aan Arthur Olof, in herinnering
The text that follows is the fruit of around three weeks of work, and one which developed a will of its own as it grew, filling itself out to a considerable length – for which I ask indulgence – and more than once protesting that it was simply not yet finished. Perhaps I could have pruned a hypothesis or two or even entire stretches from it, but having now reached the end, it seems to me that its arguments manage to govern themselves fairly well, after all. How satisfactorily this essay will hold up to a more impartial reading, that of course I cannot say. Please take it as the quite tentative inquiry it is.
Reserve when one encounters it in, or else (a better preposition) around an interesting work of music may call forth one’s reticence as a fitting response, signifying at once a tacit acceptance of the work’s right to maintain some distance between itself and those who listen to it, and the quiet insistence on upholding by virtue of this attitude one’s own prerogatives as a listener, an equal member of its ideal audience. A select audience it would be, a limited circle of listeners – such seems to be the case with the sonic œuvre of the composer Marc Yeats.
Yeats is an Englishman whose works are of the sort that forestall too overt a familiarity on the listener’s part, opting instead to reveal their personalities only bit by bit and quite slowly, in a lento of self-disclosure meant solely for those who have the readiness to replay them several times over, at the very least. “We none of us perform to strangers,” they might remark on their own behalf, much as Mr. Darcy once did. And so to them these pieces of music may well come across as though they were personages aloof and impenetrable. To the unready, strangers they are, strangers they shall remain.
Repeated listening to them is advisable, then, for actually they do repay the effort: there is much enjoyment in gradually getting to know them. Acquaintanceship here contains something of the longevity of a personal relationship of affinity, throughout the extended course of its various moments of development, out of the first inklings of awareness, to the subsequent reluctances, to growing interest and empathy, to . . . – well, need I sketch out this, that, or the other trajectory which all should know from their own lives, experiences, and reading? Hence the enjoyment taken varies likewise, now oscillating, now amplifying itself along the way, for as a sentiment it is no less not immediate or invariant, but stretches out and ascends as the acoustic gates of understanding are unlocked and opened up. At some future point, to be sure, it too would tend to fall back, and yet, were I to attempt to quantify it and simplify its vicissitudes into a chart, the resulting line would probably describe a gently curving arc.
Comprehension, especially whenever (the etymology of our Latinate term notwithstanding) it is drawn out over a considerable tract of time and does not come about in a single moment as the sought-after flash of insight, seems to indicate that between it and the enjoyment felt by those who do comprehend, there persists some close connection or contiguity. And perhaps the interaction between the two is even closer than that: at bottom could they not be the very same inner process, registering in our awareness now under one, now under another aspect? This a modern poet, who certainly did know a thing or two or three about the “principles of psychology,” may have had in mind when, in a radio interview conducted during a visit back to the United States, she shed some light – or was it a clair-obscur she threw? – on her ideas concerning the interpretation of her own works. Speaking with the broadcast journalist William Lundell, Gertrude Stein responded to the common charge that by experimenting upon language she had overturned both it and, worse still, its intelligibility. Against this accusation she held her ground – for she had pleasure to defend.
Their conversation was transmitted on November 12, 1934, by the WJZ radio station in New York, and a portion thereof, which has recently circulated through the Internet, I presented in an article earlier this year.
Towards the end of the broadcast, Stein had this to say: Look here. Being intelligible is not what it seems. Hers was a compact counter-statement in favour of her own practice of writing. She opted instead for the appearances as such – acoustic phenomena included, of course. (Perhaps, as Stein thought of it, the intelligible is precisely what it seems, then, after all. Or else, what it seems, it is, precisely! So the tone and timing of the tongue, as I wrote on that earlier occasion, has a much greater share in meaning than one usually acknowledges to be the case.) Even more striking was the follow-up: I mean by understanding, enjoyment. If you enjoy it, you understand it. Readers who had taken time to get to know her work, had eo ipso enjoyed it, and hence had also understood it. By contrast, those who had done neither, were wrong to concern themselves with something they had patently failed to comprehend at all. To them she replied: If you did not enjoy it, why do you make a fuss about it?
The poetic author regarded herself as an emissary from a realm of sense wherein enjoying and understanding were effectually identical. When approaching her work we in our turn will find them to be essentially concurrent activities. There they wax, there they wane together, always moving in unison, as it were.
With very few words – how many, in fact, were needed in order to proclaim an idea such as this? – Stein espoused an avowedly hedonic notion of comprehension. However, the “ἡδονή” in the back of her mind, it seems to me, should itself be understood/enjoyed in accordance with some fuller sense of what pleasure, as we call it, does or can do. (To what degree an awareness of pleasure’s complex of accomplishments may be uncovered in the original Greek term, remains a question for another time.) When, as per Stein’s suggestion, one takes pleasure in something, this seems not to indicate that one is participating alongside it in some activity, being placed for the duration thereof on a footing of equality with it: no, surely not, but nor does it signify that the delight is extracted from the object, which afterwards will be left depleted. Quite otherwise, this species of ἡδονή both nourishes the one who feels it, and at the very same time also returns something or, more likely, something else to the source whence the feeling came, thus sustaining and replenishing it also. So, in short, enjoyment such as we encounter it in art, when rightly understood – it appears she intimated to her audience – comprises a set of interactions akin to the metabolic exchanges which the biologists have observed taking place in the processes of living nature.
Now, without undue qualms one could unleash this hedonic conception, which I’ve recounted here merely in brief outline, upon works of music such as Yeats’ as well. (They seem sufficiently robust to withstand – to sustain it!)
Yeats, for his part, has expressed his own sense of what is involved in his creative efforts (and in some parts of his daily life as well) in similar terms, towards the end of an interview conducted some years ago with Massimiliano Turci and posted on the latter’s Youtube channel.
Guiding him in his musical endeavours, to judge from what Yeats says, is oblectation.
Furthermore, during this segment, prominent in the shot is the painting behind him, and Yeats’ music is not likely to be understood at any point, and even less at an initial acquaintance, if the listener does not bear in mind the fact that this composer is first and foremost an artist who, even before he turned to music, was already a painter by profession – mainly an abstract one. His rapport to symphonic sound has remained, as he remarks elsewhere, colouristic, his method of building up a work, most often processual and experimentative in its embrace of trial and error. Yes, the orchestral works which result do indeed organise their space-times so as to appeal to the mind’s eyes as well as to its ears, sounding out as they go the nexus of those four dimensions, limning one particular location after another inside the latter, from each of which the surroundings will then configure themselves and be perceived variously, just as transpires with any deliberate change of place within a real-worldly environment, that one may better observe and overhear it.
Expectations entertained by those approaching Yeats’ compositions for the first time – and one ought to bear in mind the many ways in which a public’s initial expectations of a work or an œuvre will inform its eventual enjoyment thereof – will be more well-founded when it’s recognised how far, even after more than two decades of prolific productivity, he composes with all the zest of a man who had to teach himself nearly everything he knows in music. An autodidact’s character has expressed itself in these musical works, not least in the numerous hurdles his works pose to the orchestra in the pit, in their performance, and to the audience in the hall as well, in their reception. These difficulties are impressive in their own right, while they perhaps also signify his deliberate handing on of the challenges he took upon himself, for others to overcome, understand, and enjoy, as the case may be. As though the composer means to say: it is largely by an onrush of new demands that orchestral music will continue to live, and not abandon itself to the uniformities of an epigonic or an Alexandrian existence, succumbing to the temptations of a soft decadence beckoning towards it from every point, today. (Hence too, perhaps, the sheer gusto of his work in the various collaborations with several ensembles which he has entered into, both at home and abroad.)
The process of getting to know these works, new listeners may find, feels at times like an initiation: they are gradually introduced to the expression in music of some English traits that are recalcitrant to translation – ones for which, although not unknown, there is less than a satisfactory understanding elsewhere, not to mention an appreciation.
Marking the beginning of Yeats’ musical career, in the middle of the nineteen-nineties, was a short orchestral work entitled “I See Blue.” A slightly later recording of a performance of it in 1996 by the BBC Philharmonic, with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies conducting, is offered on the composer’s Soundcloud page. (Because the recording originated on cassette tape, it may be marred slightly by a hiss in the background, he suggests in a note there.)
His previous activity as a painter would seem to have echoed on in the title of the work, and the music itself should call up one image after another to listeners’ minds. Yet, more than simple images, it seems to be specific locales which this work gives the audience to hear, in a quasi-pictorial manner. For the title might represent a bit of a joke or comprise a witty reference to the place where Yeats then made his home, the Isle of Skye, while right at the start the music hearkens quite further afield, to the urban settings in San Francisco or Phoenix where the action in Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Psycho was played out – for who amongst the audience will not hear the evocation of some passages of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for those films, transposed though they may be? Impressions were taken of them in order to augment the effect of a laden environment which crowds in upon the listener, by a claustrophobic mise en scène at once optical, mnemonic, and acoustic. Amongst this ominous orchestration, the room to manœuvre is bounded very narrowly indeed; one takes but a step or two and directly a danger on one side, a barrier on another tower up: the music bristles with warnings of what not to do, where not to go. Whom then could one consult with? For counsel there is no one to turn to, here. Frequently, indeed, it sounds as though nobody else is to be found within the confined space-time of this composition – although others could be poised around its limits – inside it offers barely room enough for an audience of one alone.
Such a forbidding mise en scène notwithstanding, the composer saw to it that this piece of music is enjoyable as a whole. In the hands of a capable novelist, even or especially the harder passages of “I See Blue” could be stylised into lines of delightful description, which might function similarly within a work of literature – but I shall attempt nothing of the sort, restricting myself instead to a pair of illustrations in support of this finding.
Firstly, in this tripartite work or triptych (plus an epilogue) as it appears to be, during the middle section, which lasts from the 4:57 mark onwards to 8:09 and is by its modulation rather léger, quietly unlike the music preceding it, there comes a moment when, between 5:42 and 5:49, a voice-like phrase is heard from the wind section (from one of the trumpets?) that reads like an exhalation of relief, a sign the nervous tension so palpable throughout the previous third has subsided a bit: hence this instrumental solo conveys the particular kind of pleasure attendant upon the relaxation that comes once an effort, an exertion, or an ordeal is done. Now, it’s precisely just this dual reference, both backwards and forwards in the order of time, between a period of activity and the pause when it will have ceased, each essentially correlate to the other, which makes up the rhythm inherent to enjoyment in the fuller sense of the term I’ve been pursuing here. Hence it seems to be Yeats’ whole work of music which is enjoyed, rather than this or that separate part of it alone – and if some pleasure, strictly speaking, is not taken in each of its various parts, this abstention would, far from constituting a counter-argument, actually lend some further support to the idea. For pleasure, of whatever kind it be, does not constantly attend to enjoyment, however short or long the period of the latter. From time to time, indeed, pleasure is quite conspicuous by its absence. Therefore, could not moments of pleasure even be, strictly speaking, incidental to enjoyment throughout its entire duration?
To generalise a little: if there is such an enterprise as an art of enjoying – an art in which, oddly enough, a few perspicuous observers have awarded a first prize to the English – surely it consists in a gradual elaboration of that rhythm by its practitioner with patience and skill, in the awareness that an enjoyment worthy of the name does not arrive all at once, for it has its own discrete phases and is never solely determined by the end which we usually call pleasure, regardless of whether by this term one designates either the positive pleasure of some fulfilment or that more fleeting pleasurable feeling indicative of a cessation of pain.
A second illustration is this: at the conclusion of the third of this work’s “panels” (excepting the coda), there is, dare I say it, a climax which heightens the tension felt by the audience beyond the level it had reached earlier. The effect is created by taking up again some elements from the first two, such that in the passage from 11:32 onwards until 12:10 the piano is wielded nearly percussively, while the strings are deployed for a swarm of sound – but this time the locale set out by the music is not the very narrow zone where “I See Blue” began. At this juncture it has expanded considerably, and thus the audience finds itself placed in the midst of an open field which to be sure is storm-covered overhead and still wreathed in obscurity (it is always darkest just before the day dawneth) but where some blue flickers of light are already beginning to break through on the horizon. Hence the title of Yeats’ work is no mere addition or afterthought, for now one starts to realise how it anticipates – adumbrates – the place where the audience is left at the end, towards the culmination of the third part and onwards into the epilogue, although it’s only by those who’ve listened to the whole work that this can really be seen: that is, only these listeners are able to comprehend the work’s coda as being what it is, a dawn. In the delight taken when any such early-morning hour finally supervenes, those essentially different kinds of pleasure – satisfaction and relief – would be conjoined, and so, in the sounds of this ultimate part, more collected and calm than the previous three, both have been. Thus a musical image of oblectation is offered, and so the listener will understand that everything which came before was in fact composed for enjoyment of the work in its entirety.
Nearly twenty years of age, and “I See Blue” has become anything but dated! Actually it seems to be, it strikes the ears as though it were imbued with the present moment, abounding in the concerns of today. Its palpable nervousness is what those who are now awake, regardless of where they reside, whether it’s in the capitals, the other cities and towns, or the countrysides, will most likely also have strongly felt, wary of the catastrophes smirking at them from every corner, eyeing in foreboding dread the tumults in the streets, the wreckage in the skies, and wondering what is nigh. In addition, as if to compound the disaster, re-emerging everywhere once more, much as nearly a century ago, is the suspicion uttered as though he had set it within inverted commas by the other Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
– an idea or sentiment which, when thus cited or identified as such, as a bit of reported speech, may then be traced back to the suspiciousness of minds that themselves are more than simply observers to the event. For a suspicion like this one never merely accepted the dissolution as imminent, but did also, moreover, contribute something to hasten its onset, although of course disclaiming any share of responsibility in the aftermath. Exempting itself from its own consequences as far as it can, this notion tends, unfortunately for us all, to spread from mind to mind as though by contagion. And these days it’s been breaking out again, this time more voluble than it was before.
