A world with no meaning in Auguste Corteau's 'Sixteen'Review June 20, 2019
By Auguste Corteau
Etruscan Press (2019), 324 pages
The plot of the modern novel suggests a sense of what I will call closed direction, the idea that while it is not possible to know whether there is reason in history, the events still remain possibly meaningful and “worth of historically relevant actions.”1 Even in the most ridiculous situations, as doors are endlessly shutting closed before an anti-hero and all hope is lost, as in say The Castle, hope itself even when absent reveals a horizon of tension between the actor and his possible futures; thus a quest for meaning is implied, or at the very least, a theodicy. But what if, in the presence of the ineffable, the possibility of meaning were to be destroyed for us in advance? '“The world is a profoundly boring place”, Alexei recalled him saying once. “Life is boring, death is boring, and war and hunger are colossally boring. There's no point in reading about any of it. It's all happened before and will happen again. The mere thought of the past, or the future, for that matter, is enough to deaden one's soul.”' These are the words with which Pyotr Anastasevich Rabinovich, one of the most important Soviet composers of all time, introduces his anti-climatic system of (non)philosophy.
But that is not all. Rabinovich is the main character in Sixteen - a novel by Auguste Corteau, albeit taciturn for the most part, so that his ideas and thoughts are recollected only in hagiographic manner: “His uncle's unknowable fate had sealed Alexei up, bequeathing him an inheritance of silence. Ah, silence – the lovemaking sound of the lonely, the whispered song of the perspiring palm.” It is only through accounts of his protégée Alexei, a young musicologist, that we know him, but also through accounts of other equally mystifying characters – Thomas Mann, an aristocratic priest, a deaf musician, or Soviet colonel Sretensky. On the opposite end of his living so skeptically, there emerges after his death a vital force, the symphony Sixteen and his final opus--one that he had kept hidden from Alexei, his closest collaborator. It is a bizarre atonal piece, rumored to be provoking the strangest defections all over the Eastern block after recordings of the short symphony were broadcast illegally. How could music bring about a revolution? And not just music, but the music of a man whose lack of faith in life could only be matched by his irreverence for death:
The truth was that shortly after three in the morning, on Friday, March 6, 1953, Rabinovich took a hot bath while fully clothed. Then, wearing only drenched corduroys, a dripping cotton shirt, and no shoes, walked to the Gorky Kul'tury Park, a distance of three kilometers, in below-zero temperatures. There he collapsed on a park bench and died.
One morning in January 2017 I strolled in the sub-zero temperatures of Moscow from the Red Square all the way to Gorky Park with a broken heart, and thus I could entertain Rabinovich's first thought at dawn that day: It is possible to die. Soon after Stalin's death, his favorite composer Rabinovich takes his own life without note or motif, and then Alexei Samoilenko is summoned to Sretensky himself, in the face of Sixteen's success, searching for answers that the young man didn't have. A double-entendre opens up here: Through his death, Rabinovich would set Alexei up for a journey – he was to be sent as a spy to uncover the mystery of Sixteen – around Europe, yet the journey itself is a trap of another kind, a puzzle that cannot be solved by literature alone because it follows the rules of music, and therefore “music doesn't really raise any questions, because it doesn't need to.”
In a linear and fast-paced narration, secrets are revealed, time and places change and certainly events appear often meaningful - an encounter with Thomas Mann in Zurich, or the journey to Florence where the topic of Alexei's repressed homosexuality passionately appears and is almost worked out but only almost– but essentially nothing happens at all; the drama is rather meaningless. In spite of the crime novel version of history that Sixteen evokes, the structure of the plot is firmly anchored in a question of perception, proposed by Rabinovich early on: “Is music immaterial, if matter is required in order for sound to be created and transmitted? Is God immaterial, if a human brain is needed to conceive of him? And might we then dare think (dare hope!) that music is no invention of humanity but something that transcends if not precedes it?” With the exception of love, at least in the case of Alexei - and always shrouded in ambiguity and longing, everything else in the story is a long sequence of mismatches, aberrations, question marks and awkward silences; the characters are diseased, or at least numb and not responsive to stimuli.
Set in the Soviet Union, Sixteen doesn't seem to be about an other, but rather about a nowhere, a place whose possibilities have been depleted. Accordingly, the one and only question of Rabinovich, is to remain inconsolably unanswered:
But no one really knows what the Logos is. We don't even know how to pronounce Tetragrammaton. Why, it could well be music-like in nature. After all, the Lord moves in mysterious ways, and nothing is beyond his infinite power. Still, I'm afraid I'm hardly equipped to tackle such weighty matters. I am no more than a simple servant groping blindly through the wonder that is God's love and armed solely with my own unshakable faith. Not even His Holiness, may the Lord preserve him, would be capable of offering a definitive answer to your question, for he, too, is only human.
