The actors by their presence always convince me, to my horror, that most of what I've written about them until now is false. It is false because I write about them with steadfast love (even now, while I write it down, this, too, becomes false) but varying ability, and this varying ability does not hit off the real actors loudly and correctly but loses itself dully in this love that will never be satisfied with the ability and therefore thinks it is protecting the actors by preventing this ability from exercising itself.
– Franz Kafka
It is (to describe it figuratively) as if an author were to make a slip of the pen, and as if this clerical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this clerical error were to revolt against the author, out of hatred for him, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, "No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer."
– Søren Kierkegaard
There are actually four things up with these epigraphs. Let's go one at a time.
The Content: Writing about People is Hard. Actually, Writing About Anything is Hard.
These are some complicated epigraphs, and unless you're used to skimming Kierkegaard and Kafka over breakfast, you probably have to read them a few times to grasp what they're saying. So let's paraphrase. Kafka says that to write about a person with love makes it difficult to write about them with accuracy. When you love your subject, you are never satisfied with your "varying ability" to write about them. Kierkegaard is talking about errors in the content of what is being written – he just uses the metaphor of a "clerical error." Such a fundamental error cannot be easily fixed; instead it remains as a testament to the writer's imperfect abilities.
Of course, both of these quotations tie in directly to Buddy's attempts to write about Seymour. First of all, he says as much: "By and large, I've reproduced the two passages to try to suggest very plainly how I think I stand in regard to the overall mass of data I hope to assemble here – a thing that in some quarters, I don't a bit mind saying, an author can't be too explicit about, or any too early" ("Seymour" 1.2). Buddy certainly writes about Seymour with love, and he repeatedly questions the accuracy of his descriptions. When he discusses the short story "Teddy," for example, he says that he was trying to get at Seymour's eyes with his description of the title character's face, but failed utterly. There's an example of an error that refused to be erased, an error that very much became "an essential part of the whole exposition." Kafka says that the love a writer feels for his subject means he won't ever be satisfied with his writing about that subject. This is Buddy in a nutshell, who openly admits falling victim to this plight with regard to Seymour:
My original plans for this general space were to write a short story about Seymour and to call it 'SEYMOUR ONE', with the big 'ONE' serving as a built-in convenience to me, Buddy Glass, even more than to the reader – a helpful, flashy reminder that other stories (a Seymour Two, Three, and possibly Four) would logically have to follow. Those plans no longer exist. ("Seymour" 1.4)
Buddy has found it impossible to capture Seymour in any "legitimate sort of narrative compactness," and "can't conceive of anyone, least of all [himself], trying to write him off in one shot or in one fairly simple series of sittings, whether arranged by the month or the year" ("Seymour" 1.4).
The Style and Tone: A Fitting Appetizer for Seymour
The epigraphs are effective not just in their content, but in their style and tone as well. They set us up for the more difficult, sophisticated, and cerebral territory of "Seymour" (as compared to "Roof Beam," that is). Check out our discussions of "Writing Style" and "Tone," and you'll see why Kafka and Kierkegaard fit the introductory bill.
Furnishings for the Intellectual Setting
We'll have to send you off to "Setting" if you want to understand this one. Basically, we argue that if "Roof Beam" goes down in a clearly-defined physical setting, then "Seymour" operates in a well-defined intellectual atmosphere. And these opening quotes are the cerebral equivalent of furniture. As Buddy says (in his own special way), the quotations reference his own "aesthetic pathology" ("Seymour" 1.2)
A Thematic Lead-In
Buddy, being the playful and meta-fictional narrator that he is, takes a moment to discuss the importance of his own epigraphs:
I don't really deeply feel that anyone needs an airtight reason for quoting from the works of writers he loves, but it's always nice, I'll grant you, if he has one. In this case, it seems to me that those two passages, especially in contiguity, are wonderfully representative of the best, in a sense, not only of Kafka and Kierkegaard but of all the four dead men, the four variously notorious Sick Men or underadjusted bachelors (probably only van Gogh, of the four, will be excused from making a guest appearance in these pages), whom I most often run to – occasionally in real distress – when I want any perfectly credible information about modern artistic processes. ("Seymour" 1.2)
The Four Sick men are an important idea in "Seymour," and we discuss them fully in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory." Since Kierkegaard and Kafka are two of the Four, it's fitting that they are quoted in the epigraph.