Listened to in the light of our present conditions, the sound-scheme in “I See Blue” may suggest how much the composer already had his ears peeled for the noise made by this particular sentiment or idea. Perhaps his work, as a result, was the record of a thought-experiment (conducted with appropriate precautions) performed upon it, to examine the sounds it would emit under certain circumstances, in order to expose some of its inner articulations, otherwise unperceived.
But I shall set this train of thought aside, in favour of another question which interests me rather more. That Yeats was able to write such an orchestral work even while he was living in the countryside and thus far away from any urban scene, when the city as such is the most obvious setting for minds led by their own suspicions – this is a datum I should like to understand.
Over that distance Yeats was well-situated first to adjust his sonic materials better to depict the realities of the city, and then to arrange them into a composition that expressed some of what transpires there. Perhaps from afar he was able to hear the sounds of the large-city uproar, actual or anticipated, better than he could have done had he found himself in medias res, amidst the urban crowds, or within metropolitan environments where the noises in the acoustic foreground might have gotten in the way of that which he actually wanted to listen for. Thus it could be by virtue of his having dwelt in rural surroundings that “I See Blue” can limn a few of the risks encountered in the city with considerable verisimilitude.
Relations between the countryside and the capital represent a main topic especially in the context of English history, and several of the sharpest observers and essayists have inquired into them. They have left behind a corpus of insight on the subject, and given the early growth of London into the world’s largest and most immense city around the beginning of the nineteenth century, an expansion due in part to the influx of great numbers from rural areas of the country, in the capital the writers of that period were frequently attentive to the traces of the countryside the new urbanites had brought along with themselves, in the shape of a few particular traits of character or habits of mind they bequeathed to their London-born children, in several professions and at certain levels of society at least. In these early stages of their urbanisation, London could prove a sheerly disorienting locale for the newcomers, and their bewilderment at what they there experienced tended to persist for quite some time. Meanwhile, back in the countryside, those habits of mind and traits of character were being drawn into sharper relief, becoming more identifiable as such, by virtue of the greater contrast between the ways of town or rural life on the one side, those of the existence in the capital on the other. (In the English context especially, the way of life of the country’s other large cities forms a separate chapter in the story, which here I need not skim through.) Hence a twofold development was taking place in England, or rather, two divergent developments each tied to a counterpart.
Amongst this group of publications, one essay stands out in particular for its perspicuity, William Hazlitt’s “On Londoners and Country People,” and for this reason I should like to cite a couple of his observations from it.
The piece was published in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (London: Henry Colburn), and then included in the first volume of The Plain Speaker three years later.
A portrait of that sort of native-born Londoner who rarely if ever at all ventured beyond his own corner of the city, and whose breadth of mind was really no wider – the Cockney: this was the likeness drawn at the beginning of the essay. Time and space are lost to him, averred Hazlitt of this type of city-dweller. He is confined to one spot, and to the present moment. He sees every thing near, superficial, little, in hasty succession. The world turns round, and his head with it, like a roundabout at a fair, till he becomes stunned and giddy with the motion. Figures glide by as in a camera obscura. There is a glare, a perpetual hubbub, a noise, a crowd around him; he sees and hears a vast number of things, and knows nothing. He was nearly overwhelmed by all the movement around him, and although this type is specifically a London fixture, Hazlitt’s description it seems could have applied just as well to a newcomer from the countryside upon his first introduction to the capital: the impressions made upon these two by the city were similar in both cases. Thus something of the narrow horizons and even the mean-mindedness which Hazlitt attributed to country people when he turned his attention to them in order to sketch out their character, did also attach to this typical denizen of the metropolis, their descendant; and hence his essay was meant as an inquiry into some of the traces deposited by the provinces in the capital.
That a Cockney himself could become aware of any part of this and therewith of his own background, not biographically but historically speaking, Hazlitt evidently took to be an impossibility. For, finding himself from the very start in the midst of this unprecedented modern metropolis (for which London really has been the prototype), this sort of Londoner lived his life enthralled by the capital considered as a sheer spectacle. His senses keep him alive; and he knows, inquires, and cares for nothing farther – in their operations his organs of sense were far removed from being theoreticians – and indeed, given how much of the metropolis there was, why should this Cockney have felt any actual concern for its transience? Every thing is vulgarised in his mind. Nothing dwells long enough on it to produce an interest; nothing is contemplated sufficiently at a distance to excite curiosity or wonder. His absorption in the urban scene allowed him neither room nor inclination for anything but the unending succession of its impressions. Because its overpowering appeal had captivated him, and indeed mainly via his eyes, while his imagination is jaded and impaired by daily misuse, the capital in effect did render him blind.
However, this portrait of an urban – but ignorant, non-urbane – existence was only Hazlitt’s starting-point. Shortly thereafter in his essay he went further, much further: he anticipated how the capital’s life would soon develop itself beyond its earlier limitations, as represented for instance by this typical London type. Even then the Cockney’s own special self-flattery as being a born Londoner, was already prompting him to shake off something of that first narrowness of mind, as though unwittingly to demonstrate how a public benefit might emerge forth from a private vice. He is a citizen of London; and this abstraction leads his imagination the finest dance in the world. London is the first city on the habitable globe; and therefore he must be superior to every one who lives out of it. There are more people in London than any where else; and though a dwarf in stature, his person swells out and expands into ideal importance and borrowed magnitude. Arrived at such a point, no longer would this capital-denizen remain quite the rudesby he was before.
To extrapolate along similar lines: from the Urerlebnis of the urbanite alone in the capital who never knew anything other than the massiveness of the modern city, this experience from which the essay set out, much else could develop. As an author whose active professional life could have been lived nowhere but in London, Hazlitt understood how this premier metropolis in its character as an immense spectacle – the very aspect which he said bewildered and overcame those encountering it all as though for the first time – was also the natural setting of an unprecedented liberality, in the classical sense of the term, nearly forgotten now. The greatest benefits of the civil state by then established and anchored in the capital, that is to say, modern commercial society, came in the shape of the expanded outlooks, higher views, and broader interests of the worldly public residing there, in the longer stretches of its history when it had attained its acme, lending to the metropolitan tone of political feeling some quality that must indeed have been very distinctive, once. Hazlitt himself was writing nearly at the midpoint of London’s extended heyday, and it’s to the credit of his perspicuity that he did not fail to refer, albeit only in the mode of an allusion, to the most far-sighted account of the conditions out of which the life of the capital had emerged step by step, already nearly two centuries before – for, that same early eyewitness had also warned, as clearly as he dared, the bellum omnium contra omnes of the seventeenth century would continue to trouble the modern society arising out of it, haunting it from within, persisting covertly in or underneath its manifold interactions and lending to them a faint hostile undertone, which might again become a thunderous outburst at some perilous later moment in its history, during a recrudescence or ricorso wherein the old strife would explode again, everywhere in the country but especially within the capital.
If, as Hazlitt announced a bit later on in the essay, in his times London’s worldly populace constituted a visible body-politic, a type and image of that huge Leviathan the State, then clearly he felt there was cause to keep Hobbes’ life and works at the back of his mind, in readiness. The hint to his readers probably sufficed, it was his “Et in arcadia ego” caption; while for us today there is a prescience to Hazlitt’s text which will be discerned better if it is read through at least twice, the second time epitaphically.
For much the same reasons, so it seems to me, these days one has far greater cause to re-read Hobbes with care. Here, however, I shall mention just a single salient point: the philosopher’s uncompromising avowal that it is fear which compels people to associate together, was balanced by his intellectual honesty in admitting that under certain circumstance this same fear could just as readily lead to the dissolution of an established society.
What sort of fear was Hobbes concerned with? (In the present connection, what’s at issue is only the fear itself, as a feeling or a passion, and not that which happens to arouse it in any particular instance.) Well, writing just prior to the start of the English civil war, he rejected* the common and as it were foreshortened idea that nihil aliud esse metuere, præterquam perterreri. Instead, as Hobbes thought of it, fear, the great although usually unspoken fear between those whom he termed citizens, was bolstered by several varieties other than simple fright, and actually inseparable from them. Ego ea voce futuri mali prospectum quemlibet comprehendo, he averred. Neque solam fugam, sed etiam diffidere, suspicari, cavere, ne metuant providere, metuentium esse judico. Although, he said, this complex of fears may be effectively banished from human minds for a short period of time whenever one or a few men established their personal dominion over others, it would soon assert itself again, once those relations were on the verge of disappearing; and regardless of how benevolently or not people’s private lives might be managed under this or that regime, the enduring system of all the variegated commercial interactions that together were the society or the civil state, as Hobbes called the association of those citizens, whose nexus was the capital, could not possibly be maintained without it. Quamquam autem commoda hujus vitæ augeri mutuâ ope possunt, cum tamen id fieri multo magis Dominio possit quàm societate aliorum, nemini dubium esse debet, quin avidius ferrentur homines natura sua, si metus abesset, ad dominationem quàm ad societatem. Statuendum igitur est, originem magnarum & diuturnarum societatum non à mutua hominum benevolentia, sed à mutuo metu exstitisse.** Thus, insisted Hobbes, it was nothing like a reciprocal exchange of assistance but rather their “mutuus metus” or “mutual fear” – in which all those various kinds of fear were concurrent – which had joined or even forced the citizens together into association with one another in the first place; and he repeated the claim in much the same terms a decade later, just as the civil war was ending, while also underscoring fear’s great role in upholding at least that degree of order without which the society could not subsequently seem to endure. Of all Passions, that which enclineth men least to break the Lawes, is Fear, he wrote in his major work.*** Nay, (excepting some generous natures,) it is the onely thing, (when there is apparence of profit, or pleasure by breaking the Lawes,) that makes men keep them. While this idea of the state and its function is fairly obvious, there then followed an honest acknowledgement on his part, which, it seems, Hobbes’ own philosophical conscience compelled him not to omit. And yet in many cases a Crime may be committed through Feare. With this sentence he conceded that whenever the society’s fear of the state’s force, quite often effectual as a deterrent, did abate under a certain minimum point, the older and never extinguished mutual fear could blow hot again, in such a way that a citizen’s life would evidently hinge on his having struck first. At this point, the notion of a single crime stands for an entire concurrence of offences – whether actual, imaginary, or hypothetical, future, present, or past. Multiply such a fear-prone individual’s calculations or his infraction by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, millions, etc., as might indeed occur under modern conditions, especially in a metropolis, and that old bellum omnium contra omnes would quickly flare up anew and consume once more the civil state in which Hobbes had hoped it could be enduringly contained. Moreover, generally speaking, for such an explosion the conditions in the society would be primed even further during any period when lawlessness seemingly is triumphing everywhere (perhaps not least by dint of the state’s own hypertrophy) and begins to appear almost as a fate, for then in effect fear will conspire everywhere to tear the structure down, mainly from within. In short, what the mutual fear made, it can also level; and Hobbes certainly never forgot just how precarious its construct was and would ever remain.
* De Cive, ch. i, sec. ii ** a footnote mark has been omitted *** Leviathan, pt. ii, ch. xxvii
Hazlitt, an astute essayist, offers the reader some marvellous lines of description and well-observed images of life in the capital and the countryside, and so doing seems to have had an especially visual talent. Hence, on a first reading, all the fears with which Hobbes concerned himself do not appear in “On Londoners and Country People,” for in fact the wealth of optical attractions in London did succeed in blunting the sense for them, the acuity of perception by which they otherwise would have been taken account of. The unwary were lulled by their eyes – this may actually have been the first point Hazlitt made in the essay. Accordingly, if those fears or rather their acoustic reverberations are to be registered on a second, more wary reading, then the careful reader would want to attend to something else: namely, to Hazlitt’s feeling for acoustic phenomena and sense of everything which sounds can convey, whether the actually audible sounds of a living life or the silent sounds of printed placards and pages, an aptitude less pronounced than his other gift but by no means inconsiderable. For even though by the early nineteenth century Hobbes’ fears could no longer really be seen, they could still be heard, by anyone with an ear for them, right in the midst of the period during which London reached its height of prosperity, liberality, and (as Hobbes would have said) precellence, being the first amongst modern cities. Nor is their sound any fainter today; and it’s the awareness of this circumstance which, after a slightly over-prolonged tour through literature, brings me briefly back to Yeats’ “I See Blue.”
Of course, today the contrast between the capital and the countryside still signifies, although with the electronic means of communication currently available, the distance between them is neither so great nor so much a chasm as it once was; and so, despite, or perhaps to some degree due to, the different demands to which each of these two environments subjects the individual human sensorium, the countryside might be a fitting locale for a composer to assemble some of the fears which reverberate throughout and haunt the capital into an orchestral shape: these urban echoes could be heard so much more precisely by someone whose senses were not distracted perpetually by all the city’s other stimuli, the visual ones above all. In other words, both the discipline exerted by the ear against the human being’s other organs of perception, which would seem to imply that audition has reason to keep itself a bit aloof from its counterparts, as well as the self-discipline taken upon itself by the sense of hearing, may perhaps be practiced more readily by a composer who’s removed himself out of the sonic maelstrom which Hazlitt termed the London hubbub – when that distance would permit a better understanding, and at the same time an enjoyment, of the fear still discernible on, behind, or underneath the aural surface of the capital, while the main goal of the composer’s own effort of comprehension was not to end there, but rather to enable himself to embody that feeling in a piece of music.
