Looking Back on Elegiac Cycle

Looking Back on Elegiac Cycle


This essay is an excerpt from an extended interview conducted several years ago that appeared in the introductory material to the transcription book of Brad's record from 1999, Elegiac Cycle. In it, Brad looks back at the sources of inspiration that went into making the record at that time, like Rilke's poetry and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the context of recounting a trip to Berlin in 1998, he touches on the important lessons of modern German writers and thinkers as they drew inspiration from earlier sources but eventually implicated them, particularly through the relationship between Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus and Goethe's Faust, and Adorno reading Hegel. Other writers like George Orwell, Jacques Derrida, Harold Bloom and Terry Eagleton are touched on, as Brad explores how these thinkers contributed to an idea of what it is to be a "truly" modern artist, and - related to that, and perhaps of interest now in the election season - what it means to be a politically engaged person.

Looking Back on Elegiac Cycle

I discovered the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke in my middle twenties, and fell in love with Stephen Mitchell’s English translation of Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus in particular. Rilke’s writing became significant to me in a way that no other writer had been before. It was a difficult period of my life, and his words had a spiritual authority for me. They gave me grace and peace. I still come back to Rilke often. For me he is not just a poet; he is also one of the great sages.

The Duino Elegies were probably what initially gave me the idea to make a musical elegy. In the first elegy, Rilke mentions a lament for Linus from Greek mythology. Linus was a poet who died young – one myth states that Apollo, his father, killed him in a fit of jealousy; in another version of his story, he invented music and was the teacher of Orpheus. The ritual lament is described in the Iliad:

Girls and young men, with carefree hearts and innocent laughter,
were carrying the honey-sweet grapes, piled up in wicker baskets;
in their midst, a boy performed the ancient music of yearning,
plucking his clear-toned lyre and singing the lament for Linus
with his lovely voice, while the others moved to the powerful rhythm, their feet pounding in the dance, leaping and shouting for joy.

Rilke ends his first Duino Elegy by pointing to this ceremony, rhetorically asking whether it has any meaning for us still:

Is the legend meaningless that tells how, in the lament for Linus,
the daring first notes of song pierced through the barren numbness;
and then in the startled space which a youth as lovely as a god
had suddenly left forever, the Void felt for the first time
that harmony which now enraptures and comforts and helps us.
(Translation: Stephen Mitchell)

In the Iliad, the lament for Linus is reported to the reader as an event, with no further probing into its meaning. I always experience a feeling of otherness when I read Homer and Ovid. I think the feeling comes from the non-reflexive stance of the narrator – things simply happen, and then other things happen, and there is often no explanation as to their significance. This narrative tone is characteristic of writing from the age of antiquity. Indeed, amidst all the various descriptions in the Iliad, it might be easy to miss the strangeness – and the beauty – of this particular event: The other youths who remember Linus do not grieve; they experience joy and celebrate.

In sharp contrast to that kind of narrative tone, Rilke is a hyper-aware modernist of the 20th century, with contemporaries like Freud. He subjectifies the characters involved in this event by giving an emotional contour to the story of Linus, namely, the initial grief – the feeling of “barren numbness” that people experienced from his death. But Rilke looks for meaning in the celebration that ensues, and discovers a kind of ecstasy that we can experience precisely because we are mortal. Our mortality should therefore be honored and praised, not shunned.

This is the message of the first Duino Elegy, and it inspired me most directly to make Elegiac Cycle. The idea of making music that would celebrate our mortality made perfect sense, and by giving a name to that celebration, I wasn’t saying that Elegiac Cycle was particularly unique. What I experienced at that time was more of a simultaneous discovery and conformation of the elegiac power of music more generally. This ritualistic musical ceremony first described in the Iliad, and then taken up again centuries later by Rilke, seemed to me the quintessence of what music always has to offer us: Music is always elegiac in the way it allows us to confront our mortality head on. Elegiac Cycle was about giving a name to that discovery for myself.

In one sense, the figure of Linus is Christ-like. It is almost as if through his early death, the other youths are allowed to experience joy. One person dies for all the rest. But unlike in the story of Jesus, there is no talk of sin and forgiveness attached to Linus’ death. Furthermore, there is no promise of immortality. So there is honesty in their celebration. The youths dance and sing with no illusions about their own transience and imperfection. Nevertheless, this lament/celebration is similar to the Eucharist in the way that Linus, like Jesus, is apotheosized in his death. The music and dance have a sacramental aspect, like the bread and wine of the Communion. Just as one may experience that Communion with Christ in a mystical sense, Rilke suggests that the youths experience a mystical communion with Linus, one that involves energy and space: “Harmony” arises out of the “startled space” where Linus was, and this is the harmony that “enraptures and comforts and helps us”.

A Christian will receive comfort and harmony from the Communion as well, but Rilke describes another state – the harmony “enraptures” us in Mitchell’s translation of the German verb hinreißen. In its adjective form, hinreißend, this word is associated with carnal beauty and can mean enrapturing, gorgeous, adorable, or ravishing.