Ethan Hawke’s film “Seymour: An Introduction,” is a loving documentary portrait of the classical pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein. Born in 1927, Bernstein is a formerly celebrated musician who has performed in major venues to great acclaim. In 1977, at the age of fifty, long wracked with stage fright and other anxieties, he threw himself a concert at the 92nd Street Y that he secretly intended to be his farewell recital. Since then, Bernstein has been teaching, composing, and writing—still living alone in a one-room apartment on the Upper West Side—and being, he says, much happier and more fulfilled. Early on in the film, Hawke explains to a small audience that he met Bernstein at a dinner party and found their conversation uniquely inspiring. The actor says, “I have been struggling recently with finding why I do what I do,” and adds that he has been seeking “authenticity.” Hawke explains that his discussion with Bernstein at that dinner was more beneficial to him than all his talk with “professionals.”
Hawke’s documentary isn’t overtly about acting, however—it’s about music and about Bernstein. The musician tells his life story, sometimes to Hawke and sometimes in discussion with Michael Kimmelman, the Times critic who was a student of Bernstein’s. The film takes viewers through the many byways of a busy life: his childhood in Newark, where his father was indifferent to his musical vocation; his military service in the Korean War; his exotic experience as the protégé of a wealthy “patroness” and spiritualist who founded a religion of her own and sponsored his early concert tours; and, above all, his troubled relationship with the world of professional performing musicians. Hawke doesn’t talk much about himself; he’s a modest, devoted, and intermittent presence throughout the film. It’s no spoiler to say that the small audience that he addresses is assembled for the event that provides the film’s dénouement—a concert that Hawke prompts Bernstein to give, in the Steinway showroom’s storefront space, to a handful of guests.
Music is the center of the film and the source of its delights. Hawke shows Bernstein’s passionate knowledge at work, as when he plays the beginning of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto while selecting a piano from the Steinway basement or recalls his experience as a student and colleague of the great British pianist Clifford Curzon. Bernstein teaches students with a blend of revelatory nuance in analyzing scores and sensitivity to the intimately physical side of piano playing. Clips of his performance of Schumann's Fantasie, op. 17, at the climactic Steinway concert are thrilling. For classical-music lovers, the movie is a treat, albeit a mixed one. It’s a source of exalted moments and a springboard for big ideas—but some of those moments and ideas evoke fractures in Bernstein’s world view and Hawke’s filmmaking. Nonetheless, Hawke places his own personal conflicts in the film, often using them as the motive for his ongoing dialogue with Bernstein. In a one-on-one conversation, Hawke expresses his dissatisfaction with a career that seems planned to “gain more things. ” He finds that his art and his commercial success are in conflict with each other, and laments the fact that “the most ‘successful’ things I’ve done have been some of the worst things I've done.” He wonders, “What is it that I’m living for?” and considers the possibility that his greatest fulfillment will not be from acting but, rather, “through living.”
“Seymour: An Introduction” is more than just an actor’s way of coping with midlife crisis. The film responds to a crisis that is intrinsic to the problem faced by actors, especially by movie actors: a lack of control. This is a classic dilemma for the actor, who is, by and large, taking part in projects initiated and overseen by others. In movies, the alchemical force that makes an actor a star isn’t a straightforward matter of technique, akin to a musician-like virtuosity that can be achieved with study and practice.
The lack of creative control drives many actors to direct—as Hawke does here. Specifically, the actor’s lack of control over charisma, and the sense that success is a divine gift that can as easily be withdrawn, leads many of them to seek fulfillment outside of movies, as in politics or good works. It’s also why the theatre, where the actor has an unmediated command of the stage during his or her performance, appears as a sort of higher realm of performance, a sanctuary from the Hollywood whorehouse. This is the dichotomy that “Birdman” runs on, and it’s hinted at in “Seymour: An Introduction,” when Bernstein explains that his concert is being held “for Ethan’s theatre group.”
Hawke discovers that Bernstein’s withdrawal from concerts has an ethical component as well. In one sequence, Bernstein refers to his misery in anticipation of performance, his fear of memory slips onstage, his feelings of being inadequate as a musician and, therefore, as a person. But Kimmelman reminds Bernstein that there was more to his withdrawal—that, in years past, Bernstein seemed openly “angrier” at the music world. Bernstein agrees that he “was angry at the music world,” adding, “I’m not so sure that a major career is a healthy thing to embark upon. I see my colleagues who have major careers suffer terribly.”
