Music as the limit of reason

If within Eckhart's 'poetic metaphysics' there is, as Davies says, a certain 'foregrounding of the signifier' which enables him to set up a subtle interplay between the formal and material significance of his theological speech, a strategy of deconstruction, then this suggests the intriguing possibility that one theoretical 'limit' case of human rationality is to be found in music.1 For we could say that in music the signifier is 'foregrounded' so absolutely that all is reduced to it, with nothing left to it in the character of verbal language at all. If speech may enact 'rhetorically' what it says semantically, music is nothing if not enacted: it is pure performance. We may say with some qualifications that music 'speaks' in the same way that a kiss, or a smile, may speak.2 In consequence, music can have no 'constative' character; there is nothing it is 'about' in the way in which there is something which verbal utterance can be 'about'. If, within poetry, there is a sort of 'dialectic' between the meaning carried by material features of the language and that uttered as the formal significance of its words - between, therefore, what is 'said' by the features of assonance, rhythm and inflection on the one hand, and what is said formally by the words on the other - in 'pure' music there is nothing 'said' other than that 'meaning' which is achieved by the structuring of its material features alone: the rhythms; the sequence of pitches, of tempi and of volume; the melodic, harmonic and tonal organisation. In the terminology which

1 In the few remarks which follow about music, I am much indebted to a long-running conversation with Ferdia Stone-Davis, research student in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge, whose comments on an earlier draft have enabled me to avoid some otherwise serious errors. This is not to say that she would agree with all that I say here, but everything I do say reflects in some way those conversations in which we have engaged in consequence of her research.

2 Though, as Vittorio Montemaggi has pointed out to me, there are important differences: see note 11 below.

I stipulated above, we could say that music is rhetoric in its purest form, for it is nothing else but a rhetoric.3

I should not wish to take such a proposition any further than by means of it to entertain a theoretical possibility, one which might help with the clarification of what is definitive of human reason. For in one sense of the word 'defined', a territory is defined by its extremes, as a nation's territory is defined by its borders. And in this way, it might be possible to describe music as a 'definitively' rational human pursuit, because on the one hand it is the most 'formal' of the human means of expression - there is nothing it is 'about', its 'significance' is internal to its own structures, and there is nothing for the signifier to interact with by way of formal signification: the 'meaning', whole and entire, is in the sound itself and in its 'form' - while, on the other hand, it is also the most 'material' -indeed 'animal' - mode of human expression, for there is nothing else to music except what it achieves by the structuring of patterns of sound;4 it is in that sense pure body. On this account, therefore, music is sound and fury, signifying nothing that the sound and the fury do not themselves signify. So it is that, in saying that music is rhetoric in its purest form, this is the same as to say that music is the body in its purest form as language.

Herbert McCabe once said that 'poetry is language trying to be bodily experience, as music is bodily experience trying to be language',5 and there is some truth in the epigram, except for the 'trying to be'. For although music is well understood as 'language' - and it would seem that there is nothing intrinsically misleading with understanding it in those terms - it is not as if it aspires to the condition of verbal speech, and fails, for music is not in that sense 'trying to' say anything.6 Rather the

3 Stone-Davis points out that since Plato, through Augustine to Kant, the word 'rhetoric' has acquired almost entirely negative connotations, which might appear to entail some form of depreciation of music as a form of human communication. It will be clear, however, from my argument so far that by 'rhetoric' I refer not to some degenerate form of communication - 'degenerate', that is to say, by the standards of formal verbal communication - but to all forms of human transaction of meaning in their 'performative' character as such, as distinct from what is transacted by the meaning of words themselves.

4 This is carefully put. Gordon Graham argues that music is nothing more than the structuring of patterns of sound as the exploration of purely aural experience. This is too limited an account of music in my view. Music is indeed the exploration of aural experience; but more is achieved by this exploration than an exploration of the aural alone, for, as I shall argue shortly, by means of that exploration is achieved an understanding of how the body itself is capable of significance, specifically through the articulation and expression of emotion. See Gordon Graham, The Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics, 2nd edn, London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 70-3.

