The Dialectic of Elemental Forces in Mahler
No more wooing, voice you’re outgrowing that don’t let your cry
be a wooing cry even though it could be as pure as a bird’s
that the season lifts up as she herself rises nearly forgetting
that it’s just a fretful creature and not some single heart
to be tossed towards happiness deep into intimate skies.
Like him you want to call forth a still invisible mate
a silent listener in whom a reply slowly awakens
warming itself by hearing yours to become
your own bold feeling’s blazing partner.
– Rilke, from Seventh Elegy
It is at once remarkable but also commonplace to understand great historical movements as being borne on the shoulders of specific individuals who themselves seem to be placed beyond history. This is misleading on the level of historical consciousness, wherein we come to understand our own times through the ‘confrontation with the tradition’ and the ‘fusion of horizons’, often aesthetic in character. At the same time, with the most superior visions of humankind, one finds culminations expressed by singular persons who have themselves been embraced by the entire history of their chosen art. In music, we have four such figures from whom everything else in their respective centuries followed; in the seventeenth century, Monteverdi, in the eighteenth, Bach. For the nineteenth century, it was Beethoven who gave birth to the ideas the rest of the music of that century took up, and in the following century, it was Gustav Mahler. That both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw competing and somehow ‘dualistic’ interpretations of these origins – Brahms versus Wagner and then Schoenberg versus Stravinsky – only suggests that there were at least two essential elements already present in the original. In Beethoven, the ‘classicism’ and the ‘romanticism’, in Mahler, the tonal and the ‘atonal’. But in fact these elements are mere glosses, refracting much more profound essences present in the art at hand. For music in our modern era has been about the disquiet distances with which contemporary humanity is both burdened and challenged.
What do I mean by this ‘distance’? We have a longing, expressed in the gap between self and other, individual and society, mind and body, spirit and nature and so on, which is unique to our modernity. Less profound, but still profoundly disturbing, are the distances that separate the genders, citizen and State, nation and nation, rich and poor. All of these distances combined are said to produce in us a kind of subjective alienation, that which Durkheim referred to as ‘anomie’. At the heart of this unease, communicating itself to us as an inability to bridge this or that gap and the corresponding assignment of blame for such ongoing failures, is the very sense that I should be myself and no other. This selfhood, this ‘fretful creature’ is indeed no ‘single heart’. And we are not so much thrown up as of our own volition, but rather, as Heidegger proverbially and repetitively states, thrown into the arc of worldhood. We are thrown beings, and our being-thrownness declares to us both our birth and death. We glimpse this existential caveat through the sense that much of ‘life’ is beyond our daily control. Certainly the machinations of nations, the coruscations of corporations, even the emotions of one’s beloved, lie elsewhere than within my grasp. We are responsible for these ‘events’ and acts only insofar as we act in concert with them, abet them, or ignore them. Yet ultimately, even with the deepest compassion and most critical voice, they escape our possession. This is the distance of distanciated being, which is necessary to the modern person given his existence as an individuality.
We would likely not trade in that kind of self-consciousness for other versions of being human, embodiments we associate with previous ages or cultures past. On the one hand, this may serve as a salve, a tool by which one might reconcile one’s sense of thus being ‘stuck with’ oneself as one is. Even so, the shared consciousness of mechanical solidarity escapes us, the idea of becoming an automaton rightfully revolts us, and the sensibility that, though a self, our whole reason of being is to exist for the other, is a difficult ethic. Indeed, we might well suggest that a neighbor figure who was always in the mode of ‘being neighborly’ could no longer distinguish herself from the socius of normative daily life. In a word, the radical act of the neighbor would be no longer available to us if the neighbor itself became a social role. So distanciated being is the lot of we moderns, if for no other reason than there are no other models that appeal to us.
