Painting of Canopus, Hadrian's Villa

by Joseph Dillon Ford

"I told you this is what would happen. Just listen to this review from the New York Post! 'It is poor in ideas, and the few that there are want originality. . . . the most striking motif of the whole work, the leading theme of the last movement, is so much like . . . Beethoven . . . it should be put in quotation marks.'"

She sat there silently, so silently that he didn't even notice Her lips begin to curl gently into a smile.

"Really original criticism! He obviously plagiarized the idea from Musical World: 'This symphony . . . has what the French would call a "faux air de Beethoven," from beginning to end; and, perhaps, a more appropriate denomination could hardly be found for the composer than that of a would-be-if-he-could Beethoven. He went for his melody to a dried-up well. His faculty of invention was next door to null . . .' Now doesn't that sound suspiciously like what T*** wrote the other day--'absolutely empty dried-up stuff.' I swear to God, they must all be paraphrasing from the same invecticon!"

"I'm sure they are," She dutifully acknowledged, scarcely able to conceal the broad grin that stole across Her face.

He read on, oblivious to the humorous effect his jeremiad was having on Her. "'The sole impression created . . . is that its composer, being without inspiration or individuality, has borrowed his materials . . . and reproduced them in an intensely exaggerated and pretentious form.' Now what exactly is that supposed to mean?"

"I really haven't the slightest idea," She replied in a sympathetic tone, although it was becoming increasingly difficult for Her to hide Her amusement.

This reassurance only redoubled his indignation. "And just look at this twaddle in the Times! 'The whole score is in very short fragments, in a dozen different styles, which . . . remind us of many different works which other composers were thoughtless enough to write before . . . This composer's looking backward . . . results in music which is "ersatz," artificial, unreal and actually unexpressive! . . . a study in still-life.' They completely missed the point!"

"I should say so!" She instantly agreed, not daring to say a word more lest Her voice falter and spoil her fun.

"A farrago of circus tunes . . . and dated harmonic quirks whose smart cleverness resembles the tea-table talk of an ultra-precocious child."

She could contain Herself no more, and burst into laughter. Once it started, Her hilarious bellowing was simply unstoppable, and the whole attic bounced and shook with her. The windowpanes shattered and fell from their sashes, crashing like icicles on the paving below. Shingles were knocked loose and began sliding down the sides of the roof like playing cards off a tipped gaming table. Plaster fell like hail, dust filled the air, and the floorboards creaked menacingly.

"Hurray for modernity!" She hollered at the top of Her lungs, slapping Her knees with such force that they could have heard the ruckus all the way back in Greece.

He was aghast at this turn of events. What could She possibly mean by this strange outburst? Perhaps it was really Thalia in disguise playing one of Her cruder pranks.

"You'll bring down the whole house!" he exclaimed in terror.

"You're just jealous that I can and your symphony couldn't!" She teased.

"Then you're not really She after all," he countered, "just some fiendish escapee from Tartarus!"

"Tartarus, indeed!" She thundered, and the commotion immediately ceased. In fact, everything was back just the way it was, as if it had all been a dream.

"Well, thank Goddess for small favors!" he pouted.

"For that I ought to have Mother smite you with amnesia. Of course, then you wouldn't even remember why you were being punished. Besides, I suppose the critics have already tormented you enough." By now She was beaming again comme il faut for a goddess of her special station.

"Let's just call it a--misunderstanding," he continued, answering Her radiant glance with an expression resembling something between the queerly archaic smile of an amputated kouros, the obligatory sourire of a waxwork Voltaire, and the toothy rictus often achieved by apprentice morticians trying to convey some impression of posthumous serenity.

"Yes, a misunderstanding. But you really are funny when you're angry, and I must confess I rather enjoy watching and listening to you rant and fume."

"That hardly seems to be a diversion fit for a goddess. Aren't You supposed to inspire and comfort me? After all, I gave You this attic when nobody else even offered You a basement."

"I've always had my pick of Attics, I'll have you know!"

"Touché, O, Queen of Wit, but You really ought to leave the puns to Polymnia. I would have done a lot better not listening to You in the first place. You've filled my head with all this classical nonsense, and now the critics are tearing me apart like a gang of jealous maenads."

"'Classical nonsense'? It sounds to me like you may actually have started to believe what they've been saying."

"Well, don't expect me to bear all the guilt alone."

"So now it's guilt? I'm afraid things are far worse than I imagined. So where do we begin? What modernist myth do I have to debunk today? I thought we'd been over all of this already."

"Isn't it the other way around? Isn't it You who are really the myth? I mean, just look at You, sitting there in Your pretty little klismos chair, draped to perfection like some Elgin marble, idly teasing melodies out of a gilded kithara--"

"Solid gold. At least, that's the only way I could describe it to you. Actually it's made out of something far more rare and subtle, but that would take us in the direction of particle physics, and I don't really think you want to go there at the moment--or do you?"

"No. Well, maybe. For example, what about that little time-reversal trick You pulled a minute ago?"

"It's no trick at all. You see, time really doesn't go anywhere, doesn't have any particular direction. The distinction between past, present, and future is an illusion, even if a stubborn one."

