Aldous Huxley

A Laboratory for Feeling and Time: Pioneering Philosopher Susanne Langer on What Gives Music Its Power and How It Illuminates the Other Arts

A Laboratory for Feeling and Time: Pioneering Philosopher Susanne Langer on What Gives Music Its Power and How It Illuminates the Other Arts

“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts… and the most sensual,” Susan Sontag wrote in one of the most beautiful meditations on the power of music. Aldous Huxley, in his immensely poetic reflection on why music moves us so, recounted “some exquisite soft harmony apprehended by another sense” as he listened to Beethoven in the dark. This sensorial splendor of music is what Helen Keller, deaf and blind, articulated in her exultation upon “hearing” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with her hand.

I thought about all of this recently — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I felt about it — as I listened, with my whole being, to a friend perform music that seemed to emanate from her whole being. I wondered what it is about music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetizing us to the present yet containing within itself all that ever was and ever will be — a place where the symbolic and the real, the abstract and the acutely alive, converge into something larger.

That peculiar property of music may have been what prompted Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895–July 17, 1985), one of the first professional women philosophers, to call music an “unconsummated symbol” in her trailblazing 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Langer revisited the subject a quarter century later in her final work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (public library), exploring what makes music different from all other forms of creative expression and how, paradoxically, understanding the source of its power illuminates the other arts.

Susanne Langer

Langer writes:

Music, like language, is an articulate form. Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new color made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e. its internal structure is given to our perception.

And yet music, Langer argues, is not quite a language, as it has frequently been called (although the two worked in tandem to help us evolve.) Unlike language, where words function as its primary forms of fixed meaning and association, music allows us to fill its forms with our own meaning. She considers this singular role of meaning in music:

Music has import, and this import is the pattern of sentience — the pattern of life itself, as it is felt and directly known.

Let us therefore call the significance of music its “vital import”…

Don Giovanni and the Universe: Aldous Huxley on How the Moon Illuminates the Complementarity of Spirituality and Science

Don Giovanni and the Universe: Aldous Huxley on How the Moon Illuminates the Complementarity of Spirituality and Science

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” Carl Sagan wrote shortly before his death. Two decades earlier, he had found a lyrical intersection of science and spirituality in Diane Ackerman’s scientifically accurate poems about the Solar System, which Sagan sent to his pal Timothy Leary in prison.

Leary had been jailed for his experiments probing precisely this meeting point of science and spirituality through his experiments with psychedelics, the most famous of which he conducted at Harvard in the early 1960s together with his friend Aldous Huxley (July, 26 1894–November 22, 1963).

Long before his collaboration with Leary, thirty-something Huxley began exploring the complementarity of the scientific and the spiritual realms of existence not through psychedelics but through immensely poetic prose, nowhere more beautifully than in his 1931 essay collection Music at Night (public library) — the out-of-print treasure that gave us Huxley’s moving meditation on the transcendent power of music.

Aldous Huxley

In an essay titled “Meditation in Arundel Street,” Huxley beings by wresting from the geographic cohabitation of two disparate journals — a religious magazine and a periodical on the science of poultry raising — a metaphor for two radically different ways of looking at the same thing: the universe and our place in it. He writes:

A walk down Arundel Street in London remains, after all, the best introduction to philosophy. Keep your eyes to the left as you descend toward the river from the Strand. You will observe that the Christian World is published at number seven, and a few yards further down, at number nine, the Feathered World. By the time you have reached the Embarkment you will find yourself involved in the most abstruse metaphysical speculations.

The Christian World, the Feathered World — between them a great gulf is fixed… The values and even the truths current in the world of number seven Arundel Street cease to hold good in that of number nine.

Just a few years before the great biologist and writer Rachel Carson extended her pioneering invitation to imagine Earth from the perspective of other creatures, Huxley uses the contrast between these two worlds as the leaping point for illuminating what a tiny sliver of physical reality we perceive through the limited lens of the human mind and spirit. That lacuna between the physical world of science and the metaphysical world of art, he suggests, is where the human consciousness takes shape and takes flight:

The world of Christians and the world of the feathered are but two out of a swarm of humanly conceivable and humanly explorable worlds. They constellate the thinking mind like stars, and between them stretches the mental equivalent of interstellar space — unspanned. Between, for example, a human body and the whizzing electrons of which it is composed, and the thoughts, the feelings which direct its movements, there are, as yet at any rate, no visible connections. The gulf that separates the lover’s, say, or the musician’s world from the world of the chemist is deeper, more uncompromisingly unbridgeable than that which divides Anglo-Catholics from macaws or geese from Primitive Methodists. We cannot walk from one of these worlds into another; we can only jump. The last act of Don Giovanni is not deducible from electrons, or molecules, or even from cells and entire organs. In relation to these physical, chemical, and biological worlds it is simply a non sequitur. The whole of our universe is composed in a series of such non sequiturs. The only reason for supposing that there is in fact any connection between the logically and scientifically unrelated fragments of our experience is simply the fact that the experience is ours, that we have the fragments in our consciousness. These constellated worlds are…