Given this, the dual complexes of elements that we harbor within our individuated breasts must somehow be reconciled. The individual may engage in all sorts of activities that promote ‘wholeness’, including forms that often hail from a metaphysics different from our own, such as meditation. Within Western consciousness, however, it has been the role of art to transcend opposites and oppositions alike. And when this transcendence appears to not merely overlook the structure of existence, its birth and its death, its light and its dark, but to actually combine the two essences into a new element, we are in the presence of the greatest art of all. This is the case in the music of Mahler.
Bernstein’s epic and deeply felt commentary on Mahler 9 is well known and well taken. He stresses the dualistic nature of both the man and his art. Yet what is left out is equally important, if not more so, and indeed supports not only the argument that Mahler was working with and working through the most basic elements and forces of life and Being, but in fact overcoming them, transfiguring them into a novel expression of human consciousness. Just so, the ability to do precisely this is the essence of the distinction we make between consciousness in general and that of which we, as human beings, are in possession. Mahler 9 has been iterated as being ‘about’ death and the ultimate inability of humanity to overcome its own innate mortality. Yes and no. As a set piece, the ninth is in itself a compendia of the past and future, of soaring transcendental, if also heartbreaking, tonality and searing unearthly dissonance and partial atonality; life and death in their mortal embrace. But as part of a life’s work, Mahler 9 is simply the sibling work to his previous symphony – though the cycle ‘The Song of the Earth’ was written in between them, almost as a chaperone of sorts, a liminality; a threshold into which one can step from both sides, as it were – and just as Mahler 8 expressed the inexpressible joy and verdure of the fullest life possible to human consciousness, so Mahler 9 provides us with the sorrow of that same life, equally overfull and too powerful for the quotidian senses of rational being. In Mahler’s own terms, it was never death per se but rather more specifically, the death of love, that imbricated the ninth. The death of love, inversing and balancing the Wagnerian paean which exhorts the love of death, is in fact the more difficult challenge for we humans. For all must die, and in that sense death is most impersonal and anonymous. But to face death in a more intimate and very much personal manner one has to lose love and when one does not desire to do so.
The expression of transcendental love in Mahler 8 is simply balanced by that same expression of its absence in the ninth. There, we die whilst yet still alive, and yet life without joy has both no merit but also is no longer life. At this point another important ‘dualistic’ contrast should be noted: the eighth is arguably the greatest work of art ever created but it is tremendously difficult for the ensemble and conductor, whereas the listener is transported into 90 plus minutes of infinite bliss; contrast this with the ninth, which is easier on the musician – though by no means easy! – and correspondingly infinitely more difficult for the listener. If an ensemble can make it through Mahler 8 they can make it through anything. If the listener can survive Mahler 9 they can survive any other work. Perhaps there are technically more demanding works for both musicians and audience – Schoenberg’s Opus 31 comes readily to mind – but there are no more demanding works existentially than Mahler’s two final completed symphonies. Our very being is at stake, and we must rise to the occasion on both counts.
With that in mind, it is also well to recall that Mahler himself, though he was, as Bernstein points out for instance, well aware of his imminent demise, did not throw himself over the cliff in any premature manner. He kept conducting, writing, mending fences with his estranged wife, teaching and promoting musical talent, and touring right up until close to the end. Mahler, in his ability to live the life he was granted, remains a role model for us no matter our relative talent. His own humanity, though somehow able to access the pinnacle of human achievement and recreate it time after time, remained both his own and thus also our own. Mortality can advance itself on the one hand as a personal threat, and this is the atmosphere of the ninth, wherein we feel every base emotion and existential fundament; the glaring, striding, unimpeachable power of the first movement, the risus sardonicus of the intervening scherzos, the shimmering otherworldliness of the final farewell, all of this in a dialectic which seems nothing human uplifts the light and dark into a chiaroscuro and in doing so, overcomes the very chiasmus that gave birth to humanity’s oppositional ‘nature’. But in the eighth, mortality is advanced as a creative force, that all life might well ‘become immortal’ through dying many times, as Nietzsche intoned. Mahler was a profound reader of Nietzsche, though of course they regrettably never met, in contrast to the fact that Mahler and Freud knew one another. Mahler 8 expresses first the previous understanding of existence, the Imago Dei of revealed religion at its most noble. In the second part, we have moved from God to Goethe, from the old metaphysics to that of our own age, and as murky as some of this millennial author’s metaphors can be, they nevertheless are themselves transfixed and transformed into an art that can be understood by all.
