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September 2009

Kierkegaard alerts us initially to a connection between music and the demonic. Thomas Mann takes up this lead in his novel Doctor Faustus. Here, none else than the devil himself philosophises about music. This establishes a precarious and provocative context. What is there to say about music from the perspective of evil and falseness?

The chapter in question commences with a report of the hero, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, reading in Kierkegaard’s discussion of Don Giovanni. Evidently, this is a significant starting point. It determines the following: An elaborate and somewhat shady discourse between Leverkühn and the devil. While Leverkühn is recovering from an attack of his illness which is gradually corrupting his mind and spirit, the devil adds to his confusion assuming three guises. He advances arguments as a lewd-bohemian, as an artist and intellectual and through his traditional, anti-theological self. All transformations are associated – easily it seems - with corruption and fraudulence. To be sure, it is not quite clear what status this conversation actually has and the spiritual corruption is not all that easy to unmask. Are the thoughts of evil to be taken consistently seriously? Is a double reflection at work here, a shady play with ambiguity? Is this an attempt to show the ambivalent in a radically ambivalent context? Or should we understand ideas, reflections and thoughts simply at face value?

Kierkegaard’s exposition of Don Giovanni in Either/Or identifies music as essentially demonic, as a “Christian art or, more correctly, as the art Christianity posits in excluding it from itself, as the medium for that which Christianity excludes from itself and thereby posits. In other words, music is the demonic”. (Either/ Or, 65) This indicates why Mann uses this reference to the “Christian who was infatuated by aesthetics” in this discourse. Qualifying music as the demonic is a peculiar thought. It appears on first impression objectionable. Is music not a medium of purification leading us towards transcendence? Does music not direct us towards metaphysics, towards the divine, towards Christianity? Is it a contradiction to refer to music as a Christian art and equally to refer to it as demonic?

The view that music leads towards transcendence may not deny its demonic, entirely this-worldly essence. For Kierkegaard music is a “Christian art” in a negative sense. It leads us to the divine by its very nature of establishing a contradiction to it. This puts music into an analogical relationship to evil which is predicated by the existence of good through expulsion. Such analogical form of reasoning also serves to establish the existence of the devil: God or the divine imply the existence of the devil and the demonic as their contradicting principle. Without the demonic the divine seems devoid of a fullness of meaning.

The merits of such a derivation aside, the conversation in Doctor Faustus corrupts the Christian starting point and extends further the complexities of the relationship between music and the metaphysical. This is an extensive argument, an argument that relies on analogy, on transposition and on metaphor. It is in itself an “artistic” argument, proving the corrupting possibilities of ambiguity which are said to inhere also in music and art. Leverkühn's fate shows that ambiguity is responsible for the conception of music as demonic. But how does this come about?

In the first instance, the argument and music itself are separated from reason, from logos. Music is seen to reject the word as the primary disclosure of truth. The Christian view that in the beginning there was the word is replaced by the affirmation that in the beginning there is sound, inspired, intoxicated, transient and essentially unformed sound. This makes it easy for the demonic to actively claim music. Inspiration and enthusiasm are interpreted as intoxication and passion. In an inverted reasoning the devil explains why we can identify music as a “highly theological concern… like sin... The passion of the Christian for music is a true passion, which is precisely cognition and falseness in one. True passion” – he concludes- “only exists in ambiguity and as irony. The highest passion is directed to the absolutely suspect…” A unilateral transformation of ambivalence towards pathos supports any fall of music to the demonic.

In Leverkühn's discourse, the devil is keen to seize this possibility of transformation. He claims for himself to be “the true master of enthusiasm” notwithstanding the original meaning of the word which refers to man in the state of enthusiasm as “possessed by the God”. (en-theos). The possession of enthusiasm is itself a formal possibility only. It requires a substantial qualification according to that which possesses us in the moment of enthusiasm. In Leverkühn's case music becomes rooted in illness, in suffering and in pathos. Initially, music and art are nurtured and propelled by ambivalent forces. They are formed through a yearning for transcendence. Such a yearning is essentially erotic. In Leverkühn's fate music establishes a dependency on illness when the originally ambivalent erotic drive is corrupted. It is also this ambivalence of the erotic that enables the transformation of illness into an essential attribute of life. Abstract reasoning suggests that illness is relevant to life in its contradiction. The startling and ultimately unsustainable real conclusion for Leverkühn is that illness nourishes his life and transposes it into a higher realm. “Illness, and especially suspect, discrete, secret illness creates a certain critical contrast to the world, to the average form of life, makes us resistant and ironical to bourgeois order and allows her man to find shelter in the free spirit, with books and with thoughts.” Illness is presumed to become an inspiration for art- in fact it transposes ordinary, “healthy” inspiration into the realm of the extraordinary. Illness nurtures music towards exceptional artistic achievement. With characteristic lewdness and corruption, a corruption that is nourished by metaphorical modes of persuasion rather than by reference to reason the devil's discourse with Leverkühn exaggerates the abstract argument that illness is a part of life to imply that illness is in reality a ground, a foundation of life. Such a view does not only corrupt the thinking but it in fact corrupts life itself. A confusion of the ideal and real, a confusion driven by metaphor, claims real life for the devil.

