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From Music to Literature Author(s): Eric Mchoulan Source: SubStance, Vol. 28, No. 1, Issue 88: Special Issue: Literary History (1999), pp. 42-56 Published by: University of Wisconsin Press Stable URL: Accessed: 23/10/2010 09:48Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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From Music to LiteratureEricM&choulan

A I ONCECAMEACROSS TEXT ENTITLED "HISTORY THEWORLD," OF a collection of students' bloopers. One of them runs like this: constituting "In midevil times most of the people were alliterate. The greatest writer of the time was Chaucer, who wrote many poems and verse and also wrote literature"! As sometimes happens, this is a clever blooper indeed, which shows how difficult it is to assign "literature"a specific position as object of knowledge. Literature is certainly more than texts, but what can it be? The magnificent development of literary theories over the last thirty years has had at least one edifying consequence, which is to make us understand that a strict definition of literature is simply impossible to give. It seems there is a specific resistance of "literature,"evading capture in the nets of knowledge, eluding becoming a theoretical "object."And perhaps it was not really possible to see this until recently, because the institutionalization of literature and its objectification as an object of knowledge has paralleled the very development of our conception of literature since the nineteenth century. Strictly speaking, our ordinary use of the concept "literature"gives an account of practices since the nineteenth century, and not really before. Nevertheless, the crystallization of such a use is the result of a very long process, with many inflections. I would like to focus on only one of thesethe shift from music to "literature,"since it may at least help us understand why the "object-literature"offers such resistance to theoretical and even historical knowledge. Even if one wants to abandon the idea of an "identity" of literature, we can at least give an historical account of the impossibility of finding that identity.

The Role of Music It is well known that one of the major differences between our literary practices and medieval poetical practices lies in the intimate connection of poetry and music in the Middle Ages: not only was almost every poem


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intended to be performed orally, but they were often sung, accompanied by instruments. As one trouvereat the end of the thirteenth century says, "une poesie sans musique est comme un moulin sans eau" (poetry without music is like a mill without water). And Jean de Grouchy, in his De musica, deals not only with sacred music, but with the chansonde geste, chansonde toile, and other kinds of vulgar, vernacular poetry as well. Yet it is not only our conception of poetry that must be revised, but also our understanding of music. For us, music plays predominantly the role of a frail emotion of sounds, directly assigned to our pleasure or distaste-that is, to our subjectivity. For the whole of Antiquity, music was concerned with harmony, the emotion of sounds being intimately bound up with the motion of human beings, of society and even of the cosmos. When, in the Timaeus, Plato describes the world soul, he uses the musical ratios discovered by the Pythagoreans as its basic principle, claiming that they govern the ordered structure of the cosmos (Timaeus,35b). Music is thus a principle of universal order, since it establishes mathematical proportions. Music actually occupies a central place in antique thought because it is able to join both mathematics and astronomy, which then lead to authentic philosophy: the [H]ewho has not contemplated mindof naturewhichis said to existin and the stars,and gone throughthe previoustraining, seen the connection of musicwith thesethings,andharmonized themall with laws and institutions, is not able to give a reasonof such thingsas have a reason.(Laws, 967e). It is nevertheless true that in the Republic,although Plato emphasizes the value of music as good pedagogy for individual and social harmony, he does not assign it the highest position: its social standing is beneath the intelligible value of the mathemata(Republic,521b-c). But this stems from the very mode of music: music cannot occupy the first position because it deals precisely with the relation between heterogeneous positions. Its role is as general as that of mathemata,but in a very different way. In the Timaeus, Plato claims that the universe has been created as near to an eternal-and therefore immobile-model as possible: the mathemata the are closest order to this model (37d). Then time enters in, with duration, break and velocity: music is the science of time, or, to be more precise, the science of the harmony of time-it founds the just proportions of the different rhythms of beings, of the multiple speeds of planets and stars. Hence music deals with mobility and otherness. If the very process of anamnesis is possible (the method of remembrance by which every human being is able to recognize the model,SubStance#88, 1999

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the original underlying its empirical copy), it depends on music for translating, for synchronizing the high and evanescent velocity of the empirical with the essential slowness of the realm of ideas. Since ancient Greek education was less a matter of knowledge than a way of molding and cultivating ethical character, music played a specific role, because of its harmonic composition. It is striking to see, for instance, that the element of grammar was not originally the gramma(that is, the letter), but the stoicheion,a sonorous element where speech is in accord with melody. As Edward Lippman has observed, "the grammatical stoicheia were measured tones capable of serial arrangements, and not simply elemental constituents indifferent in nature. This new concept of element can have originated only in music, although it soon developed into a general word for elements of any type" (551). But Lippman adds, [W]iththe decline of the ancientmusicalinstitutionsand their society, We philosophyand rhetoric foughtover the rightof succession. can see in Plato'sTheaetetus the wholemusicalconception how with its classprerogative of leisure and its scorn for the servitudeof practical is occupations taken over by philosophy.Rhetoric becomesthe antithesis,representing illiberal for employment gain.(ibid.) Music continues to pervade the whole of Greek society, but often as an illusory leisure compared with philosophy, or a vain occupation compared with rhetoric. In De caelo, Aristotle begins to ironize about the inaudible music of the spheres (II, 9, 290b 12 ff.), even though music still plays an important part in the neo-pythagorean philosophy. It will be the charge of Christianity to boost music's fortunes, thanks also to a shift by Plotinus. The recurring comparison of the One, the Reason-Principle, with musical harmony, is revealing for Plotinus, as it will be for Christian authors, because it permits them to think at once the multiplicity and the symphonics of disparate elements-local heterogeneity and universal harmony. The Indo-European root ar of the Greek armoniarefers to the notion of a just order of the universe, but armoniacomes also from the idea of articulation, of the joint: arariskeinmeans "to join," as one can join the wooden beams of a house (which is why we find in Vitruvius's book on architecture "the idea that the proportions of a building or of a room would look right to the eye if the dimensions were to be based on the proportions that rule the art of music") (quoted in Chadwick, 84). For Heraclitus, harmony is precisely the joinery of being, the principle of the exact, the just station in the presence. Plotinus tries to use a similar conception, but em-

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phasizing the union of the One more than the articulations and disarticulations composing the rhythms of Being, as in Heraclitus.

Boethius: Music as Movement I will now focus on Boethius's De institutionemusica,the key source for the medieval conception of music. The sense of unity is so impressive in Boethius that for him, there is no fundamental break between Being and knowledge. The division of knowledge closely follows the modes of Being. There is a kind of "diffusion" of unity at every level of the essences. An essence can be a magnitude-a continuous and indivisible identity (e.g. a tree or a stone), or a multitude-a discontinuous and divided unity (e.g. a population, or grass). The magnitudes consist of immobile or mo