Hero of the Subjective

September 23, 2007

By Kyle Gann

As I write this, I am finally on the plane to Copenhagen. By "finally," I mean after 30-something years. I've always known Copenhagen would draw me to it someday. It was unthinkable that, in my lifetime, I would fail to walk the streets that Soren Kierkegaard spent his life walking up and down. It is difficult to think of a writer more specifically tied to his location than Kierkegaard - the neighborhood surrounding the Vor Frue Kirke (Church of Our Lady) in which he inveighed against the local clergy by name often appears in his writings as an explicit background, and, as the most prominent writer in a language little spoken around the world, he was acutely conscious of not only being a Danish author but a Copenhagen author, speaking to a Copenhagen public with reference to Copenhagen geography. Every year I make a pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts, to retrace the steps of Thoreau, Emerson, and even lesser-known Transcendentalists - Jones Very and Orestes Brownson, anyone? - and doing the same for Kierkegaard is a pleasure, a mandate, too long delayed. I suppose I have a rather peculiar need to soak up the native ambience of writers who have been central to my life.

How the theologically provocative author of Fear and Trembling became one of those writers is difficult to say. I was reading Sartre in college, without understanding him much, because existentialism seemed like the cool philosophical trend of the time. Camus had a more concrete impact. I remember thinking that The Myth of Sisyphus did more than even ale could to "justify God's ways to man." But working backward through existentialist chronology, I ran into Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche, and finally Kierkegaard, and while I would later explore the others, it was only this last who grabbed deeply into my imagination. Perhaps I was attracted by the glancing resemblance of his last name to my full name, or the coincidence that he died almost exactly a century before I was born. More likely his position as the first phenomenologist of anxiety, fear, and depression offered a promise of kinship to my adolescent introversion. Whatever the underlying psychology, I spent, at Oberlin, a depressive, reclusive year reading almost half of the 43 books Kierkegaard wrote in his feverish 17 years of authorial activity, ignoring all else. The next year, once that fetish had played out, I sank even further into the abyss and read nothing but Samuel Beckett, who at least had the advantage of being considerably more concise. The less said about that spiritual crisis, the better. Suffice it to say that Godot did not arrive.

I had been raised in the Southern Baptist Church, steeped in a representation of religion that, of course, no intellectually responsible person could permanently stomach. Its most ludicrous excess was something I once attended, at 15, called the Bill Gothard Seminar, in which the eponymous charismatic worthy tried to impress on a stadium-sized congregation that the exhortations of the New Testament were good business principles; that if we followed the Christian life we would become successful in society; and that, ergo, you could tell who the best Christians were because God rewarded them with the most money. Against this repellent positivistic caricature, still quite common among the Religious Right to this day, Kierkegaard's antipodal insistance on spirituality as a completely individual matter, and one whose rigorous fulfillment was bound to rather set a person off from society than endear him to it, seemed, to say the least, infinitely more authentic.

Of course, I was a musician too, and while the "Or" of Either/Or held a certain academic interest, it was the "Either" that I devoured with page-flipping relish. Kierkegaard's pseudonymous division of his authorship into "aesthetic" versus "ethical" or religious personas may have been ironic in intent, with a finger on the religious side of the scale, but his detailed psychology of the total aesthete was, as he knew, the more seductive. His argument about Don Giovanni - that since the seducer is the personality most trapped in time, and music is the art that deals with time, seduction is the perfect musical subject, therefore Don Giovanni is the most perfect possible piece of music - wasn't very convincing then or now, despite the persuasive fanaticism with which it is developed. But he captured and conveyed, in startlingly vivid terms, the manic subjectivism of a mental life turned away from the quotidian world and devoted to the absolute in art. To read that was a heady loss of innocence, a recognition that someone else had heard the same siren song I did - and followed it.

