Alban Berg was the most lyrical of the serialists; so says the NYRB, and I thought of my real enjoyment in Wozzeck, even though “that sort of thing” is not generally my cup of tea. Berg seems to have understood dissonance as an ornament rather than a programme. He wrote that dissonances

give music and love, friendship and nature their true worth, and really everything that has any life — even sensuality itself.

Alban Berg, apud NYRB

When modernism is programmatic, its harshness and difficulty presumably have the ambition of being more honest, and more penetrating, in response to a world which, while probably no bleaker than any other age, wears its darkness on its sleeve. Such are the times and the individual artist cannot fight it: all our works are salted with the uncanny, whether liberally, or with discretion. Those pulls are tediously familiar (another “wrong question”), and Berg’s words (though I would like to see them in German) show a way to get away from them. I was reminded of the words of a friend, whose parents — especially an infuriating but kindly mother — died several years ago.

He proposed to me (or hit upon while speaking) a shift in perspective over the difficulty that inheres in all intimate relationships: rather than loving the person despite their flaws, in the end, perhaps you love them for their flaws. I had thought of it differently: that we are charitable, though not blindly so, to those we love, and overlook their faults, out of humility as well as devotion. That’s a maxim hard enough in itself. The better you know someone, the closer you are, the more chances for friction. Sartre is supposed to have said “Hell is other people”, though again, I would like to see it in French; the encroaching misanthropy I wrote about a few days ago perhaps drinks from the same poisoned well. When I think of my friend’s mother, whom I knew well — as an honorary member of the family — I desperately wanted her to put aside her compulsion to outdo Elizabeth David in the kitchen, and write, as she had been unable to since having her children. In the end, her need for someone to feed extended to the local seagulls and pigeons, a hypertrophy of the same generous disposition which led her to take me under her wing, decades before. There was no overlooking it. She cared about words and sentences, and she taught me to care about food, too; which at bottom is about caring for the comfort of others, with no English meanness. I raise my glass to her.


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