5 Herbert McCabe OP, 'The Eucharist as Language', in Modern Theology 15.2, April 1999, p. 138.

6 Here I am much reliant upon Ferdia Stone-Davis's unpublished paper 'Plato, Kant and the Reduction of Music' presented to the Conference of the Music Research Group on 'The Intellectual Frontiers of Music' at the University of Aberdeen, June 2002.

matter is better put the other way round: music is, in a certain sense, closer to those sources in the body of all meaningful human behaviour on which the possibility of verbal speech depends than is verbal speech itself. Hence, as against what is implied by McCabe's epigram, it seems better to say with Stone-Davis that verbal language is the wrong model for how music 'signifies', for there is no sense in which music signifies by way of 'representation' in the way verbal language does. Moreover, it is thus far possible to agree with Nietzsche that 'music itself... has no need at all of images and concepts, but merely tolerates them as an accompaniment ... which is why language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, can never, under any circumstances, externalise the innermost depths of music'.7 But while it is possible to agree that music is not to be understood as a failed form of verbal speech, that denial does not entail that music does not in any way signify - if not in the same way as, still every bit as much as, verbal language does. Music is the body in its most elemental form as language, because it is language in its most embodied form; but it is also the body in its most transparently significant form. Music is therefore the most fundamental and elemental form of human rationality, and so of'language', in that wider sense in which I have been trying to explain them. We could say that verbal speech is possible only because the human body meets those conditions of significance on account of which music is possible. If human beings could not be musical, then they could not be verbal.8

For this reason it is important to correct a possibly misleading impression. As Stone-Davis has commented, to say that music is 'pure rhetoric' and that, in music, 'there is nothing for the signifier to interact with' by way of verbal communication - as there is in poetry - could appear to have the consequence that, as she rightly says, 'the partnership of words and music', such as is found in opera or more generally in song, 'is undermined'. For if the 'formal' character of music were so to be emphasised as to remove from it all capacity to signify what verbal communication signifies, then there could be no possibility in song of an interplay of significances between the words set to music and the music it is set to. And this consequence, Stone-Davis argues, is clearly counter-intuitive, as indeed it is.

7 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, trans. Ronald Speirs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 36.

8 To the extent that, on this account, music is envisaged as in some way more 'elemental' than verbal speech, it is in accord with Nietzsche's proposition that in even that most musical of the literary arts, lyric poetry, 'we see language straining to its limits to imitate music. . .With this observation we have defined the only possible relationship between music, word, and sound: the word, the image, the concept seeks expression in a manner analogous to music and thereby is subjected to the power of music' Birth of Tragedy, p. 34.

And so it is necessary to clarify the statement that music is 'pure rhetoric'. Far from its being the case that the interplay, such as I have identified in poetry, between what is signified verbally and what is signified by the materiality of the sign, is absent from song, it is, on the contrary, intensified in song. In fact it is possible to construe the relationship between the words and the music to which it is set as an intensified poetics; for what takes place in, for example, a Mozart opera, is an intensification of the interplay, characteristic of the 'poetic', between the two levels of signification, that of the words and that of their 'rhetorical' (that is, in the case of opera, their musical) setting. Of course, the word 'setting' is too weak to do justice to the role of music within opera, most especially in the greatest operatic composers, Monteverdi, Mozart, as also in Wagner. What is composed is the conjunction, in all its complexity of interplay, between words and music, and therefore between the ways in which they both 'signify'. For this reason there is something to be said for the view that, on the contrary, poetry is a weakened form of song, for in poetry the 'rhetoric' consists simply in the material, aural, character of the words themselves, and the 'interplay' consists in the structuring of the aural qualities of the words in their relationships with their formal significations, as we saw in the last chapter.

