Beethoven, Cavell and Talking Nonsense

In music, film and literature (though not in visual art), grammar is the question of what comes next. The grammar of natural languages imposes restrictions on word order. Functional harmony frowns upon certain progressions of chords. The famous Kushelov Effect suggests a fundamental grammar to cinema. These rules have been explicitly codified on the level of the sentence, but we can make an analogy with the broader, more nebulous issue of aesthetic form. What kind of sentence or scene should follow another? Even when well-regulated formal concepts, such as sonata-allegro form, have long been surpassed – exploded by the possibilities of aesthetic modernism – we are not free from an underlying formal grammar. Simply put: some things work, and some things don’t. Success always depends not only on the totality of elements, but also their succession.

When aesthetic form is understood in this way, the question of how to begin can be seen as extra-grammatical. There are, of course, myriad conventions for opening a narrative, epic, or short story, and everyone knows an establishing shot when they see one. But an artwork never stands or falls on its beginning. More important for formal grammar is how this beginning evolves. Indeed, if we’re to define a beginning as successful, we do so in relation to other beginnings, not the emptiness that came before. Anything can come from nothing. Once a work is up and running, the question of what comes next is narrowed, defined (however loosely) by the seed of its opening. There is greater arbitrariness allowed in the opening of a work than at any other point.

Beginnings are of interest for how they mark aesthetic difference – that is, how they point out that what is about to happen is an artwork, a different domain from the real world. Just as cyberspace is where you are when you’re on the phone, aesthetic experience traps the attention at a remove from reality, whilst still remaining inside it. The language of art does not attach to the world like everyday language, everyday as it may be. As soon as an artwork begins, its effects a rupture. Sometimes this rupture is violent, sometimes gentle – and always quickly forgotten in the evolution of thought that follows. Once the aesthetic world is created – there we are. Yet we are so used to violent or captivating beginnings that we forget the strangeness of this rupture. Is it possible not to jump, but to slide into the world of an artwork?

The greatest example of this rare form of opening I can think of is Beethoven’s 30th piano sonata, op.109 in E major.

A simple, even common progression is arpeggiated between the hands, left answering right as they descend the keyboard. The music comes from nowhere as if carried by the wind. It does not establish itself with a great gesture, nor does it seek to intimate itself gently, over a pedal for instance. Beethoven avoids giving us the tonic immediately, but only after the slightest delay: G#-B, then E. And as soon as we hear the E major chord, it unravels further and the progression continues its descent. But what is there here to get hold of? There is no melody to speak of, just the otherwise empty form of the arpeggio (which can be reduced to its underlying harmony). However, Beethoven transforms these ‘empty’ arpeggios into two voices that speak with each other. To declare a melody would be too abrupt. To suggest a harmony outright (building chords from the bass upwards) would likewise be a pronouncement. By splitting such simple chords this way, bass second, Beethoven achieves a startling effect. We are not suddenly told to enter the world of the sonata. Rather, we slide in despite ourselves, over a couple of seconds, in a fall not unlike the catkins of Rilke’s tenth elegy:

Aber erweckten sie uns, die unendlich Toten, ein Gleichnis,
siehe, sie zeigten vielleicht auf die Kätzchen der leeren
Hasel, die hängenden, oder
meinten den Regen, der fällt auf dunkles Erdreich im Frühjahr.

Und wir, die an steigendes Glück
denken, empfänden die Rührung,
die uns beinah bestürzt,
wenn ein Glückliches fällt.


But if, for us, the endlessly dead were to rouse an image,
look, perhaps they would show us the catkins on the bare
hazel, the hanging ones, or
the rain that falls on the dark earth in spring.

And we, who think of rising
joy, would feel the emotion
that almost confounds us
whenever a joyful thing falls.

