The Ecphorizer

O Tempi O Mores
Gareth Penn

Issue #06 (February 1982)

Doctorow's Ragtime carries us back to 16th-century Germany

They finally went and did it. They made a movie cut of Ragtime.  I refused to go see King Tut when he was in town for fear of catching The Curse. I'm not going to see Ragtime because I have something better to do: read the book

Martin Luther appears in Ragtime as Booker T. Washington.

again. As soon as I sighted a review of the film, I hunted up my paperback copy and leafed through it, reading my marginalia. I usually consider it a desecration to write in books. But Ragtime is a special case.

[quoteright]Ragtime music is a marvelous metaphor. Musicologists are in agreement that its precursor is the military march. It developed cut of the cakewalk, which traces its origins directly back to Sousa's 'Washington Post." The evolutionary vestiges of the march are found in what one scholar calls "the oompah left hand" of ragtime music The right-hand melody, taken largely from folktunes, is organized in 16-bar strains arranged in a repetitive fashion, e.g., AA BB A. Ragtime is a blend of antitheses, then, a sinister militaristic component married to a light-hearted, lyrical, syncopated dexter. Sociologically, these antithetical strains are reflected in the character of the times: an uneasy living arrangement between the dregs of society: oppressed blacks and eastern European immigrants, on the one hand, and a jingoistic Republican plutocracy on the other. The word "ragtime" is a corruption of the contemporary description, "ragged time." Hamlet put it another way -- the time was out of joint.

Doctorow's s material source expresses the same thing yet another way. The elements of plot are merely refashioned from a novella by the German Romantic Heinrich von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas, itself a fictionalized treatment of an actual event that took place in Saxony in the time of the Reformation. Kohlhaas, like his counterpart in Ragtime, Coalhouse Walker, is devoted to the ideal of perfect justice, order in the world; yet his striving for it has the effect of unleashing uncontrollable destruction.

Kleist himself had difficulty dealing with the antithetical elements of life. Virtually his entire literary production deals with the tendency of order and beauty to degenerate into disorder and violence. His Penthesilea, for instance, spurned by Achilles, turns on her beloved together with her dogs and devours him. Her defense is sensual, confusion:

It was a mistake. Kisses, bites, (Küsse, Bisse).
They rhyme, and who loves from the heart
Can easily confuse one with the other.

Martin Luther appears in Ragtime as Booker T. Washington. The Elector of Saxony is J. P. Morgan. Kleist himself appears as Younger Brother. Kleist' s intellectual successor, Nietzsche, who gloried in the essential duality of man and predicted the coming of the Superman - the being who could tear the eternal repetition of the paradoxes of life, die ewige Wiederkehr - is played by the daffy classicist, Grandfather. Nietzsche dies, crazed by tertiary syphillis, the year before Scott Joplin published "The Maple Leaf Rag."

Grandfather whiles away his time with the little boy reciting Ovidian metamorphoses. One of them, the devouring of Actaeon by the dogs of the beauty Artemis, finds its way into the mansion of Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish in the form of a European tapestry. It's a work of classical beauty depicting a gruesome act of violence. The marriage of violence and beauty: Harry K. Thaw and Evelyn Nesbit. Morgan's library crammed with both the most beautiful productions of European art and cases of dynamite. Father's business, pyrotechnics, the marriage of beauty and violence. Coalhouse Walker, a creator of beauty, driven by the very orderliness of his mind -- music is an ordering of time -- to the chaos of a ruthless quest for order.

As a final fillip to Kleist, Coalhouse encloses his message to the besiegers of the Morgan Library in a 17th-century silver stein formerly owned by an Elector of Saxony. Wait a minute, all the trouble with Kohlhaas was in the 16th century! Never mind - the very essence of time is now very much in doubt, thanks to a "Jewish professor in Zurich" (delightful pun) - ein Stein

What is happening to time? It is ordered, segmented, reversed, recorded, retarded, accelerated, transcended. The little boy clairvoyantly foresees the event that will plunge the world into the greatest bloodbath ever. To Houdini, hanging upside-down from the Times Tower, the times are upside-down. He tries to reverse time, to bring his mother back to life, by playing her musicbox over and over. What does it play? One side of its disc is "Gaudeaumus igitur" (European intellectual tradition), the other, "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean" (T. R.'s America). Music-box music is endlessly repeatable.

The immigrant Tateh ("Daddy") points his life "along the lines of flow of American energy," beginning with innumerable repetitions of Evelyn Nesbit's silhouette (mass-produced artifact) and graduating to the motion picture (repeatable sequence). Henry Ford strides across the stage with his assembly-line methodology, which reveals the Nietzschean Superman to be a wage-slave in Dearborn. Peary reduces the Titanic task of reaching the Pole to an assemblyline exercise; he even brings along a player-piano, on which music can be infinitely repeated. The tempo is subject to control. He is such an efficient player that he shrinks the "Minute Waltz" down to 48 seconds. Repetition cheapens music just as it does Model Ts. The little boy says that what he likes about baseball is that the same thing happens over and over. And J. P. Morgan yearns for the ultimate in repetition: reincarnation. He has no equal save in sequel. The masters of the 20th century are the men who control time.

History, it appears, is full of the existential antitheses of violence and beauty. Like Theodore Dreiser turning around and around in his chair, it is going nowhere. And like the piano-roll, it is both repeatable (Kohlhass and Coalhouse) and taut with the tension of underlying contradictions. Soon, history will be recorded on film, the optical analogue of the player-piano. And now, as if in parody of itself, the film version of Ragtime.

In 1872, Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy From the Spirit of Music, a proclamation of the duality of human existence as embodied in what he called its "Apollinic" (orderly, beautiful) and "Dionysian (disorderly, violent) sides:

By the word Dionysian I ecstatic affirmation of the basic character of life, as that which remains the same through all changes of circumstance, equally potent, equally blissful; the great pathetic sympathy in joy and sorrow, which approves and sanctifies even the most terrible and dubious side of life, the eternal will to procreation, fruitfulness, and recurrence; the unitary feeling of the necessity of creation and destruction.

How do you put that on file? Given a choice of what to take along to my hypothetical desert island, I'll take Nietzsche over Scott Joplin any day. And I'll take Ragtime the book over the movie - sight unseen. 

Polymath Gareth Penn - sleuth, antiquarian, Germanophile, and whale watcher - dwells in the Napa Valley, from whence he feeds us choice bits from his prolific typewriter.

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