Rebirth of Reason


Bud and Lou, Art and Sue
by Fred Seddon

Here are two stories about the philosophy of art and the philosophy of music. See what you think.

The Story of Bud and Lou
(It’s okay to think of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello when you read this, but it is not mandatory.)

Once upon a time, Bud and Lou sat down for a long read. It had to be a long read, because the book they selected was Atlas Shrugged. After they had completed the book, I happened to bump into Bud. After an exchange of pleasantries, I asked Bud what Atlas was all about. This is what he said: "It’s the story of this guy, John Galt, who talks a bunch of intellectuals and producers into going on strike. The world falls apart pretty quickly after that." I wanted to ask Bud more, but he had an urgent appointment uptown and had to leave.

The next day I was at a restaurant and met Lou. I put to him the same question I had asked Bud the day before, and this is what Lou said: "Atlas Shrugged is a story about two teenage girls, Emma and Tarika, who go to the amusement park, lose their virginity behind the ferris wheel, and then have some funnel cakes."

Needless to say, I was taken aback by Lou’s account of Atlas Shrugged, a novel with which I have some familiarity. But before I could press him on details, he, like Bud the day before, told me of some business he had to attend to and left me standing there, my jaw still dropped in disbelief.

This could never happen, you say. No one, but no one, could ever get what Lou said he got from Atlas. I agree. Buy why? More on this after we hear our second tale.

The Story of Art and Sue

Once upon a time, Art and Sue went to a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. I happened to bump into Art during the intermission, and asked him to tell me about the symphony. This is what he said:

     Well, you know how much I love music. It is the greatest of the arts, far superior to the other
     arts, which are mere copies of the Platonic Ideas, whereas music is a copy of the Will itself.
     Every time I hear the lowest strings in the first movement, I recognize in the deepest tones of
     harmony, the lowest grades of the will’s objectification, i.e., inorganic nature. The higher
     strings represent the plant and animal worlds. The definite intervals of the scale are parallel to
     the definite grades of the will’s objectification, the definite species in nature. Finally, in the
     melody, (those glorious Tchiakovsky melodies) in the high, singing principal voice, leading
     the whole and progressing with unrestrained freedom, in the uninterrupted significant
     connection of one thought from the beginning to end, and expressing a whole, I recognize the
     highest grade of the will’s objectification, the intellectual life and endeavor of man. This must
     come from the immediate knowledge of the inner nature of the world unknown to man’s
     faculty of reason.

"What else?" I asked breathlessly. Art continued:

     In some sense music must be relative to the world as the depiction of the thing depicted, as
     the copy to the original, we can infer from the analogy with the remaining arts, to all of which
     this character is peculiar, from their effect on us, it can be inferred that that of music is of the
     same nature, only stronger, more rapid, more necessary and infallible.

As I was thanking Art for his thoughts on the performance, I noticed Sue coming towards us. Art headed for the lounge, mumbling complaints about how Sue is always bashing his masculinity. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked Sue for her take on the famous Fourth. I was curious to hear what she would say, given the fact that, like Art, she believes that music is a representational art. This is what she said:

     The [first] movement opens not with the presentation of the protagonist but with an
     introduction bristling with military connotations. This is a father with heterosexual
     expectations of a sexually confused son. Against this oppressively patriarchal backdrop,
     the principle "masculine" theme enters. In contrast to the more typical heroic opening
     themes, this is limping, hypersensitive, vulnerable, indecisive. It is marked with yearning,
     with metaphysical angst in search of a moment of rhythmic or tonal stability. After an
     attempted futile escape to a minor fails, our protagonist desists; and in that off-guard
     condition, he encounters the second theme. This is no simple "feminine" theme. It is sultry,
     seductive and slinky. Its contours are marked with chromatic slippage, and its fragments
     echo maddeningly in all registers—its very location cannot be fixed. Moreover, unlike the
     obsessively goal-oriented protagonist, this theme manages to be at the same time both utterly
     static and also irrational. This theme is the site of patriarchally prohibited homosexual desire.
     It is sinister, slippery and potentially lethal. When the climax is later reached, the protagonist
     lies in helpless exhaustion, the sluttish second theme reenters, toys with him and finally
     depletes him. Then the military paternal theme breaks in once again and forces the
     movement to its close.

Whew, I need a cigarette.

What to make of these two tales? The first tale about Bud and Lou has a lot of fiction in it. Nobody would say what Lou says—but why? One possible reason is that literature, since it has a semantics, places rather severe limits on what one can say about the content of, in our case, a novel. We would point out, if we would even bother to talk to Lou, that there are no characters in the novel named Emma and Tarika, that there is no scene at any amusement park, and that the only people who lose their virginity in the novel are Francisco and Dagny. Let’s call these limits "semantic restrictions."

What about the second tale? Well, for one thing, it's completely true. As you may have guessed, Art is Arthur Schopenhauer, and Sue is Susan McClary, and the quotes come from books they wrote—Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, and McClary's Feminine Endings. I think together they represent a kind of reductio ad absurdum on representationalism in music. If I am right about this, it means that music is more akin to aural wallpaper than it is to a mimetic art like literature.

One final question before I leave you SOLOists to your musings. McClary talks about the protagonist. But let me ask, what is his name? Names seem to me to be very important in literature. Consider Ayn Rand. In her three novels, she names names in the very first sentence. "Petrograd smelt of carbolic acid."—We The Living. "Howard Roark laughed."—The Fountainhead. "Who is John Galt."—Atlas Shrugged. Music is incapable of doing even this simple operation. It has no way to give a proper name to a protagonist or any other "character."
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