In a column on Philip Glass in this week's New Yorker, I say that Einstein on the Beach "shows how great art can be assembled from junk fragments of an anti-artistic society." Not coincidentally, I end with lines from Wallace Stevens's 1938 poem "The Man on the Dump." Here is the closing section:
One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That's what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow's voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher's honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve;
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.
Joan Richardson, in her two-volume biography of Stevens, notes that the poet was fascinated by a trash dump near his home in Hartford, Connecticut, and took particular interest in a Russian refugee "who built a shack out of old boxes, tin cans, and bottles" and "lived there as a semihermit for several years." That image becomes a metaphor for the dilemma of the artist in the modern world. Helen Vendler, in On Extended Wings, describes three possibilities: "to sit on the dump and say 'I am sitting on a dump'; to sit and say 'This is not a dump but a garden'; to sit, see that the scene is a dump, and nevertheless say 'This dump is a flower garden.' Stevens is unwilling, as a poet, to give in to the depressing naturalism of the first; the second seems to him a romantic falsification; but he does not know quite know whether the third is possible, and hence resorts to questions...." I'd note also that when Stevens has something supremely important to say he often reduces his language to monosyllables.
What's wonderful about the conceit is that the bits of poetry that Stevens imagines being uttered on the dump — "aptest eve," "invisible priest," "stanza my stone" — are outdated, musty, redolent of some student attempt at Symbolism. Yet in conjunction with the dull matter of the scene — bottles, pots, shoes, grass — they assume sentimental power. The great poem takes in both the gutter and the stars, to adapt the famous phrase from Oscar Wilde. All this has something to do with why Einstein — an opera built from miscellaneous images, meaningless scraps of language, and jingle-like musical phrases — exerts such incalculable force. Incidentally, Stevens attended the world premiere of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts, a crucial predecessor to Einstein, perhaps its only predecessor. (Mark Morris presents Four Saints at BAM in March.) To Harriet Monroe, Stevens wrote: "While this is an elaborate bit of perversity in every respect: texts, settings, choreography, it is most agreeable musically, so that, if one excludes aesthetic self-consciousness from one's attitude, the opera immediately becomes a delicate and joyous work all round." The same could be said of Einstein.