This highlights a direct opposition between two types of love: the agape that Christians experience for other humans, pure and nonsexual; and the eros that the followers of Linus experience – a love imbued with desire. Linus and his followers are decidedly youthful and beautiful in both the original story from the Iliad and Rilke’s gloss. Homer gives us “girls and young men, with carefree hearts and innocent laughter," and Rilke describes Linus as “a youth as lovely as a god”. 

Eros is more immediately attractive than the more virtuous Christian love in one sense: It accounts for carnal beauty, and to partake in that beauty is to experience joy or even ecstasy. A critique of eros addresses the folly of desire – there will always be potential folly in the active pursuit of carnal beauty, because that beauty is temporary. Our perception of it, like our perception of everything else, is conditioned by the awareness that it will not last. A link is made between beauty and mortality. The implication is that someone is beautiful because he or she is mortal. Rilke bids us to celebrate this temporary aspect of our existence; in doing so, we are thumbing our nose at the immortals above. 

Another figure from Greek mythology that was on my mind a lot as I developed the ideas for Elegiac Cycle was Orpheus. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, we read that he sang and played the lyre as well. His music had a mystical power, and he was able to calm the fiercest of wild animals in the forest with it. In his songs, he sang stories in verse as well. For me, Orpheus was an ideal model for a “Bard” – the word ‘bard’ is Celtic in origin, and refers not just to poets, but specifically a poet in ancient Celtic culture who would compose and recite an epic-length poem that described an important event in history. Orpheus found an ideal form of narrative expression by fusing together music and words. What was it that that bewitched animals and humans alike in his performances – was it the fascinating tale he told in his words, or the hypnotic music that accompanied it? 

I was thinking about narrative a lot that time. Out of all the arts, music was my first love, and literature – mostly novels – would come next. I was discovering how certain narrative devices that I encountered in novels could migrate to the more abstract medium of instrumental music, and started to think about music as a form of storytelling as well. The idea of telling a story through music became very important in my development as a jazz musician on all fronts – interpreter of standards/covers, composer, and, perhaps most importantly, improviser. By placing the word “bard” in the context of a purely instrumental solo piano record, with no text, I made it the “subject” of the record, in two senses of the word: as in what the music is “about”, and the Bard as an imagined subject who “tells” the story of the record. 

Various artists, composers and poets, including Rilke, have drawn inspiration from the story of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice: After Eurydice perishes from the poison bite of a serpent, Orpheus makes a trip to the underworld to try to get her back. Hades, ruler of the underworld, grants Orpheus his wish, under one condition: She will remain behind him as he leads her on the river Styx, and he must never look back and gaze at her until they are out of the underworld. When Orpheus cannot help himself and looks back at her before the journey is complete, she fades away and is gone, lost to him forevermore. 

The part of the myth that always holds my imagination the most is that act of looking back: it is an act of folly. What compels Orpheus to look back, even though he has been told that he will lose his beloved if he does that? He wants to see Eurydice because seeing her will bring him the reassurance that she is still there, with him. This reassurance will be based on what Orpheus has already experienced in the past – Eurydice’s face, her body, her cherished presence. The past is represented in the backwards direction of Orpheus’ glance – it is as if he is looking backward in time, longingly. That is his ruin, and so the story suggests to us that it is folly to take comfort in the past. This is a lesson I would say I was learning at that time for myself.

The practice and writing time in preparation for the recording of Elegiac Cycle helped me to make a real jump in my solo piano style, and it was the beginning of something new. I practiced particularly intensely in Berlin, Germany for about 6 weeks. My then-girlfriend/now-wife Fleurine and I went there to absorb the city for a while, in November and December of 1998. We rented a flat in the far eastern side of the city, where you could really still feel the communist presence in some of the buildings and in the attitude of some of the people there. It was an interesting time to be in Berlin. Whole portions of the city were under construction. It was changing very fast and there was a feeling of possibility. 

Yet a particularly German awareness of history was in the air just as strongly, and that was what resonated with me; I would even say that I was seeking out a feeling of history. This weight of history was like a drug for me at the time. I became intoxicated with the heaviness of history; it seemed to be a balm against the banality of the present moment. I was idealizing history, and this tendency to idealize the past was rising to the surface of my consciousness as I approached the age of thirty. I had diagnosed the psychological problem in myself, but had not yet purged myself of it. Orpheus held my imagination because he looked back at Eurydice and lost everything he loved – he was a model for me because of that fact and not in spite of it. To the extent that this idealization of history constitutes a flaw on the record, it is also an indelible part of the record’s identity. The final product is an expression of my ambivalence at the time: There is an attempt to purge myself of this idealization of the past, but still, a cloying love for that past. 

The interesting – bemusing – thing is that I didn’t see this paradox in myself at the time; I see it clearly now. I speak mainly of the liner notes that accompanied the record. I was very good at critiquing the world, or my generation, but had not yet found a tenable standpoint for myself. I was still questioning everything, or, better to say, of course I still question everything now, but at that time, I was deeply bothered if I didn’t have an answer. So my standpoint in the liner notes was unclear: I was trying to stand on higher ground and administer a viewpoint with some world-weary objectivity. My ideas may have been authentic, but the world-weary tone was not. The literary critic, Harold Bloom, whose books I was reading a lot of at the time, would have said that I had the “problem of my own irony:” I was diagnosing the relativity of everyone else’s viewpoint, without acknowledging the relativity of my own. 

