterational as I ever did. But maybe that is the insight. Maybe it is an accurate instrument reading. Or maybe I didn’t give Wilson’s method a fair shot. After all, I haven’t listened to a Furtwängler version.
“Let me put this in the clearest way possible,” Wilson writes on the last page of The Philosopher’s Stone. “Man should possess an infinite appetite for life. It should be self-evident to him, all the time, that life is superb, glorious, endlessly rich, infinitely desirable.”
A happy beginning, in other words, and a happy middle, and a happy ending. Once upon a time, nothing happened.
But never mind all that now. Furtwängler is conducting the adagio to Bruckner no. 7. I hear the secret. I burst into flames.
J. D. Daniels is the winner of a 2016 Whiting Award and the Paris Review’s 2013 Terry Southern Prize. His collection The Correspondence was published in 2017. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Esquire, n+1, Oxford American, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere, including The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing.
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