(Nearly the entirety of the past two months has found me on the road, and though the present text was begun already in Amsterdam, because I had no chance to complete it before leaving, it accompanied me there, developing during any hours I could snatch from my schedule while never consenting to be finished, and although the fugitive circumstances of its composition have provoked from me an at times over-insistent tone in response, as though only thus could the whole be held together, it’d be remiss of me not to state clearly that everything in the lengthy essay which follows has been set on paper in a tentative mood. Thus my one request to the readers who follow these winding trails, is to know that they would have crossed one another at quite other spots, had the course of my travels been any different than it was. Whatever the musical and intellectual adventures this text may be found to contain – it does I think run numerous risks on both counts – as its arguments are unwound I hope readers won’t forget it’s all been mapped out quite adventitiously, nor that the winds which blow here frequently collide.)
Several months ago, featured here were a few compositions by someone in Nagasaki active musically under the moniker KuuMA (or, written in Japanese, for those who know that language and for the search engines: 空マ), selected from a set on Soundcloud that constituted in effect a debut LP, one which was both delightful and instructive to listen to, not least on account of its promise of a significant career in music to come. At the time little biographical information could be found concerning their creator, other than that the pieces were the work of a figure who moved in the circle of the New York composer Adam Cuthbért and whom it seemed the latter had befriended during his time in Japan; but, given the obvious quality of the work, to me there seemed no warrant to pry further, and so, on the assumption that it had its reasons which others were meant to know nothing of, I remained content to leave the enigma be.
However, I cannot say it unduly surprised me when, some months later, Cuthbért revealed that he and KuuMA were in fact one and the same. While the bodies of music issued under their respective names diverged considerably each from the other, the first orienting itself largely in accord with the possibilities of live performance and the second often exploring realms of sound beyond notation, in listening again to various pieces side by side it was not difficult to hear just how complementary they were. But complementary often amounts merely to a vague compliment – so: how, or in what ways, did they complement each other? – this was the question posed most immediately by the disclosure of the identity behind them. Well, without at present wanting quite to claim that they, or more precisely, the two musics along with the experience of listening by turns to both of them, made up the parts of some one whole, no, nor that they somehow held one another in a balance of musical modes, it did strike me that between themselves they established a rapport by means of which each could call attention to some of the other’s characteristics and thus amplify them in the ears of those who might be listening attentively to both: this was a result to achieve which, upon further reflection, I tended more and more to take as having been the very point that had guided this deployment of well-paired personæ.
At issue was not simply a single persona, therefore, an artistic alter ego invented simply as a foil for the composer’s own proper personality. Rather, there were now two of them, for along the way, Cuthbért’s own personal identity, or rather, that portion of it involved in his musical life, had in effect become another, a second persona counterposed to the KuuMA one, each of them augmenting the other reciprocally and itself as well, by virtue of this distinct relationship into which they thus were placed.
Especially once all or much of these musics was collated on Cuthbért’s Soundcloud page, their juxtaposition was startling in itself, and as such I found it to provoke some thought. At first the leading idea behind his experiment upon himself (for that is what it appeared to be) seemed to me to see how far, in the sphere of expression – but not self-expression – that is delimited by the work of musical composition, the self is able to become an other, somewhat as per the train of thought crystallized in Rimbaud’s aphorism (in the letter of May 13, 1871 to Georges Izambard), “Je est un autre,” whereby, depending on which persona the composer had donned for the purpose, the music in question would as it were compose itself through him and his activity, the latter serving as a kind of medium or vehicle thereof. Soon, however, this avenue of interpretation, though in itself usually tempting to pursue, in this case no longer pointed in a direction which I thought especially fruitful to venture down.
Rather, it occurred to me that the adjacency in one space (virtual though it was) of the two bodies of music, might be taken literally or as providing a clue: thus they were being grouped together, arranged or positioned as something akin to the different singers or speakers that are comprised in a chorus and which complement one another in a quite specific activity, yet without in so doing constituting a whole (for a chorus operates most often as but one part of something else).
Although the term is tending to fall into disuse, the members of a musical chorus, when being identified individually, for instance on a printed concert program, are designated as “personæ musicæ,” evidently on the analogy of the lists of dramatis personæ one knows from the stage. Yet the usage of the concept of persona differs in the two instances: whereas the actors in today’s dramas generally represent persons more or less in the usual sense, the singers in a chorus become for the duration of the performance something akin to the personæ of the Roman theatre of antiquity, namely, the mask-like devices whereby the sound of those players’ voices was amplified and projected towards the public in the amphitheatre, so that, in the better-known case of a chorus singing in concert, the song’s meaning would resound through the interpreters themselves and be transmitted to their audience (assuming of course that the latter would have the ears attuned to receive it). Probably therefore it is these old devices, more than the relatively recent convenience of the literary dramatis personæ, which are actually referred to whenever choral singers are called the personæ musicæ.
For my part, the recollection of these original stage-instruments is what has led me to utilize the term à propos both KuuMA and, more surprisingly perhaps, Cuthbért himself; here, by means of each of the personæ, a different kind of music is rendered more audible and conveyed further than would otherwise have been possible, without the one interfering with the other or actively getting in the way of its effects, and vice versa: both bodies of music tend to harmonize mutually, for, precisely because they were launched as personæ musicæ, they can go together well while remaining distinct from one another.
At the same time, the theatrico-choral multiplication of Cuthbért’s own personæ seemed like a fitting occasion to reflect upon the persona as such and upon the significance of its uses in musical life – all the more so, as it began to look to me as though the inquiry might contribute not a little to a better understanding of what his musics themselves, and not simply the dramaturgy of their respective mises en scène, are about, thus supplementing what I’ve previously written on the topic, if not even in some respects perhaps supplanting the results of my earlier efforts.
In what follows, this inquiry is broached, though the further I’ve pursued it, the clearer it’s become to me that at most I could barely hope to scratch the surface of this subject, especially as it’s led me to touch inter alia on some ethnological matters, which of themselves tend to be difficult to handle summarily, given how many layers of experience have been stratified in them. Still, it will be enough, it seems to me, to have bored at least the beginnings of a hole or two down through them, for the purposes of a sonic exploration, especially if in doing so the essay manages not to bore the reader, nor to lose sight of the bodies of music which occasioned it and to turn its attention back to them towards the end.
There is one older study in the field of comparative anthropology which I have found to be a helpful guide through the practices – they are, at first sight, obviously archaic and primitive – from out of which devices such as the persona of the Roman theatre or its counterpart in the Greek-speaking cities the πρόσωπον, were later to emerge. Although the specialists amongst today’s ethnologists no doubt hold the remarks in this older work concerning various peoples and their practices, to have been superseded by more recent research – the text in question is already more than a century old – here what interests me are the anthropologist’s comparative generalizations, and these do seem to have held up rather well: the points he draws forth from his materials continue to sound plausible. In what follows I shall be drawing liberally but also quite selectively on them.
The article I have found to be illuminating, was published in installments in the scientific weekly Globus in 1904 and 1905; authored by the anthropologist Konrad Theodor Preuß, the text was entitled “Der Ursprung der Religion und Kunst” and it does indeed offer an account of the origin, or, a more accurate word, the first wellspring of both religion and art – a task which Preuß, a noted specialist in the pre-Columbian civilizations, with long stretches of fieldwork in Mexico and Columbia to his credit, and later on in Berlin the director of the North and Central American department of the Museum für Völkerkunde (now the Ethnologisches Museum) with its remarkable Mexican collections, and also conversant more widely with a broad range of ethnographic literature, could carry out persuasively thanks to the varied source-material at his disposal.
What Preuß proposed was that nearly everything in human society, from the most institutional to the most intimate, could be traced back to an original confrontation between, on the one side, the powers which early human beings observed active and inimical everywhere around them in nature, and, on the other, those whose energies they felt coursing within themselves: at this stage, prior to the emergence of the animistic systems of belief according to which those powers were understood as souls, they were conceived simply as forces. Indeed, this conception will nearly inevitably strike us as exceedingly strange if only by reason of its very simplicity; thus some brief remarks about the character of both sorts of force, those without and those within the human being, may help to illuminate them a bit further.
Regarding the inimical nature which these early human beings discerned all around themselves, to their minds it was a realm pervaded by forces which enabled the various realities of greatest concern, that is, such things as rain, wind, fire, plant and animal life, etc., etc., to move and be efficacious, generally adverse forces which they believed themselves able to counteract by fashioning an imitation of some aspect thereof, in order to appropriate (as though the force in question were akin to an alimentary substance) something of their strength to themselves – for instance by employing devices of a visual or pictorial character or by utilizing procedures that were kinetic or sonic in kind. By means of such imitative artifacts or acts they thought to render themselves more capable vis-à-vis those hostile powers, though without imagining that anything would be subtracted from the latter in any absolute sense, as though they were each fixed quanta.
The human inclination to imitate these external forces as perceived under particular aspects – for instance, the sound of the rain, wind, or fire, the look of animals or plants – played and even now continues to play a main role in the biological history of the human species, averred Preuß. Whereas, as he summarized his overarching idea (Globus, vol. LXXXVII, no. 24 (June 29, 1905), p. 419), an animal is “durch seinen Instinkt davor bewahrt, Dinge in seinen Gesichtskreis zu ziehen, die nicht unmittelbar für die Erhaltung der Gattung in Betracht kommen,” in the case of the human being, “die Hauptsache, die ihn in geistiger Beziehung vom Tier unterscheidet, ist die über den Instinkt hinausgehende Fürsorge für die Gattung.” Once this point in the evolution of our species had been reached, that is to say, “sobald der Instinkt aufhörte, allein das Lebewesen, den werdenden Mensch zu leiten, mußte er eine unendliche Kette von Irrtümern begehen, die ihn nur deshalb nicht im Daseinskampfe vernichteten, weil das Wesentliche, der Instinkt und die Nachahmung des Bestehenden, blieb.” The imitation of what already existed, which by its prior persistence had demonstrated to some degree its own fitness to survive – this, for human beings throughout these early chapters of their history, was what supplemented instinct (which, to be sure, the evolution of the species could not possibly have extinguished) and afforded them, in the struggle for existence, at least some rough dual indication both of what they could and of what they could not permit themselves to do with impunity. This inclination to imitate which the early human beings took to unprecedented heights, therefore, was closely connected to an incipient assessment of risk and the effort to triumph over it as far as they were able, for they had to distinguish what was safe to imitate from what was not, and thus the dangers they sought to avoid were encountered again, this time within imitation itself. In this connection, the Nietzschean cadence in which the anthropologist’s remarks were phrased, should probably be taken as being a clue to what Preuß was thinking of: imitation or rather the mimetic inclination was itself also twofold and therefore risky to enter into, for although the imitation of what already existed could conduce to their own preservation or that of the species, any imitation of other things – those which did not yet actually exist or which did exist but only in some other mode – might very well prove to be one of the “mistakes” or even, for the individual offender, the very last of the links in that “unendliche Kette von Irrtümern.”
Accordingly, when they donned an imitative mask or executed a mimetic dance, those early human beings were actively restraining themselves from any act of imitation of the second kind. They had good reasons for believing that an inadvertent blunder on their part would stand in need of something like an expiation – or at least one could explain this belief by reference to the realism which undergirded their aim of augmenting their own force by appropriating something else’s for themselves by means of a likeness thereof. Yes, realism, for in effect, whether or not they put all this into words, they themselves were aware of the possibility that they would get carried away by these associations of ideas and then find themselves in the dangerous condition of imitating mere irrealities, to their own detriment, leaving themselves open and exposed to the inimical action of the forces they discerned all around them: so when they adopted strict countermeasures against such an eventuality (and also took steps to turn it to account whenever it did happen to occur), they showed themselves to be cool-headed realists. Thus, to level the epithet of magical thinking at the manner in which they conceived of the powers at work in their surroundings, in the sense in which the term is commonly intended, would be quite besides the point.
Yet in a different usage of the term – here one ought to consult the etymology of the word “magic” itself – their mode of thought can indeed be called magical, where the term is understood as meaning something like efficacious or powerful. The idea guiding the use of imitative practices or devices was to increase the force either of the persons who employed them or of the performances in which they were employed or both at once, and it is in this sense only that Preuß wrote frequently of Zauber, Zauberkraft, Zauberquelle, Zauberwirkung, or the like in his essay: nor evidently had he in mind the ideas of trickery and deception which today one often associates with the concept of magic.
