not in our stars, but in ourselves
I am about a third of the way through Jan Swafford’s extraordinary biography of Brahms (quite creatively titled Johannes Brahms: A Biography), and it is setting off all kinds of thoughts and feelings and wishes and dreams. Let me try to be organized here.
1. Brahms was, in some ways, a real pissant. Because he wanted history to view him a particular way (not necessarily in a lofty, worshipful way – just in the way that he wanted to be viewed), he destroyed many of his letters, and many of his compositions that he deemed unworthy. As such, Swafford had to dig pretty deep to create the (masterfully done) portrait of the artist as a young grump. (The next two thirds will bring Brahms as a middle-aged and then as an old grump, I feel sure.) It made me think, however, of what an easy time future biographers will have. If, for example, someone wanted to write a biography about me – why, I’d nearly be writing it for them. We leave so much of ourselves in the world these days. No more agonizing over the discarded response to a crucial letter: even if someone deletes an email, it lives on in endless servers. How laws will change to aid or impede future biographers, I don’t care to imagine; but the point is that I, and many others of my generation, leave such a trail of slime all over the internet that it will be a piece of cake for some enterprising future biographer to dissect us ruthlessly. I’m glad I’ll be dead before it happens.
2. Brahms was also a babe. Like, mega babe. I am very fond of bears (in the gay sense), so I’m not opposed to his later incarnation as a husky gentleman with a massive beard – but look at those baby blues:
3. There’s a lot in the book about sublimating autobiography into art, and altering it so that it’s not obviously autobiography, and tricking the audience, and tricking the self, and seeing the self in literary characters (Kreisler, of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story, was Brahms’s go-to), and taking on that literary character’s characteristics – which happen to include being a stand in for the author himself, and all these mirrors held up to mirrors, and so on and so forth; and it is all so Nabokovian that I could scream. They would have hated each other, because they were both pissants, but still. They should have met. And been buddies.
4. Speaking of revising history, Brahms was a real dick about women. He fell in love all the time, but he expected the women he fell in love with to remain pure and virginal (thinking he was denying only himself the pleasure of their flesh). Meanwhile, he sought the services of prostitutes all the time – and burned with shame for it, because he thought sex was basically a shameful thing – but never saw those women as humans equal to him, in any capacity. Now, it would be an interesting exercise – in fiction, in film, whatever – to come up with some sort of pseudo-sci-fi/history/romance where an enterprising young twenty-first century Brahms fan (no, her name would not be Mary Sue, why do you ask?) finds herself back in Hamburg with dear old Johannes when he was young and gorgeous, and teaches him to be a better man, and it would be about how to live with a genius when you’re just a person who loves and admires genius but have nothing more than common sense and a smattering of book smarts, and so on and so on. It would be interesting, possibly only to me – but Brahms’s number one concern was always himself, too, so I’d be in good misanthropic company.