What is the use of Mahler?

This post borrows its title and most of its content from an article in The Face (the British 1980s precursor to both Wired and Wallpaper) by music critic Ian MacDonald. I don’t know exactly what year it was, but I must have been close to the end of high school, because the clipping carries the words “Carnap – Feyerabend – Popper” handwitten in purple marker by my know-it-all adolescent self, as a footnote to a parenthetic remark on the impossibility of proving the non-existence of something in an infinite universe. She also highlighted numerous passages with a pink highlighter, and some with a green one. The article is, in summary, about the loss of the soul. Let me quote from it.

Earlier this year, Channel 4 transmitted a series of discussions under the title Modernity And Its Discontents. What stood out most from these programmes – apart from a general agreement that public life is melting into a “moronic inferno” of meaningless instantaneity – was that the modern self is in a lot of trouble. […] We’ve become “thinned out” – and the world with us. We’ve lost that sense of “depth” in people and things which, whether or not we ever appreciated it, we were at least once trained to respect. In fact, so far has this process of thinning out gone that to say something is “deep” is tantamount to mocking it as meaningless. We no longer believe in deep things. We think thinks are all about equally worthless.

Our great-grandparents would doubtless have found our attitudes appalling, but then they were different from us. They believed they had immortal souls. We don’t.

[…] The “shallowness” we feel in modern life is no more and no less than the loss of the soul. The “depth” we used to sense behind appearances was the depth of the soul. Now that’s gone, we’re paper-thin. No wonder we don’t take each other quite as seriously as we used to. […]

We are becoming a very sick society. It was this that Mahler was upset about. […]

When, aged 34, he wrote Resurrection, he was as secure in his belief in ultimate redemption as anyone could be. By the time he came to write his Ninth Symphony, at the age of 50, he had suffered a catastrophic experience (we don’t know what it was) which completely destroyed that belief, hurling him without ceremony into our modern world. As a man used to thinking out his situation, he saw all the implications at once. “I stand”, he wrote, “face to face with nothingness.” […]

It’s something we decide according to whether we belong to tradition or modernity, whether we think we’re souls or selves. Mahler started as a soul, ended as a self. The use of his music is that it charts that change, at once personal and historic, in such fearlessly graphic detail.

If my carbon dating is right, Ian MacDonald wrote this piece well before the Web was even a spark in CERN’s underground tunnels. Before reality shows, before 9/11, before the Eurozone crisis. Before Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat and before Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Who knows how he would have written this article today.

We will never know. In August 2003, aged 54, Ian MacDonald committed suicide following a lengthy period of clinical depression. He fully belonged to modernity. He too stood face to face with nothingness, until the abyss got the better of him.

One thought on “What is the use of Mahler?

  1. “at the age of 50, he had suffered a catastrophic experience (we don’t know what it was) which completely destroyed that belief”..

    In 1910 Mahler discovered the betrayal of his young wife Alma, and was advised to see Sigmund Freud.

    Although Mahler did not begin a process of analysis, Freud noted that Mahler had a serious obsessive-compulsive syndrome to be cured, a neurosis generated by the relationship between his parents, a father who betrayed his mother Marie (as the Mother of God) also with the maids, and a mother who had a wedding of convenience, although she loved another man.

    Freud had diagnosed the complex of the “Holy Mother”, ie a fixation on the mother and thus a tendency to perfection that excludes everything and everyone from themselves.

    In fact, Freud wrote that he had failed to see a little light in the “facade” built by Mahler.

    This obsession for the perfection excludes affection for others, which prevented him from giving love and sexuality to his wife Alma.

    Mahler was consoscious of having wasted his life: “” Others wear out the theater and take care of Themselves, I take care of the theater and wear myself out ”

    So we’re talking about the thoughts of a seriously ill person who seeks to lead us in its sphere of obsession for perfection, which is not for us the humans, we that must balance our “cultural being” and the pulsions of our ancestral reptilian brain: surviving, using and managing aggressivity, and giving birth through sexual activity.

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