Scruton on sound and music and gesture

Roger Scruton: "The object of musical hearing is organised by metaphors of space and movement that correspond to no material realities. Music goes up and down, it leads and follows; it is dense, translucent, heavy, light; it encounters obstacles and crashes through them, and sometimes it comes to an end which is the end of everything. Those metaphors, and the order derived from them, are shared by all musical people. The order that we hear is an order that we – the musical public – hear, when we hear these sounds as music. And although there is, at any moment, an indefinite number of ways in which a melodic line or a chord sequence can continue without sounding wrong, the ideal in our tradition has been of an uninterrupted sense of necessity – each melodic and harmonic step following as though by logic from its predecessor, and yet with complete freedom. ... When we hear tones we are also hearing sounds; but we are hearing in those sounds movement, organisation and gravitational forces in a one-dimensional musical space. That is the fundamental musical experience, the experience that causes us to hear one note as moving on from another, answering another, attracted to or repelled by another. It is what enables us to hear tension and release, beginnings and endings, goals and starting points. It is at the root of the art of music as we have known it, since it is what gives music its fundamental nature as an art of motion, which grips us and takes us with it in a space of its own. We are moved by music because music moves."

Freedom and inevitability in the Second Epilogue

"A sinking man who clutches at another and drowns him; or a hungry mother exhausted by feeding her baby, who steals some food; or a man trained to discipline who on duty at the word of command kills a defenseless man--seem less guilty, that is, less free and more subject to the law of necessity, to one who knows the circumstances in which these people were placed, and more free to one who does not know that the man was himself drowning, that the mother was hungry, that the soldier was in the ranks, and so on. Similarly a man who committed a murder twenty years ago and has since lived peaceably and harmlessly in society seems less guilty and his action more due to the law of inevitability, to someone who considers his action after twenty years have elapsed than to one who examined it the day after it was committed. And in the same way every action of an insane, intoxicated, or highly excited man appears less free and more inevitable to one who knows the mental condition of him who committed the action, and seems more free and less inevitable to one who does not know it. In all these cases the conception of freedom is increased or diminished and the conception of compulsion is correspondingly decreased or increased, according to the point of view from which the action is regarded. So that the greater the conception of necessity the smaller the conception of freedom and vice versa." From the Second Epilogue of War and Peace

"Do not look beyond the notes, they themselves are the doctrine."

Charles Rosen in The Frontiers of Meaning: "Music has its existence on the borderline between meaning and nonsense. That is why most attempts to attribute a specific meaning to a piece of music seem to be beside the point—even when the attribution is authoritative, even when it is made by the composer himself ... Nevertheless, music will not acknowledge a context greater than itself — social, cultural, or biographical — to which it is conveniently subservient. To paraphrase Goethe's grandiose warning to the scientist: do not look behind the notes, they themselves are the doctrine."

Tradition and the Individual Talent

First published in The Sacred Wood in 1921:

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

— T.S. Eliot

"Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert."

Norman Mailer interviewed by William F. Buckley Jr., on a 1968 episode of Firing Line: "There's such a thing as a great cop, and there's such a thing as a great criminal. And the way I work -- it's very hard to explain this to people -- I don't think in categories, I think, rather, in this way: that the world is better off if every so-called type in the world, is better. It's a better world if the cops get better and the criminals get better. It's a poorer world when the cops are dull and the criminals are dull. In other words, as an existentialist what I believe is that what really is important in the world is how much life there is, how much psychic life, how much spiritual life, how much physical life, imagination, vitality, brilliance. I'm not going to carry this into every ridiculous extreme, but: you know, a mass murderer is not necessarily a criminal. One of the best remarks that Marx ever made -- or maybe this was Engels, in fact -- is that quantity changes quality. You see, a man who kills one man may be moral or immoral; we can't know, we need to know intimately what happened. Generally, the assumption is that he was immoral. Greivously immoral. At the very least, we know that he has changed his life profoundly, and that he has now (if you believe in a mortal soul, as I do, which you can gain or lose) so endangered his soul that we cannot look upon his condition as a light one. I would not presume to judge him too quickly. A man who murders four or five people is already a man of a totally different sort. A man who murders millions is a man who defies our conception of what it is to be a man. And so, for that reason, I would be perfectly willing to let my hypothesis dwindle and die long before we get to the man who kills three or four people. You see, we have to have a little wit when we speak of these matters ... Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert. That's the key to keep in mind. That's Voltaire."

T.S. Eliot on Dante, contra Valery

From The Sacred Wood — ...if it be maintained that the older poetry has a “philosophic” element and a “poetic” element which can be isolated, we have two tasks to perform. We must show first in a particular case—our case is Dante—that the philosophy is essential to the structure and that the structure is essential to the poetic beauty of the parts; and we must show that the philosophy is employed in a different form from that which it takes in admittedly unsuccessful philosophical poems.