I had been smitten with so much German art and thought all through my twenties – composers like Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms; writers like Goethe and Thomas Mann, philosophers like Kant and Hegel. When Fleurine and I arrived in Berlin, I was a real Germanophile, with my head full of sturm und drang. Relatively quickly, I noticed the juxtaposition between my own idea of German culture, with its heavy emphasis on romantic works, and the culture of Berlin in 1998. My romantic idea of German art was of course hopelessly dated: Here I stood on the edge of a new millennium, and yet much of the art and ideas that captivated me had come to fruition at the end of the last millennium. In Berlin, the mood was one of cautious postmodernism, and Germans that I talked with viewed their own cultural heritage with a certain ironic distance. My initial enthusiasm deflated a bit, but that was good – the idealistic sheen that had blanketed my view of the past was blemished for the first time.

One of the first trips Fleurine and I made after arriving in Berlin was to the public library, of all places. I was attracted to a huge poster hanging outside. On the bottom was a question in quotations, “Was werden die Deutschen sagen?” (“What will the Germans say?”), and above was a picture of the great German author Thomas Mann, with a characteristically pensive expression. The words were from a letter Mann wrote, as he wondered what his own countrymen would make of his book, Dr. Faustus. When we arrived there, the library in Berlin was marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of that book, which was written just a few years after the end of the Second World War. 

Dr. Faustus had made a huge impression on me a few years earlier when I read it, and the ideas in it were still churning in my head. At that time I had a small notebook with a cover made out of corkwood and an elastic ribbon that held it shut, and I carried it everywhere. It was filled with quotations and sometimes several paragraphs that I had copied by hand from Dr. Faustus, with various headings I made that described the subject matter. I wanted to burn these passages into my memory and make them permanent. Mann was, for me, the model intellectual, and remains a strong one. Dr. Faustus is a novel of ideas, and the characters often act as mouthpieces for these ideas, particularly those of the German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, with whom he was in contact during the writing of the book . Mann’s encapsulation of Adorno’s imesdeas about music took hold of me more than Adorno’s own writing because of the way those ideas unfolded in a narrative context. 

One thing that had frustrated me for a while was the seemingly mute quality of music. Language often seemed like an interloper in the realm of tonality. The principles of tonality – for instance, the principle of tension and resolution; the way that a chord built on the dominant 5th degree of the scale is magnetically pulled towards resolution on the tonic first degree of that scale – were knowable and logical. These principles, whether we’re considering the Greek Modes, or the more recent arrival of tempered tuning that allows one to move chromatically between tonal centers, are based on laws of physics; they are no mere arbitrary invention. In one sense then, the aesthetic pleasure we receive from the resolution of tension in a cadence at the end of a Bach Chorale is objective: it is derived from pre-existing phenomenon, out there, in the world, and is no mere human conceit. Music is a force of nature in this view, and it gains an autonomous stature that places it in a privileged realm apart from other arts. 

The question of whether to view any kind of phenomenon, though, as an object independent of our perception, was one of the big unresolved problems in philosophical thought. Adorno yoked music out of this objective, idealized realm and back into the gritty world of our subjective experience. In this way, he was allowed to consider its power in other contexts – particularly a political context. A Beethoven symphony in an Adornian reading, with its tension and resolution on the grand scale, could become a discourse about domination and subjugation. Adorno was a strong reader of Hegel, and his reasoning follows the Hegalian dialectical model to a point. There is often a duality – between subject and object, between master and slave, between the universal and the particular – and an attempt to reconcile or synthesize those two poles. 

Adorno was steeped in this way of thinking but was deeply critical of Hegel as well, as well as much of western thought since The Enlightenment. There is a palpable feeling of disappointment that burns through Adorno’s writing. It was a disappointment in the whole history of Occidental thought. His gloomy conclusion – spelled out in Dialectics of Enlightenment, which he wrote with his colleague, Max Horkheimer – was that the founding ideas of The Enlightenment, which had supposedly initiated our liberty from ignorance and suffering, already contained the seeds of 20th century fascism and totalitarianism. As a committed Marxist, Adorno was on the lookout for any system of thought, however noble its intentions, which might surreptitiously collapse into an apologia for oppression. His writing can be heavy-handed – much is sinister for him and there is not much good he has to say about anything. (His appraisal of jazz, which he saw as a bad manifestation of the capitalist “culture industry”, is dismaying. If you’re a jazz fan and an admirer of Adorno, you’ll most likely see his writing on jazz as a blemish on his whole oeuvre.) Furthermore, his writing style is willfully difficult, and I couldn’t get through all of Dialectics of Enlightenment and Negative Dialectics. As with some other philosophical tracts, I leaned on other commentators examining Adorno’s work to grasp what he was getting at. 

