Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agrees with Plato’s analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articulate speech or reason. It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articulate speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses. – Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p.71 (.pdf)
I was in search of something about the contemporary music concert – rock or hip-hop – as a liturgical experience, when it occurred to me I wanted to reference something from Allan Bloom’s classic The Closing of the American Mind. I was happily surprised to find the entire thing available online as a .pdf document. There are many deeply disturbing aspects to Bloom’s book, but his chapter on music is particularly disturbing not least because of the sheer ignorance he demonstrates on the subject of rock music. To quote both Plato and Nietzsche favorably on the alogon character of music – that it is without reason, and therefore an aspect of human barbarism – demonstrates an enormous ignorance not just of music in general, but the intelligence, thoughtfulness, and even profundity of so much contemporary music, whether it be rock, heavy metal, hip-hop, post-rock, and even country music.
His analysis is not only ignorant, it is elitist, insisting that his students – to whom he expresses joy when he introduces them to Mozart – suddenly find themselves in a completely different world, ignoring the fact that Mozart, no less than the Rolling Stones, is alogon, perhaps just a tad more refined barbarism. Considering Mozart’s lifestyle, that isn’t too far off the mark, either. As a description of the philosophical position regarding music through Nietzsche, the following is a generally true thumbnail, although not without veering off-base by missing so much of the Christian and Muslim discussions of music during the High Middle Ages:
Classical philosophy did not censor the singers. It persuaded them. And it gave them a goal, one that was understood by them, until only yesterday. But those who do not notice the role of music in Aristotle and despise it in Plato went to school with Hobbes, Locke and Smith, where such considerations have become unnecessary. The triumphant Enlightenment rationalism thought that it had discovered other ways to deal with the irrational part of the soul, and that reason needed less support from it. Only in those great critics of Enlightenment and rationalism, Rousseau and Nietzsche, does music return, and they were the most musical of philosophers. Both thought that the passions— and along with them their ministerial arts—had become thin under the rule of reason and that, therefore, man himself and what he sees in the world have become correspondingly thin. They wanted to cultivate the enthusiastic states of the soul and to re-experience the Corybantic possession deemed a pathology by Plato. Nietzsche, particularly, sought to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources, and thus encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it. (p.73)
From there, however, he turns off the path in to Lala Land in the paragraph immediately following:
This is the significance of rock music. I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere in which there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. Modern-day rationalists, such as economists, are indifferent to it and what it represents. The irrationalists are all for it. There is no need to fear that “the blond beasts” are going to come forth from the bland souls of our adolescents. But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire—not love, not ems, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later. (op. cit.)
It’s like Bloom heard Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place To Go” and decided that was all he needed to know. For a philosopher, a paragraph such as the above is deeply disturbing, presenting ignorance as wisdom, facile description with penetrating insight, and ancient philosophy as somehow relevant to our contemporary, post-Industrial capitalist age.
The following paragraph, from page 74, is both disturbing and ironic, considering it was written by a deeply closeted gay man who never married, raised a family, and seems to have been attracted to, ahem, younger men.
Ministering to and according with the arousing and cathartic music, the lyrics celebrate puppy love as well as polymorphous attractions, and fortify them against traditional ridicule and shame. The words implicitly and explicitly describe bodily acts that satisfy sexual desire and treat them as its only natural and routine culmination for children who do not yet have the slightest imagination of love, marriage or family. This has a much more powerful effect than does pornography on youngsters, who have no need to watch others do grossly what they can so easily do themselves. Voyeurism is for old perverts; active sexual relations are for the young. All they need is encouragement.
While I do not dispute that sex is a large part of rock, hip-hop, and country music, ’twas ever thus with folk music. Rock and its variants is little more than our folk music, with occasional pretensions to be something more. Whether it was the risque blues, the bawdy songs of the Scotch-Irish in Appalachia that eventually morphed in to country and western, or something more explicit like the following:
What is made explicit in Nine Inch Nails was always present in “Handyman Blues” or any of a hundred bawdy Mountain Songs. This is hardly a mark against it. It is, rather, a way of seeing what role the music and its variants play in our current society. Oh, and I’m quite sure Mozart would have appreciated “Closer”, if for no other reason than he came very close in some of his operas to writing those very same lyrics.
