Seven, Seven, Seven: A Week in Cambridge, Massachusetts

From The Paris Review:


I sit at the long blond pine table I use for a desk. Nothing happens. Maybe I can make something happen.

A few years ago there was a popular self-help book called How To Make Sh*t Happen, never mind that peristalsis is involuntary. I eat some mango slices and a green apple and a banana. I drink twelve ounces of whole milk with a scoop of whey protein. I find a leftover fried artichoke in the fridge, wrapped in aluminum foil.

I listen to Michael Gielen conducting Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, but it’s not loud enough.

“Have you seen the ghost of John?” we used to sing at my elementary school. “Long thin bones with the skin all gone. Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?” It would be red. My inner life is none of my business.

Now I’m listening to Otto Klemperer conducting Bruckner’s Seventh, turned up loud enough that it’s antisocial.


In the beginning was the plan, and my plan for this culture diary was seven days of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony.

Seven different conductors: Böhm, Klemperer, Gielen, Sanderling, Haitink, Barenboim, and Celibidache.

Seven friends: Barry, Andy, James, Hank, Michael, Billy, and Mark, all of them Bruckner hounds.

“Seven, Seven, / Seven is my name,” as Glenn Danzig howled when I was in high school in Kentucky. But the plan failed, as plans do. I thought it might.


My first full-time job was on an assembly line. We made furniture-moving pads: quilted them, sewed their edges shut, pressed them flat and packed them in clear plastic bags, and loaded tractor trailers full of the bags. One day the kid at the next machine asked if he could listen to the cassette I had in my Walkman. He pressed Play and he made a face. “What is this?” he said. “Classical music, like Beethoven or some shit?”

The job paid minimum wage, and it wasn’t safe. One day my machine jammed and kicked and spat needle fragments at me that cut my face near my right eye. But I liked throwing the bags into the trailers. It made me feel strong. At lunch I could walk across the train tracks to Xpressway Liquors—which was run by flinty, mulleted twins who kept a pair of bratty cockatoos in big cages in the store—and buy a box of fried chicken livers and be back at my machine on time.

. . . .

My interest in Bruckner’s symphonies comes from the scroungiest source possible, a 1969 science fiction novel by Colin Wilson called The Philosopher’s Stone:

I came across Fürtwangler’s remark that Bruckner was a descendant of the great German mystics, and that the aim of his symphonies had been to ‘make the supernatural real’ … I put on Fürtwangler’s recording of the Seventh Symphony, and immediately understood that this was true. This music was slow, deliberate, because it was an attempt to escape the nature of music—which, after all, is dramatic; that is to say, it has the nature of a story … Bruckner, according to Fürtwangler, wanted to suspend the mind’s normal expectation of development, to say something that could only be expressed if the mind fell into a slower rhythm.

The book’s hero develops supernatural powers of focus and attention, beginning by listening to Fürtwangler conduct Bruckner’s long symphonies. He uses his insight to rip the veil, to see through the mask, to penetrate our world’s inner life. Wilson wrote the story on a bet, having mocked H. P. Lovecraft until August Derleth, executor of Lovecraft’s estate, dared Wilson to produce something superior.

Most of us know how a Lovecraft-style story goes. A terrifying secret exists. The secret is a secret by virtue of its being unnameable. Are words adequate to the task? This permanent secret can be called God, and God, an unknowable creator-origin, is generative to the point of being unsanitary and self-contradictory, perceptible only as a flickering, disjunct, climactic-orgasmic list of characteristics. The cost of a revelation of God is a shattering insanity and a need to escape from life, whether into institutionalization or through death, but in any case to no longer exist in an unmasked world. A Lovecraft story is the discovery of an insight that brings only unhappiness and terror.

All this to say that twenty-five years ago, I set out to develop my own powers of insight by listening to Bruckner symphonies. Dumb.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review