Accordingly, I shall now consider one or two short passages of the orchestral work sub specie terroris, in order to show that what is represented in them does indeed answer to the name of fear.
Around halfway into the first part of “I See Blue,” after the orchestra has set up a virtually cinematic scene – where the hour is long past midnight yet just as long before dawn, and someone is hurrying by himself down some lurid uninviting street looking for heaven knows what while dodging packs of people and things anyone would do well to avoid as far as they can – there then comes the drama, in the shape of the threatening back and forth of an altercation that could easily pass over to acts. For now, beginning at the 2:45 mark and lasting a tense length of time until 3:11, a figure is struck compulsively on the piano, as though to depict the nervous drumming of the fingers of someone’s hand, the tic of a person who’s trying to conceal the panic welling up without quite succeeding at it. Is the figure a musical picture of an involuntary lapse which, with the great distrust presiding over this interaction where everyone is warily scrutinising everything as though it contained a signal of intent, could itself be misread and then serve as the spark to set it all alight? Or else, on the other hand, a sonic likeness of a miniature act that both provides an outlet for the excessive nervous energy someone would feel at such a moment, and also helps him to mark the time until it’s over? Perhaps this musical figure stands for the two gestures at once – who really can say conclusively what it represents? – but its usage in this sequence suggests how the inveterate mutual fear could re-erupt between the city-dwellers and overtake everything again.
Later, nearly at the end of the work, at the start of the last portion of the work which I’ve called a coda, another figure is utilised, this one three short high notes from a flute, the third of them quite soft, as though together they were a single word. What might this word be? “Finally” – falling with a cadence at once of lightening and of anticipation. Several times during the half-minute onwards from the 12:15 mark it’s uttered, and all along the instrument attracts most of the listener’s attention to itself. Little is left over for what is rumbling concurrently in a lower register, namely, a parallel figure from the piano, an accompaniment which, if one decides nonetheless to concentrate on it more than on the flute, may suddenly call back to mind the earlier triad of notes encountered in the first part of “I See Blue.” Soon, indeed, this recollection is hard to miss, when beginning from 12:40 until 12:50 this other sequence on the keys enters into the sonic foreground, as though to suggest to the audience that even now, during the dawning of whatever it is which the orchestration in this final part might be thought to point forward to, the earlier sounds of fear will not let themselves be forgotten. For even if we are less interested in them at present, they remain very interested in us.
Not quite as palpably cinematic or dramatic in its staging as “I See Blue,” but perhaps even more sinister in mood by virtue of its tonalities and its implications, is another of Yeats’ early works, a bipartite composition, of which each piece can also stand alone, entitled “Pagan.” Of the second of them, completed in 1996, he’s shared a recording of a later performance by, once again, the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Davies.
Much as in Yeats’ first orchestral composition, throughout this one too the sounds of fear may be discerned – albeit not really of the same sort which stalks the metropolis. The scene is another; nor, as he himself states, does this piece strive to be a desolate pronouncement on our future and hence a specifically prophetic or vatic statement: instead it aims to provide a glimpse of the unthinkable (the emphasis is mine), and here the optical term may be taken quite literally, as he wants to show us something from a secure distance, briefly, for a short period of time, and not to situate us amidst the action itself. These happenings comprise a huge arcane and barbaric ceremony which itself is far from a pleasure to witness, and all the less so the closer the proximity to it, as there the celebrants are brutalised through music which is violent, both rhythmically and harmonically – by their own consent, for the music is theirs. This time too, therefore, Yeats’ is a representational work, yet in this one most of its acoustic shots were framed somewhat more panoramically and few if any close-ups seem to have been included. While the ceremony takes place, it is also observed by some outsiders: thus it’s this entire scene which Yeats’ composition in its turn represents to the ears of its listeners, and so it contains a representation of another music within its own musical mise en scène. Hence he’s made, not a music of violence, but rather, music about violence. Now, just because this prepositional distinction between about and of tends to evaporate in practice, given how contagious violence itself can prove to be (closely allied as it is, in this as in other respects, to fear generally, and especially to mutual fear), and also how easily the precautions taken against it are circumvented (whereby the interposing of a sturdy pane of glass or a protective distance, for the sake of the viewers’ safety, may fail to contain the violence, especially if, as does seem to occur from time to time, it is also transmitted by sight and bursts out by a nearly involuntary imitation), to compose music-within-music like this is evidently a risky proposition. But for that same reason, on the other hand, perhaps it is an acoustic medium which would best lend itself to be the most sterile of possible laboratories, if one wants to ascertain experimentally the extent to which representation (or figuration) and containment may coincide in the work of art, both as process and as result. Could it not then be the case that the translation of things either seen or imagined into an appropriate musical form will also require a prior act of neutralisation or disinfection, as one of the basic hygienic measures?
These are questions provoked by this half of “Pagan” as a whole, and they are posed most sharply during two passages in the work, each lasting around fifteen seconds, beginning at the 4:33 and 10:10 marks, where the insistent high-pitched tone, akin to a whistle and indicative that the ceremony is nearing an auto-hypnotic apex, threatens to entrance the onlookers even across the distance they’ve wisely put between themselves and the proceedings they are witnessing, robbing some of them of their wits entirely – and as a consequence perhaps of much else besides, for who knows what offerings or victims those pagan rites will have need of?
For the audience, therefore, those who are in a position to overhear – from an acoustic shelter that is relatively secure – these witnesses to archaic rites and the risks they are running simply by being in the vicinity, this orchestral work may come across as something of a warning or cautionary tale about sight, sound, distance, and danger.
The composer himself, however, as it seems right I should admit, may well dissent from this term representational as applied to his orchestral works, even in the somewhat unusual sense in which I’ve utilised the term, and would, especially in view of his concurrent activity (for he’s kept it up) as a painter, prefer instead to call them abstract. But perhaps the difference here is less significant than it may seem at first.
Permit me to turn now to two of Yeats’ very recent pieces, which don’t seem to organise their respective mises en scène quite as cinematically-narratively as those I’ve already touched on, and for which therefore the term abstract could be a better fit. How much of one – well, this we shall see!
A work for a smaller group of thirteen, premiered and recorded a couple of years ago by the ensemble LSTwo, a project of the students of the music department at the University of Leeds, is again a piece of music whose habitat seems to be the metropolis or the capital. Its title, “Crowded Rooms,” already offers a key to this music, while from the first bars onwards listeners find themselves installed directly within these rooms, and then in quick succession it’s evident where, what, and who they all are.
Not for the first time the locale seems to be somewhere in London. Now the hour is before or after dinner; the setting, a salon; the occasion, an urbane soirée or party. The currency of the evening? Conversation. Of what sort? (Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”) By turns it’s about the arts, literature, politics, or scandal . . . – but, once flowing, usually in an interminable evanescent stream. No venue like this could survive for long without these irrigations, and yet, at least a century ago if not already quite some time before, Hazlitt’s even earlier esteem for the breadth of outlook in the capital notwithstanding, a palpable fatigue was setting in amongst the more percipient of the attendees, who could not but help notice how many of the others would
come and go
Talking of Michelangelo
and who in dismay then began to ask themselves, How much longer? These were the environs of London ennui in which that older liberality gradually was extinguished, whose regulars were accustoming themselves to mere repetition and where the discourse was ever more predictable, the verbal controversies whenever they occurred not much more than rounds of mild exercise after hors-d’œuvres were served – is it any wonder, then, if these gatherings, replete with the eternal return of the same crowd, began to look more than a little infernal?
A gentleman was invited by a lady to an evening party; he went, paid his compliments to her; was introduced to no one, knew no person in the room, and of course was very soon completely abandoned to himself. He after a time entered into a conversation with a gentleman standing rather solitary by the fire place. He enquired of him the names of several persons, to all of which he received a similar though polite answer, that he did not know them. The other then told him, Sir you seem to be in the same situation with myself, and as it is somewhat dull here, suppose we should go to a coffee-house together and take a bottle of wine to get rid of the evening. The other remarked that he should be very happy to accept his proposal, but if he went out, it might be observed and appear strange, as it was – his own house!
– William Tudor, review of Louis Simond,
Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain,
During the Years 1810 and 1811, pt. i
Some such impression, I believe, is what Yeats had in mind in composing this work. As this music strikes my ear, in it the sounds of small talk, discourse, chatter – words at once largely empty and puffed up – and the sighs of great boredom emitted inwardly by those whom the loquacious hold captive, are adjoined in musical sequences whose visual character is as pronounced as those of Yeats’ first orchestral works but which have less need for the narrational organisation of their mises en scène. If conversations are what his “Crowded Rooms” is representing to its audience by musical means, an extrinsic scene-setting or narration would not be required, as these verbal exchanges are able to speak on their own behalf and keep the story afoot by themselves, as it were.
Hence, too, the sound-scheme in this work may come across as being more abstract: for there are simply fewer actions or events to create musical moving images for. Actually, of these episodes the main one comes right at the outset (starting ten seconds in and continuing for around half a minute), when the guests presumably are arriving, hearing the noise inside for the first time as they enter, hanging up their coats, greeting the hosts, having a drink, pulling themselves together, etc., and then plunging into the fray. From this point onwards, the music has been written in a more abstract manner, but the words, the boredom, and the exasperations circulating through this suite of rooms are well-rendered in distinctive sonic shapes, bombastic, dissonant, or high-pitched as each may be, and as such all of them do sufficiently disclose themselves to us in the audience.
Yet, while moving along with Yeats’ music through the rooms, the listener may also witness a few of the guests discreetly contemplating their hands, or someone else’s shoes, or . . . – nearly anything, really, so long as it draws their minds away from the mainly one-sided conversations in which they’re caught and enables them to relieve the boredom they feel, at least provisionally. With this encounter, a minor mystery seems to announce itself to the observant audience: namely, how do they abstract their thoughts away from the crowd in the room, without seeming obviously abstracted and thereby openly offending the vanity of the person or persons speaking to them, and (this no less interesting a question) where during the interval are they abstracting themselves to?
Well, every so often the best thoughts come to those who’re absconding with their minds during the boring interludes at parties. – Speaking a bit more seriously, however, this peculiar urbane boredom encountered frequently in the metropolis or the capital (and on occasion elsewhere) has contributed not a little to the development of a certain facility in contemplation, as a practice by which the bored could make their inconspicuous escape, temporary though it might be. To be sure, contemplation of this kind diverges a bit from what is usually understood by the term, while it has very little in common with the θεωρία to which minds may fly when they effectively have disencumbered themselves of their bodies. Rather, it retains a close connection to the body and especially to the body’s faculties of sensation and perception. Contemplation like this, as long as it lasts, tends to absorb the mind in that which is contemplated, evidently by any one organ of sense alone or by several of them in co-operation, and thus disengages minds to some degree from the other modes of their own activity. Often enough this can be done inconspicuously (otherwise it simply could not be practiced decently in social settings), and hence those stretches of boredom were not set unavoidably there simply to be endured, but could instead have been regarded as laboratories or gymnasia wherein one tried out or trained one’s various powers of contemplation in order to find out what they might accomplish, both separately and collectively.
Sympathetic outsiders have occasionally written of the contemplative penchant that seems to be an English speciality, delineating itself most clearly perhaps in the works of a few philosophers and novelists. How else could this aptitude have been born than from the boredoms of London, subsequently showing its adaptability in other locales and to other ends, not only urban ones? As such it helped establish the finesse with which those inquirers have sought to comprehend the natures of habit and of enjoyment, those elusive propensities of the human being.
Years ago already, two Frenchmen, great admirers of the experimentativeness of these empiricists and novelists across the Channel generally, co-authored an éloge to the especially English sort of contemplation, taking care to underscore its close proximity as an active power to the senses and their capacities. In a rhapsodietta of prose and a daydream of theory – the style which one had come to expect of them – towards the end of the last book Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote together,* the duo went so far as to suggest that sensation itself is, or can be, contemplation, however strange their claim might sound at first. La sensation est contemplation pure, car c’est par contemplation qu’on contracte, se contemplant soi-même à mesure qu’on contemple les éléments dont on procède. Contempler, c’est créer, mystère de la création passive, sensation. La sensation remplit le plan de composition, et se remplit de soi-même en se remplissant de ce qu’elle contemple : elle est « enjoyment », et « self-enjoyment ». In the paradigmatic mode of contemplation, therefore, while thus engaged one contracts – contracts not so much into as with the materials of which one is made, entering into an informal agreement with them, a contract which then entitles one to contemplate oneself as a whole, and also, although this of course will take place within certain limits, to re-create oneself and the very organs of sense by which the contemplating occurs. (The precise meaning of the authors’ technical term “plan de composition” is unimportant in the present context.) What are these limits? That’s hard to say, but in these lines Deleuze and Guattari put the verb “remplir” to interesting use: as they saw it, sensation whenever it’s most energetic does not deplete but rather replenishes both that which is sensed and itself as well.
