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Truth in Art, and Erik Satie's Judgement

  • Peter Dayan (a1)

It is certainly true that Satie, in his later years, did not tire of repeating that there is ‘no Truth in Art’; and in saying so, he was doubtless very much in tune with the spirit of his artistic milieu, which included, after all, such aesthetic anarchists as Picabia and Tzara, as well as the great artistic revolutionaries of the time, Picasso and Stravinsky, for whom he had unbounded admiration. And every time he did so, he was careful to attribute the erroneous belief that there is a Truth in Art to that class of writers whom he variously called ‘critiques’, ‘pédagogues’, ‘Pontifes’, ‘pions’: people of the serious persuasion, who think it is possible to teach or describe what makes a piece of art good or bad. Attacks against this tribe are, in fact, the staple of Satie's writings. It might appear sensible to infer from this that it would be foolish for a critic to look for Truth in Erik Satie's writings about art. Nonetheless, that is what I shall be doing in this article. I shall argue that, while there may, for Satie, be no truth in art, there are truths about art, susceptible of at least indirect expression, which Satie himself maintained with remarkable adroitness. Whether those truths are peculiar to the aesthetics of Satie's writings; whether they are relevant to the way we might appreciate his music; and whether they have echoes in the thought of his artistic companions (especially those mentioned above) – these are questions that will remain open; but I would like at least to suggest that they are worth asking.

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1 ‘It is the done thing to believe that there is a Truth in Art. I shall not desist from repeating – even out loud – that: “There is no Truth in Art.” To maintain the contrary is but a lie – and it is not nice to tell lies … That is why I do not like Pontiffs *: they tell too many lies – and furthermore, I think they are a little stupid (if I may say so). Erik Satie (A thought for Fanfare) *By Pontiffs, I mean all the fine gentlemen who ‘pontificate’. They may be identified by their air of seriousness.’ Satie, Erik, Ecrits, réunis par Ornella Volta (Paris: Editions Champ libre, 1981): 46 . Many of the texts in Volta's invaluable collection of Satie's writings have been published in English translation, for example in: Satie, Erik, A Mammal's Notebook, ed. Volta, Ornella, trans. Melville, Antony (London: Atlas Press, 1996) ; or The Writings of Erik Satie, ed. and trans. Wilkins, Nigel (London: Eulenburg Books, 1980) . However, there is no volume in English that includes all the texts I quote. I have therefore provided my own translations. All italics and bold within quotations are in the originals.

2 More on this word in n. 19, below.

3 Satie, , Ecrits, 96 . ‘But the fact is – (and I cannot repeat it too often): … there is no Truth in Art … Compared with Beethoven, … Bach is not the Truth; … compared with Chopin … Rameau is not the Truth … Immortality has united them … blended them … associated them … Each has attained the Truth, … in the same sense, … to the same degree … … The Truth??? They have their own … each has his own … Which isn’t bad … not bad at all. In Art … if there were a Truth … a Single Truth … it would have been so well established, … for a long time now, … that it would be impossible for an artist to use any technique, … to express any sensations, … to treat any subjects, … other than those monopolized by this Truth … .’

4 Ibid., 61. ‘I have always said – – that there is no Truth in Art (no single Truth, that is). The Truth of Chopin – that prodigious creator – is not the Truth of Mozart, that luxurious musician whose writing dazzles unendingly … .’

5 Sanouillet's, MichelDada à Paris, édition nouvelle, revue, remaniée et augmentée par Anne Sanouillet (Paris: CNRS, 2005) gives a balanced perspective on Satie's relationship to the historical Dada movement. He was central to its activities only for a short time, in the early months of 1922, when he presided with obvious glee over the meeting of Dadaists that effectively excommunicated Breton and his ‘Congrès de Paris’ (see n. 18 below). But his affinities with Dada were long lasting and profound. As Sanouillet says (Ibid., 155), many of his pre-war writings, including Le Piège de Méduse (first performed in 1913 or early 1914, though not published until 1921, by the Editions de la Galerie Simon, in Paris), clearly belong to the pre-history of the Dada movement; and his last ballet, Relâche, just as clearly resuscitated in 1924 the spirit of Dada, after the movement's demise as an active force.

6 ‘I know not what I am, but what I do know is this: the man about whom I have been talking to you is one of the greatest musicians who has ever existed. May the name of Stravinsky be acclaimed!’

7 Satie, , Ecrits, 64 . ‘Nothing is left to chance, I tell you. Whence does he draw his sumptuous “Truth”’? You should see in him a remarkable logician, precise and energetic; for he alone has written with such magnificent power, such ‘unmistakeable’ confidence, such constant strength of will.’

8 Ibid., 63. ‘I shall frankly confess to you that I will engage in no critical activity; I will merely give you a sort of description of the splendid, the enchanting talent which unfolds in these works.’

