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Said KATHERINE FRY
Abstract: This article examines the role of the aesthetic in the criticism of Edward Said through a reading of two lesser-explored texts, Musical Elaborations (1991) and On Late Style (2006). It explores how, by drawing upon ideas from Gramsci and Adorno, Said advocates a convergence of social and aesthetic approaches to musical analysis and criticism. Although critical of some of the tensions arising from Said’s varying perspectives on music and society, the article suggests that we can nonetheless detect a distinctive ideology of the aesthetic in Said’s writings on music. It argues that Said’s ideas on the temporal or narrative structure of certain musical works or performances function, within his wider thinking, as an aesthetic paradigm for undermining ﬁxed identity and linear or totalizing narratives. Thus Said’s reﬂections on music do not simply retreat from social and political concerns, but rather elaborate a utopian thinking regarding the interface between criticism and the aesthetic. Keywords: Edward Said, musical aesthetics, Gramsci, Adorno, late style, musical performance, humanism
Said’s most extended reﬂections on music, in Musical Elaborations1 and On Late Style,2 present a particularly conﬂicting set of ideas on the role of the aesthetic in society. In approaching the subject of the interface between Western classical music and critical theory, Said enters into a discourse that has been largely shaped by the philosophy of Theodor Adorno, for whom music, particularly that of Beethoven and Schoenberg, is central to his critique of modernity. In Said’s writings on music, an ambivalent relationship with Adorno’s theory of music history emerges, creating a tension with another theoretical
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inﬂuence in Said’s music and literary criticism, that of Gramsci. Through his critique of Adorno’s view of modern music as a purely aesthetic entity, Said integrates music into a notion of the elaboration of civil society. However, in the second and third essays of Musical Elaborations, and in Said’s last and unﬁnished work On Late Style, the project to integrate music into a social structure seems less central. Thus within Said’s music criticism there is an implicit tension between the criticism of art as part of a speciﬁc context or social structure and the analysis of art as a more independent or aesthetic phenomenon. This tension produces varying deﬁnitions and applications of Said’s notions of ‘transgression’, ‘elaboration’ and ‘counterpoint’, suggesting ambivalence and inconsistency with regard to the role of the aesthetic. For instance, Said’s view of the transgressive capacity and deﬁant autonomy of the late works of Richard Strauss seems conservative in comparison to his earlier project to instigate a level of social and political accountability to artworks. However, in the analysis of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, in the reﬂections on temporality in Messiaen and in certain discussions of the pianist Glenn Gould, Said formulates a notion of the aesthetic as a model for a critical thinking that can itself transgress theoretical categorization or closure. It is this relationship between musical and critical notions of elaboration, counterpoint and transgression that is of signiﬁcance both in the interpretation of Said’s views on music and, in a broader sense, in assessing the place of music and the aesthetic within Said’s wider critical outlook. After exploring some of the social and theoretical implications of the relationship between Said’s musical and critical thinking, I suggest that the signiﬁcance of Said’s writings on music lies in their elucidation of an aesthetic paradigm capable of, in a utopian sense, challenging conventions concerning narrative, identity and structures of meaning.