* Qu’est-ce que la philosophie ?, Conclusion, “Du Chaos au cerveau”
Absorption in something seen or otherwise sensed, such as those who are bored at a soirée in London (or in Paris?) may be grateful to experience, could perhaps exemplify contemplation as these two authors defined or re-defined it, as an activity without which the world’s metabolism would function much more poorly, provide far fewer benefits than it does. By contemplating something else, under such circumstances, one might procure enjoyment for oneself, perhaps tendering some back in exchange, and even contract a new habit, whether of sense, of perception, or of mind, possibly encouraging others to do likewise. Moreover, at the same time, one could further whet one’s own (and another’s?) appetite for the questions concerning habit and enjoyment themselves.
For a light-hearted illustration of their notion of sensation and its great importance in all the exchanges which make up the universe, Deleuze and Guattari turned back many centuries – strangely enough, to Plotinus. In the first section of the eighth treatise in the third of the Enneads, one meets with a rather buoyant, playful text which reads more like a thought-experiment than a piece of full-fledged metaphysics or the outlines of a doctrine – or else as an indication that he, being also a prominent inhabitant of the city of his time, may himself have known a thing or two about urbane boredom and the paths of thought by which his mind could flee from it.
Παίζοντες δὴ τὴν πρώτην πρὶν ἐπιχειρεῖν σπουδάζειν εἰ λέγοιμεν πάντα θεωρίας ἐφίεσθαι καὶ εἰς τέλος τοῦτο βλέπειν […] – ἆρ᾽ ἄν τις ἀνάσχοιτο τὸ παράδοξον τοῦ λόγου; Ἢ πρὸς ἡμᾶς αὐτοῦ γινομένου κίνδυνος οὐδεὶς ἐν τῷ παίζειν τὰ αὐτῶν γενήσεται. Ἆρ᾽ οὖν καὶ ἡμεῖς παίζοντες ἐν τῷ παρόντι θεωροῦμεν; Ἢ καὶ ἡμεῖς καὶ πάντες ὅσοι παίζουσι τοῦτο ποιοῦσιν ἢ τούτου γε παίζουσιν ἐφιέμενοι.
Enneads, iii, viii, 1
The two authors set out the kernel which they found lodged in Plotinus’ reflections in the following passage: Plotin pouvait définir toutes les choses comme des contemplations, non seulement les hommes et les animaux, mais les plantes, la terre et les rochers. Ce ne sont pas des Idées que nous contemplons par concept, mais les éléments de la matière, par sensation. La plante contemple en contractant les éléments dont elle procède, la lumière, le carbone et les sels, et se remplit elle-même de couleurs et d’odeurs qui qualifient chaque fois sa variété, sa composition : elle est sensation en soi. Comme si les fleurs se sentaient elles-mêmes en sentant ce qui les compose, tentatives de vision ou d’odorat premiers, avant d’être perçues ou même senties par un agent nerveux et cérébré. Even an organism such as a plant, therefore, already has some rudiments or, perhaps a better term, pre-rudiments of the perceptual faculties which, in species equipped with central nervous systems, permit the absorption in and of visual phenomena in particular, a mode of absorption without which the human capacity for θεωρία itself never could have developed as it did. (As for the authors’ fleeting reference to the earliest biological beginnings of olfaction, there is no need to pursue it here.)
This summary Deleuze and Guattari finished off by appending an interesting comparison: De Hume à Butler et à Whitehead, les empiristes reprendront le thème, en l’inclinant vers la matière : d’où leur néo-platonisme.
Now, if the duo’s précis does indeed draw forth the right points from the text (and here I have no reason to address the question whether or how far this might be the case), then not only did the Neo-Platonism of these empiricists relegate Plato’s immaterial εἴδη to the footnotes, but Plotinus already at times downgraded them as well, or at least he was tempted to move in this direction, in some parts of his corpus.
His deviation here, however, if such it was, is not so surprising – for it appears to testify to the considerable influence upon him of Aristotelian thought. The notion that sensation (or else, if one prefers, perception, or even, in effect, as Deleuze and Guattari would have it, contemplation) first becomes absorbed in and akin to that which is sensed, and then, operating in the other direction, absorbs some quality of that thing via itself into the agent, may plausibly be derived from some remarks made in Aristotle’s treatise on the soul. Accordingly, I shall now briefly undertake an anabasis through a few passages in that book.
The persistence with which many works of philosophy seek the element of similarity in this or that mode of comprehension (from the most elementary kind of sensation to the highest forms of knowledge or thought) between that which comprehends and that which is comprehended, may simply result from the old and very interesting metaphysical assumption that only things in some way like one another could possibly enter into such a relation. These similarities, of course, have themselves been defined quite variously. Aristotle also offered some definitions in this vein, but evidently he had also begun to doubt how fully sufficient that assumption actually was. For him, not merely what this or that sensory organ is, but what it can be and do, and also the nature of the alterations that occur in its transition from an inactive to an active state, were the main points of inquiry when he addressed the topic of the human sensorium. He took the position that the organs of sense while in a state of inaction were unlike their respective sentienda, yet became like them once active and, generally speaking, for some span of time from that moment onwards. Prior to the commencement of the sensing process, according to his summary statement,* the sensory organ or sentient being is merely virtually or potentially similar to the sentiendum in its real existence, αἰσθητικὸν δυνάμει ἐστὶν οἷον τὸ αἰσθητὸν ἤδη ἐντελεχείᾳ, and hence only once the process has begun can this lack be made good such that the sensitive faculty would become (or make itself) like the thing which it senses (or which makes itself felt) – πάσχει μὲν οὖν οὐχ ὅμοιον ὄν, πεπονθὸς δ’ ὡμοίωται καὶ ἔστιν οἷον ἐκεῖνο.** This last is quite a compact sentence, but by virtue not least of its terseness, Aristotle’s formulation does seem to say that throughout the sensory process each of the participants acts and is acted upon in more than one way, while in any case there’s little doubt about the final outcome, for in the end some quality will be assimilated by αἴσθησις into the agent.
* De Anima, bk. ii, ch. v, 418a3-4 ** 418a5-6
These few remarks by Aristotle were perhaps at the back of Plotinus’ mind when he put pen to papyrus and conveyed his botanical contemplations into words, however serious or fanciful was the spirit in which he intended the resulting prose to be taken.
However, some chapters further on in his work, Aristotle turned again to discuss αἴσθησις in general, providing a conceptual elaboration which I also should like to rehearse, as it diverges widely from that speculation in the Enneads, not to mention the theory in Deleuze and Guattari’s last publication, and evidently is incompatible with either of them. According to this subsequent account,* the human frame is such that each of our organs of sense or perception, whenever it does discharge its own specific apportioned tasks, functions by virtue both of a reckoning or measurement or estimation (λόγος) and of a might or power or valour (δύναμις) within itself, that is to say, taking the meanings of these two weighty Greek terms together, by dint of an intrinsic and frequently revised assessment of its own relative strength and position, a procedure most often carried out so quickly as to pass by unremarked. Hence this inner assessment ascertains the limits of the perceptivity of which the sense is capable – they are limits because every bodily sense-organ operates as a magnitude (μέγεθος) and as such has its field of operation in space – while also, well inside those extremes (ὑπερβολαί), locating the midpoint or mean (μεσότης) by heeding which that sense-organ will deliver the optimum of percipience. Yet even when its performance falters and is sluggish or downright poor, still the ruling principle (ἀρχή) inherent in it continues to exist, by whose leave the forms (εἴδη) of sensible things do enter in through αἴσθησις without any of their matter (ὕλη).
* bk. ii, ch. xii, 424a25-b3
To be sure, this intricate system in the individual human organism will hold together only up until a certain point – but obviously many other animal species lack it, while it is absent both actually and potentially throughout the entire realm of plant life, the theories of Deleuze and Guattari and the speculations of Plotinus notwithstanding. Aristotle quite rightly said as much: although plants are imbued with some amount of soul, they have neither the μεσότης nor the ἀρχή requisite for αἴσθησις.
And yet the sheer visual and olfactory contentment which many plants afford us, may also convey a reminder of, a sweet warning about some of the perils which the human capacities of perception may from time to time have to confront, from within as from without. For instance, the initial moment of absorption when the power of sensation loses itself in something seen (or scented) and becomes like it, might suspend the process in which it is but one sequential part, and seek to prolong itself beyond any due measure. Then the μεσότης, the ἀρχή, and the agent too would vanish provisionally into an oblivion of delight, and who knows what could happen during the interval?
All the more worrisome a prospect, this, in view of what the human powers of perception may encounter if they stray too far afield, past their ὑπερβολαί, those approximate boundaries which it seems they have every reason to heed. According to Aristotle, a movement (κίνησις) of matter, whether of light, heat, sound, air, etc., which imposes upon the body a quantum of sensation greater than that which a particular power of perception could accommodate, will disturb or destroy (λύειν) the correlate organ of sense, quite possibly with finality, literally undoing, dissolving, or even killing it outright in the worst cases. Αἴσθησις itself, therefore, whether unwittingly or by deliberate misuse, may imperil the human being of whom it constitutes one of the very most indispensable faculties – for, on the other hand, human beings would be utterly helpless without it. (The intrinsic constitution of human αἴσθησις, Aristotle suggests elsewhere,* tends of itself to ensure that when one takes pleasure (ἥδεσθαι) in a perception, the sensation indicates that the sensed thing is good and that one’s soul is accepting it, in accordance with the particular capacity’s μεσότης, whereas feeling pain (λυπεῖσθαι) signifies that the thing is bad and the soul would prefer to avoid it likewise. In the best case, αἴσθησις is or should be a defender of the individual human body, on behalf of the entire soul.)
* bk. iii, ch. vii, 431a8-11
In his discussion of how capacities of perception might be damaged, Aristotle made plain his allegiance to a metaphysical assumption other than the one I mentioned earlier. For that first assumption already had slackened substantially: the criterion of the similarity which was believed to exist in any relation of knowledge, had loosened up considerably quite some time before him, and by his day it was a commonplace that the sun and the human eye were in some essential respect alike. But what sort of likeness between these two could there possibly be? – given that the eye is able to look at the sun only indirectly or by means of some precautionary devices, through a dark glass, for instance. Any human eye that sees the sun itself unshielded will be damaged by the overwhelming influx of sunlight into it, most probably permanently, as though in confirmation of Aristotle’s dire warning. In this specific case, therefore, an attempt to “save the likeness” by attributing it to the power of sight while the latter was in active operation, would have been implausible at best.
Here, however, the interesting point is that this most obvious of illustrations of the dangers posed to αἴσθησις whenever it should happen to exceed that which it can actually sustain perceptually, was not utilised by Aristotle at all.
His oversight, so to speak, is itself remarkable. Why did he not? Well, in brief, Aristotle’s own philosophy was conceived with that other metaphysical assumption in mind: the finding, namely, that sight was by far the most eminent of the body’s powers of perception, and as such already a bridge upwards to the superior faculties of the soul and the mind – imagination, thinking, and contemplation. As a consequence, physical light, too, was granted a special higher status as being an active power and in effect immaterial, an elevation of light which is, it seems to me, a further reason why Aristotle omitted to mention how dangerous the thing could prove.
Whether light too is some sort of matter, or else whether as a movement or an active force it is in some way merely in matter, was not made especially clear when Aristotle offered his definition of what it is.* Nonetheless, light is the prerequisite for all the developments which, according to him, the sense of sight is unique in attaining, while their dual prestige explains why the term for the activity of the soul which works with images (φαντάσματα), that is, the imagination, φαντασία, was derived from the word for light, φάος: ἐπεὶ δ’ ἡ ὄψις μάλιστα αἴσθησίς ἐστι, καὶ τὸ ὄνομα – i. e., the word φαντασία – ἀπὸ τοῦ φάους εἴληφεν, ὅτι ἄνευ φωτὸς οὐκ ἔστιν ἰδεῖν.** As for the φαντάσματα, they represent further elaborations upon sensations – mainly the visual ones – when they’ve arrived in the soul, once they have to some extent been filtered by the workings of αἴσθησις itself. Nor did the paradigmatic influence of vision stop at the φαντασία, for, Aristotle claimed,*** the activity of thinking (νοεῖν) always does have need of the φαντάσματα in the soul: much as the αἰσθήματα had previously summoned forth the powers of αἴσθησις, whether in acceptance or in avoidance, the φαντάσματα now prompt the soul to take thought, which it will do either in commending (φάναι) or in censuring (ἀποφάναι) them, embracing or else fleeing from them as it sees fit to do, διανοητικῇ ψυχῇ τὰ φαντάσματα οἷον αἰσθήματα ὑπάρχει. ὅταν δὲ ἀγαθὸν ἢ κακὸν φήσῃ ἢ ἀποφήσῃ, φεύγει ἢ διώκει. Indeed, without or in the absence of a φαντάσμα the soul never can think at all: οὐδέποτε νοεῖ ἄνευ φαντάσματος ἡ ψυχή. And finally, the eminence of vision is affirmed once more in the activity which stands at the very pinnacle of philosophy’s efforts, nearly divine θεωρία, the contemplation that should irradiate the philosopher’s mind with pure delight. (See Aristotle’s pæan to this highest activity of the mind (νοῦς) in the Nicomachean Ethics.****)
* bk. ii, ch. vii, 418b9-10 ** bk. iii, ch. iii, 429a2-4
*** bk. iii, ch. vii, 431a15-17 **** bk. x, ch. vii, 1177a14-27
But to descend back down to the damages which their misuse might inflict upon the body’s organs of sense. – Rather than a visual one, the example Aristotle provided of an excess of sensation was sonic in nature, as though to imply that in its susceptibility to perceptual disorder, human audition was the paradigm of the other powers of perception, perhaps also including vision itself. This is an admission which may point towards some other ways of considering human sensations, pleasures, and perceptions which while not unknown have yet been rarely trodden, and from which the inquirers therefore may still expect some surprises now and again.
