Friday, October 28, 2005

The Artisan

Did anyone else notice how jumbled and maundering my thoughts were earlier today? Must've been one of those mornings: waking up was more of a chore than usual and I felt distracted and out of sorts.

So. One thing I would've brought up, had there been more time or more caffeine in my system, is the weird sense of déjà-lu I experienced when first encountering this remark from Stravinsky's Poetics:
"In a society like that of the Middle Ages, which recognized and safeguarded the primacy of the spiritual realm and the dignity of the human person (which must not be confused with the individual) -- in such a society recognition by everyone of a hierarchy of values and a body of moral principles established an order of things that put everyone in accord concerning certain fundamental concepts of good and evil, truth and error. I do not say of beauty and ugliness, because it is absolutely futile to dogmatize in so subjective a domain.
"It should not surprise us then that social order has never directly governed these matters. As a matter of fact, it is not by promulgating an aesthetic but by improving the status of man and by exalting the competent workman in the artist that a civilization communicates something of its order to works of art and speculation. The good artisan himself in those happy ages dreams of achieving the beautiful only through the categories of the useful. His prime concern is applied to the rightness of an operation that is performed well, in keeping with a true order." (75-76. Trans. Arthur Knodel & Ingolf Dahl. Cambridge: Harvard College Press, 2003. 16th ed. Italics mine.

For me, the passage rang several bells. But where had I run into this artisan character before? Could it have been in something of Benjamin's, I wondered? I hopped back to my dorm room and dusted off my dog-eared copy of his Illuminations.

And there it was: in an essay praising the folk-like narratives of Nikolai Leskov -- and, more broadly, bemoaning the dying legacy of the oral tradition -- Benjamin introduces a Marxist mechanic somewhat akin to Stravinsky's.
"An orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers. More pronouncedly than in Leskov this trait can be recognized, for example, in Gotthelf, who gave his peasants agricultural advice; it is found in Nodier, who concerned himself with the perils of gas light; and Hebel, who slipped bits of scientific instruction for his readers into his Schatzkästlein, is in this line as well. All this points to the nature of every real story. It contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers.
"The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a 'symptom of decay,' let alone a 'modern' symptom. It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing."
(83-? Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1988.)

If indeed parallels are to be drawn between the two depictions of the artisan -- one bound to the old tonal rules of music, the other shackled by conventions of epic literature -- a corollary pairing of traditional tonality and narrative structure may be equally fitting. (Does this make sense?)

A Bamun artisan at work in Foumban, West Province, Cameroon. (8/2004)