The mask and its uses during these early stages of human history, afford an illustration of all this. (Masks and their significance, of course, are of great interest to me here, given the starting-point of this essay, namely, the persona and its predecessors.) According to Preuß (Globus, vol. LXXXVI, no. 24 (December 22, 1904), p. 389), “alle maskenartigen Verhüllungen sind ursprünglich durchaus nicht als Unterscheidungsmerkmal für den Zuschauer bestimmt, sondern dienen nur dazu, die Zauberwirkung vollkommener zu machen” – in other words, originally the masks were not meant as devices by which the performers themselves might be recognized and as such distinguished from the roles they were playing. No, quite the opposite, as I suggested before: the aim in using them to begin with, in these pre-theatrical ceremonies, was to heighten the force of the performers or to increase the efficacy of the performance or both, and precisely the same goal was the objective of “die rigorosen Bestimmungen für die Exaktheit des Tanzes, die barbarischen Strafen, wenn jemand aus der Rolle fällt, unter der Maske erkannt wird u. dgl. m.” Thus the imitation was intended to instill in themselves something of the power of whatever it was they were imitating: in no case was either the theatrical illusion in general, or the deception of an audience in particular, what the participants were after. And as for the purpose of those corrective chastisements (whose significance is a matter to be touched on shortly), Preuß made it quite clear that it too was unrelated to trickery of any kind. “Daß solchen Bestimmungen lediglich aus der halbbetrügerischen Absicht der Veranstalter stammen, die Zuschauer und Weiber zu täuschen,” he insisted, “halte ich für ausgeschlossen, obwohl viele Berichterstatter” – who it seems had fallen victim to their own preconceptions concerning the purpose of what they had witnessed – “dieses mehr oder weniger andeuten.”
Deception, as a tactic to be utilized against an enemy or a possibly ill-disposed power, represents a refinement devised later, presumably quite some span of time after the use of the mask had first been established. That the two things are so readily associated together, however, should help to delineate the conditions in which human beings lived during these early stages of history. Hostility was everywhere to be found there, and many were the perils they faced – their surroundings these early human beings construed as a realm of inimical forces, amongst which not the least were those possessed by other groups of people or even other individuals. Their basic conundrum, therefore, to which the invention of the mask as an imitative device represented one amongst a variety of practical solutions, was how they were to augment their own force with that of something else, without themselves being affected adversely by its great potency.
Or, to approach the question from a slightly differently angle, given that force for them was always a means to the accomplishment of something, and not a power that could endure as a stable quantity, enclosed or self-contained as it were within its own steady potentiality: how were they to let the force within themselves out, as needed, without letting any other hostile force in? Thus the portals of the human body were a constant preoccupation of their thought. This topic Preuß’ study explored at length, and if the ethnographic reports are consulted, then, as he put the matter (Globus, vol. LXXXVII, no. 24 (June 29, 1905), p. 416), “so entdeckt man unschwer an allen Körperöffnungen mannigfache Einrichtungen teils zum Schutze dieser wichtigen Eingangspforten des Leibes, damit kein Zauber eindringe, teils zur Erhöhung des herausströmenden Zaubers.” To be sure, all this source-material is fascinating and in part curious, but here I do not intend to pursue it in general, as I am interested mainly in the most musical of these “gates,” the human mouth – and it’s in relation to the latter, in line with Preuß’ remarks, that another of the mask’s first functions comes to the fore: it provided some modicum of security that while the force inherent in the body was being emitted in the form of breath, sound, chant, or speech, other forces would not impinge upon the human being from without, through the aperture of the very same organ. Accordingly, although Preuß himself does not seem to have touched on this aspect of it, one may infer that originally the mask also functioned as a kind of shield. Moreover, perhaps both of these aspects were interconnected in actu, in the sense that the protection the mask seemed to afford, in guarding the opening of the mouth, rather than dampen or mute the vocal sounds made by the person who had donned it, instead helped to focus them and enabled them to be projected farther than they otherwise would have been (much as the personæ and πρόσωπα would later be utilized to do), thereby increasing the force inherent in them, while, at the same time, the very forcefulness of this thus focused emission of sound in effect also supplied something like an additional layer of armor to the mask-wearer.
Perhaps by virtue of an analogy with the wind itself, or perhaps for other reasons as well, breath was conceived of during these early periods of human history as harboring a great energy, one so powerful that, in reading the various reports Preuß called upon, at times one might almost gather that individuals frequently imagined themselves to be its bellows, the vehicles whereby it would exhale itself into the world, as it were. It was due to the volume of breath emitted that sonic events such as cries could be efficacious in counteracting the inimical forces of nature or in throwing a human enemy back on the defensive, or at least this is the inference one may well be inclined to draw once one is acquainted with these anthropological source-materials – for his part Preuß himself stressed that “das Geschrei wirkt nicht nur als Ton, sondern weil es aus der Zauberöffnung des Mundes kommt und sich mit der Zauberwirkung des Hauches vereinigt” (Globus, vol. LXXXVII, no. 22 (June 15, 1905), p. 384: an internal reference has been omitted from the quotation). Here the powerful effect stemmed not from the cry itself but from the exhalation on which the latter was borne and in the absence of which it would hardly have reached so far, nor made the impression it did. Thus the strength of breath underneath the sound, was what actually registered with all the recipients, and it was mainly this to which they responded, especially whenever an extended space had to be covered, while the specific meaning of the cry was of a subsidiary importance in comparison to the pre-eminent physical force – even though those who stood outside the scene most often overlooked the latter factor when they attempted to explain what was transpiring. But for the participants, and also for someone capable of putting himself in their position, such as Preuß, these things were considerably clearer. “Dem Schrei und dem starken Schall wird eine weit größere Wirkung zugeschrieben, als ihrer psychischen Bedeutung entspricht,” he wrote, with the difference presumably to be attributed to an effect overwhelmingly physiological in kind. “Und es ist nur natürlich, daß der Eindruck auf den Hörer einer besonderen Zauberkraft zugerechnet wird. Das geht besonders aus der Entfernung hervor, in der noch ein Erfolg des Schreiens vorausgesetzt wird.” Behind the strength of the cry per se and of greater weight, therefore, was the volume of air expelled, a quantum of which the distance traversed by the sound provided something like a rough indication or measurement.
In at least one of its original functions, accordingly, the mask exhibits a close resemblance to the earliest versions of the wind instruments – or rather, the similarity will come to light if it’s plausible to assume that in ages long ago each of these devices had a role to play in the strife with inimical forces, powers, or people. All were implements meant in their various ways to bring about the amplification of one’s own strength and to project it towards a target. Thus every one of them was also devised to serve as a sort of weapon, in the midst of periods during which it was the common belief “daß der Hauch sogar imstande ist zu töten” (Globus, vol. LXXXVI, no. 23 (December 15, 1904), p. 377), however strange be the sound of this claim to modern ears.
Some evidence of just such a belief does spring to mind, however, when one plumbs the records of antiquity, documents which by their greater familiarity could perhaps prevent one from dismissing it too quickly as merely exotic or alien. In this connection, one might recall the siege and fall of Jericho as recounted in the Bible (most specifically in Joshua 6, 20, a passage to which Preuß himself did not fail to refer), where, after a week of beleaguerment, once the ram’s horn had sounded, the trumpets blasted, and the people roared, the walls of the city then fell down – blown asunder by arms of noise, as it were. To discern the belief in breath’s deadly force here as well, one need only take the Biblical text at its word, quite literally, and refrain from attenuating it as though it involves a mere synecdoche such that, as a piece of literature, the noise the army made would stand in for the sum of its activity as a whole. That clamor, far from having been included in the text mainly for rhetorical effect, or to fashion a memorable scene for the narrative, is introduced instead as an index of the fatal power which a mighty volume of breath can exert: thus this episode attests to the general belief therein.
But why, more precisely, has breath been so widely thought of as being invested with that power? Preuß did not call a halt before this question, and the answer seems to be that like the other potent forces which early human beings felt coursing through themselves, breath too, as a main source of the body’s own vitality, should eo ipso be capable of inflicting grave injury and even death on others: nothing less was expected from so strong a force, which, they believed, could indeed take away what it itself had bestowed. And perhaps, to their way of thinking, intrinsic dualities like this one were a characteristic or even a prerogative of only the strongest of forces, and as such they therefore, it was agreed, needed to be handled with extreme care.
We today, of course, when we happen to read about forms of human association that operated under “dem Glauben an die fördernde und anderseits schädigende Kraft des aus der Nase und dem Munde dringenden Hauches” (Globus, vol. LXXXVI, no. 23 (December 15, 1904), p. 376), are in all likelihood inclined to regard them as being utterly archaic and for all intents and purposes as having long since vanished altogether. Yet a different story is told by some interactions in which we too are involved from time to time, whose guiding assumptions, as an impartial examination may suggest to us, do still seem to owe quite a lot to the belief in the great power of breath for better and for worse. Here those who are not entirely entangled in their own preconceptions may discern the actuality of that old idea, and indeed in a form not quite altered nearly beyond recognition by the Umwertungen and Verwandlungen which all of these original ideas and practices underwent later as civilizations developed from their beginnings – subsequent developments whose derivative character was stressed repeatedly by Preuß.
That in practice this belief has not been exhausted even now, is something which Leopardi, when he devoted an aphoristic inquiry (Pensieri, no. LXXVIII) to one variety of laughter, appears to have disclosed. To begin with, he was struck by what clever people might achieve for themselves when in their social intercourse with others they utilized laughter as a tactical device, a maneuver whose aim was to set up the encounter with themselves positioned advantageously at the center. “Due o più persone in un luogo pubblico o in un’adunanza qualsivoglia, che stieno ridendo tra loro in modo osservabile, né sappiano gli altri di che,” the moralist noted, “generano in tutti i presenti tale apprensione, che ogni discorso tra questi divien serio, molti ammutoliscono, alcuni si partono, i più intrepidi si accostano a quelli che ridono, procurando di essere accettati a ridere in compagnia loro.” In order to achieve such a result, at least two people were required, the stratagem constituting in fact a small instance of action in concert – which should in itself be enough to underscore the degree to which the relationships amongst those present in the gathering had been antagonistic in character, prior to this intervention of laughter. Precisely because an overarching wariness of others was what they had to contend with and overcome, their laughter “concilia stima e rispetto anche dagl’ignoti, tira a se l’attenzione di tutti i circostanti, e dà fra questi una sorte di superiorità,” which is to say, by their maneuver the instigators showed themselves personally superior to the antagonism underlying those relationships, and indeed to the other antagonists as well, replacing the former with and inducting the latter into a mode, not of friendship, but of an incidental camaraderie lasting at least as long as the laughing itself went on.
Now, although such an occurrence is already very interesting in its own right, why it happened was what he was most concerned to account for, albeit sotto voce. If it was not their laughter itself which attracted the others to them – and his text took care to avoid any suggestion that this idea offered the best explanation – what else could have done so? That the moralist, underneath the initial laughter in this particular instance, discerned a declaration of the forcefulness of the instigators, ought by now to seem a plausible answer. By this laughter they were demonstrating their own vital strength as being relatively the greatest of all those on the scene, as though the essential thing were to show how much breath one could deploy and move, a feat which, if it meant to rise above the current of antagonism in social life, would be most effectively brought about by a mode of action that was in the most literal sense of the word a conspiracy. Therefore, whenever we, for our part, involve ourselves in an action like this, do we not also proclaim in effect that the age-old belief in the power of exhalation still drives us?
Yet Leopardi (who, as he remarked elsewhere, hoped to write a history of laughter) did not limit himself solely to this one variety of it, but also ventured to characterize the nature of laughter in general – and evidently here too he had in mind its function of exhibiting the force believed to be inherent in human breath. His conclusion: “Grande tra gli uomini e di gran terrore è la potenza del riso: contro il quale nessuno nella sua coscienza trova se munito da ogni parte. Chi ha coraggio di ridere, è padrone del mondo, poco altrimenti di chi è preparato a morire.” And as a plausible corollary to this: rather than deplete this person’s force in exhibiting it, the act of its exhibition could well heighten it. Thus so sharp a thinker and writer as he did not fail to note that even when the laughter was that of one person alone, it can still be of great service in the masked warfare that is the world, by virtue of the courage it might exude, the terror it could inspire.
Bearing Leopardi’s insight in mind, even today quite a few pieces of human behavior to whose actual function and rationale little attention is usually paid, may be more adequately understood if this key notion, the force of breath, is invoked.
While engaged in laughter such as Leopardi wrote of, human faces themselves become personæ: they cease to be what we know as the most finely expressive part of the whole human being and are transformed for the duration into devices meant explicitly for the projection of sound, implicitly for the focused exhalation of vital force. In Preuß’ account of the origin of religion and art, too, at times the inquiry touches on practices in which the face was treated as though it were functionally also a kind of mask. Without of course attempting to imitate something else in order to appropriate its specific power, as was frequently done with the actual masks, in these instances the face was altered in such a way that the person’s force of breath could be let out to the required degree, and even be augmented in the process. What this most often entailed, as a consequence of an obvious association of ideas arising independently in numerous societies around the globe having nothing to do with one another, was either the filing-down or the extraction of some of the teeth, thus enlarging, they believed, the oral spaces for the exhalation to pass through efficaciously. Again a practice entirely foreign to today’s civilization and its antecedents, one might think at first, but Preuß did not hesitate to introduce a testimony from antiquity which, although the outlines of the original belief were probably already obscured by the time it was initially immortalized in writing, still seems to indicate that it played a role there as well. “Wir haben das klassische Zeugnis der Ilias” – here the anthropologist brought to his readers’ attention the passage in the Iliad (bk. 4, ll. 349-50) in which Odysseus reproaches Agamemnon that the barrier of his teeth (ἕρκος ὀδόντων) had been breached by words patently untrue – “dafür, daß die Zähne einst als ein Hindernis, als ein hindernder Zaun für die Rede galten, nicht, wie man nach unseren praktischen Erfahrungen erwarten sollte, als notwendig für deutliche Sprache” (Globus, vol. LXXXVI, no. 22 (December 8, 1904), p. 363). With this Homeric phrase, the teeth were identified as an obstacle to human speech, but underneath that odd idea, which furnishes an example of the resultant changes, the Umwertungen and the Verwandlungen as Preuß termed them, worked upon the original belief and its correlate practices throughout these early records of human history, one may plausibly hypothesize the existence during the archaic period in Greece of an operation of removing or reducing some of them, for a more purposive, focused, effective emission of breath. (It is certainly interesting that Odysseus should also dismiss Agamemnon’s remark as “ἀνεμώλια” (l. 355), that is, mere hot air or overblown – these are good English expressions to use in this connection, for here they can be taken rather literally.) Thus the function of such modifications, if the hypothesis be plausible, would have amounted to a first draft of what the πρόσωπον and the persona were intended to help actors in the theatre achieve, several centuries later.
Given some alterations, therefore, the human face was itself the first mask. And these procedures applied to it, were motivated by a belief related to the one on which I’ve focused thus far, this other pertaining not to the breath alone but to the body generally and to what it can do, when the various forces inherent in it are dealt with in the right manner. What is needed to activate or to intensify them, according to this belief, Preuß summarized quite concisely (Globus, vol. LXXXVII, no. 23 (June 22, 1905), p. 398): “Durch gewaltsame Eingriffe in den Körper werden besondere Zauberquellen erschlossen oder die vorhandenen ergiebiger gemacht, wie wir das an dem Ausschlagen und dem Verstümmeln von Schneidezähnen schon kennen gelernt haben.” So those operations on the teeth – as a custom whose existence in numerous societies was documented by the ethnological field-reports – represented one instance of a wide variety of practices, rites, and usages in which, in order to heighten a person’s powers, sited as they were believed to be throughout the body, some other part or parts thereof, though not always those of that same body, were excised or drastically modified, in an alteration effected by means which would almost necessarily have had to be violent. In this context, Preuß, with his special knowledge of the old Aztec civilization, was well-positioned to provide an unvarnished elucidation of these means and the implements that went with them, yet also able, as an erudite comparative anthropologist, to substantiate the insight that without those treatments of the body through long spans of history, horrendous, gruesome, and cruel as they were, the stage would never have been set for any great human achievement to flourish. Even now the realization may come as a shock, but the further one reflects impartially on the matter, the more might everything that people presently regard, and from which they hope to benefit, as the best that civilization can offer, be acknowledged as a much later iteration of the original human acts, a distant version thereof, transformed through the course of human history nearly beyond recognition except for one persistent tell-tale thing, the essential or genealogical likeness: at bottom all of it continues to embody the fearsome belief that to fortify the remainder, some part must first be removed. In other words, although it’s a point which it would perhaps ease one’s mind to overlook, that belief still implicitly informs each and every of civilization’s variegated offerings, not by any means only the great works of art and religion with which Preuß began, but also, as he did not neglect to add, the finely-organized arrangements of modern everyday life, which represent considerable achievements in their own right.
Arrived at this juncture, were the present essay not the text it is, but somehow a musical performance, the time would be ripe for an interlude or a full intermission, that the audience might recover from the noise of a gun fired in the middle of the concert (to vary one of Stendhal’s observations); but here, though perhaps after a brief pause by the reader, I shall press on, turning my attention now to a concept which is closely connected to the foregoing, one which designates something whose gradual elaboration has constituted another of the achievements of civilization: the concept of character.
The character which I have in mind, is first and foremost the personal one, i.e., the intrinsic nature of individual human beings that is as unique to each of them as their own bodies are, and which, for all the incidental changes it undergoes over the course of their lifetimes, will nonetheless remain the same one. Thus, insofar as the term denotes something relatively unchanging and indelible in a human life, a person’s character is as constant as the body of which it may be taken to be amongst the most evident attributes, and consequently, by virtue of its existence, something of the continuous identity of the body is conveyed to an individual’s personality, strengthening the underlying consistency in the latter and rendering it more enduring. The vagaries of a personality, to be sure, possess a charm of their own, but should untoward circumstances arise or adversity strike, it will be the concentrated strength of a person’s character which is revealed through – literally through – them, as though they then would function mainly as a more defuse medium. Along similar lines, when a persona is donned, placed as a sort of mask in front of one’s personality, character is not utterly obscured or concealed: rather, in the act of concealment itself, something of it is actually revealed, under a very particular aspect, to be sure. Furthermore, it is more than doubtful whether individuals would feel themselves free enough to utilize personæ in the first place, if it were not the case that the play with the latter, however light-hearted or serious be the manner in which they carry it out, in effect is underwritten in the last resort by their own characters, where they understand character as such as being a force upon which they can rely when need be. Accordingly, the degrees of strength of character are of prime importance to consider, and those whose character is lacking, as one says, might well find it to be insufficiently strong to permit themselves to wear a persona, striving consequently to cloak – but at the same time, though inadvertently, disclosing – this very weakness of theirs by the objections they raise to the use of personæ in general, or, more specifically, by their voluble disdain for those who employ them professionally, the tribe of actors tout court and, in particular, those whose stock in trade is laughter, the comedians. If at bottom these detractors harbor the “theatrical prejudice” precisely because they cannot trust themselves to don a persona, their own characters being less than capable of supporting the act, then it indeed can happen, as Santayana put the matter (Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, chap. 33, “The Comic Mask”), that “irony pursues these enemies of comedy, and for fear of wearing a mask for a moment they are hypocrites their entire lives.”
Of course, none of these qualities of individual character would be availed the opportunity to manifest itself, were there no abiding arena, no supra-personal realm wherein individuals could circulate, and this facility is what civilization has built and painstakingly maintains, or it even is civilization itself. Whenever the overwhelming temper of the times is simply poor, nasty, brutish, and short, no doubt numerous human characteristics are put on display, but by dint of their inherent fleetingness these will evince something other than character.
That the concept of character, the thing itself being comprehended implicitly as a phenomenon for whose perceptibility the ongoing existence of a civilization constitutes the sine qua non, is also informed by the belief formulated earlier – namely, to fortify the remainder, some part must first be removed – this may become more plausible if one considers how susceptible to change by means of deliberate practice the characters of individuals can be, or even if one merely reflects on the fact that they differ in the quanta of strength variously attributed to them. Furthermore, the concept also seems to owe something to the operations upon the human body which that belief has inspired, a debt that is recorded in the etymology of the word itself, albeit such that the initial definitions of the terms involved were themselves Verwandlungen (as Preuß would say) of those original practices. In the Greece of antiquity, a χαρακτήρ was an engraver or someone who minted coinage, but also an engraving tool (presumably a sharp or pointed implement), a die or stamp, and even a branding-iron, as well as a graven mark or an impress, while the verb from which the noun derives, “χαράσσειν,” meant to engrave or inscribe, most often on coins – and so in this instance too, much as with the masks and the faces that were the predecessors of the personæ and the πρόσωπα, incisions were frequent operations, removing some material and fashioning a likeness upon the remainder in order to produce an efficacious object. Suddenly, then, one can discern behind the χαρακτήρ, historically or genealogically speaking, the spectre of those violent practices whose major part in the origin of civilization was underscored by Preuß: thus one could hypothesize that the imitations and the excisions which were utilized in the earlier stages of civilization, in order to heighten the force available to a human subject, had as an ensemble furnished an initial model for later institutions, of which the minting of coins may be taken as a representative example, which have at first glance next to nothing to do with them and that are if anything distinguished by their seemingly innocuous – well, character.
When the threefold concept of χαρακτήρ is called to mind, where the term designated the agent or the tool just as readily as it did the result of an operation, the conception of individual character I’ve briefly delineated can be extended or even substantially modified.
All the changes which may occur in it notwithstanding, an individual’s character remains singular and the same, much as does the body, hence the former may be taken to be one of the latter’s main attributes, as I suggested before, and yet, instead of defining it as an attribute, wouldn’t it be better and more precise to say that character is engraved on a human body, and indeed in such a way that it will not be something like a mere depiction on the body’s most outward surface? In some manner, then, a character would be cut into the body – or else, to vary the figure of speech, cut out of it – but which implements or instruments would be utilized to make these cuts, and who or what would do the cutting? Now, all these are questions which that master of sharp remarks Voltaire circled about in his article on this topic (Dictionnaire philosophique, s.v. “Caractère”), doing so quite circuitously for he set out by recalling the term “χαρακτήρ” only in part, glossing its meaning solely as “impression, gravure,” yet then proceeding as though in fact he had found the other two main meanings of the Greek word to be worthier of his attention. This unspoken choice of approach is remarkable in its own right, as upon further reflection – to which the essay, with the light touch, elegant style, and mischievous after-effects typical of Voltaire, invites the reader – one might realize that it’s these two other meanings which, when heeded, could actually guard the notion of character against becoming a moral cliché.
Something engraved our characters on us to begin with: what is it? La nature. As was to be expected. By what instrument has it done so? Notre corps. This answer is not nearly so obvious. Our body? Yes, as Voltaire evidently thought of it, the body does not only represent a sort of material upon or in which character is inscribed, in addition it provides the means by which the etching is done – thus it’s through the body that the mark is made. Or, for that matter, unmade. “Peut-on changer de caractère ? Oui, si on change de corps.” Insofar as the human body can act upon itself, raising itself to be at once the agent, the implement, and the object, then individuals could indeed alter their own characters – which would however remain identifiably theirs. In this context the given identity of each human body sets the limits of any possible change, though then one does wonder whether these limits have been put there to be recognized precisely so that they may be surpassed. For on the other hand, as if Voltaire were sketching out an antinomy, that is to say, a problem which preoccupied him and whose resolution he intuited would strengthen the powers of the minds of those who pondered it, he also insisted, a bit further on: “Nous perfectionnons, nous adoucissons, nous cachons ce que la nature a mis dans nous, mais nous n’y mettons rien.” Accordingly, only to a quite limited extent could an individual’s character be changed: it can be refined, by reducing, concealing, excising bits and pieces of its original dispositions, in order to strengthen those one wanted to retain – pour encourager les autres – but never radically rebuilt. An inadequate conclusion, Voltaire’s readers might well conclude in their turn (his article itself implicitly encouraging them to do so), and one which he set in place precisely that they might refuse to accept it.
At this point, considering how long this treatment of the topic of character has gotten, the reader may well feel like refusing to accept any further remarks on the subject; and moreover, I think that what’s been said so far suffices to outline the pertinence of the concept for a better understanding of the persona and its uses.
Now, very tentatively, I should like to suggest that a persona could itself be character, in at least one of the three senses united in the Greek term. Someone – let’s say a young composer, for instance – might adopt a persona not so much on its own account, as to become capable, while assuming the role of something like a χαρακτήρ, insofar as the work of composition could be likened to what engravers do, of utilizing that persona as a χαρακτήρ in the sense of an instrument with which – by means of the music that could perhaps be composed under these auspices alone – a χαρακτήρ or a lasting mark could be left on the body in order to affect or even significantly to alter its character as a result. Or, to simplify the foregoing in perhaps a slightly more plausible manner: a character is stamped on character by a character, that is, by a persona.