It is evident that such ambivalences place music and the musician in a peculiar, though characteristic position. Music is a realm of possibility. Musicians are creators of aesthetic life. This also implies their potential engagement with music as a medium of decay. The conversation in Doctor Faustus formulates a terrifying consequence, a provocation and possible prospect: "The artist is the brother of the criminal, of the insane. Do you think that there was ever an entertaining work created without its creator being familiar with the existence of the criminal or the cretin? What, ill and healthy! Without illness life has not managed its entire life......" Confusing the distinction between illness and health, intoxication and inspiration has disturbing consequences. While the living force at work in either phenomenon may be congruent its substantial definition and interpretation transforms musical and artistic reality entirely. Leverkühn's condition which is determined by a falleness to pathos constitutes ultimately an inversion of the human condition. It replaces a yearning for humanity with a lust for the demonic.

Tyrannical attitudes and titanic aspirations are not uncommon among musicians. Naïve patrons might believe that such characteristics necessarily accompany a strong, creative personality. Further still, some believe that these are only downsides of focused energy and creative determination and should in fact be nourished especially among public performers. A musician, so that view goes, who seeks to be successful must form single-minded desires, must crave spectacular fame and must pursue recognition relentlessly. She must nurture her powerful passions with extreme aesthetic or subjective convictions in the interest of music, in the pursuit of musical exposure and even regardless of the impact on others.

It is striking to note that Plato seems to suggest that a ruthless and extreme character of this kind may not even be a true musician. Book IX of the Republic contains a lengthy discussion about the nature and evolution of the tyrannical disposition. This discussion between Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus concludes with the suggestion by Socrates that the wise man “will always be found attuning the harmonies in his body for the sake of the concord in his soul.” Glaucon agrees with this conclusion. “By all means”, he replies, “if he is to be a true musician.” (Jowett translates: “If true music is found in him...”)

What is the feature of a tyrannical disposition? How does it come about? According to Plato everyone is potentially subject to a “terrible, fierce and lawless brood of desires”. The question is whether we allow these to determine our character and to form our existence and our habits without reflection or restraint. Plato suggests that a lack of proper education allows tyrannical habits to form. Absence of rigorous formation leads to unbalanced personal characteristics, pathological states of desires and amplified ruling passions. The tyrannical person develops because she is unable to resist the “indwelling tyrant Eros” and forms corresponding tyrannical habits and patterns of behaviour.

In circumstances of a pervasive liberal or democratic education – so Plato- a tyrannical disposition may in fact overwhelm and corrupt selected possibilities of the individual. This corruption progresses in a parasitic way: Unrestrained instincts capture desires which are found initially in a balanced context. These are converted into self-serving, self-sufficient subjective values and narcissistic aims. The tyrannical disposition operates entirely in the realm of appearance: assuming a “pomp and circumstance” it dissolves a functional harmony by amplifying single voices from a concordance of psychic forces. It suppresses the sound of legitimate desires. It denies without shame and without conscience any requirements for rational attunement or justification. In its relations with others, it seeks to establish power by forming associations of advantage and corruption and by nourishing its position through flattery and fear.

Plato’s understanding of the soul is relevant here. According to Republic IX the soul is driven by three “appetites and controls”: love of learning or wisdom, love of honour or victory and love of gain or money. The meaning and the validity of some of these values, however, is derivative. Honour and gain must be validated by reason. Rooted in appearance, the objects they seek are not necessarily able to fill the soul with meaningful or even pleasurable content. Such content can only be established if the will to power is committed to learning, understanding and wisdom. Without this grounding, the desires for honour and gain become tyrannical and the person becomes essentially unhappy, her soul devoid of meaningful pleasure.

How does this relate to the true musician? The brief comment in the Republic makes the suggestion that the true musician is in fact the person who is able to harmonise and attune the forces of her soul and character. This attunement takes place in relation to the love of learning or wisdom. In this sense the musician achieves the same as the philosopher: he listens to logos. That point seems to be further elaborated in the dialogue Laches where Plato defines as musical a person of particular disposition: “I take the speaker and his speech together, and observe how they sort and harmonize with each other. Such a man is exactly what I understand by ‘musical’- he has tuned himself with the fairest harmony, not that of a lyre or other entertaining instrument, but has made a true concord of his own life between his words and his deeds, not in the Ionian, no, nor in the Phrygian nor in the Lydian, but simply in the Dorian mode, which is the sole Hellenic harmony. Such a man makes me rejoice with his utterance, and anyone would judge me then a lover of a discussion, so eagerly do I take in what he says” (Laches, 188d).

According to this understanding what we say and what we do, the word and the deed are not automatically or accidentally aligned. They require an active will to harmony. Such a will must seek the guidance of reason. It accepts the priority of thinking and reflection in a search for understanding. This still implies an intuitive step in which we listen to- and hear the voice of reason. Such an attention allows the true musician to breach the abyss that naturally separates our reflections from our actions. He can do so with ease and confidence and on the basis of a will to harmony of action and reflection within his soul. If, however, this will and the love of learning are overwhelmed by a will to power, by amplified desires for gain and victory, the musician ceases to be true to himself. She turns into a tyrannical person finding herself constantly in the realm of action and at odds with human essence. The symptoms of such fundamental dissonance are an incessant flight and a pervasive fear. Plato’s point thus seems to be that amplifying a will to power in tyranny silences music while denying a will to harmony in ignorance corrupts the musician.