I have a vague memory of reading something in a chapbook accompanying a musical score, several years ago, that has stuck with me like the gummy remnant of an old price tag. I have enormous trouble remembering the details—who wrote it, what the music was, when it was published. I remember what the writer said and composite it over and over. The reason I may be forgetting the details of the artifact probably have to do with my trying to forget the whole period of my life in which I read it. Not because it was traumatic at all, but just because it’s old. It must have been fifteen years ago that I read it? I don’t keep tax papers this long; why would I keep this?
I do remember the physical thing itself, on which the writing was printed. I even remember where I found it. My then boyfriend, a jazz saxophonist/composer slash music teacher, had a messy shelf of flimsy musical notations, binders of sheet music, fake books, old love letters. I frequently lost my temper with him for refusing to archive detritus from past relationships represented inside some of that miscellanea. After dating for several months, for example, I found pearl studs behind his bedside lamp, and while I knew this was not evidence of a concurrent affair, I felt like I’d caught him in flagrante, such was the level of insult I felt when he refused to clear an exclusive path of memories of me. In hindsight, I think evidence of past relationships were a terrible cruelty we inflicted upon each other stemming from a mutual insecurity about our compatibility with each other. Our jealousy was unreal. He kept mentioning his concert pianist ex, his ballerina ex, his novelist ex—because he knew I was an aspiring novelist who once dreamt in piano, and would be self-conscious about my body fat percentage at any given moment. I in turn allude to rockstar ex-boyfriends whose acclaim no sax player would achieve. What can I say. I was young and he is a man. Hashing this all out may belie any possibility I’ve moved on, and maybe I haven’t but suffice it to say my introducing the ex as a saxophonist-composer first, is a peace offering. That’s the ascription he preferred, whereas calling him a music teacher first was usually meant as an insult and how I preferred to describe him post facto. Galaxy brain needs to remind us all that in fact his work as an educator is profoundly more interesting and important. His students are incredibly lucky to have him.
Anyway, the thing that I read that I found in the trashy “reading pile” in my ex-boyfriend’s apartment cabinet, adorned with evidence of old lovers, was an essay by a 19th or 20th century romantic poet who expounded upon his jealousy of a composer. In my memory, the poet’s jealousy was so absolute toward the composer. In my memory, he says something about how his ability to write a perfect verse cannot possibly measure up to music. In my memory, the poet describes listening to his friend’s composition, and becomes physically upset, such is how frustrated he is.
After some Twitter sleuthing I discover the writing likely comes from Richard Wagner et Tannhauser à Paris by Charles Baudelaire.
But something interesting happens when I read it now. It is a wholly different text.
Today, the thing that I read is Baudelaire deconstructing the concept of the ego-I. He begins with an exploration of the “I” or the “je” that motivates his whole argument. Principally, he makes fun of Parisians for resisting Wagner who has already become a hero in Germany and even in Italian circuits. Parisians are inflamed by Wagner’s audacity in “a show comprising no instrumental solos, no chansons, not a single exhibition of virtuosity or the tours de force that doting audiences dote upon.” (This is my own shitty translation of the original sentence so take that with a grain of salt.)
What I’d interpreted at the time as an exposition in jealousy is actually an exercise in existentialism (yes I realize “existentialism” doesn’t happen for another 80 years or whatever but you know what I mean). What Baudelaire envies in the composition is not his inability to do it, but the fact that in Baudelaire’s specific craft and cultural context—French romantic poetry—the ego, the “je,” cannot be excised.
I, on the other hand, find enormous relief in writing from my own perspective, and lately am amazed at the facility with which I can finally write with abandon because of my ego-I. I used to hate having to depend on my own stories, but it’s all I want now. Frankly, the dread of playing music is that *I* appear at all, whereas in my writing, I must appear, or the writing will never exist. So thank you, writing, for letting me exist.
I write with confidence. Both in the sense of my having enough self-respect to do it at all, and in the sense of it being held in confidence by the reader. I write as if all of what I say should be kept secret, which strangely gives me the energy-confidence to say it at all.
I am sometimes sorry when I look back at things I’ve written. That is endemic to a lot of art, I think. Most writers I know cringe a little when they see past work, and push themselves to make new things to give evidence to spiritual progress. Similarly, I cringe at how I recall my past with this piece by Baudelaire and the context within which I found it. But I’m forgiving myself. I simply happen to have read two wholly different texts in the same exact letters. Perhaps the spirit of progress is all we need to move on.