Said’s Musical Elaborations discusses the relationship between music, critical theory and society. As such, it necessarily confronts the work of Theodor Adorno, whose analyses of music are central to his theory of the role of the aesthetic in society. At the heart of Adorno’s philosophy of music history is an interpretation of the middle and late-style works of Beethoven. Adorno views Beethoven’s middle period treatment of sonata form as immanently Hegelian: the subjective material (the compositional development of an initial musical idea) forms a dialectical
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totality with the objective structure (the inherited conventions constituting ideas of sonata form). For Adorno, these middle period works present a narrative of temporal progression that is synonymous with ideals of the bourgeoisie at the time of the French Revolution. Yet for Adorno, such ideals could never achieve realization in a society that was becoming increasingly reiﬁed and fragmented. In the philosophy of Adorno, the late works of Beethoven recognize this tragic fact through the formal severing of musical subjectivity from objective structures and conventions. Adorno writes of the late quartets of Beethoven:
Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light in which — alone — it glows into life. [Beethoven] does not bring about their harmonious synthesis. As a power of dissociation, he tears them apart in time, in order perhaps to preserve them for the eternal. In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.3
Adorno looks back on this point in the history of music and philosophy from the vantage of what he sees as the apocalyptic climax of an already manifest path of increasing rationalization: Nazi totalitarianism. It is within this context that Adorno understands the dissonance, difﬁculty and rareﬁcation of the twelve-tone music of Schoenberg as the inevitable fate of authentic music to disengage from any social mediation. Instead the authentic artwork, faced with the apparatus of totalitarianism, turns in on itself, becoming a selfreferential aesthetic entity, ‘the concealed social essence quoted as the phenomenon’.4 In the ﬁrst essay of Musical Elaborations, ‘Performance as an Extreme Occasion’, Said puts forth a critique of the determinism and limits inherent in Adorno’s view that music since Beethoven must veer into the aesthetic realm in order to retain any vestige of authentic subjectivity. Said suggests that the occasion of musical performance provides an instance of social mediation where the aesthetic and cultural converge to form a contribution to society:
The fact is that music remains situated within the social context as a special variety of aesthetic and cultural experience that contributes to what, following Gramsci, we might call the elaboration or production of civil society. In Gramsci’s usage elaboration equals maintenance, that is, the work done by members of a society that keeps things going; certainly musical performance ﬁts this description (. . . ). The problematics of great musical performance, social as well as technical, therefore provide us with a post-Adornonian occasion for analysis and for reﬂecting on the role of classical music in contemporary Western society. (ME, 15)
Thus Said’s initial aim in Musical Elaborations is to integrate music into a social and worldly context. This use of Gramsci’s notion of the elaboration of civil society is reminiscent of a similar project undertaken in a literary context in The World, the Text, and the Critic:
By elaboration Gramsci means two seemingly contradictory but actually complementary things. First, to elaborate means to reﬁne, to work out (e-laborare) some prior or more powerful idea, to perpetuate a world-view. Second, to elaborate means something more qualitatively positive, the proposition that culture itself or thought or art is a highly complex and quasi-autonomous extension of political reality and ( . . . ) has a density, complexity, and historical-semantic value that is so strong as to make politics possible.5
It is the pianist Glenn Gould to whom Said turns in Musical Elaborations and The World, the Text, and the Critic as an exemplar of the possible worldly engagements between an aesthetic object and society. Gould retired from the concert platform in the 1960’s and devoted the rest of his life to making records, television broadcasts and radio programmes, consisting of piano performances interspersed with interviews and discussions. For Said, Gould’s performances allow mediation between the musical work and a discursive dimension, a convergence of music with speech, enabling performance to ‘engage or to afﬁliate with the world itself, without compromising the essentially reinterpretive, reproductive quality of the process’ (ME, 29). In The World, the Text, and the Critic, Said is critical of Paul Ricoeur’s perception of the text as a non-referential aesthetic object in a state of suspension from the circumstantial reality of speech. By way of challenging this demarcation, Said draws attention to a recording of Gould playing and discussing the Liszt transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony so as ‘to provide an instance of a quasi-textual object whose ways of engaging with the world are both numerous and complicated, more complicated than Ricoeur’s demarcation between text and speech. These are the engagements I have been calling worldliness’.6 The use of Gould’s recording here could equally function to illustrate Said’s attitude towards Adorno’s narrative of the isolation of the aesthetic from society. In contrast to Adorno’s linear philosophy of music history, Said’s use of the Gould recording emphasizes an aesthetic of mediation within space, allowing for complex and multiple engagements between an artwork and the world. In The World, the Text, and the Critic, Said writes of the need to ﬁnd a critical discourse that can overcome what he sees as a gap in left literary and cultural studies, wherein there is ‘no allowance for
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the truth that all intellectual and cultural work occurs somewhere, at some time, on some very precisely mapped out and permissible terrain, which is contained by the state.’7 This sentiment is reiterated in Musical Elaborations, in the statement that ‘the fact is that music remains situated within the social context.’ (ME, 15) Yet Said also insists on the multilayered, complex and ‘quasi-autonomous’ nature of art, suggesting that the extent to which art is accountable to a speciﬁc social space remains ambiguous.
