[ by Charles Cameron — from Trumpery to Altman’s Nashville ]
Tufte’s illustration of the Kathasaritsagara or Ocean of the Streams of Story
Wired had a piece titled Never Mind Trump. The Internet Wants to Watch What’s Behind Him a couple of days ago, and it contained a sentence that caught my attention:
Like a Bach fugue, the counterpoint rivaled, and then overtook, the original melody.
I’m always interested in non-musical forms of counterpoint, whether we’re talking Glenn Gould‘s radio dramas, Claude Levi-Strauss‘s structure for his Mytholoogiques, Tufte‘s Rushdie‘s Kathasaritsagara, or the various attempts to make Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game playable. Hesse himself invokes both fugue and counterpoint in the passage in which he describes actual moves in his game about as clearly as anywhere:
A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts. Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combinations. For a long time one school of players favored the technique of stating ide by side, developing in counterpoint, and finally harmoniously ombining two hostile themes or ideas, such as law and freedom, individual and community. In such a Game the goal was to develop both themes or theses with complete equality and impartiality, to
evolve out of thesis and antithesis the purest possible synthesis.
I was accordingly interested to read this paragraph, ending as it does with the sentence I quoted above:
The Christie videos were just the latest installment in what might be the defining video format of this election. Call it marginal media, in which background activity overwhelms the intended subject. Most candidates have found themselves inadvertently sidelined at some point. Hillary Clinton was overshadowed by the surreal stylings of “Sticker Kid,” who mugged, jerked, and danced throughout her stump speech. Another short video treated Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of marijuana decriminalization as a preamble to an audience member’s startled reaction. Another Trump rally was undercut when a member of the crowd behind the lectern began reading a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. The drama unfolded over the course of Trump’s speech, as the reader’s neighbors began to argue with her, then brought their neighbors into the fray. Soon, the tension made it impossible to pay attention to Trump at all. Like a Bach fugue, the counterpoint rivaled, and then overtook, the original melody.
We need, it seems to me, to get used to thinking contrapuntally — and accordingly it is instructive to see just how many of the great artists of recent times have employed some measure of contrapuntal thinking in their work. From the same Wired piece:
The frames of Robert Altman’s Nashville are packed with overlapping dialogue and activity—it’s often hard to determine which storyline should dominate—granting his aspiring losers the same weight as the country-music superstars they idolize. Tom Stoppard applied the same lens to Hamlet when he made two lackeys — whose off-stage death was barely remarked upon in Shakespeare’s play — the heroes of his fan-fic spin-off, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Okay, I’m off to see Nashville if I can find it..