I live near Boston and teach philosophy at Boston University. Besides academic pieces, I write fiction (when I’m up to it) and poems (when I can’t help it). I use a fountain pen—my link to tradition—and write to music. I’ve published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals. A new story collection, Heiberg’s Twitch, is forthcoming.
Was Bach an Alien?
For Firestone Feinberg
When I first read the Greek myths, those sacred
scriptures shrunk to fairy tales, I noticed
how captivated the gods were by us,
how they couldn’t resist mingling with us,
meddling, impeding, even copulating.
I pictured how tedious it would have
been without us whose meanest village is
livelier than Olympus. What’s interesting
lies on frontiers, crosses bridges of shadows,
pulses with the pain of becoming.
Perfection’s dazzling and dead as a diamond.
Immortal, Zeus and Company; yet I
sensed they sensed how readily we could
dispense with them and still be human
while, without us, how could they be gods?
Glenn Gould is transmitting Book Two of
The Well-Tempered Clavier to me, but not
just to me, and I’ve recalled your saying,
Bach is an alien. You’d hit on an
original way to extol him and, with
a full heart, I concurred. Yet we both know
J. S. was no E. T. but a man with
appetites who relished drawn-out Sunday
afternoons, fretted over thalers,
couldn’t do without his wives and swarm of
children, as well as a genius whose prayers’
scope is more than merely Lutheran.
He washed blutwurst down with Moselle Riesling
or Liebfraumilch from the Palatinate.
He worked hard, grew old, and died. Like us.
His legacy is staggeringly sublime
but nonetheless, like us, human. Marks are not
set up for the purpose of missing one’s aim.
When told NASA had stuck Bach’s music on
both Voyagers so that, eons hence, real
aliens might hear it, Lewis Thomas
cracked, “That’s bragging.” I too like imagining
those aliens, brainy enough to construct
a phonograph, rapt, listening to Gould’s
warm C-major prelude, struck dumb by the
ensuing fugue, and jealous as the gods.
The chair is rolled half under the desk.
Lamp light caresses smooth wood. To the
left is a stapler, a real relic, a bottle of
ink, black. It is six minutes to midnight
and, but for the desk lamp, the house
is entirely dark. All this can be verified.
No one breathes in any other room, of
which there are six. One might count the
two bathrooms, even the basement, but
he prefers not to. It would be too much.
There is a keyboard. Two black speakers squat
on the floor. From them sublimely issues
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book Two;
a complex contraption instantly decodes
digits fixed on a disk into music
made long ago by a pianist who, with
ten neurotic fingers, translated notes inked
into time by Bach. Fugues divide the six
minutes left until midnight. Pictures on
the wall are hard to discern. Seven frames.
Two doorknobs and one open window. Three
cases all bursting with books he has read.
A close, oppressive night for early June,
the sort that makes you more perplexed
than glad to be alive. All this checks out.
Endurance in the face of doorknobs. Is there
a heroism of emptiness, overcoming no
obstacles, vanquishing no Hectors, just this
being on a humid vacant June night?
Might bravery feel this much like cowardice,
Achilles sulking in a tent's dusty corner?
Is there the least solace in knowing courage
has nothing to do with victory? Does this
also check out? Might this too be verified?
Man Listening to Bach While Smoking a Pipe
Between the palings of a fence of fugues
meander white-blue colloids. Preludes loom
like icy walls in the complex hues of
Gould’s neurotic fingertips, good for
any number of centuries. Is it only
another labyrinth, his pipe’s smoke
disporting itself so unpredictably,
filling his room with ungraspable pattern,
the maze of Leipzig, Köthen’s garden walks?
The order of the lacelike smoke and the
chaos of the music are both unknowable,
and of the man, smoking and listening.
“Man Listening to Bach While Smoking a Pipe” first appeared in Sou’wester
©2015 Robert Wexelblatt