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Sounding Desire - An Evening of Music and Philosophy

Critchley & Simmons, Sydney Opera House

Begin with 'A Stroll (along the River Lea)' with visuals as people take their seats and settle down. Music fades, stage to black, silence. Then stage lit with a single spot. SC comes on stage, finds the spot and speaks:

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am Simon Critchley. Somewhere in the darkness lurks John Simmons. Together, we are Critchley & Simmons, not a firm of solicitors, but a gorgeous, throbbing, living experiment in words, sounds and images.

Music matters. It matters immensely. For some people it matters more than anything else. Yet, the why and the how of its mattering remains an enigma for us, a dark riddle. Why does music matter? Why does it speak to us so powerfully? This is where a little philosophy might help. The task of this evening's entertainment is to peer philosophically into the enigma of music, to read its riddle not in order to solve it once and for all, but to shed a little light in the darkness.

And when it comes to the philosophy of music where else should one first turn but to the sage counsel of Albert Freiherr von Thimus, 1806-1878, author of the compendious Die harmonikale Symbolik des Alterthums (The Harmonic Symbolism of the Ancient World). He was an intriguing fellow, a lawyer, a judge and a Prussian politician, an obsessionally dedicated amateur whose work on music is distinguished by the fact that it was totally ignored in his lifetime. He was a personal friend of Baron Teufelsdröckh of Weissnichtwo, hero of Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus. Albert Freiherr von Thimus thought music, the music of antiquity, looked like this,

What von Thimus is dressing-up in rather tight-fitting 19th Century britches is the ancient Pythagorean theory of music, the so-called 'harmony of the spheres'. This is an ancient, unwritten, esoteric and highly influential tradition that begins in the mists of antiquity but whose first textual support is a passage from Plato's Timeaus on the creation of the world soul written about 2,500 years ago. The Timaeus was the only of Plato's texts to be available throughout antiquity and the mediaeval period. Sadly, the passage in question is almost completely unintelligible. Here's a taste,

'From an essence impartible, and always subsisting according to sameness of being, and from a nature divisible about bodies, he (the Demiurge) mingled from both a third form of essence, having a middle subsistence between the two. And again, between that which is impartible and that which is divisible about bodies, he placed the nature of same and different.'

You see what I mean. Yet, the basic idea behind the music of the spheres is that the heavenly bodies made sounds as they moved through space. The ancient Greeks knew of nine spheres: the Sun and Moon, the planets that we know as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the Starry Sphere of the fixed stars in the sky and the Crystalline Sphere which controlled the procession of the equinoxes. On the Ptolemaic, earth-centred view of the universe, these spheres moved around the earth in a stately and unvarying procession. It is believed that Pythagoras believed (we don't know for sure; in fact, we don't really have a clue as no writings of Pythagoras have survived) that the Spheres, in common with all other objects which move, must vibrate and that these vibrations must produce sound. The different spheres, being of different size and moving in a different way from the others, produce accordingly different sounds. Saturn, being in antiquity the furthest planet from earth would provide the bass note moving up through to the treble of the Moon. However, as for the Pythagoreans all nature was a harmonious whole, the sounds emitted by the various spheres must also be harmonious, a kind of glorious universal chord as the universe rotated eternally through space. It might have sounded something like this...

On this view, music, human music - plucked or strummed with human fingers - provided it was composed and played according to proper rules, was a reflection of the mathematical harmony and perfection of the universe. More than that, insofar as musical harmony was in tune with the harmony of the universe, music made possible a communion with the creator of the universe, God himself, herself or no self. Music is the key by which we might enter the mind of God. Borrowing the diagrams of the 16th Century Swiss humanist, Heinrich Glarean, the musical universe would have looked like this...

Here, the nine spheres of the universe correspond to the nine muses. Of course, the word 'music' derives from the Greek mousike, that art over which the muses presided which was one of the three pillars of Athenian education where young citizens were taught to sing poetry to the musical accompaniment of the lyre, which is where we get the idea of lyric poetry..

The key concept in the music of the spheres is harmony: the universe is harmonious for it is the work of God and musical harmony is the human key to the divine harmony. Far from having all the best tunes, the devil abhors harmony. In the words on St. Thomas of Villanova (1486-1555), "Music puts the devil to flight...and he whom no force can overcome is overcome by harmony".