When any sentiendum initiates too strong a movement, the λόγος in the organ of sense will be overwhelmed, and hence the vital assessment that was its task can no longer be carried out. This occurrence, Aristotle noted,* is similar to what happens to the sound whenever a string instrument is plucked too forcefully, ὥσπερ καὶ ἡ συμφωνία καὶ ὁ τόνος κρουομένων σφόδρα τῶν χορδῶν. Both the concord of its sounds and the tones of each of them are obliterated under the sheer noise of this unmusical act, but just as obvious is the likelihood that the device itself will be wrenched out of tune, and this was the main point of Aristotle’s comparison. Here, however, the analogy itself turns against him and his overarching aims, for one could pursue it and ask: which human power of sense other than hearing is capable of being tuned, and hence of having its tuning destroyed? The answer would then seem to be: none of them. So, right at the outset, this route begins with the finding that something unique is disclosed in the power of human audition, and in this sense’s special rapport with the soul as well.
* De Anima, bk. ii, ch. xii, 424a31-32
These could prove to be exciting discoveries, as – to exaggerate just slightly – hearing’s particular readiness for understanding and enjoyment, when examined with care, may suggest more to an impartial inquirer about the actuality of the human soul than the many encomia to vision ever could.
While everything of course will depend on how it is unfolded, Aristotle’s analogy may well contain much that could challenge his own metaphysical assumption in favour of vision.
The human capacity of audition has within itself a λόγος which, when it operates properly, does so in much the same way that the tones of individual notes and their musical concords all work together, whenever the well-tuned instrument is wielded with a modicum of skill. Probably this likeness between hearing’s λόγος and the separate notes (τόνοι) and concords (συμφωνίαι) which the string instrument is designed to make, also represents, for Aristotle, the similarity by virtue of which human ears can perceive them as they are. Obviously there must be some similarity between the hearing and the heard, for could music of this type ever have arisen otherwise in the first place? But how is this λόγος in its activity like a συμφωνία of τόνοι? Of course, one could infer that in this context, Aristotle’s term no longer bears the sense of a reckoning, measurement, or estimation (the words with which I previously glossed it), but now simply means a ratio or proportion, that is, a mathematical or musical relation between fixed quantities: a meaning which easily calls to mind some part of the sense of the word συμφωνία. Yet this word patently says more: the sounds it refers to join together of themselves, that is, they already are fit for each other, and the auditory pleasure resulting from their actual combination will be a sign of its rightness – at least to those whose ears are tuned to receive such a message. Accordingly, the ground of Aristotle’s analogy between audition’s λόγος, on the one hand, and the συμφωνία and τόνοι of an instrument such as a lyre, on the other, was not merely a quantitative but also a qualitative comparison, especially if, as seems to be the case, sonic quantities and qualities are necessarily interrelated in a music articulated by, for, and through τόνοι – where the τόνος itself is not simply the individual musical note but at the very same time the string in the state of tautness which emits it. During the performance of music such as this, perhaps even improvised right then and there, the specific qualities of these separate τόνοι when played as each ought to be, contribute greatly to the agreement amongst themselves which in turn can convey so much enjoyment to the audience. Thus, while in the midst of music like this, acoustic quality and quantity themselves enter into a συμφωνία and co-operate together, with the pleasure of it offering some indication or confirmation of the degree to which this is the best thing they can do, under the given circumstances.
(Moreover, now speaking quite generally, amongst all the arts, where else than in music do the quantities and the qualities interact and exchange places with one another at greater length, more continuously, energetically, and repeatedly, and to higher effect? A work of metrical poetry would have to be very long and very strong indeed even to qualify to compete in this arena against music and its many concords.)
But let me not lose the thread. So, once more: how is the λόγος that’s inherent in the human capacity of hearing akin to a συμφωνία of τόνοι? What two or more things are arranged into a state of concordance while it is active, thus affording the entire soul – as though it were seated amongst an audience – a considerable feeling of acoustic pleasure?
Well, any significant attempt even to begin to answer this question would probably first want to ponder the amazing development of the power of music itself, for by comparison to its earlier periods, both the understanding of what symphonies themselves can be and do, and the enjoyment taken in them, have expanded immensely.
This analogy of Aristotle’s does seem to imply that the human sense of hearing, as an active power, might lift itself far above the level of perceptivity upon which it began, much as the various types of musical instruments themselves, once invented, are subject to considerable change and improvement throughout their subsequent careers. So, quite unlike the other powers of perception, audition would be peculiarly malleable or modifiable, and susceptible to a concerted program of training. Thus, much more than is the case with them, it may be educated or even educate itself: it could give itself other habits and come to entertain new pleasures, and will to some degree even perhaps be able to re-invent itself afresh. Yet, at the same time, it is markedly similar to musical instruments themselves in a further respect as well, namely, in the attentions required if they are to be kept ready for use, the regular tune-ups which restore the συμφωνία of their τόνοι, the sorts of painstaking repairs intended to maintain in good order the two main features built into the very structures of these devices from the beginning: a discernment of the tonal concordances which did please the souls of active auditors, and guidance concerning the rules to be followed in practice in order to produce that pleasure again. Now, taking all of the foregoing into account, it seems the soul comprehends this perceptive power as being always at risk of forfeiting its own attunement, and indeed all the more, the further the auditive capacity will already have raised itself by virtue of its own efforts – therefore, what it periodically requires is a very careful tuning, some delicate procedures of self-regulation involving tightening, tautness, and tension, as though it itself were an extraordinarily complex string instrument. Hence, by applying these measures to itself, audition will seek to preserve as much of its percipience as it reasonably still can. (Of course, the vicissitudes of the physical organs of sense simply cannot be forgotten, for better and for worse. This is one of the reasons why Aristotle, for his part, took pains to state clearly that the various powers of human perception are not simply identical with the parts of the body in which each has its abode.)
Insofar as the λόγος inherent in the human capacity of aural perception does conduct periodic assessments of the latter’s strength and position, the provisional conclusion, if it takes into account the very modifiability or malleability of audition, on the one hand, and the similarity of its own operations to a συμφωνία or, more likely, even while engaged in its most rudimentary modes of activity, to a concurrence of συμφωνίαι, on the other, might well be that the sense of hearing also distinguishes itself from the others by its having to heed not just one μεσότης but rather many μεσότητες – and indeed, all at once. Accordingly, the operations of audition’s λόγος may themselves already evince, virtually, the character of locomotive activities in space. Actual hearing, for its part, is able to discern so many sentienda, each in effect at one and the same time, that its percipience will operate at every moment with several of these perceptual midpoints as its guideposts, and to attain its optimum of perceptivity it also has to apportion its attention between them, wending amongst them with dexterity. So, in consequence, human beings’ sense of the area around themselves would be shaped by the facility with which they can feel it acoustically, a procedure which is continuously occurring, albeit to an often unrecognised degree. (Here the substructure of audition in the body should be mentioned, i. e., the physical locales other than the ears where a range of noise and vibration stemming from the outside is sensed, and also the vital tasks which the middle and the inner ear accomplish, namely, marking the changes in atmospheric pressure and maintaining the sense of balance. These infra- and semi-acoustic perceptual functions pertain directly to the space around the individual human being, and they are carried out also in those who cannot hear.)
The ἀρχή under whose control αἴσθησις operates as a whole, then, will be kept especially busy by the sense of hearing, if, as seems plausible, the latter’s specific μέγεθος has a closer correlation to space than those of the other senses. In certain specific situations, moreover, hearing may in fact have a greater number of practical tasks to fulfil than they do, although afterwards it usually is not given any credit for having discharged them. So, for instance, this sense might play some unremarked but essential part when navigating through a street filled by a crowd, or locating someone unseen within crowded rooms.
Audition’s closer rapport to space may in turn be one reason why Aristotle took the operations of its λόγος as a model for those of the λόγοι of the other senses – here one might even infer that it is aural perception which gives the rule to the other perceptual powers, vision included.* In restating his contention that an ὑπερβολή will spoil, ruin, or destroy (φθείρειν), not this time a sense organ itself but rather its sensory capacity for at least as long as the excessive sensation lasts, he proceeded by a rather cryptic kind of syllogistic reasoning. The gist of this line of thought is, I believe, more or less as follows: first he defined a human utterance (φωνή) as itself being a συμφωνία – then he claimed that the utterance when heard was like or even in some manner identical to the hearing of it, thus suggesting, perhaps, that this relation was a συμφωνία as well – thirdly, he equated the λόγος in the auditory power by which the utterance was received, to a συμφωνία. Whereupon he generalised from that acoustic λόγος or συμφωνία to the λόγοι of the other capacities of sense! In short: insofar as the sense of taste, smell, or sight would need to preserve itself as a συμφωνία, or else in a συμφωνία with its specific sentiendum, it was modelled on hearing; and in much the same way, whenever that other sense would discern its μεσότης while actively sensing something, it was applying a simple rule of conduct gleaned from hearing’s strenuous manœuvrings amongst its own μεσότητες: adapting it from a far finer mode of perceptual activity, and the one considerably more demanding to sustain.
* bk. iii, ch. ii, 426a28-b3
Now – after offering my apologies for this immoderately long excursion through Aristotle, as it’s turned out to be, which could well have strained the reader’s patience! – I should like to suggest that these findings about the sense of hearing in its varied rapports with the soul may, albeit obliquely, disclose something of the ways in which the soul itself operates, at least at times. How the human soul takes its bearings, where and when and in whom it takes pleasure, and with what moderation, reserve, and self-control it understands and enjoys: these are some of the matters which might be approached best, tentatively and indirectly, as befits their elusive subtlety, once the difficult instrument called hearing has been practiced on. For the tones and the concords of the soul will prove still harder to handle – not to mention its dissonances and bouts of being out of tune.
One author who knew very well just how to pull back this curtain, deciso ma non troppo, was Stendhal. In an early letter to his sister Pauline,* he penned a few lines about some states which the human soul can attain. To begin with, he addressed the exaggerated notion of happiness entertained earlier by that mainly dispassionate Romantic, Madame de Staël, while also passing a cool censure on the dénouement of her disappointment which inevitably had followed. Une ou deux fois par an on a de ces moments d’extase où toute l’âme est bonheur – these are the moments marked by their own rarity and as such it would nearly amount to an insult to say they were happy. In fact they have little but the name in common with happiness, le bonheur, as the term is usually employed; with more precision they can be called bliss. Unfortunately, this difference Madame de Staël had failed to appreciate. Elle s’est figuré que c’était çà le bonheur et a été malheureuse de ne pas le trouver tel. By her bitterness afterwards, she clearly still wished it could yet be so. The vanity of such a posture is noteworthy; for, wrote Stendhal, even a little study of the human being would have disclosed la rareté de cet état délicieux and indeed shown just how infrequent it is, thus perhaps having saved her from falling prey to the illusion in the first place.
* Dated 2 Fructidor An xiii (i. e., August 20, 1805)
But what is this “état délicieux” that enlivens us just once or twice a year? A great irritation of our taut nerves – as though they were the violin strings of the soul. Pour le produire, il faut un éréthisme, and if one is to be provoked it will require a deliberate tuning of the loose instrument that we are, a gradual tightening towards the maximum of what it can take and beyond, for the pleasure first of listening to these notes, and then of hearing the cords quiver and snap. It is an ascent up the scale: une chanterelle de violon lâche donne le ré, on la tend à son ton naturel, elle donne le mi, on la tend encore, elle donne le fa, mais bientôt elle se casse, and with this, elle est en éréthisme. In nearly the same way, if we are to arrive at that last peak, nos nerfs are to be stretched, producing those higher tones for the shortest of times, of course. L’état d’extase les met dans un état qui ne peut durer sans produire d’horribles douleurs. Hence, if it were prolonged, the nerves, and the soul altogether, would not be hardened, but dissolved or destroyed.
Should this brief state then be called bliss at all? Probably not. Yet the strange disparity between the condition and its name, is itself significant: it may in turn call attention to the descriptive meagerness of this part of the common store of concepts. (On the other hand, the further those who have world enough and time dive into this lexicon, the greater the number of counterexamples they might resurface with.) In general, the highest delectations have usually been cast in terms of vision, and this choice very likely has also induced some foreshortening in the actual experiences themselves – now, all of this will seem even more peculiar insofar as those ecstatic moments, when they do happen to strike the human soul, are felt inwardly as though during them it were hearing rather than seeing.
With one’s ears held open, in accordance with this hint, some of the requisite distinctions may begin to announce themselves. So this very short state of ecstasy, however ecstatic one feels it to be, is neither a source of happiness, properly speaking, nor in itself an exemplification of joy or felicity or delight, let alone pleasurable to the one momentarily enrapt in it. No, on the contrary, if any pleasure is to be felt here at all, it will only come once the ecstatic state in its very brevity shall have ceased. When one has been left alone, and to pick up the pieces, as the case may be, then relief can set in, then elation can supervene – however briefly – the feeling of negative pleasure, which retreats nearly as rapidly as did the unbliss of which it is but an echo.