(my translation)

If artworks beckon us into a different domain, if their language does not quite attach to the real world, then how can we, back where we came from, attach words to these artworks? My attempt in the previous paragraph to describe the opening of Beethoven’s op.109 is, I believe, a necessary failure. I am trying to get at something about the way it ushers me into its world. I try to make that sound objective by pointing to formal features of the music. Yet I doubt my words alone (or even with Rilke’s) will convince you of this feeling. Only having it could do that. In what follows, I want to suggest that the language we use to describe aesthetic experiences attempts to do so by adopting the same décalage with respect to ordinary experience as aesthetic language itself. Furthermore, I want to suggest that, in an important sense, it is nonsensical, yet that this nonsense is the index of a possibility (and hence a possible failure) – that of being together in this secondary world. Talking nonsense is hence of great importance.

Besides its glistering, improvisatory first movement, I also adore the set of variations that closes op.109 (6:53 in the above video). As in the arietta and variations of op.111, a theme of almost childlike simplicity is pulled apart then restated, transfigured, at the movement’s end. What interests me here, however, is the enigmatic direction at its opening: Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung (“singingly, with the most inner feeling”).

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at copy

This kind of direction would usually be referred to as an expression mark. Yet there is something paradoxical in telling the performer to express the work as inwardly as possible (or at least, “with the most inner feeling”). Assuming that the performer wishes to play characterfully, are they not already trying to add ‘expression’ to their playing? What exactly is “inner feeling” – how is it different from a simpler direction such as “happily” or “with force”? More importantly, how does one express inner feeling, because surely in that moment of expression, it is no longer something purely interior? Does expressing inwardness not result in something else? We could suggest the piece be played “meditatively”, but this also seems lacking. Beethoven’s direction is, on close consideration, quite bizarre. And yet it is intuitively comprehensible. It seems to refer to the fact that the world of artworks, at their most sublime, is an inner world, in some sense irreconcilable with reality, whose innerness is inner precisely because it cannot be articulated in everyday language. Of course, the language of the artwork is public – the work is shared in the concert hall – yet there is something in the nature of aesthetic experience that resists public scrutiny. Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung is hence the perfect direction for a work of this power. Its paradoxical nonsensicality points to the nonsensical power of the artwork itself – something that lies outside the domain of “sense” as construed by everyday language. To play with the most inner feeling is to play in the fashion least reducible to words.

As I’ve described them here, aesthetic experiences hang together with the problem of philosophical skepticism in a similar way to experiences of pain. Without experiencing the same pain as you, how do I know you are in pain? Seeing you reacting to your pain is not the same as experiencing it myself. There is always the possibility that you are faking. In a similar way, how can I know the profound experience you have when faced with an artwork? This classic problem of other-minds skepticism seems to lie at the very foundation of “meaningful” language. For if we seek to define a language to describe states of interiority that are purely private, how are we ever to reach a consensus as to their use? External criteria are necessarily missing for objects of pure interiority. This is the reason the early Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, excludes ethics and aesthetics from the domain of meaningful propositions: their statements cannot map onto atomistic objects in the world, hence they are nonsensical. Somewhat differently, the later Wittgenstein, in the Philosophische Untersuchungen, would also ‘bracket’ such statements from the domain of meaningful language – not because they cannot correspond to the world, but because they lead words away from an effective use in everyday language games (where what the word does is clear) to a metaphysical use where they do not, apparently, do anything. This raises two questions about the interpretation of Wittgenstein’s philosophy: (i) Is the project of the Investigations a continuation of that of the Tractatus, viz. to define a boundary of what is philosophically possible through a theory of nonsensical statements? (ii) Does Wittgenstein think that talking aesthetic or ethical nonsense is more important than talking philosophical sense? My inclination is to answer ‘yes’ to both of these questions, but in the case of the second, I may just be attracted to a productive misreading. Why it is productive I hope to be the point of this essay.

