Death as an Example

Musical Instrument, Kazimir Malevich

Growing up, I always took music to be the most puissant of art forms. When I came across Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy in my late teens, it served as an intellectual confirmation to the intuition I’d had for years: that music indeed was the noblest art because of its abstract character, its unwillingness to convey any specific, clear and distinct idea to the listener’s mind, its non-representative nature. Music speaks to the soul, they say, and in that respect, I’ve gotten used to thinking of lyrics as inferior to the melody, harmony and rhythm in a song. Yet, if I were to be honest with myself, I’ve recently come to realize that many of my most emotional, sublime experiences with music didn’t seem to be triggered by tunes as a whole, nor by instrumental parts, but by specific lyrical moments, at the uttering of clear sentences and sets of words.

Puzzled by that thought and realization, Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful came to mind and to the rescue. The opening statement of part V declares that “words have the power to trigger more powerful sublime experiences than any other type of art,” and that seemed to go against everything I’d, thus far, believed to be true. Burke supports his claim by stating that language, by virtue of its poetic nature, is in fact abstract, and no more a signifier than music is. That words, in short, do not represent ideas, do not designate objects, and do not paint pictures. And while it is possible to acknowledge that some words do indeed possess a more abstract character than others, it is difficult for us to conceive all words outside of what seems like their inherently signifying nature. Burke concedes that there are three sorts of words:

1. Aggregate words: representing “many simples ideas united by nature to form one determinate composition.”

2. Simple abstract words: representing “one simple idea of such compositions and no more.”

3. Compounded abstract words: formed by an “arbitrary union of both the others, and of the various relations between them, in greater or lesser degrees of complexity.”

In simpler terms, “aggregate words refer to what we perceive as concrete objects (‘man’, ‘horse’, ‘tree’, ‘castle’, etc.); “simple abstracts words” refer to attributes of concrete objects (‘red’, ‘blue’, ‘square’, ‘round’, etc.); and “compounded abstract words” refer to concepts made up of more or less complex mixtures of objects, qualities, and various combinations (‘virtue’, ‘honor’, ‘persuasion’, ‘magistrate’, etc.). For example, the word ‘magistrate’ is a compounded abstract because it is only understandable as a mixture of a number of other words such as ‘man’, ‘law’, ‘function’, ‘society’, ‘responsibility’, and so forth. Supposedly, this third type is higher in abstraction because it is higher in complexity: it does not refer to one specific object or quality but to a combination of many objects and qualities. With these categories, Burke posits what seems like a gradation of words by degree of complexity, parallel to their degree of abstraction, which in turn is parallel to their degree of sublime potency.

But there’s a subtle tour de force at work here if we take a closer look, one that is worth a quick linguistic detour. About a century before Burke presented his categorization of words, Arnault and Lancelot had proposed their own, in 1660’s Port-Royal Grammar. According to them, we think of objects as either substantives (things) or adjectives (modifications or manners of things). Metaphysically, words like ‘man’, ‘horse’, ‘tree’, or ‘castle’ are called substantives because they are believed to represent a substance – the eternal idea, fixed essence of man, horse, tree, or castle. Technically, for a representation to be possible, there needs to be a prior presentation: a pre-esse-ntation of something anterior and exterior to existence, that language only re-presents. But what happens to language if there is nothing exterior to represent? Burke knew it all too well, and his refraining from referring to even the simplest of words as substantives is anything but fortuitous. Instead, he chooses the term “aggregate words”.

Aggregates as “determinate compositions” are synonymous to compounds. And if “aggregate words” – supposedly the most representational sort – are also compounds of what Burke enigmatically calls “simple ideas”, then they too are, just like “compounded abstracts”, incapable of representing any idea in its essence. Because if the signified objects ‘man’, ‘horse’, ‘tree’, and ‘castle’ themselves are not substances, but more or less complex relations that can always be decomposed into smaller and smaller parts, compounds of compounds of compounds (and so forth), from macro to micro ad infinitum, then words like ‘man’, ‘horse’, ‘tree’, or ‘castle’ are in fact no less abstract than ‘virtue’ or ‘honor’. In other words, there is no essence to ‘man’, ‘horse’, ‘tree’, or ‘castle’ as mere reference, because each one of these existing objects is but a composite of composites of smaller and smaller objects, divisible (or multiplied) to infinity. With this philosophical plot twist, Burke affirms that his prior categorization of words was only formal. In reality, on the tabula rasa of immanence, the whole of language is inherently poetic, abstract, non-referential, and certainly non-representational, and every single word uttered, irrespective of its sort, essentially possesses a formidable power to summon the sublime.

But why are “compound words”, by mere virtue of not referring to any real signified, so efficient at shaking our existence? What makes their abstraction so potent? It’s because “compounds” remind us that the whole world is but an infinite order of temporary compositions and decompositions of infinitely small objects that never reach a starting point, a fixed substance, or an eternal essence. Words as compounds remind us that the self as we know it, that the whole world as we know it, are but illusions. Language reminds us that we live in a world where nothing ever truly exists, a world where everything is always evaporating. To prove his point, Burke discerned a close kinship between the sublime experience and the feeling of terror, unsurprisingly using the effect of the word ‘death as an example:

The idea or this affection caused by a word (‘death’), which nothing but a word could annex to the others, raises a very great degree of the sublime; and this sublime is raised yet higher by what follows, a “universe of Death.” Here are again two ideas not presentable but by language; and an union of them great and amazing beyond conception; if they may properly be called ideas which present no distinct image to the mind;…

There’s a display of another subtle tour de force here, in the last line, with the use of the verb ‘present’, reinforcing once again the idea that there is no substantial reality to any existing object in the world that language can re-present. And if an expression such as “universe of Death” is capable of provoking sheer terror, it is because of its impossibility to bring any image to mind, any visualizable clear and distinct idea. The infinity of the universe is not graspable, nor is the plunging into nonexistence that’s inherent to death. In a beautiful letter to Lou Andreas-Salome, Freud concedes that there is no other way for us to conceive death other than a kind of self-betrayal. A fission of our being. A ghost leaving the machine. The separation of the body and the soul. The disintegration of our organism into smaller and smaller particles until they evaporate into nothingness. As such, abstraction is the haunting reminder of the fleeting nature of things, and of our existence. That is why it’s terrifyingly sublime.

