Kafka on the Power of Music and the Point of Making Art

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?
“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 Taoismappearance 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.



How to Get Through These Times

How to Get Through These Times

Grégoire A. Meyer, “Pop Idol.” New media, 39.4 x 39.4 x 0.4in. Courtesy the artist/Saatchi Art.


An introduction to the special section

By Emma Varvaloucas

It would be an extravagant understatement to say that things have been feeling a bit shaky lately. Global politics, global warming, global unrest—the daunting list goes on. A persistent anxiety has crept into nearly every aspect of our lives.

On the one hand, this can all feel new, particular to our time and place. On the other hand, the way things are now is nothing other than the way things have always been—uncertainty is just more apparent at some times than others.

From the perspective of the dharma, that conditions are impermanent and constantly subject to change is nothing new and nothing special. Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering: life is full of suffering. This is the first noble truth of Buddhism; this is what the teachings have been saying all along. It would be a pity, at a moment when this truth is impossible to ignore, not to use our recognition of it as motivation to finally wake up.

Two of the pieces in the special section that follows, “Hold to the Center!” by Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, and “What to Do When You Don’t Know What’s Next,” by Dawa Tarchin Phillips, illuminate the perennial Buddhist wisdom you can rely on to navigate rocky terrain. They can be drawn on both as a source of comfort and as a catalyst to practice as if your hair were on fire, as the saying goes.

Doing the inner work prepares us to face the immediate external challenges of our time. Our interview with entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken, “100 Best Climate Solutions—and Why They’re Going to Work,”gives the most cheering prognosis we’ve heard yet for our planet’s future. (You may be surprised to learn that according to Hawken, it’s the private sector that will turn the tide.) In “Dialogue across Difference,” Zen priest Kurt Spellmeyer and Muslim activist Sofia Ali-Khan reflect upon the global rise of nativist movements, which have turned people’s fear into an impulse to attack those who are most vulnerable in our society: immigrants and minorities. And in “Camp Dharma,” scholar Duncan Ryuken Williams lifts the veil on the experience of the Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II, reminding us that American Muslims are not the first population to be singled out by the United States government.

Taking both a step out of and a step into the situation at hand: this is how we at Tricycle understand the Buddhist view of how to get through these times. It is a balancing act, and one that guides us through this section.

Neither paralyzed by despair nor hiding our heads in the sand, we engage the world with empathy and integrity while knowing that even the end of the world might not be the end after all, an idea that Douglas Penick explores in his lyrical essay “A World Ever at Its End.” Engagement requires the very qualities that we have been cultivating and refining as practitioners: compassion, clear seeing, and—perhaps most of all—courage.

These are tough times. May the contributions in this special section help you find a clear path through them.




Scents and sensibility

Resultado de imagem para Scents and sensibility Photo by Felix Odell/Gallery Stock

image edited by Web Investigator 

Our sense of smell gives flavour to food, emotion to memories, and connects us to each other. But how exactly does it work?

by Katherine Whitcroft is a surgeon and researcher at the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital and University College London. She has a special interest in clinical and cross-discipline smell research and is an associate research fellow for the Centre for the Study of the Senses, part of the Institute of Philosophy, University of London.

I know the dangers of smoking. Tobacco is a leading cause of head and neck cancer, which can lead to life-changing disfigurement or, in the worst cases, death. Speaking as an ear, nose and throat surgeon, this spectrum of disease has produced the most emotionally and technically challenging cases of my career: cigarettes were to blame the day I reluctantly broke the news to a patient on the morning round, blue paper curtains separating the dissolution of his world from a busy ward; cigarettes were to blame for the gradual suffocation of the swollen woman in the side room, whose visitors could no longer recognise her; and cigarettes were to blame when blood erupted from the carotid artery of a gentle grey-eyed man I’d met a few hours earlier. I know that ‘smoking kills’.

So why was it, when I recently visited the home of a smoker, with its lingering aroma of stale cigarettes, I involuntarily filled my lungs and sighed an illogical sense of calm? The answer eventually comes to me: ashtrays packed with Marlboro butts, balmy mosquito-filled evenings and the beautiful turquoise bracelets that bejewelled my breathless grandpa. A resolute smoker to the grave, this smell is my ‘echo of great spaces traversed’, and takes me back to the home of my mother’s father, where many childhood summers were spent.

In Swann’s Way, the first part of Marcel Proust’s lengthy – and for me as yet unconquered – À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27), our narrator dips a madeleine into his tea:

No sooner had the warm liquid, mixed with the crumbs, touched my palate than a shiver ran through me … An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin … this essence was not in me, it was me … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray … my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.

But how do smoky corridors lead to tea-soaked cakes? The answer lies with sensory integration. Beyond the five true taste sensations from our tongue (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami), all the complex and delicate flavours of food can be attributed to their odours: volatile molecules that escape our oral cavity as we chew to stimulate smell receptors at the back of the nose, through a process called ‘olfaction’. Therefore, what Proust’s narrator describes forms an eloquent template for what is now known as the ‘Proustian effect’: the seemingly unique ability of smells to unlock previously forgotten but vivid, emotional memories from our past.

Whether this poetic role of smell can be substantiated has interested psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists for many years. The first to formally publish on the topic was Donald Laird, director of the psychology lab at Colgate University in New York state. Laird’s work usually focused on the burgeoning field of business psychology, with books such as Psychology and Profits (1929) and Why We Don’t Like People (1933). But in 1935 he collaborated with his colleague Harvey Fitz-Gerald on the report ‘What Can You Do With Your Nose?’, analysing the olfactory experiences of 254 ‘men and women of eminence’. Of this cohort, 91.7 per cent of women, and 79.5 per cent of men had experienced odour-evoked autobiographical memories, and of these, 76 per cent of women and 46.8 per cent of men recounted such memories as among their most vivid.

Laird went on to provide personal anecdotes gathered from Fitz-Gerald’s participants. One such account comes from a ‘Southern attorney’ who said:

The sight of these things sometimes occasions the recalling of the facts but they come shapeless and indistinct – dead facts. The thing that is recalled by odour comes unasked and without effort upon my part; it seems more than a mere recollection; I am back there again in a world as it was, and I am as I was.

While lyrical and descriptively interesting, Laird’s study was just that: descriptive. His work provides no empirical evidence to support the superiority of odours over other sensory cues in eliciting vivid emotional memories. Whether odours are particularly potent in evoking such memories had yet to be proved…



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