All well and good, but the immediate question then is whether this odd multiple usage of the term would transform it beyond recognition and even reduce it to absurdity – turning it into an incantation that has lost its power, a chant bereft of any sense – or else assist us to recollect the word’s potent yet neglected meaning and to breathe life into it again?
A persona can be character, that is to say, it could have the character of being one of the instruments useful when the aim is to imprint something that will endure on or in the body. Is this application of the term really so aberrant and implausible? I tend to think not.
Utilized to such an end, the persona would represent a variation of the masks of long ago. Through the persona he adopts, in a sense extending his own character in the process, the composer may literally concentrate some part of his creative force, so to speak exhaling it in the form of musical works which otherwise he could not have written or whose particular efficaciousness or impressiveness could have been devised in no other way. And after these are sent forth, the sum of his inspiration, far from being dispersed, might even rise higher than before.
In this connection, in addition to functioning as a kind of mask, a persona, as an implement, would also evince a likeness to certain musical instruments, especially to those in which the character of their first predecessors – whose original aim may well have been to impress a mark on an object – has been the most legibly conserved. I mean those wind instruments which generate a forceful projection of breath or air. And so here it’s apposite to cite Preuß’ contention (Globus, vol. LXXXVII, no. 23 (June 22, 1905), p. 395) that both musical instruments and masks, in their first origins, were conceived as being akin to the cry or to any purposive exhalation in their efficacy, the result which was during those ages overwhelmingly the main consideration.
As Preuß demonstrated, the application of sounds borne on a wind of breath was one mode of action in the arsenal of the human beings who found themselves in the midst of inimical forces; yet he also took care to touch on the initial emergence of music, in the first instance the vocal music of song and chant, but also the music of the earliest instruments, especially the wind ones, within a considerably more irenic context as well. According to him (Globus, vol. LXXXVII, no. 19 (May 25, 1905), p. 333 ff.), it originated when the recurring sounds or sound-patterns met with in the processes of human labor, were imitated and repeated by those human beings and from then on utilized regularly in order to increase the efficaciousness or force of their collaboration (the labor being primarily a joint effort) and to help it to reach a still more successful end. This sonic accompaniment to the sounds of labor, was nothing other than the first music and as such the matrix for the latter’s many subsequent developments and permutations. Even today, millennia later, much of the human need for music (music being amongst other things a need) is the necessity of just this augmentation and accompaniment: whenever it happens, as now it so often does, that the labor must be carried out by one person alone, then the music may fill the place of the others missing from the scene, thus lending a hand to make this sort too virtually an instance of well-disposed co-operation.
In contrast to the hazardous variety of the forces in inimical confrontation with those human beings during the early ages of civilization, the more peaceful regularities of human labor afforded them a modicum of relative security and stability in their existence, and therewith the chance for their characters (in the most common sense of the term) to solidify. Accordingly, individual characters would have been a by-product of human labor or indeed of co-operative activity more generally, and insofar as music were made to guide the latter, it probably also fostered the development of character, those of individuals, and perhaps also bestowed on character as such greater and greater importance as civilization moved to establish itself further.
Music’s role in this process exhibits it from its most beneficent side, as a power fomenting the mutual assistance which constituted one main element or moment in the collaborative undertaking that was human labor. Yet when labor has been transformed and henceforth exists as an isolated activity, or rather, when it would be were music not employed as a substitute for other people (an expedient frequently resorted to), then as seems obvious the laborers could readily become distracted by the music from their tasks, their attention captivated as they listen to it, quite possibly to their own detriment or that of the work they are carrying out. In that event, the virtual collaboration fostered by this particular use of music would cease to be collaboration or even labor at all, and instead the outcome is a work-stoppage.
When music is not an adjunct to the processes of labor but rather the very thing being worked on, by a composer who employs for the purpose a persona, that is, a χαρακτήρ, in donning it both concealing yet also revealing his own character, is it proper to call the activity in which he – or rather, they are engaged, a collaboration? To what extent is some manner of mutual assistance rendered while the work is ongoing? And might at some point the process not take a turn whereby everything would come to a standstill?
To me it seems evident that human beings, each simply as a single individual alone, cannot render assistance to themselves, strictly speaking, especially if what they each had in view to help along were the the inner workings of their own creativity – even though the opposite does not hold good, as, in these general terms, it’s just as clear that individuals are quite capable of harming themselves single-handedly. If real help is to be provided, as a minimum it’s another person who would have to offer it: in general it always comes from a distance that individuals unaided by any devices could not possibly assume with regard to themselves. However, when an individual is deliberately as it were extended by a persona (or even in effect withdraws in favor of a pair or a number of personæ), things would look rather different, as the persona could comprise just enough of another person and open up sufficient room to make possible the giving and the receiving of assistance. And not necessarily in one direction only, as the persona might evince the independence vis-à-vis the person requisite to allow for the possibility of mutual aid being tendered back and forth between them, where these reciprocal interactions would take place under definite conditions and to particular ends, without this very limited self-multiplication of the person amounting to anything like an espousal of autarky as a principle.
In the instance of Cuthbért and KuuMA, the reciprocation of help was creative in kind, and so, in the collaboration between them, each conveyed inspiration to the other by turns, while the two acted in concert or, in the most literal meaning of the verb, conspired together.
Yet such a procedure entails some risk. The inward sources of creativity flow so delicately that to interpose oneself here at all, let alone in any massive fashion, could well end by damming them up or otherwise diverting them in ways neither foreseen nor wanted – and thus here too the result could impinge upon the work itself. This possible occurrence should not be discounted, given the unpredictability which even the most familiar and nearest of human relationships necessarily continue to harbor in themselves (thank goodness they do!) and by the eruption of which, in less fortunate cases, they might cease to be amiable and become patently antagonistic instead. In such an eventuality, the persona might turn against the person who devised it to begin with, provoking, deep within their shared creative heart, an intramural conflict whose existence, although imperceptible as such, could be inferred from the poor quality of the compositions it managed despite itself to deliver. So in anticipation of an outcome of this kind, many might want to think at least twice before undertaking to multiply themselves and the significance of their work by means of personæ, especially as cautionary tales do readily spring to mind of some who’ve recently diminished themselves and their music further and further with every new change of persona, each intended by them to be more breathtaking than the last.
Admittedly, it may overstate the case to locate the source of creativity, especially creativity in music, given the evident proximity of the musical and the mathematical, so specifically in the human heart, an organ of the whole person quite distinct from the mind in general or the intellect in particular. Ought not the mind be acknowledged as having a large or a larger share in it, albeit in a manner of which the artist and, even more, the composer must be unaware? Perhaps. Yet one has reason to stress the role of the heart. Most pertinent is this: the heart, insofar as the term designates the seat of feeling, love, and passion, exists in a close affiliation with the body, upon which music, for its part, can have the greatest effect of all the arts, and thus it would not be so far-fetched to hold, would it, that the creative inspirations in music, first and foremost those of them who make it, but in addition, insofar as an audience’s musical imagination exerts itself as an active power, the listeners’ as well, have their primary locus there. And as a corollary to this: the lasting mark which, as I suggested before, the persona is utilized in order to imprint on the body, might just as well be impressed upon the heart, affecting or altering its character in an abiding manner, for after all, the human heart, if in itself it proves to be even less constant than the human body, might perhaps stand in greater need of this reinforcement.
Now, the needs of a heart which was felt to be shattered, discordant, or broken, seem to have been known from within by those theologians who first availed themselves of the conceptuality of the persona and the πρόσωπον, Tertullian in Latin to begin with and then, following his lead in Greek, Hippolytus, and it may even have been expressly in answer to destitution and its needs that they spoke about God as comprising three personæ or πρόσωπα in one: so conceived, God would make a fit respondent to individuals who found themselves out of balance or at odds with themselves or inwardly troubled, a source of solace to which they in their forlorn state might turn for relief. People who had begun to feel themselves despondent on account of some strife within their hearts, as though the heart were torn this way and that by its own forces, ranged against one another in interior conflict which they themselves could not possibly comprehend directly, given the peculiar distance between the heart and the other components of human personality, but of which they were made aware by the evident intractability and inescapability of its effects upon the tones of their souls – people finding themselves in this confusing state might indeed share their condition with a personal god such as propounded by these theologians, for by His very constitution as triune it appeared in some unique manner to be shared. In other words, a deity of this description already knew that condition with a measure of intimate familiarity, and so the help they sought might be offered to those who felt themselves suffering from it.
Whether the assistance provided would have been of precisely the right kind, under the circumstances, is not a question that can be addressed here, obviously. As for the Tertullianic and Hippolytean theology, I have introduced it neither on its own account, although it does possess considerable intrinsic interest, nor to imply that there is any pronounced conversance with these writings on my part – in fact, for the preceding I’ve perused the second chapter in Clement C. J. Webb’s old and still useful inquiry, God and Personality, of which the third chapter is similarly informative. Nor, and least of all, have I referred to these theologemes in order to indicate anything in particular about what my own needs or beliefs may or may not be, caveat lector. Rather, I merely mean to suggest that the understanding of the persona and the πρόσωπον, which is to say, the comprehension of the results one may expect from their various usages as ideas, for better and for worse, runs deep in this corpus of writing, and so these two authors could be consulted with profit even by those whose inclination towards theology as such is nearly nil.
What has all of this to do with music? Well, the very notion of discord within the heart already could be taken to suggest that within the human heart there reside things akin to powers of music, incipiently dissonant or harmonious as they may be, and moreover, it might also imply, conversely, that works of music issue first and foremost not from the soul or the mind but from the hidden sources of the heart and thus also in some manner remain affiliated to it, where this ongoing relationship is outlined by virtue of the etymology of the musically significant term “discord” or its opposite “accord,” which quite literally are derived from the Latin noun “cor,” that is, the heart. But I shall leave this play with words aside, as the relevance is of a different order and actually substantial.
The discord inside the human heart which antedated and perhaps even engendered the elaborate theological doctrines of Tertullian and Hippolytus, the notion of a triune deity conveying both a moment of acknowledgement of this deeply felt condition and also a form of relief from it, continued to be heard from afterwards, and a couple of centuries later, in one exemplary work of personal writing wherein it was eloquently vented, the author also intimated the existence of a quite close bond between music and a disquieted heart. I am referring, of course, to the passage in Augustine’s main text in self-examination where he recounted that the factual data of his personal existence became a riddle to him when he regarded it all under the gaze of God – “in cuius oculis mihi quæstio factus sum” (Confessionum libri tredecim, bk. X, chap. 33, 50) – a revelation that all of it had been made not mainly for its own sake but in order that by its sheer transience it might engender dissatisfaction, disturbance, and disquiet in human hearts and then prompt them to turn back to their maker, bringing the individuals whose hearts they were along with them. Consequently, in addition to whatever meaning the facts of their lives might contain in themselves, they had also been posed as something like questions these persons were meant to guess the answers to, thus pointing beyond themselves and their own insufficiency and directing those who pondered the riddles to apply their energy to seeking the superabundant source of everything lasting, positive, and real in their existence and to find a shelter of repose there. According to Augustine (bk. I, chap. 1, 1), “inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te,” and with this church-fatherly sentence he delineated both the sense of confusion radiating from some hearts as well as the hope harbored by the individuals to be saved from it once they would have come to rest in their God. However, in the same breath, he also stated how beguiling one’s factual existence is and remains, how difficult for an individual it could prove to let the attraction of the world go, generally speaking, and, more particularly, how readily he, as one amongst the dissatisfied, disturbed, and disquieted, had come to love in its own right the very thing instituted for this flock that it might better attend to its God: namely, music.
The challenge which he felt as being in some manner especially his own, therefore, was to distinguish between the orderly and the inordinate love of music – but at the same time, he could not quite avoid suspecting that precisely this sentiment might also constitute part of the riddle or question that was posed to him by himself or, more precisely, by his self. Once one began to regard one’s own personalia as amounting to the elements of a riddle, as Augustine seems to have done, there would be no end to suspicion concerning their true purpose, and the resulting perplexities themselves became strange and worrisome in the aggregate, the faith in things unseen then at times shimmering before him as though it too were a fata morgana. What remained to this author subsequently as the thing on which he could count and rely most, relatively speaking, if not music? Thus, if Augustine’s text is stretched taught, and by the allusive manner in which it was written it seems to call for just such a treatment, the attentive reader might uncover the thought – many ages before Nietzsche’s signature statement – that the Christian held music in reserve lest he perish of the truth.