And if the sublime potency of language is never invoked by an idea, it must be conjured by the power of something else. This something else, says Burke, is the word as a bare sound. That’s (presumably) because every word is a sound before it becomes the conveyor of meaning. And the more confused the meaning of a word, the more abstract that word, the more sonic, the more musical, the more sublime it is. As such, every existing word has a history, inscribed differently in each and every individual. And the effect that a word produces on a person is in reality only the effect of the sound, of the musicality of that word, transporting the individual all the way back to childhood, to his first original encounter with that bare sound, and the lived experience associated with it, regardless of what that word means. Simply put, my being shaken by what I took to be great lyrical moments had in fact been completely unrelated to the significance of those words, and the reasons for the experience cannot be found anywhere under the realm of consciousness, interpretation, or meaning. Because all words are “compounds”, Burke reminds us that “aggregate words operate as I said of compound abstracts, not by presenting any image to the mind, but by having from use the same effect on being mentioned, that their original has when it is seen.” That is to say, aggregate words are seemingly concrete and refer to clear and distinct ideas touch us the same way abstract words do: independently from their power to represent and to mean anything, but as bare, raw sounds that resonate directly in the lost, hidden catacombs of our subconscious.

To reinforce this linguistic Freudism avant la lettre, and to further his attempt at separating the poetic effect of language from any representational, signifying power, Burke is ingenious enough to conjure the vividly descriptive poet Thomas Blacklock: “Here is a poet doubtless as much affected by his own descriptions as any that reads them can be; and yet he is affected with this strong enthusiasm by things of which he neither has, nor can possibly have any idea further than that of a bare sound; and why may not those who read his works be affected in the same manner that he was, with as little of many real ideas of the things described?” Because Blacklock was blind (and unlike Milton, who’d lost his sight at age forty-four) the Scottish poet had fully lost his within the first six months of life, an important detail that makes Burke’s argument frighteningly clear-sighted: “In short, it is not only of those ideas which are commonly called abstract, and of which no image at all can be formed, but even of particular real beings, that we conceive without having any idea of them excited in the imagination…” Language, therefore, is inherently abstract and musical, and the emotions triggered by words in a poetry or a song are unrelated to their meaning. The secret of their intensity lies in something far more primal.

In the spring of 2006, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with the late Yves Bonnefoy, esteemed poet and France’s prominent translator of Shakespeare. The man was eighty-three years old at the time, sixty my senior, and as we strolled around the beautiful and august gardens of the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris after a conference of his, Bonnefoy shared with me the biggest secret of poetry: the independence of words from their signifying function. A thought I’d previously encountered with Burke, but also with Spinoza, who posited that each idea had a formal reality that was different from its objective reality – meaning, that each idea was an object in itself, not only the representation of another object. Jean-Paul Sartre who, in his essay What is Literature? speaks of the words in poetry as “natural things” that grow on earth the same way grass and trees do, independently from their instrumental role as signifiers of other existing (so to speak) objects.

The idea itself wasn’t completely foreign to me, though Bonnefoy had taken it slightly further, by stating that there were two movements inherent to every word: a word such as ‘undivided’ or ‘oneness’ as an ontological unity on one hand; and the word as a signifier, as a reminder that we are conceptual beings, that we produce meaning, on the other. In a way, Bonnefoy seemed to be paraphrasing Burke in his description of the dual nature of words: as bare sounds and as signifiers. But the metaphysical stance that Bonnefoy invoked by mentioning the concept of (say) ‘oneness’ wasn’t fortuitous. If words as bare sounds hold a close connection with death, it is because they operate as a reminder of the haunting omnipresence of non-being, the dismantling of the ego. A state preceding our individuation in birth, following our individuation in death. Because what are sublime emotions, if not essentially that interstate, that landslide between existence and non-existence?

There’s an undeniable, indivisible relationship between the sublime, abstraction, and death. Philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva also acknowledges the inherent duality of language by conceptualizing it as semiotic on one hand and symbolic on the other. Influenced by Melanie Klein and the momentous role of the mother in the development of human psyche, Kristeva declares that semiotic language denotes the preverbal communication that a newborn has with his mother. A form of communication consisting of touch, and, most importantly of bare sounds, at a stage where the offspring is still not a self-conscious individual, incapable of making the difference between himself and the outside world; and, most importantly, between himself and his mother. Semiotic, pre-representation and pre-symbolic language is our unspoken memory of a time when we were one with the mother, and ultimately, a reminder that we are destined to retrieve that union after death. A union with the ultimate Mother, the one we call Nature.

And there was the answer I was looking for: lyrics speak to the soul just as much as music does. The hierarchy had only been ostensible, because the reason a song is capable of shaking our whole being is not to be found anywhere near the meaning of its words, but in their musicality, in the words as bare sounds, in their power of abstraction as door to a state beyond our ego and individuality. As such, words are the memory of our oneness with our mother, and the terrifying reminder of the fleeting nature of our existence. Words are the ever-present specter of our own death, the ticking clock of our always imminent reunion with Mother Nature.