Some of the most interesting thought about these problems, relating skepticism, nonsense and art, is to be found in Stanley Cavell’s work. The core of his thinking on skepticism is contained in The Claim of Reason (1979), a revised version of his PhD thesis, and the earlier essay ‘Knowing and Acknowledging’ (published in 1969 as part of Must We Mean What We Say?). Cavell’s interest in skepticism led him to see it as having profound ethical implications, and not something to be dismissed as mere philosophical nonsense or confusion. His response to skepticism is founded on a reading of the later Wittgenstein, as well as the ordinary language philosophy (especially J L Austin) that grew out of the Investigations. I’ll attempt a brief summary of the argument in ‘Knowing and Acknowledging’, before trying to relate it to the difficult business of talking about, and responding to, artworks.

Cavell’s essay begins with a consideration of how ordinary language philosophers try to refute the skeptic. A sentence such as “I cannot know that another man is in pain because I cannot have the same pain as him” is said to contradict what we would ordinarily say. The skeptic is thus supposed not to mean what he actually says. This argument is meant to work by showing that ordinary uses of “know” or “the same” are being perverted such that the skeptic’s statement is meaningless – or at least points to something other than what he wants it to mean. Yet Cavell insists that the skeptic remains intelligible. He would grant that what he says is extraordinary, that he does not act in his everyday life as if his common-sense beliefs about the world were different. But does that mean that he is wrong, as such? Similarly, the anti-skeptic’s response cannot be said to have the form of a defense of our common-sense beliefs. Suppose it did. In this case that would mean that he and the skeptic believed different things, but they shared a common language within which they could articulate this disagreement. The skeptic’s remarks would not be meaningless if the anti-skeptic disagreed with him, for dissent would require comprehension. Thus, if the anti-skeptic is correct in saying that the skeptic’s remarks are meaningless, he is still not defending – not providing evidence for – a common-sense belief. Appealing to our everyday language thus has a different philosophical force from refuting an argument. Cavell hence claims that the anti-skeptic does not wish to refute the skeptic as such, that is to make him agree with him, but instead to come up with “data and descriptions and diagnoses so clear and common that apart from them no agreement or disagreement would be possible – not as if the problem is for opposed positions to be reconciled, but for the halves of the mind to go back together” (241). Cavell is thus interested in what each of these positions (skepticism or anti-skepticism) means, and in what circumstances they grip us. Just because we decide on certain foundations for our knowledge does not mean that these foundations cannot crack, or that these cracks cannot be meaningful.

For Cavell, taking the skeptic seriously, and realizing that he has an insight, is essential for understanding the structure of knowledge. He thus provides more arguments for why the ordinary language critic cannot quite do what he wants. Why can words not be extended to new contexts? Is that not a basic principle of all language use? Even if the skeptic is not fully intelligible, he is not fully unintelligible either. Rather, the skeptic has an insight – that another person may be in pain, and I may not know about it, or vice versa – and he responds to this insight in a confused fashion. The skeptic becomes “enmeshed” in a philosophical conundrum, asking about whether two people can have “the same” suffering, and ultimately concludes that another’s pain is unknowable. Cavell sees this as a deflection of the real issue raised by the skeptic’s insight.

The basic motivation of skepticism is wanting something you cannot have, namely first-hand knowledge of another’s pain. Yet the skeptic’s desire can also be shown to be paradoxical. If one person experiences another’s pain as if it were their own – then it is their own. “[H]e is not other in the relevant sense” (255). To feel such pain as being the other’s would require an intellectual will, ignoring one’s own experience (causally related to the other) and using it to infer their pain. There is still a fundamental separateness here that is not accounted for by the imaginary act of sharing a pain. Indeed, it seems that the very possibility of knowledge about such things is already bound up with independence from the other, not contingent on our overcoming it. This raises another question: if we are to talk about knowledge at all in relation to other minds, what criteria could we appeal to, given that first-hand knowledge is inappropriate in these circumstances? What kind of demand is implicit in the fundamental separateness of minds? The skeptic’s insight has been to point to this separateness. His confusion, however, has been to want something he cannot have, which would not help him anyway, and to miss the fact that there may be another demand placed on him. Lost in philosophical perplexity about one side of the problem (“I cannot be said to have the same pain as you, therefore I cannot know your pain”), he fails to see the other (“How else is it that I could know your pain?”). The skeptic, then, fails to respond to the other’s pain appropriately, instead asking a question that is – as this consideration shows – inappropriate. In a sense, his position represents a failure to take responsibility for knowledge that may be imperfect. It is hence a deflection of the real issue: knowledge of others is imperfect, if measured against these criteria (which conceptually will always fail to fit), and this imperfection places an ethical demand on us to respond appropriately.