Hawke intercuts this discussion with his own dialogue with Bernstein, fretfully telling him that many artistic geniuses are also “extremely selfish, extremely horrible people,” citing Jackson Pollock and Marlon Brando. Bernstein says that there are musicians of this sort, too, and Hawke asks him about Glenn Gould, whom Bernstein calls “neurotic.” Bernstein rags on Gould’s art: “What peeves me about him, he was so famous for Bach, but when I hear his Bach I’m not aware that I’m listening to Bach, I’m only aware I’m listening to Glenn Gould; he’s infusing the music with his own eccentric nature.” Then he follows up with a story about how Gould cultivated the appearance of eccentricity onstage in order to “wow” the audience.
Following this discussion of Gould, Hawke cuts back to Bernstein telling Kimmelman that he now considers himself “to be like amateur musicians, namely, to do it for love and not just for commercial purposes.” The renunciation of the professional virtuoso’s career is both a kind of pleasure—a freedom from the pain that it caused him—and an ascetic devotion to a higher ideal.
The reference to Gould is both an apt allusion and a telling contrast. Gould certainly lived in a distinctive way and behaved, even in ordinary circumstances, in a singular way. His performances of music were equally idiosyncratic. He withdrew from the concert stage in 1964, at the age of thirty-two, but he certainly didn’t withdraw from the public performance of music, or from the business of music. For Gould, the proper place to make music was in the recording studio, away from the public spotlight. In his 1981 interview with Tim Page, Gould explained that
technology has the capability to create a climate of anonymity and to allow the artist the time and the freedom to prepare his conception of a work to the best of his ability, to perfect a statement without having to worry about trivia like nerves and finger slips. It has the capability of replacing those awful and degrading and humanly damaging uncertainties which the concert brings with it; it takes the specific personal performance information out of the musical experience.
Gould’s creative life even accelerated at the point of his concert withdrawal. He played the piano as much as ever, and even expanded his repertory, though he did so in the studio. He worked with professional engineers and recorded for Columbia Records. Gould was possessed with a philosophical vision of music. His idea about the debasement of music in concert flows into a grand vision of life that he realized copiously, in writings and interviews as well as in radio works and, for that matter, in his musical performance. His performances are as incontrovertibly distinctive and original as was his way of life.
For a writer, the notion of stage fright and the abomination of public display have an instantly recognizable correlate. How many of us would be willing to have our keyboards hooked up to a camera that revealed to the world the flow of language, unedited, through their fingers to their readers?
Bernstein’s fundamental humility seems tied to Hawke’s own quest. Where Bernstein hears Gould instead of Bach, he himself attempts, now as a teacher and formerly as a performer, to realize the intentions of the composer as he perceived them. This is no theoretical judgment; I was familiar with Bernstein’s performances long before this movie saw the light of day. I’m in the habit of trawling for classical-music recordings, with a particular emphasis on piano music, and several years ago I acquired a two-disk set called “Seymour Bernstein: A Retrospective,” issued, by Bernstein himself, in 2002.
Its performances are mainly drawn from his 1969 Alice Tully Hall recital and his 1977 farewell concert, but it also includes pieces performed at concerts from 1955 through 1970, as well as a handful of Chopin pieces that he recorded at home as a teen-ager, in the nineteen-forties. The booklet features essays by Bernstein and Kimmelman, in which Bernstein gives a general overview of his career and Kimmelman talks about his childhood lessons with Bernstein and discusses the recordings in detail.
Bernstein is a superb musician; he doesn’t quite meet the furies of Beethoven’s last sonata, Op. 111, head-on, in the 1969 recital, but he plays Schubert’s three pieces, D. 946, with a rhapsodic, lilting lyricism that’s most noticeable when he, so to speak, changes gears, passing from one section to another with a meltingly deft touch. In his farewell recital, he aptly plays Beethoven’s last piano works, the Bagatelles, op. 126, and he brings a special sublimity to the sudden silences—there are phrases that drop off so dramatically that one feels a cosmic void opening. Bernstein is not a miniaturist, he’s a momentalist: he creates astonishing musical moments through intense and probing attention to nuances of the score.
