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The Violin and Western Identity

Subjectivity is the measure by which we accord dignity and gravitas to someone else. Without it, a person is just a thing, an object, and one may abuse it, ignore it, even kill it without feeling much remorse. If we can’t discover the presence of subjectivity, whatever that is, in a fellow creature, we consider it alien, capable of violence, of imposing danger on the rest of us. That’s what propaganda is intended to construct of an enemy, an absence of subjectivity, in which such restraints on behavior as social values, ethics, religious principles are notably removed. This is how we define a wild animal, and certainly much of the middle ages could only think of the forest as the source of all non-subjective, dangerous life. Hence, witches were vilified and removed from social recognition, and burning them was a way of signifying that anyone associated with the devil, the underworld, unconsciousness, irrationality was only worthy of destruction. We have similarly branded the Huns, the Japs, the Gooks, and now Islamic jihadists, Al Quaeda and ISIS. No one is fully human who doesn’t have access to that plane of mind in which the individual suffers doubt and nausea alone.

Perhaps subjectivity is the capacity to reflect upon one’s actions before committing them. Instinctual reactions to things were a sign of the absence of this quality, a uniquely human dimension of a person’s dependability. A criminal is someone who has acted out of a primal source of energy allying him or her to the bestial world. Hence, all the means by which such a figure once indicted and found guilty is isolated from the upper world of subjective beings. To be subjective is to be teachable, to instruct in the proper restraints on the wildness within oneself.

When Europe first became aware of its own identity as a civilization, sometime in the early 15th century, it was necessary to communicate this feeling and to explore its meaning. The lute had long been the means of musical expression, with its percussive rhythms and its ventures into melodic structure, where the threshold of musical subjectivity lay. But the hand striking tense gut strings was a limited means of allowing melody its total, and necessary freedom to penetrate the murky inner world of human awareness. The lute, and the ancestral lyre, required a certain compelling rhythm to frame all that could be said within the narrative means of expression – and it was clear that such rhythms had much to do with the power to lure the mind into reverie, and thus, seduction. The lute was more about love-making than it was about self-analysis.

But at the close of the Middle Ages, in northern Italy, around the city of Cremona, the violin was invented, and a kind of primitive hunting bow was applied to the resonating strings to allow for a more fluid, almost ethereal flexibility of sound. The violin instantly became the means for articulating a language of the isolated self, its longings, regrets, dreams, and doubts. Its origins lay somewhere in Asia, but its use had long been present in the music of Africa and the Middle East, where the range of musical notes was vast and perhaps even limitless. The violin discovered the hidden power of nuance and suggestion, and the more composers pushed the limits of its voice, the more one became aware that a kind of universe belonged to those who were conscious of the role of the mind in daily life. Hence, humanism grew up alongside the violin and was soon followed by the more percussive, militant voice of the piano. The musical genius of 17th century Europe welcomed these tools in the further descent into the mysteries of the self, while at the same time unwittingly drawing boundaries around this new language and the rest of humanity defined as living outside it, in an alien world of mere reflexes and automatic behavior. The privileged classes soon became identified by their patronage of recitals and commissioned works featuring the extremes of musical articulation. The rest of society and the outside world in general that had not evolved an awareness of self were associated with ballads, which continued to weave dance and simple narratives.

The 19th century marked the period of the greatest expansion of European empires, driven by the need to conquer native alien worlds and to bring not only order and exploitation of resources to the primitive outside, but to introduce the dimension of self-reflection into the Darwinian wilderness. It was Orpheus whose lute playing could tame the monsters of Hades, long enough to try to lure Eurydice back to the conscious world; Christ harrowed hell with a benign nature akin to that same power to overcome the blindness of mere pagan nature. In a way, the violin was the more powerful instrument of imperialism to destroy the integrity of nature and to institute the regime of humanism in the far corners of what might be called “the natural world.” The magic of so much fluidity of tongue made a mockery of simple repetitive dancing and the iteration of primitive chants. The white man’s power lay in his access to a dimension few outside of Europe and the secretive inner court life of China and India knew about.

