Rousseau’s 1755 diagnosis of his contemporary world is devastating: “Societies have assumed their final form” (Rousseau 1986: 72). Rulers rule not for but against the people, who have only “arms and cash” to defend themselves against the public use of violence (Rousseau 1986: 72). The desolate state of society is reflected in the French language, a “slavish tongue” that, given its lack of prosody, resonance, and harmony, can no longer be used to “make oneself understood to the people assembled”; rather, such a language is only appropriate “for murmuring on couches” (Rousseau 1986: 73). According to Rousseau, his age is therefore characterized by a profound speechlessness: the orator’s art of convincing the public and advocating freedom has been replaced by mute violence and private intrigue.
It comes as no surprise then, that Rousseau’s Essai sur l’origine des langues is driven by a doubly sentimental longing for an “original community” and its first, musical language. Rousseau imagines meetings at tropical wells where the first language developed from the growing love of the sexes for each other:
Girls would come to seek water for their household, young men would come to water their herds […] The first tongues, children of pleasure […] long bore the mark of their father. They lost their seductive tone with the advent of feelings to which they had given birth, when new needs arose among men, forcing each to be mindful only of his own welfare, and to withdraw his heart into himself. (Rousseau 1986: 44–46)
The original language imagined here as the expression of an age of love, leisure, community, and communication is also identified as song: “Around the fountains […] the first discourses were the first songs. The periodic recurrences and measures of rhythm, the melodious modulations of accent, gave birth to poetry and music along with language. Or, rather that was the only language” (Rousseau 1986: 50). Here, song is a natural language of the heart that emerges from passion as directly as it is understood by listeners.
For Rousseau, the “degeneration” (Rousseau 1986: 68) of language in his contemporary world corresponds to the “degeneration” of melody caused by harmony, or more precisely by the constraint of melody by harmonic laws. However, in contrast to the desolation of language, a trace of the origin is retained in the melodies of vocal music. For example, when Rousseau praises song’s “power over sensitive hearts” (Rousseau 1986: 57), he refers not only to the original scene by the well but also to his own contemporaries. They, too, feel the immediate power of a melody that, “though inarticulate, is lively, ardent, [and] passionate” in its imitation of the “vocal signs of passion” (Rousseau 1986: 57), even to the point of becoming identical with them. Rousseau is taking a position in a contemporary debate here, the querelle des buffons that pitted Italian opera against French opera. For Rousseau, the lyrical tragedy of Rameau, who had founded the theory of harmony with his Traité de l’Harmonie in 1722, is exclusively focused on harmonic laws and thus has a distorted sense of melody, while the melodies in the Italian opera buffa imitate language moved by the passions and can thus touch the heart with great immediacy. That is, if the French language distances itself as far as is possible from the first language and can thus never be “favorable to liberty” (Rousseau 1986: 72), the original songs are still present in the vocal melodies of Italian opera. Rousseau does not say whether such melodies can release a revolutionary power (as German music later does for Nietzsche), but at least such melodies – in their supposed primordiality, authenticity and immediacy – inspire him to imagine an alternative society.
Rousseau’s musical fictions of origin influenced not only the debate on the origin of language in the late eighteenth century but also the aesthetics of music and the literature of sentimentalism and Sturm und Drang. If, in sentimentalism’s understanding, music enabled immediate and undistorted heart-to-heart communication, music in the age of Sturm und Drang was seen as permitting the direct expression of both “true” and “strong” “human feelings.” For unlike language or painting, music was thought to be “intimately bound to the nature of passions”, and could thus give voice to the obscurity and darkness of feelings and communicate them to the listener (cf. Herder 2006: 284). Both these understandings of music are present in Wackenroder’s Berglinger texts from 1797 and 1799. They also begin with a critique of the contemporary world, but the critique is more individual than systematic, with the artist suffering in a world of philistines and “subtle reasoners” (Wackenroder 2014: 137). Berglinger, like Rousseau, sketches an “originary” counter-world which can only be entered through music. This realm is also based on a longing that is turned backward, as when listening to music is described as both an oral pleasure and an element that flatters all the senses and draws the listener in. Such images are connected with the tendency to see the sensory effect of music in feminine terms. Here, Wackenroder recodes the erotic charge of music in Rousseau as a child-like longing to return into the loving mother’s arms. The characterization of the listener as a child (which Sloterdijk has recently taken up again) runs through the Berglinger texts in numerous passages discussing the caves, depths, and grottoes of music: music emerges from the “mysterious vaults” of an “oracular cave” that listeners involuntarily find themselves in (Wackenroder 2014: 141). On the one hand, in connection with metaphors of maternity and childhood, such images create an imaginary maternal body the listener is drawn into. On the other hand, these hollow spaces are also located inside the listener. Music generates currents in a “secret river in the depths of the human soul” (Wackenroder 2014: 137). In the form of barely accessible memory, the listener draws the imaginary place of fusion into himself. Only sounds can report from this place: “With easy, playful joy the resounding soul rises forth from its oracular cave” (Wackenroder 2014: 141).
