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    patterns in sand

    Book Tour: The Greatest of These

    Reviewing The Impossible Art by Matthew Aucoin, Magnificent Rebels by Andrea Wulf, Jena 1800 by Peter Neumann, and Rahel Varnhagen by Hannah Arendt

    By Phil Christman

    April 18, 2023
    • bill canonico

      i once went to my pastor for counseling help. i told him i suffered from perfectionism. he said, "what's wrong with trying to do everything right, all the time?" i felt like he hadn't heard me. i felt brushed off and not helped. what we told our children as they were growing up was to strive not for perfection, but for excellence. to do and to be the best they could, and to ask God to help. this seemed to us to be a healthier approach.

    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.

    Like all the most dangerous ideas, perfectionism seems irrefutable. When we first succumb to its appeal, often in childhood – the urge to line up one’s toys just so, to get one hundred on every math quiz – it seems merely logical. Once you can aim, why not aim for dead center? So obvious is the answer to this question that we forget to ask ourselves whether, in some situations, a single target exists. We continue in this manner until we precipitate some serious crisis for ourselves, whereupon a therapist, a parent, a religious teacher, a friend tries to explain our mistake to us. By now all these explanations, true as they are, fall on our ears like rationalizations: the cant of the contentedly incapable. It’s one of those things where we can know we’re dead wrong and we still can’t stop.

    But we can, while we’re stuck here, still make some distinctions. The term “perfectionism” has three senses that I know of, the first of which is a specialized theological doctrine that I will leave to my Methodist and Orthodox friends to hash out. The second sense of “perfectionism” is an obsession with achieving a machinelike consistency that is simply inhuman, inorganic. It’s the desire to press out perfect days, one after another, as an assembly line in a cartoon presses out perfect copies of the same car. (Actual assembly lines snag and break.) If you, like me, suffer from this desire, you should regard it as a symptom. At the very least, it’s a symptom of living in a society that is in thrall to the inhuman imperatives of the profit motive, and it may be a symptom of a more acute and personalized mental illness as well, the kind you need help managing. (Reader, if this is you, get that help. God likes you and wants you to have it. You are a living thing and those are rare enough in the universe that we shouldn’t take them for granted.) Athletes or performers who achieve this kind of perfection do so only – it’s a business-book cliché, but it happens to be true – by getting their misfires out of the way before anyone looks. Humans are shaky, leaky, moist, breakable, intermittent; it’s our job to be these things.

    The disciplined, methodical, sober pursuit of the impossible is what makes life interesting enough to go on with.

    But there is also perfectionism in the sense of “pursuing the impossible,” whether that means some trait or achievement that is imaginable in theory but beyond our capacities – to love one’s neighbor as oneself; to love God with all one’s heart – or whether it means reconciling incompatible goods, cultivating necessary traits that are in tension with each other, as a parent must be both firm and forgiving, or as an ideal lover is both besotted and clear-eyed. This sort of perfectionism can’t simply be waved away as a mistake. The disciplined, methodical, sober pursuit of the impossible is what makes life interesting enough to go on with. It’s what good artists, teachers, janitors, gardeners, and friends do; it may eventually get us cold fusion. Such perfection, pursued en masse by people who remember that they have undertaken all this work finally on behalf of weak and imperfect human beings – that is itself an impossible ideal, probably, but it’s also the social movement everyone is desperate for. Perfectionism in this sense is something we can’t really lay aside; we just seek a livable relationship to it. Let me know if you find one.

    The composer Matthew Aucoin’s recent book The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera reconciles several goods that don’t seem easily compatible. It is a fun book about opera. It served me perfectly well as a primer on a subject I know very little about, but it’s also warm, personal, digressive. To me, this is exactly how any primer should be – you haven’t really started to know a subject until you have started to see how people take sides about it, what it gives people to fight about. (The imperial objectivity of a school textbook or Wikipedia entry almost always leaves me more confused than when I started; it’s like trying to make sense of some long-running neighborhood feud using only the obfuscating explanations people give of their own behavior.) Aucoin’s book gave me a sense of opera’s historical development and importance while also introducing me to Aucoin’s own idiosyncratic sensibility and personal favorites, and yet neither thing comes at noticeable expense to the other. Aucoin is evidently well-regarded among contemporary opera composers; the book bears a glowing blurb from the theater and opera director Peter Sellars, a man whose many gifts do not really include diplomacy or flattery. (I once listened to Peter Sellars catalogue the mistakes of a much-praised Broadway production, off the cuff, with forensic accuracy, for upwards of forty-five minutes.) It’s unfair when someone who is this good at another art form also turns out to be a born writer. Leave something for the rest of us.