In that regard, I discovered something while reading Dr. Faustus. In the act of placing some of Adorno’s ideas in a narrative context, Mann made them less dry and more alluring, because they shimmered with the urgency of time and place. Once they were wedded to a story with characters that I cared about, they had more relevance for me because I had empathy for those characters. Mann’s novel of ideas seemed to me the ultimate narrative form of expression because, in drawing from various disciplines, it gave the reader a multifaceted experience. Considering Adorno’s ideas about music, and Mann’s ability to weave a story from them, I wondered how that worked going the other direction – could a piece of music, with its wordless language of tones, “tell” us something about discursive thought? Despite its muteness, could music communicate ideas with specificity, or to go a step further, could a purely musical utterance, with its independence from linguistic discourse, transmit an idea that would even supersede language? Under the sway of dialectical thinking, I began to think a lot about the music and language as a binary relationship fraught with interaction, tension and paradox. 

So Dr. Faustus served as a model for Elegiac Cycle in the way that it wedded the dryness of ideas with “wet” narrative, and more generally, in the way it could draw from so many sources for inspiration. I was also reading Joyce’s “Ulysses” around that time, which became another cyclical model for me, and a great example of an artwork that is packed with allusions to other earlier artworks. It was inspiring to me how in both books, you could connect them to other books, which would then connect to other systems of thought, other time periods. There was a continuity to all that. A book could be like a picture of one section of a river: Where the frame ended, you could not see anymore which way the river went, but by viewing what was inside the frame, you could deduce certain things about where it came from and then explore its sources. An book or a piece of music would always have some sort of provisional “frame” – a beginning and an end – but would also beckon the reader to speculate about what was outside of the frame – where the river came from and where it might go in the future. 

The most overt source for Mann’s Dr. Faustus was Faust, from the beginning of the 19th century, by the German from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In Goethe’s play, Faust makes a pact with a devil, Mephistopheles. Through his sorcery, Mephistopheles will make the young maiden, Gretchen, fall in love with Faust, on the condition that Faust will then give his immortal soul to him and serve him in hell. (There is a second part of Faust that Goethe wrote later, in which Faust is redeemed.) Mann’s Faustian character is the fictional classical composer, Adrian Leverkühn. Leverkühn catches syphilis from a young prostitute whom he visits several times – his “Gretchen” – goes mad, and dies. 

There are at least 2 ways to read Mann’s gloss on Faust in the character of Leverkühn, and they both have to do with the state of things after World War II. The first is related to Adorno’s famous statement that one can know longer write poetry after Auschwitz. The very idea of beauty had been soiled by so much sadism and murder. To write a pretty melody, as such, was no longer viable – it meant willful blindness and denial. More generally, even before the World War II, this was the condition of art already. Any kind of art, maintained Adorno, must reflect the alienated state that man found himself in as he stumbled through the emptiness of late capitalism. Art would be necessarily difficult – it would have to reflect the difficulty that the subject has as he tries to redeem himself amidst the phony, hollow objectivity of his surroundings. Adorno’s outlook was dreary, but he found a champion in one of his contemporaries, Arnold Schoenberg. When Schoenberg invented his twelve-tone system of composition, he made a break with everything that wasn’t viable for Adorno in music anymore. 

In describing the character of Leverkühn, Mann borrowed from Schoenberg’s compositional technique and Adorno’s understanding of it. As he begins to lose his mind, Leverkühn imagines a meeting with his own version of Mephistopheles. The dialogue between the two, mostly coming from Mephistopheles, is a high point of literature in the 20th century. In it, Mephistopheles lays out all the pitfalls of being a serious modern composer, but it is also a diagnosis of modern art more generally. “What is art today?” he asks rhetorically, and answers it himself with scorn: “A pilgrimage on peas.” In Mann’s hands, the devil’s assessment of things is more devastating than anything Adorno put into words for me – terrifying, creepy, laugh out loud funny, and serious food for thought all at once.

Leverkühn will enter into a Faustian bargain with his imagined demonic spirit to complete his last great work, which, low and behold, is an oratorio based on “Faust”. The implication isn’t clear: Does one need to loose his mind and consort with imagined demons in order to create something of beauty nowadays? Mann seems to be saying something more about the sheer difficulty of the modern artist’s task: he faces something insurmountable; he must find a way back to beauty.

In any case, that fatalism immediately resonated with me in the 1990’s when I read it. There was so much crap culture being dished out at us – that much hadn’t changed since Adorno, and he got that right: it was the culture industry; it was the capitalistic urge; it was all about getting paid. The terms of the challenge were different – I was living in peace and prosperity and hadn’t lived through any world wars. But it was still not easy to navigate a path through all the crap and try to make something vital and authentic, or so it seemed to me. 

Mann’s book was elegiac: it was an elegy for a kind of beauty that was not immediately accessible anymore. In the library in Berlin, though, I got thinking about another way of Dr. Faustus that I had missed the first time I read it. The novel ostensibly told the life story of Leverkühn – his education and development, his creative flowering, and then, tragically, his ruin and death. But, as many have noted, it is also possible to read the novel allegorically. The narrator of the novel was Leverkühn’s friend, and he tells the story retrospectively: the events in the book that are recollected took place before World War II, but the narrator writes from a vantage point after the war. If one wants, one can read Leverkühn’s downfall as an allegory for Germany’s downfall. 

