Classical music vs. mediocrity


The Holy Trinity. "Bach is the divine on Earth, Mozart is what you'd hear in heaven, and Beethoven is the struggle to bring the divine to Earth." -John Eliot Gardiner.

On one side is the mediocrity of all functionaries. All bureaucrats. There’s no point in my writing about bureaucrats in the ordinary sense, since everyone already hates them—they’re ubiquitous—and I’ve written about them elsewhere, but let’s take a glance at the intellectual bureaucrats (like me). Here’s a randomly selected passage from a typical academic essay (titled “The state as social relation: Poulantzas on materiality and political strategy”):


…In this [essay], I discuss Poulantzas’ work through this lens of the materiality of the capitalist state. I examine how Poulantzas situated his intervention in relation to existing treatments of the state as either an instrument/object or a subject; the impact of this framework on the law and juridical personhood; and the relevance of this account for political strategy… I argue that by theorising the state as a social relation—more specifically, as a material condensation of a relationship of forces between classes and class fractions—Poulantzas was able to sidestep the theoretical dilemmas that confounded prior Marxist thinking about the state. Furthermore, Poulantzas’ account of political strategy follows from his treatment of the state as a material condensation of political forces. In particular, his conception of the state as a contradictory and uneven terrain that is potentially open to the intervention of the ‘popular classes’ into a given conjuncture continues to provide a foundation for a distinctly Marxist theory of politics.

The author of this passage is no worse a writer than most academics. But my god, what a load of dreck. This is what the “intellectual bureaucracy” looks like, this hatefully dull and sterile academese that specializes in saying something without saying anything. Poor Marx is spinning in his grave at the thought of his revolutionary, world-overturning writings being domesticated, via twisted academic byways over the last hundred years, into this desiccated tripe. What is being said in this passage? “A material condensation of political forces.” Okay, yes, the state is a sort of microcosm of conflicts between classes, class fractions, and other groups. Poulantzas wasn’t the first to say this; nor even was Marx, though he said it in biting and striking ways. It’s common sense. But that term “material condensation”—what a brilliant and vivid metaphor! And it has the word “material” in it, so it’s revolutionary! What about the last sentence, the thesis of the whole article? The state is “a contradictory and uneven terrain”: congratulations on finding a pretentious way to say governments are complex. As for the rest of the sentence, yes, Poulantzas and the author are both right that ordinary people can potentially, in certain circumstances, have some influence on governments. What a profound thesis! If this is the “foundation” of the Marxist theory of politics, well then it’s a grand and ambitious theory after all, isn’t it?


As I often reiterate, this kind of stuff is why Chomsky says the social sciences are intellectually trivial. This is just verbal diarrhea, stating truisms in an aesthetically offensive way, which serves no other purpose than to help the author fill out his CV and hopefully get tenure someday.


So, on one side is this manure, which constitutes perhaps 75% of academic output. On the other side is…what helps keep me going: Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and scattered composers from the century after that. Creative impotence and careerist obedience on the one hand, creative profundity and life-giving humanism on the other. The contrast could not be starker.


I’ve found that leftists often have an inordinate fondness for musical genres that are the exact opposite of Beethoven, such as punk, metal, hip hop, and whatever other such “rebellious” genres exist. Most of this seems to me to be little more than creative sterility and puerility, scarcely worth any attention except as a temporary cathartic escape (or an intriguing sociological symptom to be studied). It’s true these genres contain some very good works—Tupac Shakur was indisputably brilliant, Eminem has some astonishing songs—but even those are, artistically speaking, on a lower level than the great music of the past. And that music was as far from “elitist” or “undemocratic” as you can imagine, being little but an elevation and ennobling of folk music, to quote Oscar Ameringer. People are free to like whatever they want, but leftists should know that nothing is more anti-capitalist than the music of the eighteenth and (most of) the nineteenth centuries. The relative noise of pop culture—which I myself listen to and enjoy—is, in general, thoroughly integrated into commercial structures, thoroughly money-driven, business-conscious, and commodified. There is no greater artistic radicalism than that of Beethoven.


Be that as it may, I personally have a deep need for this old Enlightenment-esque music. I was in a sad mood earlier today, but at last I remembered I could listen to music (and, be it said, drink some vodka). What a miraculous transformation! As I once wrote, it was like ascending suddenly from Britney Spearsian nihilism to Franz Lisztian life-affirmation. When I’m lonely and disgusted with the flakiness of most people, it’s a relief to know I can turn to kindred spirits from the past. I wish all the sensitive souls who aren’t at home in this world had a deeper knowledge than they often do of the rich heritage of humanism that has been buried by pop culture, smothered under the slag heaps of the capitalist culture industry. The old rebels Bach and Mozart (and yes, they were rebels, despite appearances) might help rejuvenate them, rescue them at least momentarily from their despair.