In the later sections of the essay, Cavell names this broader domain of the concept of knowledge “acknowledgement”. Following ordinary language philosophy, he points to the fact that when we say we “know”, sometimes what we are doing is acknowledging – that is, performatively pointing out something known both to us and our interlocutor (“I know I’m late”). The force of such a statement is not to express certainty (all the skeptic is interested in), rather it refers to an ethical bond between speaker and addressee. We should thus, especially in the case of other-minds skepticism, expand our concept of knowledge to include circumstances in which “I know” enacts an acknowledgement. Hence “I know you are in pain” is not to say that I am certain about it, but instead to respond to a claim as best I can: “your suffering places a claim upon me” (263). I know your pain by intuitively feeling the need to respond to this claim, and an utterance such as “I know you are in pain” (or any other act of comfort) is an acknowledgement of it. Cavell points out that acknowledgement must not necessarily be given. We can feel the claim of another’s suffering and yet refuse to respond. But the feeling of that claim is sufficient to let us speak of “knowledge” (in the extended sense) in these circumstances. We would, however, be shirking an ethical responsibility – even more so the skeptic, who in pigheadedly focusing on certainty avoids the issue of responsibility entirely. He refuses acknowledgement as he disowns knowledge.

Interior experiences cannot be “known” in terms of certainty, but can be acknowledged – another form of knowing – via response. How does this discussion connect to the issue of nonsensical statements, and philosophical vs. aesthetic/ethical language? In ‘Knowing and Acknowledging’, Cavell does not draw an obvious connection. However, he hints at it in one of the essay’s most enigmatic passages:

I take the philosophical problem of privacy, therefore, not to be one of finding (or denying) a “sense” of “same” in which two persons can (or cannot) have the same experience, but one of learning why it is that something which from one point of view looks like a common occurrence (that we frequently have the same experiences—say looking together at a view of mountains, or diving into the same cold lake, or hearing a car horn stuck; and that we frequently do not have the same experiences—say at a move, or learning the results of an election, or hearing your child cry) from another point of view looks impossible, almost inexpressible (that I have your experiences, that I be you). What is it I cannot do? Since I have suggested that this question is a real one (i.e., that the sense of “cannot” here is real), and since nevertheless I have suggested that the question has no answer (on the ground that the words “cannot have his feeling” are “too weak” for the experience they wish to convey), I would need, in accounting for these facts, to provide a characterization of this sense of incapacity and provide the reason for our insistence upon putting it into words. I find that, at the start of this experience, I do not want to give voice to it (or do not see what voice to give it) but only to a point (to others, or rather to the fact, or the being, of others) and to gesture towards my self. Only what is there to point to or gesture towards, since everything I know you know? It shows; everything in our world shows it. But I am filled with this feeling—of our separateness, let us say—and I want you to have it too. So I give voice to it. And then my powerlessness presents itself as ignorance—a metaphysical finitude as an intellectual lack. (Reverse Faust, I take the bargain of supernatural ignorance.)