9 Comte, Auguste, Discours sur l’esprit positif (Paris: Vrin, 1995): 74 . The work was first published in 1844.

10 Satie, , Ecrits, 20 . ‘To live surrounded by Art's glorious works is one of the greatest joys that can be felt. Amongst the precious monuments of human thought that the modesty of my means has led me to choose as my life's companions, I shall mention a magnificent false Rembrandt, profound and of sweeping execution, so delicious when squeezed with the tips of one's eyes, like some rich fruit, too green.’

11 Ibid. ‘A false Beethoven manuscript – a sublime apocryphal symphony by the master – piously purchased by me, ten years ago, I believe. Of the grandiose musician's works, this tenth symphony, which remains unknown, is one of the most sumptuous. Its proportions are as vast as those of a palace; its ideas are cool and shady; its developments are precise, judicious, exact. This symphony had to exist; the number 9 could not be Beethovenian. He liked the decimal system: “I have ten fingers”, he would explain.’

12 See, for example, the frank exchange of views between Cooper and his critic Winter, Robert S. in ‘Correspondence: Beethoven's Tenth Symphony’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 117/2 (1992): 324–30. ‘No doubt’, writes Cooper of his realization and completion, ‘it is a distorted view of Beethoven's intentions’ (328). Hence, doubtless: ‘A major question is whether the reconstruction actually sounds at all like Beethoven’ (326). To that question, Cooper does not presume to give an answer. But he does maintain that musicological analysis has generally failed to pinpoint the differences between his work and Beethoven's. ‘Some critics have made the unsurprising claim that it is not as good; but their attempts to identify specific faults have been largely unsuccessful’ (326).

13 Volta explains the concept more fully in: Satie, Erik, Correspondance presque complète (Paris: Fayard/IMEC, 2003): 10 . ‘Conformisme ironique’ is the title of a chapter in Jankélévitch's book L’Ironie (Paris: Flammarion, 1964): 119–34 , in which Jankélévitch writes, commenting on Satie's Socrate: ‘L’ironie, nature composée, s’installe dans l’erreur, non pas pour la comprendre, mais pour la perdre’ (126–7) (‘Irony, whose nature is composite, aligns itself with error, not in order to understand it, but in order to lead it to its downfall’).

14 Satie, , Ecrits, 20 . ‘Of those who came filially to absorb this masterpiece, through their meditative and contemplative ears, some, without justification, thought it an inferior conception of Beethoven, and said so. They went still further. Beethoven cannot be inferior to himself, in any circumstances. His technique and his form remain augural, even at the most minute scale. The rudimentary cannot apply to him. He is not to be intimidated by the counterfeit imputed to his artistic person.’

15 Whiting, Steven Moore, in Satie the Bohemian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) , shows how Péladan's Rosicrucian sect was born and died in a milieu saturated with self-satire, where faith and hoax were never far apart. The context in which Whiting places Satie's ironic style (its first spiritual home being the ‘Chat noir’ cabaret) makes it clear that to interpret the EMAJC as an ironic or satirical enterprise is entirely historically appropriate – provided one bears in mind that such satire, at the time, by no means meant straightforward rejection of the faith being satirized.

16 Satie, , Ecrits, 122 . ‘We will strike Your Enemies and We will lay them prostrate on the ground. We will dry up the well-spring of their madness, we will exterminate their reprobate works; we will raise up for them the fires of the Holy Inquisition, and their hideous bodies will writhe in pain, for the better purification of their souls. We will offer up to you a holocaust, Lord, and its smoke will be agreeable to you.’

17 In Satie's Ecrits as published by Ornella Volta, the only publications chronologically preceding the EMAJC are those that appeared in La Lanterne japonaise in 1888 and 1889, normally over the signature ‘Virginie Lebeau’. They are comic writings, typical of the ‘Chat Noir’ style described by Steven Moore Whiting (see n. 15, above). Not a single composer is mentioned in them – except for one Erik Satie, who figures in two of the articles, as a ‘rude lapin’ (which one might roughly translate as ‘valorous gentleman’) and composer of Gymnopédies, the third of which, apparently, cured ‘Femme Lengrenage, Journalière à Précigny-les-Balayettes’ (‘Mistress Cogworks, Employed as a Daily at Foresign-under-Shortbrush’) of a nasal polyp (113).

18 The famous open letter dated 13 February 1922 to Comœdia, signed by Eluard, Ribemont-Dessaignes, Satie, and Tzara, condemning Breton's apparent attempt to control the Dada movement, uses a revealing ecclesiastical analogy: ‘nous pensons qu’il est temps de mettre fin à ces histoires de papes, et de défendre notre liberté’ (‘we think that it is time to put an end to these papal manoeuverings, and to defend our freedom’) (Correspondance presque complète, 474).

19 The word ‘pion’ is central to Satie's discourse on music. It contains two opposing meanings. The primary sense one might render as something like ‘Surveillance Officer’: it properly designates someone (usually a student) employed in French schools, not to teach, but merely to keep order and to discipline pupils, in the playground and during study periods. ‘Pion’, however, also means a pawn, both on the chess-board and as someone manipulated by others. (Indeed, the ‘pion’ in school, while traditionally detested by pupils as a figure of authority, is also seen as someone of low status, at the bottom of the professional hierarchy.) A ‘pion’, then, is someone either controlled or controlling; and that very ambiguity focuses attention, not on what the ‘pion’ does, but on the fact that for him, control is what counts. Unable to find an English word that contains this dual meaning, I have kept the French word in the translation.

