Beethoven’s romantic fatalism

To start — three sensitive commentators on the meaning of Beethoven’s music.

* Hermann Hesse, the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, in Steppenwolf, contrasting Mozart to Beethoven (and to Kleist, who committed suicide at age 34):
“You have lent a deaf ear to those that plumbed the depths and suppressed the voices that told the truth of despair, and not in yourself only but also in Kleist and Beethoven. … [Mozart's] The Magic Flutehermann-hesse-75px presents life to us as a wondrous song. It honours our feelings, transient, as they are, as something eternal and divine. It agrees neither with Herr von Kleist nor with Herr Beethoven. It preaches optimism and faith.”[1]

* J. W. N. Sullivan, the art critic and mathematician, in his classic study, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development:
“To Beethoven the character of life as suffering became a fundamental part of his life outlook.”
“To compare the ninth symphony with the fifth is to realize how greatly this man had grown in stature. That early, almost boyish idea of fate has become a much profounder conception in this first movement. Fate is no longer personified sullivanjwn-75pxas some sort of powerful enemy that sufficient courage can defy, even if hopelessly. It is now a truly universal destiny, too complete to evoke any thought of resistance. The brooding mystery from which the theme emerges is, like the primeval darkness that preceded creation, something that conditions the human world, but which is not part of it. And this extra-human power, as presented to us here, has nothing benevolent about it, necessary as it may be for the moulding of the human soul. As the answer to this fate theme Beethoven gives us no more than submission and resignation.”[2]

* Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher, responding to a question, What do you think of the work of Beethoven?:
ayn-rand_dollar-pin-75px“He is a great composer, but I can’t stand him. Music expresses a sense of life — an emotional response to metaphysical issues. Beethoven is great because he makes his message so clear by means of music; but his message is malevolent universe: man’s heroic fight against destiny, and man’s defeat.”[3]

I am not a music professional, but I can report that I always find Beethoven’s music to be both very powerful and very saddening. At the same time, his music has surging and uplifting elements with great energy, and I respond positively to those elements. So, like many others, I wonder how that fits with the experts’ claim that his music is negative and pessimistic.

My only contribution is a philosophical hypothesis in two parts. One is that Beethoven’s music engages with the great themes, and when we listen we too engage with those themes, which elevates us as humans. We respond positively to any profound statement or experience of the human condition, even if we do not agree with it fully intellectually or emotionally.

The other part is that philosophical art involves two interrelated elements: a deep theme (a metaphysics) and an evaluative response to that theme (a value judgment). Beethoven’s major music combines two elements: an expression about the truth about the universe and an expression of his human response to that truth.

beethoven-drawingSuppose that Beethoven’s music tells us that the universe crushes everything, as our sensitive critics above suggest.[4] That’s negative metaphysics. But how does one respond to that negative truth? That’s a value choice. Does one give in quietly — or moan and groan and bitch about it — or divert oneself with other activities — or take on the universe in glorious battle?

Interestingly, while our critics agree that Beethoven’s musical universe is malevolent, they differ over his value response: Hesse speaks of despair, while Rand speaks of a doomed, heroic fight against destiny, while Sullivan speaks of suffering, hopeless defiance, or resignation depending on which period of Beethoven’s music one is considering.

Compositionally, the longer pieces develop the elements separately (e.g., movements about Fate manifesting itself, other movements focused on gathering one’s strength and resolve), and then bring them together (e.g., movements in which the battle is joined). So it makes sense that one would respond positively to the positive elements when experienced in isolation. We respond humanly to the approach of great challenges, inner strength’s waxing and waning, the give-and-take of an all-consuming battle. All of those are powerfully expressed in Beethoven’s music, and any vital human will respond affirmatively and even thrillingly to them. masque_de_beethoven-75pxWhat Beethoven adds, though, is an ultimate resolution of defeat, and that is the broadest framing context for his major music.

My label for music like Beethoven’s is romantic fatalism. One is condemned to a tragic fate, but one accepts it and asserts oneself against it, all the while knowing that one will be crushed. Dying while fighting a hopeless cause is the greatest value, and life is the most hopeless cause of all. But one simultaneously asserts one’s life and embraces its dissolution.[5]

[1] Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf (Modern Library, 1963), pp. 106, 107.
[2] J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), pp. 43, 143. A e-version is online here.
[3] Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Answers, p. 226.
[4] A clear example is the opening of the Fifth, which Beethoven referred to as “Fate knocking at the door.” This excerpt works with a graphic representation of each instrument group.
[5] Nietzsche’s amor fati strikes me as a philosophical expression of the same theme as Beethoven’s music.