Two decades later, in Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea (1818), Wackenroder’s urge to create a metaphysics of music was extended to become the essential component of a theory of being. But in Schopenhauer, music no longer reveals the (heavenly) sphere of the (individual) soul; instead, it reports from the dark realm of the world-will at the foundation of all existence (cf. Schopenhauer 1909: 212). It no longer disembodies and spiritualizes the passions but rather makes it possible for them to speak in their rawest form, in the direct connection of bodies and their blind urge to life. Here, music speaks to the listener not only immediately but also deeply physically. Richard Wagner’s conception of the musical drama goes on to turn Wackenroder’s feelings into a pre-individual “objectification of the will” in a step that is based on Schopenhauer: music “does not therefore express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow, or pain […]; but joy [or] pain […] themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives” (Schopenhauer 1909: 314). Wagner turns this claim by Schopenhauer into an absolute primacy of the acoustic over the visual, of hearing over seeing. In his Beethoven essay of 1870, Wagner writes of a “second world […] perceptible only through the hearing, strictly speaking, therefore, a true world of sound” which reveals both the “essence of the world” and the identity of this essence with the inner essence of every individual human (as opposed to a “world of light” that remains trapped in the world of mere appearance) (Wagner 1873: 29–31). Wagner’s essay was closely connected to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (1872). His opposition of a sound-world of essence and a light-world of mere appearance is the starting point for Nietzsche’s much more wide-ranging aesthetic philosophy of a “duplexity of the Apollonian and the Dionysian” (Nietzsche 1909: 21) in which music speaks from the “essence of [the] Dionysian” (Nietzsche 1909: 32) while the beautiful illusion of the Apollonian on the stage of Wagner’s music drama conceals the audible “terrors and horrors of existence” (Nietzsche 1909: 34). But Nietzsche makes the cultural and political context of both texts clearer. Both in the original preface to The Birth of Tragedy and in the “Attempt at a Self-Criticism” that he later published as an additional preface, Nietzsche emphasizes the connection between The Birth of Tragedy and the Franco-Prussian War that led to the founding of the German Empire. Nietzsche, who volunteered as a medic during the war, first draws parallels between the stages of the writing of his essay and the stages of the war (Nietzsche 1909: 1–2) and then insists that his text deals with an “earnest […] German problem […] which we properly place, as a vortex and turning-point, in the very midst of German hopes” (Nietzsche 1909: 20).
At the heart of this intention is Nietzsche’s nationalization of the “Dionysian essence” as a German essence. Starting from the same “degeneration of the Hellene” that Rousseau began with, Nietzsche decries “the evanescence of the Dionysian spirit” in Western culture (Nietzsche 1909: 150). Now it is German music that is supposed to lead the way out of this desolate situation: “Out of the Dionysian root of the German spirit a power has arisen which has nothing in common with the primitive conditions of Socratic culture […] German music as we have to understand it, especially in its vast solar orbit from Bach to Beethoven, from Beethoven to Wagner” (Nietzsche 1909: 150–151). For Nietzsche, too, then, music heralds a way back: “backwards […] to the period of tragedy” (Nietzsche 1909: 152). This backward movement, though, is nationalistically colored by the Franco-Prussian War: “The German spirit” must “return[…] to the primitive source of its being”, which will also free it from being “compelled” by “Romanic civilization” (Nietzsche 1909: 152–153). In Nietzsche, the “Mothers of Being, the innermost heart of things” (Nietzsche 1909: 121) from which music sounded for Schopenhauer, has now become a German “knight sunk in slumber” who “still rests and dreams” “in some inaccessible abyss” from which “the Dionysian song rises to us,” calling for a battle with Romanic civilization (Nietzsche 1909: 184–185).