Ultimately, I think perhaps I found in Kierkegaard a model for the pose that takes inwardness as an absolute, defying all collective social claims. He knew that getting a degree in theology does not make one a Christian; that preaching does not make one a Christian; that going about ostentatiously helping those in need does not make one a Christian; that honors bestowed upon one by the church do not make one a Christian; that ultimately, one only becomes spiritual, becomes a Christian, by a radical adherence to one's inner voice, more likely to manifest by becoming an eccentric or even martyr than by becoming a famous preacher. To transpose the effect of this absolute to the artistic sphere is hardly difficult. One does not become an artist by getting graduate degrees in composition, by attaching oneself to famous teachers, by learning how to orchestrate proficiently, by winning prizes and commissions, by being championed by one's conductor friends, by getting hired to teach in prestigious music departments. One might very well become a "famous composer" by doing all those things, and many have. But one becomes an artist by discovering a universe inside, by having something to say and saying it, no matter how bizarrely that "it" contrasts with the musical context of one's contemporaries. Kierkegaard defended spirituality from the established church of his day, and taught me how to defend musical creativity from the established musical world of mine.

For instance: "Take away the paradox from a thinker," Kierkegaard wrote in his journals, "and you have - a professor." This thought brings to my mind the story about the visit Morton Feldman made to Northwestern when I was a grad student there, which I've related many times. Feldman spoke about how impossible it was to teach composition in a university, and one angry student asked, "How can you spend your life doing something you don't believe in?" Feldman's quizzical reply was: "That's the definition of matyoority." Mystic that he was, he could have couched his answer in more Kierkegaardian terms, that to keep alive the paradox in music is to teach composition knowing that composition can't be taught. Feldman, living the paradox and never yielding to the temptation of pedagogical certainty, was no mere professor. The gradually crescendoing influence of his music from the ground up, students first, in the 1980s and '90s was a triumph of radical subjectivity, and likewise a dramatic refutation of what one could call the Bill Gothardism of new music: the facile, bullshit assumption that you can tell who the great composers are, because they're the ones getting the orchestra commissions and Pulitzer Prizes.

Immersion in Kierkegaard was a great preparation for one who feels called upon to live a life telling the social institutions of his day: "You are wrong, you are beyond wrong, you are premeditatedly mendacious for self-serving reasons." Note that this is not identical with the potentially delusional claim, "I am right and the rest of the world is wrong." After all, Kierkegaard became famous in his 20s because his criticism of official religion found quite a bit of resonance among his and the younger generation. But he does bring us close to that wonderful quote from Thoreau: "Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one." Kierkegaard created the template, as it were, for the irrefutable defense of subjectivity against the awesome, socially reified power of institutions with their rafts of university-certified experts. Just as the spiritual man is the spat-upon martyr, not the famous preacher, the artist is not an orchestra jockey with a long list of prizes and residencies on his web site, but someone completely uncertifiable and vulnerable - because his only possible claim on our attention is the innate persuasiveness of his musical vision. In the absolute world of art, as in the absolute world of religion, subjective inwardness reigns supreme. College degrees, prizes, institutional positions, worldly honors, laudatory reviews, objective certifications of any kind mean nothing and less than nothing. Kierkegaard made it easier to say that.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Today, I admit, I can't really read Kierkegaard anymore. His energy, once so tempestuously absorbing to a kindred soul, now often seems overly neurotic. His religious concerns are not mine: indeed many think that by proving Christianity virtually absent from the Christian church, he instead proved Christianity impossible. His dialectical anti-Hegelian critique, so subtle in its circuitous machinations, is of interest only to historians of philosophy. (Though in his championing of subjectivity against all philosophical systems, he does provide yet another parallel to the implied Feldmanesque critique of mid-20th century musical ideologies.) To prepare for Copenhagen, I read instead the massive, fairly new biography by Joakim Garff, which is as absolutely complete as one can imagine, not only sifting through the entire documentary evidence of Kierkegaard's life, but providing helpful summations of most of his works, giving extensive background on Copenhagen and the otherwise long-forgotten characters in Kierkegaard's circle, and also treating its eccentric subject with a healthy blend of admiration and absurdist humor. (At the end of one book, Kierkegaard admits sheepishly that he is not the martyr Christianity is waiting for, merely a genius - and Garff comments, "Kierkegaard had an interesting way of showing modesty.") The biography brought S.K. alive again for me, not from the inside this time, but felicitously from the outside. What a fantastic tome.