    The pursuit of the impossible is, it turns out, embedded in the history of opera. The first things that we call “operas” – products of the late Italian Renaissance – were written and composed by people who thought they were reconstructing the way Greek tragedy sounded and looked. What a magnificent, stupid thing to do. And the Greek myth that a number of these composers chose to exercise their talents on was that of Orpheus, who sang so beautifully that Hades allowed him to lead Eurydice out of the underworld, if he could only keep from looking back. What music do you write for such a character? To really work, it would have to be the most beautiful music anyone in the audience has ever heard – across all recorded musical history, and across differences in taste, in desire, in the most basic shape of people’s personalities, across every quirk and caprice and crotchet. (I will almost always respond more to mediocre music written in the key of E major than to good music written in G.) No such music can exist, and even in audiences of an unimaginable aesthetic and temperamental uniformity, who would all agree on the same “greatest of all time,” you’re setting yourself near-impossible odds. Aucoin treats Orpheus as an origin myth for opera itself. Though the art form has grown in unpredictable ways, though the things we now call “opera” have multiplied via influence and Wittgensteinian family resemblance until the term is nigh-undefinable, the hallmark of the art form, for him, is still a special concern with “productive impossibility.”

    patterns in sand

    Photograph by Kilman Foto

    He traces that theme through several Orpheus-based operas, then studies the productive tension between Igor Stravinsky and librettists W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman in the creation of The Rake’s Progress (1951) and the way the chilly fatalism of the opera’s premise warmed to something ineffably tough and compassionate in the process of their collaboration. This allows him to defend a much-maligned work while also engaging with Auden’s considerable corpus of writings on opera – and by pushing off from Auden, he’s able to cover a great deal of history and material. He then examines Verdi’s evolution via his three great Shakespeare adaptations and introduces the reader to such contemporaries as Harrison Birtwhistle, Chaya Czernowin, Thomas Adès, Anthony Davis, and Kate Soper, before more or less closing the book, in a nice bit of envelope structure, with an account of his collaboration with the playwright Sarah Ruhl on the opera of her 2003 play Eurydice. There follows a brief reading of a single scene from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (1786) that taught me more about music than two solid years of piano lessons.

    Aucoin makes one feel that opera is nearer the beginning of its trajectory than its end. He stresses the form’s potentially infinite stylistic diversity, and calls for an accompanying diversity in the ranks of those whose work gets commissioned, produced, and auditioned for history. “The most pressing question currently facing the art form is surely not ‘How do we expand access to the German Romantics so that people from all backgrounds have the chance to sing Wagner?’ but rather ‘What creators haven’t we heard from, and what might they have to tell us?’” he writes early on. But the book, as a whole, refuses to choose between these two competing goods – certainly it expanded my access to Verdi – and is all the better for it.

    “But wait,” I thought, as I read this passage, “I actually don’t know anything about German Romanticism.” Like most former English majors, I have read the requisite Coleridge poems; I can tell you that Romanticism existed, and that it had to do, somehow, with skylarks, opium, and fighting with your friends. What it meant as an international phenomenon, I have no idea. I have seen people blame or praise it for engendering communism, fascism, nationalism, and garden-variety liberalism. What is this odd shape that combines such different attributes?

    Three recent books – two new, one old; two translated, one originally written in English – helped me begin to answer that question. Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (2022), by Andrea Wulf, covers a larger stretch of the story, and tries to bring the women of German Romanticism closer to the center of the stage. Jena 1800: The Republic of Free Spirits (2018), by Peter Neumann, and translated from the German by Shelley Frisch, examines in detail a brief, intense period when a number of these weirdos – August von Schlegel and his little brother Friedrich, their wives Caroline and Dorothea, the young philosopher Friedrich Schelling, the poet and mine inspector Novalis, the poet Ludwig Tieck, the established poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller, and the young theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher – found themselves in the same sleepy university town. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visits frequently from nearby Weimar, babbling about color theory and playing diplomat between the Schlegels and Schiller; the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte hovers in the background, complaining about his 1799 expulsion from even this relatively-liberal city for his atheism. Neumann’s book complements Wulf’s perfectly: an establishing shot, followed by a zoom-in.

