Tuesday, 20 December 2005

The Morality of Musical Imitation in Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Le prémier de mes besoins, le plus grand, le plus fort, le plus inextinguible, était tout entier dans mon cœur : c’étoit le besoin d’une société intime et aussi intime qu’elle pouvait l’être … Ce besoin singulier étoit tel que la plus étroite union des corps ne pouvait encore y suffire : il m’aurait fallu deux ames dans le même corps ; sans cela je sentois toujours le vide.

The confession of a search for intimacy is one of Rousseau’s most familiar gestures. The almost impossible conception he held of such intimacy – be it construed in psychological, social, or more abstract metaphysical terms – underpins his work as both its muse and its measure. From the fading star of the Jean-Jacques of the autobiographical writings to the basic coinage of mutual trust on which the system of government developed in the Contrat Social is built, and whether deployed as a complex moral norm in the fictional landscape of two lovers in La nouvelle Héloïse or as kind of epistemological and moral measure in the Essai sur l’origine des langues, the idea of minds united in a common desire exercises considerable gravitational force across the disparate spheres in which Rousseau found himself working. Finding the looked-for ‘société intime’ absent from both his personal life and the life of the society in which he lived, Rousseau’s oeuvre may be characterised as the attempt to write such a state of being into existence.

What does this state of being, introduced here under the guise of intimacy, amount to? In one sense, we receive a different answer depending on which area of Rousseau’s work is consulted. In another sense, however, and despite the enormous variety of its form and function in Rousseau’s oeuvre, the notion looks surprisingly uniform. Thus in the second Discours, we would find it manifest in the concept of the state of nature; an arrangement in which the economy of need and desire is balanced so that the self-interest of individual beings is subsumed in the interest of the community. The psychological concept of intimacy is thus translated into a metaphysical, almost Leibnizian ideal, where Rousseau’s ‘deux ames dans le même corps’ becomes almost literally the case, so attuned is the individual being to its corporate identity. In the Contrat Social, we would find a system of social organisation entirely geared toward producing a civic replication of the natural economy of the second Discours. Nor does anything dissimilar, on this structural level at least, obtain in the educational programme of Emile. Merely, it is the application that differs; where individuality is sacrificed for a reconciled society in the Contrat Social, in Emile individual consciousness is not so much diminished as its power enhanced for the purpose of reconciling itself to its natural environment and protecting itself from its social surroundings.

In Rousseau’s epistolary novel, Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, the terms and psychological language in which the state of being with which we are concerned is expressed is even more clearly related to the notion of ‘société intime’ with which we began. For here the guiding notion, manifestly one of being together, of love, is nonetheless bound up with the reconciliation of this desire to the world which nourishes it. Love’s first kiss results not in defiant bliss but in an apparent catastrophe – born of the impropriety and mistaken spirit of the act – which results in the physical separation of the lovers. It is here, in the familiar tale of the ‘star-crossed lovers’, that the utopian flavour of the ‘société intime’ is at its clearest, for the union is never achieved; the story differs from the trope mainly because the separation and renunciation is self-imposed. It is here, too, that the epistolary form of the work comes into its own, for it is in the intimate space of the letter that the genuine spiritual proximity of Saint-Preux and Julie is forged, written into being at the expense of physical presence.

For Rousseau, the art of writing comes into its own as this utopian project. Although there are many occasions where the idea of writing is castigated, held responsible for the sapping of some kind of primal expressive force from language as a breeding ground of artifice, it is also characterised as a refuge and the sole recourse to repairing the utopian dream. Just as Julie and Saint-Preux retreat from the physical to the literary in order to live out their love story, so too does Rousseau retreat from the spoken commerce of society in the hope of repairing it with writing. It is in this way that writing, so long as it is conceived in the service of goodness, remains true to the more general origin of communication that Rousseau narrates. For the work on music and language, Rousseau’s primal communicative media, is no less concerned with the ‘société intime’ than the fictional, autobiographical and political works cited above. Indeed, in Rousseau’s understanding, music and language are born together in an act of love; both are a function of a state of being referred to here as the ‘société intime’, just as the function of both is also to restore it, to reinvigorate it, to work it back into life.