When, early in the work, the reader comes across the plea issued to his God by Augustine: “noli abscondere a me faciem tuam: moriar, ne moriar, ut eam uideam” (bk. I, chap. 5, 5) – a sentence which takes up and varies a passage in the Bible I shall touch on a bit later – it seems evident, does it not, that behind the utterance the author entertained substantial doubt or even a full-fledged mental reservation about the prospective beatitude of this intimate vis-à-vis, if only on account of everything else he would have to give up in order to attain it.
His request to die ought not to be taken at face value, therefore. Yet, prior to that anticipated ultimate moment when the promise would have to be made good, some of the main components of Augustine’s existential posture are full of interest even to those whom (as I remarked before) the discipline of theology as such never has captivated, all the more so when as now the overarching concern is to achieve a better understanding of the creativity of musical life at its most active, during the work of composing, especially in cases like Cuthbért’s where the works are created by means of a persona or personæ.
To begin with, it ought to be noted, what Augustine called the “cor inquietum” is marked by several different kinds of care (thus care is its character!) and it oscillates uneasily amongst them. Without delving very far into these churning depths, some of the turmoil may be delineated as follows: although this heart cares for itself unduly or inordinately, that is, it both likes itself and tends to itself too much, thereby neglecting or turning away from its other cares, at the very same time it also concerns itself too much about those others, attending to them, and also, in some manner, preferring them, excessively, leaving itself little opportunity to care about itself or to care for itself. In the most general terms, to Augustine’s way of thinking, all of this manifold care was foreordained both as a trial, a test of mettle meant to disclose who each individual person is, and also as one kind of inducement to them to turn to God, though without intending that in so doing anyone would in effect say to the world, I no longer care about you. More specifically, in Augustine’s own case, the considerable difficulties fomented by care – which with him was by no means exclusively cura sui – contributed much to the “quæstio” he took himself to be.
With Augustine himself, evidently it had been the upheaval and inquietude in the human heart which engendered the effort to fathom it as being an organ abyssal and mysterious in itself. That somehow it had ceased to function as it once had done, in its own earlier orderly or proper manner, this was the sentiment which prompted him to realize how he had become a riddle to himself, calling forth great creative eloquence from him in his effort to discern its meaning and to answer it rightly. Might one infer, in an analogous fashion, that when composers, concentrating most intently on their musical activity, encounter within their own creativity some acoustic difficulty, an inner challenge, obstacle, or problem, with respect to which the work as completed would eventually represent the solving, removing, or overcoming, and by reason of which the process of the work also may continue afterwards to provoke curiosity about itself, something within their hearts must previously have functioned in some unusual or unexpected manner? (Albeit fortuitously so.) And conclude, consequently, that the composers have then already become questions to themselves, drawing attention most obviously to this development whenever they happen to send their music forth under the name of a persona?
At this point, it may be helpful to cloak my rough working hypothesis, the locus of musical creativity is in that part of the psyche one usually calls the heart, in something like the form of a hypothetical syllogism. Thus: if the musical creativity deserving of the name necessarily comprises the surmounting of some inner sonorous difficulty, and if the human heart is constituted essentially as an organ that lives by virtue of the resounding strife inside itself, then the springs of this type of creative activity may plausibly be located within the heart specifically, and most particularly a composer’s, on account of the higher complexity of the music.
The sounds of the turbulent human heart, both those which remain enclosed inside it, but also those it emits into the rest of the soul, play a central role in Augustine’s conception of selfhood. These were the constituent elements of the riddle he had become to himself, being especially well-suited to discharge such a role insofar as individual sounds can be at once both obscure in themselves and incipiently significant of something else, whenever, for instance, they serve to convey into someone’s conscious awareness the yearning deep within: for it seems they can cohere into meaningful wholes differently than other kinds of phenomena are capable of doing, and this difference is echoed as it were in the character of the attentiveness required if one aims to perceive them with discernment. In brief, to summarize the task of this discernment, it is to distinguish significant sounds within sound in general, and in Augustine’s case, the responsibility was discharged by a quiet listening to the facts of his life, or rather, to the rumblings these provoked within his “unquiet heart,” a type of listening – a sort of overhearing – that in its very stillness itself afforded him a foretaste of the rest he hoped for. At the same time, when Augustine listened to his own heart and indeed with his heart for the sounds or rather signals he might then discern which were to direct him onwards to the ordinate love of his God, this act was itself the rendering of tribute, as he himself remarked: “ecce aures cordis mei ante te, Domine” (bk. I, chap. 5, 5), as though by this supplication to insist that when his heart co-operated in the project by applying its ears to itself, as it were, it would be rendered a more welcome donation in his Lord’s sight and affiliate Augustine’s personhood closer to His side. Thus this discernment was an operation Augustine had already performed upon himself, and by implication he conceived the quite active listening to one’s own heart that it required as being an important part of a hermeneutic activity largely formative of the self, that is, of the person who one wants to be and perhaps also of the place where one would most prefer to find oneself.
Now, obviously I have not invoked the dense nub of ideas which guided Augustine’s project of self-reformation for their own sake, but mainly in order to suggest that the arena in which his efforts transpired had an essentially acoustic character. To the extent that self-knowledge was one of the desiderata in this process, knowing oneself meant hearing one’s own heart, albeit indirectly, in order to comprehend the sonic disclosure, however unintended, of what the “cor inquietum” wanted, on the one hand, and of what it needed, on the other – a mode of intent listening whereby many other aural phenomena would simply pass unheard by the ears altogether. To be more specific, in the present context, when it is less the self tout court which it would be the aim to disclose to oneself, as some part of the stream of someone’s inner musicality, Augustine’s conception of self-examination might be glossed pertinently as follows: the better one knows who one is and where one is, and thus at the same time recognizes the limits of one’s self, the more fully one can be this person, but also, in addition, the more readily one could set that self and its limitations aside provisionally in favor of a persona, with respect to which one might then proceed likewise, in so doing not detracting from but instead contributing further to understanding the inward personal sources of one’s own creativity in music, if one happened to be a composer, for instance. And, once having understood them, to acting upon and augmenting them, in the best case without devoting inordinate attention to this part of the whole undertaking and neglecting that for the sake of which it is all to be done, namely, the musical works themselves.
Those inner wellsprings, I’ve hypothesized, are located in the heart, unquiet as it may be, and so it seems plausible to add that the deliberate attempt to augment them from without, when for instance the self is multiplied by the creation of a persona or personæ, may well run the risk of affecting the noisy conflict within the heart in an adverse manner – exacerbating it perhaps or else somehow stifling it. The balance of forces within the heart is presumably so delicate and finely-tuned that one might later rue any alteration in it, especially whenever its given state at some moment is (this is another of my working assumptions) the matrix for the special sonic mood of a particular piece of music which could have been composed out of no other source. But if that is so, one will probably want to ponder a bit more the notion that the human heart is filled with the noise of its own forces clashing with one another and in fact could not endure long in the absence of this inward tumult. Is this vital noise anything more than a metaphor mistaken for a truth? Or, if not, what more precisely is it?
To sketch out at least the beginning of an answer, it will be of use to turn once again to trinitarian theology (though also maintaining the same caveat as before), and in this vein I should like to recall an idea put forward by one of those theologians while sounding out the relations amongst the three πρόσωπα of God. In one of the texts of Gregory of Nazianzus (Theological Orations, III, 2), the Cappadocian raises the possibility that these three might indeed exist vis-à-vis one another not in a state of concord, nor even in something like discord sans phrase, but rather, more specifically and pointedly, in a quite voluble contention wherein they continually turn against each other, doing so singly or in ever-shifting combinations, thus yielding, all in all, an unstable succession of variegated dissension, tumult, and uproar (conditions which Gregory called to mind by his use of the verb “στασιάζειν”).
This scenario of vocal strife within God, if it was anything more than a mere figment of Gregory’s imagination, would seem to owe at least some of the plausibility it has evinced to his usage of the concept of the πρόσωπον itself, the term’s theatrical reference still eminent when he mentioned the possibility that an interminable conflict might be raging there, as though all three πρόσωπα were something like actors seeking to monopolize the amphitheatre, each attempting to speak more loudly than the others and project their own voices further, shouting past or drowning them out, the result quite conceivably being a cacophony in which nothing could be heard distinctly – in the end it would be nearly the opposite of a chorus.
Yet Gregory’s allusion to the possibility of an altercation so specific as to merit the verb “στασιάζειν,” is perhaps even more significant in the present context. For this was what the citizens and residents could expect to hear in the public spaces of their cities in the event of a civil uprising or insurrection, a στάσις – the affiliation of the two Greek words is evident – and so the action designated by this verb, amongst its other results, could also convey the sound of a στάσις over a certain distance to the ears. Accordingly, the noise issuing from this civil unrest would not have been interminable in itself, arising instead only from time to time as opportunities seemed to warrant or as required by the circumstances – however suddenly or unexpectedly all of it might have happened – or rather, this would have been the case, were it not for the peculiar fact that the noun also denoted an enduring, stable, or unchanging condition or state (it’s in this sense that “στάσις” is frequently naturalized in transliteration in our languages), and indeed, one remarkable for its relative quiescence. What then is one to make of this amalgamation of two seemingly opposed meanings in a single word?
The inner logic which accounts for it, I think, emerges when one understands the implicit assumption: the parties or factions involved in the στάσις would be not two but three in number (for even if there were more than three, the strife amongst them could be comprehended by means of a triadic model). Were there only two, any conflict between them will tend of itself towards a definite end or termination, this being the complete victory of one and the vanquishment of the other, although as soon as one στάσις was finished another would likely soon commence amongst those who remained, and then it would indeed seem inexplicable how the word could also have signified a state notable for its steadiness over a considerable length of time; but if they are three, it is rather more likely that all will counteract one another in such a way that the strife could itself persist indefinitely in what is in effect a continual standstill, a rough balance of their forces in whose perpetuation each of them, any loud asseverations to the contrary notwithstanding, and the city itself in its entirety will retain a certain vested interest: then, between the two mutually opposing meanings juxtaposed so oddly at first glance in the word “στάσις,” there is implicit a third that relates them together in an eminently logical manner, an intermediate term which may be glossed plausibly as an ongoing stalemate.
This ongoing stalemate amongst the triad of civil parties or factions or powers, in short, is what ought to incite each to persist in their separate existences, and upholds the city as a whole in its.
Here, however, it is less the στάσις as such in any of the three intertwined meanings of the word, and more how each of the στάσεις would or would not sound, that interests me – for it’s the sound of στάσις which I take to be a fitting metaphor for the unseen altercations within the human heart that keep it alive and which can constitute a living source of inspiration for composers who know how to listen within themselves to the vibrations they emit.
Στάσις in the sense of an internecine conflict is likely to strike the ears with an extreme loudness for a time and then fall silent once the civil hostilities are concluded as one side triumphs utterly over the other (or else scores some manner of Pyrrhic victory), with a similar great noise bursting out whenever the next gets underway.
A στάσις such as we still encounter it in the form of a stasis will probably be marked by a continuous dull murmuring or even give off hardly any sound at all: something like the stifled yawn typical of the permanently peaceful state which reigns in somnolent backwaters where nothing much ever changes or will change.
Finally, in the implicit (as it seems to me) intermediate meaning of an ongoing stalemate in the city, στάσεις comprise an aural ebb and flow, with some moments where the clash of contending forces produces much noise and fury whose significance is less than obvious, and others when, out of mutual exhaustion or else from cold calculation, the sheer volume is much less while the actual sense is conveyed sotto voce. Yet these multifarious diminuendos and crescendoes would all refer to each other, both backwards and forwards, for in this continuous altercation all sides are attempting to define or re-define the sense of what the others and they themselves said earlier, and at the same time each jockeys for position so that subsequently they will place the others at a disadvantage and thus enable themselves to speak to best effect. All, while they are talking or otherwise making noise, are preparing themselves to hold their fire, and while silent they ready themselves to speechify – alternation is the principle of such an altercation as long as the stalemate itself endures, and in general the contenders are willing to take turns even or especially when they most heatedly attack the others.
Now, neither the first nor the second of these possible στάσεις seems especially appropriate as a metaphor for the state of a composer’s heart, considered as the organ from which, if not the compositions themselves, at least a major part of the inspiration for them emerges. However, the third appears as though it could be cut out for the task, for the sound of this altercation as it unfolds, so long as it remains just such a stalemate and does not devolve into one or another of the two other kinds of στάσις, may evince some similarity, in its inward-turned complexity, shifts in mood and tempo and volume, and variation of theme, to the intricate organization of a work of orchestral or symphonic music. If the clashes in the heart generate something like a music there, would not the latter be the most elaborate – finely wrought but also of a significant length – when those powers in contention check one another so that none can dominate? Accordingly, in the στάσις of the forces in the composer’s heart, if it be of this sort, one might locate the origin of or the aural impetus for a finished composition, or else in certain cases, given a quite high degree of discernment in the transcription of these virtual sounds within, even something like a very rough first draft thereof.