This Pythagorean tradition twists and wends its way through history like a subway line, repeatedly appearing briefly over the surface before slipping out of view. The Pythagorean belief in the mystical and cosmic significance of music is the core of a Hermetic tradition that spans antiquity, the mediaeval and renaissance worlds and extends into modernity in wonderful figures like Charles Fourier (1772-1837), about whom I would like to say a few words as he is so bizarrely interesting. Fourier was enormously influential in radical socialist politics before 1848, arguing that if human beings truly liberated their passions, then they would live in a state that he called - surprise, surprise - Harmony.

But what I love about Fourier is that he had some utterly mad ideas. He believed that, after the liberation of the passions, the human lifespan would be extended to 144 years, that the oceans would be transformed from brine to lemonade, the poles would be warmed and become fertile, that lion and sharks would be transformed into anti-lions and anti-sharks, providing fast and friendly forms of terrestrial and maritime human transport, that human beings in Harmony would live not in monasteries but what he called phalansteries, which would be sort of 19th century luxury hotel complexes devoted to the free exploration of the passions and where clothes wouldn't be necessary because the earth would be orbited by huge mirrors reflecting and maintaining the sun's warmth in winter.

Turning to music, Fourier believed that the human being was what he called a 'passional keyboard' with 32 keys. The 32 keys of the human keyboard were in harmony with the planetary keyboard, which was also made up of 32 tones which correspond to the - wait for it - 32 planets. That's right, there are 32 planets, because what we think of as satellites and asteroids where originally living moons in the solar system. Just do the math and you'll see that Fourier is right. In Harmony, the earth would regain its five moons, that's right five moons, each of which - and I love this - produces its own variety of gooseberry here on earth.

On the subject of gooseberries and universal harmony, here is our attempt to say something about how the book of nature might be read with music, a watery book, a book of water. Remember, as Robert Walser writes in his peculiarly haunting 1932 piece 'Boat Trip', 'On fish one finds no arms. Is this why they have such huge eyes and expressive mouths?' Wise words. Let's ponder them as we watch 'The Book of Water'.

This is all very nice, but is the meaning of music the reflection of the celestial universal harmony, an echo of the mind of God himself? Is that what music means? Is that why it moves us? Of course, we cannot say for sure, but sadly I do not think so, much as I would love to live with cosmic gooseberries, lemonade seas and anti-lions in the land of Harmony. If the ancient earth-centred or geocentric view of the universe was premised upon harmony, then the infinite and open universe that has been our companion since the time of Copernicus and Galileo makes us feel, in Pascal's words, dread, it makes us feel anxious and diminished. The universe is not there for us, it is just there and instead of the music of the spheres, all that we hear is the chaotic white noise of radio signals from which we feebly try to ascribe something that we can identify as alien intelligence. If antiquity is harmonious, then modernity is discordant, at times indeed cacophonous.

Yet, the idea of the music of the spheres is not just some piece of embarrassing metaphysical jet-trash as it does respond to a deep human need: that music is not just arbitrary, accidental, local and culturally specific pluckings, strummings and twangings, but gives voice to something greater than us. That is, we feel that music should give us some attunement with the way the world is, into the things themselves and not just our ideas about those things. The music of the spheres gives voice to the idea that what takes place in music has a meaningful connection with the way things are in their essence and is not an ultimately contingent cultural accident. One wants to feel that Beethoven Pastoral Symphony says something about nature, that Holst's Planet Suite says something about the planets or that Schubert's Trout Quintet says something about, well, trout.

The modern philosopher for whom, arguably, music mattered most and who tried to hang on to its cosmic meaning whilst acknowledging that the cosmos is our cosmos, the reflection of the human will, was Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). For Schopenhauer, and this view exerted a massive influence, in particular over Richard Wagner's late work, music is the highest of the arts. It deals with the thing itself whereas the other arts trade in shadows. At times, Schopenhauer gets very close to a form of Pythagoreanism with his belief that the four parts of music - the bass, tenor, alto and soprano - correspond to the four kingdoms of nature: the mineral, the vegetable, the animal and the human. Amongst these four parts exists, of course, harmony. Yet, there is a crucial difference with the music of the spheres or indeed with our friend Freiherr Albert von Thimus: music is no longer the copy of the mind of God, but is rather the copy of the Will. Music ceases to have objective meaning and takes on a meaning only through our subjectivity. In a sense, Schopenhauer wants it both ways: he wants to hang on to the cosmic meaning of music while acknowledging that music is entirely the expression of the Will.

