What’s lost when yearning goes


The below is an excerpt from J.M. Coetzee's latest book, Diary of a Bad Year, published by Harvill Secker, September, 2007. Written with three concurrent perspectives per page, the top portion of each chapter is an essay written by the book's protagonist, J.C., an "eminent" seventy-two year old Australian writer of South African descent, who "is invited to contribute pieces to a book entitled Strong Opinions."On MusicMusic expresses feeling, that is to say, gives shape and habitation to feeling, not in space but in time. To the extent that music has a history that is more than a history of its formal evolution, our feelings have a history too. Music is a history of the feeling soul.Consider singing. Nineteenth-century art-song is very remote in its kinaesthetics from singing today. The nineteenth-century singer was trained to sing from the depths of her thorax, (from her lungs, from her “heart”), bearing the head high, emitting a large, rounded tone of the kind that carries. It is a mode of singing, meant to convey moral nobility. In performances that were of course always live, those present had staged before their eyes the contrast between the mere physical body and the voice that transcends the body, emerging from it, rising above it, and leaving it behind.From the body, thus, song was born as soul.*Much of the ugliness of the speech one hears in the streets of America comes from hostility to song, from repression of the impulse to sing, circumscription of the soul.One can of course hear stunted and mechanical speech all over the world. But pride in the mechanical mode seems to be uniquely American. For in America the model of the self as a ghost inhabiting a machine goes almost unquestioned at a popular level. The body as conceived in America, the American body, is a complex machine comprising a vocal module, a sexual module, and several more, even a psychological module. Inside the body-machine the ghostly self checks read-outs and taps keys, giving commands which the body obeys.*Old people still querulously demand to know why music cannot continue in the tradition of the great nineteenth-century symphonists. The answer is simple. The animating principles of that music are dead and cannot be revived. One cannot compose a nineteenth-century symphony that will not be an instant museum piece.More difficult to pin down are the animating principles of the music of our own times. But certainly we can say that the quality of yearning, or erotic idealisim, so common in earlier Romantic music has vanished, probably for good, as have heroic struggle and the striving toward transcendence.Romantic music seeks to recover a lost state of raptness (which is not the same as rapture), a state of exaltation in which the human shell will be shed and one will become pure being or pure spirit. Hence the continual striving in Romantic music: it is always trying to push further (is there not a piece by Mendelssohn called “On Wings of Song” – the earthbound poet yearning to take flight?).One begins to understand the basis of the Romantic enthusiasm for Bach. Characteristically, Bach shows how in almost any musical germ, no matter how simple, there lie endless possibilities for development.Is it too much to say that the music we call Romantic has an erotic inspiration – that it unceasingly pushes further, tries to enable the listening subject to leave the body behind, to be rapt away, (as if harking to birdsong, heavensong), to become a living soul? If this is true then the erotics of Romantic music could not be more different from the erotics of the present day. In young lovers today one detects not the faintest flicker of that old metaphysical hunger, whose code word for itself was yearning.

In These Times August 2022 Cover
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