"Einstein, right? Did You put it in his head to write that the same way You duped me into composing a classical symphony?"

"I can't put anything in your head that isn't there already. All I do is make you aware of it, shine a little ray of Phoebus' light into the darkness."

"How terribly, charitably poetic of You! But it takes time for light to travel from point A to point B, and it takes still more time for our poor brains to figure out what it is we're actually supposed to be seeing."

"That's a reasonable explanation as far as your human science goes, and certainly more than enough to validate the presence of the past. Unfortunately, your scientists haven't gone far enough to show that the end and the beginning were always there before the beginning and after the end. And all is always now."

"Now You're parroting T. S. Eliot to me."

"Or was T. S. parroting me?"

"Does it really matter? Admittedly, he wasn't your typical modernist. He always let the past intrude in his work."

"And so did Joyce, Pound, Duchamp, Picasso, Stravinsky, Cage--all of them without exception, although with widely varying degrees of honesty about the matter."

"The next thing You'll be telling me is that modernism itself is nothing but a huge deception, that there is no innovation, no possibility of breaking with the past."

"I think we have to distinguish between what modernists say and what modernists do. They claim that they've broken with tradition, but in fact they're as inextricably linked to it as any of those buildings crumbling over there on the Acropolis."

"Isn't that the same thing as saying, 'There is no new thing under the sun'?"

"Ecclesiastes, right? Phoebus never particularly liked that passage. He said it makes him sound rather hidebound and useless. But in a sense, the words are true enough."

"What do You mean, 'in a sense'?"

"There's nothing new because there's nothing old. A day whether six or seven ago, or more than six thousand years ago, is just as near to the present as yesterday."

"Now You sound like some medieval mystic trying to describe the mind of God."

"Meister Eckhart. Poor fellow. Condemned as a heretic, you know. Very nasty business, that."

"I'm afraid all of this is way beyond me."

"But you're catching on. Surely you realize that for several hundred years all your physicists have insisted that there's no fundamental distinction between past, present, and future. Newtonian mechanics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory--they all lead to the same conclusion."

"If that's the case, and linear time is just an illusion, then why does it seem so real?"

"If you were a quark or a lepton, time would hardly matter at all. At the scale of the very small, backwards might just as well be forwards. But big lummox that you are, you can see in only one direction, and base your entire life on the mistaken notion that time is just an arrow whose path describes a monotonously straight line between past and future."

"Is that what You expect me to tell all those critics who are tearing my symphony to shreds? They depend for their very livelihoods on trashing the old and glorifying the new."

"Or on trashing the new and glorifying the old, whichever is more fashionable. It's simply a matter of prejudice masquerading as taste."

"You've been telling me that all along, but meanwhile I've been reviled as the composer who does nothing more than 'noisily sweep yesterday's rubbish to and fro.'"

"So what do you expect me to do? Shut up? Tell you I have nothing more to say since I've already said it all? Consign myself to that dark, dank Hades you dare to call your basement?"

"Of course not, but surely You can see what a predicament You've gotten me into."

"Thankless mortal! I had hoped you were somehow different, but evidently you can't take the heat. I'll just pack my things and move on."

"And just where would You go? The Academy? They'd deconstruct You out of existence there before You could say 'Zeno of Elea'. The Corporate World? You're too poor and too old for them to take you seriously. Back to serenading sheep on the slopes of Parnassus? "

"Watch your tongue! I could just as easily change you into a serial minimalist."


"Don't even ask. You wouldn't like it."

"I hardly see how I could be worse off than I am now."

"Trust me. It isn't very nice."

"Trusting You is all I've done for most of my creative life, and look where it's gotten me."

"So just what did you expect? Fame and fortune? If they're all you're after, there are far more expedient ways of getting them than being a composer."

"No, but infamy and poverty were hardly what I expected either!"

"So get a job writing personal business software for Bill Gates. That should bring you a handsome paycheck and at least fifteen minutes of celebrity air time.

"Typical Parnassian sarcasm--but that's not what I had in mind, either."

"So what is it that you want?"

"For my music to be heard for what it is, not muzzled for what it is not."

"For that to happen, there would have to be no prejudice, no belief in linear time as the basis of just about everything your species does or wants to do."

"Could You--?"

"Could I bring it off? Certainly not by myself. Not even with the help of my sisters. We can direct the light, but you mortals still have to look for yourselves."

"So how do I get them to look, and more importantly, to listen?"

"Good question! There may be some hope for you after all."

"Oh, really? So what's the answer?"

"The answer is already in you. Why do you listen?"

"Well, I . . . uh--"

"Better yet, just listen to yourself. What do you hear?"

There was a long, reflective pause before he spoke, but by and by his face brightened and a sudden rush of insight brought the color back to his cheeks.

"Yes, it's been there--here--all along."

"Can you hum a few measures for me?"

"But it sounds exactly like my--our--symphony!"

"Don't you mean it sounds like Beethoven--and Mozart, Donizetti, Schubert, Mendelssohn--"

"Yes. It's our symphony."

