Not long ago I participated in a lively comments discussion at another weblog wherein I defended "modern" art music. (I actually enjoy modern music, not just admire it in a detached sort of way.) The majority opinion among those commenting seemed to be that modern music isn't music at all, just noise, and that only pre-twentieth century music, or modern music hearkening back to it, could even be called musical. This is an argument easily transferable to literature, since modern literature too is senseless, too difficult, and only pre-modern fiction and poetry are real, "normal" works of literature.
The April 23 issue of the Times Literary Supplement offers a version of this debate, as David Pitt, a philosopher at Cal State-Long Beach, reviews two books by the music critic Peter Kivy, New Essays on Musical Understanding, and Introduction to a Philosophy of Music. Kivy is the anti-modernist, arguing, in Pitt's words, that "the emotions we ascribe to music are properties of the music, not the listener." Music doesn't evoke an emotional response, it embodies emotion in its very nature. Thus, any music that doesn't manifest a recognizable emotion (by implication at least, all of "dissonant" modernist music) couldn't be music.
This is a fairly transparent way of rejecting experimental music--just as many others reject experimental fiction or poetry because it's also "dissonant"--and Pitt does a good job of diagnosing its flaws. In responding to Kivy's claim that "when we characterize music as yearning, or angry, joyous or melancholy, we. . . are not saying. . .that the music makes us yearn, or be angry, joyous, or melancholy, but that it is those things," Pitt quite rightly points out that "Taken literally,. . .this would be absurd. A piece of music is not a sentient being, and cannot itself be in an emotional state." But arguments about music of the sort Kivy advances are intended to be taken literally, since if we settle for the listener's experience of various emotions (or anything else you'd care to call them), an irretrievable element of subjectivity is being granted, the kind of subjectivity that makes "modern" atonal music possible in the first place. It's all in the ear of the listener.
What really interests me most about Pitt's account of Kivy's books, however, is the additional discussion of what Kivy calls the "problem" of opera. According to Pitt:
. . .at one point Kivy claims that the crux of the problem of opera (and all music with text) is that music is essentially a repetitive art form, while literature is not. Musical form is determined by musical repetition, whereas literature (especially narrative fiction) is ongoing, unidirectional, and non-cyclical. There is thus a deep incommensurability between them, and, hence, the problem of opera is insoluble.
Kivy must have "narrative fiction" in mind (although the real analogy would seem to be with drama), since poetry is of course full of repetition. Nevertheless, Pitt convincingly observes that the "repetition" involved in music "does not have to be literal" since "[in] the freely atonal piano pieces of Berg and Webern, for example, coherence and structure are achieved without literal repetition of whole sections. These works. . .have structure and coherence, though the musical relations that determine them are rarely on the surface of the music and almost never involve literal repetition."
Pitt also questions Kivy's assertion about literature, but not nearly as strenuously as he could. To what extent is it true that literature, even granting the narrowing of the term to fiction, is "ongoing, unidirectional, and non-cyclical"? Surely everyone can think of reputable works of literature that are either discontinuous, omnidirectional, or entirely cyclical, if not all three at the same time. Finnegans Wake? To the Lighthouse? Naked Lunch? V? Of course, these are all experimental, dissonant books, and the point of describing literature in the way Kivy appears to be doing it (at least according to Pitt) could well be to exclude such books from the category of "literature," just as Berg and Webern are excluded from the category of "music."
Moreover, why couldn't "repetition" be as valid a structuring device in fiction as it is in music? Pitt observes that "[c]ompletely non-repetitive music would be incoherent. If no musical event in a work bore any relation whatever of similarity or sameness to any other event, the work would not make any sense." He further observes that the same thing must be true of fiction. I would only add that to the extent any work of literature is literally a composed and arranged text of written language, it is quite like music.
Really the terms "ongoing, unidirectional, and non-cyclical" are a way of reducing literature to the element of "story." Literature, or at least fiction, is story. Which brings me to my real subject, although I will leave it with a series of questions, questions I pose in all sincerity, even if the reader probably knows how I would answer them. Must fiction's core identity ultimately be understood in terms of story, however much other elements are also emphasized? In an era when the need for story seems to be quite well met by films and television, should fiction writers also be pigeonholed as storytellers? Couldn't they simply be considered "writers," some of whom tell stories to meet particular artistic goals, others of whom essentially discard narrative, taking fiction closer to the model of lyric poetry--without quite crossing the line? Couldn't fiction do without "story" altogether?