In the next chapter of Musical Elaborations, this ambiguity becomes more explicit. Said is once again critical of Adorno’s narrative of the descent of humanist optimism in Beethoven into the dissonance and alienation in Schoenberg, for its ‘overlapping theory of history and of music that relies on the occult, transgressive aspects of music to interpret history and, conversely, the deterministic and “objective” character of history to interpret music’ (ME, 49). For Said, the occult, transgressive aspects of music allow it to engage in any number of social mediations, thus resisting determinist and totalizing narratives:
In short, the transgressive element in music is its nomadic ability to attach itself to, and become part of, social formations, to vary its articulations and rhetoric depending on the occasion as well as the audience, plus the power and the gender situations in which it takes place. (ME, 70)
However, in the conclusion to the second essay of Musical Elaborations, Said seems to move away from the integration of music into a social or referential context. According to Said, music can not only transgress boundaries and limits as part of an overall structure of social mediation, but certain music can achieve a radical transgression, to the point where it discharges empirical social space altogether. Said argues that we should be able to locate:
A relatively rare number of works making (or trying to make) their claims entirely as music, free of many of the harassing, intrusive, and socially tyrannical pressures that have limited musicians to their customary social role as upholders of things as they are. I want to suggest that this handful of works expresses a very eccentric kind of transgression, that is, music being reclaimed by uncommon, and perhaps even excessive, displays of technique whose net effect is not only to render the music socially superﬂuous and useless — to discharge it completely — but to recuperate the craft entirely for the musician as an act freedom. (ME, 71)
Quite a dramatic shift takes place here, from an emphasis on a social and cultural context for music, to the abstract independence of certain works. Said goes on to describe Bach’s Canonic Variations as ‘an exercise in pure combinatorial virtuosity’, an instance of pure technical mastery: ‘One will have to wait until Webern’s Variations to get something so formidably, concentratedly articulated as this music, but so far in excess is it of any occasion or need that it dangles pretty much as pure musicality in a social space off the edge’ (ME, 72). Until this point in Musical Elaborations, Said has been critical of Adorno’s view of music as a purely aesthetic phenomenon. Yet Said here develops his own understanding of a heightened musicality as a purely aesthetic realm, resisting and transgressing any conﬁnement to a particular socio-cultural location or identity. Indeed, Said understands this purely musical space to be deﬁned precisely by its indifference to language and discourse and its withdrawal from mainstream notions of historical progress. Furthermore, the transgressive element in music prevents it from being bound to ideological or theoretical structures such as Adorno’s philosophy of music history. Yet it is Adorno’s writings on late-style Beethoven that prove most inﬂuential in Said’s development of an aesthetic of musical transgression, particularly the notion that late-style Beethoven rejects totality through a dissociation of the subjective core of the music from the objective landscape. This emphasis on irreconcilable extremes becomes a central component in Said’s own conception of late style, as ‘intransigence, difﬁculty, and unresolved contradiction’ (LS, 7). We have seen how, in the opening chapters of Musical Elaborations and in The World, the Text, and the Critic, Said uses Gramsci’s term ‘elaboration’ to advocate the importance of the circumstantial reality and worldliness of a text or aesthetic object. The aesthetic thus construed is constituent of the structure of historical materialism, whereby artistic and intellectual endeavours exist as part of the dialectic of the forces and mode of production. Yet, through the inﬂuence of Adorno’s interpretation of late style in Beethoven, Said heightens the notion of the transgressive elements in music to a point where the aesthetic no longer engages in the dialectical structure at large. The inﬂuence of both Gramsci and Adorno on Said results in a conﬂict between two different philosophies of history: one in which the dialectic of historical materialism is central, the other in which this dialectic has become a dominating and ideological apparatus from which the authentic artwork must necessarily escape. Thus the role of the aesthetic becomes contradictory in Said’s criticism, as it exists