– ‘Knowing and Acknowledging’, Must We Mean What We Say?(Cambridge: CUP, 1976 [1969]), pp.238-266 (pp.262-3)

The obverse side of all acknowledgement – of fulfilling our ethical duty – is to admit the fundamental separateness of minds. What brings us together is founded on a distance. The skeptic’s insight can always reassert itself, and with that comes another demand, albeit one arising from within: giving voice to separateness. I give voice to my separateness, paradoxically, to overcome it: “I want you to have it too”. But is this not the structure of any articulation of interior content, say of an aesthetic experience? By nature that content is already an index of skepticism – it belongs to me alone – and articulating it expresses the desire to overcome it. Is what I want, then, in asking that you share it, not also a form of acknowledgement? If we cannot know that we share this feeling, can we acknowledge it?

I am tempted to claim that philosophical language is a domain of knowledge, literary language a domain of acknowledgement. This seems to follow from Cavell’s engagement with literature. Philosophy discusses questions that bracket responsiveness, whereas literature shows the dangers of such bracketing. Indeed, the world of literature is not one of certainty, but one that in some ways is more like the real world – appealing to the whole sensibility, the whole mess of uncertainty – than philosophy alone can be. Both décalé and imbriqué, its aesthetic difference points to our separateness, gives occasion to acknowledge. Preserving this distinction between literature and philosophy, I would also like to suggest that literary language – language that appeals to acknowledgement – is strictly considered nonsensical. It shies from having a clear referent or use. Instead it can function as a gesture, an appeal to share something, a sign of our separateness, exposure, and potential connection. This, then, is the status of both artworks, and talk about art: Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung.

The impossibility of such talk meaning anything, in a strict sense, is at the same time the condition of possibility for saying anything about our inner, aesthetic experiences. Such experiences’ interiority masks them from “meaning”. This idea is not only something to try to draw out of Cavell and New Wittgenstein philosophy. It is also very well expressed by Zizek, discussing Hegel and Lacan, when he explains the impossibility of describing the subject:

The usual conclusion from this would be that the subject is some kind of interior richness of meaning which always exceeds its symbolic articulation: ‘language cannot express what I’m trying to say…’ The Lacanian thesis is the opposite: this surplus of signification masks a fundamental lack. The subject of the signifier is precisely this lack, this impossibility of finding a signifier which would be ‘its own’: the failure of representation is its positive condition. The subject tries to articulate itself in a signifying representation; the representation fails, instead of a richness we have a lack, and this void opened by the failure is the subject of the signifier. To put it paradoxically: the subject of the signifier is a retroactive effect of the failure of its own representation; that is why the failure of representation is the only way to represent it adequately.

The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso, 2008 [1989], p.198

Again: the paradoxical failure of Beethoven’s performance direction is the only way to adequately represent the interiority he wishes to describe. If we are to be faithful to aesthetic experiences, indeed if we are to acknowledge the possibility of overcoming separateness that they afford, then we have to be prepared to talk nonsensically about them. Being open to such experiences also involves allowing them to make a claim on us – a claim that makes us want to talk, to share something of the interiority they render so apparent in us.


Acknowledgement may be denied. The skeptic’s insight can flounder in deflection. Why is academic literary criticism so dull? These problems are not unrelated.

I sometimes wonder what the impulse for real criticism is. The best criticism seems not to suppress its subjective element. Instead, in the belletristic tradition, its aim is to bring another round to its judgement – or at least to show the mind in the process of judging. This needn’t be effusive. Indeed, it can be technical. Dissection of poetry in terms of form and metre does not have to clip its wings. Rather, the critic’s technical toolbox is there to help them articulate why something is good, why they care about it. Just because something is in an artwork doesn’t make it worth commenting on. Even technical criticism should be born out of a claim made by the work, something that affects the critic – something they wish to share. To show a mind in the process of judgement is to show it in this state of responsiveness. What use is any criticism that does not stem from wanting to show something it cares about, wanting to illuminate a work, share an observation so that others can have it too? Should the best criticism not come from this desire to speak, faced with the enigmatic power of artworks? Should it not try to say just what they, just what we, are?