The brief moments of ecstasy which Stendhal was thinking about, if those who are affected by them thereby receive an opportunity to witness just how how high they themselves can be strung, always arise as culminations of tension, tautness, and tightening. Souls which deliberately seek these moments out, therefore, may actually have a predilection for pain.
Hence the complex of distinctions to be educed from the sphere of specifically acoustic experience, should not comprise the group of terms for pleasure of one sort or another. Each of those concepts, notwithstanding its apparent formulation as a positivity and thus as fit to designate this or that real plenitude, remains in fact an index of a durable and endurable condition in which only to a lesser degree can some other and much more mighty intensity be felt – an inherent diminution reminiscent of the modulations Aristotle touched upon in his account of the μεσότης of human αἴσθησις. Within the domain of acoustic awareness, accordingly, a pleasure of whatever sort could be taken as pointing towards an intensity of a considerably higher kind, both quantitatively and qualitatively, of which the actual experience would then almost by definition prove to be painful. So, from each of these various concepts for the different pleasures and their respective modes of taking hold of the human sensorium, perception, soul, and mind, what one may want to abstract, is a separate term for a distinct sort of acoustic pain. And once this previously unavailable set of distinctions were elaborated, as a starting-point susceptible of further augmentation by dint of the subsequent findings, they could be tried out in the realms of the other senses as well, as applicable.
Within certain inexact limits, therefore – for does it not remain rather obvious that the human body’s ὑπερβολαί cannot ever simply be wished away by the mind? – what is commonly pejorated as “pain” could be distinguished more satisfactorily than it almost always has been, and in so doing its select public of hedonic auditors would come to understand and enjoy it better. (Pain, as Gertrude Stein might also have remarked, is not what it seems. Nor is it simply one force, and the relations amongst its varieties ought to be acknowledged, much as Hobbes did in the case of that other greatly misunderstood power in human life, fear.)
Stendhal’s notion of the few human beings who treat themselves roughly as string instruments, has not forfeited any of its provocative power over the course of the two centuries since he set it down in his private correspondence. On the contrary, with time it has grown into a great piece of prescience, and who can tell what notes or noises the future might yet strike up from it?
Now, however, I should like to point out one significant ambiguity it does seem to contain.
On the one hand, he seemed to forecast one or two of the shapes to be taken by the century’s furious dislike of the life it was leading.
Stendhal did say outright that this delicious tightening up of the human instrument could not last long. Soon its string breaks and the violin is put out of action for a while, but at least the notes were emitted and a sudden tempest of intense feeling had burst forth: it fumed, foamed, and faded. Some nervous damage had been risked for the sake of sheer sensation, therefore: and so this was a self-indulgence meant to stand both as a small revolt against the boredom which, under Napoléon, had begun to weigh heavily upon urbane society in its leisure (more so perhaps in Paris than in London), and also, somewhat more emphatically, as a protest against the frenetic activity in which it seemed tout le monde was more or less necessarily caught up at most other times. Nonetheless the whole age left its stamp upon these individual acts, precisely in the personal vanité they revealed, even unbeknownst to those who put their nerves under strain in just this way.
The young Stendhal was already amongst the keenest observers of society.
Yet in those few lines there seems to be another anticipation of the discontents to come, and this one leaps much further ahead. (Je serai connu en 1880. Je serai compris en 1930. And so he was.)
An apocryphal statement; attested however is this: Et moi, je mets un billet à une loterie, dont le gros lot se réduit à ceci : être lu en 1935.*
* Vie de Henri Brulard, vol. i, ch. xxiii
Quite possibly the damage inflicted upon the instrument did not represent an incidental risk in the course of bringing it to its own highest possible pitch of sensation – but rather it would become the very point of the whole endeavour. No longer would the effort yield an ascertainment of this human being’s own extremes. Self-destruction as such could instead disclose itself as being the guiding aim: this would be a destruction of himself not in the most obvious form and with the finality of an outright suicide, but as an act of turning upon himself in such a manner that the destroyer, while he was stretching himself entirely beyond the limits he did believe he could bear, might at the very same time be able to witness the devastation of himself that ensued. It was the “horribles douleurs” themselves which he hoped to encounter, experimentally. By inflicting them upon himself, at least he might perhaps come to know, if only for the briefest period of time before expiring – but could they not in fact then disclose themselves as something other than the unbearable pain they seemed from a distance to be? – what they were.
This attempted destruction of oneself, with its premise that seems so illogical, could actually be implemented experimentally in the modality of acoustic experience, given the unique self-reflexivity that is characteristic of the human sense of hearing when it is active, especially in its very close rapport with the powers of voice and speech, as well as on account of the considerably greater internal intricacy of its own many operations. Otherwise – that is, by focusing the attention on visual phenomena, on real appearances or those recollected or imagined for the purpose – the attempt would have remained a sheer impossibility. (At least for the time being.) But those who would willingly expose themselves unreservedly to explosions of sound and their reverberations and echoes, might indeed carry it out; as such this act could no longer be a relatively innocent personal gesture, nor even especially vain: rather, it was already a premonition of that nineteenth-century nihilism which, several decades later, would begin to express and propagate itself by deeds.
By whom would those deeds later be done? By those who might have hoped to play some public role in political life, had the existing order been established differently than it was, but for whom, under the given circumstances, there simply was no place in it to be found. However, this “underground” had probably derived the very notion of that which its denizens intended to ascertain by, in, and through their nihilist actions, from an external source – although they copied it out only with terrible simplifications – namely, from the published works of some of their near-contemporaries amongst the philosophers. The latter, had they lived in earlier ages, would probably have devoted themselves to θεωρία as being the very summit of the philosophical life; but by their times, in the midst of the nineteenth century, they were deliberately overturning that ideal, regarding it as having become a hindrance to further thought, and seeking some alternate mode of fulfilment for thinking – at times by means of a few living experiments they performed upon their own and upon their selfhood as well. Hence the tone and the titles of their texts, those features which probably attracted the attention of the nineteenth-century “underground” in the first place.
(For the premier instance of such a philosopher, one can turn to Stirner. That human beings should still act as loyal subjects under their own Geist, in effect continuing to regard θεωρία as the supreme activity of the mind, this he would not accept. Contemplation must cease to rule all thinking, or, as he said, tyrannise over it – which does not mean that thinking at times could not employ it as needed. Wir sollen zwar Geist haben, aber der Geist soll Uns nicht haben – that is practically his credo.* Even freer was his remark later: Wenn Ich ihn – der Geist – zu einem Spuk und seine Gewalt über Mich zu einem Sparren herabgesetzt habe, dann ist er für entweiht, entheiligt, entgöttert anzusehen, und dann gebrauche Ich ihn, wie man die Natur unbedenklich nach Gefallen gebraucht.** One may look askance at his last clause, but Stirner’s emphasis on human pleasure is worthy of note.)
* Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum, pt. i, ch. ii, sec. 2, § 2 ** § 3
Those later nineteenth-century nihilist acts were themselves still the deeds of individuals, but in several instances their perpetrators did in fact perish. The final thrilling awareness of themselves in extremis – this they often deemed as sufficient inducement to go through with it. Nor was their inner readiness itself entirely in vain, as it did not go forgotten: for, already many years afterwards and a few decades into the twentieth century (the very moment when, oddly enough, Stendhal had predicted he would at last be understood), a political movement which aimed to transform the state itself into a totalitarian edifice, attracted its millions of members in no small part because it held out before them the anticipation of just such a death. The thrill of it was aroused in them acoustically even more than visually, insofar as this destruction of themselves they would, more likely than not, not have cared to envision by any φαντάσμα of the imagination; but whether it was a few mesmerising bars of operatic Tonbilder, or a redeployment of the sounds, signals, and songs familiar to those who lived through the battlefields of twenty years before, or the frightful shouting with which the impending was announced during innumerable radio broadcasts, or a terrible aural brew of all of this, those masters of propaganda disposed over the materials required to incite and excite their followers to the point where they as a mass would be ready for anything.
What I’ve suggested about the prescience of Stendhal’s notion of the human soul as a string instrument, has pertained thus far to one side of the story. Yet there is still something else in it – as befits the best metaphors, this one is ambiguous – which I should like to touch on briefly, before I return to Marc Yeats and his “Crowded Rooms.”
The ambiguity which I mentioned earlier stems from an evident fact: Stendhal’s own notion was not for the most part intended as a prognostication. Rather, it evoked by a complex metaphor something of the essence of an already long-established way of life: his comparison called attention to the nearly continual effort of self-tuning which is perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of the life of pleasure as such. He was rehearsing and summarising what the whole very diverse tribe of bons vivants, lovers of art, music, theatre, dance, and literature, and the publics of various sorts – alongside les maîtres de la cuisine, artists, composers, conductors, musicians, singers, dramatists, actors, directors, dancers, performers, poets, authors, and athletes, all engaged in their own typical pursuits – undertook whenever they were active. This necessary concern for one’s soul as being akin to an instrument, and for that actual instrument human beings have been given, the faculty of αἴσθησις itself, was for the participants in this way of life always a concurrent activity accompanying whatever they found it worthwhile to do. An image of this hedonic concern in action: that is what Stendhal wanted to provide with his metaphor of the human violin.
Those who participate in the life of pleasure – is there a satisfactory term with which to encompass them all? – are, generally speaking, always also exploring their own ranges. What can they perform, what can they accomplish, what can they create, what can they perceive: finding this out from moment to moment, is the inherent sense of their various efforts, and at the very same time they ascertain what they themselves cannot now, or else cannot yet, hope to perceive, create, accomplish, perform. These inquiries themselves are their bonheur!
Breaking the instrument in the very attempt, while it is a risk which, precisely as such, might deliver some small frisson of its own, would be exactly what they all strive to avoid. May it amount to no more than a rare bitter occurrence!
With his image of how the lives of this tribe are conducted, Stendhal offered in essence or in miniature a defence and illustration of the βίος ἡδονικός itself. An illustration of what? Of the last of the three “styles of life” which, according to Aristotle,* may all be considered – for he had to grant that even the choice of this third is to some extent reasonable – as bearing their fulfilment within themselves, and therefore as fit to be pursued freely for their own sakes, each understood as the greatest of goods and thus taken to be sufficient in itself. (For its part, the good (τὸ ἀγαθὸν) seems to display self-sufficiency as one of its most eminent characteristics, τὸ γὰρ τέλειον ἀγαθὸν αὔταρκες εἶναι δοκεῖ,** and as a consequence, a self-supporting condition will be the desideratum that human life strives for and by which it is rendered worthwhile in the first place.***) This third βίος was the one Aristotle could not quite bring himself to name as such, impartially, instead employing a rather derogatory circumlocution (ἀπολαυστικός); nor did he attempt to list the varied human pursuits which upon further reflection would seem to comprise it. Much later, however, in the sketch devoted by Diogenes Laërtius to Aristotle,**** it was at least designated fairly. (βίων τε τριῶν ὄντων, θεωρητικοῦ, πρακτικοῦ, ἡδονικοῦ, τὸν θεωρητικὸν προέκρινεν.) But it is Aristotle’s bare acknowledgment which matters here, for his intellectual honesty moved him to admit that this third one could exist on the same plane as the βίος πολιτικός and the βίος θεωρητικός, and hence was their rival.
* Nicomachean Ethics, bk. i, ch. v, 1095b13-19, and similarly his Eudemian Ethics, bk. i, ch. iv, 1215a35-b5
** Nicomachean Ethics, bk. i, ch. vii, 1097b7-8 *** 1097b13-15 **** Lives, bk. v, ch. i, 31
A rival. This in itself may begin to suggest why it has hardly ever been heard of since. Were the other two βίοι, their own mutual antagonism notwithstanding, leagued together against it in a fatal conspiracy of silence that succeeded only too well? If that is so, one might want to replay the great theme of the strife throughout our entire history between the βίος θεωρητικός and the βίος πολιτικός – perhaps then it will not remain quite the same music one had taken it to be.
As for the life of pleasure as we have known it, however generally aboveboard and usually irreproachable was the manner in which it behaved itself in society, its reception has often been dismissive. At times it is denigrated and deliberately misunderstood, at times denounced forcefully as a mere frivolity. Yet it may have had its own good reasons for never objecting too much to all this: indeed, it prospers in its relative isolation, perhaps to some degree because it has avoided closer scrutiny from without. Its own aloofness does seem to serve it rather well.
Here we have arrived again in distinctively English surroundings, albeit not yet quite back amongst those “Crowded Rooms.”
This change of locale is all the more significant, for, as seems likely, all the usual clichés notwithstanding, the life of pleasure may well have been – and still be – pursued in England with a greater finesse than elsewhere. There it is touched with a finer feeling of what this pursuit may actually involve. Hence it will be, that if one places oneself sympathetically right in the midst of this better mode of activity, the insidious numbness brought on within the native environs of ennui, which then prompted some of its adepts to inflict sheer sensation upon their tired sensoria in the vain desire thus to reawaken them, would itself be felt rather differently and less impetuously, if it is even accorded much perceptual attention at all; and as for the boredoms spawned closer to home in the London drawing rooms, there are so many resources available to this art of enjoyment to counterbalance them, that they too may be taken in stride, and not drive one to embrace desperate measures.
