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Some years ago, when we were looking for a new cello for our daughter, we visited a luthier who took the time to answer our questions about the differences among all the instruments he had. 

What exactly is the advantage of the $40,000 violoncello over the $1500 student piece? The luthier picked up a beginner model and played a few notes. It sounded good; clear pitch and nice tone.

“But notice this,” he said, drawing the bow back over the C-string. The tone began, clear but muted. In a moment, the instrument seemed to wake up and the tone became richer, louder and more resonant. 

He then picked up a better instrument. The bow drew over the same string and immediately, the tone popped. 

A third cello was the high-end he had on hand, a French instrument from the mid-19th century. One touch of the bow and the thing sang like a Pavarotti, clear, bright, loud, rich as foie gras. It almost seemed to vibrate before he moved the bow. It was electric, alive. It was as if the cello was paying as close attention to him as he was to the cello. 

The difference is resonance. Resonance is when one vibrating body causes another, usually larger body, to vibrate sympathetically, which often amplifies the effect — in this case, sound. 

Resonance may be vibrating air, or, as in the cello, the interior and back panel of the instrument. If you bow a naked string, you get a puny sound that cannot project. But let that string’s vibration be carried down through a bridge into the body of the cello through soundposts and it causes the back of the cello to vibrate sympathetically and become, essentially, a speaker, to let the music fill a concert hall. The French cello we heard had a more subtly planed and constructed back panel, of graded thickness, which allowed it to resonate throughout the range of pitches playable on the cello.

Resonance isn’t just for music, though. It is one of the means by which art and literature amplify their meanings. The words say one thing, but behind them, larger and peeking through, are the ghosts of all literary history. 

One of the most famous example is the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. “April is the cruelest month … stirring dull roots with spring rain.” The poem ironically borrows its resonance from Chaucer: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote …” 

When I was a sophomore — like most sophomores — I believed that the “trick” was to spot the allusions intellectually, as if they were footnotes (Eliot did not help by including footnotes with the poem). As if being clever were the point of poetry. 

But that is not it at all, that is not what is meant at all.

Poetry such as Eliot’s assumes a familiarity with a wide variety of literature of the past, but not as a sort of Jeopardy quiz — rather, if you have a chest stuffed with the rags and bones of your culture, the meaning rather vibrates sympathetically. You feel it rather than think it, more like weather than like a weather report.

Consider, say, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “Fourscore and seven years ago…” He could have said, simply, “Eighty-seven years ago…” But his audience was a Bible-familiar one, who would have heard in that cadence an echo of the King James version of Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore and ten.” Listeners to the speech would not have smiled and told themselves, “How clever, he’s referencing the Bible,” but rather, the organ-tones of the Authorized Version would have resonated in their limbic system, adding heft to the president’s words. 

Lincoln also frequently couched his rhetoric in the words of birth and death, which would resonate deeply with his audience at the dedication of a cemetery, when death had undone so many. Few Americans, North or South, escaped losing family members in that conflagration. 

So, when he continues: “brought forth,” “conceived,” “created,” “conceived” again, “endure,” “gave their lives,” “that the nation might live,” “new birth of freedom,” and “shall not perish,” that personally shared sense of accouchement and mortality pushes up from underneath the words, giving the republic blood and veins, nerves and bones. 

This is not a policy speech, filled with abstractions and empty words, but rather, a text resonant with the power of birth and death. That and the biblical tone give it its solemnity and power. 

In English, how much more resonant is the title of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — an echo of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 — than a simple English translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“in search of lost time” — which sounds more like someone trying to catch a missed train). 

In the English-speaking world, the sounding board of so much resonance comes from Shakespeare (Brave New World; Band of Brothers; Pomp and Circumstance; The Winter of our Discontent; Slings and Arrows), the King James Bible (Absalom, Absalom!; The Children of Men; Clouds of Witness; East of Eden), and the Book of Common Prayer (The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Ashes to Ashes; Till Death Us Do Part; Peace in Our Time.)

Resonance overflows in culture, usually passing unremarked, but obvious — at least to those who have absorbed their history, their literature and art, even popular art.

Consider King Kong, captured and shackled with “chains of chrome steel” in New York. The curtain rises and there is our ape, crucified. Kong is not simply a nightmare monster ravaging a city, but a sympathetic sufferer. 

Or take Jeff Koons porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles. Behind that monument to banality is the historical power of the Elgin Marbles and the East Pediment of the Parthenon. 

The resonance can also work in reverse, as a pop culture image can enlarge a high culture image: That wide-shoulder, spindly-leg Richard III of Olivier was built from the image of Disney’s Big Bad Wolf. Olivier has remarked on this several times. 

In music, there are quotes from previous music, such as Rachmaninoff’s constant use of the Dies Irae of plainchant. But such a quote is meant to be recognized immediately for what it is. 

More to the point of resonance is the half-hour finale to Gustav Mahler’s enormous Third Symphony, a deeply moving adagio that can bring a sergeant-major to weeping. Hidden in its main theme is the slow movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet — the one with the epigraph: “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (Must it be? It must be!) When Mahler says his symphony must contain the whole world, this is the resonance behind it. We might not recognize the tune until it is pointed out — when it becomes obvious — but it works its weight upon us in the audience anyway: a faint remembrance of things past that makes the present music glow from inside. 

