I had lunch last week with Giles, my high school English teacher. We usually catch up when I come home, but it had been a while this time. Since last seeing him, I’ve taken courses with Helen Vendler, Elaine Scarry, Peter Sacks, and Daniel Albright. When I mentioned a moment from a class with Stephen Greenblatt, he asked if I’d taken a Shakespeare course with him. No, I said, but I took one with Marjorie Garber. Giles, a former Ph.D. student under Marjorie Perloff at Stanford, laughed more each time one of these names came up. “Harvard is just ridiculous,” he said. “These are all the household names of any English graduate student.”
On January 3rd, we lost one of those household names, Daniel Albright, 69 years old, to a heart attack. Harvard’s English, literature, and music communities were shocked. Albright was a favorite among graduate and undergraduate students alike, and among the faculty as well. His final book, Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts (Yale 2014), is a kind of magnum opus, a culmination of his life’s work, which treats everything in the world as art and art as everything. The book allows us to see through his eyes, which take in the world on aesthetic terms, seeing no boundary between art and non-art. Seemingly so simple a task—“[t]he world becomes friendlier when it is seen as art”—it is in fact a remarkable achievement, riddled with all sorts of knots that Albright spent his life untying: how artworks can and cannot talk to each other across mediums; how language can and cannot describe art; how art is and is not representational; how art is always and always isn’t about art itself; how art itself is itself a language is also a “not-language.”
At Harvard, we have direct access to the minds themselves. Why read Greenblatt’s or Garber’s writings on Shakespeare, Scarry’s writings on pain, and beauty, Vendler’s expositions of Heaney’s poetry, if you can just take the course, go to office hours, or drop in on the Mahindra Center talk? It is more exciting to be in the same room. In fact, so immediate is our access to influential professorial minds that the importance of their books can fade casually away. I’ll get to that book later, goes the thinking, because for a short while now, I can actually touch the mind of that book.
What does it mean to just have the book? Having known Daniel Albright as an advisor for two semesters in the English Department and as a professor once—I took the last seminar he taught, “Shakespeare and Music”—I have had to rely on those who knew him well and were influenced by him to get closer to the man after his death. The handful of wonderful qualities that have repeatedly come up at the mention of Albright’s name are also visible in Panaesthetics, that all-inclusive book. In Albright’s case, the man and the book are near perfect reflections of each other. In Panaesthetics, we have, and always will have, the book of that mind.
Spending five minutes with Albright was always memorable for the ease with which he spoke, the humor with which he approached his interactions, the knowledge he brought to bear, the startling power and scope that his ideas carried, and most of all the warmth with which his words landed. The man lives on as long as we hear from those that he touched. The book lives on as long as we read it. Here, let us prolong the convergence of the two for just a little bit longer:
Prolific– Perhaps the fact of Albright’s work most immediately referred to is that he was not only competent but influential in such a wide variety of areas. He taught in the English, Comparative Literature, and Music departments at Harvard, and published 16 books and many articles on subjects as diverse as Yeats, Stravinsky, Britten, Beckett, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Verdi, Berlioz, Schoenberg, Pound, Lawrence, Woolf, Mann, Eliot, Nabokov, and Kafka, how music makes meaning, and the history of Modernism. More than once, in talking with people about Albright, the phrase “walking encyclopedia” came up. It was never truer than with him.
One graduate student told me a potentially apocryphal rumor. Apparently, Albright once replaced a professor who was unable to attend an oral exam. When the department learned of the last-minute absence, Albright was asked to sit on the panel before he had been told what subject or era the exam was on. Never mind that it was in a subject he hadn’t prepared for, Albright evidently easily kept up with his colleagues.