But since this is so, then it follows that the character of music as 'pure rhetoric', whether as setting words or as purely instrumental, cannot be so understood as to preclude its bearing a meaning in some way analogous to that in which words do. And of course music does so bear meanings, in its own terms. When in The Marriage of Figaro Mozart sets to music the Countess's aria 'Porgi amor', he sets sad words sung sadly, indeed to one of the saddest melodies in music. We would be at least much puzzled if Mozart had set the Countess's expressions of grief at the Count's betrayals to a melody of Haydnesque jolliness, and we would be forced to suspect an irony of some sort, just because we recognise the emotional qualities of music directly from the music itself. In just the same way as a man 'may smile and smile and be a villain', so verbal text and music can transact meanings in all manner of interactions, which could be the case only if music had its own capacity to 'mean' independently of the verbal meanings.

But how are we to square this obvious fact of such interactions between verbal and musical significance with the statement that music does not signify anything 'other than itself and is 'pure rhetoric'? What, and how, does music 'signify'? Is there anything it is 'about' and how? Put in more abstract terms, how do the 'formal' and the 'material' coincide in music's distinctive capacity for significance? A first step towards an answer must be that music stands in some kind of relation with emotion. If it is an error which, as Nietzsche says, 'strikes our aesthetics as offensive'9 that individual listeners are constrained 'to speak in images' upon hearing a symphony of Beethoven, it cannot be in the same way arbitrary to describe a piece of music as 'sad', or 'elated', or 'tormented', as it would be to describe it as 'pastoral'. Indeed, it cannot be an error at all to describe music in terms of emotions, unless, once again, it is said on a representational model of how it may so be described. Sad music does not represent sadness. The hearer experiences the sadness upon hearing the music. But the musical experience of sadness is not itself a sad experience. On the contrary, the experienced Sturm und Drang of Schubert's string quintet is sublimely elevating. How so?

In his Confessions Augustine notes with puzzlement how it is that he can attend a tragedy in the theatre in Milan with such intense pleasure.10 Bitter distress is so artfully represented in the drama that Augustine cannot but be drawn into the experience of it in a manner which directly engages his emotions. Augustine feels the pain enacted as his own, to a degree of intensity which perhaps outstrips any that he has ever felt in propria persona -but he does not experience it as pain. It will not do, therefore, to say, as Plato might have, in explanation of the pleasure Augustine takes in the tragedy, that the emotion Augustine experiences is felt only in an indirect, 'detached' way, or that Augustine is drawn passionately into what is but a pale imitation, an illusory representation, of a sadness and pain which stand at one remove from the experience as it would have felt had it been some personal experience of tragedy of Augustine's own. Nor will it do justice to the experience to say that it is a matter of sympathy for another's real distress, for there is no pleasure in that. Nor yet is it enough, by way of explanation of this complex experience, to say that what we take pleasure in is the 'art' with which the emotion is evinced in the audience or hearer - that what we enjoy is the skill, what is 'sad' is the experience into which that skill draws us. For both the directness of our experience of the sadness, and the pleasure of the experiencing it, are part of one and the same, single, emotional response to the music or to the tragic drama. There is, somehow, pleasure in the enacted experience of sadness, so that, although directly experienced, it is not itself a sad experience.

What appears to permit this same complexity of emotional response in the case of music - and at the same time permits our descriptions of music in the vocabulary of emotion in a stronger than metaphorical sense - is precisely that complexity of the 'material' and the 'formal' which we have seen to characterise human rationality as such. For when we are drawn

9 Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, p. 34. 10 Augustine, Confessions 3.2.

into the 'sadness' of the second movement of Schubert's 'Death and the Maiden' quartet we do indeed experience that sadness directly, but not as being a sadness about anything, nor as being anybody's sadness - not yours, not mine, not even Schubert's. Of course, you may, as you experience it, contingently be caused to recollect the tragedy of Schubert's predicament as he wrote that movement, or you may, as it happens, be caused to recollect some sadness of your own. But such personal experiences of sadness are strictly irrelevant to the music's own character as sad. For what you experience is sadness as such, the pure form of the emotion, but as subjectless and as objectless.11 Hence, on the one hand, you do experience the sadness in its inner character as sadness - and not merely the skill of its expression - but on the other, you experience it not as yours nor yet as originating in any actual cause or as directed at any object in particular. This is not to say that the experience of music's sadness or joy is not a personal experience, for of course it is. But it is the personal experience of an emotion in its pure character as that emotion, so that just as the musical expression of that emotion is without subject and without object, so is 'my' experience of it.12 Through my experience of the music I enter a 'space' in which I can experience a transcendence of the opposition between subjectivity and objectivity within the experience itself - which is also the reason why music has no 'constative' character as such; for language to 'state' something there has to be a subject stating and an object stated. And music prescinds from both subjectivity and objectivity. As Nietzsche puts it, 'the whole opposition between the subjective and the objective... is absolutely inappropriate in aesthetics since the subject, the willing individual in pursuit of his own, egotistical goals, can only be considered the opponent of art, not its origin'. 13 And this self-transcendence of one's own subjectivity, its being stripped away by music's refusal equally of subjectivity as of objectivity, and entering a space 'beyond' it, is itself the object of pleasure: the desire thus

