Bathing with Bach, Showering with Shostakovich
If one could choose a single word with which to describe our present day, let us suggest ‘urgency’. We no longer live in a world wherein action has the time to evolve into act. A sense of the ‘must’ animates our every endeavor. This sense alone is, in itself, ancient, and likely begins in the eschatological time of Pauline anxiety, wherein the pilgrim finds himself concerned solely about whether the next is also the last. It might be a footstep forward into oblivion or salvation, it might be an action frozen into an act before its own history could be written. Urgency is a leitmotif in Western consciousness but until our post-war period, it has remained an abstraction; ‘one knows not the moment’, ‘I will come like a thief in the night’, and so on. This time of times is always put off, the end of the world is nigh but what end and how nigh?
Is it a simple matter of a reaction that, preceding the revolution of 1789 in France, the beginning of the modern age and the first herald that urgency was indeed coming down to earth, that for a century prior this same culture had been about a steady state of cultural celebration, with Louis XIV, the ‘sun king’, exhorting his artists to remember that he has bequeathed to them the highest of tasks, his fame, including of course his posterity. The highest of tasks was also thus the noblest of gifts. A Rousseau was possible within this stasis; his ‘reveries’ solitary and his walks perambulations which always returned to the center of things. These are dreams without urgency, visions, hanging in the air above us, never touching the ground beneath. But a De Sade was impossible, for his nightmares, unleashed right at the moment of revolution, sound of nothing but urgencies, though they are base, vile, and sing the bass viol of the bowels of a now aged aristocratic chamber orchestra. These are nightmares without end, and thus even De Sade represents a transition in culture, and not the change once made. He is a liminal figure, which is one of the reasons his works remain, to a point, distressing. The orchestra is now staffed by chamber maids, even maidens, but it still sings of the domestic daily doings though shifted into the nocturnal.
Thus it remains within the contemplative life, which shuns action even for its own sake and makes all human interaction into an historical act before its time, before history has an opportunity to sabotage morality, and before the actors realize how petty are their desires, even in torture and murder. For Rousseau’s Julie, a paragon of prudishness and propriety, is nevertheless the abstract ideal of the misogynist middle-ground. Nothing could be said against her even if equally nothing for her. But De Sade’s Juliette is perverse, a heroine who forces us to reckon with our own desires ranged against her. Nothing can be said against her insofar as she in fact already has everything that we want her to possess. But unlike her predecessor, Juliette is also armed with all that can be said against us. She is an indictment of misogyny, and the fact that she enjoys being only this only makes us look the worse. If De Sade retained his liminality by never committing to social and political revolution but rather merely described the stultifying darkness of the Ancien Régime, his best and brightest heroine begins to sign the radical change that augurs the new desire. And she does so simply by virtue of her own desires being utterly urgent.
But these figures exist in a microcosm. What of the wider world-historical change that ushers in our own age and frames it at one end with the most solid of aesthetic and ethical foundations and at the other by nothing less than constant motion? This larger field, cast in the deepest relief in 1789, a centrifugal cauldron, a storm’s eye, a nexus making cathexis, is still better represented by music than literature. At the far end towers yet the figure of Bach. He is summative, his art the result of a millennia of evolutionary architecture. His most important predecessor, Monteverdi, is Bach’s own phylogenetic avatar. Here, and for the first time, Western music begins to assemble other forms, assimilate other sounds, throw upwards the folk song and pull downwards the religious chant. In Bach we at last have reached the zenith of everything the West represented to that time; the idea of the ideals, the mathematical symmetry of sound, the music of the spheres. And when the sun king dies in 1715, Bach’s own star – and is it odd that Bach’s face should so often be portrayed in our own time within a sun figure? – is about to ascend to heights no mere composer could have heretofore known. And this ascent is predicated, also for the first time, upon not patronage but upon art itself.