Albright’s written arguments themselves have a prolific feeling to them as well. He does not like arguments that restrict interpretations or exclude possibilities. He wants to take in as much as possible and include everything. What is Literature? It is “a machine for bringing cultural value into being, … a tool for cultural assimilation.” It serves to “make us content with what we have, with what we are; … [in it,] it is quite easy to find vindications of ourselves.” It “not only … recounts who we are, but also … it shows us how we got to be that way.” Like science, “by means of explanatory metaphors,” it tells us of our “origins.” It is “a lie,” a “thought-experiment, a playing with values in which we suspend belief and disbelief alike.” It “provokes us to reject everything it alleges.” Literature exists “in order to preserve experience but also in order to dismiss it. … The aim is exhaustion of the self.” To Albright, literature is always doing these things to varying degrees; likewise, if some words are doing one of these things, to him, it is a kind of literature. His prolific outlook on the arts not only includes a wide variety of mediums, geographies, time-periods, but also functions, values, and affects.
Another graduate student told me of a time she went to ask him about an article he had published. She was going to use it for a final paper, but Albright had forgotten he published the article. After she presented it to him, he said, “Oh yes, I guess I did write that.”
Goofy– Albright had a heavy awkward walk and wore a T-shirt with a sport jacket over it every day. I always imagined if Winnie the Pooh grew up and went to school, he would be just like Albright. One graduate student I talked to described him as a teddy bear.
Albright felt no resistance to taking pleasure in things. “A cheese desperately important to try: Pecorino Ubriacone,” he tweeted while still new to the medium. He would chuckle easily in class, and in office hours, if there were a momentary silence, he would hold a contented grin on his face. He made you feel like he was happy just to have your company.
One graduate student described the wake at Albright’s residence as a meeting of all the bright-color-dyed heads of hair in Cambridge. Albright had a knack for the bizarre and loved whatever was strange and excessive, even without purpose. He sometimes went to great lengths to make the English language do the richest, most flamboyant things it could do. In a review for Opera Today of Debussy’s Pelleas Et Melisande, Albright wrote, “The last thing to mention is the quality of the Blu-ray DVD, almost hair-raisingly excellent: for example, the dark sparkle on the Pollock-like squiggles on the backdrop shone with such clarity that we might have been watching through an airless medium, as if the opera really did take place on the surface of the moon.” Taking delight in as much as possible was essential to his worldview, intellectual project, and character.
Ecstatic– One undergrad I talked to said that Albright embodied pure joy, wholly different from pleasure or delight. A graduate student who was close to him told me that he would break out in tears when he heard certain passages in Wagner. Again on Twitter, Albright shared the voice of his partner, “Marta: ‘Since in the twentieth century we broke the earth, all we can do now is to try to emanate joy.’ ” Albright was deeply affected by art, and I think he truly saw art as the only possible path down which both individuals and societies at large could survive the world’s hardships. For Albright, art replaced the deepest pains with deeper ecstasies.
After the first part of the book where he expounds literature, painting, and music, in the second part of the book he introduces the terms he will use to compare across the arts. He calls eidolons “phantoms generated by the transposition of a work in one artistic medium into an alien one.” It is “an invention … to [the] fancy of a spectator.” This beautiful and exciting idea he elucidates with a personal example: “I was once standing in the Musée de l’Orangerie, half-drowning in the depths beneath Monet’s water lilies, when my companion asked me what sort of music would be the right accompaniment to this experience. I thought for a moment and said Brahms’s Intermezzo, op. 118, no. 6—the subdued elation, the dark haunt, seemed right for Monet. …[T]here is no particular reason … to choose one musical analogue rather than another.”
Unpretentious– Albright was just that: honest and frank as well as unrestrained. He was never far from making a joke out of everything—a tweet: “Today I’m going to watch Janacek’s Makropoulos Case: a 300-year-old woman retains her beauty, but is so jaded & bored she wants only to die”—but he was also deeply giving. In the classroom, sometimes to a fault, he would take every single comment seriously. This was not out of some pretentious need to treat the students right or make everyone heard. For Albright, anything anyone had to say really meant something to him. No matter what was said, he would take it and make something beautiful and brilliant with it. He always found a way to create something on the spot.