Of course, hypotheses like this may well come across as presumptuous in the extreme, laying things bare that never were meant to be disclosed. Didn’t I myself say that the human heart is shielded from attention for very good reason? And moreover, wouldn’t it be better to leave the inner workings of creativity alone as a mystery? All the more so if the interior stalemate, though ongoing, is also fragile and liable to fall apart whenever composers attempt to put pressure on it from without. Doesn’t the human heart then stand in need of a form of protection to insulate it from the rest of the person – not to mention the intrusive inquiries of others – and will it not then require something like a mask of its own?
To the early masks, I suggested before, drawing on Preuß’ insights, the function was attributed of insulating in some measure the mask-wearers from the inimical forces surrounding them: the human face and especially its openings simply had to be guarded. Considerably more subtle and a derivative refinement was the notion that masks would serve to protect others from the forces within oneself or even, still later and in a rather different sense, one’s own force: so utilized they would be implements donned out of care for the people around oneself, in relationships whose original inimical nature was effaced gradually, the more ethical in character they became – a shift which such a usage of the masks may have helped appreciably to effect.
Now, this notion of what a mask might be good for, though one could perhaps arrive at it by a long extrapolation from Preuß’ text, may be garnered quite readily from the passage in the Bible to which Augustine, as I mentioned before, evidently referred. (In drawing upon this source here, the caveat upon which I earlier insisted, should once again be kept in mind.)
In this passage, in the words of the King James version, one is told of the encounter in the tabernacle when “the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (Exodus 33, 11). At first glance, the very intimacy of the tête-à-tête is startling, and one might wonder how literally the personifying expression “face to face” is to be taken, or quite possibly one might suspect that the English mistook the Hebrew in some significant fashion. Yet this phrase, it turns out upon consulting the Masoretic text, is a quite literal rendition of the locution “פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים” and the word “face” as it occurs throughout this chapter in the King James simply conveys the Hebrew “פָּנִים” (panim), while the accuracy of such a choice of translation is further confirmed by Luther’s German rendering, in which one reads of a meeting “von angesicht zu angesicht” between them. But then it quickly begins to seem that the Hebrew word is somehow equivocal in a manner of which the English “face” only provides the reader a slight inkling, for, just a few verses later, their conversation is recounted and one hears God telling Moses: “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (20) – it was this theme that so fascinated Augustine and upon which he sounded so significant a variation when he implored his God not to hide His face from him – and so the word “פָּנִים” apparently has two contrary meanings, at the very least. Therefore, according to the letter of this passage in the Bible, God’s “face” in one sense of the term is seen by Moses, while in another it could not be, given that He cares for him as he is and does not wish him to perish, a solicitude which is patent when by His hand Moses is spared that fate: he is only provided a small glimpse of Him from behind as He passes by (22), for, as we are told once more, His “face shall not be seen” (23).
What is one to make of the divergent meanings of the word in such a momentous context as this? The face-to-face encounter in the earlier verse occurs as though between friends, and so one could infer that their countenances were marked by the mere minimum of reserve characteristic of a colloquy of well-disposed intimates, both masters of their own self-composure, and yet, obviously, they can in no sense of the word be each other’s equals. In order that God might let Moses see Him, He had first in some manner to limit Himself or, speaking more precisely, His immensity of power or force – in der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister – and it was for precisely this purpose, the reader might tentatively conclude, that He made a פָּנִים for Himself to begin with: with regard to human beings, the very transcendence of God’s omnipotence had posed a problem to Him that He solved by the expedient of the פָּנִים, which transmuted it into something definite, a quantity or quiddity they might apprehend intelligibly. In the light of this conclusion, the divine “face” would appear to be like a form or an aspect God assumes that He may move on the same plane as human beings even though His own proper locus is elsewhere, and then it would not be a divine attribute but rather a device He dons as circumstances warrant, whose purpose is the defense of His creatures against too close, too direct a contact with Himself, for the human frame as presently constituted simply could not bear that. Hence a sort of distance must be interposed, and the “face” donned by God in effect both opened up this very necessary space between Him and Moses and also conveyed His speech across it: although they seem to have met informally, the encounter had to have been choreographed in advance with considerable finesse on God’s part, if it ever were to occur at all. Thus, in short, the locale in which their conversation took place displays a certain resemblance to an amphitheatre, and the פָּנִים in this meaning of the term works in something of the manner of the πρόσωπον of the Greek or the persona of the Roman drama.
Here the “face” itself serves as a theatrical mask, a persona or πρόσωπον, which may shed a bit more light on the meaning of the Hebrew word, whose usage in this chapter of the Bible is so puzzling at first glance. If, in this particular context, and notwithstanding whatever else the term may actually signify, the פָּנִים is a convenience God puts on out of respect for human beings, in order to uphold them in their independence from a fully immediate exposure to Himself, that is, His omnipotence, an experience which they could not possibly withstand as they are, why then should He not don more than one kind of mask, each correlate to the different and, depending on what’s required, the antithetical roles He takes on vis-à-vis them? Thus, the פָּנִים shown to Moses is that of an intimate and accordingly was donned uniquely for the sake of a singular personal relationship, whereas another type of פָּנִים, the one which it was said human beings may not see and live, might well represent the formal demeanor adopted by God in an official capacity, most likely when His justice needed to be dispensed, impersonally. (This idea seems especially plausible, as the later verses say that God passed Moses by: perhaps because He was going forth in his role of judge to make the rounds, as there would have been much for Him to set right.) Now, why mortals could not possibly view this face of God without perishing, is prima facie a question susceptible of “infinite interpretation,” but I shall veer away from that risky sea. Suffice it to note that a stern countenance involves a particular modulation of facial expression (at least when what is at issue is human expressivity, which, after all, is the sort we know best), an active mode of self-composure whereby much will be withheld from expression so that something in particular may be expressed more pointedly and to greater effect – but also in order to signalize, if only pro forma, a basic respect for the interlocutor as another person, however harsh the tone of the communication may be. Just as long as one exercises a modicum of modulation upon the features of one’s own face and renders it πρόσωπον- or persona-like to some degree, in the act of expressing and communicating anything significant to others, even at its harshest and most inimical, this respect is given – though it’s by no means assured whether they will recognize this – while the less obviously hostile the rapport becomes, the more likely it will comprise, above and beyond the signalizing of that basic acknowledgement, a greater fine-tuning of the expressiveness of the human countenance.
The human face’s role as a filter becomes more and more important, the greater the care that is felt for the others to whom it is turned, with its expressiveness itself embodying an attenuation or amelioration of the vehemences of the heart, for the sake of the others whom one does the good turn of restraining the outer expression of the raw force of one’s own passions. The expressiveness of the human face: by this I mean the physical aspect in its rapid mobility, the lively play of its features, the pursing of these lips, the raising of this eyebrow, the wrinkling of this forehead, the flaring of these nostrils, the peering out of this pair of eyes – all being movements which serve to hold back much of the forcefulness within the soul generally or the heart specifically, in order that something in particular be communicated efficaciously and also, just as importantly, that the others not find themselves overwhelmed in the process. If somehow, per impossibile, human beings could convey their passions to others directly and simply did not stand in need of the face as an intermediary, they would stun anyone who happened to hear them, so potent are they in their enduring inward force, and then the passions really would be weapons: this effect would then explain why, if the passions are to be expressed at all, they require a certain degree of dampening or muting, which it is the task of the face’s expressive features to supply. (Incidentally, it may be thought-provoking to recognize, in this connection, that the human ears, that is, the set of corporeal appendages, rather than the inner sense of audition, are not mobile in any comparable way, and thus they have next to no share in the active expressive capacity of the face. Moreover, it’s already instructive, in the terms of this hypothetical-impossible thought-experiment, that to experience the passions directly would be a task for hearing, not for seeing.)
Sketched roughly though it is, this understanding of the character of the human face’s expressiveness, to my mind, may plausibly be derived from the passage in Exodus, which is the main reason why I’ve cited that text. More to my purpose, however, is to suggest that the human voice, in its sonorous physicality, above all, its characteristic tone or timber, but also the deliberate adjustment of the breath upon which it is based, usually filters the passions in a quite similar manner. Otherwise, the auditors would quickly find themselves submerged in the sound of one single sigh, stutter, or shout, and then nothing of any significance could be conveyed beyond the sheer undifferentiated outburst of a passion of this or that kind.
The care taken by individuals while expressing their passions to others, exercising control over the facial and/or vocal features through which they are being conveyed, renders communication of this sort a prototype or an early instance of the mutual assistance people provide one another when the circumstances are right. Interventions of this kind point tantalizingly in the direction of greater general beneficence, and although of course there is no guarantee that in any particular case an actual benefit will result, this common inclination towards beneficial interactions carries weight in its own right. In fact, some observers, at historical moments when things seemed like they were in a state of especially great disarray, have gone so far as to characterize the provision of mutual aid amongst human beings as an act that in itself is not merely human but even in some sense divine. For instance, taking aim at the disorderly mass of superstitions concerning the gods prevalent in his times, Pliny the Elder (Naturalis historia, bk. II, chap. 5) averred that “deus est mortali iuvare mortalem,” and accordingly, in the present context, the careful self-control in the expression of the passions which individuals may show out of respect both for others and for their own persons, quite apart from whatever they each might happen to believe in or think, can be taken as a small-scale model of the reciprocity of good turns he apparently had in mind. In the midst of one’s fellows, to handle one’s own face as though it were also a mask or persona, could itself already represent a minor act of benefaction; and it is significant that benefaction amongst mortal human beings was what Pliny commended and counterposed to the putative activity of the inimical, maleficent, or vicious gods by whom the imaginations of a great number of his contemporaries were dominated, doing so all the more strongly as he abhorred the very idea of the actual existence of any such beings, and regarded the popular adherence to this quintessence of superstition as an indication that many people’s minds had succumbed to the spectacular appeal of multitudes of personæ with no substance behind them, as though it were not in a theology so much as in a theatre that nearly all the world was entrapped. In this contentious matter, Pliny’s stand was quite similar to the position Augustine would expound several centuries later against Roman paganism, and neither ought to be dismissed lightly, for the piece of superstition the two observant critics each denounced did lend its special sanction to the generally low state of the mores, as in justification or extenuation of themselves the Romans could simply point to the misbehavior of their own deities.
Our present quite different circumstances notwithstanding, however, today it remains very much a live question whether single individuals, by adopting a persona, could each act as their own benefactors and thus in some sense be like gods to themselves – or would this idea reveal itself in the end as being just another of superstition’s perennial disguises?
More than a millennium and a half after the elder Pliny, a quite similar notion of the potentially-virtually divine aspect of the human being was given voice in one of Spinoza’s scholia, and in the reasoning that buttressed the Dutch philosopher’s claim, too, the distrust of superstition is pronounced. Pernicious belief played an even larger role in the middle of the seventeenth century, setting citizens against each other in the countries then the most free, like The Netherlands and England, as though they all had nothing else to do than to be wolves to one another, leading at worst even to horrendous savagery – “Ultimi barbarorum!” – and yet Spinoza, from the center of the storm and indeed all the more credibly on this very account, could aver that in a better-ordered polity, where, as he argued in his writings about political life, restraints were to be placed upon both superstition and those who manipulate the superstitious to their own ends, human beings would be able more readily to unite their efforts against “pericula, quæ ubique imminent” and in good faith to embrace the old credo, “hominem homini Deum esse” (Ethica, pt. IV, prop. XXXV, scholium). Encompassed by those dangers, on these islands of human beneficence a beneficent person might well seem to the beneficiaries like a provident god, and consequently also one they ought to honor, above and beyond their subsequent reciprocation of the beneficial act itself, and so on in futurum. However, it would not be the unique individual as such on whom the honors were bestowed and to whom the benefits were repaid, so much as it would be the person, that is, an individuality utilized in a manner that could be helpful to others, in the context of interrelationships amongst people for whom the sectors of time of greatest concern were the present and the near future, and not, as is too often the case with those fallen under the sway of a superstition, this or that bit of the past. The superstitious, after all, do tend to grasp such moments of past time as being uncanny harbingers of events that might yet occur, while every piece of superstition may well contain at least a tiny self-fulfilling prophecy that is still waiting to happen.