What is the point of living then, Rabinovich would ask. And perhaps the answer isn't that we should die, but that it makes no sense to be alive, we drag ourselves through the floor, incessantly, to the very end. Helene Cixous explains: “More specifically, we always live without reason; and living is just that, it's living without reason, for nothing, at the mercy of time. This is nonreason, true madness, if you think about it.”2
But we don't really think about it, she adds, “Once 'thought' is introduced, once 'reason' is brought into proximity with life, you have the makings of madness.”3 The irredeemability of agency in the novel—Alexei's sexuality, Rabinovich's secret message, the Soviet regime—shines through, and pain is felt not as an attack on human dignity but as an insurmountable part of the human condition, or that condition itself: […] “Alexei had been stunned by a grief so immense that it couldn't be described as actual living.”
During his visit to a secret library in the Vatican, Alexei enters in contact with a major conspiracy that might have informed Rabinovich: “In the beginning, God sang... He didn't create rather, He sang into creation.” Is it possible that all the original texts of holy books were distorted “so that speech and Logos had eventually replaced music and song?” And even more, it's no longer possible to become mad because of this knowledge, when one is already mad, when he has become inured to pain. And from the scripture implicit – but unreadable – in Sixteen foams up a merciless godlessness, and merciless toward no one else but itself. In their abandonment of reason, Corteau's characters abandon not only history and God, but the intelligibility of the world.
It wasn't the infidels and unbelievers who declared that “God is dead,” it was theology and its most pious Christians who ran to destroy the churches after the October revolution, with the belief that the Messianic era was now due. A stealthy Rabinovich – committed to survival and revenge as the story reveals him to be - was then just listening to the peasants, replacing the chorus of the ancient Greek drama.4 In this strange novel that cannot be read against anything Corteau wrote before (the novel was written in English in 2008, at the same as The Destruction of Nikos, an early novel also written in English) music ultimately appears not merely as a theme (the symphony) or an effect (art doesn't imitate life here) but a mechanism in which parables break off before you can make sense of them or accumulate them.5 Alexei stands before Sretensky, Rabinovich stands before Stalin, Moses stands before God: “We are so far apart. You are so powerful and I so weak, that it would be meaningless to destroy me.” That's the last encounter with the ineffable, as far as the mysteries of the world can take you, and after that, there's nothing. The novel ends in disappointment: “Only now, in the utter stillness of the lake, did Alexei realize that his entire hunt to resolve the enigma of Sixteen had been an elaborate exercise in pointlessness, a painstaking lesson of surrender.”
To speak of the author – here an unreliable narrator – and his earlier or later achievements, Greece, Athens, the world, would only complicate matters further; theory is only a poor replacement for the unhappy consciousness of the symphony. It is necessary to surrender here. “Oh, what a tangle life was. What a foul and beautiful mess.” The scene changes backward to Switzerland – memory without recognition – where Alexei recalls the legends about the labyrinthine basement of the Katzenberg family: “Inside approximately two hundred vaults were stored the most invaluable and morally questionable treasures known to humanity. Here were stored the clay prototypes of Da Vinci's Sforza monument, tomes containing lost Greek tragedies, works by Heraclitus, and Diogenes rescued from the Library of Alexandria, the holy relics of Mary Magdalene and the elusive Philosopher's Stone.” It is perhaps there, in this vault, where there lies dormant, a copy of the Peleus, a lost play of Sophocles, about the fortunes of the mythological hero in his old age, a known fragment of which might have been familiar to Rabinovich from where he derives a source of his radiant mortality: “τὸ μὴ γὰρ εἶναι κρεῖσσον ἢ τὸ ζῆν κακῶς” (not existing is better than living badly).
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- 1. Agnes Heller, The Contemporary Historical Novel, in “Aesthetics and Modernity: Essays by Agnes Heller”, ed. John Rundell, Lexington, 2011, pp 96.
- 2. Helene Cixous, “Coming to Writing and Other Essays”, ed. Deborah Jenson, Harvard University Press, 1991, pp. 5-6
- 3. Ibid
- 4. Agnes Heller, ibid., pp. 101
- 5. Theodor Adorno, Music, Language, Composition in Essays on Music, University of California Press, 2002, pp. 115