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A central feature of the state of being I have been discussing is its connection with goodness. Indeed, perhaps it is best to say that Rousseau’s conception of goodness consists, more or less, in what I have been describing in terms of the ‘société intime’ and its various extensions and translations. The connection with goodness is perhaps most easily grasped in the overtly political and moral-philosophical writings, such as the first Discours, the Contrat Social and Emile. The concern with virtue is clear in these cases, just as his use of the term seems relatively unproblematic and tied clearly to traditional and prevalent notions of virtue such as sincerity and citizenship. In the second Discours, where we are concerned with a state of nature that is, as Rousseau makes clear, at one remove from the sphere of vice and virtue, it is nonetheless clear that the state of nature is still intended to provide humanity with a model of its own good. The situation described is one in which the psychological malaise of false pride, or ‘amour propre’, and its social equivalent of unjust inequality – these being the roots of evil in mankind for Rousseau – are prevented from occurring.

In so far as language and music are concerned, however, the connection with goodness is no less essential but distinctly more troublesome. If there is a norm for the good in music and in language, which Rousseau seems quite sure about in both cases, and if, as I have suggested, it relates squarely to the political, educational and moral norms described, is it still possible to determine its instantiation in the same way? To be sure, there is an obvious sense in which it may be decided whether language is conceived in a spirit of goodness or not, and thus to determine whether it is authentic in the sense of reflecting its origin. This is the sense in which language may be employed to describe goodness, or some means of acquiring it – and Rousseau would have conceived of much of his own writing in precisely this way. There is another sense, however, in which the determination of this kind of authenticity is distinctly problematic. And this problem is one that, in modern terminology, may be described in terms of a difference between an aesthetic good and a moral good.

It is clear that the two are firmly intermingled in the idea of the ‘société intime’. The notion extends, as we have seen, to love, to spiritual pleasure, and to spheres that nowadays would be called purely aesthetic. As is also clear, however, perhaps most obviously from the quandary faced by Julie and Saint-Preux, the separation of pleasure from moral good is catastrophic and Rousseau is consistent elsewhere about the idea that beauty should be in the service of goodness. The condemnation of intellectual or physical pleasure devoid of moral content is one of the most prominent themes in Rousseau, from the early essays on taste and eloquence to the more extended considerations of his maturity.

If the problems we face in determining the authenticity of language in this respect – where we have, that is to say, recourse to a determination of what such language is describing, suggesting or requesting – what of the problems concerning music in the same respect? For in the musical case we have, at least in no obvious sense, no such recourse. There is, to be sure, the significant fact that Rousseau’s interest in music was primarily in vocal and operatic music. Music’s authenticity might, in this sense, simply be tied to the particular literary or dramatic end achieved by a mixture of gestural, verbal and musical means, and in this sense be linked to some determinate moral content. But even here, as Rousseau is at pains to argue, the vehicle for the dramatic or literary evocation of something good is by no means necessarily good itself. The attempt to sidestep the question of music’s own authenticity in this way would be a mere feint.

The question of the morality of music goes to the heart of Rousseau’s thought about music – and by extension to his thought in general – and not simply for the oft-cited anecdotal reasons concerning the supposed ironies of Rousseau himself, perceived as the scourge of the world of ‘bon goût’, taking himself off to compose an opera. It goes to the heart of his musical thought because Rousseau employed, in writing about music, many of the same kinds of arguments that he used in his more overtly political and moral writings; and he deployed precisely the same model of what we have called the ‘société intime’ as both its origin and object. However, where it might seem relatively unproblematic to relate, as Rousseau does, the musical styles of his contemporaries to a normative conception of music as born of some kind of originary act of love for the other, it still remains problematic as to how the adequacy of any such music to this norm might be determined. Even if, that is to say, we could agree that the birth of music is a good thing, the admission of Rousseau’s terms does not necessarily provide us with the means of determining whether this birth is well imitated or not. And without this, the idea is, in a sense, lost; for the idea of the ‘société intime’ is nothing if its connection with goodness is not intact.

