Nathaniel Mackey's Bedouin Hornbook
A Bedouin is a nomad and a nomad a wanderer. Nathaniel Mackey seems to wander far and away in his Bedouin Hornbook, a series of fictional letters addressed to an “Angel of Dust” and signed by the ambiguous “N.” N. interprets passages of improvisation, analyzing others’ musical expression in surprising detail to the point that his unquestioning sincerity and self-assurance are almost laughable. That N. can glean meaning from music in such a direct and certain manner is problematic because his tone implies that there is only one correct interpretation of music. In addressing the issue of how music conveys meaning, Mackey seems to wander in two disparate directions. After asserting each seemingly contradictory view, first that music and speech are simply ends in themselves and second that they are means to a separate end, Mackey reconciles the question through his motivic discussion of absence and essence.
In the first passage, Mackey draws out the nuances of this problem by directing two characters to argue over the meaning of a particular musical piece. He focuses on the style rather than the content of the dispute, suggesting that its value lies in the graceful unfolding of the argument itself. In the subsequent passage, N.’s lecture on “The Creaking of the Word” uses metaphor in such a way as to highlight the explosive possibility of words and music to transmit meaning.
During the first episode, Mackey uses the same style of writing when N. repeats another character’s speech as when he reiterates another’s musical ideas, which confuses the boundary between music and speech. N. uses the same tone when retelling the verbal dispute between Lambert and Aunt Nancy as when interpreting Lambert’s playing. Referring to the music, he says, “he made it clear that…” and “having made this point…” (127), whereas referring to the verbal dialogue he uses phrases like, “Lambert went on at some length…” (132). By employing deceptively similar language in these instances, Mackey sets up a parallel between music and speech that he uses to make his point about how meaning is conveyed through art.
Aunt Nancy not only challenges Lambert’s interpretation of the music, but by extension, every unchallenged musical interpretation N. offers throughout the novel. But Aunt Nancy faces the same problem as N. when articulating her complaint. While asserting an alternate interpretation, she assumes a tone that claims hers as singularly true, which seems hypocritical. Since Aunt Nancy commits the same contradiction as N., Mackey foreshadows a reconciliation of our understanding of that contradiction.
Mackey first uses the argument between Aunt Nancy and Lambert to assert that improvisation itself is the goal of music, rather than a device used to carry a separate meaning. The dispute arises when the group begins to dissect Lambert’s solo. While Djamilaa, Penguin and N. are enthusiastic about the piece, Aunt Nancy sits...