“. . . the spine of the European Enlightenment. . .” (Caroline Knox)

woosters-paperback-cover1Sometime in the ’80s a friend gave me a copy of a novel by P.G. Wodehouse. I guess his books are novels. That’s not an elitist remark—I genuinely don’t know. Because I never read it. That is, I didn’t finish reading it. That was elitism. It seemed insufferably silly to me, so my insufferable snobbery rejected it.

I’ve been meaning to read a P.G Wodehouse novel for some time. Eleanor was nobody’s fool—a graduate of Smith College back in the ‘40s when education still intended to make thinkers out of students instead of “successes.” She was WAC in WW II and did not suffer fools lightly. She thought I needed to read Wodehouse to lighten up.

This morning I discovered the complete novels (38) of Wodehouse available in one Nook Book from Barnes and Noble for $2.99—a dime apiece (a new meaning for “dime novel”). Who could pass that up?

I did read (and remember) enough of the novel Eleanor gave me to know that Bertie Wooster is Wodehouse’s eccentric whose “man” Jeeves has continually to bail out of one scrape after another.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed 41 symphonies. He composed 18 piano sonatas. He composed 23 “operas,” that is, theatrical pieces performed on a stage with singers “playing” the part of characters. I point that out simply to remind myself how much music he wrote in his short lifetime.

Mozart composed only one “church anthem.” A setting of the Latin hymn, Ave Verum Corpus.

Ave verum corpus, natum
ex Maria Virgine
,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine
.

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste
Of the trial of death.

The vocal demands of the anthem are not great. Among his enormous oeuvre Mozart wrote only one work that every church choir ought to be able to sing. It is a late work; he composed it while he was in the process of composing The Magic Flute.

The silliest boys in all of opera

The silliest boys in all of opera

I stumbled onto this poem by Caroline Knox as I was cleaning the saved files and folders out of my office computer at SMU. I don’t know where I originally read it, and I can find out precious little about Caroline Knox except she has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and that she has published several volumes of poetry. I can’t even find the year she was born.

“Mozart,” by Caroline Knox
Can you imagine
what is true, that
smack in the middle
of making The Magic
Flute
he interrupted
himself to make
“Ave Verum Corpus,”
world’s most truth-telling
motet (Who made its
text? Maybe a pope),
then got himself on
track, back to TMF
(all the while dealing
with money worry and
sickness of wife). When
you get to the esto nobis
cadence in “AVC,” you
scale the spine of the
European Enlightenment;
when you get to the
idiotic “Three Faithful
Youths” chorus in TMF:

“Three faithful youths we now will lend you
Upon your journey they’ll attend you;
Though young in years, these youths so fair
Heed the words of wisdom rare!”

you’re dealing with
Bertie Wooster’s
three best friends.
Because he was Mozart,
not a problem.

Because he was Mozart, it is not a problem that the three forest sprites in The Magic Flute are nearly the silliest little boys who sing nearly the silliest music in all of opera. It’s Mozart, for goodness’ sake.

I don’t often try to ferret out a logical or literal meaning of a poem (because my thinking is mostly illogical, and I don’t recognize logic when I run into it), but Knox’s poem caught my attention in some way other than a poetic response with, “When you get to the esto nobis cadence in ‘AVC,’ you scale the spine of the European Enlightenment.”

The spine of the European Enlightenment.

My knowledge of such concepts comes from reading and sitting in classes many years ago (50!), and is most likely based on outdated ideas. Textbooks I was assigned to read are undoubtedly thought of (if anyone remembers them at all) as archaic and no longer relevant.

Here’s a succinct rendering of my understanding of the European Enlightenment,

. . . when the freedom of thought that originated in the Renaissance received a new impetus through the scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and . . . seventeenth century. These discoveries encouraged men [sic] to regard as true only what could be tested by direct observation or proved by logical deduction, and to accept the premise of the first great modern philosopher, Descartes, that doubt is the starting-point of philosophy. (Harman, Alec and Anthony Milner. Man & His Music. Late Renaissance and Baroque Music. New York: Schocken Books, (1962), 249.)

In the late ‘80s the Dean Minton of Bunker Hill Community College and I had long discussions in which she eventually prevailed about the evil that the Enlightenment had perpetuated on the world by making people “regard as true only what could be tested by direct observation,” leaving little room for mystery and the inexplicable.

I agree with Anne to this day, probably because I don’t have the brains to test much by direct observation. And the older I get, the less important that seems to me, anyway.

Knox’s poem seems to say that the ineffably sublime and mysterious music Mozart composed for the words “May it be for us a foretaste of the trial of death” is the “spine” (that which holds a body together) of rationality. The music is indeed “rational.” I can explain to you exactly how it works both harmonically and contrapuntally. It contains in a couple of phrases the complete “theory” of Western music.

And so does the silly (comical? innocent?) music the three boys sing in The Magic Flute.

I think Dean Minton’s perception of the damage done by Enlightenment thinking is more on target today than it was 30 years ago. Everyone. I mean everyone in this country thinks they have a market on rational thought. Scientists, climate-change deniers. Bankers, “occupiers.” Tea-partiers, liberals. Fundamentalist christians, atheists.

Our national discourse is the Enlightenment choosing up sides and going berserk. We don’t discuss, we yell at each other. We don’t try to be rational, we adopt opinions based on preconceptions that may (or likely, may not) have anything to do with reality.

Mozart’s music may well be the most rational anyone ever composed. But it’s also the most mysterious. And the same rationality can give voice to comical forest sprites and to the deepest held mysteries of human life.

Knox’s poem can tie all of those things together—and even bring in Jeeves the butler.

Mystery and rationality together. That’s not impossible.

The spine of the American Enlightenment

The spine of the American Enlightenment

One Response to “. . . the spine of the European Enlightenment. . .” (Caroline Knox)

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