By Maria Popova
“The only strong and deep passions are those which can stand the test of reason.”
“Without music life would be a mistake,” proclaimed Nietzsche, one of the legion of celebrated thinkers who have contemplated the unparalleled power of music. Two generations later, Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883–June 3, 1924) — another writer of glooming genius and talent for illumination via strong dark pronouncements — turned to the subject in his itinerant dialogues with his teenage walking companion and ideological interlocutor Gustav Janouch, collected in Conversations with Kafka (public library), which also gave us the brooding author on Taoism, appearance versus reality, and love and the power of patience.
During a walk in the summer of 1922, the conversation turns to music — a subject the seventeen-year-old Gustav wished passionately to study, but his father forbade the pursuit. Kafka tells his young companion:
Music is the sound of the soul, the direct voice of the subjective world.
In a subsequent conversation, when Gustav shares with his mentor a short story he has written titled The Music of Silence, Kafka elaborates on how music casts its spell on the soul:
Everything that lives is in flux. Everything that lives emits sound. But we only perceive a part of it. We do not hear the circulation of the blood, the growth and decay of our bodily tissue, the sound of our chemical processes. But our delicate organic cells, the fibres of brain and nerves and skin are impregnated with these inaudible sounds. They vibrate in response to their environment. This is the foundation of the power of music. We can set free these profound emotional vibrations. In order to do so, we employ musical instruments, in which the decisive factor is their own inner sound potential. That is to say: what is decisive is not the strength of the sound, or its tonal colour, but its hidden character, the intensity with which its musical power affects the nerves. [Music] must … elevate into human consciousness vibrations which are otherwise inaudible and unperceived… [bring] silence to life… uncover the hidden sound of silence.
In another conversation, he considers the parallels and differences between music and poetry — something Patti Smith would contemplate nearly a century later. Kafka tells Gustav:
Music creates new, subtler, more complicated, and therefore more dangerous pleasures… But poetry aims at clarifying the wilderness of pleasures, at intellectualizing, purifying, and therefore humanizing them. Music is a multiplication of sensuous life; poetry, on the other hand, disciplines and elevates it.
And yet Kafka is swift to recuse himself of authority on music:
Music for me is rather like the sea… I am overpowered, wonderstruck, enthralled, and yet afraid, so terribly afraid of its endlessness. I am in fact a bad sailor.
Still, for Kafka the magnitude of his overwhelm was perhaps the most direct measure of the intensity of his love. “I don’t want to know what you are wearing,” he once wrote in one of his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters, “it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life.”
When Gustav laments his father’s veto on music and wonders whether having a head of his own gives him the right to disobey his father’s wishes and pursue his passion, Kafka dilates the question into a larger meditation on why artists make art:
Using one’s own head is often the easiest way of losing it… Of course, I am not saying anything against your studying music. On the contrary! … The only strong and deep passions are those which can stand the test of reason… There is passion behind every art. That is why you fight and suffer for your music… But in art that is always the way. One must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.
In another conversation, he revisits the subject and likens the sacrifices of art to those of religious devotion. In a sentiment that calls to mind Simone Weil’s abiding assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity [and,] taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer” — and what else is art if not generosity of the highest degree? — Kafka tells Gustav:
Prayer and art are passionate acts of will. One wants to transcend and enhance the will’s normal possibilities. Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts. Prayer means casting oneself into the miraculous rainbow that stretches between becoming and dying, to be utterly consumed in it, in order to bring its infinite radiance to bed in the frail little cradle of one’s own existence.
Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly profound, almost prayerful Conversations with Kafka with Aldous Huxley on what gives music its transcendent power, then revisit Kafka on why we read and his remarkable letter to his abusive and narcissistic father.