Review of Francois Noudelmann, "The Philosopher's Touch: Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes at the Piano"

Call it philosophical synesthesia: the work of certain thinkers comes with a soundtrack. With Leibniz, it’s something baroque played on a harpsichord -- the monads somehow both crisply distinct and perfectly harmonizing. Despite Nietzsche’s tortured personal relationship with Wagner, the mood music for his work is actually by Richard Strauss. In the case of Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings, or at least some of them, it’s jazz: bebop in particular, and usually Charlie Parker, although it was Dizzie Gillespie who wore what became known as “existentialist” eyeglasses. And medieval scholastic philosophy resonates with Gregorian chant. Having never managed to read Thomas Aquinas without getting a headache, I find that it’s the Monty Python version:





Such linkages are, of course, all in my head -- the product of historical context and chains of association, to say nothing of personal eccentricity. But sometimes the connection between philosophy and music is much closer than that. It exists not just in the mind’s ear but in the thinker’s fingers as well, in ways that François Noudelmann explores with great finesse in The Philosopher’s Touch: Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes at the Piano (Columbia University Press).

The disciplinary guard dogs may snarl at Noudelmann for listing Barthes, a literary critic and semiologist, as a philosopher. The Philosopher’s Touch also ignores the principle best summed up by Martin Heidegger (“Horst Vessel Lied”): “Regarding the personality of a philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died." Biography, by this reasoning, is a distraction from serious thought, or, worse, a contaminant.

But then Noudelmann (a professor of philosophy at l’Université Paris VIII who has also taught at Johns Hopkins and New York Universities) has published a number of studies of Sartre, who violated the distinction between philosophy and biography constantly. Following Sartre’s example on that score is a dicey enterprise -- always in danger of reducing ideas to historical circumstances, or of overinterpreting personal trivia.

The Philosopher’s Touch runs that risk three times, taking as its starting point the one habit its protagonists had in common: Each played the piano almost every day of his adult life. Sartre gave it up only as a septuagenarian, when his health and eyesight failed. But even Nietzsche’s descent into madness couldn’t stop him from playing (and, it seems, playing well).

All of them wrote about music, and each published at least one book that was explicitly autobiographical. But they seldom mentioned their own musicianship in public and never made it the focus of a book or an essay. Barthes happily accepted the offer to appear on a radio program where the guest host got to spin his favorite recordings. But the tapes he made at home of his own performances were never for public consumption. He was an unabashed amateur, and recording himself was just a way to get better.

Early on, a conductor rejected one of Nietzsche’s compositions in brutally humiliating terms, asking if he meant it as a joke. But he went on playing and composing anyway, leaving behind about 70 works, including, strange to say, a mass.

As for Sartre, he admitted to daydreams of becoming a jazz pianist. “We might be even more surprised by this secret ambition,” Noudelmann says, “when we realize that Sartre did not play jazz! Perhaps this was due to a certain difficulty of rhythm encountered in jazz, which is so difficult for classical players to grasp. Sight-reading a score does not suffice.” It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

These seemingly minor or incidental details about the thinkers’ private devotion to the keyboard give Noudelmann an entrée to a set of otherwise readily overlooked set of problems concerning both art -- particularly the high-modernist sort -- and time.  

In their critical writings, Sartre and Barthes always seemed especially interested in the more challenging sorts of experimentation (Beckett, serialism, Calder, the nouveau roman, etc.) while Nietzsche was, at first anyway, the philosophical herald of Wagner’s genius as the future of art. But seated at their own keyboards, they made choices seemingly at odds with the sensibility to be found in their published work. Sartre played Chopin. A lot. So did Nietzsche. (Surprising, because Chopin puts into sound what unrequited love feels like, while it seems like Nietzsche and Sartre are made of sterner stuff.  Nietzsche also loved Bizet’s Carmen. His copy of the score “is covered with annotations, testifying to his intense appropriation of the opera to the piano.” Barthes liked Chopin but found him too hard to play, and shifted his loyalties to Schumann – becoming the sort of devotee who feels he has a uniquely intense connection with an artist. “Although he claims that Schumann’s music is, through some intrinsic quality, made for being played rather than listened to,” writes Noudelmann, “his arguments can be reduced to saying that this music involves the body that plays it.”