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in a state of simultaneous immunity to and mediation with the mode of production. But Said’s neglect of the philosophy of history upon which these theories are based has a further consequence, particularly with regard to the increasing inﬂuence of Adorno. Said is critical of the totalizing narrative of history in Adorno’s theory, yet, without the philosophy of negative dialectics upon which Adorno’s aesthetic theory is based, Said’s adoption of ideas concerning the autonomy and resistance of certain musical works results in a generalized and conservative view of the category of the aesthetic. This is most clearly evident in Said’s analysis of late-style Strauss. Said views the ‘distilled and rareﬁed technical mastery’ of Strauss’s late works, such as the huge wind pieces or Metamorphosis, scored for twenty-three individual string parts, as synonymous with the ‘eccentric kind of transgression’, which discharges the social and makes claims entirely ‘as music’ (LS, 7). For Said, the ‘strangely recapitulatory and even backward-looking and abstracted quality’ of Strauss’s late works presents an escapism and disengagement that epitomizes the ‘out of timeness’ of late style (LS, 25). Said also draws attention to the polish and surface perfection of the eighteenth-century musical pastiche in the opera Capriccio. The reﬁnement and outward sheen of these works stand at the opposite extreme to the ﬁssures, tensions and rifts inherent in Adorno’s picture of late style in Beethoven. Yet in their indifference both to the trauma and political upheavals of post-war Germany, and to the contemporary status of modern music, the tensions and conﬂicts of late-style Strauss emerge:
From beginning to end it makes none of the emotional claims it should, and unlike late-style Beethoven with its ﬁssures and fragments, it is smoothly polished, technically perfect, worldly, and at ease as music in an entirely musical world. Perhaps the last thing one would normally say about Strauss’s ﬁnal works is that they are deﬁant, but I think this is exactly the word for them. (LS, 47)
Said’s analysis of the music of Strauss reveals an appreciation of abstract music as a purely aesthetic space in which deﬁance and resistance are synonymous with a lack of compliance with historical, generic and theoretical classiﬁcations. This view is made explicit in a passage from Said’s writing on humanism:
In the main, I would agree with Adorno that there is a fundamental irreconcilability between the aesthetic and the nonaesthetic that we must sustain as a necessary condition of our work as humanists. Art is not simply there: it exists in a state of unreconciled opposition to the depredations of daily life, the
272 Paragraph uncontrollable mystery on the bestial ﬂoor. One can call this heightened state for art the result of performance, of protracted elaboration (as in the structures of a great novel or poem), of ingenious execution and insight: I myself cannot do without the category of the aesthetic as, in the ﬁnal analysis, providing resistance not only to my own efforts to understand and clarify and elucidate as a reader, but also as escaping the levelling pressures of everyday experience from which, however, art paradoxically derives.8
Said’s reference to Adorno here is problematic. Said does not maintain the dialectic at the heart of Adorno’s formulation of the opposition between the ‘authentic’ artwork and society, and instead portrays a more generalized heightening of the aesthetic to a realm outside historical context. In the case of Strauss, given the connections between the composer and the Nazi party, there are serious implications involved in Said’s appreciation of the ability of the music to discharge the social and political circumstances of its composition. In Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Said is critical of the treatment of a ‘sacrilized past’ in new humanists such as Allan Bloom, and as such draws attention to Benjamin’s claim that ‘every document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism’, as a ‘notion that seems ( . . . ) essentially a tragic humanistic truth of great signiﬁcance’.9 Yet Said presents a sacrilized musical content in his dismissal of the conditions surrounding the composition of Strauss’s late works. Said’s reference to art as the ‘uncontrollable mystery on the bestial ﬂoor’ suggests that the aesthetic poses something primordial, natural, at odds with the social structure.10 What we ﬁnd in Said’s interpretation of late style Strauss, and in his comments on the aesthetic in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, is a slippage between Adorno’s speciﬁc theory of artistic truth-content, inherent in the dissociation of extremes in the late quartets of Beethoven, and Said’s idea of musical autonomy or ‘transgression’ as an automatically emancipatory act of resistance. For Adorno, the idea of art as something archaic with claims to Being in its own right is regressive and ahistorical; it does not account for the important element of subjectivity in art, the traces in music of, say, motivic work and development. If the aesthetic becomes something uncontrollable, mysterious and complex, as Said seems to perceive it here, it loses any engagement with social and human activity. What we are left with instead, in the writings on late-style Strauss and the category of the aesthetic, is the vague notion of the power of great music to transcend socio-political and ideological categorization.
