Tuesday, September 06, 2005

If Autumn Comes, Can Changes of the Mind Be Far Behind?

From NY Times:

If Autumn Comes, Can Changes of the Mind Be Far Behind?

Published: September 5, 2005
LENOX, Mass., Aug. 31 - The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye might have had a grand time with our Labor Day, if he had put his mind to it. Today, though no season's boundary is being passed, one cultural archetype gives way to another. And Frye cherished archetypes. In his classic book "Anatomy of Criticism" (1957), he argued that all of literature could be divided into four categories, each associated with a particular season that characterizes the work's style, story and structure: to every genre there is a season. Spring is the season of comedy, summer the season of the romance, autumn the season of tragedy and winter the season of satire.

So here we are, at the cusp between archetypes, when summer gives way to autumn, when romance gives way to tragedy, when Shakespeare's "Tempest" presumably yields to "Hamlet." No need, though, to follow Frye into the arcane categories of his once influential theory, for evidence of seasonal archetypes in the performing arts is plentiful. There are summer movies, summer concerts, summer plays, summer festivals - and there is everything else. In cultural life, in fact, there may be only two archetypes.

We are familiar with the characteristics of that summer realm: lower expectations, more relaxed dress, more escapist thrills, more tolerant experimentation. These are surface matters, products of greater heat and increased leisure. But there is something else that seems to accompany these changes, something best noticed at this moment of crossing over from one world to another.

When I sat on the lawn at Tanglewood last month in Lenox, for example, listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it mattered little that I was dividing my attention between a book and the music. It also mattered little that in recent years video screens have been mounted on the shed, changing seating patterns as listeners became viewers. But the distractions of the book and the screen were not disruptions; they were accompaniment. The music did not inhabit a different realm; it was part of ordinary experience, something to be sampled or not, as one wished, part of the surroundings.

I have felt the same sort of nonchalance over the years whenever I've been faced with some of the summer exhibitions at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) - an avant-gardish way station for the art world in North Adams, Mass. At some exhibitions, objects and images would be accompanied by explanatory notes of the most elaborate pretense and mounted on an exaggerated scale to fit the available space in this converted factory's galleries - a scale of seriousness and size that could seem inversely proportional to their importance. Yet, in the summer light, this contrast could actually seem amusing rather than absurd, commanding - and receiving - as much indulgence from the viewer as these works expended upon themselves.

But the very same phenomena, at other times, would inspire strenuous objections: something is not being properly recognized, what matters is being dismissed, and what doesn't matter is being elevated. In the summer air, something that could be taken as right side up, would, in autumnal light, be shown turned on its head.

This is also one reason why Frye associated summer with the literary form of the romance. A romance is playful; it is fantastical, but it is not comic. It does not mock the world with its hierarchies and demands; it seems to dissolve it. It says: what if we imagined a universe that differed from our own, in which after some struggle, shadows could be dispersed, and surfaces celebrated? Summer encourages the inversion and dissolution of distinction.

And the arts in summer often play variations on that theme. Though it is more comedy than romance, for example, this was the enterprise in Tom Stoppard's play "On the Razzle," which was performed in August at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The social world of pompous 19th-century Vienna is overturned: a store owner puffs himself up into mock-royalty, his clerks masquerade as accomplished bourgeois suitors, and lovers get artfully jumbled. Meanwhile Mr. Stoppard's punning dialogue and malapropisms dissolve the rigors of ordinary language.

Romance, of course, is far more poignant, and Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," is probably the prime model: in the summer forest, at night, a workman might grow a donkey's head and be doted on by a fairy queen, and young lovers might have their desires as scrambled as Mr. Stoppard's puns. But summer contains the seeds of its undoing. There are scars left by the scrambling, and they still show, as signs of another order poke through the woodland mist. It may be midsummer in the play, but the laws of autumnal daylight will reassert themselves.

That moment of transition, from summer to autumn, from romance to the beginnings of tragedy, is the crucial one: it is where recognition takes place and where knowledge is found. It was one of Shakespeare's very subjects: he chronicled the cusp. Summer wasn't as interesting to him as the turn away from summer, when there was no longer any hope of maintaining fantastical inversions and amusements. Maybe this is also why I have, for so long, associated summer with the performances of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox ( where Tina Packer's troupe offered "The Taming of the Shrew" and "King John"). These performances grant the summer its mighty power while stripping it of all pretense, mixing frenzy and intelligence, farce and sobriety.

Which is where, on Labor Day, we now stand. We might prefer to live in one world but are given another; we might have imagined perfections and inversions but are returned to imperfections while trying to set things right; we pass away from romance, and expect or relentlessly hope for, an alternative other than tragedy.

The "Connections" column, a critic's perspective on arts and ideas, appears every other Monday.

(caption from picture: Brenda Wehle and John Lavelle in "On the Razzle" at Williamstown. )

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