I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
F G C G
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
-Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah
By a happy coincidence, I was re-reading Infinite Jest and The Birth of Tragedy at the same time.
Each are brilliant books. Nobody writes like Nietzsche, and nobody writes like David Foster Wallace. Each writer grabs hold of you and takes you on a ride. But aside from that superficial connection, I found a surprising thematic connection between the two books. They each deal with art and entertainment, and in particular, the effect of art on man.
Infinite Jest is a book about addiction in one sense, but in a wider view it is about the way we entertain ourselves, the way we recreate, and drugs and alcohol are one facet of this many-sided jewel. In the midst of a youth tennis academy, an addiction halfway house, and a cell of Quebecois terrorists in wheelchairs, is something referred to as the Entertainment, or the Samizdat – a Soviet term for banned books individually copied and passed in secret. The Entertainment, the ultimate weapon in a pleasure-indulging civilization, is a video so compelling that those who watch it are captured forever. Like, someplace far beyond couch potato. Their only interest is watching the video; the rest of life disappears to them, and if they are pulled from the Entertainment, they are hopelessly vegetative. The Entertainment (possibly also titled Infinite Jest) has stolen their soul through pleasure.
The Birth of Tragedy deals with the Golden Age of Greece, and their goldenest art form, Tragedy. Nietzsche’s basic thesis is that the Greeks of this short period were the most perfect of men: contemplative, understanding of the great and terrible nature of life, yet, unlike Hamlet, capable of action. These were the heroes of the 300 who stood against the Persian hordes, who built great monuments, yet participated in Dionysian revelries. They reinvented the very nature of being human, and made great foundational advances in arts, science and governance. Nietzsche looks for a cause for this unparalleled healthiness of mind an soul, and finds it in the art form of Tragedy. To Nietzsche, the tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus, performed properly as they were with appropriate music, had an almost magical effect on generations of Greeks. To Nietzsche, Greek Tragedy represents the unions of two threads of art and the human condition, the great unifying force we associate with Eastern spirituality, and the individuating aspect of the superficial world as we see it. Through this combination a kind of alchemy was performed on the human soul, and Man was, for once, perfect – attuned with nature, filled with spirit and strength.
Whether or not this was historically the case is less interesting to me (for today) than the idea of art touching us, moving us, changing us. This is an old debate: does art matter? I can’t say I know the answer, but I know what I want it to be. As a writer and reader, a music lover and musician, art matters to me. Does a piece of music or work of literature, a painting, or a poem effect a permanent change in me? Of course, it can please or sadden me in the moment of experience. But does it leave an imprint? And if so, how powerful can that implant be? Is there a Secret Chord, that if we could only find it, would soothe our psyches, and move us beyond existentialism?
The idea is an old one, much older than Nietzsche. The Greek myth of Orpheus deals with magic music, and other cultures have similar myths. Centuries of storytelling abound with magic instruments and songs. And when an idea is that old, that appears in myths around the world, it is because it springs from the basic nature of man.
I leave you with the final movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (not the duh-duh-duh-DUM part). Does it matter?