The question upon which the present thesis is centred, then, concerns precisely this relation between music and morality in Rousseau’s writing. To what extent can Rousseau be said to have provided something like a moral philosophy of music; an account of music, that is, in which norms of musical taste may be said to demonstrate a relation to moral norms? Is it possible to say that Rousseau demonstrated, to some extent at least, a connection between what is good in music and what is good for mankind?


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The nature of the principal question in this thesis is such that an interdisciplinary mode of enquiry is necessary. In virtue of this, the modes of argumentation I employ comprise a mixture of historical, interpretative and more systematic theoretical discussion. For, to ask to what extent Rousseau understood his music theory to constitute a genuine moral philosophy of music is an undertaking of a primarily historical and interpretative nature. To ask further, on the other hand, what his success in this amounts to requires a more straightforwardly philosophical enquiry. Granting this, however, the more philosophical aspects of my enquiry are not isolated within that discipline. Rather, my intention is to construe this research in such a way that its relevance to historical musicological concerns is paramount. For while it has not been my purpose to assess the influence of this area of Rousseau’s thought on the music and music theory of his contemporaries and intellectual descendants, it has very much been my intention to provide a basis for understanding where Rousseau’s musical thought is relevant to musicology for purely historical reasons, and where its relevance extends further to musicology’s institutional aims. Academic musicology has, over the past few decades, witnessed a burgeoning of scholarly activity concentrating on the project of relating musical practice to the moral and social spheres. The importance of Rousseau’s thought to this project is unquestionable, and our understanding of it – so I would argue – can only be deepened by an enquiry such as the present one that aims to provide some justification of Rousseau’s position.

The first of the three chapters that follow is intended to provide an extended contextual and theoretical introduction to the central question of music’s morality. Questions in Rousseau, however systematically they may be put, rarely permit of straightforward answers regardless of whether they relate to interpretative, historical or philosophical matters. Rather, they usually demand a somewhat discursive approach, one that attends to the peculiarly literary nature of Rousseau’s philosophical project and to the spread of similar concerns across a diversity of genres and apparent subject matter. The first chapter, then, aims to open the debate in a number of areas. First, it is asked to what extent Rousseau’s music theory entails philosophical commitments, and whether we may understand his music theoretical output to provide, in some sense of the term, a philosophy of music in tune with his more general moral philosophy. Second, I explore some of the issues connected with Rousseau’s understanding of artistic imitation and its relation to the idea of moral presence, that which music is, in Rousseau’s analysis, thought ultimately to be imitating. Other concerns discussed in the chapter relate to the relevance of Plato’s understanding of artistic imitation, the place of music in Rousseau’s autobiographical writings, and the relation between morality and the aesthetic.

In the second chapter, I begin by providing analyses of two key texts in which elements of Rousseau’s theory of musical imitation is presented: the Lettre sur la musique françoise, and the article on ‘Musique’ from the Dictionnaire de Musique. My focus in these discussions is on the structures Rousseau deploys in support of the normative notions and evaluative judgements that control his music-theoretical enterprise. While the Lettre is shown, in some respects, to lack the kind of analysis of musical imitation required, I argue that the analysis given in the ‘Musique’ article also seems to ask more questions than it answers. These questions centre around the problem of what it is that causes what Rousseau calls the ‘effets moraux’ of imitative music, and also around the idea that imitative music must somehow resist immediacy or remain the object of perception.

These questions prompt the investigations undertaken in the second half of the chapter. First, I give a comparative discussion of a passage from Wittgenstein and some passages from two of the key influences on Rousseau’s musical thought, d’Alembert and Condillac. The purpose of this is twofold: to deepen our understanding of the eighteenth-century idea of the ‘signe naturel’ by comparing it to a twentieth-century account of signification, and to provide some context for the feature of Rousseau’s account that seems to require that the imitative musical signifier be opaque. In the final part of the chapter, we will look at Diderot’s contribution to the debate in the form of his fictional dialogue, Le Neveu de Rameau. My reading of this concentrates on the radical extent to which Diderot ironises music-theoretical discourse, and questions asked about what should be the proper object of musical imitation. The answers found constitute, I argue, a significant challenge for Rousseau’s account.