Both Wackenroder’s heavenly realm of the soul and Nietzsche’s martial war rhetoric can be found in Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia of 1918. Written during the First World War, the book hopes for a coming Socialist revolution but is as sentimental as it is Messianic. Bloch hopes for the restoration of an idealized past in a social order that seems almost medieval, in which there are only peasants, craftsmen, and a spiritual nobility, all controlled by the church (Bloch 2000: 246). He strives for a utopian redemption from the existing world with its exclusive fixation on the interests of capital. This redemption would create a different, truer world: “We […] build into the blue […] and there seek the true, the real, where the merely factual disappears” (Bloch 2000: 3). This u-topos of the blue is but another version of Wackenroder’s human interiority, and for Bloch, this interiority has to be encountered. The paths to this encounter with oneself lead through the realm of art, and above all music, whose goal is an increasingly less distorted expression of interiority and thus of the future of humanity. A whole quarter of The Spirit of Utopia, then, is taken up by a Philosophy of Music.
I have already discussed this philosophy of music in all its details in another context; here, I only want to mention three aspects of it. First of all, as in today’s aesthetics of presence, social relationships or historical events play hardly any role at all in Bloch’s analyses. They are replaced by music history, which Bloch understands as the history of the soul. Here, the supposed “untimeliness” of music is central. Where the later Nietzsche had a critical perspective on untimeliness in terms of how music was lagging behind developments in other arts, Bloch sees this asynchronicity as a reason to believe in music’s utopian potential. As “the language of a vanished age” (Bloch 2000: 40), music is ahead of its own time precisely by lagging behind its time and creating an ideal connection back to the past:
[S]onic constructs […] become younger precisely by becoming older […] In the end it is what is most reckless, painful, what lets itself go, what is most paradoxical to itself, which also stands closest to what is old, most primordially basic, simplest, given, immemorially longed-for, lost to the adult world. (Bloch 2000: 44)
Secondly, Bloch’s “Gothic sanctum” of interiority, which man is supposed to return to, is neither sociologically, nor historically, nor psychologically determined. Instead, this “sanctum” is filled by music – especially the “German music” of Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. Bloch’s treatment of works of music amounts to a series of projections and identifications: a desired “content” is projected into the music; that content can then be identified with or localized in the “Gothic sanctum” of interiority. But this content remains specifically non-concrete; Bloch’s style is more focused on generating vague moods and suggestive intuitions.
Thirdly, Bloch’s ideas circle around the apocalypse that is supposed to interrupt the course of history and separate the Messianic age from the entirely annihilated past (Bloch 2000: 278). This figure leads Bloch to re-evaluate the First World War in his wartime essays. The war’s violence is explained as necessary to the complete annihilation of the Prussian military state and the preparation of the ground for a new Germany. Bloch may insist that the enemy’s tools should stop being used after the victory (Bloch 2000: 406; Bloch 1985b: 315), but it becomes clear from his music theory and his style that his utopia is already contaminated by violence. Bloch is fascinated by any musical works that he can hear as battlefields. He worships Beethoven as a despot who destroys what came before him with apocalyptic violence: “It is astonishing how much the symphonic tends to first murder […], then to bestow it again” (Bloch 2000: 81). This gift-giving, the creation of the new, then takes the form of a dictatorial regime controlling not only the musical material (when Beethoven, say, manipulates “the little melodic structures like lifeless entities” [Bloch 2000: 128]) but also the listener. Again and again, Bloch celebrates those moments when the listeners are “persuaded, compelled, entranced” (Bloch 1985b: 203). Bloch’s book itself also strives for an intensive, even autocratic effect. As he wrote to Lukacs, “I am the Paraclete and the people to whom I am sent [that is, his readers] will experience and understand the returning God in themselves” (Bloch 1985a: 66f). The necessary effect on his readers depends on several factors: his prophetic style (with such phrases as “there will be a time” [Bloch 2000: 234]); the creation of a diffuse foreboding by means of endless chains of metaphors whose effect is to render argumentative discussion impossible (Bloch 2000: 234 and 154); and suggestive principles that aim to control the reader’s mood, such as “We only hear ourselves. For we are gradually becoming blind to the outside” (Bloch 2000: 159).