Or is criticism like applause? Does it possess the same vulgarity? Adorno is right on the atrociousness of applause. The interiority of the artwork’s world is a scandal. Aesthetic difference must be clearly demarcated. This is no problem with beginnings, into which we so rarely slide, but are jolted. Yet leaving that world is another question. Even an abrupt ending leaves silence hovering around us, a silence that applause seeks to stifle. It is terrifying: a sign of our exposure, our ability to be affected (and with the most inner feeling!) by an artwork. In awareness of that depth, of its separation from the shores of the everyday, and the impossibility of reconciling the two, a terrible question arises. — What comes next?

This entry was posted in academia, Adorno, aesthetic experience, aesthetics, criticism, ethics, form, literature, music, philosophy, pointless rants, Rilke, Stanley Cavell, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Beethoven, Cavell and Talking Nonsense

  1. The video begins with a “fade-in”, a visual slide-in, though Arrau does a little metronome tick-tock from his waist up before he starts to play, so the piece for him begins with that (the structure) not the notes.

    “If artworks beckon us into a different domain.”
    Art beckons into another world as acknowledged fiction. Artists are craftspeople: their first concerns are with the notes, words, blocks of wood and stone, scumbled greasy paint and tools of their trade. Whores think about makeup; clients think about sex. The greatest art, and the greatest understanding of art comes when you’re face to face with something that makes you want to be in that other world even while it pushes you back into this one: when the desire for belief and the appreciation of the craft behind the lie results in a moment of aphasia. “Artists. All charlatans.” Flaubert

    Think of art as the thing actors do and it becomes clearer. “I cannot know that another man is in pain because I cannot have the same pain as him.” If I stage a violent scene in the middle of the street and include fake cops and fake EMTs with an ambulance and gurneys with people screaming in fake pain, who are then driven off to drink at a bar, pick up their checks and have a laugh, will anyone not in on the joke have any idea what they were really feeling? No. But will any of the people involved “really know” what what they’re friends are thinking? No. There’s no debate about either; it’s simply a matter of fact. Structure is evident; the meanings of structure are private.

    Similarly with the discussion of “nonsense”. Jabberwocky is not “nonsense” any more than the house Wittgenstein built for his sister is “nonsense” Instrumentalism is the vulgarization of language as simple function. That function breaks down easily, but the result is not nonsense. Call it “good enough”, “approximation”, “charitable interpretation”, etc, but “pragmatism” is godawful Americanism uprighteousness. American philosophers never think of conmen as pragmatists; only American novelists do that. And which one is right?

    Beginning with philosophy and then the world is doing everything backwards. Begin from the mud and build up, not from the sky and down. Art is artifice and the love of the sublime is the fantasy of the desiring suitor, for pussy or for God. Artists make things for you to worship, but they’re just working for a living, like Helen of Troy and Brittany Spears. “Oops!… I Did It Again”.

    The slide-in or fade-in is a standard literary device, and Beethoven was at the beginning of the move towards literary and visual, therefore ‘extra-musical’ aspects of classical music. An old teacher of mine, an arch modernist, used to curse him “Such beautiful notes, and then he goes and ruins them with the goddamn birds!!”

  2. rblakslee says:

    I really enjoyed your article, especially your emphasis of the ethical thread that Cavell finds in Wittgenstein, and am super intrigued by your move from that realm to your analysis of aesthetic ‘meaning’. I write a blog with some friends and we were recently nominated for the Liebster Award, for which I am subsequently nominating you. The purpose of the award is to foster “mutual acknowledgement and reciprocal promotion. It helps bloggers, and in particular newbies, to get noticed in the big blogosphere.” Please follow this link, to our blog, to find more about what the award entails. I hope you choose to participate, and thank you for your insightful and engagingly written posts! Robert.

  3. lexipenia says:

    I’m glad you liked the post! However, I’m not particularly keen on awards and things, and won’t be reposting anything. Thank you for the nomination, though.

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