Hegel, Valéry, Aesthetics and Existentialism: In Response to Mademoiselle

“He who wishes to record his dream has to be awake.”

            -Paul Valéry

            Mademoiselle, published in 1981 by Bruno Monsaingeon and translated from the original French by Robyn Marsack, is a compilation of conversations of the great musician and teacher, Nadia Boulanger. These dialogues with Monsaingeon took place during the final five years of Boulanger’s life, as she became closer and closer to death. It seems fitting, then, to be a time of reflection on the relationships arisen, mistakes ill-profited from, and lessons realized. In Boulanger’s ninety-two years, she became an incredibly accomplished pianist, prolific conductor, and remarkable teacher of music. Some of her most acclaimed students included Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and Virgil Thompson-and therefore it can truly be said that she “changed the face of American music.”[1]

Characteristic from the onset until the very end of this publication is the apparent amount of charisma, devotion and passion Boulanger exhibited through her music and life, despite the physical setbacks present. One specific constituent to her character was her driven and unwavering view of herself in the lack of contentment she found in her own music. When conversing about the difference between a masterpiece and a simply respectable composition, she was asked to explain the criterion. She states, “For me, this always comes back to faith. As I accept God, I accept emotion. I also accept masterpieces…I believe that there are conditions without which masterpieces cannot be achieved, but I also believe that what defines a masterpiece cannot be pinned down.” There is much wisdom to be seen in this: it is necessarily true. It returns Hegel’s rational and even empirical question of aesthetics: What makes something beautiful? What constitutes good art? The answer can be nothing but subjective and relative to the perceiver, and yet I would agree that masterpieces are borne under but certain conditions. To paraphrase Hegel, nothing great has ever been accomplished without passion.

Another important notion Boulanger emphatically stood for lay in the realm of desire. If one’s desire is such that it may be tainted by lack of opportunity, want of time or simple laziness, the desire had truly no stock in the first place. She speaks of Plato and Schubert, and the greats throughout the age. They are remembered for being truly great, and why; because of their sheer dedication, stanch discipline and distinctive passion to create, to know, to be. Boulanger states earlier on in the work that she believes if one does not value existence, they cannot play well, think well, or live well. If one is not engaged consciously; if one is not thinking, he temporarily exists in vain, he has lost himself. Whether we rely on Hamlet’s “Words without thought to Heaven never go,” or the deductive Cogito of Descartes, whatever one is doing, it must be with purpose, and it must be with discipline.

Lastly, the ideal I have found to be of most exhilarating worth is the basic early existential concept of freedom, responsibility and choice. It continues on from the above: we are what we do; we end only where our actions lead us. She speaks of different types of people-ones who exist in a simply content state in their everyday lives, lacking attention and self-awareness. There are others, then, who live in an entirely different place: one of extreme focus, attentiveness and in possession of an extraordinary need to develop. When the latter engage in literature, a piece of music or in some sort of academia, they are engaged. One such as this is interested by their very nature. Life is entirely what we may draw from it, never the other way around. Ingrained in humanity is the potential to produce; to create great things. But one may not have only talent, or only technique, one must have the devout ardency and will to arrive. Valéry stated specifically, “It depends on you, o passer-by, whether I am tomb or treasury. It depends on you, friend; do not enter without desire.”

            In personal response, I found the conclusion of the dialogue to be incredibly poignant, and sadly little-known truth. The main metaphysical questions-how do we know, what do we know, and what can we know-about life, love and music, she answers with painful yet simplistic candor. It is the Socratic coming of age, and it is but the very wise who may say:

 

                        “You’re pushing me…You’re asking me to lay down truths…I’m simply amazed to have some intuitions…I have to admit that I do not know. And when I say I do not know, I am proclaiming a great victory for thought. I do not know, therefore I think along better and more essential lines, because when I do know, I am aware that it’s only in a human measure. I know all the notes, do re mi so…semi-quavers and so on…I can analyse everything. But one page, one line, one bar of Schubert, I do not know.”