In his writing, it seems as if Albright is thinking in real time with us. The arguments are not constructed deductively. They convince more thoroughly with a simple positive feeling that Albright, gently, but profoundly, is living and thinking the right way. It is especially in this way that Albright’s book captures his mind. Even when in the midst of an intellectual battle, these qualities remain. He is thinking openly, calmly, and convincingly outward to his reader in every phrase.
Albright takes on the Adornoian, Greenbergian Modernist notion that art mediums are separate, that the “ ‘opacity of [an artwork’s] medium must be emphasized,’ ” that “an artwork that tries to wriggle free from the enclosure of its subsistence is inherently flawed.” He responds, “If I ask a sculpture to be a ghost or stooge of literature, it has no choice but to comply.” Of course, what better example than Duchamp’s urinal-sculpture Fountain, which is where Albright takes us. In fact, “[a]n artwork is an artwork precisely because it is especially susceptible to translation into an alien medium. … Every act of art criticism is a hauling of the criticized thing into the field of the verbal, where, according to Greenberg, it has no home.” And a bit of humor comes out finally to drive the point home: “If Greenberg had been correct, he would have had to abandon his career as a sculpture critic and become a specialist in metallurgy.”
Inviting– Albright saw his job as akin to that of a “proselytizer.” On the first day of shopping week for his Gen-Ed lecture course Putting Modernism Together, he said, “I want you on your deathbed to be bemoaning yourself for not reading Ulysses.” He certainly saw a bit of irony in his job, once tweeting, “The American Academy: those with attention-deficit disorder being taught by those with attention-surplus disorder?” Though he seemed to worry about his students’ attention spans, he was extremely committed to them, reportedly getting up from the dinner table, even, to respond to their (my) emails from his trusty iPad. One undergrad said, “Albright taught me that I need to have art in my life, no matter what I do.” A graduate student who studies the Renaissance told me, “He made me want to be a Modernist. When I listened to those lectures, I would imagine a universe where I was a Modernist.”
He persuaded you to love what he loved by describing it. To put words to, to describe: that was the role of the professor, the critic, and I would guess the friend, as well. Other objectives fall short, or reach too far:
Art always exasperates. If I try to understand an artwork as a hard, closed, self-contained thing in which the aesthetic experience lies only in the interrelation among its parts, it will dissipate under my gaze, deconstruct into a cloud of endless cultural self-interrogations. If I try to understand an artwork as a point of intersection of lines of force within the culture in which it was produced, in which unconscious dialectics of dominance and subjection can be brought to light by close analysis, it will recede before my eyes, clench itself into a tight closed object. If I want the artwork to be absolute, a text severed from all context, it diffuses into a swarm of mosquitoes; if I want the artwork to be a specimen and manifestation of its surrounding culture, it becomes an armadillo curling itself into a scaly ball.
Even the way he describes these problems reveals his preference. If you lovingly describe something, then you will love it. It is a lesson we cannot be reminded of enough. And though aestheticism is often condemned today for its lack of engagement with real-world problems, the practice of description can actually be an argument for the positive function, value, and purpose of art.
Art can certainly be “vain” in its obsession with itself: “all art … ends in the void.” But, alternatively, Albright says, “I understand each art individually as a dance, and all the arts together as the aggregate dance of the body of the whole human race.” We “feel the body beneath every aesthetic phenomenon” and “dance precedes speech, precedes thinking, precedes feeling itself.” Art “appeals not only to all the sense we already have, but to senses as yet undiscovered. To learn to see with the epigastrium and to hear with the elbows is part of the mission of the artwork: to read with the skin and all that is beneath the skin.” What better way than that is there to speak of the ability of art to change us--all of our humanness: minds, bodies, soul, and all.
He once tweeted, “Thinking about longevity as reflected in art: so often in novels and plays it seems that only young people have grace and imagination & wit.” It isn’t always so, Professor Albright. Not for you.
I wrote this for the Harvard Book Review, here: http://www.theharvardbookreview.com/2015/05/14/just-the-book/
(May 15, 2015)