    You haven’t really started to know a subject until you have started to see how people take sides about it, what it gives people to fight about.

    Wulf’s main character is Caroline Schelling, who with her first husband August Wilhelm Schlegel (eventually his children took over the enterprise) authored the long-standard English-to-German translation of Shakespeare. The Schlegels practiced what used to be called “free love,” and so August did not make any real objection when Caroline fell for Friedrich Schelling, a young philosopher. Schelling’s project was, essentially, to close the gap that Immanuel Kant’s philosophy had opened up between things-in-themselves and things-as-we-perceive-them – a gap that in Fichte’s work widened until the self seemed alone in an unending horizon – by means of intuition. We can and do still experience things-in-themselves – nature, other people, God – by a kind of mind-meld. The Enlightenment had left people like the Schlegels feeling emancipated but alone. Schelling’s philosophy told them they weren’t alone, but at the cost of obliterating all the little distinctions – between how I feel about that waterfall and whether it feels anything about me; between God’s will, and human institutions, and my weird little urges – that make thinking possible at all. You can see how this idea might point people in any number of directions, many of them bad. You can also see how Romanticism is both a rejection of the Enlightenment and a product of it: a reaction.

    Meanwhile, August’s little brother, also named Friedrich – Friedrichs proliferate in this story like Ivans in a Russian novel, or Matts on one’s Twitter feed – kept everyone stirred up by writing a fragmentary and self-reflexive novel, Lucinde (1799), which explicitly described his affair with the divorced daughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelsohn. (He also wrote a review of the poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller that permanently ended that friendship. Perhaps he too felt that there were too many Friedrichs on the scene.) In Friedrich’s career, we see how Romanticism is still with us, in both shallow and profound ways. Fragmentary fictionalized autobiographies about the author’s sex life and intellectual preoccupations are not exactly thin on the ground just now. But more importantly, the idea that one can best grasp the totality of life via discontinuity and fragmentation – as Friedrich claimed he was doing in Lucinde  – is still the driving ambition behind those books.

    Hannah Arendt’s first book – Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman (1957), a biographical study of a minor late German Romantic writer who, in Arendt’s hands, is more personally interesting than the major ones – has been republished by the beautiful souls at NYRB Classics. (The translation is by Clara and Richard Winston.) Varnhagen, born in 1771, was a generation younger than her idol Goethe, a pesky-little-sister’s-worth younger than Caroline Schelling (born in 1763), and roughly contemporary with the Friedrichs Schlegel and Schelling, but the main interest of her story lies in the historical moment just after that covered by the other two books. Rahel, as Arendt’s subtitle reminds us, was Jewish, and this fact left her beholden to the sorts of ethnic Germans who think ideas are just there to be played with, that “tolerance,” “respect,” “love of neighbor,” and, yes, “liberality” are not real ethical imperatives but mere fashions, to be switched out with the season. When German towns seemed boring and small, and Napoleon represented a new sense of energy and resolution, it was briefly cool to be friendly with Jews. When Enlightenment rationality started to chill the bones, when homeland and intuition and Deep Roots were called for (the better to resist an invading Napoleon), then it was cool to slander them again. Friedrich Schlegel, who continued to do important work in philology, typified this fad, apparently thinking nothing of its implications for the exact sort of person he had recently been: an agnostic married to a Jewish Catholic convert. Rahel eventually converted herself, but she remained committed to the wellbeing, if not the religion, of the people she came from: among other things, she organized to send supplies and help to the survivors of a major 1819 pogrom.


    Rahel Varnhagen was originally Arendt’s dissertation. The rise of Nazism forced her to finish writing it on the run, and she eventually lost her only copy as she fled to America. (Years later, another copy turned up in the possession of a correspondent.) For her, Rahel represents, among other things, the impossibility of assimilating to a culture one of whose rules is that certain genres of person are incompletely human. While noting her little compromises and vanities, Arendt clearly loves Rahel, who at her best embodies ideals far realer, though no more finally achievable, than assimilation: decency, equipoise, kindness. In the hundred years or so that followed Varnhagen’s death, German culture, in pursuing one vision of perfectionism, rejected both decency and assimilation; in our own day, too many people who call themselves Christians seek to follow that example, rather than profiting by it.

    Contributed By PhilChristman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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