Of course, at this juncture it is also likely that one will entertain some doubts about the adequacy or else the higher impartiality of Spinoza’s own conception of these matters. For where is the human belief which would not, if examined minutely through the lenses of such a philosophy, reveal itself to comprise superstitious elements? Who knows, perhaps one might even uncover a layer of superstition in this part of Spinoza’s thought itself. For, after all, doesn’t his thinking confront the student of philosophy with yet another significant eruption of the fierce rejection of political life as such, an antagonism stretching back throughout the course of philosophy’s history all the way to its beginnings (this insight was one of Hannah Arendt’s most important), when the βίος θεωρητικός was founded on a set of sentiments that might themselves have been less than entirely free of superstitious belief, superstition which, although hardly ever recognized as such, least of all by the philosophers themselves, was implanted ever more firmly with each further iteration? All the more obviously in his case, as Spinoza identified the freedom to philosophize as the ultimate raison d’être of political life generally, as being the one for the sake of which the latter should exist, and also inclined to the notion that the most adequate mode of comprehension of things was by regarding them sub specie æternitatis: in consequence of these two intellectual choices on his part, a satisfactory understanding of all the important res politicæ, the characteristic durability of states no less than the evanescence of the most fleeting worldly events, would tend to become even more difficult than otherwise to attain.
At this point, whatever be the sources from which one derives the idea that a beneficent moment is inherent in the very act of donning a persona for other people or even for oneself as though one were another – or, in some strong sense of the phrase, being a person to them – quite apart from any purpose one would envision when doing so, concerning it too one may start to entertain a few doubts. Something that may have looked like beneficence might owe the semblance thereof largely to the vantage-point from which one perceived it intellectually and thus to some degree idealized it, whereas regarded in medias res, from within the forum of political life, it could actually reveal a very different aspect that one really ought not to overlook.
All the more so in view of the condition of the political realm today, where the personæ seem to crowd out the real people, while the dangers, as Spinoza termed them, are hard to locate with any precision. Currently we must contend with technologies of which he could not possibly have had the slightest idea. Although the impact of the Internet in particular upon public life, with the aggressive tone and attitude it evidently is fostering more and more in the latter, in part due to the sheer volume of “communication” it prompts everyone to conduct, has simplified some things, albeit in a rather crude manner, others it has rendered very much more complicated, amongst them the answers to some questions which hardly ever seemed to arise in earlier times. What I suggested before concerning the implicit beneficence of arranging one’s face as though it were a mask, in order to spare others the exposure to the full force of one’s passions and to share some part thereof the more efficaciously, is, so it seems to me, one of these questions. For as the so-called virtual space of the Internet has emerged and taken hold, re-configuring to an increasing extent the actual spaces between individuals, that is, the distances between them across which they generally communicate with one another with some degree of tactfulness – or, to say the same thing somewhat less abstractly, the peculiar lack of inhibition which is often noted of the way in which people conduct themselves while in isolation behind their computer screens, tapping away at their tablets, chatting into their cellphones, etc., etc., has also begun to dominate their manner of interacting with one another in live face-to-face encounters – as this technological development advances, setting the tone for all parts of our lives, however much we may or may not want it to occur, can one still safely assume that in addition to whatever else the self-control exerted over the human face and its expressiveness may signal, it also suggests at least a modicum of regard for those who receive or could receive the message? This assumption accords less and less with the observable evidence everywhere, in view of the common disinhibition of demeanor that the popular media have evidently taken up as being their duty to propagate by any means they can (two of the main culprits in this being television and Twitter, although several other players have also joined the cause).
If only what all these technologies were bringing about, amounted to the mere heedlessness of others! Which is to say, at bottom, a simple disinterest in them. But their effects are insidious – the basic attitude spreads and conquers almost imperceptibly by the many small acts of imitation of which most often one hardly is aware, even to those who deem themselves most resistant to it – or else it leaves its mark on the very counter-measures one deploys in order to insulate oneself from it and those in whom it’s embodied. So, speaking generally or rather (this I admit) quite over-generally, the moment of beneficence one could once have identified in the very act of utilizing one’s face like a mask vis-à-vis other people, if only in the mode of a possibility or potentiality, has not been subtracted from it, thus making room for a thorough-going neutrality of the human countenance, so much as it is shunted aside by a fundamentally inimical intent, whereby human faces, insofar as people continue to wear them like masks, are meant to serve not as personæ or πρόσωπα in anything like the old theatrical sense of the terms, but instead as disguises first and foremost. And the inculcation of this hostile inner disposition, so it seems to me, is the underlying purpose of the shameless displays one often sees on television and of the aggressive behavior to which the denizens of social media are routinely exposed there, none of which the administrators of such systems are especially set on discouraging, to say the least.
Now, what is it that faces-cum-masks of this sort are intended to disguise in detail, while perhaps at the very same time signaling that it is being disguised? It’s as though Vico (in the conclusion of the Scienza nuova) addressed himself to just this question: “le malnate sottigliezze degl’ ingegni maliziosi, che gli avevano resi fiere più immani con la barbarie della riflessione che non era stata la prima barbarie del senso.” When crudity of expression itself becomes a disguise, it is a sign both of great subtlety and great malice of mind, another indication that the “barbarie della riflessione” has advanced quite far: this point is my main reason for invoking the Neapolitan’s sentence in this connection. Yet the fact that he saw the growth of this “sottigliezze” within civilizations as one major inner cause of their decline and disappearance throughout the course of human history, whenever such a cold ferocious cunning overwhelms them from within, ultimately doing away with itself as well, probably ought not to be disregarded here, either.
When the existence of the Internet and its variegated effects is considered in light of Vico’s notion of the two barbarisms, the one occurring right at the outset and the other towards the end of a civilization’s life-span, something strange and thought-provoking may become clear. Because the Internet as a virtual environment is pervaded by what seem to be immense forces, all thoroughly out of proportion to the individual – whether it’s this technology’s inherent power either to retrieve entire worlds of information, or to put its users into communication with tout le monde, or to spy upon everyone and anyone wherever they may be and to store so much of their minutiæ – it surrounds us all as an inimical realm in something of the way that nature, to the minds of the archaic peoples studied by Preuß, seemed to encircle them. The problems, dilemmas, and conundrums in both cases bear some revealing likenesses to one another. (Here I shall refrain from fleshing out the comparisons needed in order even to begin to substantiate this claim, and instead simply note that these similarities represent a major part of the reason why I’ve turned to his essay at such length.) Accordingly, situated in the midst of the Internet as we are, the imminence of a new “barbarie del senso” looms over us from every side, announcing itself already in a tell-tale manner in the vicissitudes of our common notion of force, at the very same time that we are just beginning to fathom the other barbarism wherein crudity itself becomes a disguise for cunning. The one barbarism, in other words, is commencing again even before the other has ended.
Well, nobody can deny that the Internet speeds things up.
Whether or not one chooses to accept Vico’s dismal sketch of the fate of civilizations, something like the “sottigliezze degl’ ingegni maliziosi” is met with everywhere these days, wherever one looks around and sees not persons but rather a crowd of disguises, and frequently quite sophisticatedly crude ones at that, all aiming to work upon the unwary and naive – or whenever one hears the sound of manipulation, for currently a number of spectacular examples of it are being thrust forward by certain parts of the music industry. If, that is, one’s ears have remained capable of registering such a thing at all.
Even when Vico’s prophetic anticipations are left out of consideration and one focuses on the nature of this incipient “barbarie del senso” alone, other more recent observers have delineated some of its components, which thus, as it turns out upon closer reflection, are not especially new at all. One of these is the power which superstition – to call it by its right name – has come to exert over political life, uncoupling the latter from the pursuit of beneficence or happiness, to a considerable extent due to the course taken by the profession of journalism from the later nineteenth century onwards. It was this development that Santayana assaulted head-on (Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, chap. 43, “The Irony of Liberalism”) when he denounced the infiltration of politics by the techniques of advertising, effected largely through the press as an arena for the methods of marketing. “Superstitions old and new thrive in this infected atmosphere,” he declared of the society whose universal religion is journalism, which continues to be our credulous contemporary society too wherein “they are now all treated with a curious respect, as if nobody could have anything to object to them. It is all a scramble of prejudices and rumours; whatever first catches the ear becomes a nucleus for all further presumptions and sympathies. Advertising is the modern substitute for argument, its function is to make the worse appear the better article. A confused competition of all propagandas – those insults to human nature – is carried on by the most expert psychological methods, which the art of advertising has discovered; for instance, by always repeating a lie, when it has been exposed, instead of retracting it.”
Unscrupulousness, or, in other words, precision in the methods and confusion about the meaning of it all, is something we today still know a thing or two about. (As for what seems to be our prevalent skepticism, all too often it is merely the other side of the coin of the widespread readiness to assent to anything.) To extrapolate from Santayana’s remarks, which are already nearly a century old and yet hardly dated: the demise both of factual truth and of the ideal of impartiality, or, to speak cynically, their depreciation in value, represented an inverse index of the ascent of superstition as a social power, in its victory leading the credulous to pay an inordinate amount of attention to “whatever first catches the ear” – his phrase neatly identifies one of the things in which past, present, and future adherents of the “barbarie del senso” do tend most strongly to believe – and on this one point at least the Internet simply continues journalism’s work by other means, to an even greater effect.
For his part, Santayana clearly recoiled from the triumph of superstition in modern society, as he saw it, and today it’s not difficult to sympathize with this reaction, given everything we know of the technologies of communication, their uses, and their abuses. Still, given that for him as for Spinoza the highest freedom for whose sake political life ought properly to exist, was the libertas philosophandi, here too, one might likewise suspect, a modicum of philosophical-perspectival condescension and distortion had contributed to the appalling picture. On the other hand, although it would be a piece of chronological unfairness to hold this against him, in fact there is something important missing from his account, namely, an awareness of how desperate the inmates of this “infected atmosphere” may get, and of how far their desire to be delivered from it then may lead them, under certain circumstances and after some skillfully co-ordinated manipulation. What he could not yet have touched on, to put it another way, was the totalitarian temptation that subsequently arose in extremis from within twentieth-century societies themselves and which does not exactly represent only a piece of ancient history now in the twenty-first, either.
In this connection, the question concerning the Internet in particular is whether it may not inure those who use it habitually to just such a temptation, lending the latter the semblance of a mere innocuous belief, or whether it, by its constitution as a worldwide system of technology, would even actively foster the idea that for political or social problems which otherwise appear intractable, the sole solution would be a total one. Admittedly, this possibility amounts at most to a perilous inclination issuing forth at some point in the future from a technological network which, to be sure, has thus far been actually benefited the world in numerous respects.
A speculative line of thought such as this, or even the present essay altogether, would appear to have strayed very far away from music, the subject with which it began. Yet it’s by virtue of the long detour (as it might seem to be) that I can return to Cuthbért and KuuMA in order to conclude with a discussion of some of their compositions themselves, for if there is one single thing they all are about, or at least many of them, it seems to be the Internet.
One of the tracks on KuuMA’s album Becoming the Moon, which I wrote about last January, is entitled “What If You Were the Internet?,” and it delves into that technological system as though both imagination and empathy were needed to comprehend its workings from within. What the composition gives us to hear or to overhear, or so it sounds to my ears, are various constituent parts of the Internet discontented with their working conditions – we’re startled to recognize that we are the cause of their complaints, for, nominally at least, they work for us. These workers proceed to express their dissatisfaction as loudly as their various voices will permit, then pass from words to deeds equally variegated in their sound. Thus the composition sketches out a scenario full of drama, and to enter onto this scene we simply must put on something like disguises – how could we possibly expect to show our faces there? The experience itself feels like industrial espionage, and it is thrilling; but what one retains from it afterwards is the sense that the Internet exists over against human beings as a zone replete with forces that in all likelihood are inimical to us (how rightly or wrongly is not at issue) and which quite possibly will show themselves vastly stronger than we are.
This idea of the Internet may serve as a key for finding one’s way through the varieties of sound in other of his works as well.
