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Side Effects: An Interview with Stravinsky

One of the difficulties in assessing the skill of the medical practitioners of the time is the almost complete absence of any records of the patients who had come for treatment.”

—From a review of Medicine in Medieval England, T. L. S. Jan. 11,
1968

NYR: We were sorry to hear you had to go to the hospital a second time, Mr. Stravinsky.

I.S.: I appreciate the sympathy. And I need it, too. It has seemed to me lately that the greater the medical advances the narrower the patient’s chances of surviving doctors and hospitals. Until this last adventure I was unaware of the extent to which medicine men, like generals and politicians, enjoy the right to be wrong; and unaware of the breach between medical science for its own disinterested sake—“operation a success, patient dead”—and medical practice for the sake of interested people. Some of the publicity concerning the late Mr. Washkansky’s new heart helped to obviate the distinction, incidentally, by too transparently showing that the man’s life was less important than the symbiotic experiment for which it provided the opportunity. Freshly inspired by my own experience, I worried not only about Mr. Washkansky but about his news-unworthy fellow patients as well. While the nurses were posing for Life, and the doctors talking to the cover-story team of Time, who was distributing the digitalis?

My second confinement was twice as long as the first and, the so-called maharajah care notwithstanding, a hundred times more harrowing. I was too drugged, luckily, to have been aware of the worst of it, but clear enough to realize that a great deal was going wrong quite apart from what was wrong with me. My confidence in doctors had begun to dwindle, too, though the preoccupation with status in their profession—the AMA must harbor many a “médecin malgré lui“—had already disaffected me, even more than the surgical Schadenfreude and the pillpushing indifference (equanimity, if you prefer, but I am smarting from my experience). Nor was my confidence in routine hospital functions on the upswing. I was fed the wrong X-ray dye on one occasion; and on another nearly perfused with the wrong intravenous fluid; when the right bottle was found, moreover (probably about to be piped into a visitor) and finally attached to my arm, the needle slipped out and inflated the skin like a balloon. I “blew my stack,” as one of the nurses used to say, with less reason, but this protest could not have been frighteningly stentorian for the spigot on the next bottle was too loose, which so over-irrigated me that I began to wonder how much of the deleted me was the erstwhile me and how much the synthetic.

Identity problems of this type will become increasingly common as more and more brains are washed, and as—overcoming complications of histology and apartheid—spare-part banks, relays of still-functioning organs, and surgical mergers (“grafts” and “transplants” in the horticulturalized, anti-vivisectionist terminology) become more efficient. Another eventuality to be allowed for is the accidental transference of the soul and the id. This of course would lead to a revival of Eleatic divisibility/ indivisibility arguments (the One and the Many), as well as to theological tangles concerning prevenient grace, and to forensic medical arguments in personal property suits (very personal property) as to the exact contents of a “me” or a “you,” the settlements of which could end by hyphenating the donors’ and the donees’ names. After all, since molecular biologists activated the laboratory-made DNA last year former definitions of “life” itself have become obsolete. But I am straying.

NYR: You were talking about harassments in the hospital.

I.S.: Most of the other incidents were excusable. In any event it would be difficult to fix responsibility for the invasion of our floor by an escapee from the neuropathic ward on the neuro-warpath; or for the replacing of my broken windowshade one night by a black screen so that I was uncertain in the morning whether I really had awakened or had already gone over. (Hospital beds are peculiarly bier-like, too, from between the railings.) Nor is it reasonable to blame the staff for a mis-aimed “painkilling” injection that would have won me first prize for the horizontal highjump, if the hospital had been a sports arena instead of a Circus Maximus. The psychological technique of the staff in dealing with pain, incidentally, is to coax the victim into classifying its intensities himself—as if he were matching a color on a color chart—according to a scale of euphemisms ranging from “very slight” to “somewhat severe.” No headway was made with this martyrizing appeal in my case, needless to say. I am insusceptible to masochistic enticements, and I recognized long ago that the arrows in all those Sebastians of the Godwardrolling eyes are really Cupid’s flèches d’amour. (“With Phoebus’ amorous pinches black,” as Cleopatra says.) To me all pain is extreme, and the question is not how much but how long.

It also could not be helped that my dose of radioactive phosphorous had to be consigned by the Atomic Energy Commission and transported, like money, in a kind of Brink’s armored van. But my guilt feelings at the thought of burdening the War Effort were less unnerving than the jitters of an administering technician who seemed to regard me as a one-man test-site, or human atomic atoll. Perhaps I shall find consolation eventually in the knowledge that I am magnetic to fireflies and glow-worms, if not to mine-detectors, but this has not happened yet.

