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"What Is This Thing Called Love?": Cole Porter and the Rhythms of Desire.(Critical Essay)

Author/s: Ronald Schleifer
Issue: Wntr, 1999

If music be the food of love, play on.

--Twelfth Night

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN music and desire has often been asserted, yet the intricacies of this relationship are subtle and complicated and deserve more than assertion. In this essay, I examine the musical line, structure, and lyrics in Cole Porter in an attempt to tease out wellsprings of desire in the rhythms and semiotics of language and sound, an attempt to sketch or point to the relation of things--objects, somatic functions, the speaking body--to discourse. Many years ago, Claude Levi-Strauss argued that the power of music resides in the juxtapositions--what I describe in this essay as the syncopations, using the term both figuratively and literally--of "physiological" or "natural" rhythms and semiotic or "cultural" rhythms.(1) Similarly, T. S. Eliot noted that his poems began as complicated rhythms which only later shaped themselves into sense. And finally, Jacques Lacan argued throughout his career that desire is metonymic in its elements, a constant displacement of signifiers sliding across our experience and understanding and marking them with more or less objectless affect. In these three areas--structure, meaning, and elemental impulses--we can discern the contours of desire that play across the sounds and meanings of the modernist music of Cole Porter.

That Porter's music--his lyrics and melodies--is "modernist" is of the utmost importance for my argument. In his work, the project of the lyric of high modernism--international modernism, as found in the poetry of Yeats or Eliot, Stevens or Rilke--which attempts to isolate and provoke what I like to call "free-floating" affect, free-floating desire, is most clearly discernible. It is so because the rhythms of his lyrics are apprehensible on levels of both sensation and meaning--levels of phenomenological organization and semiotic representation--in ways that are more difficult to discern in lyric poetry. Moreover, Porter's music allows us to see more clearly than otherwise the appropriateness Of Lacan as a major interpreter of modernist desire and modernist poetry. The Lacanian account of the work of desire chimes so remarkably well with the lyric energy in Porter's work--especially in relation to what both describe as desire apprehended as a "thing"--that in focusing on his songs we can discern the larger outlines of the lyric project of high modernism. And also Porter--unlike Yeats, Eliot, and Rilke tout not necessarily Stevens)--brings to the lyrics of desire an enormous degree of fun.

The Metonymics of Desire

In "I Love Paris" (1953), Porter describes his love for Paris "ev'ry moment of the year"--"in the springtime," "in the fall," "in the winter when it drizzles / ... in the summer when it sizzles"--all "Because my love is near."(2) In this song, as in many others, Porter's verses, his rhymes, and, indeed, his music--that is, the elements of language, sound, and musical structure--describe metonymic patterns of displacement. In "I Love Paris," the feminine rhyme of "drizzles" and "sizzles"--a kind of rhyming Porter repeats throughout his lyrics--emphasizes the metonymics of rhyme altogether, the displacement of rhyme to the first syllable and the quiet assertion of rhyming a word with itself--a modernist version of rime riche(3)--to the unaccented syllable. Such metonymic "displacement" describes the international nature of Porter's work. This is clear from Richard Rogers's remark that early in his career Porter thought that the road to success in a profession dominated by Jewish composers such as Je1rome Kern, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwin brothers was to "write Jewish tunes." Rogers thought that one need only to hum Cole Porter melodies--his examples are "Night and Day," "Begin the Beguine," "Love for Sale," and "I Love Paris"--and one would hear "minor-key melodies [that] are unmistakably eastern Mediterranean."(4) Throughout his life, Porter himself repeatedly claimed exotic origins for his songs based upon his lifelong world travels: "Night and Day," he claimed, originated in Morocco; "Begin the Beguine" in Kalabahai; "You're the Top" in a Faltboot as he floated down the Rhine; "What Is This Thing Called Love?" in Marrakesh--though Porter's biographer, I should add, suggests that Porter is not quite honest in these accounts.(5)

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