On Being Slayed by Music

Lately I’ve been intrigued by the phenomenon of feeling slayed or demolished by a musical performance.   Last week I attended a performance by Anne-Sophie Mutter and her chamber group.  The pieces were realized with such inspiration, overwhelming energy, and beauty and variety of tone that I felt like my philosophical work was paltry in comparison.  “What have I been going on about?” I wondered.  Not everyone can create art, that is to say, over and above consideration of individual ability, because of the many tasks which need to be accomplished for society to continue to operate most people must devote most of their time to things other than creating art.  Few people will attain a level of artistic excellence so as to carve out a career of solely art-making.  And yet music can make me feel worthless.  Other jobs look meaningless and mundane in comparison, at least in the moment of rapture.  What conflict must be inside me that I still consider this destructive force one of the most positive, uplifting, and life-giving aspects of my life!  Why am I so drawn to beauty so powerful it has the capacity to plunge me into despair?

I think this can be an especially common response to works which are a complete system.  Not two weeks ago I heard Pierre-Laurant Aimard perform the entire first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.  The expressive power of this concert was similar to the aforementioned.  After the last chord – the final resolution – of the last fugue, the audience and performer sat in silence for what must have been 15 or 20 long seconds, relishing perhaps, but more than that, astonished perhaps that anything should exist after.  Surely that was the whole world wrapped up into two and a half hours.  How can there exist anything outside a world, an art-world, which is complete and entire in itself.  Mahler was perhaps right that a symphony should contain the whole world, but I will go farther to say that a work of supreme excellence gives the illusion that it is the whole world, which creates in turn a complete annihilation of everything outside it.  Subsequent composers certainly seem to have felt paralyzed by the enormity and systematic perfection of the preludes and fugues.  Some composers escaped the paralysis to composed complete world of their own for piano: one has only to bring to mind the prelude sets of Chopin and Debussy or the prelude-fugue books of Shostakovich and others.  Still, Bach remains the looming giant on the shoulders of any prospective creator of piano music, just as the monolithic symphonies of Beethoven kept Brahms in humility bordering on despair.

For a parallel in philosophical works, one needn’t look farther than the systematic, microcosmic works of Hegel.  There are others for sure, but there is no more perfect example of a philosopher who attempted to think the whole world than Hegel.  And with him, I hope I’m justified to say, died the optimism surrounding such a project.  Once a work is considered to have been “everything,” one can choose to deny the legitimacy of such a project and heroically fragment into specialization or feel completely impotent.  Our loftiest intellectual aspirations prove to be the deadliest.

I don’t pretend to understand why sublime works which attempt to envelope totality are at once alluring and life-affirming but also anesthetic.  I think the reasons are more than just that they implant permanent earworms in our minds that make it so difficult to be original, yet with a grounding in the past, yet again without simply copying what has already be done.  It’s more than the fact that Debussy found himself again and again rewriting “Parsifal” when attempting his “Pelleas et Melisande.”  I think it is dangerous for the same reason that much of Western philosophy has been dangerous: to unify is to exclude.  To generalize is to discredit.  Whatever does not fit the universal theory is made to simply not be.  Drawing a circle around some prized web of patterns turns whatever lies outside it into a void.

The grandest attempts at art and intellectualism have displayed characteristics which we might attribute, were it not for the trappings of beauty and the efficacious wizardry of craft, to an insecure person.  They build their spires from the delegitimization of whatever lies outside their sphere.  “This is the world, and there is nothing else besides.”

I would wish none of the works I’ve mentioned into non-being.  I love them all dearly.  But I only hope that both in art and philosophy that we can turn towards methodologies that promote human flourishing.  Surely we can at once create works of brilliance that praise themselves and the mundane, works that heroize both the fictional genius and the social whole.  Surely greatness can be greatness while admitting value outside itself.


~ by falleninparadise on November 23, 2014.

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