At that moment in the library in Berlin, Dr. Faustus became another elegiac model for me: an elegy for the demise of a nation’s culture. My idea of elegy was more closely aligned with the world of the present. It was possible to find elegy in postwar American writers that I had absorbed earlier, like William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac: In a novel like “On The Road”, Kerouac described a wild, less lawful nomadic kind of American experience that breathed with mystery, but even as the book was being written, that experience was being wiped away and replaced by something more mechanized and uniform.

What about that more allegorical reading of Dr. Faustus – was it valid? Was the allegorical impulse already present in whatever initial inspiration Mann had to begin writing the novel; did he intend from its inception to say something about Germany’s actions during the war? To draw inspiration from Goethe, a paragon of German culture, for a novel about the demise of that very culture, could be seen as perverse. The criticism of Dr. Faustus from some commentators is really a moral indictment: by allegorizing the very real actions of Germans in the Second World War, Mann was softening their impact, minimizing their atrocity. 

I understand it differently – Mann loved the “good” German culture and could not abandon it; it informed his identity as a writer. And I suspect that his own motive was exactly the opposite of what he has been criticized for; that, in his dismay at Germany’s downfall after the war, he resolved to salvage Germany’s cultural legacy if that was possible. This meant directly confronting a menacing contradiction: How could the same nation that gave the world Goethe give it Hitler? 

Was there something ontologically sinister about much of German art and German thought, if they could be so easily appropriated and placed in the service of a twisted ideology? Of course not! The question wasn’t even valid, I thought, because art should never have to explain itself – we shouldn’t make art into something that it isn’t. Music in particular, with its abstract tonal communication, gives its listener no moral directive – wasn’t it therefore absurd to draw a moral conclusion from it? It seemed to me at the time that much of postwar critical discourse was written in bad faith, because it viewed art, music, and philosophy through a socio-economic prism. Why couldn’t the work itself simply be viewed in its own light – after all, whatever joy I derived from a Beethoven symphony was ultimately of an abstract nature – it wasn’t tied to all those ‘outside’ factors – right? My problem with a lot of the postwar critical writing that I had encountered, was that it simultaneously cheapened the artwork and asked too much of it. This was the case with Adorno, and another commentator of a Marxist bent who had taken hold of me at the time, Terry Eagleton, in his great, intoxicating book, The Ideology of Aesthetics

Adorno’s legacy resonated today, I observed, in a kind of criticism that morally chided the creator of the artwork for being too bourgeois, or too male chauvinistic; in general, the critic presupposed a moral obligation that the creator had. This was an act of bad faith because it asked for something in the artwork that wasn’t there. So I made a strong dialectic between the autonomous artwork and everything apart from it, but this distinction in itself was an act of bad faith to the extent that it was atavistic: After all, to still maintain a posture of ‘art for art’s sake,’ with no irony at all, in this day and age, was to ignore all of the historical circumstances that had led to the demise of that posture – two world wars, and a century that witnessed more mass slaughter and than any other in human history. 

What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking; I was reacting from a defensive position, and, in retrospect, I was unwittingly going through the trial and error of developing a personal politics. The particular tone of stridency that is unique to a young person who wants to assert any political position that he has just tripped over is evident in parts of the liner notes.

At its worst, I observed, the tendency to attach a moral obligation to an artwork manifested itself in the lowest part of the critical feeding chain: the record, book or movie review in a left-leaning publication I was regularly exposed to in New York like The Village Voice, and its various imitators. Reviews in The Village Voice and the like offered a trivialization of the ideas of not just Adorno, but the French thinker, Jacques Derrida, as well. 

No single philosophical word is overused wrongly with more frequency than “deconstruction”. Deconstruction was an idea of great subtlety that Derrida developed, and is related to Adorno’s work in its dialectical method: Derrida posits a binary opposition and investigates the weakness in its foundation; in this sense he is a descendent of Hegel like Adorno, but Derrida’s special focus was the texts – philosophical and otherwise – themselves. 

Derrida provocatively cast doubt on the authority of the author of a given text, and this has had an unfortunate effect on many writers who may have had a cursory exposure to his thought in their undergraduate Introduction to Philosophy class, or simply are catching a whiff of the idea through reading other reviews. They “deconstruct” a movie, book, painting, or piece of music by examining the “motives” of the director, author, musician, or painter – motives that he or she may not even be aware of. Of course, the reviewer has no evidence of the existence of these supposed motives, but by positing them, it gives them the opportunity to get on his or her own soapbox and talk about his or her own convictions. 

