ALSO: The Evils of Earnest Praise
BUT MOST OF ALL: Fun with Parentheses!!! (I know, I know.)
A revision of this piece was published in 2007 among the pages of The Vagrant Literary Quarterly under the title "Prodigy, or the Perils of Earnest Praise." For this the author was woefully uncompensated.
YOU: (You commence with an open-ended query)
ME: Because it wasn’t in me, really.
YOU: (Leaning forward, inquisitive assertion.)
ME: No, that’s not it at all. The thing is, see, that musicians – real musicians, not some kid who takes piano lessons with the lady down the street for a few years – musicians, have this thing, have a sense for mode, and harmony, and pitch. I did not have this sense. You could play a series of notes, a musical phrase, and I wouldn’t be able to begin to identify which notes you just played.
YOU: (Your head cocks sideways, engaging.)
ME: It’s called relative pitch. All musicians have this. You hear C played on a piano, you are able to extrapolate and sing E – an intuition for the relative location of notes on the chromatic scale. I never could do this.
YOU: (You nod, familiarity with the vocabulary. A definition.)
ME: No, you’re thinking of absolute pitch: sing E without any reference to work off of at all. Absolute pitch is the rare, one-in-a-million thing. They’re not sure how you get it yet – they think it might be genetic. I definitely didn’t have that, either. You see, the music just wasn’t in me. It wasn’t innate. I didn’t have the talent. I could not
YOU: (Eyebrows furrow, further inquisitiveness.)
ME: I could not.
YOU: (Soft quivering of exaggerated laughter. Counterexample.)
ME: No, no, that was nothing. That was facile tone painting. A computer program could have done that. Any half-wit with an inflated sense of self-worth could have done that.
YOU: (Mock indignation, protestation.)
ME: Well I’m sorry, but you liked it then because you were just twelve, you were my friend, you had a crush on me, and you had no taste.
YOU: (Mock dismay, exclamatory question)
ME: Yea, I knew. Only because my big sister told me, though, I wasn't quite perceptive enough to pick up on that sort of thing yet.
YOU: (Neutral tone. Query)
ME: No, I will not play it for you.
YOU: (Corollary query.)
ME: Because it’s no good, that’s why. I remember the piece – not because it was particularly memorable or impressive, but because it was so blindingly crude, there is little to forget – a repetitious and derivative alberti bass, over which I played a rudimentary melody. Really it was two musical ideas, repeated over and over, for three minutes. No harmonization, no understanding of mode or key or meter.
ME: No, it wasn’t. I had the bass clef imitate the treble clef – the basest antiphony. I thought this was clever. Hah. Mundane bass/treble clef imitation and I thought I was being clever. I didn’t even attempt any variation, key changes – anything above compositional drudgery was beyond me.
ME: Well of course I won the contest. How many twelve-year-old would-be composers do you think there were at our little school? I was the only entrant. I won by default.
ME: No, just because I was twelve –… being young –… only starting out –… no, no no. Those do not mitigate. Even at twelve… even so, if I were truly –… I would have been able to do better. Some time afterwards, I was listening to something by a real composer, I don’t remember, must have been Debussy or something. I’ll remember this forever, listening on my father’s obscenely expensive stereo system, and suddenly seeing – epiphany, threshold of realization, you know – the great gap, the awful chasm between “Shadows Calling” and Debussy. Seeing clearly at last. That impossible divide.
ME: Yea, “Shadows Calling,” that’s what I called it. Fuck. Ok, I’ll concede the subjectivity of taste, there’s no accounting for, and so on, but there must be surely some absolute, objective aesthetic standard, if only because I'm sure we can all agree that a title like “Shadows Calling” is insipid, sentimental Thomas Kinkade-worthy pap. You know for a while naming the piece "Shadows Calling" was one of those things that kept me lying in bed awake late a night, repeatedly slamming my head into the pillow in crippling paroxysms of residual embarrassment and dismay, and quietly uttering a string of profanities under my breath in iambic pentameter. (Like so: "fuck FUCK fuck FUCK fuck FUCK fuck FCUK motherFUCKer" - the fruit of a particularly desperate honors English study session, as from the limited word choice you can deduct that I have otherwise never really acquired the art of being inventive in my invective.)
YOU: (Nervous laughter, deflective assertion/compliment.)
ME: No. Please do not say that. That’s a lie. You know, afterwards, listening to Debussy or whatever, the epiphany, the dismay – it was not so much the awareness of the inferiority of my own effort that got to me. Even if I were a prodigiously talented 12-year-old composer I could never have compared to Debussy, of course not. No, what got to me was the hubris… the foolish pride of it all, not just in the creation, but afterwards too, when I was deluded enough to think myself a budding artist, to think that the empty accolades and reflexive – mechanical, spinal, really – encouragement of family and friends like yourself actually meant something. When my illusions were stripped away I could see how insufferably vain I was, my aggrandized estimation of self. Aggrandized estimation of self. So, to answer your first question: that was why I never did it again.
YOU: (You do not understand.)
ME: Because of my pride. If I were to try again it would be because I had summoned, once again, the pride – the thought that it was possible, that I could accomplish, that I could contribute. If I tried I’m sure I could have deluded myself once more. But this was dishonest so… I couldn’t… it would have been self-destructive.