For example, with regard to Cuthbért in propria persona, in April I wrote about his album Dream World, focusing in particular on the track “Yumesekai (Taiga)” (previously entitled “夢世界 Dream World”) which I’d also mentioned in my first article about him, and in it there is one sequence that struck my ears with the menace of a pursuit: it sounds as though someone is in flight from someone else, moving with heavy step and even heavier breathing to escape an assailant – yet who or what it is, is not exactly clear, as in dreams generally anything at all could act as an enemy to the dreamer. But more than the identity of this pursuer, what is of interest here is the skillful manner in which a wind instrument, Cuthbért’s own trumpet, is deployed to evoke the contours of an ominous-inimical environment in which there’s scarce cover even though one has pressing need of a hiding-place. Somehow, perhaps due to the physical effort required of the musician playing a wind instrument which we listeners in hearing it limn virtually in our minds or even perhaps by actually disposing our bodies as though we too were preparing ourselves to exhale and inhale, instruments of this type are especially capable of conveying the impression of some natural forces impinging upon us – most palpably the difficulty of breath one might experience while in the midst of a fierce cold wind – and so the idea arises that the locale itself could be the adversary we the dreamers are moving to evade, lest it overwhelm us entirely. Then, if the Internet was portrayed in the first composition as an alien realm whose denizens are in a great uproar against us, would the converse not hold good as well, so that, as one could infer, the inhospitable environment we are led through in this composition, with the peculiar vivid intensity of a dream, in fact represents nothing other than the ether that is the Internet?
Heard thus from its more hostile side, the Internet, this track sounds as though it says, is a nightmare from which careful listeners are trying to awake.
Listening well to one’s own heart is an exercise which, whatever else it might accomplish, can also enable one to listen better to music as it wants to be heard, while conversely, to focus one’s ears on music can render them keener in discerning that heartfelt inner noise, however static or sweet it happens to be. Yet, unfortunately for the state of our musical life today, the Internet tends to disrupt this focused aural activity at every point, on account of the vehemence, the volume, and the velocity of whatever it communicates to us so nearly uninterruptedly that for many it’s become an imperious need in its own right, rendering the music of the heart or the heart of the music even more faint to the ears than either may already have been.
Nonetheless, a great obstacle can call forth a significant effort, and it’s in this sense that the Internet seems to be what a more recent composition by KuuMA is actually about. It is entitled, albeit parenthetically, as though in this instance a title were nearly redundant, “(Can’t Sleep Need Coffee),” for indeed, as the composer himself remarks, this music is caffeinated.
In this piece, an excited psycho-physical state is rendered relatively directly into sound, and thus it was released under KuuMA’s name, for what need has a such a music of notation or a score? The recording is all. A live performance would simply detract from what was achieved in the studio, as in all likelihood the rapid tremors, pulses, and jitters could not be re-created on stage with anything like the same sharp clarity of expression. Each sound is meant to jangle and push the ears to be as alert as they can, and so any acoustic dampening would tend to cancel out the overarching intent: thus this is patently a composition for the headphones. That this is also the standard mode for listening to music on, via, or from the Internet, surely was no accident, for this composition appears to want to convey a sense of what the isolation in which individuals find themselves from time to time, and especially often since the establishment of the Internet and its conventions, might feel like precisely when the brute fact of being absorbed by the technology registers in one’s awareness with greater and greater intensity, on an ascending line of solitude.
KuuMA’s unique composition seems to refer back to the Internet in several respects, in fact, and might even clarify some aspects of the latter. The tempo, for instance, palpably fast from the start though without settling into a glide, embodies the speed of people who veer around that system, sometimes purposively, sometimes mainly in search of one distraction after another, but usually at a brisk clip; in so doing they themselves are displaced elsewhere, taken out of themselves, and thus disclosing to whomever might be there to see or hear it an interior part of themselves, although what is revealed at such moments would be neither the person strictly speaking, nor a persona, nor character: here it’s perhaps a computer-like facet of the human being which onlookers are shown, a sort of impatient auto-pilot that nonetheless is prone to run into glitches it cannot possibly surmount on its own. (How deeply rooted this part has been in them from the beginning, or whether it has been instilled as a consequence of their prolonged exposure to the Internet through many thousands of imperceptible imitations of which they hardly can have been aware even in their aggregation, will have to remain questions for another time.) Some other human power then must supervene to guide it all, and it is this assistance, provided at more or less regular intervals, which the musical repetitions in “(Can’t Sleep Need Coffee),” and most obviously the sequence of small blasts on the trumpet which continually recurs, now in the foreground, now further away or even barely audible, may be meant to call to mind: each of them, pulling the musical elements back from their propulsion outwards in all directions, acts to adjust slightly the course the music is taking.
Or at least that result is what might strike one’s ears to begin with. Subsequently, if the composition does shed sonic light on the Internet, as regards tempo and the feeling for time, it may also in so doing elucidate its own construction likewise.
At around the 2:03 mark, this trumpet sequence is heard very clearly, evidently quite near by, and similarly the next several times. The proximity to the listener brought about by virtue of this repetition may prompt listeners to pay closer attention to the rapport between the trumpet’s Leitmotiv and the rest of the music, and then one hears that the latter is not restrained by, so much as it actively responds to the wind instrument: the notes blown on it, in their coherence as a phrase, manifest something of the character of an imperative word, though more in the manner of a guideline or a directive than a simple prohibition. And yet whatever be the assistance they may render a listener in finding a way through the dense environment in which one is immersed, their role vis-à-vis all the other sounds is even more significant. This phrase stands out over against those others as though it were their conductor, and accordingly, in its variations in tone, volume, emphasis, etc., as it is variously repeated throughout the course of the piece, it speaks in the manner of the gestural languages by which the conductors guide the orchestras, even though it be from behind. (“Il faut bien que je les suive, puisque je suis leur chef !”)
A few high silvery notes at approximately the 3:13 mark double the trumpet sequence, in an amplification which moves the music into a passage wherein the tension escalates noticeably, as though the atmospheric pressure has increased largely on account of the greater number of sounds. Henceforth that sequence can still be heard faintly every so often, although even so, simply by its sheer regularity earlier the listeners’ aural imaginations will probably continue to recall it even when it’s absent from their perception, in particular whenever the ensemble of sound is augmented – which happens with an increasing frequency here, to a point where listeners might find the experience to be overwhelming, especially from the 3:50 mark onwards. Yet by the demands the sonic profusion places upon the listeners’ attention, it also can call to mind the challenges, posed even to the technically proficient, of navigating through the Internet, and evoke the accompanying feeling of frustration, at the moments when the system is throwing the most information at its users, regardless of whether or not they’ve requested it, and at the very same time, even it may seem deliberately, actively hindering them from responding to its offerings effectively or at all rapidly – fortunately, however, the mode in which this music has been made available also enables the listener to replay it in whole or part ad libitum. (If only the occasional irritations of the Internet were as easily dealt with!)
By itself this analogy to the workings of the Internet might seem to be less than exact, but a couple of other facets of the music may perhaps shore up its plausibility and have theirs strengthened in turn.
Quite possibly on the very first hearing, yet even more likely after having been heard a few times, the synthetic sounds of “(Can’t Sleep Need Coffee)” may strike the ear nearly as onomatopoeias. To be sure, it is not the noises of the first nature that is usually dignified with a capital letter which they re-create, but those of the artificial nature the Internet is creating all around us and supplanting or suffocating the other in the process: the whirring of power generators, the crackle of electrical connections, the hum from the portable computers, the buzz in the speakers or headphones, not to mention whatever aural phenomena one may attribute to the constituent parts of the global industrial infrastructure that makes all this possible and keeps it running in its chaotic order. But what is the function of an onomatopoeia? Or rather, what was its function, if we today generally listen to and comprehend these sonic likenesses only from their most innocuous side? Turning a final time to Preuß, it’s easy enough to infer how the first onomatopoeias originated and what they were intended to accomplish: to garner something of the force of the natural occurrences whose sound they imitated to the human beings who uttered them. (Onomatopoeias would then have been conceived as being akin, in their formidable efficacy, to words and especially to names, as one may readily conclude from the brief remarks concerning “Wortzauber” in his essay (Globus, vol. LXXXVII, no. 23 (June 22, 1905), p. 395): “Das Wort ist kein vom Menschen allein ausgehender Zauber, sondern ist eine selbständig wirkende Substanz, eine Nachbildung des Objekts, das es bezeichnet. Wir können das am besten an den Namen von Personen erkennen, die bekanntlich ungern mitgeteilt werden, weil man fürchtet, daß damit ein Zauber auf die Person selbst ausgeübt werde.”) A prime instance of the superstition fostered by that first “barbarie del senso,” surely – yet aren’t those whom the manifold immensity of the Internet confronts from every angle and throws back upon themselves and their own resources if they are to utilize it, rather than that it would utilize them, now beginning to face a comparable quandary?
Even if KuuMA’s/Cuthbért’s body of music as a bipartite whole is borne along on a current of fatalism about the Internet and the changes in our lives brought about by it – which may or may not be the case – one probably will come to agree that the question isn’t whether to attempt to appropriate something of the force inherent in this latest technology to ourselves, but instead how we all can best do so without being overcome by it, neither in our sense of time while it is adjusted to novel velocities, nor in the inner disposition of our quanta of energy or attentiveness as they are distributed and deployed afresh. To counteract the effects of the Internet we may have to make ourselves more Internet-like in some particular regards, or at the least put ourselves in its place with a degree of empathy or imagination, and so the first steps in a response to this very practical problem, KuuMA’s composition in particular suggests (while the other piece previously discussed also perhaps gestures by its very title in this direction), can be taken if we become acquainted with the sounds emitted by the technology itself, really or virtually, in order to enable ourselves to reproduce them onomatopoeically as the constituents of a music through which, when it is whistled or hummed again to oneself, vocally or silently, one might indeed increase one’s own strength, speed, or stamina of mind as needed, the better to contend with the challenges the Internet poses. And in offering itself as an illustration of how this improvement could at least be begun, “(Can’t Sleep Need Coffee)” does indeed provide some helpful guidance to the restless listener.
The notion that we could in effect imbibe – and by the ears at that! – and then assimilate some qualities of the Internet in order to guard against the multifarious perils of losing ourselves in it, most likely will come across at first as very strange, not to mention dubious. It is as if the sounds emitted by the technology in operation were thought of as potentially a prophylactic power or an inoculation! Moreover, the attitude of self-composure which is the desideratum here, has barely been delineated. Wouldn’t it be much more immediately a physical condition than a state of the mind? If so, how would the music help to instill it into the body, that some change in the individual’s character subsequently be brought about?
Well, in these pieces of music, the great importance of wind instruments – frequently it seems as though there are several different types of them in play, thanks to the electronic modifications of the sounds of Cuthbért’s trumpet – could give rise to the idea that breath might be the force to engage for the purpose. After all, the metabolism of human breathing with its inhalations and exhalations seems to be a major nexus between the body and the mind, and perhaps also the one that is disordered the most through prolonged periods of immersion in the Internet, with grave consequences for our capacity to concentrate on or to pay attention to anything in particular: amidst the “infected atmosphere” bellowing forth from our contemporary prostration before the Internet together with its associated technologies, as an ensemble which represents the latest incarnation of the empire of journalism, very often we all act in effect as though we were beginning to hyperventilate, whether we mean to or not. At present, when all the places, the pieces, and even the people start to rush, start to rush by because nobody knows any longer really how to breath – breathlessness as a problem by now having become much more than something secondary or a consequence only – perhaps it’s right at the center of the whirlwind of this self-induced disorientation that we’d do best to look or rather to listen for an applicable remedy against the insidious tyranny of haste.
These are the vortices whose musical likenesses KuuMA has devised in “(Can’t Sleep Need Coffee)” in particular, while also counterposing them to some passages in which the trumpet holds its own against them and thus encourages a listener to emulate its cool composure, notably a sequence beginning around at the 4:10 mark and lasting about twenty-five seconds, with the instrument sounding rather like a saxophone towards the end, as well as a slightly softer one which starts six minutes in and continues for ten seconds. During these two passages the wind instrument seems to lead the other sounds, as I suggested before, playing the role of conductor to their orchestra, and hence also representing the higher-level power of one’s own mind that ought to intervene whenever some bit of behavior becomes too automatic and runs into an impasse it cannot escape by itself. However, just as noteworthy is what happens if one focuses mainly on this wind instrument alone, for then it seems instead to turn towards the audience and to engage us in a sort of conversation, as though it were actually an articulate voice instructing the listeners, not verbally but by the example of its own playing and the respiratory technique required of it, how we might best economize our inner resources, especially the breath which otherwise would be expended fruitlessly – in the shape of vocal outbursts, sighs, imprecations, or curses – on everything that the Internet, as though it were toying with us, so frequently does to exhaust our patience without leaving us the time we’d need to handle it all.
Indeed. By now, or more likely quite some time ago, the patience of readers who’ve gotten this far will have been sorely tried, and even if it isn’t, time is calling and I myself have to hasten this text to a close, so in taking my own masked leave, I should simply like to suggest to them to seek out the fine company of KuuMA’s and Cuthbért’s personæ musicæ.