The upshot is that the reviewer has disengaged from the artwork by not taking it on its own terms. The reviewer’s convictions are often leftist platitudes in the American vein, and the left in America often gets stuck in the politics of victimization: there is a focus on a particular group of people who are victimized – racial minority groups, women, or gay people usually. Here is Adorno’s legacy in the form of whining about the oppressed, in the context of a review. Derrida reduced to mere biographical conjecture; Adorno reduced to sanctimonious accusation – that’s many of the reviews in The Voice in a nutshell, still today.

In an actual artwork, though, such platitudes are a disaster: The more topical an artwork is, the more time bound it is, the less likely it is to survive and capture the imagination of subsequent generations. Specific political programs are contingent on ever-changing factors; but a strong artwork will supersede those factors and address the root of them that is more constant through every generation. Shakespeare’s King Lear survives not because it may or may not have been informed by the political climate of Jacobean England during the time it was written; it survives because of Shakespeare’s imaginative gift. 

It is thus tempting to bracket out any discussion of the political ramifications of an artwork, but this is also absurd. First of all it is simply not true that art doesn’t stir people to a particular political conviction or action; second of all, as a form of criticism, an “Art For Art’s Sake” stance neuters the artwork, displacing it from the real word where it will be transmitted, and the real world is always a political one – this was Adorno’s point. In my liner notes, I was paying elegy to this idea that art should not have to explain itself, to the notion of “art for art’s sake,” and here was a point where my reasoning became sloppy, because I hadn’t thought it through enough. I was presenting my wish – that art really could simply be for art’s sake – in the form of a self-evident fact. 

This was an emotional reaction. I had an instinctive distrust in the phony proletariat cheerleading I was witnessing and wanted to be a contrarian. That goes back to a feeling I remember in childhood on the school playground with a big group of kids: Let’s say one kid did something wrong – he hit another kid. A crowd would gather around the two – the one crying and the other one standing over him silently. Through the crowd, another kid steps forward – he is either the oldest, or biggest, or simply yells louder than the others, and he then decides that the kid who hit the other kid is wrong, and must be punished. The other kids would dumbly line up behind him and follow him blindly. I always sided with the kid who hit the other kid – now also a victim, because he is being attacked by the group, and not just a single person. That seemed much worse to me and mitigated whatever he had done initially. The politics of the group, the dumb tribalism – it’s of course just as rampant in the right wing, but in the left it is more dismaying because the left is supposed to stand for the oppressed in the first place, and then turns into the oppressor. 

Ernest Hemmingway describes that phenomenon so well in For Whom The Bell Tolls, and George Orwell in some of his essays; both drew from their real experiences fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Their political convictions were thus hard-won. I had no real strife like that to base my convictions on, though. At the risk of engaging in psychological clichés, I would say that part of the reason that I was so against moralizing criticism in the more topical, journalistic context was because it was a mirror. It was shrill, it was pseudo-intellectual, it was self-righteous, it was uninformed by real strife, written by people like…me. 

A political stance, if not informed by strife, can come from unconscious formations about justice that one makes already in childhood. There is no guarantee that one’s sense of justice will be nuanced and rational just because he or she lives in a democratic society. Orwell saw death and cruelty first-hand on both sides and still remained a believer in socialist principles, but was deeply critical of apologists for Stalin around him – he was one of the first models in the 20th century for a man of the left who does not become a “fellow traveler” and remains a strong example, but he was and is the rare exception. Most times, a person’s politics are a series of emotionally charged reactions over a period of time which sometimes have a continuity and often don’t – in a word; they are irrational, and if they mandate a particular action, it won’t necessarily be in that person’s interest at all. 

My early empathy for the kid who hit the other kid was such a reaction and grew later into an elitist sentiment. The initial oppressor has now been shunned and banished like Cain. When you stand in solidarity with him, you are nevertheless standing in solidarity with the oppressor. The transgressive nature of this action was probably alluring for me as a child. You are stepping over to the other side, but now you stand with the individual against the mob – the mob should not dumbly rule. You are one step ahead of them, and you have your individuality – you are better and smarter than they are. That initial impulse to transgress remained with me, forming a vaguely political sentiment. It meant scorn for the dumb mob that complacently follows its leader. It also meant contempt for ignorance more generally – ignorance leads to fear, which causes the mob to band together in the first place, and the sheep mentality perpetuates itself. This stance is tempting and intoxicating for an artist. Elitist contempt is an easy emotional reaction for a musician to have upon observing that the majority of people throng to music that delivers an easy, superficial thrill. I figured that this was also ignorance – the mob simply did not know about the sublime experience in listening to Beethoven. They didn’t know what the sublime felt like; they didn’t know that feeling existed.

They weren’t initiated, one could say, but Adorno would rightfully ask, how would they become initiated? The proletariat had no time to study a score of Beethoven and learn about the importance of motific development in his music; they were too busy working. Economic conditions directly affected one’s opportunity for edification. That fact was unjust, and for Adorno, it sullied the whole enterprise of western music. The music itself was culpable, he even maintained; you could trace its complicity with the oppressor throughout the score. But the music of the mob was no better. The proletariat had been snookered by the “culture industry” – his pejorative term for popular culture in a capitalistic society – and listened to horrible music like jazz! 