20 Satie, , Ecrits, 45 . ‘One can divide musicians into “pions” & poets. The former hoodwink the public & critics. Some examples of poets: Liszt, Chopin, Schubert, Moussorgsky. Rimsky-Korsakov is an example of a “pion”. Debussy was the type of the poet musician. Among his followers are to be found several types of the “pion” musician. (D’Indy, even though he teaches, is not one.) Mozart's musical language is light, Beethoven's is heavy (not many people are able to understand this); but both are poets. Which is all that matters.’

21 The clearest example is Georges Auric. In April 1921, Satie wrote an introduction to a concert of music by ‘les Six’ in which he names Auric, along with Poulenc and Milhaud, as representative of the latest musical tendencies, and describes himself as their friend. Unfortunately, three years later, Satie caught Auric (as well as Poulenc and Cocteau) hobnobbing in Monte Carlo with Louis Laloy, whom Satie had long detested as the most perniciously serious of music critics. Satie broke with Auric, Poulenc and Cocteau, and published more than one article in which he made plain his contempt. Auric mocked Satie mercilessly in return (although, as he recounts in his autobiography Quand j’étais là (Paris: Grasset, 1979): 2133 , he later repented). At the same time – was it a consequence, a cause, or a coincidence? – Auric's music ceased to please Satie.

22 Satie, , Ecrits, 24–5. ‘Simple Question Which would you prefer: Music or Sausages? This is a question, I think, that should be asked as the hors d’œuvre is brought. In many establishments, silence, sweet and excellent silence, has been replaced by bad music. It has become fashionable, among the vulgar, to hear false fine sounds, to listen to foolish refrains, vaguely pious, as one quaffs a pint or tries on a pair of trousers … . Sigh! all this is most distressing for a man of my age; êlization. The cure? Formidable taxes; terrible vexations; severe repression. Torture, even. Have they the right coldly to suffuse with ugliness our poor life?’

23 Ibid, 243. ‘the Dufayêl Palace of Novelty was the most famous department store of the time. Being a synonym for mass production, it was pressed into service as a rallyingpoint for any artist who sought to shatter the ivory of his tower. For a cubist, to the question “Would you like your painting to be as in the Louvre or as in Dufayêl?”, the correct answer was “As in Dufayêl, obviously.” – “Dufayêl seems to me more interesting than Ribemont-Dessaignes”, declared Picabia, much though he liked the latter … it must be said that such comments would not have suited ES. It was precisely in order to escape from musical “dufayêlisation” that he sought to limit it to “furniture music”.

24 Ibid., 24–5. ‘Formidable taxes; terrible vexations; severe repression. Torture, even.’

25 ‘To play this motif to oneself 840 times in a row, it will be appropriate to prepare oneself beforehand, in the most profound silence, by serious immobilities’; see Orledge's, Robert exemplary article ‘Understanding Satie's “Vexations”’, Music and Letters 79 (Aug. 1998): 386–95, 387 . The note, like the piece, was published posthumously.

26 Whittington, Stephen, ‘Serious Immobilities: On the Centenary of Erik Satie's Vexations’, in Erik Satie: Compositeur de Musique (1999),̃fogwall/article3.html, accessed 8 May 2009. Whittington's article, as far as I know, is available only on this website.

28 Orledge, ‘Satie's “Vexations”’.

29 Whittington (‘Serious Immobilities’) here takes up Satie's identification of the truly musical with the poetic. Perhaps no critical trope has been more contagious over the past two centuries than the definition of poetry as musical, and of music as poetic; it allows one to define neither.

31 Ribemont-Dessaignes, Georges, Déjà jadis, ou Du mouvement Dada à l’espace abstrait (Paris: Union générale d’éditions, 1973) ; see 100–106. This book, originally published in 1958, contains, as well as a fine pen-portrait of Satie in the days of Dada (156–7), a post-Dada musical aesthetic, in which one finds intact the fundamental principle of ‘pure music’ as it had been formulated a century earlier: ‘Un Concerto Brandebourgeois de J.-S. Bach ne signifie rien et n'exprime rien qu'on puisse analyser avec des mots’ (‘A Brandenburg Concerto by J. S. Bach signifies nothing and expresses nothing that can be analysed in words’) (404). This statement demonstrates the survival (or the rebirth?) of the principle of ‘absolute music’ whose rationale and whose birth in the nineteenth century have been so well described by Chua, Daniel in Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) . On the one hand, Dada certainly highlighted the intellectual shakiness of the concept of absolute music; on the other hand, it seems to have done no lasting damage to that concept, even in the mind of the most musical of the core Dadaists.

33 Whittington, ‘Serious Immobilities’.

34 Marchal, Bertrand, La Religion de Mallarmé (Paris: Corti, 1988) .

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Nineteenth-Century Music Review
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