Monday, September 22, 2008

Life Under Glass

In high school I attended a Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsal of a symphony by Anton Bruckner. The writer of the orchestra's program notes usually gave a brief introduction to these rehearsals. "Bruckner takes his time with themes," the lecturer advised before this rehearsal, "but once you accept the leisurely pace, it's easy to enjoy the motifs as they unfold."

I've been reminded of this lecture and Bruckner's seemingly endless, meandering exposition while re-reading W.G. Sebald's novel, The Rings of Saturn. Where Bruckner's meanderings are harmonic, Sebald's lead from one seemingly unrelated subject to another: Thomas Browne; the herring fishermen of Lowestoft on England's southeast shore; the Chinese dowager empress Tz'u-hsi; the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne; slave laborers in the Congo - all pass before the reader in a distant, slowly metamorphosing pageant. One is almost surprised Bruckner does not make his appearance at some point in the procession.

Sebald calls up again and again an image of life frozen in observation throughout The Rings of Saturn, like one of the recurring themes in Bruckner's symphony. Tz'u-hsi stands ensconced behind the windows of her palace, Sebald recounts, and sees the workers in the distant fields and gardens as though they were flies trapped in a jamjar. A visitor at Swinburne's dinner table can not escape the feeling that the aging poet greatly resembles some strange bug, patiently munching its food beneath a glass case. The narrator gazes from the window of an airplane over Europe at the infinite creations of man below him and is met with a great, lifeless stillness, as if recognizing an ever-expanding bee colony only by the honeycombs they had built.

These scenes put me in mind of a painting I always found disturbing when encountered in grade-school books: Joseph Wright of Derby's Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, painted in 1768. The canvas was meant to depict the revelation of Enlightenment science. But seen today, the bird fluttering beneath the glass might stand for the passing away of that very society of which it is the victim: a society entranced by an experimental science still in its half-theatrical infancy.

Of course, Sebald presents the motif of life caught behind glass in the very first (long) paragraph of the book, when the convalescing narrator peers at dusk from his hospital window and recognizes nothing alive or familiar in the maze of the city below him. But as with Bruckner, the theme must be encountered several times before its importance is appreciated.

Bruckner, reputedly a simple man who enjoyed few things better than a glass of beer, once expressed his thankfulness to the conductor Hans Richter during a rehearsal of the Fourth Symphony by earnestly pressing a coin into his hand, onstage, immediately after the the baton was dropped. "Drink a glass to my health," the composer entreated. Richter wore the coin on his watch chain for the rest of his life.
The coin was a Maria Theresa thaler, named after the Austrian empress who died in 1780. Amazingly, the thaler has been in continuous circulation since its first minting in 1741. At various times it was used as currency as far afield as the United States, Ethiopia, and India, and is still used in the Middle East, recalling in its strange endurance the coins found in ancient burial sites as described by Thomas Browne in his Urn Burial, and which, as Sebald relates, preserved in Browne's view something of the undying soul of the humans who made them.

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