Two-things-at-once

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s ‘7 O'clock News / Silent Night’ is a sound collage from their 1966 album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. The song layers Simon and Garfunkel’s version of ‘Silent Night’, originally composed in Salzburg in 1818, over a performance of the evening news. The news reports real events from the summer of 1966, although the script was written for the song, and read not by a news anchor but by Los Angeles disc jockey and future Wheel of Fortune-host Charlie O’Donnell.

The list of reported events provides a snapshot of that summer in America, 55 years ago: it is both vivid, and locked away in a period from the past. Lenny Bruce dies from a drugs overdose aged 42. Richard Speck is accused of the murder of nine student nurses in Chicago. Anti-Vietnam war protesters in Washington are evicted from the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The balance between song and news alters over the duration of the 2-minute piece: beginning as a whisper 20 seconds in, the news grows louder and louder until O’Donnell concludes with ‘That’s the 7 o’clock edition of the news. Good-night.’

            The accounts of these events work in ironic juxtaposition with the pitch-perfect delicacy of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Silent Night’ to provide something like a lament for bad times. Listening to it now, in 2021, there is an added temporal poignancy because we hear about figures whose fate we know, but they do not: Nixon says opposition to the Vietnam war is the greatest single weapon working against the U.S., 8 years before his resignation; Martin Luther King declines to cancel plans for a march in the Chicago suburb of Cicero over housing rights, 21 months before his assassination at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis.

            The song works because it is not a juxtaposition but a layering: we hear both ‘Silent Night’, and the 7 o’clock news, at the same time. It’s harder for other art forms to present two things at once. Novels are particularly bad at simultaneity, because we read in sequence: one thing after another. Perhaps the most inventive response to this formal problem is E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper (in 2 volumes, 1819-21, with a promised 3rd never appearing). Hoffmann’s novel is the (necessarily fictionalised) autobiography of a talented autodidact named Murr, who happens to be a cat. Murr learnt to read by studying books and papers in his owner’ library, and went on to write, among other things, a tragedy, Cawdallor, King of Rats, and a ‘philosophical and didactic novel of sentiment’, Thought and Intuition, or, Cat and Dog. In the process of writing his life, Murr uses pages from a book about Romantic, asocial musical genius Johannes Kreisler as blotting paper. When Murr’s text is sent to the printers, the Kreisler pages are mistakenly included, with the result that passages from each alternate in the final printed book. We lurch between feline Bildungsroman and a study of Romantic excess. (The fictional Kreisler is the inspiration for Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana (1838).)

And lurch is the word. Points of transition from Murr to Kreisler are indicated by ‘W.P.’ (wastepaper), resulting in this kind of thing:

Young Ponto [a poodle] ran briskly on ahead, and I followed gloomily, crushed by his remarks, which in my hungry frame of mind I felt had much truth in them. How alarmed I was, however, when –

W.P. – the most welcome thing in the world, to the editor of these pages to have the whole of Kreisler’s remarkable conversation with the little Privy Counsellor reported directly.

The shift back from Kreisler to Murr is signalled by the note ‘M. cont.’:

We need scarcely add that the mourning widow was none other than Madame Benzon, who had just lost her late husband the Councillor. Curiously enough, it so happened that Madame Benzon, just when –

M. cont. – Ponto ran straight up to that girl selling bread and sausages, the girl who had almost killed me when I helped myself to her wares in a friendly manner.

This is not quite a layering, but a flickering between two worlds, and while there are mirrorings and echoes between the two stories, it is the sudden change that provides the novel’s signature affect. The splicing together of Murr’s pages with Kreisler’s is one way for Hoffmann to explore the necessary reliance of one text on other texts: seen also in the novel’s repeated use of quotations from Shakespeare and Goethe and others, and in the continual influence of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67).

            Painting can have a different relationship with two-at-once: a pentimento (from the Italian for ‘repentance’) is the presence or emergence of earlier images that have been altered or painted over.My favourite example comes from the Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross, Binham, Norfolk: the late medieval painted faces of saints on the rood screen were, during the early years of the Reformation, painted over with black letter text in English from the Great Bible of 1539.

The result is a palimpsest of text and image. What looks at first like a destructive enactment of a Protestant commitment to word over image becomes, the closer we look, something more entangled. The painted text, in seeking to obscure, in fact frames and displays an earlier visual culture, and the desire to replace produces instead a set of dependencies between word and picture, Protestant and Catholic, and past and present. This is the politics of two-things-at-once, rather than one-thing-after-another.