Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reimaging Huneker; Melomaniacs

Twenty-four stories comprise the first edition of James Huneker's book Melomaniacs (1902). Of these, sixteen seem of unquestionably higher impact than the remaining eight.

Of these weaker eight, “The Rim of Finer Issues,” and “An Isben Girl” are of interest in a different context. Both use the same character set, and a creative setting which takes place largely in a flat near Mount Morris Park in Harlem. The two stories paint Ellenora Vibert as a modern woman, a writer of literature, who leaves her composer husband for the rich Paul Goddard, who appears in Painted Veils, written by Huneker in 1919. Paul has a “devotion to golf,” and “is too much a gentleman to make a good musician.” An engaging pair of stories, they nonetheless appear out of place in a collection dedicated to exploring the fringes of musical personality. And while other stories from the original edition certainly explore fringes, and occasionally develop interest, they often substitute simple shock value for the complexity and rich imagination of the primary sixteen, and therefore impede and interrupt the unfolding of the set as a whole.

This sense of discontinuity is significant also in that each story is brief, dense, and set in extremes, often challenging reality in a blur of potential half-truths. In a letter from 1908, Huneker write of his other collection Visionaries that “[t]he book was the scrapings of my magazine articles for the past 10 years. It does not hang together—-what volume of short stories does!” (Intimate Letters p.98)

In addition to the challenges of achieving coherence as a group, the stories rely on an extensive background of literary and musical references. The full extent of references to external poetry, fiction and musical repertoire contained in the original Melomaniacs can be staggering. It was certainly not made any easier by Huneker, who attempts to seamlessly integrate his references and seldom cites a source specifically enough to be found through casual seeking. Huneker was very aware of the unique angle assumed in these stories:

“I know of no other book of musical fiction," he wrote, "that is, music dealt with imaginatively, like Melomaniacs. It derives a little from E. T. A. Hoffmann and his grotesques, and it leans a lot on Poe, who with Chopin was my earliest passion. But the treatment is my own. The trouble is that these stories demand both a trained musical reader and a lover of fiction—-not a combination to be found growing on grapevines.”

Huneker's story "The Corridor of Time, introduces us to Cintras, a young man of twenty who plans for fame, dreaming of writing elusive prose in “long, sweeping phrases, drumming with melody, cadences like the humming of slow, uplifted walls of water tumbling on sullen strands.” This story, like others in the collection sparkle with melancholy striving, desperation, and delusion. Realizing that “naught endured but art,” characters in these stories obsess with creating perfect art.

Writing for the Musical Courier, Huneker confessed that he “wished to show the true life of these people, their posing, their real joys and woes, their absolutely theatrical attitude toward life . . . The bohemian, the mock bohemian and the silly, gruesome nightside of this seamy existence I have dwelt upon at length.” (MCXLIV; March 12 1902, p.25) These stories echo the transformative power of music into fictive plots, telling tales and cataloging mania unique to, or at least specially developed in the musical personality gone awry.

Anthony E. Kemp, in "The Musical Temperament; Psychology & Personality of Musicians," has written a tremendous account of the increasingly studied field of personality assessment of musicians. He laments that despite “the ever-growing number of books dealing with the psychology of music [there is], with only a few exceptions, a paucity of space devoted to personality and temperament.” While exploring several explanations for this he finds that “if the geography of the phenomenon of musicianship is to be researched at any depth (and breadth), it is [my] contention ... that personality should feature as an essential dimension.” (p.21)

Written in 1902 these stories constitute one of the earliest attempts to render glimpses of extremes in the musical personality. In fact these stories predate most significant studies in general psychology. All of its central characters are shaped from and strongly influenced by extensive musical training, and all of its characters would typically be considered quite talented and distinguished in objective evaluation. Many of the central characters are admired by those appearing around them in the story, and several are on the brink of establishing historical significance.

Yet, there is strong imbalance. The creative psychological types are twisted in harsh winds generated by circumstances often self-inflicted. The spirit and sense of being driven by subconscious forces is often clearly articulated, and presented not as factual or clinical sketches, but as image complexes with mixtures of fantasy that render the emotions of these desperate and sometimes dangerous musicians in resonant sympathies of music, weather, physical manifestations and personal interactions.

Personality is explored as an artistic gesture complex: a frozen series of images in a 20th century bestiary. Welcome, friend, to the fiction of James Huneker.

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