THE WORST of the hospital, nevertheless, was the musical frustration. My pilot-light may not be very gem-like or hard any more, but it is still burning even when the stove is not in use. Musical ideas stalked me, but I could compose them mentally only, being unable to write at the time and unable to remember now. And the mind needs its daily work at such times, far more than the contemplation of its temporality. To be deprived of art and left alone with philosophy is to be close to Hell.

NYR: And your convalescence, Mr. Stravinsky?

I.S.: My nurses and “physiatrists” are flourishing, I assure you, and if my “rehabilitation” continues for long at the present rate I will soon be obliged to apply to the Rolling Stones, or Von Mehta, or other successful musicians for a loan. But I don’t flourish. And in spite of assurances by the medical moguls that I have recovered (what else, after those prices, could they say?), I feel like a centenarian, am as thin as Kafka’s Hunger Artist, and as pale—in spite of being kept in the garden, apparently for photosynthesis—as the mid-afternoon moon.

But I complain too much, and too splenetically (which is reasonable, trouble having been found in that department as well); if my caducity were as bad as I make it sound some College of Fine Arts would have rushed in by now with a lastminute doctorate. Besides, positive cause for elation has been found in my encephalogram, which seems more important now than ever for the reason that I am not permitted to sit for long at the piano and must compose, most of whatever I can compose, in my head. This is hampering because the instrument helps to push my imagination into position; and ironic because I am writing my first solo-piano piece since 1925. Yesterday I worked at the piano for the first time in five months (the feel of dust on the keys was unpleasant), beginning with a C- to B-flat trill, very slow, like the vibrato of a prima donna on her farewell tour. The trilling impulse came, I think, from exposure to a Christmas-present canary (someone had overstimated my fondness for The Pines of Rome) whose finest fioriture appear to be mating responses to our electric juice-squeezer.

II

Neue Kraft fühlend

NYR: Have you noted any fresh developments in the musical world, Mr. Stravinsky?

I.S.: The Ivesian vogue of “simultaneous strands”—the musical equivalent to multiple projection films—is at high tide. So is pop, to the extent that the record companies spend most of their money panning, like old-time prospectors, for pop hits. But certainly there has been no “breakthrough” in the classical establishment. Conductors are still the lapdogs of musical life, and the laps are still not much like “the gods’,” The most dazzling instrumental virtuosity hardly counts in comparison. It may be true, of course, that an infant phenomenon playing Turangalîla “pour la main gauche” could make a certain bruit d’estime, but the histrionic range of infant phenomena playing instruments is obviously more constricting than that of men playing themselves. Instrumental mastery is acquired at an expense of time and work, moreover, whereas the musical training of conductors—who before all else must be experts in jet schedules, international tax laws, body English, hair-styling (the expression “the silver-haired Karajan” having attained myth-like status comparable to “the rosy-fingered dawn” in Homer)—is briefer with each season’s increasingly rapid turnover in the stupormundi market.

But I have already “made my representations” against the visual standards of an activity that is contiguous to music without always being of it. It may even be time now to redress the criticism slightly, pointing out that while amateurism is deplorable, so is too much professionalism. In the sense of technique the most admired conductor in the country—by me too though I often wish his templ a heartbeat slower—is the ombudsmanelect of the New York Philharmonic. But what about that goal toward which conducting is hardly more than a necessary evil? Is it not possible that a chef with lesser technical powers but a wider and deeper scope might make better music; a musician such as Von Mehta, for instance, who has no sense of tempo and style, and who has apparently never even heard of articulation and dynamics (both very important in gorilla language, incidentally), but who can give humid and intensely suffered performances of Dvorák symphonies, and ingenuously felt and at times even searing ones of Rumanian, Hungarian, and other rhapsodies (including some with different titles by composers who did not actually intend that sort of thing)?

Part of what I mean by scope is simply a larger stretch of sympathies. But I fail in the first place to see how a musician based almost exclusively in last-century repertory can ombudsmanize the affairs of the fast-getting-on present one. Imagine my pleasure therefore in the discovery that at least this sort of limitation no longer impedes the swell of progress in the Quaker City, the conductor there having proclaimed the new state of enlightenment (see my italics below) while lifting the veil from the long-cherished secret of his acquaintance with Alban Berg. “At that time I was not as well versed in the twelve-tone school of music as I am now,” he says, and goes on to compliment Berg for giving “logical, intelligent, and understandable” answers to his questions. I like that “understandable.” As for the Philharmonic I think it might do better in the Yellow Pages.

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