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However, in his essay on Mozart’s Così fan tutte in On Late Style, Said moves away from references to both Adorno and Gramsci and puts forward the notion that history and identity are themselves inherently representational, superﬁcial and changeable. Said thus poses the heroic constancy of identity in Beethoven’s Fidelio against an inconstancy and multiplicity of identity in Mozart’s Così fan tutte:
[In Fidelio] all the characters are rigorously circumscribed in their unvarying essence: Pizaro as unyielding champion of good, Fernando as emissary of light, and so forth. This is at the opposite pole from Così, where disguises and the wavering and wandering they foster, are the norm, and where constancy and stability are mocked as impossible. (LS, 56)
Said argues that, beneath the exterior of comedy, frivolity and superﬁciality in Così, there is a transgression of the acceptable, ordinary experiences of love, life and ideas. Said describes the character of Don Alfonso as a ‘late ﬁgure’, testing and manipulating the relationships between the four lovers in the opera in order to highlight the fragility of social conventions, structures and identities:
To have discovered that the stabilities of marriage and the social norms habitually governing human life are inapplicable because life itself is as elusive and inconstant as his experience teaches makes of Don Alfonso a character in a new, more turbulent, and troubling realm, one in which experience repeats the same disillusioning patterns without relief. What he devises for the two pairs of lovers is a game in which human identity is shown to be as protean, unstable, and undifferentiated as anything in the actual world. Not surprisingly, then, one of the main motifs in Così fan tutte is the elimination of memory so that only the present is left standing. (LS, 60)
For Said, this emphasis on the present and transgression of social norms in Così disturbs the very foundations of authority and identity. The conclusion of Così uproots the ‘rhetoric of love and the representation of desire’ from a ‘fundamentally unchanging order of Being’, opening up ‘a troubling vista of numerous further substitutions, with no tie, no identity, no idea of stability or constancy left undisturbed’ (LS, 68). Said recognizes that whilst this ‘troubling vista’ and ‘bottomless sea’ remain no more than a set of gestures within the limits of the work, Mozart and De Ponte seem to have uncovered nonetheless ‘a potentially terrifying view ( . . . ) of a universe shorn of any redemptive or palliative scheme, whose only law is motion and instability expressed
as the power of libertinage and manipulation, and whose only conclusion is the terminal repose provided by death’ (LS, 71). In an interview with Said, Jacqueline Rose raised the issue of inconsistency in his criticism between the project to hold art accountable to historical and ideological conditions and the aesthetic of musical transgression in which works such as Bach’s Canonic Variations exist in a ‘social space off the edge’ (ME, 72). Said responds by saying there has been a change in his outlook, to which the vision of multiple, unstable and changing identities in Così is central:
It is basically almost Schopenhauerian, that there’s a kind of indistinguishable, seething, endlessly transforming mass into which we are going. It really is very much a part of what I am writing about. One of the reasons for this (. . . ) is that I’ve become very, very impatient with the idea and the whole project of identity (. . . ). What’s much more interesting is to try to reach out beyond identity to something else, whatever that is. It may be death. It may be an altered sense of consciousness that puts you in touch with others more than one normally is. It may be just a state of forgetfulness which, at some point, I think we all need — to forget.11
Thus Said’s interpretation of the elimination of memory and emphasis on the present at the end of Così fan tutte is symptomatic of his own critical thinking on an aesthetic of forgetfulness, a realm beyond identity. This more speciﬁc idea of transgression, as a space beyond ﬁxed identity, emerges as an aesthetic of musical form in Said’s reﬂections on the temporality of certain musical works. In the last chapter of Musical Elaborations, Said writes of an ‘antinarrative aesthetic’ in the music of Messiaen, a style of ‘diverting and prying us away from the principal discursive strands that mainstream classical music embodies and carries forward’ (ME, 101). In contrast to the linear mastery of time in, say, the classical sonata form, the music of Messiaen embodies ‘another way of telling’ that is more digressive and contemplative. This music symbolizes an aesthetic of ‘being in time, experiencing it together, rather than in competition, with other musics, experiences, temporalities’ (ME, 100). In the elaborative style of Messiaen is an essentially contrapuntal and dialogical mode, in which the ‘nonlinear, non-developmental uses of theme or melody dissipate and delay a disciplined organization of musical time that is principally combative as well as dominative’ (ME, 102). This musical ideal is of particular signiﬁcance for Said’s notion of ‘contrapuntal reading’ in Culture and Imperialism. For Said, the spatial and divergent temporal structure of this ideal informs the way in which we
