On Authentic Aesthetic Pleasure
The sure sign of authentic aesthetic pleasure is that we forget where we are, lose awareness of what amount of time passed in the enjoyment of the pleasure, and for a blessed moment shuck off the isolated ego. This happened to me four nights ago while reading Chekhov's short story 'The Grasshopper'.
Chekhov set out to write a story about a secular saint. In a way, the hero of this story is the bastard child of Dostyevsky's Idiot of the enopymous novel.
I resisted buying the cheap edition of Chekhov's stories because they featured "short, humorous sketches". Instead, I brought the second of the attractive and unobtrusive three volume Penguin edition, which chronologically arranges his stories around stylistic periods, entitled 'Ward No. 6 & Other Stories'.
I began to read 'Grasshopper' in the vaulted Adelaide Railway Station as Mozart's Jupiter Symphony played over the loudspeakers - it was Saturday night and Mozart has been found to sooth the violence of the drunkards and drug-addicts passing through the turnstiles. It is profoundly reassuring to me that in Australia even the most vulgar can find some useful end satisfied by Mozart.
But in combination with Chekhov the music of Mozart produced a sort of exalted absent-mindedness, a condition which reminds me of nothing so much as the ecstatic fugue preceding an epileptic fit so amazingly evoked by Dostoyevsky in the Idiot - the clear mild euphoria that precedes the aesthetic experience, subtle and pure like life-giving water, the original mind of zen in which insight becomes if not possible then potential.
I don't remember getting on the train. As the train streamed express to Goodwood through the downpour and darkness I finished the story and closed the book and looked around.
Where I am? I wondered. Had the train stopped already? Had I passed my home station? For all I knew at that moment, the train had been moving forever in accordance with the fixed stars.
The next day I tracked down Chekhov's literary child and grand-child in the University library. I could not hold back my eagerness. I read Babel's 'Crossing Into Poland'. I read Cheever's 'Goodbye, My Brother'. A cloud of mozartian grandeur spilled over from divine zimzum, chilled me into reverent silence.That day I got two Cheever books secondhand. It was a day before I spoke about it.
Yesterday to Dan then I showed him Babel's 'Crossing Into Poland'. I asked him to read it, then I explained the aesthetics of trauma - that is, how profound shock in literature will alienate the reader unless it is couched in a kind of ecstatic lyricism. Then we examined the words themselves of the opening two pars. I asked him to listen while I picked out the violent words from the apparently innocent description of the Polish landscape.
"Stop," he said. "It's positively morbid."
Dan's comment was a relief to me. Thank goodness somebody else could see it. I suppose I wanted to reality test the words to make sure the effect was in them and not simply in my imagination alone.
As we went out to dinner I popped into the secondhand bookstore and discovered the very rare Morison translation of Babel's Collected Stories, for only eight dollars. What a treasure!
I feel so blessed.