Glenn Gould died of a series of sudden strokes in the early 80s at age 50. He was a very respected and loved classical pianist known for his unique style, and his personal eccentricities. I knew almost nothing of him before seeing a documentary of his life on PBS last night. The story was told from the retrospective of 21st century witnesses remembering the man from 30 to 50 years earlier. I now know only enough about him to find that in the Venn Diagram of our personalities, a part of his neurosis overlaps with my own.
I recall the narrator making the point that there really was something so elusive about the man that you didn’t really get to know him. The witnesses talked about Gould, but few could reveal his heart. Even the woman he loved, and who eventually left him to return to her husband, gave you with impression that he was a very interesting guy who was impossibly paranoid and controlling. The woman’s children, then elementary or junior high school age, looking back as adults, thought of him as likable and friendly, and appreciated that he did not try to be a substitute dad. They were glad to return to their biological father when their mom left Gould, yet were sad to be leaving Gould himself. Did they not know why they were sad? What about the man did they love? Did he allow them to love him? Was it the error of the biographer, or the error of Gould, that so little explanation was available?
Gould’s papers, reviewed only after his death, reveal that he compulsively took and recorded his own blood pressure numerous times through the day. He had a list of imagined ailments, and went from doctor to doctor, accumulating an impressive inventory of medications. This musical genius somehow neglected to let each doctor know what the other doctor was already prescribing, resulting in a random cocktail of drugs. He invariably dressed for cold weather, using a long coat and gloves, even when walking on the beach in the middle of summer. He refused to visit his dying mother in the hospital because of his fear of germs.
The image of Gould walking as a solitary man in the Canadian winter wilderness is what I think most captures the essence of the man. He reveled in the pure, stark white vastness of the great Canadian north land. Like this wild vista of endless snow and ice, Gould was someone who impressed me as alone, untouched, unidentifiable, and yet beautiful and inspiring because of the sheer immensity of his talents and work.
Gould hated the concert tour because he hated audiences. One interviewed witness described an audience as an examiner that stripped the performer naked, and either applauded or excoriated the man revealed. That was too much for Gould. He gave his last concert with Leonard Bernstein in the early sixties. The balance of his career he devoted to recording his work. He was fascinated with the recording technology of the time.
Gould worked with a recording technician for endless hours, and the two became friends. As the technician described the relationship, he would hide out across from the recording studio at a bar late at night just to escape the intensity of Gould’s compulsive working. Gould one night asked this friend to become actual brothers–to go to the local courthouse and start the adoption process. Gould was sincere. The friend equivocated in his reply, stating that he would have to first clear the matter with his three biological siblings. Gould never raised the matter again.
Now, that overlapping neurosis: it has to do with fear and control. Those twin sisters of hell who remind me of two snakes entwined upon the same pole. Gould was compulsive, obsessed with revision and perfection, and fixated upon his unique idea of “right.” The narrator of the PBS commentary was gracious in saying that Gould was controlling of situations, but not of people. The error of that assessment of course is that people are part of every situation. Like the wilderness he loved, there was a frozen part of Gould that was neither touchable, nor touching. Connecting with him, I think, would have been like visiting the Arctic: you knew you were in the presence of a great and beautiful power, but you could visit only briefly, or die.
(c) 2010 FXP