My concern here is not with the moral effects of this music— whether it leads to sex, violence or drugs. The issue here is its effect on education, and I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education. The first sensuous experiences are decisive in determining the taste for the whole of life, and they are the link between the animal and spiritual in us. The period of nascent sensuality has always been used for sublimation, in the sense of making sublime, for attaching youthful inclinations and longings to music, pictures and stories that provide the transition to the fulfillment of the human duties and the enjoyment of the human pleasures. Lessing, speaking of Greek sculpture, said “beautiful men made beautiful statues, and the city had beautiful statues in part to thank for beautiful citizens.” This formula encapsulates the fundamental principle of the esthetic education of man. Young men and women were attracted by the beauty of heroes whose very bodies expressed their nobility. The deeper understanding of the meaning of nobility comes later, but is prepared for by the sensuous experience and is actually contained in it. What the senses long for as well as what reason later sees as good are thereby not at tension with one another. Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be. But this is a lost art. Now we have come to exactly the opposite point. Rock music encourages passions and provides models that have no relation to any life the young people who go to universities can possibly lead, or to the kinds of admiration encouraged by liberal studies. Without the cooperation of the sentiments, anything other than technical education is a dead letter. (pp.79-80)
One can still find critiques of contemporary music that mirror Bloom’s, although they are given far less credence than was once the case. Except, alas, within our churches, where the examination of the music is both ignorant and superficial; examples are often of the most extreme genres – death metal and urban/gangsta rap are two favorites in this regard – without regard to context; and rather than actually engaging what our young – and older – people are actually hearing and listening to, we receive repeated condemnations, not just of popular musics, but attempts to “baptize” them and bring them in to our worship spaces and provide congregations with a musical style that is familiar and up-to-date, as opposed to organs that, for all their beauty and the fullness of their sound, are ancient instruments that are as much of a turn-off as contemporary instrumentation is for some older folks in churches.
It is important to go through Bloom’s nonsense, if we are going to make any headway in understanding where we in the churches are in our discussions regarding music, liturgy, and theology. Bloom’s pernicious influence is still there, poisoning far too many minds with its non-contextual rejection of a music about which he knows nothing, the spiritual and intellectual content of which continues to impress (with the occasional exception of bands like Insane Clown Posse, with their now-infamous line, “Fucking gravity, how does it work?”). That Bloom’s idea of “liberal education” is even more dated than his view of music should strike few as surprising. A professor of the classics, Bloom was far more comfortable in the male-dominated cultures of ancient Greece, in particular, where maleness and homosexuality were not just celebrated but encouraged (just read Plato’s Symposium in which Socrates admits sleeping with the most beautiful young man in Greece, although not having sexual relations with him as a sign not of his moral but intellectual superiority). Bloom was far more comfortable with the comfortable illusion that certain kinds of orchestral music were superior to the popular musics of the west, even as such a view would certainly have surprised the composers of such music. We in the church suffer from similar illusions, similarly misinformed, similarly expressed. Only by moving through the obvious errors in Bloom can we start to move the conversation forward.
There’s a lot I could say. There’s a lot I really want to say. It has already been said better, with more passion, more truth, more anger, and more sadness by W. E. B. Dubois in his Litany of Atlanta.
A Litany Of AtlantaO Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our ears
an-hungered in these fearful days–
_Hear us, good Lord!_
Listen to us, Thy children: our faces dark with doubt are made a mockery
in Thy sanctuary. With uplifted hands we front Thy heaven, O God, crying:
_We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!_
We are not better than our fellows, Lord, we are but weak and human men.
When our devils do deviltry, curse Thou the doer and the deed: curse them
as we curse them, do to them all and more than ever they have done to
innocence and weakness, to womanhood and home.
