Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Paganini Myth: Inspiration in The Infernal

The Paganini Myth

The question, it seems to me, is why we even still recognize the legacy of Paganini (the cult of the virtuoso, the Faust/Mephistopheles complex of the 'divine seeker', the mystical source of music as it is misunderstood by the majority, the 'infernal' source of inspiration) in the music that we program, spread, propogandate, and critisize. Of course the Paganini myth has been given a whole new lease on life because of the pseudo-infernal posturings of the black metal crowd, with their emphasis on dark mysticism, 'mystery', diabolical insight, occult indoctrination or ceremonies, etc. And the Paganini myth has always fascinated, hasn't it? In league with the cult of the elect, in musical terms, after the creative lifestyle-as-art idolization that Liszt spun out of his own mythos, and in part resonating with latent Byronism, the cult of the 'tragic artist', we have a potent force of aesthetic decadence (all references to Huysmans and the Decadents are to be taken quite literally) with enough spellbinding power to make the sensation-seeking grand dame in us all swoon with delight. What is more intriguing than a brush with Satan, after all - especially when it's related second-hand? Or, rather, an encounter with death and the powers or forces beyond death? Because death, after all, is at the dark heart of the Paganini myth.

Paganini is the center, in return, of sensationalism and the character or myth to examine when perusing the nexus where sensationalism, showmansip, entertainment, and art meet. Paganini, it can be said, is the demonstration of art's entrance into reality - the exact moment when a work of art is revealed, unmasked (in one sense), displayed, offered, or (don't blush) sold for profit. Paganini is the moment when an artist turns away from his own work, it is the second of disappointment when Pygmalion casts away the statue he has breathed life into, it is the minute when a living work of art is turned to stone and made concrete, immoveable, unchanging, unreflecting, and no longer relevant for the moment in which it exists - in other words it is the time of death, the hour of expiration, the beginning of a dreary decay into irrelevance.

The Paganini (b. 27 Oct 1782) myth was a new innovation. Here the artist-audience relationship was heightened, twisted, warped, and reduced through the extremities of emotion to its most basic elements. Playing on the very heart strings of his enraptured (and mostly female) audience, Paganini wove a new tapestry of myth with each sounding of his violin. The myth took on qualities assigned to other icons and archetypes in the vernacular or popular understanding - capabilities or characteristics resident in other diabolical figures detached themselves and flew to his side. A touch of Faust, a taste of Tasso, the resonating links between art and sorcery that have existed in the popular conscious ever since Virgil. New additions to the story were created almost every day, and when Paganini found himself in the bright spotlight, his self-manufactured shadows were only deepened, and seemed all the more infernal because of the contrast between the popularity and accolades (the wealth of high society) he now received and the mysterious source of both his inspiration and his identity.

For most artists, coming down from their aerie of inspiration, an encounter with the 'normal' spheres of activity is often too much for them: the transition between the angelic realm of conspiring with the muses, as they put it, and the everyday attitudes, pre-occupations, and passions (or drives, to be more exact) of the inartistic multitude is too bracing, too rude a shock to suffer: wounds pile upon wounds in the everyday occurence of this break with the source of creativity.

Speak not to me about the motley rabble,
Whose sight no inspiration can abide.
Preserve me from the tumult and the babble,
That sweeps us helpless in its vulgar tide.

From Goethe's Faust, Pt. One, Prelude

And so methods, habits of mind, and poses are developed and then fleshed out: anything that can place a layer of confusion (and thus fear), obscurity, mystery, or misunderstanding between the artist and his audience is fostered and supported from within. Energy is directly given over to the pretensions: they flourish, expand, and take on new life while blooming into a dark garden covering the artist's features. The reaction of the audience is a withdrawal from familiarity (that jocose levelling of social standards that the artist fears instinctively), a return to archetypes of idolization that lay dormant within the soul of the listener or watcher. In return the artist offers his support to these idolatrous tendencies - he sympathizes with them, feels them deeply, anticipates them and feeds them with his gestures, his words and mannerisms. The link between the artist and his audience, after all, is a relationship that has existed for the entire history of man. The rules are already written within us. Eventually, however, this cocoon of mystification ends in the suffocation of the artist - it starts by blurring the mirror of reflection that he carries within him, it dulls the rays of life that reach him from the world all around, it distorts reality, and it corrupts his artistic vision. If the reflection of the world, passed through his personal understanding and subjective aesthetic views, is the role and reach of the artist, then any obstruction between reality and his ability to absorb, color it, and cast it out again can only be detrimental. This includes constructions of his own personality in many cases.

If feeling fails you, vain will be your course,
And idle what you plan unless your art
Springs from the soul with elemental force
To hold its sway in every listening heart.

You'll find some apes and children who'll admire,
If admiration is your chief desire;
But what is uttered from the heart alone
Will win the hearts of others to your own.

Faust, Part one, Act one: Night

Paganini sold his soul in exchange for idolatry in his own time, but the penalty for that, the price he had to pay for being uniquely relevant to his own time (and thus so powerful when it came to influencing those around him), was indeed his immortality itself. His immortal soul, or fame, legacy, and lasting influence was traded for a soul that did not outlive his own mortal frame, wearied as it was by the Faustian struggle. Paganini's works have not lasted.

But how is this history relevant to the musicians of today? I feel that there are many lessons to be learned from the facts of Paganini's case and the study of his effect on his audience because, for the most part, his legend has become so completely engrained within the way we approach music as a performance ritual in our own times. If there were tendencies to idolize artists that existed before Paganini's entrance onto the stage of world affairs - tendencies that were given voice and a center in his cult of showmanship - then those inclination or dispositions towards hero-worship are all the more ripe for deconstruction today when they have had over two hundred years to consolidate themselves or strengthen their position. Is there any artist today who does not refer, in some part, to the infernal source of his inspiration and the accepted rituals of idolization that are the most exacting in popular music, above all? Take any popular music group of the last twenty or thirty years - Led Zeppelin are only the most obvious example. Instead of demons or Mephistopheles, today we substitute drug culture or the literature of the arcane - and when that fails are we at all immune to the superstition of the middle ages? Isn't the diabolical only one step down in our unconscious?

U. Amtey
23 January, 2000