Adorno rightfully diagnoses an injustice, but remains elitist in his dismissal of popular culture. This elitism is particularly unattractive. The commentator’s view toward the proletariat is paternalistic and condescending – he knows what they need in art even if they don’t. But will he help them? No, he will reject them and write books about their ignorance. This is the problem of Marxist thought that goes all the way back to Marx himself: Marx was not part of the proletariat, and neither were any of the intellectuals like Adorno who followed his path. They are part of the bourgeois, and they are writing for other disaffected members of the bourgeois like themselves. What is the actual utility of their writing? After the purges under Stalin, and later under Mao, and the oppressive regimes that rose up in those places, were not these thinkers writing in bad faith – writing for an audience whose existence depended on the system they shunned, and writing in favor of a system that as of yet had patently failed? This inconsistency was instructive for me. The formulations of Marxist thinkers like Adorno and Terry Eagleton remained edifying and inspiring, but I didn’t take them at face value. 

This should have been a corrective to a belief in any system of thought that adheres to rigid absolutes, and it was to some extent, but took some time to process for me. My simplistic, glib celebration of Hegel’s concept of Aufhebung in the liner notes to Elegiac Cycle was another example of the contradictory nature of my own thoughts at that time.Aufhebung was a bedrock of the philosopher’s particularly historical brand of dialectical thinking: A thesis and its antithesis were combined, and the new thesis that emerged contained both of them – the German verb “aufheben” implies both cancellation and preservation. A resolution between two ideas did not have to mean negating the opposition inherent between them; and our subsequent knowledge of that opposition was a step forward. Hegel traced this process through history in society, and for him, importantly, it was always in the direction of progress. Hegel’s optimism is unshakable, and therefore, inhumane: The various atrocious acts that man commits against his fellow are in fact necessary stepping stones to progress – they needed to happen for mankind to move forward; thus, they were even “good” in a way. 

Hegel famously posited an eventual “end of history” that would take place when society would actually have perfected itself. It is the determinism of Hegel’s thought that puts off a modern reader most quickly – it sounds potentially dangerous, and calls to mind Biblical prophecy. Deterministic ideologues, smitten by their belief, have a way of trying to fulfill their own prophecy, which may have an apocalyptic strain. Marx and his descendants applied Hegel’s historicism to the material conditions of society, and concluded that a revolution was inevitable. The revolution came, but the result was not progress – there was no Aufhebung; instead, there was Stalin and Mao. Hegel, removed from that, in his ghostly philosopher’s throne, is still intellectually culpable to a point, because he gave determinism philosophical gravity. This allowed leaders to justify acts of oppression or even murder as acts of progress and allowed fellow-travelers on the other side of the pond to act as apologists for the oppressors and murderers. 

Still, was there anything to gain from Hegel’s dialectical approach now? The big question for me was: Could one reconcile the idea of the autonomous artist with the real world that he creates in? Take “art for art’s sake” as the grounds for an initial thesis: Art is “perfectly useless”, as Oscar Wilde quipped, and that is just as it should be – ideally, it does not try to sway us towards a particular political program, and we do not foolishly expect art to solve any problem in the real world. Art is divested of any social utility, but its position is not weakened. In a strange twist, the allure of art grows stronger. If it has no use, then it has no responsibility either, and art becomes a trope for transgression – transgression from the norms of society, release from moral obligation. 

This is the view of music and literature that begins at the end of the 18th century and comes to fruition in the 19th century. Figures like Byron, Goethe and Beethoven are proto-rock stars: their public idealizes them by blurring their lives and work together. As artists, they are afforded a privileged place in society. The free, unfettered spirit of the artist is celebrated, and the Romantic Movement has begun. The essence of Romanticism is the elevation of the artist above the rest of society. He does not play by the same rules as everyone else. The artists themselves probably had a hand in establishing this elevated status and creating their own mystique – after all, that would be in their own interest. But society was ready for it. 

In Goethe’s early book, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Werther, a young man, is consumed by his love for a beautiful young woman, Lotte, who is already engaged, and eventually he kills himself in despair. The intensity of his feeling wins over his rational faculty. The idea of emotion ruling over common sense is not new, but the public reaction to Goethe’s novel was. In spite of the torment Werther experiences, he became a model for young people because of the uncompromising intensity of his feeling, and there were even copycat acts of suicide. 

Werther represents the artist. His suicide is an aesthetic decision: By committing this ultimate act of transgression, he honors the aesthetic perfection of the artwork – his beloved Lotte – over his own life. The public understood this to a frightening degree. Art is not just separate from life; it is better than life. Goethe later tried to distance himself from this early book and disavowed it, but it was too late: The seeds of Romanticism had been sowed, and the trope of the romantic artist as transgressor remained strong throughout the 19th century. 

In the 20th century, celebration of moral transgression becomes suspect. Adorno’s comment that it was reprehensible to write poetry after Auschwitz summarizes the antithesis of “art for art’s sake”. The kind of poetry that Adorno was referring to practically advertised its lack of social utility. It exists like the flower in Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince: its function is to simply be beautiful, and our function as readers is to say, “You are beautiful.” Such a naïve communion with the artwork was not possible anymore for Adorno – we should not pay homage to such beauty because to do so would be to deny the atrocity of the present, and that would be morally reprehensible. Modern art for Adorno had to account for the modern world, and that did not imply beauty. 

