Friday, December 30, 2011

Dr. Faustus...or, who took the cult out of culture?

Thomas Mann, music lover

Reading Thomas Mann's "Dr. Faustus: The Life of the German composer Adrian Leverkühn, told by a friend" was a seminal event in my life. Now, I enjoy the occasional turgid and difficult read as much as the next girl, but that book sat on my bedside bookshelf for many a year before I dared crack it open. Mann's reputation as a dense and complicated writer frankly scared me off. 

At some point I gathered my courage and opened it up, though, and was immediately captivated. I'm fairly certain that had I read this novel as an undergraduate, I would have elected to become a Thomas Mann scholar. Mann manages to speak about music, the music I've immersed myself in as a violist/chamber musician/classical musician, in a way that ties together the personal, the political and the philosophical while spinning a harrowing yarn of choices gone wrong.

Of course, our hero strikes the Faustian bargain: twenty-four years of unheralded compositional brilliance in exchange for his soul. I don't feel a spoiler alert is required here. 

Tomes have been written analyzing this work, and this blog post is not going to pretend to be a scholarly contribution.

There is, however, an observation that I've been wanting to make. 

One facet of the book focuses on the isolation of the creative artist in Western culture. Beethoven, Goethe, Schoenberg and van Gogh would all be fine examples of this. The individual generative artist who lives apart from society to a certain extent, imagining worlds, in touch with the muse, but a tortured soul regarded as strange and "other" by his neighbors. 

There is a wonderful diatribe in Dr. Faustus about how music became divorced from tradition over the years culminating in late 19th/early 20th century Europe, particularly in Germany. A secondary character, a musicologist, expounds on how the "cult", meaning our deep religious, physical, social sense of connection through collective ritual and celebration was gradually erased from "culture" - rendering the musical arts an experience associated with thought, aesthetics, philosophy and high-mindedness (whatever that is!). The musicologist bemoans not only the loss of deep-rooted connection to a common experience, but also the tragedy of the individual composer's experience - cast away on his own deserted island of creativity.

Who took the cult out of culture?

The book becomes an elegy on the downfall of German culture in the 20th century through which we can appreciate the tragedy of the German people and Nazism, and not just the horror. 

I recently watched Werner Herzog's stunning "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" on my computer (therefore, sadly, no 3D for me). This brilliant film is not only about the gorgeous cave painting in the Chauvet Caves of France, but is a meditation on the human experience circa 30,000 years ago. There are beautiful dialogues with the archeologists who painstakingly research the artifacts and paintings in and around the caves and lovingly immerse themselves in imagining lost worlds - seeking to connect with states of mind from pre-history. 

One of the scientists recounts a latter-day experience with an Australian aboriginal who leads him on a tour of rock paintings around the Australian Outback. The aboriginals, whose artistic methods had remained unchanged since the Stone Age until around the 1970's, were in the habit of restoring colors and damaged bits of paintings when they happened upon one another's work. As the scientist and the aboriginal encountered a painting in need of fixing and the man set about his work, the scientist asked him what he was painting. The reply: "I am not painting; it is the spirit who is painting."

This is such a beautiful example of shared spirit, a so-called "primitive" awareness of connection to the muse. We, in Western culture, are hungry and yearning for commonality. There's a lot to recover.

On a side note, flutes made from bone have been found at these French archeological sites. When replicated, they are found to play a pentatonic scale. I am imagining 30,000 year old pentatonic melodies and time is melting away.

Cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger composed the deeply moving score to Herzog's film. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is worth listening to as much as being watched. Here's about fifteen minutes of live performance from the score. This music sounds as modern as it does ancient. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Heather. In my music seminar this semester, we talked quite a bit about the disconnection of music from ritual values/experience, partly as a way of thinking about the history of African (American) music in the US. One of my grad students highly recommended a book that I still haven't found time to read but that I think might connect with your thoughts here: Timothy Brennan's Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz. The "secular devotion" to which he refers (as I understand it, second hand through my student) describes a modern relationship to music of the African diaspora that maintains certain ritual effects, even as it has thoroughly adapted to a late capitalist, secular world. C.