Poetry, Music, and Dance
Architecture, painting, and sculpture are objective and static. These arts above all express forms, and their universality lies in the objective symbolism of these forms.
Poetry, music, and dance are subjective and dynamic. These arts first and foremost express essences, and their universality lies in the subjective reality of these essences.
Music distinguishes essences as such and does not, like poetry, distinguish their degrees of manifestation. Music can express the quality of “fire” without being able to specify—since it is not objective—whether it is a question of visible fire, of passion, of fervor, or the flame of mystic love, or of the universal fire—of angelic essence—from which all these expressions are derived. Music expresses all this at one and the same time when it gives voice to the spirit of fire, and it is for this reason that some hear the voice of passion and others the corresponding spiritual function, angelic or Divine. Music is capable of presenting countless combinations and modes of these essences by means of secondary differentiations and characteristics of melody and rhythm. It should be added that rhythm is more essential than melody, since it represents the principial or masculine determination of musical language, whereas melody is its expansive and feminine substance.
The angelic essences have been compared to streams of pure water, of wine, of milk, of honey, and of fire; they correspond to so many melodies, so many musical categories.
Poetry should express with sincerity a beauty of the soul; one might also say: “with beauty, sincerity.” It would serve no purpose to make so obvious a point but for the fact that in our days definitions of art have become increasingly falsified, either through the abuse of attributing to one art the characteristics of another, or by introducing into a definition of one art, or of all art, perfectly arbitrary elements such as a preoccupation with its date; as though the value or lack of value of a work of art could depend on the knowledge of whether it is modern or ancient, or on one’s believing it to be ancient if it is modern or vice versa.
Contemporary poetry is mostly lacking in beauty and sincerity; it is lacking in beauty for the simple reason that the souls of the poets—or rather of those who fabricate what takes the place of poetry—are devoid of it, and it is lacking in sincerity on account of the artificial and paltry searching for unusual expressions which excludes all spontaneity. It is no longer a question of poetry but of a sort of cold and lifeless work of jewelry made up of false gems, or of a meticulous elaboration which is at the very antipodes of what is beautiful and true. Since the muse no longer gives anything, because it is rejected a priori,—for the last thing which a man of today would accept is to appear naïve,—vibrations are provoked in the soul and it is cut into fragments.
Whatever the caprice of the moment, it is illogical to cultivate a non-poetical poetry and to define poetry in terms of its own absence.
A finite image of Infinity:
This is the purpose of all poetry.
All human work to its last limits tends;
Its Archetype in Heaven never ends.
What is the sense of Beauty and of Art?
To show the way into our inmost Heart—
To listen to the music of the Sky:
And then to realize: the Song was I.
All that has been said above also applies in one way or another not only to poetry but also to music: here again some people arrogate to themselves the right to call realistic or sincere anything which, they say, “expresses the spirit of our age,” when the reality to which they refer is only a factitious world from which they can no longer escape: they make a virtue of this incapacity and then disdainfully apply the label of “romanticism” or “nostalgia” to that innate need for harmony which is proper to every normal man. Ultramodern music—“electronic music” for example—is founded on a despising of everything that enters into the very definition of music, as is moreover also the case, mutatis mutandis, of the poetic art; it becomes no more than a system of sounds—miserably fabricated—which violates the principle at the basis of it. There is no possible justification for this puerile mania for “making a clean sweep” of centuries or millennia in order to “start from scratch,” to invent new “principles,” new bases, new structures, for such invention is not merely senseless in itself but also incompatible with any creative sincerity. In other words some things are mutually exclusive: no one can call forth a poem from his heart while at the same time inventing out of nothing a language in which to express it. Here, as with the visual arts, the initial error is belief in a quasi-absolute originality, that is, in something which does not answer to any positive possibility, the musical sense of a racial or traditional collectivity not being capable of a modification extending to its very roots. People talk about liberating music from this or that prejudice, or convention, or constraint; what they really do is to “liberate” it from its own nature just as they have “liberated” painting from painting, poetry from poetry, and architecture from architecture; surrealism has “freed” art from art just as by execution a body has been freed from life.