So, right in the heart of the modern life of pleasure, whenever and wherever it understands, enjoys, and conducts itself à l’anglaise, one may find a gentle treatment of the sensorium, of perception, and of the soul, by means of which these human faculties could all inoculate themselves, often with success, against the hellish temptations to which other people, when moved by an overwhelming inner desperation that has got them in its grip, might succumb.
Dexterity in the handling of the interrelations amongst these faculties, has been a rather prominent feature in the works of the best English philosophers, and the Scottish ones as well. Hobbes, for instance, noted of the ease with which human beings can lose track of the kinetic occurrences that give rise to all the appearances of the phenomena they perceive, that this is the great Deception of Sense, which also is to be by Sense corrected.* Accordingly, the human being’s senses, although they are anything but infallible and so cannot be allowed to impose their rule upon the other human faculties, do not necessarily require a ruler above themselves, either. They may hope to attain a certain self-reliance and self-governance, and indeed, it’s more than probable that they have done so already. Hence, from the rather specifically English conditions which expressed themselves in Hobbes’ statement, one may infer that the life of pleasure, so well enjoyed and understood as it was in England, would render some unremarked but indispensable help in the vital task of ensuring that, firstly, the grave temptations to which sensation, or perception, or even the soul altogether, may at some point find itself falling prey, can be traced back to the external source from which they in fact issued, and that, secondly, the soul, or perception, or even sensation shall be capable of becoming aware of this externality on its own, so that, thirdly and lastly, it will correct itself – that is to say, in such an eventuality, it will rescue, preserve, or insulate itself, and perhaps its fellow faculties as well, from that baleful influence.
* Humane Nature, ch. ii, 10
Hume, too, exercised a deft touch when he inquired into contemplation and the ends to which it might be turned. The liberation from the tyranny of θεωρία, the very thing Stirner would call for a century later, is already quite evident; in the Humean mode of philosophising, contemplation was utilised as a means by which the philosopher would, not subject himself to habits, as though he merely wanted to exchange one master for another, but contract them provisionally, so that they might be tried out, in order to discern what they were good for and how well they would work, and perhaps also to ascertain better what the essence of pleasure was. With this experimental mode of thinking, one begins to bump up against the outer limits of the adequacy of the terms philosophy and pleasure themselves: as the inner activity of the thinker becomes more and more overtly self-experimentative and hedonic in character, the earlier approximate criterion for the nature of pleasure – in a word, one will know it when one sees it – itself suffices less and less, that is, to him it becomes quite displeasing. (Or perhaps he will become even more displeased by it to the very degree that nonetheless he also finds it still to be pleasing and plausible, in a resentful half-acknowledgement of reluctance to avert his mind from the prospect of an immediate acquaintance which this criterion seems to hold out before him.) But such a consequence will in its turn seem interesting to him, and not come across as being an index of some immense corrosion of every single thing seeping out from the point which once was its centre – or, at least, that wouldn’t happen so long as the life of pleasure itself remains largely intact all around, furnishing the implicit setting within which this thinker’s activity can take place. Still secure in the midst of that style of life, accordingly, once his inner experimentation had finished or paused for the time being, the after-feeling would reverberate with a tone which was (and still is, if one is lucky) nothing like any of the sentiments of trepidation blared out in other languages than English by the philosophers from Nietzsche onwards, so full of alarm in view of their different, more dire circumstances. (Looking around themselves in society, some of them probably had reason to conclude that the βίος ἡδονικός too could no longer be counted on, while others may have been inclined to disregard its actual existence altogether, whether in their own or in other countries.)
Well, by now it’s high time to rejoin Yeats’ evening party where I left it. What’s been going on, here, during the interval? There are still numerous voices echoing throughout these rooms. The conversations amongst the guests continue to run the gamut, from one-sided diatribes to brief interjections made more softly or in a higher pitch to some minor jousting for attention, while for around half a minute (from the 7:22 mark onwards) it sounds as though nearly everyone else has stepped out briefly – what’s going on, I wonder – and a slightly unnerving hush falls over those few who opted to remain inside.
But before we know it, the attendees are about to assemble again, and once they’re streaming back in, after I take a quick stroll around the room, over in a corner I espy a few guests who seem a bit awkward, a bit out of place: evidently they are not having all that much fun. But if they aren’t especially enjoying themselves, why have they come in the first place? (A question à la Gertrude Stein.) Could it be they were thinking of the moments of bonheur which (Stendhal said) occur only a few times a year and adventurously hoped to meet with something of the sort? For, after all, that sheer anticipation may bring some satisfaction of its own, regardless of the outcome: a sort of pleasure taken not because of the party, but in spite of it. Or are they availing themselves of their own boredom as best they can, rehearsing some prowess of their own and taking delight in it inwardly? Who can tell – perhaps one of their minds just found itself suddenly in a more thoughtful mood and now is abstracted off elsewhere for a minute or two of contemplation, entertaining the possibilities some new habit might perhaps afford it. And that fellow, evidently he’s tuned out those chattering at him, and is training his ears to overhear another conversation taking place across the room, sending a hint of a smile in their direction – or was that a wink?
This hedonic way of life does offer its specific compensations. The less the pleasure one feels, the more one may have to understand. Yes, enjoyment is a strange creature. (And a beast which that old auxiliary profession or amateur activity, criticism, need not always chase after.)
So, allowing oneself some acoustic latitude, when one delves once more into Yeats’ work, with ears that by now have acquired a better sense of what they should listen for, a few moments may step forward from the whole.
Every so often, in “Crowded Rooms,” the listener may discern some faint echo wafting through of a popular tune from long-ago decades – what could this be? Perhaps years before some song had left ever so slight an impression on one of the guests, and this evening something of its melody (catalysed by boredom or precipitated by a special desire to please someone else in particular?) has surfaced again, now transposed into an association of ideas given breadth in a witty utterance, or modulated into the cadence of an eloquent or flirtatious remark: an influence quite unbeknownst to the speaker, and without any of the others ever realising the slight oddness of the turn of phrase, which actually is an index of another place and time.
An auditor standing somewhat to the side of the gathering, on the other hand, could have just enough distance to notice the soft incongruence of the words as resulting from a borrowing, although without being any more able than they to identify its precise provenance.
Of all the human capacities of perception, acoustic αἴσθησίς seems to afford by far the strongest assistance to an individual’s historical sense, while its own memory, although not the most profound, as the broadest does offer the key to an incomparable and very crowded storehouse of times and places, even if its filing system renders many of these records less than retrievable ad libitum. Hence, whenever and wherever the main pursuits of the βίος ἡδονικός, and in this context the life of music above all, are still sustained with sufficient care, that βίος might quite possibly contribute something helpful to the remedy of those individual mnemonic vagaries, by dint of self-organised and autonomous educational enterprises. Conversely, if like the other two the βίος ἡδονικός were also rapidly dissolving from within, having been in effect annexed by a self-aggrandising power seeking its own “Platz an der Sonne,” then the universal auditory map of those earlier places and times, a mnemonic reference guide for a common realm upon which a sufficient number of people had been able freely to rely, would itself be conscripted into service, rewritten more and more to the tune of a réveil or a Tagwache, and so this prerequisite of musical life as well was drawn step by step into the general devastation which Nietzsche warned against, the desert. (Die Wüste wächst – throughout his Dionysos-Dithyramben he sought refuge from the sands, wherever and in whomever he heard them – weh dem, der Wüsten birgt. . .)
Much as the second part of “Pagan” may actually be a music about violence, perhaps some sections of “Crowded Rooms” are suffused with music about the power of memory and its vicissitudes.
Although the examples which now follow each represent but a surmise on my part, yet nonetheless, at least three times over, so it seems to me, faint mnemonic echoes of music from the past flicker through the more abstract mise en scène Yeats has created here.
Beginning at 6:10, a few slightly forlorn notes are let out by the clarinet. What they seem to show is a guest at the party, with one eye watching the responses of those whom he aims to impress, underscoring some words of Weltschmerz with the cadence of a sigh; whereupon the listeners – or this listener, keeping himself a bit apart from everything that’s happening here – can discern in these tones a soft echo of what was done by the corresponding instrument at its most affecting decades before during the “Liebeslied” in Brecht and Weill’s Dreigroschenoper. Something of that sensitive sounding out of places and times from within, which those keen Berliners heard as being the ulterior aim to whose measure love’s sentiments in fact were cut –
Die Liebe dauert, oder dauert nicht
an dem oder jenem Ort
– an inner effort of human hearts which the two were able to convey very memorably indeed in their famous orchestration: somehow in turn their rendering of it found a way to undergird this fellow’s remark, in the midst of these “Crowded Rooms” so far removed from the London of Brecht and Weill’s imagination, translating its own wistful melody into the mode of human speech, even unbeknownst to him and his audience while he was speaking. Such can be the subsequent influence of a bit of music as a power in a human life – having embedded itself somewhere in someone’s memory and from there working its effects upon the soul – most potent when in so doing it goes unrecognised. To a slightly aloof observer may fall the the best chance of noticing its melody is there at all, and this, it seems to me, is the suggestion which Yeats’ own music offers throughout this passage of twenty seconds. To suggest such a thing by musical means, of course, amounts to a short message in its own right, and, which is just as obvious, not every individual αἴσθησίς would like to pay this envoi any heed, let alone to hearken to or to honour it.
Around two minutes later – in the meantime, while most everyone was stepping briefly out, those who remained probably beat an easy path to the bar – beginning at the 8:25 mark, there comes another such passage. Off in that corner, two, or, now one hears it, training one’s ears inconspicuously in their direction, three guests are finding themselves in a moment of mutual tension; reproaches are exchanged amongst them, from the sound of it; what the matter is, can’t be made out from this far across the room; but enough of it can be overheard that somehow I once more have that elusive déjà entendu feeling of encountering in speech, in a transposition of which the speakers may not be aware, an influence from another kind of source. This time, however, I must admit that for me it remains a je ne sais quoi, and so I can’t even venture to say whether the cadence was first met with in music, or in poetry, or on the screens at cinemas, or via some other medium; nonetheless, in the very midst of this awkward altercation, in the softest of echoes, something one of them also has heard elsewhere seems to be very discretely announcing itself.
Strange the sympathies of sounds that are shared!
Three or so minutes later, and the party has gotten louder, perhaps even a little raucous. Have the hosts arranged for a performance, transforming one of their rooms into an impromptu cabaret? I may as well find out . . . Indeed, so they have. A musical entertainment, with drums and saxophone parts. And once more the sound of it rings familiar. These hired hands, what are they basing themselves on, or debasing? Tonight their playing is lagging desperately. Or could the fault lie with the request made of them? Clearly, all of this is just not working out as planned; guests are starting to fidget . . . Then, at 11:33, rather suddenly, the answer comes, and some amongst this captive audience show by a few wry smiles they too know the source of the melody. – Why, putting it mildly, it’s a loose reprise of the notes announcing Marlene Dietrich’s entrée into the nightclub, you know, in Blonde Venus. – What a disguise she wore in that scene! – Quite right, that’s the part these mercenary entertainers are cribbing from. – Badly. And much too slowly. – Yes, from that wonderful bit of Sternbergian cinema, with the lyrics and music by Coslow and Rainger, “Hot Voodoo.” – We could all use some of it here! – Not that any of them would have cared much for this poor attempt at an adaptation. – Indeed, it’s really turning this party into a mess. – Surely our hosts will be less than pleased. – Well, I think this is a cue. Shall we go?
that beat gives me a wicked sensation: my conscience wants to take a vacation
Time therefore for a final voyage through this gathering and one last drink before taking discreet leave of that music from a farther room . . .
Please do note: it’s for the sake of convenience in recounting my examples that I have measured out Yeats’ composition by the clock; but by this expedient I don’t mean to imply that its mise en scène is felt as passing by at such an even or at such a rapid pace. What matters here are the interactions of musical quantities and qualities in the αἴσθησις, and since this party evidently is going on mainly under the sway of boredom, serving thus as a foil for moments of other kinds, its perceived duration stretches out to a considerable length. With a fine sense of what such an elapsing of time required if his composition were to represent it convincingly, Yeats has written the work to fill just the right number of bars, and fits a crowd at least ten times as large into a span of music lasting a mere fourteen minutes.
Now, if these three examples are taken together, it can be inferred that the storehouse of acoustic memories – of which the auditory capacity of perception is at times the keeper and at times the creature – may open its doors to several individuals at once, or to one alone, or to none of them. Whether it continues to be a resource at all, and, if so, when, how well, and to whom it shall be offered: quite obviously these are important matters in their own right. And yet, so long as the life of pleasure is still pursued forcefully and with finesse as a worthy end in itself, the tedium of its parties notwithstanding, then the relations amongst those who participate in it, of themselves and informally, by one route or another, more likely than not, will tend to make up for the individual lapses. Under these circumstances, therefore, the centre does hold and things do not fall apart, for the time being at least. Hence, generally speaking, even in the midst of today’s conditions such a βίος ἡδονικός may still foster those encouragements to self-directing activity which Hume called “conventions,”* the instances of concord that ease the way for all subsequent human reciprocities. (Two men, who pull the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, tho’ they have never given promises to each other.)