One of my oldest friends, reading me in the Village Voice, once accused my style of being a cross between Mark Twain and Theodor Adorno. There was some truth to it, but there is a wide underlying swath of Kierkegaard as well. When I fall into some of my more repetitively manic moments, I think I channel him a little bit. In addition, I fancy that I've managed to live my life with a certain Kierkegaardian irony. I got a doctorate not because I though I would gain anything from so doing, but because I wanted to be able to attest to the worthlessness of the credential. I had observed that academia is impervious to shots fired from outside the walls, so I made it my plan to shoot them from inside. It's true that I obtained an academic position, but under slightly false pretenses: as a music historian, not as a composer. And now I live, Kierkegaardianly enough, as the paradoxical "composer who is not a composer," taking aim at the artistic stupidity and certification-worship of musical academia, leaving myself neither acceptable in the circles I inhabit nor quite completely dismissible. Without meaning to aggrandize my importance, I think I can say I'm a little parallel, on a smaller scale, to this "preacher who was not a preacher," this Danish theologian who was fully qualified to preach in church, who took high honors in university and was in fact famous for his published sermons - but who was neither ever granted a pastorship nor entirely willing to take one.

And today, with cigar similarly clenched in teeth, I'm going to follow his footsteps from the Vor Frue Kirke, where his controversial funeral nearly caused a riot, across the bridge to Christianshavn, from whence he liked to look back at his native city - while thanking him for steeling me for the rough road of the paradoxical, radically subjective life.


Discreet Anonym: What do you make of Kierkegaard's Christian ethics? He writes fairly extensively about the importance of loving one's neighbor, and this notion seems to conflict with the portrayal of SK as a radical individualist.
How long are you going to be in Copenhagen? Is it an extended stay or a short visit?
KG replies: I would sound pretty amateurish if I started trying to defend Kierkegaard's positions, although it strikes me that loving one's neighbors would certainly make someone stand out from the crowd. My Copenhagen trip was just a prelude to my much longer Amsterdam visit. Thanks for the URL to the Kierkegaard site, though, I'll keep an eye on it.

richard: I guess we're are somewhat kindred spirits, because I was also a fan of Kierkegaard (a rather spiritually iconoclast priest introduced me to "Fear and Trembling" when I was high school). It's hard to take that book seriously with being changed. Because of Kierkegaard's influence on my weltunschaung I've been called a nihilist by folks who haven't a clue. The worst thing that happened to modern composition is that it has been academicized.

Paul Donnelly: Corey, as a performer I feel that the composer can go ahead and ask for whatever they want, and it's my job to make it happen. Most performers, I think, enjoy the opportunity to show off all their skill. Maybe a horn player has a mostly unused four and a half octave range or a violinist who wishes they got to play some chords.
On the other hand, it's not a good feeling when you've got something in front of you that you know you won't be able to do justice by the time of the performance.
A composer needs to keep the difficulty of a piece in mind for obvious practical reasons, but as a performer nothing excites me more than a chance to walk on the edge of what I can do.
As for the audience, I suppose it depends on whether you feel the onus in communication sits on the "speaker" or the listener. I tend to favor the second, myself.

X. J. Scott: This is good. Thanks.
Kierkegaard is a voice of sanity in a deluded world.

a jarvinen: Amen!!

Corey B.: Cool post. But as a performer I get a little concerned about this "radical subjectivism" that seems to be prevalent in the musical world.
Is it the composer's job to realize his inner vision, no matter how taxing for the performer (or audience member)? Or is priority no. 1 an expression of that vision that most effectively communicates, keeping in mind that communication is a collaborative process between composer performer and audience member? ... or neither? ... or both?
I'm just reminded of Feldman's double-marathon-length string Quartet No. 2, and John Cage's assertion that he can make whatever demands on a performer that he wishes.
KG replies: Well, I think it depends a lot on the composer. Not nearly all of Feldman's music is as taxing as his SQII. And that's one isolated comment by Cage, whose works don't tend to be terribly demanding except for the ones written specifically for virtuosos he knew. Personally, for instance, I don't like the sound of virtuosity, the constant aura of hard work onstage, and I tend to avoid those kinds of demands - I consider that part of my rejection of the whole late-20th-century kaboodle. And some of the most radical composers, like Satie and Partch, avoided length and superhuman complexity. So I don't necessarily see a general correlation between "radical subjectivism" and inordinate difficulty.

Copyright 2007 by Kyle Gann

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