_Have mercy upon us, miserable sinners!_
And yet whose is the deeper guilt? Who made these devils? Who nursed them
in crime and fed them on injustice? Who ravished and debauched their
mothers and their grandmothers? Who bought and sold their crime, and waxed
fat and rich on public iniquity?
_Thou knowest, good God!_
Is this Thy justice, O Father, that guile be easier than innocence, and
the innocent crucified for the guilt of the untouched guilty?
_Justice, O judge of men!_
Wherefore do we pray? Is not the God of the fathers dead? Have not seers
seen in Heaven’s halls Thine hearsed and lifeless form stark amidst the
black and rolling smoke of sin, where all along bow bitter forms of
_Awake, Thou that sleepest!_
Thou art not dead, but flown afar, up hills of endless light, thru blazing
corridors of suns, where worlds do swing of good and gentle men, of women
strong and free–far from the cozenage, black hypocrisy and chaste
prostitution of this shameful speck of dust!
_Turn again, O Lord, leave us not to perish in our sin!_
From lust of body and lust of blood
_Great God, deliver us!_
From lust of power and lust of gold,
_Great God, deliver us!_
From the leagued lying of despot and of brute,
_Great God, deliver us!_
A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her loins sprang twin Murder
and Black Hate. Red was the midnight; clang, crack and cry of death and
fury filled the air and trembled underneath the stars when church spires
pointed silently to Thee. And all this was to sate the greed of greedy men
who hide behind the veil of vengeance!
_Bend us Thine ear, O Lord!_
In the pale, still morning we looked upon the deed. We stopped our ears
and held our leaping hands, but they–did they not wag their heads and
leer and cry with bloody jaws: _Cease from Crime_! The word was
mockery, for thus they train a hundred crimes while we do cure one.
_Turn again our captivity, O Lord!_
Behold this maimed and broken thing; dear God, it was an humble black man
who toiled and sweat to save a bit from the pittance paid him. They told
him: _Work and Rise_. He worked. Did this man sin? Nay, but some one
told how some one said another did–one whom he had never seen nor known.
Yet for that man’s crime this man lieth maimed and murdered, his wife
naked to shame, his children, to poverty and evil.
_Hear us, O Heavenly Father!_
Doth not this justice of hell stink in Thy nostrils, O God? How long shall
the mounting flood of innocent blood roar in Thine ears and pound in our
hearts for vengeance? Pile the pale frenzy of blood-crazed brutes who do
such deeds high on Thine altar, Jehovah Jireh, and burn it in hell forever
_Forgive us, good Lord; we know not what we say!_
Bewildered we are, and passion-tost, mad with the madness of a mobbed and
mocked and murdered people; straining at the armposts of Thy Throne, we
raise our shackled hands and charge Thee, God, by the bones of our stolen
fathers, by the tears of our dead mothers, by the very blood of Thy
crucified Christ: _What meaneth this?_ Tell us the Plan; give us the
_Keep not thou silence, O God!_
Sit no longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and dumb to our dumb
suffering. Surely Thou too art not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless,
_Ah! Christ of all the Pities!_
Forgive the thought! Forgive these wild, blasphemous words. Thou art still
the God of our black fathers, and in Thy soul’s soul sit some soft
darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.
But whisper–speak–call, great God, for Thy silence is white terror to
our hearts! The way, O God, show us the way and point us the path.
Whither? North is greed and South is blood; within, the coward, and
without, the liar. Whither? To death?
_Amen! Welcome dark sleep!_
Whither? To life? But not this life, dear God, not this. Let the cup pass
from us, tempt us not beyond our strength, for there is that clamoring and
clawing within, to whose voice we would not listen, yet shudder lest we
must, and it is red, Ah! God! It is a red and awful shape.
In yonder East trembles a star.
_Vengeance is mine; I mill repay, saith the Lord!_
Thy will, O Lord, be done!
Lord, we have done these pleading, wavering words.
_We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!_
We bow our heads and hearken soft to the sobbing of women and little
_We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!_
Our voices sink in silence and in night.
_Hear us, good Lord!_
In night, O God of a godless land!
In silence, O Silent God.