In effect, Bernstein is a musical naturalist whose sense of drama is human-scale. There are no Promethean struggles or heaven-storming terrors or unbearable intimacies in his performance; he doesn’t seek or realize extremes of experience, and his sense of fidelity and devotion are present throughout. It’s a quality that one of his students mentions in Hawke’s film, saying, “Composers must be very happy in heaven . . . because he delivers every single message hiding in the music.”
Yet Bernstein’s ideas about music go beyond music into the spiritual realm. It’s these ideas—rather than his extraordinarily insightful remarks about particular compositions—that unite Hawke and Bernstein, and this is where Hawke’s approach to his film seems to conform itself sanctimoniously to Bernstein’s thinking. Toward the end of the film, Bernstein takes the stage at Steinway and performs Brahms’s luminously tender Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2. As he plays, Hawke cuts to shots of Bernstein at home and Bernstein giving master classes, and then adds Bernstein’s superimposed voiceover, in which he delivers what comes across as a credo:
Music speaks concordantly to a troubled world, dispelling loneliness and discontent, its voice discovering in it those deep recesses of thought and feeling where truth implants itself. Music offers no quarter for compromise—no excuses, no subterfuge, no shoddy workmanship. And we sense in music an extension of ourselves, a reminder of our own potential for perfection.
When the voiceover ends—while Bernstein is still playing the Brahms—Hawke editorializes visually, with silent film clips of Maria Callas, Yo-Yo Ma, African musicians, country musicians, Mahalia Jackson, square dancers, a gospel choir, and other musicians in a state of rapture or ecstasy. Hawke, as a director, doesn’t trust Bernstein’s performance—or, perhaps, his viewers; his superficially universalizing montage, subordinating Bernstein’s fine performance of the Brahms first into language and then to other musical artists with whom viewers might more easily identify, is unfortunately akin to Bernstein’s own rhapsodically humanistic generalizations. (It's also of a piece with the sentimental morality of the long-term movie projects—the "Before" trilogy and "Boyhood"—that Hawke has undertaken with Richard Linklater.) I love classical music passionately, but Bernstein’s sentimental credo—and Hawke’s sentimental montage—make me yearn to hear the Sex Pistols.
In the era before recording, the wonder of music was the wonder of performance, and the mere fact of the realization of a great score by a musician capable of doing so was a sufficient astonishment—the ordinary performance was automatically extraordinary. It is, of course, a miracle to be able to make music at all, and the closer one gets to the miracle, the greater it seems, which is why that primal astonishment can best be recaptured now by standing close to a pianist playing great music, feeling the touch of the keys, the striking of hammers on strings and the vibrations of the strings through the feet, the resonance of the body of the piano in our bodies.
But in the age of recording, when so many recordings and performances by remarkably accomplished musicians sound fundamentally similar, there’s a level of amazement that arises from those musicians whose performances—like Gould’s—are almost always unlike anyone else’s. Bernstein is the heir to one of the greatest artistic traditions of the era, and one that has been whiplashed by technology. The ability to listen repeatedly to works at home, to learn music from a recorded baseline of traditional interpretation, has placed the original and the audacious performer in the front lines of the modernity of classical music.
Much of the critical appreciation of performance is a narcissism of minor differences, and the major differences that a few performers manage, or dare, to realize in performance often evoke the sort of response from critics and listeners that Bernstein offered regarding Gould. (Gould’s Bach recordings may be famous—there wasn’t much of a recorded tradition of the Goldberg Variations when his 1955 LP came out—but whose performances of Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms are often mocked or reviled.)
It’s the difference, in movies, between the sort of faithful naturalism that characterizes the technically impressive, self-subordinating performances that tend to win Oscars and the irrepressibly individual performances that don't melt into character but, rather, jump out of character and through the screen. These actors achieve the sort of hyper-expressive or understated, rapid-fire or ruminatively halting presence that surpasses scripted drama to become a drama unto itself—a personal confrontation with, and embodiment of, the power of the cinema. John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe are among the Glenn Goulds of movies—and so, of course, is Charlie Chaplin, who tells the story of the oppressive limits of noble theatrical tradition in his 1952 comic drama “Limelight.”