However therapeutic and fun, sometimes beautiful, popular music can be, classical music raises you above yourself—if you really listen to it, study it, and choose good composers to listen to. Such music can have an uncanny power of washing away all the particularities, the grievances and regrets, of your selfhood so that you commune with the universal. You forget the sterility of our bureaucratic culture, the obedience and the rank pretense; you have direct contact with the highest thoughts and feelings, miracles of creativity. These are the ultimate antidotes to the nihilism of life in the United States.


I mean, just listen to almost anything from Beethoven—any of the symphonies, the piano concertos, most of the piano sonatas, the violin concerto, the overture to Fidelio or the discarded overtures (Leonore 2 and Leonore 3), the Eroica Variations on the piano and a dozen other piano variations, the Egmont overture, most of the duets for cello and piano, and on and on: the music is perpetually fresh, human, gripping, never for a moment trite or hackneyed, the very opposite of academic dreck as sampled above. The very opposite of the spirit of bureaucracy or the market.


The magic of music is worth pondering. Consider Bach’s epic Chaconne for solo violin, about which violinist Joshua Bell has this to say: “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.” Three hundred years ago, a man returned from a trip to find his wife, who had been healthy, dead from some sudden illness. He grieved, and in his grief he wrote the greatest piece for solo violin in history. He sat down with pen and paper, heard imaginary sounds in his head, imposed a structure on them, crafted them so that they would be a perfectly formed artistic whole, and through the miracle of musical notation transmitted them to paper. Other people then read this notation and used it to reproduce, with their instruments, what the man had conceived in his bitter solitude. His silent inner thoughts were externalized and made concrete so that they could be shared with the world. Generation after generation, century after century, musicians and audiences continued to reproduce and contemplate the thoughts of that old, long-dead man from the eighteenth century who was mourning his wife. Through the media of print and musical performance, the ideas of one person were implanted in the minds of millions of others. And a musical community stretching across centuries, a community of listeners and performers, was created whenever the piece was played. People listened and actually wept, from the sheer mysterious power of sounds arranged in a certain way.


In fact, they themselves, in a sense, re-created the music simply by hearing it: their brains processed the sounds, organized them as human brains do, structured them harmonically and melodically such that everyone heard the same harmonies and melodies and marveled at them. What one (unconscious) part of their brain was doing, creating the music by listening to it, another part contemplated in awe.


People even translated Bach’s thoughts for different instruments. Ferrucio Busoni wrote a brilliant arrangement for piano, and a hundred years later Hélène Grimaud performed both Bach and Busoni’s thoughts at a piano recital one can watch on the internet. Across spans of time, people collaborated in a collective artistic project. Viewers of Grimaud’s concert heard the piece and in some cases were themselves inspired to play it on their own piano, having been influenced by Bach-Busoni-Grimaud. And so the chain extended, in a continually expanding display of collective intelligence and creativity. All of which was initiated by one man’s imagination as he was shut in a room somewhere three centuries ago.


Grimaud’s recital is worth watching. In the middle, for instance, after a series of variations on grief, anger, and despair (universalized, not personalized), the music shifts to a softer and more consoling register. It’s quite moving. It sounds like acceptance, peaceful resignation, expressed in the rich and sonorous voice of some angelic being. And the music builds, as the sufferer is even able to find beauty in his sorrow. It builds and builds, at last reaching even joy and finally ecstasy (around the 11:47 point). Eventually, however, it returns to its earlier register, and at length the piece ends on a note of cosmic darkness.


All this is the very essence of humanity’s higher faculties. It is world-spanning, world-creating, world-communicating. We humans live in each other’s minds. We create on the basis of each other’s minds, each other’s creativity. We interpenetrate, universally, such that a global community can spring from a single person’s artistic imagination. What Beethoven wrote two hundred years ago unites billions: “flash mobs” come together to re-create his joyous affirmation of existence. His body is long gone, but his mind, in a sense, lives on, in us all, as we live in each other’s minds.


So, thank god for music, which can elevate our thoughts in this way and transport us out of ourselves. On the basis of music it is almost possible to achieve Nietzsche’s goal of amor fati, love of fate, love of everything. Sorrow becomes joy. One forgets the mediocre, one sloughs it off effortlessly by being transported to a different realm. That is the highest function of good music, as it is the highest function of all art. (But music is the most profound and transporting of the arts, I find.)


Listen to high art if you’re sick of life and humanity. Quite possibly, it’ll revitalize you.

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