I suppose most of us have relatives or acquaintances who forward us those corny inspirational emails from time to time. I usually do read mine, you know. I figure, given my solitarian nature, it’s a good way of keeping at least in sporadic touch with the zeitgeist, of being reminded what it is my fellow Myrrhkins find profound and important. Most of them make me feel like I’m eating rainbows and washing them down with syrup chugged straight from the bottle, but still, gastric distress aside, they’re mostly anodyne collections of banal pleasantries (and pictures of fuzzy animals). Harmless and easily forgotten, very few of them rise to the level of being truly off-pissing, reddening my cheeks and whitening my knuckles with rage.
This was one of them.
To what purpose, then was his gift? For what reason was he granted incredible talents, if only for them to be denied before their fullest triumph? Is the story of the Heiligenstadt Testament an isolated incident of a man and a mission separated by misfortune? Names such as Joan of Arc, Lincoln, and Churchill seem to indicate that this is not the case.
This story of Beethoven may remind us that our greatest strengths are not our own. It could be a lesson that our most important gifts defy time and circumstance, are never completely innate, and sometimes require tragedy for triumph. But a serious inquirer might be taught something more. The story of Heiligenstadt does not end there.
Beethoven returned to society. He still grappled with the loss of his hearing. He often quarreled with family and friends. His failures, after all, were as real as his success. But after the immediacy of his loss had worn away, he began to recall a dream born years before. As a youth he had read the words of Ode to Joy, a poem by Frederich von Schiller. The first time he heard those words, the lines inspired an intense desire, a hope for untouched joy and perfect peace. He determined then to set those words to music. But it was not until after Heiligenstadt and all that followed, not until after over 200 attempts to embody those words in musical form that he gave life to the idea that joy is not elusive, but our destiny.
Okay, maybe I exaggerate a bit for effect, but still. It’s not even the barely-concealed religious message, talking of joyous destiny, a “gift” that was “granted” and strength not our own, that irks me. It’s the mentality expressed in the title itself, so philistine, so acquisitive. The reduction of great artists and their work to lesson plans in the Great Big Book of Bourgeois Self-Improvement. How Beethoven’s formula for greatness can maximize efficiency and productivity in the workplace! How listening to Mozart in the womb can give your rugrat an advantage when it comes time to compete for a place in the best preschool!
Of course, one can’t help but admire the heroism of a man who goes on to compose masterpieces after losing his hearing, the romantic image of a tragic figure defiantly shaking his fist at fate. But the best art temporarily releases us from our narrow, egocentric concerns. This obsession with finding teachable moments everywhere is all about reinforcing them. What’s in it for me? How can I make this relate to my everyday life? As if Beethoven existed just to encourage you to become all the Vice-President of Sales and Marketing in the Tri-County Region you can be.
Just a couple posts ago, I chided Paul Murray for talking about Nietzsche in similar terms, although I’m pretty sure Murray was only guilty of using an infelicitous phrase or two out of laziness, not out of any heartfelt conviction that “Nietzsche Is Pietzsche“. But I’ve heard many other people use Beethoven as an example of the sort of “never give up” attitude more typically found on inspirational office posters for cubicle drones; a friend once remarked during a conversation about his music that “He certainly was a wise teacher.” Really? How so? On parenting advice? As a cautionary tale about drinking your wine from lead goblets? If the man weren’t safely separated from us by the romantic veil of a couple centuries, people like this would be too aghast at his dissolute, erratic, unseemly behavior to find anything redeeming in his music.
Lots of art is pretty. Catchy melodies. Pictures of sunsets and mountains (and fuzzy animals). But art that is truly beautiful usually grapples with tragedy. The irresolvable conflict between the way things are and the way we want them to be. The transience of the things we love. The realization that not all questions have satisfactory answers, not everyone gets what they deserve, and not everything turns out for the best. The jarring fact that a man can be both a phenomenal composer and a lousy human being. This is what’s so anathema to a mindset that only sees negatives and setbacks as temporary obstacles, subordinate to and redeemed by the glorious final result. It understands nothing about the kind of joy that doesn’t depend on winning and achieving. Beautiful art doesn’t exist for anything else. It is its own “purpose”.