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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