…because it imposes silence on noises and before all else the most unbearable of these noises are words. Music is the silence of words, like poetry is the silence of prose, it makes the gravity of logos more bearable and prevents men to identify with the act of speaking. The conductor waits till the audience ceases to speak, because the silence of men is like a sacrament music needs to raise its voice.”
This quote is by Vladimir Jankélévitch, taken from the German version of “Somewhere in the Unfinished” (translation of the quote by myself, sorry for the poor English). It unfortunately was never published in the English hemisphere to this date, though this book probably offers the best introduction to subtle thinking of this French philosopher. It is based on a conversation with Béatrice Berlowitz that was taped, then transcribed and edited so the text reads more like an inspiring philosophical talk and is far more accessible than his theoretical writings. That I’m able to read some of his books in German translation now was not possible till lately since Jankélévitch turned his back on German culture after fascism and ordered that his books should never be translated into German language. He fought the German nazis in the résistance and blamed German culture for not only failing to prevent fascism but even being partly responsible for its rise. His voice was heard 20 years after the end of second world war when a French debate boiled up about legal limitations to collaboration crimes. He wrote an essay called “Should We Pardon Them?” which was so influentual that the law was dismissed. Nonetheless Jankélévitch stayed mostly unknown since the existentialists and post structuralists dominated philosophical discussions. Things might eventually change now, after his death 1985 his ruling about no German translations seems to crumble and slowly some of his writings are translated and published.
Jankélévitch is very much rooted in the romantic French music tradition, even to such an extend that in “Somewhere in the Unfinished” he evades all questions towards modern music at all. He appears to be completely immersed in an old disappearing tradition of piano salons and silent studies of classical scores that he loves. Dispite this superficially conservative stance his thinking is much more inspiring than many modern music thinkers. He is driven by a deep sensitivity and his thinking is sharp and elusive. Many of his thoughts about music mentioned in “Somewhere in the Unfinished” point back to his book “Music and the Ineffable” with a great final chapter about music and silence.
I will try to translate a few more words taken from “Somewhere in the Unfinished” where Jankélévitch discusses the comparison between the two “languages” speech and music. This also provides a poetic answer to that recent comment I made about what sense writing about music finally does. First he says about the limitations of language: “There are not enough keys on the keyboard of language to be able to discribe all the endlessly subtle nuances of thinking and passion. Therefore we have to speak beyond words and induce misty clouds, a twilight zone, a halo around those words where ambivalence simmers and the powers of desire grow.” And then he ponders about the “logic” of music and the music can evade rational discourse and thus be highly ambivalent: “Music is a process of ‘doing’ at its best, because music uses tones without inner meaning, that way staying perpetually new and accessible. Therefore music is made to be played, not to be spoken about!”