But Beautiful Bodies: Reflections on Music and Life (through Geoff Dyer) | [Brutal ceaseless music II]

To really happen.

The thing about Geoff Dyer is that he only has the one way of writing. The neat infusion of event and reflection, the tone of general cynicism and disappointment, the self-undermining comments on his language or word choice or honesty.

As such, it makes such moments as the central caesura (the comma) in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi almost unnoticeable, or only recognisable with a ‘hang on a minute’ a minute’s lag later. The change from ‘he’ to ‘I’, from third- to first-person narrative, feels almost fraudulent, cosmetic, as if applied with a Ctrl+F and an instant word replacement tool. The tone changes little, the characterisation not at all (only a Jeff to a Geoff), and the content even less so: sex, complaints, misery, sickness, breakfast.

This is not a criticism, at all. Dyer has long been one of my favourite writers, not least because of the profound questions his work raises regarding the boundary, fog, or contour between fiction and reality, art and life, the imagined and the happened. (By means of a preface, his Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It offers a particularly provocative variation on this theme: ‘everything in this book really happened, but some of the things only happened in my head’.) Of course, that caesura around which Jeff/Death spins functions precisely to puncture the obvious and expected maintenance of fictionality, to undermine the reassuring distinction between authentic author and constructed persona, and, further, to demand an engagement with a narrative, a text, a series of words that is no more than that, that need not correspond to a world beyond.

If his rant directed at academic literary criticism in Out of Sheer Rage is anything to go by, Dyer would hate this pretentiousness, but I’ll drop the quotes anyway. Gilles Deleuze (who has come up before on this blog) claimed that cinema’s efficacy was to highlight ‘the power of the false’, or to paraphrase crudely, to collaborate in the removal of ‘truth’ from its pedestal and in the affirmation of the value of the world right here. We might say that for Dyer, ‘[n]arration is no longer a truthful narration which is linked to real (sensory-motor) descriptions. Description becomes its own object and narration becomes temporal and falsifying at exactly the same time’ (1). Or else, with Deleuze again, ‘there is nothing deeper than the skin’ – the text itself, the narrative, being the skin here – or there is no secret truth that the text seeks to reveal: all is true insofar as all may well be false, but it is in front of you nonetheless.


Hit ’em any way I feel like.

The first sentence above is, incidentally, false. The one significant exception (that I have read) to the classic Dyerian style is But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz – a beautiful book about jazz which dramatises the lives and licks of its musicians. Inasmuch as it is about jazz, it ceases to be ‘about’ a character that may or may not bear a particular resemblance to Geoff Dyer: it looks firmly outwards, is free of Dyer’s grumpish muttered monologues, and feels its way idiosyncratically, fluidly, beautifully, into its subject. (Blanchot: literature arrives with the loss of the ‘power to say “I”‘ (2).)

At the same time, it offers another variation on the preambling disclaimer familiar from his other works: ‘I worried about whether I should indicate where I had someone in this book saying something he actually said in real life. In the end, […] I decided against it. […] As a rule assume that what’s here has been invented or altered rather than quoted. Throughout, my purpose was to present the musicians not as they were but as they appear to me’ (3). Not as they were, these musicians who become his characters, but as they appear: Dyer’s ‘own versions of them’, in which ‘a hint of the fictive’ would always, inevitably, be present (4).

The problem here is that where elsewhere the texts maintained their blurredness – their either/oring wobble on the brink of fact and fiction – this preface shifts the weight to the fictional, the avowedly false, the invented, the admittedly created, the appearance.  We’re now in a sort of perspectivism, a subjectivism, a reckless irresponsible relativity.


Music and the ‘power to say “I”‘.

Again, believe it or not, this is not a criticism. Rather it functions as the springboard for the topic of this piece (or at least what was once intended as its topic), it was the very encounter which spurred this thought.

The question I hoped to ask was about the place of music within this dynamic of art and reality. As in, if writing inevitably has such a ‘hint of the fictive’ – if the author in some respect ‘puts himself’ into his writing –  to what extent can we say the same about music? Or rather, if a precise distinction can often be drawn between the fictive and the ‘real’ – in the place of the ‘he’ and the ‘I’ – can the same distinction be drawn with regards to music and the musician? What connects the musician and their music? Where does one start and the other begin? Is there any ‘I’ in music that ties it to its composer?

This is a trickier problematic than in regards to literature – an already tricky problematic. For whilst language is generally believed to hold some content, in the sense of expression – a meaning or intention, a sense or message – music does not immediately do this (again, see previous piece). Music offers no necessary communicative information, and is as such not really vulnerable to verification or falsification: in a sense, if it is audible, it is, and it consequently flies free of the problems of ‘fictionality’.


As though astonished.

So, in Dyer’s But Beautiful, there is a scene in which Thelonious Monk – jazz pianist and composer – performs, improvises, a solo:

He played each note as though astonished by the previous one, as though every touch of his fingers on the keyboard was correcting an error and this touch in turn became an error to be corrected and so the tune never quite ended up the way it was meant to. Sometimes the song seemed to have turned inside out or to have been constructed entirely from mistakes. His hands were like two racquetball players trying to wrong-foot each other; he was always wrong-fingering himself. But a logic was operating, a logic unique to Monk: if you always played the least expected note a form would emerge, a negative imprint of what was initially anticipated (5).

There is no suggestion of musical design in this passage, no suggestion of a realisation in sound of a prior mental plan. Rather, Dyer’s language maintains a stubborn rupture between thought form and struck sound: the language of ‘error’, ‘mistake’, ‘wrong-fingering’, ‘a negative imprint’ keeps this distinction distinct, makes the latter autonomous from the thought, keeps it free of sentimental or ‘intellectual’ content. The music has a life of its own that undermines or confounds intention.


Anything at all.

And so, Stravinsky on music:

For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being (6).

Music begins then where Monk ends. But what bridges the gap, what permits the physical continuity of bodies into sound, of feeling into sounding?


(1) Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2 (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 132

(2) Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1989)

(3) Dyer, But Beautiful (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012), p. viii

(4) Dyer (2012), p. vii

(5) Dyer (2012), p. 40

(6) Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography (1936), pp. 53-4


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