But how do we retain the trangressive, liberating power of art? How do we prevent art from falling into the hands of what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies” – those who would rob art of its autonomy and force it to adhere to the party lines of a particular political program? Orwell made the further comment that “Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” Adorno, who should have known better, advocated orthodoxy, maintaining that only Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method had any real value. An orthodoxy that rigidly adhered to Schoenberg’s compositional technique certainly arose in the years following his innovation, and it took some time before many composers allowed themselves to write tonal music again. 

During the time I was working on Elegiac Cycle, I was trying to find out what it meant to be a creative person in today’s world, and that meant trying to reconcile Oscar Wilde and Theodor Adorno – trying to hold onto one’s artistic autonomy while accounting for human suffering. It seemed to me that the critics of “Dr. Faustus” had missed the mark with Mann. They charged him with mystification: By allegorizing Germany’s actions during the war, they argued, he minimized the very real horror that took place. 

Perhaps, though, Dr. Faustus is also an indictment – but not simply of German atrocities during the war. What Mann takes aim at is the mystical belief in the aesthetic that Goethe had already sketched out in The Sorrows of Young Werther: the view that the aesthetic creation reigns supreme. This would seem to place the focus of Mann’s book more exclusively in the locus of art, for its own sake – Dr. Faustus is, after all, a book about a fictional composer. But the subtlety of Mann’s achievement comes in the darker insinuation he makes: The roots of political tyranny and even atrocity can be traced to such a blind belief in the power of the aesthetic, free from moral obligation. 

Mann is attempting a kind of redemptive Aufhebung: He has a deeply informed love for German thought – precisely the kind of thought that cherished the idea of the autonomous artist – but he will expose the folly of that thought. Ultimately, though, he cannot deny the greatness that lies in the culture that was destroyed by the Third Reich, so he seeks to preserve what was good in that. He will attack aesthetics by aesthetic means; he will indict art through a work of art and thereby make the world a safe place for (German) art again.

The key to Mann’s indictment is found in Goethe’s original Faust. In one scene, Faust sits alone in his study, trying to translate the Bible. He is stuck on a particular passage in the Book of John. Usually, it reads, “In the beginning was the Word.” Faust is not satisfied with that, though. He thinks to himself:


Geschrieben steht: “Im Anfang war das Wort!”
Hier stock ich schon! Wer hilft mir weiter fort?
Ich kann das Wort so hoch unmöglich schätzen,
Ich muß es anders übersetzen.

(It says: “In the beginning was the Word.”
Already I’m stuck. Who will help me continue? 
I can’t prize the Word so highly,
I must translate it differently.)

After some trial and error, Faust is suddenly inspired and finds a solution:

Mir hilft der Geist, auf einmal seh ich Rat
Und schreibe getrost: Im Anfang war die Tat!

(The spirit helps me; all at once I find counsel - 
And so I write, satisfied: “In the beginning was the Deed.”)

Faust’s alternative translation is deeply transgressive. The “Word” has primacy because it establishes law and law establishes moral conduct. The Word exists first, before the Deed, telling us what the proper Deed should be. But Goethe inverts the order. If we imagine the beginning of time, there had to have first been an act of creation before anything else – one that gave birth to the existence of everything. This creative act takes primacy over the rule of law for Faust, and he is thus a hallmark figure of Romanticism. The Deed is an understandably preferable choice over the Word for any person who cherishes creativity. The Word represents the dogma of the church; it is a controlling, paternalistic force from which one wants to break free – it can only inhibit the artist. 

Faust may cherish Deed over Word, but he is not at peace. Goethe had created the Romantic artist in Werther, but Faust is a more complex character. We initially marvel at his knowledge, and then empathize with his dissatisfaction and ennui. Later, though, he revolts us. With Mephistopheles’ help, he gives into his selfish lust for the maiden, Gretchen, and she tragically suffers as a result. Goethe shows us the folly of placing Deed above Word – of allowing one’s pursuit of aesthetic pleasure to trump moral consideration.

When Deed before Word becomes a political program, the result can be destructive, and this fact may lie behind the allegory of Dr. Faustus. The Third Reich lost the guiding moral compass of The Word – a group of laws in any civilized state, rooted, for example, in the Judeo-Christian covenant, “Thou Shall Not Kill.” Like Adrian Leverkühn, it self-destructed. The horrific deeds sanctioned by the state – the eugenics, the “elimination” of those mentally “defective”, the compulsory sterilizations, the mass murder – were aesthetic decisions, aimed at creating The Master Race – a wholly autonomous artwork, free from the bounds of morality. Within the dialectic of art and politics, the roles were inverted. The state was now art, and the former laws governing the state – the old covenant that insures that a given society remains civilized – were, following Wilde, “perfectly useless.”

© Brad Mehldau, All Rights Reserved