Such ardor is at the other extreme from the modernist perspective for which music is the ideal model of “pure art, removed from meaning and feeling,” creating, Noudelmann writes, “a perfect form and a perfect time, which follow only their own laws.... Such supposed purity requires an exclusive relation between the music and a listener who is removed from the conditions of the music’s performance.”

But Barthes’s passion for Schumann (or Sartre’s for Chopin, or Nietzsche’s for Bizet) involves more than relief at escaping severe music for something more Romantic and melodious. The familiarity of certain compositions; the fact that they fall within the limits of the player’s ability, or give it enough of a challenge to be stimulating; the way a passage inspires particular moods or echoes them -- all of this is part of the reality that playing music “is entirely different from listening to it or commenting on it.” That sounds obvious but it is something even a bad performer sometimes understands better than a good critic.

“Leaving behind the discourse of knowledge and mastery,” Noudelmann writes, “they maintained, without relent and throughout the whole of their existence, a tacit relation to music. Their playing was full of habits they had cultivated since childhood and discoveries they had made in the evolution of their tastes and passions.” More is involved than sound.

The skills required to play music are stored, quite literally, in the body. It’s appropriate that Nietzsche, Sartre, and Barthes all wrote, at some length, about both the body and memory. Noudelmann could have belabored that point at terrific length and high volume, like a LaMonte Young performance in which musicians play two or three notes continuously for several days. Instead, he improvises with skill in essays that pique the reader's interest, rather than bludgeoning it. And on that note, I must now go do terrible things to a Gibson electric guitar.

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Review of Zygmunt Bauman, 'On Education'

Intellectual Affairs

Zygmunt Bauman makes a passing reference to his “uncannily long life” in On Education: Conversations with Riccardo Mazzeo (Polity). I found it surprising to determine that he is, in fact, not quite five months shy of his 87th birthday. With all due respect to someone old enough to have experienced the Hitler-Stalin pact as a personal problem (his Polish-Jewish family had to emigrate to the Soviet Union), current demographic trends are making longevity seem astounding only when your age runs to three digits.  

Such judgments are always relative, of course. What the man is, without a doubt, is freakishly prolific. By the time the University of Leeds made him professor emeritus of sociology in 1990, Bauman had published some 25 books. At least two of them, Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Post-Modernity, Intellectuals (1987) and Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), qualify as masterpieces. (Both were published by Cornell University Press.) Since retiring Bauman has published another 40 books, more or less. At this point, the author himself has probably lost count.

Bauman’s last few books have been assemblages of commentary on a variety of topics. On Education certainly belongs to that cycle. It consists of 20 exchanges with Riccardo Mazzeo, an editor at the Italian publishing house Edizioni Erickson, conducted by e-mail from June to September 2011. Mazzeo poses a question or makes an observation, sometimes on education and sometimes not. Bauman replies at length, and usually at a tangent. Its title notwithstanding, the book is neither focused on education nor, really, all that conversational. What it resembles more than anything else is the set of essays and notes gathered last year under the Magritte-ish title This is Not a Diary (Polity, 2011).

For the past dozen years, Bauman has been writing about what he calls the “liquid modernity” of contemporary industrialized and digitalized societies: the structure-in-flux emerging from a confluence of technological innovation, consumerism, and constantly changing demands on the adaptability of the labor force. His thinking about the unstoppable cultural torrent of liquid modernity resembles a combination of Daniel Bell’s sociological work on The Coming Post-Industrial Society (1973) and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) with Jean-Francois Lyotard’s reflections on The Postmodern Condition (1979), as updated via Thomas Friedman’s globalization punditry in The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999).

