My favorite work by composer Olivier Messiaen is Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus, which translates as something like “twenty looks at the infant (or child) Jesus.” “Regard” in French suggests a way of looking, a perspective, a “gaze,” as it has been rendered in some philosophical translations from the French. Messiaen ‘s work consists of twenty pieces for solo piano, each of which is a musical regard (gaze, contemplation, way of looking) of a devoted Catholic Christian directed toward Jesus Christ. The entire work requires a couple of hours for a full performance. It was written for Pianist Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife.
What I wish to begin here could seem rather sacrilegious or blasphemous to some, or perhaps overly loaded with religious baggage to others, but I’ve decided to try it anyway. Inspired in part by Messiean’s approach, I want to direct twenty regards toward the album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) by Genesis, which is probably my very favorite album that gets classified as “prog.” I’ve found that it’s an album to which few listeners are indifferent. It seems to be one of those albums that is loved by a great many, but also dismissed or even vilified by significantly more than a few. For some (including me, I believe) it is the pinnacle, for others it is a paradigm case of narcissistic excess, or perhaps just a “dud” after the sometimes-preferred pinnacle of Selling England by the Pound (1973). I hope to show (performatively, so to speak) that it is worth at least twenty looks.
One of the ways in which the French word ‘regard‘ has gained prominence in philosophy has been through its usage by “existentialist” thinkers, especially by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre famously writes about “the look” of the Other that falls upon me (in his book, Being and Nothingness). In that discussion, the suggestion is that what I see is not just the Other, who then sees me. Rather, I see the Other’s seeing of me. A regard, in this sense, for some philosophers and social theorists, is part of what makes it possible for me to see myself, or to be in any sense an object of my own gaze. In that context, the idea of a regard includes not just a “beholding” or a mere “looking-on,” but a seeing-as… It implies judgement, valuation, potential accusation, potential responsibility. A regard is not the occurrence of physiological vision; it is a seeing that is pregnant with significance. The more recent French thinker, Michel Foucault, titled one of his books Naissance de la clinique: une archéologie du regard medical, which is rendered by the English translator as The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Regard is “perception” not in a narrow physiological or psychological sense, but in the sense of a wholistic sense-making perspective, a whole framework from which, within which, or in terms of which one sees.
It is in this rich sense that I believe Messiaen “gazed” musically, and that I wish to “gaze” at a double album’s worth of music. I share the beginning of this “essay” (attempt) before actually composing its twenty movements. I’m not sure why it seems important to me to stick to that format of twenty movements, but it does. It will be a kind of discipline, helping me to think rather carefully as I go along about how my regards should be individuated, and how they should be distinguished from each other. The object of all of the gazes will be a work of art (Genesis’ album), but I want to give free reign to the problematic way in which the writing that I do is also a work of art. (I’m dancing about architecture, as the saying goes.)
I’ll number the looks as I present them, though of course it might become clear later that they should be placed in a different order, assuming that the order matters at all. I recognize that a lot will be at stake, for some others as well as for myself. I recognize that what will be at stake may be positive or negative, or may sometimes be difficult or impossible to fix as positive or negative.
I hope that readers who are not as favorably disposed to “religious” or “spiritual” matters (however you define those overused terms) can be patient with me in this endeavor, or at least that you are able to ignore me if you wish. There is no ulterior motive here either to subtly coerce or to argumentatively convince you to embrace anything in particular of a “religious” or “spiritual” sort. But I can no more prevent my regards from being saturated by struggles with faith than could Messiaen (or, I am inclined to think, Peter Gabriel).
I invite you to accompany me, but only if you want to. Let us look.