synthetic zero

October 29th, 2008

I was thinking about this passage, today, from Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

During the last ten years of his life, [my father] gradually lost the power of speech…in the end he could utter only a very small number of words, and every attempt to define his thoughts resulted in the same sentence, one of the last sentences remaining to him: “That’s strange.”

He said “that’s strange,” and his eyes showed the immense astonishment of knowing everything and being able to say nothing…

Throughout the ten years, Papa worked on a big book about Beethoven’s sonatas. He probably wrote a little better than he spoke, but even while writing he had more and more trouble finding words, and finally his text had become incomprehensible, consisting of nonexistent words.

He called me into his room one day. Open on the piano was the variations movement of the Opus 111 sonata. “Look,” he said, pointing to the music (he could no longer play the piano). And again, “Look,” and then, after a prolonged effort, he succeeded in saying, “Now I know!” and kept trying to explain something important to me, but his entire message consisted of unintelligible words, and seeing that I did not understand him, he looked at me in surprise and said, “That’s strange.”

I know of course what he wanted to talk about, because it was a question he had been asking himself for a long time. Variation form was Beethoven’s favorite toward the end of his life. At first glance, it seems the most superficial of forms, a simple showcase of musical technique, work better suited to a lacemaker than to a Beethoven. But Beethoven made it a sovereign form (for the first time in the history of music), inscribing in it his most beautiful meditations.

Yes, all that is well known. But Papa wanted to know how it should be understood. Why exactly choose variations? What meaning is hidden behind it?

That is why he called me into his room, pointed to the music, and said, “Now I know!”

….I am going to try to explain it with a comparison. A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. In one of his pensées, Pascal says that man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the abyss of the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into the other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world hidden in all things.

…Variation form is the form in which the concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme for variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.

The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the marvelous depths of the atom. With every variation Beethoven moves further and further away from the initial theme, which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope.

Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack that other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach….

It is not surprising that in his later years variations become the favorite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well…that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and the interior world of their infinitude of possibilities.

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