Music and the Ineffable

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 2/15/2016


Bergson says that there is "something simple, infinitely simple, so extraordinarily simple that the philosopher has never succeeded in saying it. And that is why he has spoken his entire life", and through this meaning we can interpret Jankelevitch's philosophy as the “philosophy of the almost “. The "almost" forms a third category between being and nothingness, because that which is almost is almost-not. As Jankelevitch observes, it is almost something and almost nothing. Things that do not have an essence, are not phenomena, or potential objects of cognition. They move us; they awaken, quicken, and enlighten concrete human life. In other words, they are almost nothing, but they are not nothing. This “almost” in ineffable, it can’t be talked about, it is only revealed through the act of its creation. So it puts the primacy of consciousness into question because the "almost" cannot be thoroughly grasped and, consequently, is not conducive to the order, definitions, conceptual constructions, and categories of systems. Jankelevitch's philosophy is largely a negative philosophy, a philosophy that speaks of one thing only but in many ways and from various approaches because it is that which cannot be wholly said. Jankelevitch uses words to dance around a point without extension, an instant without interval, a tangency without touch. “There are not enough keys on the keyboard of language to be able to describe 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.”

But what is this "Ineffable"? Given the lexical meaning of the word as "inexpressible, unspeakable, unutterable, transcendent." a question thus bluntly phrased cannot, of course, be answered. One such area, implied in the word "ineffable," concerns language: the ineffable is that which cannot be uttered, spoken, or even spoken of, because there are no words for it. Jankelevitch makes a distinction between what is untellable, unable to be spoken of because, as in the case of death, 'there is absolutely nothing to say', and the ineffable, which 'cannot be explained because there are infinite and interminable things to be said of it'. “From a negative that is unsayable to a positive that is ineffable is a distance as vast as that between blind shadow and transparent night, or between silence that is mute, throttled, and silence that is tacit, for music takes root in the distant rumor of pianissimo, the border of silence”. Music, he argues, embodies the qualities of the ineffable: it creates a kind of enchantment that bewilders the mind and puts it at a loss for words.  What we are discussing here, then, concerns the limits of language and that which lies beyond.

There is nothing wrong with referring at this point to the ineffable. The mistake is to describe it. Something can be very meaningful, even though its meaning eludes all attempts to put it into words. The smile on the face of the Mona Lisa; so is the evening sunlight on the hill behind my house. Wordsworth would describe such experiences as "intimations”. Anybody who goes through life with open mind and open heart will encounter these moments of revelation, moments that are saturated with meaning, but whose meaning cannot be put into words. These moments are precious to us. Although many philosophers were tempted to describe that moment, it cannot be described but only revealed.


Music is "ineffable", as Jankelevitch puts it, because  music does not express a specific content, it cannot be pinned down, yet it has the capacity to create limitless resonance in several domains because cannot be limited to a specific understanding. He states that “ Directly, in itself, music signifies nothing, unless by convention or association. Music means nothing and yet means everything. Music uses tones without inner meaning, that way staying perpetually new and accessible. One delves without end into such transparent depths and into this heartening plenitude of meanings: if this plenitude is infinitely intelligible, it is also infinitely obscure. The inexpressible-ineffable, being explicable into infinity, is the bearer of an ambiguous message. Music is inexpressive in that it implies innumerable possibilities of interpretation. In the hermeneutics of music, everything is possible, the most fabulous ideologies and unfathomable imputed meanings. Music has broad shoulders. One can make notes say what one will, grant them any power of analogy: they do not protest. In the very measure that one is inclined to attribute a metaphysical significance to musical discourse, music (which expresses no communicable sense) lends itself, complaisant and docile, to the most complex dialectical interpretations”.

This movement away from a specific meaning, places the emphasis on the human to create the meaning, rather than on disembodied meaning. In the intangible way music can be said to exist and not to exist, it inhabits an abstract and ephemeral realm. Each listener associates sounds with personal images and feelings, which can be discussed in ornate—yet ultimately obscure—detail. Music is a self-contained phenomenon, occurring apart from our attempts to decipher or characterize it. For this reason, Jankélévitch considers the music-language relationship a one-way affair: music can elicit endless talk, but talk gives nothing back to the music.

Jankélévitch says that music is made to be created through hearing which is creating meaning or playing, not to be talked about. Study led him to a profound gratitude best expressed in silence. He encouraged readers to enter the “mystery” for themselves. He states that “Music is not made to be spoken of, but for one to do: it is not made to be said, but to be played”. Music is an act of doing that demonstrates the difference between saying and making, "making is of an entirely different order from saying”. The fragility of its ontology is disarming, as is its temporal specificity and the physical spatiality of its occurrences. To relate this separation to music is to consider the vibrations of air that are the sounds of music as the scattered relics of past, embodied actions like the operation of instruments. Humans are responsible for continued creation, and this re-creation is open to human freedom. This opening or this openness itself marks, for Jankelevitch, the similarity between God and the human. Human beings tried to make sounds (music, conversation) to escape from their anxieties and the seeming silence of the universe and of eternity. As Pascal famously wrote, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me”.

Metaphysics of music that claims to transmit messages from the other world retraces the incantatory action of enchantment upon the enchanted in the form of an illicit relocation of the here-and-now to the Beyond. But why should hearing, alone among all the senses, have the privilege of accessing the “thing in itself” for us, and thus destroy the limits of our finitude? What monopoly will enable certain perceptions, those we call auditory, those alone, to be uncapped into the realm of noumena? And why should our critical faculties, which pull our thinking back within the phenomenal world, be somehow suspended for the sake of pure sound sensations, sensations that are above all subject to the temporal?

The invisible harmony, which is obscure and can’t be defined, is more powerful than the visible. This makes music a kind of magic, as Plato says, “it penetrates to the center of the soul”, It addresses the passions not the mind. The man inhabited and possessed by this intruder, the man robbed of a self, is no longer himself: he has become nothing more than a vibrating string, a sounding pipe. Music does not allow the discursive, reciprocal communication of meaning but rather an immediate and ineffable communication; and this can only take place in the penumbra of melancholia, unilaterally, from hypnotist to the hypnotized.

Thus, when a human being reaches the age of reason, he struggles against this unseemly and illegal seizure of his person, not wanting to give in to enchantment, that is, to go where the songs are leading. The magical induction becomes a seduction and thus trickery, and an adult refuses to be captivated. Being bewitched is not worthy of a rational person. Just as Will insists that its decisions are made on concrete grounds. What is science for if not to sustain us against the intoxications of night and the temptations exercised by the enchantress appearance?

The mermaid sirens had only one goal: to reroute, mislead, and delay Odysseus. In other words, they derail the dialectic, the law of the itinerary that leads our mind toward duty and truth. That made Plato say that the power to drive onlookers mad should not be left to any random flutist; that the musician, like the orator, plays with dangerous forms of enchantment; and that the state should regulate the use of musical influences and contain them within a framework of sound medicine.

But music is not simply a captivating and fallacious ruse, subjugating without violence, capturing without captivating; it is also gentleness that makes gentle: in itself gentle, it makes those who hear it gentler since music pacifies the monsters of instinct in all of us and tames passion’s wild animals. The music of the Muses exists as a truth because it imposes the mathematical law of number— which is harmony—on the savage tumult of hunger, the law of measure—which is the beat—on the disorder of measureless chaos, and rhythm across time. Music is a kind of temporal metrics.


Music and the Ineffable by By Vladimir Jankelevich

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