22. The Demonic, Part 2: Demonic Music

The Danish proto-existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) put forth an intriguing account of the demonic in chapter 4 of his eccentric work The Concept of Anxiety (see the Princeton edition translated by the Hongs). Kierkegaard claims the demonic person has “anxiety about the good” which means he is both repelled by, and attracted to, the good. This ambivalent anxiety gives rise to defiant actions that seek to undermine the good in various ways.  But what is the good?  The good, for Kierkegaard, is free, integrated, selfhood; and so the demonic person acts in defiance of freedom.  Indeed, the demonic is “unfreedom that wants to close itself off”.  This closure to the good leads to three interrelated modes of behavior: “shutupness” which is shutting oneself up with oneself in order to be as mute as possible; the “contentless or the boring” in which one seeks to drain meaning from the world and one’s interactions with others; and “the sudden” in which the continuity of the personality gives way to discontinuity: “At one moment it is there, in the next moment it is gone, and no sooner is it gone than it is there again, wholly and completely.  It cannot be incorporated or worked into any continuity, but whatever expresses itself in this manner is precisely the sudden”. These modes of action in defiance of the good are evil insofar as they willingly destroy integrated selfhood in oneself and others by negating continuity, communication, and meaning and leaving meaningless disintegration, muteness, and isolation in its wake. Since integrated selfhood presupposes communication and revelation, the more the demonic person’s defiance succeeds—the more he is isolated and shuns modes of salvation and redemption—the more he disintegrates himself and, in the process, may unfreely disclose what was so carefully hidden.

In post #5 (see here) I explored this account of the demonic in more detail and linked it to fashion. Now I want to ask: how does it relate to music?  Well, Roger Scruton has argued that music can be an image of a free subject. We can use this and relate it to Kierkegaard’s account in some interesting ways. Music that expresses a free subject would have three traits which are opposite of the three traits of the demonic: (1) It will, like a free subject with whom we communicate, reveal something and speak to us in some way—we will have the sense that the work is addressing us as a person would; (2) the piece will have depth, interesting content, and will not lose itself in clichés, kitsch, and other forms of superficiality that threaten its individuality and unique meaning; and (3) the piece will, like in an integrated subject, manifest continuity as the work unfolds. It will appear to have a past from which possibilities organically emerge which, in turn, become the ground for further organic development and so on. The piece, like an authentic subject, will be integrated, self-propelled, and moving with purpose.

Demonic music will negate these properties to some extent.  It can’t negate them completely if we are to have demonic music. Recall that the demonic is an anxious defiance of the good.  Thus we need there to be an aspect of goodness represented in the work—freedom, purpose, meaning, continuity, and so on—to be defied.  Without this dimension of goodness we would just have something comic like a person mocking but mocking no one or nothing at all.  So demonic music will have, analogously, the three interrelated demonic properties we analyzed above:

(1) It will have a musical “shutupness”: there will be the sense that, however much or little musical activity is happening, that we are not being addressed by a free subject trying to say something.

(2) It will, like a demonic person negating content in order to achieve shutupness, threaten or destroy the musical speech-like content of harmony, melody, and rhythm leaving us with some degree of “the contentless/the boring”. This can occur in many ways. For example, through repetitive, cliché, formulaic, or mechanical sound events; transformation of rhythm into mere beat; extreme speed that negates what came right before it so that nothing seems to last; slowing music down; playing music backwards; extremely loud volumes; adding symmetrical whole tone and chromatic scales to a piece to threaten tonality; using glissandi, slides, and other “slithering” techniques; adding angular melodies based especially on tritones or augmented fourths, especially the diabolus in musica or B to F tritone; excessive use of minor keys; and engaging in musical mockery by adding dissonance to passages that stand for something sacred, traditional, etc.

And (3) it will manifest the “sudden”: continuity will be violated and there will be a sense that things are happening in a lawless manner. It will not seem like musical possibilities are organically emerging from necessities. Indeed, it may seem at times that the piece can end anywhere; that there is no way to make a mistake; and that the so-called ending is not a consummation of what went before but rather just an end point. 