Related: Other music-related posts.

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Dancing in communist China

I’ve been enjoying Qiu Xiaolong‘s series of mystery novels set in Shanghai in the 1990s. One thing I like is Xiaolong’s ability to recreate a culture in transition, with characters of the generation of the Cultural Revolution interacting with characters of the liberalizing and modernizing generation. mao-zedong

Early in the Death of a Red Heroine, the main character, the young chief inspector Chen, is hosting a small, private party to celebrate his finally getting his own apartment. Someone puts on some music and begins dancing. The narrator comments:

“During the Cultural Revolution, the only thing close to dancing for the Chinese people was the Loyal Character Dance. People would stamp their feet in unison, to show their loyalty to Chairman Mao. … not until the mid-eighties could Chinese people dance without fear of being reported to the authorities.”[1]

A little later, Chen is trying to understand the apparently ascetic, romance-less life of a young, political worker woman who has been murdered, and a reference to Madam A Qin is made:shajiabang

“Madam A Qin was a well-known character in Shajiabang, a modern Beijing opera performed during the Cultural Revolution, when any romantic passion — even that between husband and wife — had been considered to detract from people’s political commitment.”[2]

I am reminded of Nien Cheng’s autobiography, Life and Death in Shanghai, her eye-opening account of living through the Cultural Revolution, when museums and art galleries were shut down, older works of art and craft traditions were destroyed, and any element of individuality in expression or lifestyle was suppressed.[3]

So sayeth the Great Leader: Unity, not uniqueness. The communal, not the individual. Duty, not pleasure. Conformity, not self-creation and self-expression.

One great oddity in the twentieth-century art world is how many Western artists paid homage to Mao even though they would have been among the first to be suppressed, tortured, and killed under Maoism. Andy Warhol’s series of monumental paintings of Mao is one example. (Of course, Warhol was a jaded practitioner of cultural irony, and his primary purpose may have been to take cultural icon and, from a safe distance of 6,600 miles, turn him into another money-maker.)

The same holds for the many Western intellectuals who became Maoists, despite the fate of intellectuals under Mao’s regime. Cheng reports one young revolutionary’s forecast for the thinkers: mao-persecution

“[They] are being investigated. Some of them are also class enemies. In any case, they are intellectuals. Our great leader has said, ‘The capitalist class is the skin; the intellectuals are the hairs that grow on the skin. When the skin dies there will be no more hair.’ The capitalist class nourishes the intellectuals, so they belong to the same side. Now we are going to destroy the capitalists. Naturally the intellectuals are to be destroyed too.”[4]

Artists, intellectuals, and politics, indeed.

[1] Death of a Red Heroine (Soho Press, 2000), p. 19.
[2] Death of a Red Heroine, p. 71.
[3] Nien Cheng, Life and Death in Shanghai (Grove Press, 1986).
[4] Life and Death in Shanghai, p. 76.

The poster image from Shajiabang is from The image of university professors about to be executed is taken from Harun Yahya’s site.

Collectivizing sex — Alexandra Kollontai’s communist version.
Dr. Franz Hamburger and the Nazi collectivizing of reproduction.

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Poverty reduction and public awareness

Two data points and a question:

1. This graph showing the dramatic 80% reduction in the world poverty rate over the last 40 years:


2. This Gapminder survey showing that 95% of Americans asked believe that poverty rates have stayed the same or increased:


The question: What explains the great discrepancy between reality and belief?

AEI’s Mark Perry.
Question 8 on this Gapminder survey by Hans Rosling [pdf]. (Via RSE’s Michael Strong.)
See also NBER’s Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martin’s “Parametric Estimations of the World Distribution of Income”: “We use a parametric method to estimate the income distribution for 191 countries between 1970 and 2006. We estimate the World Distribution of Income and estimate poverty rates, poverty counts and various measures of income inequality and welfare. Using the official $1/day line, we estimate that world poverty rates have fallen by 80% from 0.268 in 1970 to 0.054 in 2006. The corresponding total number of poor has fallen from 403 million in 1970 to 152 million in 2006.”

Posted in Business Ethics, Culture, Economics, Education | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Timothy Sandefur at the Volokh Conspiracy

Lawyer Timothy Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation is guest blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy.