The third chapter attempts to piece together Rousseau’s putative moral philosophy of music by examining the extent to which the precepts of his mature understanding of imitation are grounded in the account of the origin of man provided in the second Discours and the Essai sur l’origine des langues. The first task is to establish the theoretical reach of the distinction between imitative and non-imitative music, for upon this distinction, my account seeks to show, depends the evaluative and prescriptive strata of Rousseau’s music theory. Following this, I trace a path back from the account of imitative music – and the moral effects which distinguish it as such from non-imitative music – to the idea on which Rousseau tries to ground these moral effects; namely, the notion of human presence.

Rousseau’s conception of presence, and the basis of its normative deployment in the music-theoretical writing, is developed from his account of man’s emergence from the state of nature given in the Discours and the Essai. In my reading of these texts, Rousseau’s account is shown to lead to a powerful analysis of the relation between the aesthetic and moral spheres as two sides of the same coin. In this analysis, the idea of presence comes to be situated in relation to its aesthetic and moral function, and need not, I argue, sustain the epistemological and ontological burden that Rousseau, with varying degrees of uncertainty, would place upon it. Our re-situation of presence in this way, however, does not leave Rousseau’s deployment of it unaffected. For although we can derive a philosophy of music from Rousseau that is far-reaching in its relevance to contemporary concerns, the basis for his specific aesthetic prescriptions is forfeit.

The chapter concludes with an analysis of Rousseau’s melodrama, Pygmalion. This curious work, I suggest, provides an apposite illustration of, and commentary upon, the philosophy of music and art left to us by the Discours and Essai. For, far from merely offering a contemporary retelling of Ovid’s famous tale of a statue’s coming to life, Rousseau’s Pygmalion unfolds an intricate and skilfully dramatised fable about the difficulties involved in taking art’s putative representation of moral presence seriously.

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Musicologists, though mostly only privately, often express disappointment at the notion that much philosophy of music seems to lack the music-technical literacy that would confer for them a greater authority upon it. In this light, Rousseau can be seen to provide a promise of the looked-for marriage of a deep musical passion and a genuine practical and technical facility with a systematic and integrated view of the workings of the world and its occupants. In our own time, two philosophers must be singled out as having ‘raised the stakes’ of musical literacy in the contemporary philosophy of music, these being Peter Kivy and Roger Scruton. Yet for both Kivy and Scruton, as well as for most others working in Anglo-American music philosophy, Rousseau is a marginal figure in both the history and contemporary practice of the philosophy of music. As Scruton puts it in his preface to The Aesthetics of Music, Rousseau’s ‘writings on music, for all their verve and interest, provide no philosophy of the subject, and are now of largely historical interest.’ Despite Rousseau’s position, therefore, as possibly the first philosopher to centre his musical thought away from the metaphysics that had always held sway, and towards what has since come to be called Aesthetics – a distinctly modern epochal turn in other words – Scruton finds that Rousseau, in common with other more recent figures such as Nietzsche and Adorno, has ‘little to say about the problems which I believe to be central to the discipline: the relation between sound and tone, the analysis of musical meaning, and the nature of the purely musical experience.’

As I hope this thesis will be able to show, it is precisely these ‘central problems’ of contemporary musical aesthetics that Rousseau’s musical writings are designed to account for. Moreover, they demonstrate, in common particularly with Adorno, a peculiarly unbending focus on the idea that the questions of the aesthetics of music may not be approached independently of a theory of society and the moral value of social practices. Given that this is one of the major insights and institutional assumptions of much contemporary musicology, the contemporary study of Rousseau’s philosophy of music may be said to offer a timely opportunity to marry the concerns of both musicologists and philosophical aestheticians.


This is the introduction to my PhD thesis. The complete document may be downloaded from here (pdf)