Brillat-Savarin on the number of the senses

They are at least six -- Sight, which embraces space, and tells us by means of light, of the existence and of the colors of the bodies around us. Hearing, which, by the motions of the air, informs us of the motion of sounding or vibrating bodies. Scent, by means of which we are made aware of the odors bodies possess. Taste, which enables us to distinguish all that has a flavor from that which is insipid. Touch informs us of the consistency and resistance of bodies. The last is genesiac or physical love, which attracts the sexes to each other, and the object of which is the reproduction of the species.

It is astonishing that, almost to the days of Buffon, so important a sense was misunderstood, and was confounded with the touch. Yet the sensation of which it is the seat, has nothing in common with touch; it resides in an apparatus as complete as the mouth or the eyes, and what is singular is that each sex has all that is needed to experience the sensation; it is necessary that the two should be united to reach nature's object. If the TASTE, the object of which is the preservation of the individual, be incontestably a sense, the same title must indubitably by preserved on the organs destined to the preservation of the species.

Let us then assign to the genesiac the sensual place which cannot be refused to it, and let us leave to posterity the assignment of its peculiar rank.

(The Physiology of Taste)

"Was Socrates a Greek at all?"

"By birth, Socrates belonged to the lowest class: Socrates was plebeian. We are told, and can see in sculptures of him, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation. Was Socrates a Greek at all?" Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, the third of the Maxims and Arrows sequence.

The original poet "must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished."

Charles Rosen in an essay titled "The Frontiers of Nonsense," published in The Frontiers of Meaning: If getting used to music is the essential condition for understanding, it is hard to see just what purpose is served by writing about it. A few experiences of listening to a symphony or nocturne are worth more than any essay or analysis. The work of art itself teaching us how to understand it, and makes the critic not merely parasitical but strictly superfluous. This is not an unprecedented dilemma but one in which the critic of literature found himself at the end of the eighteenth century, when the function of criticism as an act of judgment crumbled before his eyes. The accepted criteria that had served so well for centuries began to seem the heritage of an alien culture; it no longer required any courage, or provoked any surprise, to question the authority of the classics, and it became almost commonplace to assume that the models given by Homer, Virgil, and Horace were no longer relevant to the literature of contemporary Europe. With the realization that absolute standards were not valid for new civilizations and different cultures, critics were compelled to derive their measures of evaluation from each culture in turn, and then from each individual author, and finally from each work. Standards could no longer be imposed from outside or in advance, and critics finally recognized that a new work was capable of establishing its own system of values. Here is the basis for Wordsworth's famous affirmation that an original poet "must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished." The more traditional, straightforward exercise of judgment was left to journalists. Critical evaluation was transformed into understanding, and criticism became not an act of judgment but of comprehension.

This is the legacy of Romanticism, and critics who would like to maintain or return to absolute standards have been protesting it without much success for almost two centuries. Whether there is, in fact, anything constant or invariant about aesthetic appreciation is irrelevant -- even if there is, it must be on a level of such generality that it can never help us in any given instance. Our sensuous appreciation of the world and of the works created by man has, no doubt, a biological foundation, one shared by all human beings, but that is no use to us when we try to evaluate a Bach fugue or a Dostoevsky novel -- or even the simple experience of a landscape, as our delight in the view of a mountain or a waterfall is also determined by the traditions of our culture. The coexistence of different criteria of judgment is, in any case, by now a fact of life. Beethoven cannot be judged or even understood by the standards of Mozart, however much he may have continued them, nor Berg by the standards of Wagner or Richard Strauss, nor Elliott Carter by the values of Ives and Stravinsky. A work of music can be only partially integrated into history, although that partial integration may be inescapable: it also demands to be listened to as if nothing had come before it and nothing was to come afterward.

The paradox was stated explicitly in that manifesto of Central European Romanticism first published in 1799, the Athenaeum, at the beginning of the section of book reviews:

"Excellent works generally criticize [characterize, or review] themselves, and in this respect it is superfluous for another to perform yet again the very task that the author has doubtless already done. If such a criticism, nevertheless, is a work of art (as it always ought to be), then its existence is anything but superfluous; but it stands entirely for itself and is as independent of the written work criticized as this itself is independent of the material treated and described within it."

This proclaims the independence of the critic, which may here be equated with the freedom of the artist; and it must be recognized that a small degree of irresponsibility is necessary for a critic with any self-respect. Without that irresponsibility the work of criticism is indeed superfluous. If the principles of judgment are to be drawn from the work of art itself, it is clear that its creator has already done that, even if only implicitly.

The greatness of Eva Brann

From the Washington Free Beacon: Had the Athenians lost at Salamis, Herodotus’ Histories would never have come to be, not to mention the entire subsequent literary tradition of Athens, or, indeed, America itself, which is a consequence of that tradition. As Brann puts it:

If the Greeks had lost here…[w]hat great and wonderful works would then have come to be in Europe and its America? Probably not these: science and democracy. For the Persian bequest to Europe, the one that would have aborted the Greek legacy we actually live off, would have been the religion, not the science, of nature, and the institution of despotism, not of freedom.