Thursday, March 26, 2009

Against vague metaphysics

Over at Dial M for Musicology, Jonathan takes aim at the very premise of this blog:
Nothing new there—musicians have known all of this since the beginning of time. But there’s nothing new in golly-times-is-sure-tough, and (frankly) not in you-can-save-the-world either.
More pedestrian minds will no doubt suggest that the TBWCTW reference was accidental - ("it's not even the same verb!") - but I know better, and you'd all better watch out before the conspirators are on your doorstep!

Ahem. The broader context of the section I quoted is a dissection of two Internet state-of-classical-music memes that have been going around - one a jeremiad on the death (what, again?) of the humanities, the other an inspirational speech on the social value of music. Both texts, as Jonathan rightly points out, hit all the right buttons for those who work in the classical music realm - you shake your head sorrowfully as you read the first article, then swell with pride and self-importance as you read the second one. Change the date on either article, and you hardly notice a difference - times are always tough, the humanities always have to justify themselves, and people will always make art against the odds because yes, Art Is Worthwhile. Unlike Jonathan, I'm not convinced that repeating these old platitudes is all bad - they remind us why we do what we do, which is easy to forget - but there's something else here that bothers me more. Here's Karl Paulnack, in the inspirational speech:
Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. . . You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
This writing is a good example of a twentieth-century tradition which in aesthetic circles is known as the Metaphysics Of Nothing In Particular. (In aesthetic circles that consist of this blog, at least). The value of music is expressed using the language of transcendence, of religious doctrine (come unto me, all that labour and are heavy laden . . .); music is given a metaphysical power to transmute us to a Higher Level of Experience, beyond the turmoil of our humdrum lives. Yet, nothing in the speech suggests a theological context; in fact, Paulnack seems to be actively suspicious of religion: "I no longer even expect [peace and harmony] to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace." (Speaking of hoary old clichés. . .)

To me, this is a fatal flaw. It's as though Paulnack sets out to trace a golden thread connecting music to the very essence of what makes us human, but stops following the thread just as it disappears into a hole in the wall. If you think about the vocabulary in the speech for more than two minutes, you realize he's begging the question: how can the concept of music impacting the "soul" be comprehensible outside a theistic context? It's not. If this philosophical model is to move beyond platitudes, it has to take into account the presuppositions that underlie aesthetic arguments:

Ancient Greeks: Music relates to the "harmony of the spheres"; its various tones correspond to the harmonious proportions in astronomy and within the human psyche. This was not a mere metaphor; it was scientific theory. Thus, in Plato's Republic, Socrates suggests that all modes except the Dorian and Phrygian be outlawed by the state, in order to assure that the citizens maintain an agreeable temperament.
Augustine: Music helps to catalyse the moral action of the soul; if the music is of appropriate moral strength, we can convert it into moral power. If the music is of low moral value, it can lead to degeneracy.
The Medieval Church: Essentially, Ancient Greeks redux. The Greek tradition was transferred to the Catholic Church through Boethius and Thomas Aquinas, who turned it to their own purposes; the source of the celestial harmony was now the Christian God. After Copernicus, the science could no longer be taken literally, but the idea had a figurative resonance which was equally enticing: music's harmony reflected the order, balance and beauty of the Divine.
Secular Humanism: Art is a form of human communication, and thus its content is our lives as human beings, including our political milieu, social dynamics, etc.
Steven Pinker Strawman: Music is auditory cheesecake. It offers no evolutionary advantage to the species whatsoever.

This extremely slapdash quasi-summary of aesthetic thought demonstrates the problem: all aesthetic ideas have ideological underpinnings. The Ancient Greek view is no longer acceptable because it relies on too much discredited science (the medical ideas of Galen; the cosmological ideas of Ptolemy). The Augustinian or Boethian views are both derived from a Christian ideology; remove God from the equation, and the theory has to be rebuilt from the ground up. This is what secular humanism does, in proposing a hermeneutic model as the bearer of musical meaning: instead of music reflecting God's image, it reflects our own. If you lose the sense of inherent human dignity retained by humanism, you're ready to reject art entirely, like my strawman. (Pinker's actual views on art, of course, are more complicated, but quoting him illustrates a useful point.)

As a Christian, I can accept the best of the medieval Church's aesthetic of music while making a number of important caveats of my own. As soon as you attempt to secularize that theory, however, it becomes irretrievable. To present a theory using centuries-old religiously charged language at the same time that you deny any particular metaphysical reality is intellectually dishonest. And in the end, this may be why the defenders of art have so much trouble convincing us of their points - because their arguments beg the question. They tell us the true meaning of music is up in the sky somewhere, but they don't point us in any particular direction, and without a telescope we eventually get bored and quit.


Alice said...

1. You're the first person in I don't know how long who uses the phrase "beg the question" correctly --- congratulations!

2. I find the Phrygian mode really annoying -- if the state mandated it I would be out there fomenting some Aeolian revolution.

shogart said...

The themes you're playing with here remind me distinctly of the article Rory passed on. There are parallel problems in education (I just heard a radio ad the other day for Ontario colleges that used as its catch line, "Because it's all about ME!")... and everything else.

But anyway. Good post.