In “Madeline, Imperfection, Love, and Loss” (Zeteo, 11.25.2015), Joy Yeager reminds us of that priceless book for children and adults called, simply, Madeline. It’s the story, as she reminds us, “of a little girl, an orphan, who lives in an old house in Paris, with eleven other girls.” A nun, Miss Clavel, is in charge.
For many, the book is unforgettable, full of enchanting illustrations and about many essentials: love and loss, wandering in Paris, a little community of sweet, mostly innocent girls, the necessity of family and home.
For reasons we needn’t explore, our Zeteo contributor shifts her attention to the truth or perfection of a story—this story or any story—and the truth or perfection of art more generally:
Part of me hones in on the integrity of a work of art: a piece of art is what it is . . . . Whatever is in there . . . is its truth, imperfections and all. (Is “imperfection” even a legitimate term?)
She doubts whether “imperfection” fits because there is no flaw in the truth; truth cohabits with perfection (as well as beauty, as Keats knows).
But what can we make of this idea that the truth of Madeline is not something esoteric or abstract, but palpably “in there,” right before our eyes and ears, a truth ready to strike?
Here are some intuitions I found on the shelf:
— Truth is a kernel of inescapable and radiant worth ♦ If a statement cradles truth, it cradles a worthy reflection of reality ♦ If a promise is true, is truly made, its radiant worth is “in there” as a binding of oneself to one’s future ♦ If a musical pitch, or set of them, rings true we hear its inescapable worth ringing in our ears ♦ A true confession is worthy of trust ♦ Truth is Beauty, wave after wave —
So with art: whatever is “in there” in the work, its truth, is its kernel of inescapable, recurring, soaring, and radiant worth.
Art works (like Madeline) help us find their own centers of worth (when they have them). In seeking those centers we listen, gaze, or touch (really or in fantasy). An art work promises such inestimable worth. Or we move on: its spell is no longer transfixing (or was never there).
Works of art help us find truth—these centers of inescapable worth (when they’re there). It’s good to remember that we also get help from art critics or artists who sensitively reflect on their work. When their reflections themselves, on their own, radiate worth and accuracy we feel (are!) showered by truth.
Children’s books aren’t the only place to find the perfection and truth off art. I used to listen years ago transfixed and transported by a late Schubert piano Sonata, written as he was knowingly at death’s door.
Even within single movements of the Sonata, there are uncanny modulations from pure joy (celebrations of life) to pure melancholy (the darkness of death, the underside of life). And often there is a modulation back to tempered joy, as if it were finally undefeated.
Then, only a few weeks ago, I happened on a New Yorker piece on that very Sonata, No 21, in B flat, so well known to me. The piece was titled “The Trill of Doom.” I knew that trill. From the midst of a lilting, happy passage, a silence falls. Then, with no preparation—a rumbling, a very low murmur increasing in volume, a shaking as from the bowels of the earth—almost a noise rather than a steady oscillation of pitch. Then silence. Then lilting, confident, passages again.
I won’t trace the ranging, ever-insightful reflections of the writer, Alex Ross. In two pages he takes us to a Los Angles performance of the Sonata by the pianist, Andras Schiff, an acknowledged master of these late works. And he has us listen in on the interview he conducts with the performer.
Shiff brings up the disturbing trill immediately. He calls it “scary, demonic,” perhaps the “murmuring of a distant storm.” And “maybe [it’s] the approach of death.” It is, he tells us, “the most extraordinary trill in the history of music.”
How can we believe this? For me there is no doubt. But do I believe on the authority of the performer? Or, of the critic? Or only on the authority of my own ears?
Let’s give a wider frame to this slide from Madeline, a charmingly naive, childlike work of art, to Schubert’s profound and frightening “Trill of Doom.”
Art has a firsthand impact on listeners, readers, and lookers who take in through the eye or ear. And we’re moved or not.
A second tier of impact is available through art critics or commentators and through artists who reflect on their work. And we are convinced or not.
On a third tier, we are exposed as eavesdroppers. We pick up tit bits, eavesdropping on artists and commentators quite apart from undergoing firsthand exposure. This is probably the least trustworthy source of insight.
In the best of cases, then, by some alchemy of shared impacts, of shared sensibilities or refined vulnerabilities, we come increasingly to trust those centers of inescapable worth which art bequeaths. Then we feel showered by truth.
It remains something of a mystery how we learn to trust such showers when they occur, if they do. But often enough the resonance and romance among performers and commentators, among artists and audiences, including this audience of one, is deep and rich and evident enough.
Then we know, as Joy Yeager puts it, that there is truth palpably “in there,” right before our eyes, immediately entering our ears, whether this occurs in a drawing in Madeline or in a rumble of “the most extraordinary trill in the history of music.”
Truth is a resonance of inescapable worth, and thank God we have it. As a creature of care and desire, I want Miss Clavel, Madeline, Schubert, and Trills of Doom.
— Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
Citations: Joy Yeager, “Madeline, Imperfection, Love, and loss,” Zeteo, 11.25.2015; in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats concludes: “a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,/ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Alex Ross, “The Trill of Doom: the pianist Andras Schiff’s revelatory study of Schubert’s final sonata,” (“The New Yorker,” November 2, 2015); the Schubert in question is number 21 in B flat, D. 960, 1. Molto moderato; Shiff has two recordings of the late sonatas, one over a decade ago with Decca, the second, recently, with EMC. Thanks, again, to Google images.