"It doesn't matter," said the professor. "It makes no difference whether or not he intended it. Just accept and glory in the fact that it's there to be found."
The counterpoint professor was trying to deal with his pupil's awe at the intricate inner relationships they were uncovering in analyzing the chorales of J. S. Bach. The ingeniousness of an exceptional human mind was bewitching and discouraging the student, and the older, wiser teacher saw that some emphasis needed to be thrown back onto things less heroic and more manageable.
It happens to be a very Western, and very pervasive, thing to become just so bewitched and discouraged by the glories of individual human accomplishment. So much of our culture is set up to glorify the individual when and if he "accomplishes" that I was struck recently when a friend reminded me, through an essay on this page, of the old Japanese poetic genre called linked verse. The essence of linked verse was that it was a communal venture -- a longish poem composed of short segments each contributed by a different poet. In reading an example, and studying for a moment the author's names at the bottom, I was seized by the realization that I was instinctively trying to match up the several stanzas with the poets I guessed had written them. I quickly realized how utterly foreign to the self-effacing anonymity of the style this was, and the contrast between that approach and our Western attitude teased and delighted me for the rest of the day as I thought about how committed we are to the cultural credo of The Great Man.
The Great Man, I thought to myself, has been exploded, brought back, exploded and brought back so many times in recent epochs that I wonder where we are today in relation to him, or he to us. "Let me count the ways," said I, in which he is with us still.
Sporting events in this country have bothered me for years after I saw clearly enough that the culture is dead set against the notion of an equal match. We mustm have a winner, there mustm be a victor declared, a superior side. Events will often be held over to ridiculous lenghts, in slavish devotion to the ideal of conqueror and vanquished. We have made large investments in this ideal; one wonders what the return on them truly is.
I recall a great deal of computer research having been done in the interest of determining "who really wrote Shakespeare." This reminds me not only of the opening story about the Bach chorales -- of generic disbelief in the face of genius -- but also that, a few years back, some contemporary Japanese composers developed the habit of presenting their works with their names listed in the roster among the performers,m affecting something of a statement about the traditional (Western) heirarchy of composer/performer.
How often I have smiled at myself, straining to figure out who's who when listening to a recording of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins, if the soloists have not been indicated first and second positions on the label. How many of us have the same feeling hearing, but not seeing, a two-piano team? Or a duet between two sopranos? Lou Costello's old line: "Who's on first?" we mustm know. When hearing the works of composers, style helps us more. Were that not so, I think we should go totally mad when hearing the famous "FAE" Sonata. That work for violin and piano was composed jointly in 1853, by Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Albert Dietrich.
Accountability is so important to us. Anonymous works annoy us terribly, if unconsciously, when they are found in areas where signatures are expected -- a part of the cultural hero game. Of course, anonymous works, done in a vacuum, it would seem, very often cause no concern at all in settings where our minds are on other things --architecture.
Condemning this penchant of ours is not really my object. I would characterize it more as the watchful celebration of a traditional quality. Moreover, when I stop to consider the anonymous quality in a communal artistic achievement like linked verse,m it seems almost as incrutable an outgrowth of solitary, meditative Japan as it is a heavy contrast with the hedonistic, grandeur-smitten West. Of course, East and West touch bases only at certain points, and anonymity is far more native, to begin with, there than here. The deeper differences remain as to man's relationship to his work and his world. All that remains for us is to remember that, like a good many traits, cultural and otherwise, this one of ours -- to insist on onem artist at a time, onem winner at games, onem skill only per individual -- has its charming attributes as well as some half-obscured, more deleterious ones. In any custom of long standing, there is bound to be grain and there is bound to be chaff. But, after all, separating the two has also been a habit of ours for more generations than any of us can recall.