Hence, the bitter denunciation of native Americans in the first waves of settlement and conquest of north America. Here was a people that had not discovered mindfulness in any recognizable form; their war dances, rituals, and purification ceremonies imitated the inarticulate mumblings of nature – its insects, coyote barks, and the cries of eagles and hawks. The white man could escape from nature on the wings of a violin’s nearly perfect grasp of the mercurial inner landscape of the mind. To dance with the Iroquois was to lower down into the irrational self of dreams and hallucinations; it was not a transcendence of nature but a surrender to it. Peyote and other hallucinogens practiced by southern Plains Indians were a gateway into the mysterium of self but was no different from the powerful ointments witches rubbed on their genitals for space travel in the 14th century. In no sense could a European tolerate such practices when Christianity had declared any form of surrender to nature as an affront to God and an alliance with the devil and the creatures of hell, i.e., base nature.

The violin reached its apex of power alongside imperialism, and when the latter collapsed by the first quarter of the 20th century, so did the role of the violin in symphonic music. Other instruments began to vie for the role of the central voice of western life – the saxophone, the trumpet, the sinuous voice of the clarinet, and finally, the renaissance of the guitar in a simpler, more primitive form that would evolve into the electric guitar, the principal instrument of the second half of the 20th century. Subjectivity had become redefined by Freud, Jung, and others as a limited terrain carefully cultivated by the evolving rules of urbanized European life. It was a surface of inner reality, a socialized medium intended to refine and filter out primitive urges, even while wars and revolutions expanded across the world. The restraints of subjectivity merely added to the power of the unconscious to break down the walls and enter into social intercourse, often by means of the “Freudian slip,” the joke, the wet dream, the impulsive sexual behavior of those in power. No one was safe from the jungle within, which had doubled its strength as the fragile rationality of Europe crumbled. Hence, the sensuous, erotic groans of a saxophone, the seductive ranges of jazz improvisations that became associated with desire and moral trespasses. African culture was defined as the source of sexuality in the 20th century; rock music, born of the stomping measures of rhythm and blues, wove sexual innuendo into every lyric and title, and it was driven by the clangorous chords and repetitions of the electric guitar and snare drum. Western subjectivity had surrendered to Darwinian nature but not before Stravinsky and Copeland wove primitive elements of peasant and native American life into their compositions. An accommodation was struck with the “other side” of nature.

Even so, the recognition of the other in contemporary life is a slow, distracted process of cultural orientation. The more we see images of African-American middle class life, in sit-coms, films, TV ads, the more we wish to expand the boundary of subjectivity to include minorities. But the process is baffled, viciously thwarted by social media, as when Obama first tweeted his timid greetings to the Twitter world and was assaulted by a flood of racist rejection, including images of a gallows holding a black man. The violin is not a part of any common notion of African-American culture, but it has become part of Japanese and Chinese-American identity, as with Yoyo Ma’s cello, the first cousin of the violin. Under the rejection of jazz and rap music is the powerful basalt of racial fear and the denial of subjectivity, which determines all of one’s attitudes to otherness. We are no further along in the dialog of the races and the continents than we were in the early days when Cremona craftsmen were bending wood and manufacturing the first instruments by which Europe conceived the musical language of individualism, and in a stroke found the means for excluding everyone else from its magical circle.

So long as we define western humanity as resting on the basis of our solitary subjectivity and the individual born of it, we are incapable of understanding the subjective and magical inner lives of others. Other cultures did not permit the self to rule over the inner landscape of reflection, but muted that development by keeping its doors open to community, to the affairs of others. As Mabel Dodge Luhan lamented in her powerful memoir, Edge of Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality,

[[The Pubeblo Indians] do not lay their burdens upon the earth.

To hear them sing, one might think they have never known

individual sorrow or pain, for it is not recorded in any expression

of theirs, for it is tribal music and tribally they do not suffer; tribally

they are free. Listening to them, I thought perhaps the only way to

go free is to live as a group, and to be part and parcel of a living tribal

organism, to share everything, joy, pain, food, land, life, and death

and so lose the individual anguish and hunger as well as the little sips and

sups of pleasure that come to one here and there.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen