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June 2011

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann deserves our attention for a number of reasons and not only for its comments on music. At one point in particular, when the infected inmates of the institution convene for another distraction the discussion between the intoxicated hero and his philosopher-friend Lodovico Settembrini turns to the topic of music. Settembrini is generally adamant that the inmates have lost their plot as fully functional human beings. More importantly they constitute a dangerous political potential. This is a consequence of their moral corruption and their intoxication. Their delusion is evident by their loss of clear perception, clear will and clear thinking. Tightly wrapped in their own subjectivity and dozing in thin air, the essence of humanity is seeping from them. Settembrini, the humanist, is alarmed and attempts to inspire a balanced view in anyone with a practical and pragmatic conscience. He believes, after all, that the essence of humanity does not consist in an instinctive community, in intoxicated belonging or in any acceptance of authority or vision, but in the common presence and promotion of reason. Settembrini is a rationalist because he believes that humans are human on account of a shared faculty of reason and a shared capacity for dialogue.

Music offers an opportunity for some fundamental reflections for Settembrini. His most frequently quoted comment (the conductor Daniel Barenboim refers to it in his latest book) is also his most provocative: “Art is moral in so far as it wakes us. But what if it does the opposite? If it anesthetises, sends us to sleep and opposes activity and progress? This too music can do, it understands the effects of opiates most essentially. A diabolical effect, gentlemen. The opiate is from the devil, because it creates stupor, inertia, inactivity, slavish arrest... there is something suspicious about music, gentlemen. I maintain it is by nature equivocal. I do not exaggerate if I declare it to be politically suspect.” (ZB, 121)

Settembrini’s comment points to the intoxicating effects of music which – on their own and unguarded – may corrupt the human spirit. “Music”, Settembrini affirms earlier in the conversation, “is invaluable as an ultimate medium of enthusiasm, as a power which takes us upwards and forward, if it finds the spirit prepared for its application. But it must have been preceded by literature. Music by itself does not advance the world. Music by itself is dangerous.” (ZB, 120)

Settembrini’s point that music implies a risk and can contribute to moral and political corruption is worth considering carefully. Certainly, there is no shortage of examples where music and musicians have played a dangerous role in corrupting communities and civilisations. But, on the whole, music appears on its own; it remains uncontaminated by moral or political concern and value. Kierkegaard most famously identifies this in the contrast between the ethical and aesthetic attitude where music features as a thoroughly transient art which allows no reference to any enduring context of responsibility. The aesthetic attitude simply lacks a cognitive framework in which it could comprehend any objective dimension of reality adequately. Any ethical attitude (and this includes any political concern as this is based on ethical value) requires a temporal framework of endurance and a complex interplay between reflective and active attitudes.

Notwithstanding these ontological subtleties, Settembrini makes a fundamental point and it seems to be the following: Music on its own is dangerous because it lacks an autonomous interpretative grounding. It is an art of pure, suspended and self-absorbed subjectivity – an art that primarily intoxicates and removes us from reality and coherent conduct. Music on its own is a mere force without any content – a life force in fact and accordingly a force driving principally towards death as the Magic Mountain eloquently illustrates. Accordingly, Settembrini pleads that music “must be preceded by literature”.

The reference to literature seems to be generic here. This is potentially an important point. Literature represents the human activity of creating, interpreting and affirming discursive meaning – critical, conscious and conceptual meaning, perhaps, to be more precise. In the context of the Magic Mountain and under Settembrini’s terms meaning is always critical, conscious and conceptual - the word is seen as the vehicle for critical dialogue. Music, however, is primarily seen to erode such dialogue on account of its intoxicating capacity. At its morally best music is able to enforce and amplify a pre-existing vision of truth. However (this seems to be Settembrini’s point) such a vision of truth must be essentially conceptual. It must underpin any derivative “truth” of music. In fact (and by inference) a perverse vision of reality can be amplified equally powerfully by music and musicians. This is the delusion - and the shame of musicians. Thus, music without a context of conceptual meaning, music without logos remains dangerous because it does not per se further human endeavours of truth seeking.

It is important to acknowledge what this means. In the first instance, it implies that the word, the logos, occupies a privileged position in relation to truth for us and that the abandonment of this privilege may imply an abandonment of civilised conduct. In the second instance it implies that there is no truth seeking limited to music itself. Music is not a realm where truth is disclosed on its own and as such – contrary to the views and wishes of enthusiasts. Music is able to further disclose truth through its dynamism, through its power of taking us “upwards and forwards”, however, such truth must in principle be available to our interpretative horizon in a conceptual grasp. Music (this is the sobering realisation of Settembrini’s conversation) must be dependent. Unless it is dependent it risks becoming morally “suspicious”. The conscious contextualisation of music determines its moral ambiguity.

ZB: Thomas Mann, Der Zauberberg, Frankfurt: Fischer, 1982

Cynics may argue that the relevance of Immanuel Kant, the enlightenment philosopher, has exhausted itself in obsessively regular and domestic habits. Accounts of Kant’s life often emphasize the anecdotal report that the citizens of Koenigsberg in East Prussia used the philosopher’s predictable afternoon walks as an opportunity to confirm the accuracy of their clocks. Thus Kant is perhaps responsible for more than one Copernican revolution- the habits of the philosopher as a verification of time itself.

However, does attention as a result of order and regularity already constitute relevance? The philosopher is in a difficult position here. Attention and relevance are of vastly differing import to him for his contribution is relevant to the presence of contaminating substances in our spiritual drinking water. Invisible or otherwise indiscernible to most they may only come to attention when the many are already infected by disease. We know that when it comes to water quality, absence seems more relevant than presence. Again, why do we need the philosopher? The philosopher insists notoriously on purification –this makes him relevant and required. It also makes his contribution obscure and at times annoying. Frequently, he remains (and Kant is no exception) unnoticeable to the everyday drinker.

What I have particularly in mind here concerns Kant’s famous conception of “disinterestedness”. This is relevant to our understanding of our attitude to art and our appreciation of its beauty. Particularly in music, where imagination can reign unfettered and passions can be whipped into a frenzy, the idea that our attitude needs to be “disinterested” to appreciate its beauty strikes many as peculiar. One reason for this can be a common misunderstanding which should be eliminated from the start: the disinterested listener is not an uninterested or unengaged listener. To be sure, this is a difficult point to appreciate by many but one upon which we must nevertheless insist.

According to Kant we can distinguish three forms of appreciation and judgment: the appreciation of the good (or bad for that matter) articulates a practical interest or at least an interest in a thing or activity as it exists. If we judge something to be good, we relate its purpose to interests – either real or potential. Judgements about goodness are related to a will to see the object of the judgment realised. A similar relationship is established with the agreeable. If we deem something agreeable we take an interest in its reality and we deem such reality pleasurable. Finding something to be agreeable is thus equivalent to expressing a desire for it- notwithstanding the fact that such a desire may in a concrete sense be tempered or even suppressed.

An appreciation of beauty seems entirely different to Kant. Such appreciation is essentially a contemplative affair. It does not express a desire for real existence or indeed for possession nor does it articulate a conceptual understanding of a practical or pragmatic purpose. Appreciation of beauty – which, we assume for the sake of this context underpins much if not most musical listening- is “solely and alone a dis-interested and free appreciation” as “no interest, neither of the senses nor of reason forces us towards approval” (Kant, Critique of Judgement, § 5).

Such an abstract statement conceals a fair amount of relevance. In the first instance, it alerts us to a distinction of forms of appreciation that in many cases become confused and conflated. It is simply difficult to separate what is good from what is agreeable or beautiful. So musicians frequently find judgments about beauty that are actually judgments about pleasure or interest. There are two immediate explanations for such confusion: either the complexity of the phenomenon does not allow a separation of the appreciation or the person attending to the phenomenon is unable to make such a separation. Schopenhauer identified the latter with lofty arrogance: According to him, “the ordinary person, this factory product of nature which the latter produces daily by the thousands is, as I said, unable to engage in an entirely disinterested perception, which is the genuine contemplation, at least not in any sustained form: He can only direct his attention towards the things in so far as they have some – even very indirect – relevance to his desire” (Schopenhauer, WWV, § 36).

Schopenhauer’s haughty view suggests that a pure appreciation of beauty may be rare and unlikely. Needless to say that in circumstances of increasing focus on individual interest and agenda any capacity for the appreciation of beauty is reduced or eliminated. This is not good news for musicians or listeners who find themselves in contexts where interests are polarised. Polarisation tends to produce determination to cling to – and reinforce interests. In such cases, aesthetic judgements are likely to be increasingly mixed, merging judgments of beauty and the agreeable especially. Pure appreciation of beauty will be rare as it would presuppose a sustained capacity for contemplation.

Should this imply that the notion of “disinterest” must be discarded? A follower of Kant must argue against this. Abandoning a commitment to disinterestedness will leave us with an inability to appreciate the difference between technology, entertainment and art. When it comes to music and musicians such confusion will become very messy and in fact debilitating. Music has an emotional impact on us and it does appeal to be agreeable. It stimulates our desire and interest (with Kant) which means that it does not merely delight us (gefällt) but that it in fact even entertains us (vergnügt). In addition its complexities of conception and creation rely on technical abilities which we will admire and wish to promote. However, neither the appreciation of its quality nor its appreciation as agreeable completes an aesthetic and fully artistic appreciation. In order to take music seriously we will need to attend to its beauty. This requires us to suspend interests and any judgments related to it as agreeable. If we manage to elevate ourselves towards such contemplation, exercise our capacity to suspend desire and interests and attend to the phenomenon in question with the clarity of a disinterested attitude we may in fact step closer to an authentic conservation and advancement of music. Suffice to say that such disinterestedness may become passionate in a peculiar way.