Not that Bauman is a mash-up theorist. I cite these authors only by way of triangulation, rather than as influences. His work is grounded, rather, in the founding concern of sociology in the 19th century: the effort to understand the world taking shape under the impact of industrialization. The pace of change was much quicker than was imaginable in pre-industrial times, and the span of transformations was much wider. The classic period of sociology (the days of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber) analyzed how modernity differed from and disrupted -- but sometimes also absorbed and refashioned -- the institutions and traditions established by earlier ways of life.

Along the way, it came to seem as if the shifts and upheavals of industrial society could be understood and even (this was the imagination of the technocrat and the ideologue kicking in) brought under control. And if you couldn’t engineer change, at least it was reasonable to assume you could plan for it. If the population of a city is likely to grow at a certain rate,  for example, it would be feasible to project whether more schools need to be built over the next decade -- and if so, where. The area’s chief industry might boom or bust, in which case your population projections would have led you astray. Even so, the ethos of “solid modernity” was confident enough to regard contingency as a risk, but one with a margin of error you could try to anticipate.

Liquid modernity is more volatile than its predecessor, characterized by changes that don’t so much interact as cascade. Planning for the city’s educational needs would be less confident, the risks more complex and cumulative. Suppose, in the best of all worlds, economic good times come to the city, bringing an influx of population with it. But the very currents that brought them in might well send them back out again, and so the new residents may not feel enough connection to the place to regard property taxes as anything but an infringement of their human rights. Projecting public expenditures, if not impossible, then becomes something of a shot in the dark.

The curriculum was once stable enough for school systems to use the same textbooks for years on end. But no longer.  Now it’s necessary to invest in educational hardware and software, in full knowledge of obsolescence as a problem. That could prove a more contentious issue than overcrowding. And so on.

Bauman doesn't use the school-board analogy I've made here, but it seems as good a way as any to show the implications of his thinking about education. The lesson of “the liquid modern world,” he writes, “is that nothing in that world is bound to last, let alone forever. Objects recommended today as useful and indispensable tend to ‘become history’ well before they have had time to settle down and turn into a need or habit…. Everything is born with the brand of imminent death and emerges from the production line with a ‘use-by date’ printed or presumed. The construction of new buildings does not start unless their duration is fixed or it is made easy to terminate them on demand…. A spectre hovers over the denizens of the liquid modern world and all their labours and creations: the spectre of superfluity.”

The liquification, if that’s how to put it, affects not just infrastructure but the very goals of education. Bauman writes that “the unbounded expansion of every and any form of higher education” in recent decades was driven by the value of certification in pursuing “plum jobs, prosperity, and glory,” with the “volume of rewards steadily arising to match the steadily expanding ranks of degree holders.”

A chance at upward mobility will not be a motivation again anytime soon. Mazzeo refers to the growing rank of what are called, in Britain, neets: young people “not in education, employment, or training.” At the same time, liquid modernity eats away at the long-established precondition of education itself: the expectation that, by acquiring certain fixed skills and established forms of knowledge, the student is receiving something of durable value. But durability is not a value in liquid modernity.

Almost everything Bauman says about education will be only too familiar to the sort of reader likely to pick it up in the first place. But his knack for placing things in context and accounting for that uneasy feeling you get from this or that current development makes it stimulating.

Bauman is prone to leaping from trend to totality in a single bound, and he doesn’t always quite make it. “Few if any commitments last long enough to reach the point of no return,” he writes, “and it is only by accident that decisions, all deemed to be binding only ‘for the time being,’ stay in force.” This is an example of Bauman the sage turning into Bauman the scold, of overgeneralization raised to the power of crankiness.

True, the fluids of digital hyper-ephemerality were saturating human relationships even before Mark Zuckerberg came on the scene. But the word “friend” does still have meaning, in some offline contexts anyway. To read that you are able to keep commitments or to follow through on decisions “only by accident” is considerably more insulting than there is any reason to suppose Bauman intends.

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Scholars must make their work more available and accessible (essay)

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