Modernist Peloponnesian

Labels for art seem to have proliferated in the last decade or two. Music has seen this to an extraordinary extent with hybrids revealing the fragmented nature of listening and audiences.

Hang on there a minute, don’t go away — I must change my new CD. It’s Thrash-Def-Punk-New-Country by Duane Texas. It’s a great musical style. It combines the narratives of country music about loss, or riding into another lonely town, with all the thrusting energy and soundscape (Klangfarben the German fans call it) of an aircraft carrier’s landing deck during combat.

As I was saying, labels have expanded. Once it was possible to see a French movie, now it’s put under the Art House category. Because some actors don’t speak English, doesn’t make it art. As a label, a signifier of a thing, it is meaningless. It’s like a cut-up that William Burroughs might have created on a major bender. In any case, not all French movies are Art House; the ones they don’t export are mostly frivolous comedies that contradict the image of a self-conscious aesthete.

Despite the rampant growth of labels I’d like to add another one. This may seem paradoxical; after all I have been saying that labels do not add information or understanding. Consequently, another label is not likely to be any clearer than any of the others. This is not really an addition, it’s a consolidation.

There are many baffling genres in writing; Theater of the Absurd is one where many of the protagonists don’t belong to it. Another is Southern Gothic which comprises the work of American writers who wrote about maniacal characters in eerie settings with strange plots and all set in the American south.

As a label Southern Gothic is silly. The southern is clear enough but Gothic is nonsensical. Gothic was an insult hurled at Germans by Italians who loathed anything the wooly-faced barbarians did. Of course, here Gothic means that strange form of writing, probably best exemplified by Edgar Allen Poe. I don’t care much for Poe; he is an overwrought writer practicing syntax and adjective selection to startle.

There may be some writers in the Southern Gothic form that sit well there but one, Faulkner, would not. This became more apparent to me as I have been watching ancient Greek theater. The Oresteia by Aeschylus and various plays by Euripides, Medea and The Trojan Women in particular. There is a fine production of Agamemnon and the female roles are played by men.

For French speakers this production of Anouilh’s Antigone is very good. It is in modern French but the intensity of emotions and intellectual debate is close to the original.

Where Faulkner fits in with ancient Greek tragedy was like a piece of the puzzle. The vocal style and syntax of some of his works is very distinctive but the declamatory narrative in some of the great books is not contemporary and it was while listening to Aeschylus that the musical connection became obvious. It’s as if he thoroughly absorbed the Greek plays and heard them again, as Joyce did with Ulysses, to create his own work.

Although his books are mostly set in Yoknapatawpha County in the South, it could be Corinth or Thebes. On this basis, Southern Gothic can be tossed in the trash and Modernist Peloponnesian replace it as much more accurate.

Guy Cranswick
7th October 2013

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