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Thomas Mann on Music

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

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.