Transcendentalism and Empathy in Music

newmusicbox November 20, 2007


Empathy?  Isn’t that a girl thing?   How much will it be discussed here on NMB, which is in practice a men’s group?  (I wish I were kidding.)  Anyway, this topic of empathy and transcendental inspiration so interests me I fear I will write a little too much here.


We might remember that the conception of the artist as someone riven by  “divine spirit” is less than 200 years old, and that it is far less prevalent in other cultures.  We might find a life roiled with transcendental inspiration the highest human state for an artist, but in Buddhist cultures it is a still mind.


It was during the Napoleonic era, as feudalism was collapsing and being replaced with bourgeoisie cultural nationalism, that the idea of the hero-artist channeling divine will and speaking as the soul of a nation was born.  Through the cult of the hero-artist, the composer began to speak as the voice of "his" nation.  Artists such as Wagner, Dvorak, and Verdi, helped emerging European countries assert their ethnic identity and claims to national sovereignty.  At the same time, the growing autocracy of the conductor (which already had a feudalistic heritage) increasingly objectified musicians who became

functionaries, highly responsive instruments, embodiments of his musical fantasies.  Transcendent radical will became a central characteristic of the romantic artist-prophet and was continued by modernism.


Nineteenth century philosophy also played an enormous role in the creation of the transcendentally inspired artist-prophet.  In “The World as Will and Idea” (1819), and other influential works that followed, Arthur Schopenhauer created a philosophy which advocated turning away from the classical era’s spirit of reason to the powers of intuition, creativity, and the irrational.  This view deeply influenced Nietsche, who in “The Birth of Tradgedy” (1872) proclaimed that art and literature must harness Dionysian elements of the irrational in order to exist. This view led to the radical will of Nietsche’s “superman” in “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”  Schopenhauer and Nietsche profoundly influenced the European cultural realm, ranging from Wagner and Berlioz to Wedekind and Freud. 


These conceptions ended in catastrophe.  Misappropriated notions of radical will became part of Fascism’s cult of the hero and formulated actions describable as radical evil. This was vividly illustrated by Hitler's appropriation of the image of the modernist artist-prophet. The itinerant painter-cum-artist Führer from the garrets of Vienna was finally heard, and with his "divine" inspiration and "scientific" understanding, hoped to destroy the world and create a revolution based on "scientific" notions of racial evolution, eugenics and euthanasia. Similarly, the Italian Futurists, who worshipped both modern technology and the romantically transcendent authority of the "superman", were among the first devotees of Mussolini. 


This was culturally isomorphic with the modernist continuation of the 19th century concept of the artist-prophet who was viewed as a source of truth and justice, and who was to be followed through a cycle of destruction and rebirth. Fortunately, Hitler’s Götterdämmerung was more complete than the revolution that he hoped would lead to a new world order of scientifically bred but romantically transcendent supermen.


Even though patriarchal transcendentalism can be a great source of creativity, it is inherently self-destructive, because its raises Mind over Nature, or the spiritual over the material. In artistic expression it thus tends toward recurrent cycles of ecstasy, revolution, destruction and remorse.  This is clearly seen in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s comments about the World Trade Center attacks.  In an interview before a concert of his music in Hamburg shortly after the attacks, he said the perpetrators brought "…about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for ten years, completely fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos.  I could not do that. Against that, we composers, are nothing."

If one understands that pathological transcendence can be, and frequently is, an inherent part of the artist-prophet's patriarchal mindset, Stockhausen's statement is not so unpredictable.  Later he qualified his remarks, stressing that it was “Lucifer’s” greatest work of art. 


Stockhausen is not a man of malice or hatred, and as European intellectuals go, he is by far one of the most American friendly.  He is, however, a person deeply involved in rather cosmic conceptions of a patriarchal divine order of which he is an artist-prophet on an exalted mission.  Seen in that light, his basic world view is really not so different from the vast majority of contemporary artists, even if they don’t claim to be prophets from Sirius.


I think we almost all feel some sort of divine communication through art.  A couple years ago I attended a concert of John Zorn’s music at Miller Hall in NYC. Before the concert there was an hour long interview with the composer conducted by George Steel. Zorn repeatedly stressed that his music comes from some sort of higher power. He said that it would not have been possible for him to complete over 300 of his Masadic melodies during a very short time period without some sort of supernatural help. In the program, he wrote that composition is at its best "when the piece is seemingly writing itself and the composer is merely an observer.” He says that some of his works, "transcend my expectations and my abilities. I cannot explain them. They are part of the Mystery."  It was also notable how abusive he was to George Steele during the interview, and to the public during the question and answer session.


In a way, it is ironic to combine a discussion about empathy with the way our souls are torn by the artist’s muse.  There is something about patriarchal transcendentalism that’s extremely self-oriented and self-important, and that is anything but empathic.  Examples range from radical evil, such as Hitler’s attempt to sculpt the human race through the Holocaust, to Stockhausen’s benign but radical placement of his foot in his mouth, to the postured abusiveness of Zorn, Rorem, and many others.


How do we combine the consuming fires of the creative drive with being decent, balanced human beings who can be compassionate and caring for others? 


William Osborne