The ‘marriage of light and dark’ is a hallmark of modernity. Yes, the twentieth century, so absolutely foreseen and understood by Mahler the aesthetic prophet, was indeed the century of death. Mahler 9 expresses this horrifying vision to us, but not as an acceptance thereof. It is a warning, an enlightenment or ‘Aufklarung’, an alarm bell, a Tocsin. It does not warn us of the imminence of death, for we already understand this condition as our own. It rather provides a caveat that tells us ‘do not make death into an immanence’. That is, do not allow death to ascend any higher than does life, do not let it attain an immanent domain into which we as a species-being would be swallowed. And though we have been on that brink more than a few times in past one hundred years or so, we have retained the sensibility that life should be ‘about’ joy, love, and even transcendence of itself, as contradictory as that may sound. If death is then somehow more ‘real’ to us, it bespeaks first of the distance between our realities and our ideals. The rationalization that one ends a life to save another is also real, if ethically strained. What is at stake is a conflict which remains at the horizontal level of the elements Mahler uplifted and combined. Differing opinions, beliefs, genders, cultural communities, competing nations, the perennial war of classes, all of these and others gainsay their very vocation through the medicated brevity they provide to their actors; ‘actors of their own ideals’, to once again reference Nietzsche.
Mahler’s art speaks differently to these regards. Though the dialectic of elemental forces culminates in his final works, it was always present, something that commentators have sometimes forgotten. The contrast between distraction and focus, folk art and transcendental art in Mahler 1. The overcoming of death through love in the second and the dialogue between nature and culture in the third, Mahler’s ‘most personal of works’, as he himself put it, and the one in which Nietzsche’s work is most directly used. The dangerous decoy of feeling and atmosphere in the fourth, where we are placed on a too sunny shoreline, our backs turned to the conflict of interpretations by which human life lives its days, and the first signs of the ultimate dialectic between death, including the death of love, and life triumphant in the fifth. In the sixth, the death of the hero, the soteriological compassion and passion combined of the hero’s beloved companion, the menace of a too gendered socialization – in the third movement of Mahler 6, his own children, an older boy and a younger girl, play with one another and yet also play with the elemental forces of life and death corresponding to their essential Goethean ‘natures’ – and finally, just before we are taken into the depths of the very cosmos Mahler has opened up for us, the interplay and contrast between animal nature and the civil humanity of the salon culture in the seventh. Bird calls punctuating a forest trek, and yet chamber music to soothe an after dinner digestion, nothing escaped Mahler’s musical lens. That we are in his debt regarding our very understanding of the modern condition which is our shared predicament is an ongoing understatement.
Even so, the towering figures of art, to a person, would not have suggested that their accomplishments represent the end of anything. Mortality as a creative force, life as the interregnum wherein creative work may be sought, and all of this as an unending principle of existence, this is the message of dialectically transcendental art. Mahler expresses this aspect of universal consciousness to us, through his singular works which retain their absolute relevance more than a century later. Who will be the next singular figure, the one from whom our own century’s music shall proceed apace? Perhaps it will be a woman this time, which is one important part of this intriguing question. But whomever it will be, the same forces will be at work in her efforts, and the same dialectic of transcendence will need to be accomplished. For us lesser beings, we too must come to grips with the polar forces animating our existence as both individuals and as a culture history writ into the wider, if still woefully provincial, consciousness of our time. If we take just one step in each of our lives to broaden that view, we will have advanced the maturity of our shared species and will have made ourselves more worthy of the gift that the art of ages has bestowed upon us.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor f the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.