It all began with music, “music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts”:
“There was a place for everyone in this brave new world, where the player [piano] offered an answer to some of America’s most persistent wants: the opportunity to participate in something which asked little understanding; the pleasure of creating without work, practice, or the taking of time; and the manifestation of talent where there was none.”
By 1945, as the player piano itself was fading from national memory, William Gaddis had come to see it as paradigmatic of the effect technological democracy had on the arts. In Agapē Agape, which he wrote fifty years later and just before his death, his partially insane, terminally-ill narrator traces this analysis from that ludicrous inversion of the “piano player”
“…Plato’s chance persons pouring out Für Elise without a flaw till the last perforation in the roll passes over the corresponding hole in the tracker bar and democracy comes lumbering back into the room…”
back through Walter Benjamin’s concerns about “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and then much further: through the imitation of Nietzsche heartlessly enacted by his sister, through Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata,” through Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s stylistic anticipation of reductive technologies to come, through Plato, even through Homer. At every turn, he sees the consequences of the democratic urge to reduce art to pleasure, to reduce creation to performance, to smash the Apollonian and hand out a thousand awards a year to all the Americans whose “art” is pantomimic, entertaining. He rages with Flaubert:
The entire dream of democracy is to raise the proletariat to the level of bourgeois stupidity.
And he implies, with impressive lexical elision, that technology has eviscerated the creative arts not solely because the middle-classes want art-as-pleasure, but also because artists themselves misunderstood the import of their human presence:
You want the essence of elitism there [Flaubert] was, his idea of art that “the artist must no more appear in his work than God does in nature, that the artist must manage to make posterity believe that he never existed,” good God, the rate things change a generation lasts about four days what posterity? Everywhere present and nowhere visible leads him right into the embrace of the death of the author whose intentions have no connection with the meaning of the text which is indeterminate anyway, a multidimensional space where the modern scriptor is born with this, this detachable self this second voice inside predicting the future in its hoarse belly-voice, Strabo?
God is absent from nature; he is the clockmaker; now man, ever the imitator, seeks to absent himself from culture, allow clockmakers to drive creation: the movie industry; the music industry; the publishing industry. The raving of the dying man is often strikingly-clear despite his splenetic outbursts; he bleeds on the mountains of notes he’s accrued obsessing about technology and art, his arms are bruised from the needles in his arms, he cannot focus, he cannot breathe, he continues on his rant: a taut, frantic, desperate dictation. The text itself is a mechanical constraint: it is obliged to record his words as he speaks them, at length and digressively, abandoning tangents as he searches for pills, selecting, disgorging, then departing from ideas that revolve around his themes. There is little time for punctuation, none for chapters; the technology of text is imperfect, we all know, for speech; in your life, no one demarcates your sentences with “he said,” but we must have it in books; and here, we haven’t even the time for that. This is a piano roll: the man is gone, dead, but the transcription of his voice, lifeless, without the proper pauses or dynamics, without the heart of the speaker, runs on and on.
What I shit is better than anything you could ever think up!
Rash Beethoven must have flushed so angrily at criticism of his execrable Wellington’s Victory, or, the Battle of Vitoria, Op. 91 in part because he knew it was awful. It was composed with technological imperatives, written for and performed by Johann Maelzel’s panharmonicon:
….a mechanical keyboard instrument that automated the playing of flutes, clarinets, trumpets, violins, cellos, drums, cymbals, triangle, and other instruments [including the sounds of guns, used in the piece].
The device, like the composition, was a failure. Inhuman art tends to be, and our art is more driven by market forces and algorithmic analyses of consumption than by that solitary, authentic artist we all half-hate, half-deride. What a fraud! To think, as he must, that he’s any better than we are! For him to labor so absurdly on his work, when what we make, what we like, is just as good! And why should I have to struggle to understand anything?
(Whatever its merits, the panharmonicon -shown above- was destroyed in a WWII allied bombing raid on Stuttgart. Man’s urges -to mechanize, to conquer- do not change, and therefore history is repetitive).
But mechanization and monetization, the narrator fumes, march on. When Jonathan Franzen repudiated Gaddis, it was in part because he felt that the latter’s anxiety about, fury with, protests of contemporary technological democratic capitalism were “seriously misconceived.” It would be nice to think so; being a popular and wealthy American artist, living in power, comfort, and freedom surely helps. Franzen is sanely acclimated to this world, but Gaddis’ narrator is firmly aligned with the insane, citing Pascal’s claim that everyone is “so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.” Moreover, he subscribes to Melville’s views on popularity on art; they sound embittered to us in this, the triumphal era of pop-culture:
…only revenge the mob has…is to go to the movies, thirty fifty a hundred million dollars against a hundred and forty-five dollars and eighty-three cents [how much Melville owed to his publisher after he wrote Moby Dick], the final great stupefying collective. No more illusion of taking part, of discovering your unsuspected talent when the biggest thrill in music was playing it yourself, your own participation that roused your emotions most no, no. The ultimate collective, the herd numbed and silenced agape at blood sex and guns blowing each other to pieces only participation you get’s maybe kids who see it come to school next morning and mow down their classmates no more elitism no more elite no wherever you turn just the spread of the crowd with its, what he did call it, what Huizinga called its insatiable thirst for trivial recreation and crude sensationalism, the mass of the mediocre widening the gap the popularity of a work is the measure of its mediocrity says Melville no news there is there? The masses invading the province of the writer says Walter Benjamin…
The idea of “unsuspected talent” remains a crucial illusion; one will wait forever for happiness if he can dream that success lies hidden within him, ready to spring out at any moment. Gaddis saw in the history of music and literature much of what would develop in the world of technology -the urge to imitation, to enactment, to the Platonic lie- but he didn’t foresee reality television and the Internet, how they’d enable that same old illusion to a greater degree than ever before. One cannot even be sure if it is an illusion, whatever its statistical rarity.
If the idea of replacing the piano player with the player piano seems less a metaphor than a delightful efficiency, and if all seems well with the methods by which we assign value to art, artists, people, cultures, then it might seem pointless to wrestle with a decaying and curmudgeonly old man who still cares about authenticity in the age of ceaseless, ubiquitous self-promotion, teenagers redacting themselves for Twitter, real people talking about their brands.
But if you ponder why we favor simulacra over substance, from what we’re fleeing, how we can find some reality in a culture that tried to force air through preserved, removed human larynxes in order to combat the rising cost of opera stars two hundred years before it cloned a sheep, Agapē Agape is very much worthwhile. Can one disentangle the desire to learn from the habit of imitation? Is there culture without the mimetic? What is the relationship of the arts to democracy, of democracy to technology, of technology to individual freedom?
Gaddis’ narrator, with a sorrowful fire just beyond his words, answers no questions, but as he casts his eye through oddities of Western cultural history -even touching on the Aristotelian ideas in A Confederacy of Dunces- he reminds us of why one might be willing to work a bit at reading fiction, in case we’ve grown accustomed to having our thought automated, our morals mass-produced.