[1] Monsaingeon, Bruno. Mademoiselle. (London: Carcanet Press Limited, 1985) 13.

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As The Spirit Wanes, or The Hope of Plasticity

“As the spirit wanes, the form appears.”

I first came across these words four years ago, in the art blog of a dear friend. I’ve been in love with Charles H. Bukowski ever since. Though his lifestyle was not one I’d recommend, I cannot convey the number of times I found him not only utterly poignant, but encouraging.

When I began this blog, I promised to explain why I chose those specific words as my title. I suppose the “form” is finally fighting its way to the surface. There is no decorative or esoteric way to say this: the past few months have been the most challenging of my life. I never imagined that so many diverse manifestations of loss and grief existed. During the two weeks leading to August, I lost three separate individuals, all whom I loved very deeply. My father’s death has been the most horrifying by far.

During his final weeks in the oncology ward, I witnessed quite a few examples of how people deal with fear, pain and grief: often to a paralyzing extent. I’ll always remember Kay, the beautiful old woman staying with her husband in the room next to my dad’s. I must have walked past her room twenty times before I found the courage to say hello, and offer her a hug and condolences. We spoke a few times during my stay-why is it so hard, we wondered, to just let go? Love and death are the two most naturally-occurring phenomena we can know, and yet they never fail to leave us cold and nearly unable to breathe.

So why Music psychology? Why neuroscience or philosophy? Why “as the spirit wanes?” Though I experienced a good deal of physical and mental pain in the last year, I feel as if I have almost been numb a vast portion of the time. A sort of desperate numbness, to be sure, but numbness nevertheless. I was unaware of the potential for evolution, development, and vitality all around me. I do not know what’s happened, but then I suppose I do. My spirit has never been so broken, so trampled, or terrifically damaged. I have not been myself the past year, and I’m ready for it to change. The concepts I have recently come to grasp not only allow but demand for revolution such as this.

I’ll never forget during my junior year of college, I was required to take a philosophy course. I dreaded it beyond all else. Though my mother had given me exposure to Jungian psychology from the cradle, in terms of philosophy, I felt my brain just might not “work” that way.

However, within a day of the class I was addicted and desperate for more. I had been re-exposed to the most basic form of existentialism: if we are responsible for our actions, we also then have the freedom not only to choose, but to transcend. As someone who’d grown up alongside the great crusade of mania and depression, this was news to me. What did they mean, I could choose? Though I’d eventually declined, I’d once been told I might benefit from medication to control depression and emotionally-destructive impulses. Medication or not: for the very first time in my life, I found a freedom to transcend my demons: psychical, neural and emotional. I certainly felt and digested emotion in much the same way, but with a unique freedom in my reaction to discord. I was no longer bound in paralyzation or fear. A couple of years later, I have once more found a like freedom, only infinitely more radical in the concept of Brain Plasticity.

As this dares reach too long a confession, I shall save the specifics of why I have found hope in Neuroscience, plasticity and its potential courtship with music for future posts. But what I have learned, and lived, is this: As the spirit wanes, the form appears. It is truly when we are beaten near beyond the point of recognition that we are then forced to give up, or forced to continue. Inertia demands not only motion, but action; consciousness. One may remain static for only so long. I choose to go forward. We can no longer think of our brains, our neuronal selves, as but flexible and anonymous; as machine. We must affirm our capacity for change and confess our plasticity: evolutionary, adaptive, explosive. We must no longer consent to depression via disaffiliation; to be “blind to our own cinema.” Our brains tell us a story-whether we choose to listen or not. Karl Marx once stated “Humans make their own history, but they do not know that they make it.” And why not? What type of fear or unknown is stopping us from this earth-shattering consciousness of what our brains can do?

I will continue soon in conjunction with a more formulated response to Catherine Malabou’s pioneering work, “What Should We Do with Our Brain?” in speculation of a metaphorical and ideological critique of plasticity.

“…At bottom, neuronal man has not known how to speak of himself. It is time to free his speech.” -Catherine Malabou