In 2009, Sandefur spoke at Rockford University sandefurtimothyon on the topic of “Market Entrepreneurs and Political Entrepreneurs: Some Legal and Constitutional Issues”; my follow-up interview with him is at the CEE site.

He is the author of several works, including this this monograph on the right to earn a living: Sandefur discusses economic liberty’s up-and-down legal fortunes, as the American founders’ original protections of productive freedom, property and contract rights came under attack during the Progressive era and the New Deal, leading up to our own era of mixed premises and politicized business.

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Heidegger on the Führer Principle

Heidegger on the Führer Principle:

young-heidegger“Only where leader and led together bind each other in one destiny, and fight for the realization of one idea, does true order grow. Then spiritual superiority and freedom respond in the form of deep dedication of all powers to the people, to the state, in the form of the most rigid training, as commitment, resistance, solitude, and love. Then the existence and the superiority of the Führer sink down into being, into the soul of the people and thus bind it authentically and passionately to the task. And when the people feel this dedication, they will let themselves be led into struggle, and they will want and love the struggle. They will develop and persist in their strength, be true and sacrifice themselves. heideggerWith each new moment the Führer and the people will be bound more closely, in order to realize the essence of their state, that is their Being; growing together, they will oppose the two threatening forces, death and the devil, that is, impermanence and the falling away from one’s own essence, with their meaningful, historical Being and Will.”[1]

Yikes. Relevant to the question of the depth of Heidegger’s Nazism.

Emmanuel Faye, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 (Yale, 2009), p. 140, italics in the original.

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PBS documentary on economic freedom: Gwartney, Hall, Lawson

efwThe documentary airs in January on PBS stations nationwide. Here are the press releases from Joshua Hall’s West Virginia University and Robert Lawson’s Southern Methodist University.

Professor Lawson spoke at Rockford University on economic freedom, and Professor Hall spoke here on education reform.

Both talks were sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.

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Music and sense of life: Shostakovich version

The philosophical nature of art, as illustrated by Dmitri Shostakovich’s comments on the purpose of his music, from his autobiographical Testimony. Shostakovich’s words in quotation marks are followed by my gloss in brackets.

shostakovich-dmitri-1“For some reason, people think that music must tell us only about the pinnacles of the human spirit, or at least about highly romantic villains. But there are very few heroes or villains. Most people are average, neither black nor white. They’re gray. A dirty shade of gray.”
[An artist's subject should be: how most people are. Morally, most people are a mixture of good and bad with the bad dominant.]

“And it’s in that vague middle ground that the fundamental conflicts of our age take place.”
[History is made by the average.]

“It’s a huge ant hill in which we all crawl. In the majority of cases, our destinies are bad. We are treated harshly and cruelly. And as soon as someone crawls a little higher, he’s ready to torture and humiliate others.”shostakovich-2
[Humans are insignificant creatures like ants. Life usually ends badly. Our social relations are predatory win/lose. (See Genghis Khan and Sigmund Freud.)]

“You must write about the majority of people and for the majority. And you must write the truth — then it can be called realistic art. … . To the extent of my ability I tried to write about these people, about their completely average, commonplace dreams and hopes, and about their suspicious tendency toward murder.”
[Realism is defined as art for the majority about the majority. I put all of my artistic talent and energy in the service of portraying the grubby ordinary.]

By implication, aesthetic Romanticism’s emphasis on life as an adventure, on real heroes and villains, and its sense that good should win over bad — is simply wrong metaphysically.

Source: Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New York: Harper and Row, 1979, p. 94.

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On the difference between theists and atheists

My friend Albert Loan of Universidad Francisco Marroquín recently quoted from Damon Linker’s review (“Memo to atheists: God’s not dead yet”) of theologian David Bentley Hart’s recent book.

atheism_antitheism_religion_christianity_judaism_islam_agnosticThe quotation: “The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) ‘that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not.’”

The second sentence in the above is the key one. It claims that truth, goodness, and beauty are “transcendental ideas,” that is, not natural or based in the physical world. That is, the argument for theism starts with skepticism about the natural world as a source of truth, goodness, or beauty.

This has long seemed to me to be the deepest divide between the thoughtfully religious and the thoughtfully non-religious: the atheist is optimistic about finding value in the natural world, while the theist is pessimistic about that possibility and seeks it outside the natural world.

The difference can be phrased in emotionalist terms: the person who does not become religious feels the natural world to be valuable in itself, while the religious person feels the natural world to be lacking or deficient in a deep way and so seeks value beyond it.


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