It is in the B Minor Mass that everything comes together. But this ‘everything’ is of course the act, never the action. It is the act against which all action must thenceforth take place and take its place. In this magnum opus, Bach presents the universe as it was known and knowable in his own day. It is a statement in the most stentorian terms. One bathes in such music; it does not wash over you but envelopes you, and while it is cleansing it retains the ability to magnify itself through one’s very dross. When the work concludes, we do not feel any sense of change or that things should change in any way. We feel as complete as does the work itself. It is in this sense a space wherein life and death have been reconciled and no longer have any singular meaning. And how can we not be eternally grateful for such an expression of the cosmic force of existence uplifted into the essential?
But in fact that is the entire problem Bach poses for us. The ‘eternal’ character of gratitude is nothing but an obstacle to both evolution and to adaptation. It presumes upon a world itself unchanging, a cosmic order that is as infinite as it is timeless. Here, art does not imitate life but rather transcends it. This is the understanding that Bach, the divinely human architect, brings to the rest of us. This is the far side of the frame of modernity with which we still must reckon. It is so beautiful that it is like a death to turn away from it, and yet turn away we absolutely must.
In our own time we have, with halting harrow and tremulous trepidation, given ourselves the tools to do so. Beethoven is the first revolutionary composer. At first he imagined himself an ally of Napoleon, but after seeing the results of Austerlitz in Vienna, realized that he as an artist was the ambassador of the highest humanity and hardly the lowest. Thus the amended dedication of the third symphony, itself the first truly modern work of music. It is the first because for the first time we have a sense of the urgent throughout the work. Beethoven 3 is the benchmark for all such works that follow and the closest contemporary parallels to this work may be found in the symphonies of Shostakovich. They are linked by that singular sensibility, urgency, and tasked with that same singular ambition, revolution.
In Shostakovich we have found at last a role model untainted by politics and indeed, in his own life, as a prisoner of the Soviet State from time to time, as a suspect artist whose works were always too ‘Western’ for hardliners, as the musical equivalent of Solzhenitsyn and indeed more gifted, Shostakovich through his art not only defeated the evils of authoritarianism – it is an ongoing irony that his works are performed so often in today’s Russia – but also exposed the fraudulence of 1917. In Symphony 11, ‘The Year 1905’, we are thrust into action, not act! We are immersed in urgency, never somnolence! Many of his greatest works declare the pressing need for a new revolution, and not merely for Russia. His German counterpart, Hans Werner Henze, intoned the same: “Man’s greatest work of art: world revolution.”
Encountering Shostakovich one does not bathe, but rather showers. Here, even the water itself never stops moving. It takes the dross, without assimilation, down the drain of history with its own life ever onward. We are ourselves drained in such an encounter and this time the feeling is one of incompleteness. I am missing something, the music throws me forward. It is the future I am missing, the very human future, no longer a function of eschatology, no longer premised upon faith and promising salvation. No, in Shostakovich we receive a demand and not a promise. Revolution is ongoing just as history does not rest. Change is the only permanence, which sums our contradictory existence as active and acting beings who resist the future, the very thing that gives us life. Is it due only to an archaic sense of art that we flinch at the horizon? In contemporary art we find not beauty nor even transcendence, but rather the shadow work of the collective soul. Every encounter is a confrontation with ourselves, splayed open before the Augenblick of revolutionary lightning. If we turn away we are as were the Nazis, cowed into reactionary diaboli in the face of life as it now is and as it now must be. The fascist draws a line at the moment his conscience speaks. He will not hear it, not hear of it. Each one of us who adores Bach without reaching both hands out to the heroes of Shostakovich’s works is no less that same fascist in spite of our apparent civility and ‘good taste’.
For it is no matter of etiquette that animates the history of our own day. It is rather made meaningful through scruple, ethical and aesthetic at once. As John Berger suggested, we must vanquish the sense that great art carries humanity up and over its own condition in order to regain the sensibility that in fact what art in reality does is make more real our shared situation so that we in turn can more meaningfully negotiate it from within its midst. Art is and always will be our willing ally in any crisis. It is we who turn ourselves away from this joint task and reject its ever-revolutionary gift.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, aesthetics, social theory, education and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.