Ultimate Self-Ownership

by Terry Hulsey

"The mythless man stands eternally hungry." Nietzsche

Can there be self-ownership without music?

Each of us is unconsciously part of an atmosphere of assumptions – and this is natural. After all, everyone is part of a culture, and all culture can be reduced to two words: Shared values – shared values that are constantly reinforced by words. Words, words, words. The more-than-words from a mother’s lips that might lead one to Flannery O’Connor, or to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the boys that July afternoon in 1863; the rigmarole of words compressed with history; the precise pragmaticism of words for science; the concinnity of words in apodictic concatenation; the tintinnabulation that so musically wells from the words, words, words, words, words, words, words.

Only by stepping back from ourselves, in becoming self-conscious of what shapes our inner life, can we say that we truly own it. There are several ways to do this: Philosophy (the hard way); travel (easy, by implicitly challenging preconceptions, and somewhat hard, by learning words dyed in a different culture); nature (being wordless and alone in nature is meditative); and music.

Most of the readers of this site are familiar with the way of philosophy. – And possibly also, with the temptation whereby one becomes "the slave of the words which his mind forms about ideas" (as many observers said was the characteristic fault of Churchill). I mean not so much the tyranny of "the glittering phrase" as a kind of blindness born of repeating certain words or phrases for their romance or from the avant-garde allure that they hold. Consider two examples of the failure of the way of philosophy from authors that, believe it or not, I hold in friendly regard.

Some homespun philosophers have advised that WTSHTF, that is, on the prelude to TEOTWAWKI, that we grab our Bug-Out-Bags, GOOD and head for that acre in the hills (whether we own it or not), where we will grow our own food. All of this seems to overlook some very obvious and inconvenient facts. Isn’t it very likely that the standing army that constitutes our police forces will be the first to seize all the chokepoints out of "Dodge" and incarcerate (as "looters" or "vagrants") or disarm all of those grunting and sweating under their fardeled BOBs? Isn’t it much more likely that you will become someone else’s dinner on the road than at home? Isn’t it very likely that, even if you make it to your rustic bolt hole and raise your crops (blessed by great weather and no tyro agricultural mistakes), that it will rot before you get all of it into your deluded gullet? I have no reproach for reasonable preppers and autarkists, but really, doesn’t the extreme version of this outlook rest on a romance – the romance of chucking that damned nine-to-five pretense and climbing boot-in-the-face over those who are weaker and dumber than numero uno?

Another group, many of whom have been rightly impressed by Boldrin and Levine’s Against Intellectual Monopoly, have decided to throw the creative baby out with the state-run bathwater. The book makes powerful arguments against the current state monopoly of administering intellectual property rights, but it is incontrovertible that if intellectual property rights were destroyed root and branch, many creators would suffer real economic loss. This rather obvious fact is grudgingly conceded by many vocal opponents of intellectual property, here and here and here, although their online hectoring elsewhere makes no mention of this concession. Of course there is a heady romance in being on the cutting edge of a new, previously undetailed, intellectual position – as good as mounting the barricades with Enjolras in the rue Saint-Denis. But indoctrinating "the new generation of young libertarians" to the position without accounting for obvious shortcomings should not be part of the appeal.

The ability of travel to challenge preconceptions should be obvious. Consider a half dozen of your best online writers and you will see that the vast majority are well-traveled, especially those who offer a unique perspective on the subjects they write about. But the same salutary Verfremdungseffekt applies to ordinary travelers abroad, especially if they are somehow able to get off the beaten path. (A fortune awaits someone who will create a travel agency different from the Grand Tour cliché, one where travelers get mud between their toes planting rice in China, or herd reindeer with the Finns.)

It’s strange how art and its very opposite, nature, can provide the same self-reflective, meditative effect on us. But then what do they have in common? – The banishment of the seduction of words. And note, I say "art," but I really mean "wordless art" because I think that all the arts aspire to the effect of music. Think of all the written works consigned to oblivion because they didn’t meet this criterion, that is, because they didn’t rise above the words that allow them to speak: Plays by Victorien Sardou, George Bernard Shaw, Noël Coward; novels by Marcel Proust, William James, John Galsworthy.

As the exemplar of nature and music stands one of the most awe-inspiring human beings to have ever lived: Ludwig van Beethoven, the man without words, totally deaf certainly by the time of the Ninth Symphony and with profound hearing loss even since the First, the one whose biography cannot be read without frisson, without tears.

Beethoven’s union of music and the feeling for nature doesn’t begin with his obvious Pastoral symphony (the Sixth). True, there he effectively paints several scenes in nature that reveal his deep love of it. But it is a kind of painting, and, what’s worse from our point of view, a kind of narrative – superficial, programmatic, steeped in words.

For us, Beethoven’s real expression of nature comes in the Eighth symphony, specifically in the last two movements. Here’s a good version with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony in Frankfurt in 1992. You sense a pastoral, or nature, scene when the composer takes up a traditional dance form in a major key with a clear and lighthearted melody. Beethoven uses a very formal dance form in the third movement minuet, but, because it’s Beethoven, invests it with genius: A classical minuet is typically paired with a trio, but this trio is unlike any other. It begins – at 17:01 of the Boston Symphony clip – with cellos chug-chugging in the background on a broken chord while the clarinet dialogs with French horns – difficult to play for the horns. When I first heard it decades ago, the image that came to mind was of a bathysphere shining its light into the purple depths (clarinets and horns), with long cables softly slapping overhead (cellos). But after many listenings I outgrew that image. Like the notion that the clarinet is a "pastoral instrument," if there were such a thing, you outgrow the images on the cave that first give your understanding a foothold. Without images, without words, I am serene, bathed in Heiterkeit. (By the way, if you want a fun, "hands-on" walkthrough of this movement, go to a wonderful UK site, The Open University, or listen to an un-stuffy walkthrough from Bramwell Tovey of the Vancouver Symphony.)