What has changed here is that, for Schopenhauer, we are the cosmos and music is the reflection of ourselves back to ourselves. The Will is the broad substratum and vast reservoir of our mental life, resembling what Freud will call a few generations later with a nod back to Schopenhauer, 'the unconscious' or 'the Id'. Not only that, for Schopenhauer, the world itself is understood as the expression of the Will, what he calls Vorstelling, representation. That is, music is a copy of both the Will and of the world itself as it is in itself. It's a cute philosophical trick. But the basic shift here is that music is not longer a copy of the mind of God, but a copy of the Will, of ourselves to ourselves.

With the utter viciousness of the disillusioned former disciple, being a disciple of both Schopenhauer and Wagner, this is the position on music that Friedrich Nietzsche tears to pieces and flushes down the philosophical toilet in his mature work. In Nietzsche's first book, whose full title is The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, he heavily borrowed from Schopenhauer's views to argue that a rebirth of the musical spirit of ancient Greek tragedy is possible through the music of Wagner. Not too many years later, he came to find such a position quite laughable, he described Schopenhauer's work as an Artisten-Metaphysik, an artist's metaphysics, and engaged in the most vicious critiques of Wagner, arguing that the Latin exuberance and life-affirmation of Bizet's Carmen was infinitely preferable to the pompous Christian heavy metal of late Wagner. It is perhaps no accident that Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water' and Wagner's Ring Cycle were both composed in Switzerland.

Let's talk about sex. In my view, what we call 'consciousness', that strange awareness taking place between our ears, is the effect, the aftershock, the deferred resonance of unconscious desire. This desire is fundamentally sexual, and it is coded culturally as what we call gender and the gender differences between boy, girl, queer, boy-queer or girl-queer, faggot, boy-faggot or girl-faggot, grrrl, pomo-grrrl, sex change pre-op or post-op and a whole plethora of intersexes. This desire is undoubtedly and massively social and constructed, but it keeps bumping its head against something that resists the social, something obscure that we might call the real or the natural or the wild or the savage or the biological or whatever. It is this obscure limit between the social and a real that seems to resist it that Sigmund Freud names with what he calls his 'limit-concept' of the drive, often poorly translated as 'instinct'. Desire is experienced as the effect of a drive in consciousness.

Yet, and this is Freud's wildest and most compelling speculation, what that drive is aiming at is death, understood as a complete reduction to nil of the energy in the organism. On this view, paradoxically, the aim of desire is its extinction: cessation, stasis, rest. This is what Freud calls 'the nirvana principle'. Even more paradoxically, it is just this extinction of desire that we cannot will. We are endlessly caught in the movement of our desire like a fish in a net of its own making (not that fish can make nets, because they don't have any hands though they do have very expressive eyes and mouths, as I noted earlier)

Now, I think that music best traces the obscure limit between our conscious lives and the workings of unconscious desire. Music traces that limit and allows us to transgress it, just for a moment, an epiphany, a moment of grace, in the sheer elongation of an instant. From time to time, here and there, in depressed boredom and in manic joy, we listen to music and turn ourselves around to face that which flickers and burns at the heart of unconscious desire. Music sounds what burns in desire.

Music permits us to glimpse the springs of desire in a moment and movement of excess that we saw Nietzsche call the Dionysian. But direct contact with the Dionysian springs of desire would destroy us, suffocate us and consciousness would evaporate like a puddle of water in the midday desert sun. The Dionysian is deathly, and so many of the intoxicating ritual acts that we think of as sacred hover in this zone between life and death, between the here-above and the realm of the dead, the ancestors or the spirit realm. Think of the Christian meditation on the passion and the ecstasy of suffering that leads to death, think of the Hindu Sadhus covered in ash and living in cemeteries. Music both opens consciousness to the movement of unconscious desire and saves us from direct contact with the flames of that desire. Music warms us, it heats us with its intensity, but it should not scold us. It gives us intimations of our mortality, joyful intimations.

To come to the title of this evening's entertainment, this is what is suggested by the notion of the sounding of desire. This means both that music is the sound of desire and that desire is sounded in music, like a ship sounding the sea for submarines, like the vibration of a guitar's sound-box after the chord has faded. Music sounds the depth of desire.

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