The Hatred of Music
by pascal quignard
yale university press, 216 pages, $26
Pascal Quignard’s The Hatred of Music is impossible to summarize. It’s divided into ten “treatises” with titles like “It So Happens That Ears Have No Eyelids,” “The Song of the Sirens,” and “To Disenchant.” He examines music from historical, mythical, phenomenological, and every other conceivable angle. But the treatises aren’t really treatises; they’re more like Twitter threads, only less coherent.
For instance: The opening treatise, “The Tears of Saint Peter,” starts with the claim that we wrap our “injured and infantile acoustic nudity” in the triple cloth of cantatas, sonatas, and poems: “That which sings, that which sounds, that which speaks.” The cloth muffles “more ancient sounds and groans,” just as “we try to keep most of the noises of our body from the ears of others.” Music exists to drown out the noise of life, which is the sound of pain. Then Quignard introduces Hesiod’s muse mousikè, which modulates into a digression on shamans, Pan, and the rites of panikeas, which “consisted in putting a young man to death by tearing him apart while still alive and immediately eating him raw,” to the accompaniment of thyrsi, pan flutes, and singing. That leads him to consider music's relationship to terror, illustrated by Haydn’s claim “that within him were hammer blows as God heard them, nailing his living hands, hammering his joined, living feet, on a stormy day as he found himself fastened to a cross, on top of a hill.” All that before we reach page 10. Quignard pretty much leaves it to us to figure out how it hangs together.
The Hatred of Music is an experience rather than an argument. I can only hint at a few of the many fascinating threads.
First: Quignard means his title literally. Founder of the International Festival of Baroque Opera and Theater, erstwhile co-director of the Concert des nations, Quignard examines how “music can become an object of hatred to someone who once adored it above measure.”
His own disillusionment with music has several sources. One is technological: Since World War II, music “has become incessant, aggressing night and day, in the commercial streets of city centers, in shopping centers, in arcades, in department stores, in bookstores . . . Even in airplanes during takeoff and landing.” We’re now “assailed” and “besieged” by music, which has become more the social tonos than language. Through its ubiquitous reproduction, music has “crossed the limit that separated it from noise.” When rare, music was “as overwhelming as its seduction was vertiginous.” Incessant music becomes repulsive, and it is “silence that hails and becomes solemn.”
Most horribly, music assails “even in death camps”: “Of all the arts, music is the only one to have collaborated in the extermination of Jews,” for “naked bodies entered the chamber to the sound of music.” Primo Levi describes the sight of prisoners “advancing in rows of five, almost rigid, their necks strained, their arms against their bodies, like men made out of wood.” With the band playing “Rosamunde,” they lifted their legs like automata, “so weakened that their leg muscles against their will obeyed the power of the rhythms.” The marches and songs haunted Levi longer than any other memory of the camp. “Music annihilates” and “becomes the ‘sensory expression’ of the determination with which humans proceeded to exterminate humans.” More than one survivor renounced music, forever sickened by the sounds that once entranced them. Quignard bitterly writes, “The Nuremberg tribunal should have ordered Richard Wagner to be beaten in effigy once a year in the streets of every German town.”
Second: Can we blame these evils on music? Quignard thinks so. We have no ear flaps. We can’t turn off the acoustic. What we see can be blocked by partitions and curtains, but sounds penetrate these barriers: “Undelimitable, it is impossible to protect oneself from it . . . There is neither a subject nor an object of hearing. Sound rushes in. It violates.” This is inherent in acoustic experience: “To hear is to be touched from afar,” involuntarily. The power of the acoustic is the foundation of civilization, which is founded on imperatives. There’s a more than verbal connection between obaudientia and audientia.
What is seen remains external. But music “penetrates to the interior of the body and takes hold of the soul. The flute induces a dance movement in the limbs of humans, followed by an irresistible salacious squirming. Music’s prey is the human body,” which it invades and captures. “It plunges those it tyrannizes into obedience by snaring them in the trap of its song.” More than other arts, “Music . . . tears asunder.” This is the power that enables music to occupy every public and private space, to become the soundtrack of torture.
Indeed, Quignard suggests, music and death were companions from the very beginning. “The vibration of the bowstring sings a song of death. . . . Vocal cords, lyre string, bowstring are a single string: entrails or nerves of a dead animal that emit the invisible sound that kills from afar.”
Third, a lesser but bemusing observation: Boys lose their voices. From puberty on, men are “humans who have shed their voice” as if they wriggled from “a snake’s coat.” Some become castrati to retain the voice of childhood. Others compensate by becoming composers who “recompense as best they can an acoustic territory that does not change.” The voice change traces the progress of the hero. As Vladimir Propp observed, all heroes return home bearded and hoarse, dead to childhood and born again, “mutated into an animal man, into a hunter.”
Despite these penetrating observations, Quignard doesn't get everything right. Behind his hatred is a conviction that “Nature barks . . . it does not speak,” much less sing. Natural sound, he writes, is “a dog’s sound: a nonsemantic sound that precedes us in our very own throat.” Well, no. Creation does speak—because the Creator sings, the Word speaks in created logoi, the Singer sings in the harmonies and melodies of the world. We cannot ignore the shrieks. But, for those with ears to hear, there’s an articulate sound deeper than the barking.
And the future too is music. As the Renaissance poet Vittoria Colonna said, “If this little music, stirring the frail air, / can gather up the spirit, / open it and melt it as it does,” then “what will the heart do when / before God in the first and ancient heaven, / it hears the music of all being?”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.