The Dialectic of Elemental Forces in Mahler

                        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.

Past Lives I have Loved and Lost, part 1: on mixing one’s metaphysics

If you have ever felt like you are living more than one life at the same time there are reasons for this. The usual suspects include social role conflict, serial relationships both at home and at work, and the transitions between life phases. But there is a deeper structure to our diverse sensibilities, and this has to do with the structure of consciousness, no less. Structures, plural, should we say, as there have been three types of metaphysics known to human existence. Their appearance is associated with the kind of social organization and subsistence pattern followed by respective human groups.

Transformational metaphysics hails from the period of ‘social contract’ societies; small groups, intensive hunting and gathering, pastoralism, and horticulture. Here, humans and animals interact intimately in a spiritual realm. One’s ‘animal spirit’ is a commonplace idea. Forces of nature and other kinds of objects also embody spirits. The level of abstraction and metaphor is low. Such relations are to be taken more or less literally. Upon death, one’s soul cycles back into the group at hand with little delay. Time is static and thinking practical.

Transcendental metaphysics is the hallmark of large-scale intensive agrarian societies. It is familiar in the doctrines of the religions that survive from that historical period. The gods are either personifications or abstractions, their communications with us are metaphoric and upon death, the soul is evaluated, either returning to embody some unlike form or never coming back, destined to dwell in some other realm. Time is cyclical and thought mythical.

Anti-transcendental metaphysics is the dominant mode of consciousness at present, and its recent advent is associated with industrial states and the rise of science. It is literalist, ‘realist’, and rationalist in its outlook. There are no gods or other realms of being, and no soul. Upon death, it is one’s material form that returns to the cosmos but it does so most modestly. Time is linear and thought ‘logocentric’, or linguistic.

All of this is old hat, but if you reflect on your own personal beliefs, which ones hail from which of the three forms of metaphysics? Often enough, each of us harbors an unquiet mix of unkempt beliefs and passions. One of many examples would include the sectarian person who is a creationist but drives a vehicle based on the same science that states evolution as a fact. We don’t generally even attempt a cohesive and coherent world view at the level of the individual, and we probably shouldn’t. More on this later on.

But at the cultural level it is a different story. Witness, for lack of a better term, the ‘naked kidnapping’ case from Alberta, where four sectarians abducted their neighbours, hoping to save them from the apocalypse. What next, you say? The two teenage daughters were arrested but not charged, which was reasonable. Indeed, if a church were to send naked teenage girls to our homes to ‘save us’ I wonder if many men would not in fact go rather quietly. But the prelude to paradise, perchance? That aside, such an event was inevitably interpreted by the psychopathology of the day as an aberration, and that the family suffered a rare form of shared delusion, in other words, something diagnosable.

No, no, and no. What occurred cannot be so simply dismissed at such a personalist level. This, and other less piquant episodes, are rather the symptoms of a conflict of metaphysical narratives. Transcendental metaphysics initiates the idea of history, yes, but also the end of history, the end of time. This event, the most important in this version of human consciousness, translates what already occurs to the dead into the world of the living. We are to be judged as we stand before a god; and naked, by the way. What occurs ‘after’ this is neither history nor time, but some other form of Being to be announced in its detail to those worthy of redemption. The naked family’s intents, by their own normative rubrics, were of the very best standard. They do not suffer from a mental illness, shared delusion, or criminal passion.

What they are, are anachronists, real ones, unlike the thespians who dabble in Renaissance fairs and the like, and cannot by definition be considered to be like most of the rest of us in any important way. They have, in fact, managed to construct a more coherent set of beliefs and intents – though they drove their unwilling victims off in a BMW SUV no less – than the average ‘normal’ person. But for this feat of self-coherence they pushed themselves so far off the spectrum of the everyday they cannot but be shunned and now, medicalized as well. Fine, we might say to ourselves, the rest of us have to live in the real world so also should they.

This reaction too is incorrect. Like a Pauline figure, the anachronist asks us ‘what is our world, after all’? What is the ‘everyday’ made of, and why? Why do we expect that the future is not only open-ended but also indefinite? How can human judgement be objective when the world is so diverse? How can one know what the right thing is? In a word, such a person questions both our metaphysics and our ethics and is, ironically, kindred to the thinker and culture critic. Now the philosopher does not abduct people, let alone doing so in the buff. Nevertheless, the questions themselves remain and they cannot be dismissed by mere psychologism, even if such persons appear to be so.

In anti-transcendental metaphysics right and wrong, good and evil, are irrelevant. Correct and incorrect, and perhaps even good and bad, yes. The first is based upon the mathematical sciences and the second on an humanistic ethics. These are the foremost tools of human reason available to us as moderns and they are impressive. Even so, the questions they allow us to ask of ourselves are quite different than those someone hailing from another metaphysics would ask, and indeed, would have us ask. Just so, we cannot know with certainty the outcomes of our ethical actions, nor is infinite certitude available to our evolutionary cosmology. We live in a godless, finite world of often cynical politics and self-absorbed hedonism; a world not entirely unlike that which Paul imagined himself confronting.

Which brings out both the sense and sensibility of the sectarian line: If the world seems threatening, then why live as we do? Why not change the world, why not save ourselves? This question has its origins in eschatological thought, that which promotes a self-understanding in the light of divine reason and the end of history. A ‘Kairos’, or arbitrary and yet decisive starting point, a moment where the world ends and a new world commences, is at the heart of the environmentalist, peace, women’s and subaltern movements. These quintessentially recent social critiques seek to both save us and begin a different kind of world. They are also immensely practical, for the end of life on earth seems to be a most impractical development. So how ‘modern’ are they, after all? The same question may be asked of ourselves as human beings.

In fact, these recent ideas are as mixed a bag as almost everything else human history brings to the table each morning. Their presence and their diversity argue forcefully that we should not attempt to be overly and overtly consistent within any one of the three metaphysical forms. The hard-nosed rationalist misses the mark existentially, the sectarian finds pragmatism incomprehensible, and the practical-minded communitarian forgets the larger picture and thus as well cannot accede to the cosmic question. If it is true that human consciousness has undergone three sea-changes over a period of some half a million years or so – its very origin, its shift into agrarian thought, and its recent upshift into that technical and scientific – it may be equally true that we as living human beings carry bits and pieces of all three around within our just as living and present consciousness.

So I am going to gently suggest that we remember to ask the questions a being from some other guise of ‘human nature’ would ask. Just so, those few who remain amongst us but appear as anachronistic must be introduced to the questions we moderns have invented and must, with increasing and dramatic urgency, respond to. This last is the metaphysical underpinning to any psychotherapy the two daughters from Alberta will no doubt now undergo; likely years of it, given that they stated they thought the RCMP officers were demons attempting to drag them to hell. No doubt as well, Freud and his followers have been called the devil often enough. However that may be, and whatever the outcome of such ‘rehabilitation’, unless we take seriously the critique of consciousness that emanates from the entire history of that self-same consciousness we may well be doomed in a much more literal manner than any sectarian had ever the literary flair to imagine.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books on ethics, religion, aesthetics, 

and social theory, as well as metaphysical epic fiction.