Sunday, October 10, 2010

James Huneker's Melomaniacs; Genius, Sanity, Immortality, and "Unconventional Lovemaking"

“Come, let us march against the powers of heaven, And set black streamers in the firmament, To signify the slaughter of the gods.” (Marlowe).

This is the title-page epigraph for James Huneker’s Melomaniacs (1902). It is an invitation that opens the text tilting.

It invokes the political analog to melomania. The phrase is spoken by Tamburlaine on his deathbed. Ambition and ego were such powerful forces in his life that in dying Tamburlaine is tempted to attack and overthrow heaven itself. Force and daring would end the universe by challenging the right of a god to enforce our mortality. It is an audacious spirit.

In his short story "The Queerest Yarn in the World" from Unicorns, we come to understand that immortality was possible for those possessing genius. Citing “Heine’s poetic fantasy of the gods of Greece, alive, and still in hiding,” Huneker claims in his yarn that “only stupid people die.” We receive news that “Sand is a barmaid in London. Balzac is on the road selling knit-goods, and a mighty good drummer he is sure to be.” We discover that Flaubert is proofreading for Ben DeCasseres in a newspaper office. “Men of genius should never be seen; in their works alone they live.”

But what about the "maniac" part of the title? Are these folks of genius teetering on the fringes of sanity?

“I am not setting up an alibi for the sanity of my favorite artists and writers," wrote Huneker in the second volume of his autobiography called Steeplejack, "It is not necessary. There is, take it by and large, more madness among mediocre persons. A little madness is a necessary ingredient in the composition of genius. Nor do I claim that my apes, peacocks, unicorns, egoists, visionaries, melomaniacs and steeplejacks are all geniuses. Again, mediocrity is to the fore, a mediocrity tempered by eccentricities.”

Eccentricities are thought of as musical temperament in Huneker's fiction—an adjustment of vibrations, with little that is perfectly in tune—that reconciles madness and genius. For Huneker's characters, the only escape is to leave an enduring presence in music—an inherently transient artistic medium.

“Their vulgarity, their brutality, their frivolity, their emotional delirium," declared an early unsigned New York Times Book Review, "are supposedly part of the artistic temperament, and do perhaps represent the temptations of the artistic temperament indulged. There is, of course, a certain number of musicians who appear in general society who understand their art, and who, when they talk of it, are more inclined to talk of technique and form than of the emotions produced of their genius. But these are not the musicians portrayed by Mr. Huneker with the daring and we must suppose with the accuracy of a sergeant . . . To anyone who wants to look into the dingy confusion of modern 'Bohemianism' with its unconventional lovemaking, its mingling of art with beer and brandy, its effervescent emotions and its passionate ambitions we commend this book. It will enlighten if it does not please them.” (NYT April 12, 1902 p.247/2)

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