11 In this respect music differs from a smile, as Montemaggi says. Beatrice's famous smile directed to Dante (in Paradiso, cant. XVIII, 4-20) gets its power to communicate precisely as Beatrice's act of drawing Dante into community with her and with the blessed in paradise. The specificities of Beatrice and Dante are intrinsic to the communicative act itself.

12 'Therefore music does not express this or that particular and definite pleasure, this or that affliction, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety, merriment, or peace of mind, but joy, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without any accessories, and so also without the motives for them.' Artur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation I, book 3, 51, trans. E. F. J. Payne, New York: Dover Publications, 1969, p. 261. I am grateful to Ferdia Stone-Davis for alerting me to this passage.

13 Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, p. 32.

satisfied is, as Plato says, the sort of desire which can be satisfied only by the beautiful.

But if in this way music creates the space for a kind of self-transcendence, it creates it in the most purely bodily form. Music is body as pure meaning, it is body as transformed. For as emotion is rooted in our carnality, so the space created by music for this emotional self-transcendence is also the space in which that carnality achieves a transparency to meaning, a transparency which bestows upon music in its own right, and on no particular analogy with verbal speech, the name of 'language', a language which is all 'foregrounded signifier', properly called by the name 'language', even if, as Stone-Davis rightly says, it is about nothing but itself. Music, par excellence, is our animality as rational. It is also our rationality as 'self-transcendent'. It is the body in its purest form as language, as communicative.

In this way, then, what is to be said about the 'meanings' which music communicates is neither more nor less, and neither more nor less puzzling, than what is to be said about how a kiss or a smile signifies meaning. Whether of music or of any bodily gesture, we should say that they are absolutely bodily and absolutely significant, at one and the same time wholly material and wholly formal, saying what they say not in distinction from, and certainly not in contrast with, their bodily character. What is materially done is what does the saying. 'Form' and 'matter' are the one 'speech'.

That music should be in this way at once the most material and the most formal of kinds of human expression is no unresolvable paradox. For the paradox of music is in its way but a 'limit' case of the more general connectedness between 'rationality' and 'animality', between the formal and the material, between the achievement of significance and the performance of the signifier; and music is a 'limit' case of that connectedness, because music collapses the signified whole and entire into the signifier. It therefore stands at one extreme of the continuum of forms of 'rationality', a continuum occupied at the opposite extreme by a purely stipulative technical discourse, such as mathematics, which collapses the signifier whole and entire into the signified: a mathematical symbol performs nothing but to signify; music signifies nothing but what it performs.

It is perhaps for this reason that, in its character of a purely natural self-transcendence, music serves the end more spontaneously than do most other forms of human activity of a 'natural theology', even if, as we shall see, it can only half serve it. And if this is so, it is because of those paradoxical conjunctions of music's being closest to us in its intense phys-icality and yet wholly open as to its significance, in its being indeterminate and lacking in particular reference, in its being purely formal: and being so, it opens up spaces of experience beyond our particularity, beyond our confined individuality. Ancients did not think, as we do now, of some music as sacred and some secular. They thought music was sacred as such, and, whatever the reasons of the ancients, perhaps it is still possible for us moderns intuitively to know what they mean. At any rate we may share with the ancients the feeling that music has a natural capacity for the transcendent, that it is the most 'natural' of natural theologies, and it may be that this common perception has to do with the fact that music's very impersonality and 'otherness' are what allows for such a free, spontaneous, and utterly personal, but at the same time self-transcendent, response. Perhaps that is why music is still the most commonly experienced form of what the medievals called an excessus, or in Greek, ekstasis, or in English, taking leave of your senses; but in music, by the most sensual, most bodily, of means. If we can say that music is the body inserted into language, we must also say that music is the body inserted into unknowing. Music is, as it were, the body in the condition of ecstasy.