YOU: (You still do not understand.)
ME: Because I would have failed, because my capacity for denial is limited, because reality is too powerful a force. The euphoria of creation would only last me so long, sooner or later I would have listened to Debussy or whoever it was again and the epiphany and crushing realization would have descended all over again.
YOU: (A cliché, spoken earnestly.)
ME: Spare me. You do not understand. There are plenty of platitudes one could use, and I know because I have considered them all – not to Fear Failure and Reach For the Sky (and in so doing avoid ending up with a hand full of dirt, ha ha) and Follow your Dreams and blah blah blah. But there are plenty of other, equally important imperatives, yes? Injunctions to value the Bird in Hand, to Get Real, to Grow Up. Oh, for so long I tried to Grow Up, but it was so hard, so hard.
ME: Because the pride, the dream, it took me time to excise it entirely. Don’t you understand how painful this would be, the despair? That it was years before I could just put on some Debussy or Monteverdi or whatever and not feel envy? Imagine being unable to know Debussy, of his work being denied to you, worse, of his work rather than elevating or, you know, the catharsis of art and all that, instead was nothing but agony because his is a genius I do not have, never had, will never have - I do not have? Worse than mere denial. Like that guy in A Clockwork Orange that’s been conditioned into a love/hate with Beethoven. Because I still loved. Yes, I still loved. But it was love unrequited, sharp throbbing aching love, when all in the world I wanted was what everyone else had with Debussy and Monteverdi and Gershwin and all the rest but which my dream deprived me: infatuation. You realize how this is different, don’t you? And how urgent it became that I shed my pride?1 (but reading the footnote is optional. I fact, don't scroll down. I don't even know why this is here. Ignore it.)
YOU: (Conciliatory assertion/praise.)
ME: No. Don’t say that. Don’t you see what that means? That it was all a waste, all the struggle and sacrifice and Growing Up and compromise and concession and, finally and at long last, acceptance? You threaten my fragile peace. You tempt me. You accuse me of betrayal – betrayal of the abilities I tell you I do not have. Do not give me your support, your encouragement, these things I do not want and have no use for; your praise feeds the dream, exhumes my long-discarded futile aspirations, indicts my resigned embrace of the pragmatic, scorns my rejection of the hopelessly idealistic. But you see, concession to reality was the right choice, the only possible choice, because I never could.
YOU: (An confused apology, vague):
ME: I cant I cant. You must understand that I never could… cant… this is the way it must be: I cant. Never. Was not in me. Not my fault I just couldn’t. You are wrong, you must be wrong. Why do you torment me? I never sought your faith or trust or support or encouragement - I cant. I cant. I cant. You have to realize that I am not that intelligent or talented or special; I do not know how I managed to delude you all so brilliantly when I’ve abandoned such pretenses long ago; I live eat fuck die and that is all I will ever make of my life; so you see its not my fault that I cant, I wont be blamed, I cant, why do you insist? You curse me, you dangle the promise in front of me, succubus, temptress, witch, and inspire only the anguish of seeing what I will never possess, never know, never express, pornographer of ambition, foul siren. Do not try to convince me that it is possible; it should be clear that it is not, I cant, wont, cant, never was able to, never wanted, don’t want to, please don’t make me want, make me think it is attainable, please, please, you upset and disturb when I have long had the boundaries of my passion staked out so firmly, so neatly, cant, and you come to tear them all down, destroy my limitations, walls I lean on and know so well, I tell you I like the limitations, I want my walls, do not tempt, it cant be done, you don’t understand, I do not want your admiration, give me disregard, indifference, ennui, diffidence, the status quo, complacency, these things I know so well and have nestled comfortably in for so long, these are in my constitution now and I can not live without them, cant, I thirst for your apathy, your criticism, your disdain, your disappointment, give it to me give it to me I beg, plead, say that I have not wasted, that I am satisfied, that everything is as it should be, as it could be, that nothing else is possible, cant, all else is folly, that I have all I could ever have, that desire is silly, ambition is fruitless, please on my knees beseech you do not deny me this you who have come out of the past to invoke memory, to invoke the curse upon me once more, I need this to survive, say that I am not a failure because there was nothing to fail, that what I am is all I ever will be, all I ever could be, all that I want to be. Say I am finished. Say it. Say it. Say it. Finished. Say that I am complete.
Tell me I am not special.
YOU: (Well what is it going to be you callous bitch you. Say something.)
(1. etc. etc. his life as a whole pallid in the brilliance of dream, rejection thereof as self-defense. Too facile. The whole damn thing is too facile. And what the fuck is with the latent desire that’s being expressed here? It seems so naked and blatant and pathetic, the attempt at absolving abandonment of own aspirations through a – let’s face it, pretty transparent – device of introducing a failed/self-denying composer as a stand-in for projected downward trajectory of own ambitions. The attempt at transmuting this guilt/desire/failure into substantive material, the alchemy of misery, is either sort of life-affirming and redemptive or sort of creepy and indulgent, depending on how you look at it. Progress on this work will depend on my accepting the former interpretation as true. Oh fuck it.)