* A Treatise of Human Nature, bk. iii, pt. ii, sec. ii
Yes, in the composer’s “Crowded Rooms” the life of pleasure is convening – while promises of various kinds might also have been exchanged. In order to find his way through this party and return from it, having heard, understood, enjoyed its hubbub of sounds as well as he did, several for themselves, others despite themselves, and then, with an understated comedic talent, freely to show in the work some guests in their unguarded moments misbehaving themselves senza tema d’infamia, a few inner reservations were probably requisite (and perhaps a home elsewhere in the country).
That this essay, too, begin to hasten towards taking its exit, now I shall turn to the last of Yeats’ works which has especially caught my attention. Even more recently completed, it is one of a series to which he’s given the title “The Shape Distance,” and in it some of the same themes seem to recur, although this time he approaches them from another angle. Most obvious is the basic parameter: the two performers are to play independently of one another, and so, beyond the approximate concurrences which Yeats has written into the music itself, strict synchronisation between them ought not to be expected. Hence, one might say, by way of providing an initial characterisation, each performance will unfold in sound like a different dialect of one common language, where this latter itself is the sum of the harmonious concurrences of all its divergent varieties. And as a corollary: the greater the number of satisfactory performances of this work, far from becoming exhausted, the further its energies will develop from within.
The entire series, performed by Chamber Cartel, a new music ensemble in Atlanta which has appointed Yeats its composer-in-association, will be issued in CD format and via the Internet, and in advance thereof its performance of one of these variable works – the eleventh variation of it, for harp and piano, with Connor Way on the former and Amy O’Dell on the latter – has been provided by him on his Soundcloud page.
Variable music as a distinct genre, to be sure, abounds in similarly experimental work, and so Yeats’ explanation of his own intentions may help to clarify the specificity of what this series of pieces was intended to do – or rather, of how it was intended to do it. Not what this work is about, but how it is about it: this is the more abstract question which “The Shape Distance,” seems to call for. (His series, he says a bit after the end of the following excerpt, shares its title with a set of paintings he has been working on concurrently.)
Independently, but together. Two instruments, of course, may as readily clash as accord with one another, and so, with Yeats’ words in mind, I should like to point out a few passages in this version of his composition where the parallelism seems especially felicitous, all the more because their concurrence, although it was planned for, is owing to no one.
During the passage of not quite thirty seconds beginning at the 5:15 mark, each instrument sounds as though both were speaking at and, in the interstices, responding against one another – at the end there comes a rather definite ending to this non-conversation.
Later on, for around a full minute from 8:55 onwards, the two instruments have evidently found themselves not merely in the same space but, more specifically, in the same room, and each is doing its ostentatious best to act as though the other is not there, although in fact, however they try to conceal it, they both are quite interested in one another.
Even small ensembles may find it difficult to work without a conductor, an overseer of their common time, and the challenges will be multiplied when, as in this case, the musicians are required to perform as though each were a soloist. That is obvious. Yeats’ elucidation of his aims as the composer of what is in effect two concurrent works in one, however, may prompt some further thoughts about the significance of such a procedure.
In the performance of “The Shape Distance,” the musicians’ inner feeling of time, which in itself is probably by far the most precise of all the many human capacities, is to be relieved of a certain stress imposed upon it by the requirement, not to heed the conductor, for in Yeats’ most recent pieces there hadn’t been one, but instead that a portion of the musician’s attention conduct itself from the musicianship of one fellow member of the ensemble to another, in order to maintain their common beat. Yet this new freedom is not license. Instead it is to move them to even further feats of exactitude as performers, each in relative independence from the others; they are to keep the time even more precisely than they otherwise would be inclined to do: and to a certain degree, nearly in unison with their instruments, each even is to a certain degree freely to be this time, feeling it from within as far as each is able, virtuosically.
An inner rapport with time such as this could well be considered as being the unique prerogative of auditory perception, given the great complexity of its inner operations and its varieties of attentiveness.
Whether in the course of this performance it is time which rules the musicians, or they which rule it – an occasion for this question would be lacking within the sphere of this musical activity itself (so long as the musicians are competent), although those looking in from the outside might well be inclined to raise it. Likewise the question of what this heightening of the inner feeling of timing might itself be good for, once the activity is over: this too is extraneous, admitting of no satisfactory answer.
In any event, their effort, requiring of them a considerable exertion of listening as well, a finer inward marking of each’s own time, in isolation from the times of the other musicians, as a concurrent activity while their playing goes on, may in its turn inspire the audience of “The Shape Distance” to greater acoustic attention for as long as the performance itself goes on, and perhaps afterwards. Hence it is not only the individual performers who are convened in intensive virtuosity – although the agenda was set, the activities will be self-directed – but each of the listeners, too. They also are there together, but independently. (In this boat, all have their own oars to pull.)
Between and around themselves these musicians are creating, out of the concurrence of their own self-regulations of time, a one-off space. This space has a unique shape: thus the title of the work. If one enjoys it while it endures, then one has understood it, but if not, then not. Its spatial character in each separate iteration of the work, therefore, is thoroughly hedonic, and thus, much more than is usually the case with orchestral music, any recording can only encompass it in a severe reduction.
The serial nature of this work notwithstanding, because “The Shape Distance” assumes that in any performance the participants will convene in a one-off activity, their virtuosity is more fittingly defined not as an instance of play, by now an inexact and overused notion, but instead as being fun – the human pastime that has rarely been found worthy of much thought at all but which does seem quite welcome in the βίος ἡδονικός. (To understand what fun is, should one not first enjoy it?)
Although Yeats himself does not speak of this side of the matter, if any particular iteration of “The Shape Distance” has a raison d’être at all, it would seem to be fun.
Dit laatste element, de „aardigheid” van het spel, verzet zich tegen elke analyse of logische interpretatie. Het woord „aardigheid” zelf is in dezen veelbeteekenend. In zĳn afleiding van „aard” legt het als ’t ware de bekentenis af, dat de zaak niet verder herleidbaar is. Deze onherleidbare qualiteit is voor ons moderne taalgevoel nergens zoo treffend uitgedrukt als in het Engelsche fun, dat in de gangbare beteekenis tamelĳk jong is. […] En juist dit element is het, wat het wezen van het spel bepaalt. In het spel hebben wĳ te doen met een voor iedereen terstond herkenbare, volstrekt primaire categorie van het leven, een totaliteit, als er ooit iets is, wat dien naam verdient.
Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens, ch. i
The sheer fun of a virtuosic activity in which the participants freely test out the precisions of which their perceptive faculties are capable – this notion itself sounds familiar. It too has been heard before. Oddly enough, then, Yeats’ explanation can summon to mind the intricate conceptual constructions grouped together under the rubric of a pre-established harmony, the piece of metaphysics for which Leibniz is most well-known. This is not the place to delve at any length into them, but from one of them in particular a few remarks do spring out. (Indeed, his construction does exist in a number of versions, as he too was a serial thinker, often setting a line of thought down in writing in variant iterations, each with its own accentuations and akin to a distinct dialect of one and the same language.)
Most often, Leibniz formulated his ideas in a patently theological idiom, but this cast of his thought, although one can’t simply disregard it, may be set aside here. The overarching conception that the universe is established by its creator as an immense complication of entities and activities that are wound up to various degrees, where some of them are able to wind themselves up until a certain point, is itself something quite other than a dogma of formal theology. His invocation of God is relatively inessential: not the clockmaker, but all of this clockwork itself, is his primary concern. Precisely so long as a great variety of synchronisations may still be expected from all of these concurrents – independently, but together – the universe is a process without a conductor. More to the point, nor would it really be in need of one.
Generally speaking, the writings and the thoughts of Leibniz will be comprehended most fully if one bears in mind the great extent to which Hobbes, whose works he knew early and well, remained implicitly the interlocutor for him throughout his life.
In the fourteenth section of his “Discours de métaphysique,” Leibniz articulated his ideas in a visual dialect, but the sounds of his harmonie préétablie, as he would call it years later, do already shimmer through. And indeed, how extraneous are the ocular terms in which he framed his ideas! His music nearly springs out from the page.
(The manuscript, the work of an amanuensis or several whose written French left out some of the accents, has been published by the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and the Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen.)
All the substances in the universe or the world, said Leibniz – here he employed the two concepts synonymously – are produced by God continuellement par une maniere d’emanation, comme nous produisons nos pensées. But how do we in fact produce our thoughts? By the verb “produire” Leibniz did not refer to the various ways in which ideas may occur to human beings to begin with, but rather, quite literally, the modes in which subsequently we bring them forth, that is, express them, initially to ourselves, and then to others. Why does one choose to express some ideas and not others? Very often, because in first thinking about them one has great fun, and this, just as much as the ideas themselves, is something one would like to share. Accordingly, while in this frame of mind, readying oneself to express them, one is hardly actuated by this or that ulterior motive, and here the question Why? could sensibly be asked only with reference to an action’s more or less immediate aim, and not with regard to its possible further effects. Now, it is this very frame of mind which Leibniz attributes to the universe’s maker, and hence it’s simply impossible to conceive that every single thought ever occurring to the divine mind would or could be expressed. (At least in any one universe.) Any existing substance in the world will be created only si Dieu trouve bon de rendre sa pensée effective – and why would this actualisation of a particular thought be found good? Because it’s fun to examine from every possible angle its potential concord with a certain set of other thoughts, and hence this good proves of itself already fit to be shared. The prime motive of this whole undertaking, therefore? The fun taken in figuring out how to put it all together. Indeed, fun does seem to be an eminent instance of the good, insofar as it is an activity pursued for its own sake and as such may be characterised, in the old Aristotelian terms, as being a self-sufficiency or a self-supporting structure in itself.
Of course, Leibniz did say that this individual thought would be found good by God only insofar as its actualisation could fit well into the ensemble of phenomena that is the universe, le systeme general des phenomenes qu’il trouve bon de produire pour manifester sa gloire – and this last clause seems to announce quite a different motive, thus imparting another and much larger sense to the question of the ultimate reason for everything. But it’s precisely at this point that the music in Leibniz’ conception is striking up! How so? Precisely because the explanation that the world has been made “pour manifester sa gloire” is itself so patently a cliché, and spoken by Leibniz not in his own voice but as though it were enclosed in invisible inverted commas. Comprehend this covert irony, and suddenly the universe does not appear to culminate in wonders meant above all for the eyes, but discloses itself in quite another mode. Now it may be heard, and indeed in accordance with the divergent shape distances, as Yeats says, which open up to perception from the different locations within it, as though it were a self-conducting work of music.
If the tone of Leibniz’ clause does not register, nothing will be understood. Conversely, if his explanation is heard properly, as a sotto voce remark that contains no real answer to anything, then the very question to which it only seems to respond – the question Why? asked in reference to an ultimate reason – is itself only ever posed by mistake. That was his point. Consequently, what he called “le systeme general” is its own reason; and this in turn is so by virtue of the fun that was had in putting it together and, even more, on account of the fun that shall be had in figuring out how it all is put together. Precisely because it is fun, then, the world in its coherence is best likened to some sort of harmony, or even a virtually unending progressus of harmony of harmonies of harmonies of harmonies and so on. And so the optical terms in which Leibniz articulated his thoughts may be discounted as having been merely provisional façons de parler.
So, one may infer from the “Discours de métaphysique,” the best small-scale model we may devise for the universe as a whole is the idea of several immense works of music playing together in a marvellous discordant concurrence, for no other discernible reason than the sheer fun of it all. Furthermore, for their part, it is remarkable how far Leibniz’ own writings, he who is accounted one of the most serious of philosophers, seem to partake of the mood that goes hand in hand with the self-directing interactions called fun. Quite possibly there is in his many texts more of the βίος ἡδονικός than one ever had thought might be the case.
However, here I shall not delve any further into the metaphysics in his “Discours” or his other writings. Fortunately, in keeping with the tenor of Leibniz’ remarks, the global question Why? can be left to one side and another, rather more limited one posed instead. How? seems to be the better guide.
Our perceptual capacities are evidently fallible, but how does it happen when at times we misconstrue some thing in perception? In much the same way that, more often than not, the clockwork that is the universe functions fairly well, all the various parts more or less continuing to move with a certain basic degree of synchronisation, so too, just as the whole of it, on the whole, est tousjours veritable, nos perceptions le sont aussi – the answer, therefore, lies elsewhere, and thus ce sont nos jugemens, qui sont de nous et qui nous trompent. (What a judgment is, may likewise be set aside in the present context.) How do our judgments deceive us? In keeping with the foregoing, there is a short answer to this question: whenever they do fool us, our judgments are having a bit of fun with us. In their inner readiness to do so, the most plausible of raisons d’être for the universe, fun for fun’s sake, is expressed in yet a further manner.
One would do well to hear the humour in these minor pieces of inner deception. Their mischief is largely innocent. Our judgments, whatever they or their inclinations may be in themselves, will involve us in at most mild errors, whenever we do listen to them, and listen through them, with a modicum of care. Then their trickeries can be held in check or corrected tolerably well, much as is the case with the lapses of the organs of sense, as Hobbes noted, many years before Leibniz devised the numerous variations of his “harmonie préétablie.”
All of these hypotheses – as, in conclusion, I should state clearly, that is what they are – may become more plausible when they are considered from out of the midst of the βίος ἡδονικός itself. It is just this which Yeats’ numerous and quite English works of music have prompted me to do. For all our harmonies, today, however well-established they once were believed to be, are everywhere under threat. Over against such conditions, what a pleasure it remains, when the moment seems right, in a realm of musical life freely pursued for its own sake, that then and there the precise distance can be kept whereby the concords resound and again take shape in delight.