Revelations Sober and Ailing
Artemus Zebulon Pratt
Speculative Grammarian Editor-on-the-Lam
Recently I was apprised of wondrous news. —But let me backtrack a moment. At a younger age I was enamored of Arnold Bax, a fine composer and poet who once upon a day was not quite as forgotten as he is now. A strange man over-obeisant to the trends of his day, he read far too much Yeats and spent much time kicking around Ireland, learning Irish, seducing Irish lasses wherever he went, and soaking in the pervasive mystical Quatsch und Schwulst of his day. In one of his stories, his narrator melodramatically declared, “Suddenly the Celt within me stood revealed!” This pronouncement at first glance baffled the younger me, for Bax came from a solid 900 years of pure Germanic extraction. Then suddenly the truth within his words stood revealed: Celtomania is a psychological, not a genetic disorder.
—In any case, I was recently apprised of wondrous news: Recordings had been unearthed in which Bix Beiderbecke had performed new and innovative cornet solos in several of Bax’s symphonies, parts Bax specially wrote for him, and these recordings had been remastered and released on the small Arthur Beck label. Truly this was a blast from the heavens! I went to Amazon and discovered it was true, truly true, and, after saving big bucks on Beck’s Bix-Bax box through digital purchase, discovered to my dismay that there was a programming error. In place of the atmospheric Tolkienesque sounds of, oh, pretty much every damn thing Bax ever wrote, I sadly encountered the recently over-popular, rhythmically sickly, earworm-infested “Your Body is an Amusement Park.” It played over and over as I wrote queries to the drudges at customer service, and once I got past the point of instinctive nausea upon hearing the first notes, I was able to ignore the lyrical refrain making repeated trips to the Tunnel of Love to wonder, as millions of listeners besides me have done so vocally in the recent past, just what the Ferris wheel represents. Soon I realized, however, that the magical reflecting pool in the last verse was just a puddle of water in the navel—not the girl’s navel but the singer’s, and he was Narcissus. And I thereupon sought out first Red Velvet’s “Happiness,” but, preferring not to trigger traumatic flashbacks to an unfortunate overdose of gummi bears that nearly resulted in a small stroke, I settled on “Copacabana,” for if I am to be tortured, it will be by a malign device of mine own choosing.
Alas, the treatment was eviler than the infection, or perhaps I merely chose at a poor time, for as I sat there humming and sub-vocalizing the words, “Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl,” for the hundredth time in mingled hatred and relief, I felt a churning of the innards and in very short order was seized with an appendicital pain in the belly. I lay down as I hurriedly considered the symptoms, but soon realized that the massive bunch of thistles soaked in vinegar I felt to have swallowed had moved a bit further up on the side. I experienced a slight feeling of relief—although I was suffering an infection of the Vermes aurum, my vermiform appendix was healthier than the rest of the adjacent territory.
And as I lay there I drifted into a sleep haunted by the spirits of Clark Ashton Smith and Algernon Blackwood, with a few interjections from Arthur Machen wafting from over the horizon in a Welsh accent and curious touches drawn from Oliver Onions, and I ran after Lord Dunsany with murderous intent as Bax’s Sixth Symphony boomed in my ears. Dunsany was a surprisingly frisky fellow, however, and I soon lost him in the distance. I looked around to find myself on a small island in the river surrounded by menacing willow bushes, and as I cursed my surroundings, they cursed me back and a black hole opened underneath me.
And in the darkness into which I fell, I saw nothing but the pinpricks of stray lights in my retina, and soon I was pulling away to look down at my retina, which took the form of an array of small cubes whose connections with their neighbors were weighted rather like a game of minesweeper. I was then pulled inside along the nerves, columns of neural units like stacks of Rubik’s cubes, and soon beheld the centers of visual processing as an aria from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat nattered on over and over. The sound came from somewhere off in the distance in the middle of the centers of aural processing, and as I looked that way I saw an epic battle in which the forces of goodness, or at least the shock troops of advanced tonality and sonata structure, vanquished a bunch of worms whose husks oozed a technicolor purple that dripped away into the void, leaving the solid array of neural cubes intact.
I turned my attention to those cubes themselves, and I grasped intuitively the structures they held inside their crystalline depths, which in the case of the minuscule portion of the cube field I beheld was a map of Tajikistan and the surrounding regions with isoclines appearing of a sudden superimposed on the little dots of color shining like sparks in the crystalline cubes to mark respective occurrences of the variant forms of the present progressive, whose seductively mingling diverse tones of red indicated a common origin in a participial construction with istodan, and beyond it the white patch of Dari symbolizing the absence of an analogous form, and off in the distance around Merv the green of Farsi symbolizing present progressive forms based on dāštan.
As I gazed at the bright red spot of Dushanbe, I saw flickers of multi-colored light above it and was reminded it was the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the city, and as I examined the spectacle I was drawn into the cubes and penetrated a few thousand layers past the neural structures that serve to isolate the formant peaks of vowels to behold before me the equations describing the weighting of the neural net, themselves encoded imminently in the neural net stratum by stratum and junction by junction, and as I reached out to grab them I awoke in my bed to the noise of my son’s stereo in the next room blasting “Your Body is an Amusement Park” at full volume. Cursing the darkness, both visual and aural, I groped my way into the bathroom and disposed of the results of my fevered research in the usual manner of academic publishing, and soon my belly was well again.
But not my mind, which churned in trouble at its own workings. I realized I had beheld a vision granted to few academics more than once or twice a lifetime, the experience of staring into the magic reflecting pool like the singer in the next room, and I was reminded of the other such occasion in my life: Drugged in a bronchitic sea of fire late in my 18th year, I suddenly beheld the true meaning of Kafka’s “Die Verwandlung” in the scene in which the cockroach’s family quite rightly pelts him with apples, for after all Apfel sounds like offal. This clearly represented creativity in the uncreative Freudian scheme of hydraulic metaphors, epic intergenerational matches around camp fires, and infantile retentions, but before I fully grasped the lineaments of the truth, I walked through the sickly miasma of Venice next to an ash-filled stream bed and realized that as it was a plutocracy, now we knew why the poor fellow could never leave: Pluto had claimed him. Next, pondering deeply on Malraux’s Chinese cats, I awoke to realize that I had a full-flown academic career before me if only I could master the vocabulary, but alas, my foreign languages were too good to allow me to take the usual route to wealth and fame by traipsing down a garden path of false cognates and programmatic imprecision.
For such is the academic enterprise—decades of tedious scholarly make-work interrupted by occasional hallucinatory interludes, dreams of reason that birth monsters like Freudianism, Lexicalism, and Reader-Response Theory. Allow me to end on a note worth pondering, much like a kōan for the modern age: Students of the political history of Renaissance Italy are quite familiar with Erasmo da Narni, who was called Gattamelata or “Calico Cat,” though the reason thereof is obscure. Erasmo was a famed condottiere who was the model for a statue of Donatello’s that is famous as the largest free-standing equestrian statue since antiquity. What many people do not learn is that Erasmo was also a noted lutenist and composer who had almost as great an influence on early tonality as Gesualdo. In fact, his music influenced later composers, including even Beethoven, though not so much in his piano music. Which just goes to show you, there’s not a lotta Gattamelata in the Appassionata Sonata.
Make of that what you will.