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read the ‘cultural archive’, not ‘univocally, but contrapuntally, with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts’.12 We have seen how Said referred to the performances of Glenn Gould to illustrate the complex and worldly engagements that could take place between an aesthetic object and society. However, there is another aspect to Said’s interpretation of Gould, which emphasizes the performer’s exile from the concert platform, thereby constituting a form of transgression. Said writes that this exile created an abstract musical space wherein the pianist seemed to be enacting a ‘stepping beyond the platform into a strange world beyond it’ (ME, 24). Whereas, in The World the Text and the Critic, Said used Gould to criticize Paul Ricoeur’s notion of a textual space suspended from circumstantial reality, in On Late Style, he uses Gould to conﬁrm precisely this suspended space of ‘unreality’. Said describes the way in which Gould could ‘apparently disappear as a performer into the work’s long complications, thereby providing an instance of the ecstasy he characterized as the state of standing outside time and within an integral artistic structure’ (ME, 31). Kierkegaard has reﬂected upon how ‘music has, namely, an element of time in itself, but it does not take place in time except in an unessential sense’, and that ‘the historical process in time it cannot express’.13 In Said’s descriptions of Gould and Messiaen, a similar distinction between musical time and historical process exists as a means of conﬁrming the purely abstract quality of a particular musical space. But such an abstract space of subjective musical time also has a utopian quality for Said, illustrated more explicitly when Said writes of Gould’s transmutation ‘into the utopia of an inﬁnitely changeable and extendable world where time or history did not occur, and because of which all expression was transparent, logical, and not hampered by ﬂesh-and-blood performers or people at all’ (ME, 30). In an essay on Gould in On Late Style, Said suggests some implications of such a utopia of extended musical space for critical thinking. This connection between the musical performance and the act of criticism is made through a comparison of the musical and rhetorical etymology of the term invention. Said explains how in its rhetorical meaning, as it is found in Vico’s view of human history, invention is the cyclical, elaborative and repetitive unfolding of a process. In musical logic, invention is the unfolding and development of a theme contrapuntally, ‘so that all of its possibilities are articulated,
expressed and elaborated’ (LS, 128). For Said, Gould’s performances present a convergence of both Vicean and musical invention in the form of an endless and inconclusive interpretative process. In the continual reinterpretation and development of musical works, Gould symbolizes for Said the ‘virtuoso as intellectual’, who constantly challenges the existing order through elaboration and invention. Said envisages this musical invention as a model for the humanist critic:
What [Gould’s performances] try to present (. . . ) is a critical model for a type of art that is rational and pleasurable at the same time, an art that tries to show us its composition as an activity still being undertaken in its performance (. . . ). [I]t elaborates an alternative argument to the prevailing conventions that so deaden and dehumanize and rerationalize the human spirit. This is not only an intellectual achievement but also a humanistic one. (LS, 132–3)
For Said, the sense of incompletion and possibility in Gould’s musical invention always resists semblance and staticity and as such provides a model for critical discourse. In Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Said describes this present-centred process of continually incomplete invention as a major constituent of his notion of humanism:
So there is always something radically incomplete, insufﬁcient, provisional, disputable, and arguable about humanistic knowledge that Vico never loses sight of and that ( . . . ) gives the whole idea of humanism a tragic ﬂaw that is constitutive to it and can never be removed.14