In the final movement – at 19:30 of the Boston Symphony clip – all of the preparatory stuff (setup of the theme, pattern for the movement, etc.) is done. After a fugal section starting about 21:10 of the clip, what I call Beethoven’s "post-sonata" section begins at about 21:49. Here, as he so often does, he puts the themes through the wringer again, but transformed. This includes a moment of deep brooding where a minor key enters his thoughts (at 23:41). But then, in a seeming effort of will, he marches away from it (at 24:15), and returns to the loud, virile exultation of the theme that we now, after these transformations, know intimately as a lived idea.

After hearing this you understand Nietzsche, who after his breakdown once murmured of Beethoven: "He was happy." And you puzzle over those like Berlioz, who said that the minuet was "rather ordinary" and that the finale "did some violence to the letter of musical theory"! (He was referring especially to the loud tutti C# coming out of nowhere – at 19:56, 22:10 and 24:58 in our clip.) And who is right? Well, before he wrote the Ninth, Beethoven himself called it his favorite. But you decide. And if you want to take up this exploration and need some help, a great guide is Bill McGlaughlin, who broadcasts in the evenings on many radio stations. (In fact, I find him more insightful than Karl Haas, who provided similar informal analysis for half a century, and who I enjoyed since the late 1970s.)

But how does this explain the union of music and nature? Well, you knew we weren’t out for a pleasant walk in the woods, didn’t you?

First, this exultation that Beethoven gives us with the Eighth is really not about emotional release. Of course it moves us profoundly, but in a peculiar impersonal union of ourselves with the musical idea. To explain: Consider a piece that is pure emotional release, and (in my opinion) little else, the Sixth symphony (the Pathétique) of Tchaikovsky. In this piece, above all the first movement, you hear the screaming and wailing of – what is it? nature? providence? – no, it’s Tchaikovsky wailing about himself, his sufferings, "me, me, me"! Beethoven, on the other hand, had he been writing about himself in the Eighth, could have given something to make "each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine". The background to the Eighth (as well as the Seventh, which was written about the same time) was that Beethoven had gone to the country, not just to visit spas outside Vienna, but, enraged, to confront his brother Johann, who was accused of sleeping with a young housemaid, and even to accuse him before the magistrate and local bishop. But there is nothing of this in the music. At best you can try to say, as one of my old LP jacket covers lamely did, that the Eighth’s finale portrays a fast open carriage through the countryside like Beethoven must have taken at this time.

The Eighth – and all German romantic music in general – strives to be, as Nietzsche put it, with paraphrase of Schopenhauer,

the true Dionysian art, meaning that "it is not a copy of the phenomenon, but an immediate copy of the will itself, and therefore complements everything physical in the world and every phenomenon by representing what is metaphysical, the thing in itself."

In other words, as Nietzsche quotes Schopenhauer in the same passage:

We might, therefore, just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will.

Or, simpler still:

[W]e understand music as the immediate language of the will.

Of course, all of this is meaningless outside the context of German Idealism, from which it naturally flowers. Kant, the source of German Idealism, describes an unknowable noumenon behind all appearances. To this we would be content to shrug and say "OK, can’t say much more about that," and walk away. However, he admits this obvious fact, that the mind needs phenomena to work on; but then he says that our "sense of moral duty" provides sufficient material when the mind considers subjects such as ethics, religion and esthetics. Your personal will provides the immediate access to that otherwise unknowable thing behind the maya of appearances, at least on these subjects. With this we are immediately at sea. We could admit this and accept something as innocuous as Schiller’s view of the sublime which, to violently simplify, tells us that aesthetic education should bend the will to accept suffering and the things in life that can’t be changed. But once admitted, we have to let in all the other oracles of this unknowable will, for example Hegel, who contended that the state is the perfection of the individual will.

To the dominance of German Idealism throughout the nineteenth century add the influence of mass democracy, the perpetually thwarted German nationalism and (for our discussion here) the fact that nature, specifically, the forest as Elias Canetti claims [p174], is the very emblem of all that is germanic, and you begin to understand the force of music on the German character.

And, in consideration of how the "will" came to be identified with this or that oracle – the state, a nation, a race – in short with this or that competitor bent on annihilating the individual will – you understand how the twentieth century could be nothing other than a century of bloodletting.

And, you will understand why I can’t go to a public performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. It is the distilled essence of all the noble aspirations of the nineteenth century that failed in the twentieth: All the proud, clean-limbed youth frozen on some battlefield; the sacrifice of the good to the bad; the triumph of the ugly. Without the images, I hear it all, the waterworks open up, and no matter what I try to prevent it – biting my tongue, imagining Wile E. Coyote’s anvil falling on my foot – I become a very irrigated ass. I begin to fear that, like the rehearsal hall demolished around the heads of the bickering musicians in Fellini’s Prova d’orchestra, none of it will last. And didn’t tubby St. Thomas ride a pagan ass on his trip from Italy to France? Did any of the rustics he passed own themselves? If society had given them half their waking hours to do as they liked, would they have owned themselves? What’s the current evidence for that? A hawk or a handsaw?