Moreover, it is just because in music the most sensual is conjoined with the most transparently meaningful that we can say, linking back to the argument of chapter 3, that music is, in a certain way, proto-typically 'Eucharistic'. For though there is much to the Eucharist beyond this, still, in the Eucharist is brought to the absolute limit of possibility - that is to say, to the limit possible before our resurrection - that conjunction of absolute bodiliness and absolute transparency of meaning; for the Eucharist is a communication which is all body, and a body which is all communication: or, and this is just another way of putting it, in the Eucharist we have a 'real presence' which pushes to the very limits any force we can lay hold of for the word 'real' and for every meaning we can have for the word 'present'. And then we have to add, 'and beyond'; that is to say, beyond any such force we can lay hold on for those words 'real' and 'presence'. For the doctrine of the 'real presence' of Christ in the Eucharist is, in Thomas, also a doctrine of the 'real absence'. What the Eucharist makes 'real' is both the 'now' and the 'not yet', and it is just that conjunction of presence and absence which is made 'real', for the Eucharistic presence is caught up into an 'eschatological', not a merely 'linear', temporality. In that lies its character as a sacrament, inscribing in the body in its present condition an openness to a future which is not yet: the Eucharist is the resurrection of the body as only it can be within and for our unraised, historical, contingency. The Eucharist is, then, eschatology as body: the bread and wine become that body of the resurrection, a body which is all communication, the flesh made most perfectly to be Word, futurae pignus gloriae, as Thomas says in one of his Eucharistic prayers, 'a pledge of future glory'.

It is in all these respects that music is both central to what we mean by 'reason' and 'proto-typically Eucharistic' - at any rate, we could mean that much by 'reason' if we did not simply abase ourselves before the altar of some recent intellectual history which has reduced 'reason' to 'ratiocination'. And music is proto-typically Eucharistic in one more sense besides: for it is the common experience of all great music, it does not matter whether it is happy or sad, that it is in a certain way sad, for music is the lachrymae rerum - at any rate, whether it is that weird and terrible Trio of the Schubert string quintet, or the hushed moment of reconciliation of the finale of The Marriage of Figaro - at whichever end of the emotional spectrum it is to be found, or wherever it is placed between, all music is the cause of tears, whether tears of sadness or of joy. And I venture the speculation that if there is a certain ultimate melancholy to music, it is because music is in a way a shadow cast on to human sensibility of that eschatological temporality of the Eucharist; the sadness of music is a sort of sensual nostalgia for what one has caught some glimpse of but cannot yet possess; it is, as it were, a premonition of a premonition; it is a kind of pre-anamnesis, a depth dug into memory, scoring it with a sort of hope made real, but as loss and as absent, made present, but as yet to be real. Music is proto-sacramental in that it is proto-eschatological. It occupies the same human, bodily, space that is occupied by the Eucharist.

At this point, in their bearing on my argument generally, I shall say only this much about the relevance of these considerations, for it will be possible to make the full point of them clear only at the end; and it is that a 'speaking animal' in this, now the widest, sense of 'speaking' is the 'raw material' of the sacramental, and that an animal which speaks God is already in some way in the form of the sacramental, so that reason as such has, as it were by anticipation, a quasi-sacramental 'shape', the form of the Eucharist. Here, in music, it is reason in its broadest sense which is shown to have this shape of a maximum 'embodiment' bearing a maximum significance, of a materiality which is most perfectly formal. Later,14 it is reason in its narrower sense of'ratiocination' which is shown also to have this 'Christological' shape.

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