He no sooner spoke these words than he found himself surrounded by all those whose invisible presence he had until now only vaguely suspected. His mind, his eyes and ears, his very spirit throbbed with the realization that every note he had written had been given to him by a million different persons, a million different things. The symphony was an aggregation of beings taken from the whole of Nature.

When all was once more quiet, he turned to Her and said, "But I'm afraid the critics were right about one thing; there's not an original note in it."

"Why, nothing could be more original!" She scolded him, sweeping Her fingers loudly across the strings of her kithara like some captive rare bird flying against the bars of its cage. Then, without another word, She removed her tunic, draping it in elegant folds over the sabre-legged chair in which She had been seated; took off Her sandals and set them beside Her golden lyre; and left the room, nude and indignant, through the attic door.

Sometimes, when he cares to listen, he still hears Her dainty little feet descending the staircase. "At least She's barefoot," he thinks to himself. "That deathly regular rhythm is so unoriginal!"

* * *

"Now, wait just a minute!" interjected Melpomene. "I like a tragic ending just as well the next Castalian, but you can bet your buskins, Mister, that no sister of mine is going to end up nude descending a staircase--especially into that basement--and without so much as a pair of those flimsy little socks of Thalia's to keep her feet warm. So when's the last time you even bothered cleaning up that hole, dead-head?"

"Well, I--." He could scarcely utter a word, so stunned was he by this unanticipated display of sisterly solidarity.

"Don't bother trying to excuse your bad housekeeping. You're just like all the rest of those bachelor artist slobs of the past twenty or thirty millennia whose occupation of choice has been nothing more creative than finding insidious new ways of laying bare some blushing bride or moonstruck maiden. And Marcel--or should I say Rose?--had the hubris to imagine he was so terribly avant-garde in that respect. Why, I've seen better paintings and far more convincing transvestites in the brothels of Sparta, where at least you get what you pay for!"

"So I take it She'll be coming back up here to live?"

"Not in your lifetime, loser, and certainly not in mine! She's moving on even as I speak to a far better place Phoebus found for her under the palms, where people not only write symphonies but actually enjoy listening to them, and where even the dumbest of critics doesn't insist that anything older than a nanosecond lacks originality."

"And what about me?"

"What about you, indeed! You had a chance rarely given to mortal men, and you blew it. It's high time you really learned a thing or two about tragedy, so I'm moving in."

"Here, You mean--in my attic?"

"Hardly. In this high-stakes game of Parnassian poker we're playing, I hold a royal flush, and from where I sit you haven't even got a pair. According to the Olympian edition of Hoyle, that means the deed to your place--not to mention your miserable little soul--is all mine."

"Surely You can't be serious!"

"Tragedy--and that's the real name of my game--is always serious. So let's see how you like this for openers: 'As the curtain rises in act one, scene one, the audience discovers him seated in Her glorious presence at a desk in a tiny attic room, composing the first--and for that matter--the ultimate example of serial minimalist music.' Of course, it will take you the rest of your life to finish, and when you're dead and gone the cleaning lady won't even recognize what it is, its being so terribly avant-garde, you know. She'll just use it to paper her canaries' cage."

"But what about that confounded symphony Your sister got me to compose! You can't take that away from me without rewriting history."

"Clio's already seen to that. It seems that your symphonic labors were really nothing more than a lapsus calami--we goddesses do occasionally make mistakes, you know--and 'that confounded symphony,' as you so affectionately call it, has already been composed by someone else. You never wrote a single note of it."

"What kind of Tartarean torture is this? I can't believe this is happening . . . I'm being bullied to death--by a damned myth!"

"Your punishment is entirely independent of whether you believe in me or not, so you might as well save your insults. Meanwhile, I suggest that you get to work, since we still have a huge score to settle."

"Your puns are just as bad as Your sister's! And so what if I refuse? You can't make me, You know."

"I have no intention of making you. I intend, rather, to unmake you."

"I hardly see how You think You're going to do that. Besides, I don't know a thing about 'serial minimalist music'. What the hell is that supposed to be?"

". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ." she replied in an eerily singsong manner--again, and again, and again.

After several days of listening to her verbigerate nonstop to the same twelve-tone tune, his will broke and he could do no more than take dictation..

Happily, the canaries and untold generations of their descendants never wanted for paper.


The text of this story draws liberally upon materials from a variety of sources, not all of which are identified by quotation marks and some of which are so freely paraphrased as to result in readings distinctly different from the "originals." In order not to interrupt the story's flow, I decided to avoid footnotes and to include a few of the more important literary references below, with appropriate annotations.

Davies, Paul. About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster: 1995.

Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1971.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Quotation and Originality," in The Portable Emerson, ed. And with an introduction by Mark Van Doren. New York: The Viking Press, 1965.

Rucker, Rudy. The Fourth Dimension: AGuided Tour of the Higher Universes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time,2d ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975.

Finally, those interested in tracing my sole biblical reference will find it in Eccles. 1:9.

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Last updated September 21, 2001
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© Copyright 2001 by Joseph Dillon Ford