We can make these philosophical observations a bit more concrete by turning to an example from Franz Liszt who, from time to time, used these demonic negations of free subjectivity to great effect (see his Sonata in B Minor, Mephisto Waltz (1-4), Danse macabre, Totentanz, Scherzo and March, Reminiscences de Robert le Diable—Valse Infernale, Gnomenreigen, Reminiscences de Don Juan (after Mozart), Waltzes from Gounod’s Faust, The Night Procession, Dante Sonata, Dante Symphony, Faust Symphony, Bagatelle Without Tonality, Mazeppa, Totentanz, Unsrern!—Sinistre, Wilde Jagd, and Erlkonig)Indeed, it seems clear his interest in depicting the demonic helped him was discover many new compositional forms. For example, Liszt was often obsessed with certain motifs that he would repeat in various ways through various octaves and at various speeds. This occurs in his Mephisto Polka in which there is a haunting motif that moves up and down the piano keys and is played at various speeds and with various dynamics. This gives the listener a sense that a narrative is unfolding, that something is being said to which we can relate. But if one listens closely, it will become clear that nothing much is being said after all due to the repetitions. There is, despite the hypnotic aspect of the enchanting tones, despite the potential for beautiful piano playing, something mechanical and perhaps even a little boring about the piece.  And this puts us on edge since mechanisms have no freedom, no creativity, and no personality. Indeed, we seem to be listening to something with very little content. Of course, this contentlessness is introduced in the very beginning by the echoes that reverberate throughout the piece and symbolize the solipsism of evil (the fact that evil is absolutely alone) rather than any image of vital dialogue and development. Thus we see that shut-upness and the contentless/boring are in effect here.

The sudden is also exemplified in various ways. First, there are a few mysterious retards, passages in which time slows down, as well as a few pauses. Second, the repetitions of the piece fail to reach any consummation of what went before: the piece ends with a disturbing single note that has nothing to do with the proceeding and is, in effect, the Devil’s mocking negation of any meaning the listener thought she had discovered. At the end we realize that there is something arbitrary about the transitions and, upon reflection, we realize that the work could have ended at various places—perhaps anywhere. This suggests the piece is more a matter of succession than continuity with a beginning, middle, and end. And third, this discontinuity of the sudden has a lot to do with Liszt’s use of chromaticism. The chromatic scale has twelve notes that are the same distance away from each other (one semitone). Like the whole tone scale, the chromatic scale has no tonal center because of the symmetry involved in the equally spaced notes. The term ‘chromatic’ derives from the Greek chroma for ‘color’. Thus chromatic notes have been typically employed to add colorful embellishments and brief deviations from diatonic scales. In Liszt’s music, however, chromaticism often expands to threaten the melodic and harmonic gestures of the music. Liszt was one of the first to experiment with atonal music, that is, music without a tonal center. This can be very demonic since a tonal center is usually what allows the music to gain purposeful direction. With a clear tonal center music can depart from a “home” and then return. This direction can establish a powerful analogue with human action; it is something to which we can relate as subjects. By using the symmetry of chromatic scales to negate the tonal center and the continuity it establishes, Liszt has created a work that can thwart our expectations to find ourselves as free subjects in the music. Indeed, the work’s continual tonal flux exemplifies that pseudocontinuity that corresponds to the sudden, namely, continual extinction. Thus the form of the work mirrors its content: Mephistopheles’ essence as “the spirit of eternal negation” (cf. Goethe’s Faust, line 1335) is present within the polka. Listen and watch here.

Many of notions introduced above—being shut up within oneself, being empty of meaning, being cliché, being boring, extinguishing developing life, mocking virtue, suddenly appearing and disappearing, violating continuity, being an unnatural phenomenon of the spirit rather than body, the disintegration of necessity and possibility, and so on—are clearly notions that threaten integrated human subjectivity.  To experience these notions in the context of music is to have an uncanny experience, that is, an unsettling, even terrifying, experience of the familiar suddenly becoming unfamiliar or vice versa.  In demonic music, there is the dimension of familiarity: some integrated melody, harmony, and rhythm, representing the good, will indeed be present since there must be something to defy.  But then there will be the unfamiliar demonic elements that threaten this musical image of the free subject. This can obviously be troubling.