The problem with all this is that it posits a cultured audience, one reasonably familiar with the art, poetry, literature, music and theater of at least 2,500 years of European culture, something increasingly rare. In the past, those who read poetry or collected art had also read the Bible and Homer. Now it is rare to find even a professed Christian who has actually read the whole Bible, or remembers stories from it that a hundred years ago were common heritage: David and Jonathan; Ruth and Naomi; Balshazzar’s feast; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; Balaam’s ass. So now, when reading Melville, the name Ahab or Ishmael require footnotes when, in the past, they carried a rich resonance on first reading. 

Of course, no one can have such a complete familiarity of English and European literature and art to catch all of the baited hooks that authors and artists drop down. And some writers (I’m talking about you, Ezra Pound) are so obscure that you would have to be Ezra himself to understand all the buried treasure he has left in his Cantos. This is overkill. Hang it all, Ezra, there can be but one Cantos, and thank god for that. 

But, in the past, even a reasonably well-read audience felt the presence of the pulse underneath the skin of what they were reading. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to what we read and see.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin

We all have our guilty pleasures. One of mine is the art of John Martin. Actually, I love all the various painters of hysteria and grandiosity, of vast Romantic and Baroque spaces, like the prisons of Piranesi and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

These incredible spaces — and I use the word “incredible” in its technical sense — are projections of the Romantic sensibility, that desire for transcendence and a grasping for the cosmic. And always, with the dark shade of annihilation lurking behind it.

There is a delightful strain of paranoia in the paintings of John Martin (1789-1854). It is that touch of insanity that makes his Romantic landscapes so, well, Romantic. He was known to many as ”Mad Martin.”

He certainly came by it honestly: His brother William called himself the ”philosophical conqueror of the universe” and wrote pamphlets that proved beyond question — to himself at any rate — that the prime element out of which everything in creation is made — is air.

His other brother, Jonathan, is known to history as the ”incendiary of Yorkminster,” after he set fire to Yorkminster Cathedral because of some presumed ecclesiastical insult.

The painter himself devised a vast plan to reform the sewer system of London and held patents on hundreds of inventions of questionable usefulness.

His one lasting invention was the steel mezzotint engraving. The copper and zinc plates used for etching and engraving made beautiful prints, but the edges of the engraved line wore down too soon to make the thousands of copies necessary to feed the growing mass media. Martin’s steel plates, while unable to take the fine and subtle detail of copper, lasted forever.

But fine and subtle weren’t in Martin’s vocabulary, anyway.

Of biblical proportions

Balshazzar's Feast

Balshazzar’s Feast

He specialized in biblical paintings that would make C.B. DeMille seem like a miniaturist in comparison. One painting of Balshazzar’s Feast (he painted several) includes a building 7 miles long.

You can tell, because he includes, among the hundreds of writhing figures, one man standing beside one of the columns in a gallery that extends nearly to the horizon line. If you take that figure, meant to provide scale, at 6 feet tall, you can extrapolate, via the rules of Renaissance perspective, the length of the building. At least, so Martin wrote. When I have tried to follow his directions, the measurements get snarled up in swirling mist and the diminution of distance. But I’ll take his word for it.

The Evening of the Deluge

The Evening of the Deluge

This weakness for gigantism is the defining quality of Martin’s art. Other titles bear this out: Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon; The Fall of Ninevah; and trilogies on the themes of The Deluge and Last Judgment.

My favorite is his Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, in which the tiny, exhausted and naked figure of Sadak, in the bottom corner of the canvas, climbs the sublime precipice complete with waterfalls that make Angel Falls in South America look like a drinking fountain.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Martin’s best work is his series of steel mezzotints illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost. He had some trouble drawing figures, which are often awkward, even childish, but he had no trouble imagining and picturing the vastness of time and space. Satan, of course, is his Byronic hero.

The Bridge Over Chaos, from Paradise Lost

The Bridge Over Chaos, from Paradise Lost

Martin was enormously popular through the 1820s and ’30s — he was knighted by Leopold I of Belgium in 1833 — and small engraved versions of his huge paintings were as popular in England at the time as Taylor Swift posters are now. He became very wealthy, but lost most of his fortune on his sewer-improvement scheme.

Critical favor turned away from Martin by the time of his death, and a century after his peak fame, his canvases sold for as little as $10.

American landscapes by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran owe much of their sense of hysterical grandeur not merely to the scenery they painted — and exaggerated in the process — but to the Romanticism that inspired Martin. Cole, especially, admitted his debt to the Englishman and at times imitated him outright.

But Martin’s most familiar progeny are heavy-metal bands such as Black Sabbath, King Diamond, Slayer, AC/DC, Napalm Death and Cannibal Corpse. There is the same obsession with death, Satan and the black arts. king kong 3

And that sense of dark, vast space, craggy rocks extending to the skies, and winking light back in the distance, was an inspiration to the makers of the original King Kong, too.

It is all driven by an adolescent understanding of what Longinus called ”the Sublime.”