The Lamplit Answer

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The four sections of Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s The Lamplit Answer view from various angles how humans imagine the shapes of their condition and destiny. The first section focuses on childlike perceptions and their sinister outcome, the second on dreams and the machinery of death, the third on personal love, and the fourth on altruistic love.

The major poem of the first section of the book is “Kremlin of Smoke,” which is about Frédéric Chopin’s life as a child in Warsaw and as a grownup in Paris. In both cities he is lionized and pampered, and in Paris he remains childlike, prone to tantrums and vaporous moods, eager to act out charming stories for his audiences. An ominous note in this long poem is sounded by the political reality lurking behind Chopin’s genius and popularity. As a child he asks his mother where snow comes from; eventually the answer comes—left over, as it were, from her elegant idleness and all but insubstantial passion: She tells him that it comes from Russia, alluding to the fact that Poland at the time was a political victim of Russia. Later, part of his Parisian audience is composed of the very rich; the sinister smoke rises from their pipes and cigars to the pleasantly adorned ceiling of the salon where Chopin is playing. This image helps to identify them with those who plot the destinies of countries, with the smoke that rises from the pillage and ruin of a city such as Chopin’s native Warsaw.

Chopin is protected from such machinations and horrors, but part of his genius is that he senses what is really going on beyond the hothouse of his fame. His sudden fits of temper, especially as a child, puzzle his piano teacher and, later on, his maid. The poem suggests, though, that his fits result from his knowledge that he is trapped in romantic ephemera. His sense of the brutality of life foreshadows the destruction of his piano in Warsaw by Russian soldiers. On the other hand, he comes to know that his art, fragile as it may be, attracts the better side of those who hear it. Not only the cultivated appreciate his music but also the uncultivated, those shoveling snow outside the window of the salon in the Faubourg Saint-Germain where he is performing. The paradox of power and fragility inhabit his art, but it is the latter that imposes itself most on him. The former virtuoso who was his teacher in 1822 gives Chopin several rules by which to guide himself. Most of them are warnings against certain kinds of music, including that of Ludwig van Beethoven. One, however, cautions him to ignore the real world—to play for anyone who will listen without thinking about them or about where he is playing. This “art for art’s sake” prescription is rounded off when Chopin’s teacher tells him, in effect, that art has no motive beyond itself. As a result, when Chopin, at the height of his powers, tries to discover a more profound source of music than himself, he feels guilty about it, while at the same time he sees himself and his art falling apart like a short-lived flower.

If Chopin is trapped in a solipsistic world typical of children, the naïve or childlike painter in “The Self-Portrait of Ivan Generali” must watch his Christian assumptions stripped away one by one. The light that he once painted by, so to speak, has already gone out of his world, as he gradually realizes. Disasters yet to come are the subject of “Signs”; the childish perfection people want to see in the world is eventually overwhelmed by sinister omens. The poem infers that maturity is measured by one’s perception of such omens.

Ending the first section of Schnackenberg’s book is “Two Tales of Clumsy.” The hero, Clumsy, behaves like a child throughout. In the first part of the poem, his appetite for food and love are simple—that is, he does not reflect upon them. No-No (or Death) enters the picture and kills Clumsy’s mother, who also seems to be his wife (another sign that he has not advanced beyond the stage of a child’s perceptions). Even at the end, Clumsy’s grief is selfish, and he fails to understand what has happened. In the second part of the poem, the fact of death is replaced by its meaning, as No-No becomes Clumsy’s teacher. Clumsy is illiterate, though poetic in his ignorance. Under the pressure of No-No’s complex and cruel intelligence—in short, his maturity—Clumsy accepts (though without seeming to know what he is doing) the essential meaning of death: its finality. No-No is a sort of Satan who stands for entropy and promises knowledge in exchange for Clumsy’s servitude.

“Imaginary Prisons” and “Darwin...

(The entire section is 1887 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXI, July, 1985, p. 1506.

Boston Review. X, November, 1985, p. 28.

The Georgia Review. XXXIX, Summer, 1985, p. 414.

Library Journal. CX, May 1, 1985, p. 64.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 28, 1985, p. 3.

The Nation. CCXLI, December 7, 1985, p. 621.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, May 26, 1985, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, March 1, 1985, p. 77.

Washington Post Book World. XV, August 25, 1985, p. 4.

Yale Review. LXXIV, Summer, 1985, p. R11.