But if this is the case then why do so many like demonic music? And why might it actually be good for us on some level? I have five interrelated suggestions to offer in response to these questions.

First, we can learn something about the nature of the self—both its healthy and unhealthy states—as well as the nature of evil. If music is indeed an image of a free subject representing Kierkegaard’s vision of the good, then a musical analogue of a demonic self can give us an aesthetic model of an unfree subject representing evil. This model can help us understand more about what we can be, shouldn’t be, and so on. In Liszt’s case, I think the demonic played the role of a memento mori: a way to remember death and thus remember Jesus. It is a way of calling attention to the fact that, in the midst of the most glorious of melodies that represent man’s achievements, we must nonetheless resist our temptations to vanity.  Death awaits and we must be sure that our spirits are ready for the confrontation. But we need not be confined to the music. We might also turn from the music to the composer and ask: what does a piece of music marked by the sudden reveal to us about the performers personality? And what might it reveal about the listeners who listen? Perhaps something demonic? In any case, this reason works well with a cognitivist or instrumental approach to art, namely, one that sees art as a means to intellectual stimulation that can teach us something and help us see the world from new perspectives.

Second, art that includes analogues of evil can expand our vision of the facts of the world and help us become more honest. It is important to have beautiful art that represents ideals to which we can ascend.  Our world is imperfect and so are we; but this is no reason to mock and desecrate ideals that can inspire us to make it and ourselves better. That said, art need not always be so ideal. It can include the demonic and, in doing so, can include an aspect of reality that we should try and confront if we want to be serious students of the human condition. This reason also works well with the cognitivist or instrumental approach to art.

Third, the uncanniness that can emerge from the unsettling mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar can, in some cases, be liberating in its ability to challenge the established orders of both reality and art. The demonic is about negation.  Negation can, to be sure, be destructive and mocking; but it can also, in some cases, be germane to creativity and liberation from conformity.

Fourth, we can see demonic music as a means to a catharsis: a purging of certain rebellious emotions.  There is often a desire to stand up to authority and fight various things in one’s life.  Demonic music offers a sublimation of these aggressive instincts through the image of order being intentionally disordered. In real life, such disorder would be unacceptable for various reasons both moral and legal. But in the free world of music one can imaginatively participate in destructive negation in ways that can be very satisfying.

The last suggestion I have is that demonic music, emphasizing the sudden, can offer us an exhilarating image of ourselves as radically free subjects.  Consider Kierkegaard’s argument regarding the supernatural aspect of the lawless sudden: “If the demonic were something somatic, it could never be the sudden.  When a fever or the insanity etc, recurs, a law is finally discovered, and this law annuls the sudden to a certain degree.  But the sudden knows no law.  It does not belong among natural phenomena but is a psychical phenomenon—it is an expression of unfreedom” (Concept of Anxiety, p. 130). Now, in real life we don’t want to live in ways that bring radical discontinuity to our self.  We don’t want a predominance of the sudden.  However, we must have the sudden as a part of our self insofar as we are free beings not determined by our past.  We must be able to disengage from all the physical continuity in order to freely evaluate the past and move into an engaged future as responsible agents. So the discontinuity of the sudden is crucial to freedom—it can be an expression of freedom rather than unfreedom.  We just don’t want to get lost in the suddenness. Now, in demonic music this discontinuity does indeed come to prominence.  But, since it is art rather than life, there is something exciting about it: we see in the music an image of boundless freedom which can break any order and move from anything to anything without moral accountability, insanity, evil deeds, or death.  This can be pleasing to us free beings who long for more freedom within the confines of our physical and moral limits.

For my analysis of how the demonic is both self-defeating and inscrutable, go here.

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