This ‘tragic ﬂaw’ in humanistic practice is a subjective element that gives the process of acquiring knowledge its continually impermanent, inconstant and incomplete character. As an aesthetic ideal, therefore, elaboration has quite different connotations from its Gramscian formation in relation to civil society. In an aesthetic sense, it becomes the act of laying bare this subjective element by drawing attention to the present-centred nature of elaborative processes. In this respect, Said’s aesthetic of musical elaboration functions as a critical model for challenging the objectivity and permanence of historical knowledge, interpretation and identity. We can locate this present-centred process within Said’s literary criticism as well:
Traditionally the temporal convention in literary study has been retrospective. We look at writing as already completed. But how much more challenging is a theoretic for study that takes writing as being produced for something formed in the writing; this was Mallarmé’s discovery.15
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The idea of musical invention in Gould as an ‘activity still being undertaken in its performance’ becomes a form of textuality in a literary context, wherein the act of writing itself is a digressive, elaborative and performative process. The parallels between an aesthetic of musical elaboration and this textuality bring to light the signiﬁcance of music in Said’s emphasis on the critical potential of formal processes over representation and ideology in artworks.16
Coupled with his reﬂections on Così fan tutte, Said’s notion of the utopian potential of multiplicity and musical time approaches a more speciﬁc and complex ideology of the aesthetic, quite distinct from the more straightforward view of the autonomy of the aesthetic in relation to late-style Strauss. In this ideology of the aesthetic, it is the formal and temporal capacity of music to elaborate an essentially irresolvable, changeable and unnameable body of tensions that constitutes its utopian potential. At the end of Musical Elaborations, following the discussions of temporality in Messiaen and Metamorphosis, Said conﬁrms the utopian potential of the aesthetics of musical elaboration, counterpoint and transgression:
In the perspective afforded by such a work as Metamorphosis, music thus becomes an art not primarily or exclusively about authorial power and social authority, but a mode of thinking through or thinking with the integral variety of human cultural practices, generously, non-coercively, and, yes, in a utopian cast, if by utopian we mean worldly, possible, attainable, knowable. (ME, 105)
Jacques Rancière has noted that the ‘deﬁnitional capabilities’ of the word utopia have been ‘completely devoured by its connotative properties’.17 Thus, when Said refers to the utopian cast in music as something ‘worldly, possible, attainable, knowable’, is it possible to elucidate a speciﬁc political implication in his aesthetic of musical elaboration and transgression? Or is Said rather conﬁrming, through a more connotative use of the word utopia, an inﬁnite expansion of possibilities as a means of resisting any form of totalizing closure or resolution? In the essay ‘Travelling Theory’, parallels can be found between Said’s discussion of critical thinking and his utopian thinking on the transgressive in music: ‘What we (. . . ) need over and above theory, however, is the critical recognition that there is no theory capable of covering, closing off, predicting all the situations in which it might be useful.’18 For Said, the location of criticism is outside of
theory, leaving it, like the transgressive in music, resistant to totalization and continually open to possibility and multiplicity. Aijaz Ahmad has criticized Said’s Orientalism for its multiple theoretical ambivalences and contradictions. For Ahmad, Said’s utopian view that criticism can remain open to all kinds of divergent ideas and theories closes off the potential in developing a particular form of thinking such as Marxism:
Having access to a ‘great deal of things’ always gives one the sense of opulence, mastery, reach, choice, freedom, erudition, play. But resolution of the kind of ambivalences and self-cancelling procedures which beset Said’s thought requires that some positions be vacated, some choices be made, some of these ‘great deal of things’ be renounced.19
Understood as a connotatively utopian realm of inﬁnite possibilities and transgressions, Said’s musical thinking on counterpoint, multiplicity and transgression becomes problematic as it seems to impute an aesthetic view to a theoretical space. In musical counterpoint, dissonance and conﬂict can function meaningfully and without leading to incomprehension. However, theoretical conﬂicts concerning divergent philosophies of history, such as those of Gramsci and Adorno, must surely resolve in order to avoid a state of contradiction and staticity. Perhaps the very musicality of Said’s thinking on theory, aesthetics and society is suggestive of a sort of aesthetic world-view that is somewhat detached from the material history of socio-political and moral responsibility. This is a criticism that Habermas has levelled against Nietzsche’s continual recourse to the aesthetic, particularly music, to question the objectivity of morality, identity and knowledge. According to Habermas, Nietzsche’s aesthetic view presents a ‘chasm of forgetfulness against the world of philosophical knowledge and moral action, against the everyday’.20 When Said writes, with regard to the musical example of Così fan tutte, that what we need over and above the project of identity is a ‘state of forgetfulness’, perhaps Said can be accused of a similar dissociation from the material actualities of political, social and moral conﬂict that Habermas reads in Nietzsche.21 Yet to accuse Said simply of an over-estimation of the aesthetic at the expense of material history deﬂects attention away from the project Said seems to envisage when he draws upon music as a means of complicating the mediation between history, society and the aesthetic. Elucidating from Said’s criticism a deﬁned rather than connotative form of the utopian potential of music and criticism will not arise from
Elaboration, Counterpoint, Transgression
the binary separation of an aesthetic realm of multiplicity and a social realm of ﬁxed rational truths. In those discussions of music in which Said suggests that a particular temporality or multiplicity in musical content provides a model for challenging authoritative linear narratives and ﬁxed identity, the aesthetic does not lose its connection with politics and society. Thus Così fan tutte suggests a destabilizing of natural and singular identity; the continual incompletion in Gould’s musical invention provides a model of continual possibility in approaching history and knowledge, whilst non-linear temporality in Messiaen suggests an anti-narrative aesthetic of digression, contemplation and reﬂection. The elaboration, counterpoint and transgression inherent in these musical ideals suggest a disruption and traversal of dominative identities, boundaries and histories. It is through these speciﬁc relations between musical form and critical consciousness that Said comes closest to a ‘worldly, possible, attainable, knowable’ cast for utopian thought.
1 Edward Said, Musical Elaborations (London, Vintage, 1991). Hereafter referred to as ME. 2 Edward Said, On Late Style (London, Bloomsbury, 2006), hereafter referred to as LS. 3 Theodor Adorno, ‘Late Style in Beethoven’, Essays on Music, translated by Susan H. Gillespie, edited by Richard Leppart (Berkeley and London, University of California Press, 2002), 567. 4 Theodor Adorno, The Philosophy of Modern Music, translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Bloomster (London, Sheed and Ward, 1987), 131. 5 Edward Said, ‘American “Left” Literary Criticism’ in The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1983), 170–1. 6 The World, the Text, and the Critic, 35. 7 ‘American “Left” Literary Criticism’, in The World, the Text, and the Critic, 169. 8 Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York and Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 63. 9 Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 23. 10 Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 63. 11 ‘Edward Said talks to Jacqueline Rose’, in Edward Said and the Work of the Critic: Speaking Truth to Power, edited by Paul A. Bové (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2000), 25. 12 Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London, Vintage, 1993), 59.
280 Paragraph 13 Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Volume 1, translated by David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1971), 55. 14 Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 12. 15 ‘On Originality’, in The World, the Text, and the Critic, 138–9. 16 For an interpretation of ‘contrapuntal reading’ as a form of aesthetic mediation see Deepika Bahri, Native Intelligence: Aesthetics, Politics and Postcolonial Literature (Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press, 2003). 17 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, translated by Gabriel Rockhill (London and NewYork, Continuum, 2006), 40. 18 ‘Travelling Theory’, in The World, the Text, and the Critic, 241. 19 Aijaz Ahmad, ‘Orientalism and After: Ambivalence and Metropolitan Location in the Work of Edward W. Said’ in In Theory: Classes, Nations, Contexts (London and New York, Verso, 1994), 219. 20 Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge, Polity, 1990), 94. 21 See note 11 above.
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