This allusion to music obliges us to draw attention to the fact that at the time of the Renaissance and in the following centuries the decadence of European music and poetry was incomparably less—if indeed there was any decadence or to the extent there was—than that of the plastic arts and of architecture; there is no common measure between the sonnets of Michelangelo and the works for which he is more famous, or between Shakespeare or Palestrina and the visual art of their day. The music of the Renaissance, like that of the Middle Ages of which it is a continuation, expresses in sound what is great and chivalrous in the European soul; it makes one think of wine or mead and of stirring legends of the past. The reason for this disproportion between the arts is that intellectual decadence—decadence of contemplative, not of inventive, intelligence—is far more directly manifested in the visual arts, in which elements of intellectuality are strongly involved, than in auditive or “iterative” arts, which chiefly exteriorize the many and various states—and in the event the beauties—of that plastic substance which is the soul. In the plastic arts and in architecture the Renaissance is the art of passion and megalomania; the Baroque, is the art of dreams. In music, the Baroque exteriorizes what may be lovable, tender, or paradisal in the dream, whereas in the visual arts it manifests the illusory and ludicrous aspects, enchantment coagulating into a nightmare. In the nineteenth century romantic poetry and music reinforced and made more acute the attachments to earth; like all sentimental individualism, this was a terrible sowing of heart rending and sorrows, though in romanticism in the widest sense there are still many beauties one would wish to see integrated into a love of God.
Whilst ancient music included a spiritual value which can still be felt even in music of the end of the eighteenth century, the plane of music changed at the start of the nineteenth century so that it became in fact a kind of substitute for religion or mysticism: more than in the profane music of the preceding periods musical emotion came to assume the function of an irrational excuse for every human frailty; music grew ever more hypersensitive and grandiloquent to the very extent that everyday life was sinking into scientific rationalism and mercantile materialism. But in general it was still real music, linked with cosmic qualities and consequently capable of becoming, even if rarely, the vehicle of a movement of the soul towards Heaven.
Metaphysical or mystical poets such as Dante and some of the troubadours, and also the Sufi poets, expressed spiritual realities through the beauty of their souls. It is a matter of spiritual endowment far more than a question of method, for it is not given to every man sincerely to formulate truths which are beyond the range of ordinary humanity. Even if the concern was only to introduce a symbolical terminology into a poem, it would still be necessary to be a true poet in order to succeed without betrayal. Whatever one may think of the symbolistic intention of the Vita Nuova or the Khamriyah (the “Song of Wine” by Umar ibn al-Farid) or the quatrains of Omar Khayyam, it is not possible knowingly to deny the poetical quality of such works, and it is this quality which, from an artistic point of view, justifies the intention in question; moreover the same symbiosis of poetry and symbolism is to be found in prototypes of Divine inspiration such as the “Song of Songs.”1
Visible forms manifest the heavenly essences by crystallizing them; music in a certain fashion interiorizes forms by recalling their essences through a language made of unitive sweetness and unlimitedness. Earthly music evokes in the soul the transforming “remembrance” of heavenly music, although with regard to this it may appear hard and dissonant.
According to Pythagoras and Plato, the soul has heard the heavenly harmonies before being exiled on earth, and music awakens in the soul the remembrance of these melodies.
Fundamentally, every love is a search for the Essence or the lost Paradise; the gentle or overpowering melancholy, which often appears in poetic or musical eroticism bears witness to this nostalgia for a far-off Paradise, and doubtless also to the evanescence of earthly dreams, whose sweetness is, precisely, that of a Paradise which we no longer perceive, or which we do not yet perceive. Gipsy violins evoke not only the heights and the depths of a love too human, they also celebrate, in their profoundest and most poignant accents, a thirst for the heavenly wine that is the essence of Beauty; all erotic music, to the extent of its authenticity and nobility, rejoins the sounds, both captivating and liberating, of Krishna’s flute, which is the very image of ascending, not descending, nostalgia; sweetness of salvation, not of perdition.
The psychological, and indirectly spiritual, quality of people close to the soil—or to nature—is especially apparent in their music. In Europe, the forms of folk music which are the most remarkable for their power and depth are probably those of Spain and Russia, without forgetting certain medieval survivals in other lands, for example in Auvergne, where the “bourrée” has kept all the flavor of the Middle Ages. Mention should also be made of the bag-pipes, an archaic instrument endowed with a strangely African or Asian tone quality. In the greater part of Europe, the nineteenth century was fatal for music, as it was for popular art in general. The accordion, that vulgar musical machine, seems to have been expressly invented to destroy whatever is original, noble, and profound in the popular soul.
In the yellow man’s soul, which is little given to declamation, the smallest things unveil their secret greatness: a flower, a cup of tea, a precise and transparent brush-stroke; the greatness preexists in things, in their primary truth. This is also expressed in the music of the Far East: tinkling sounds which form beads like the spume of a solitary cascade in a kind of morning melancholy; gong-strokes like the throbbing of a mountain of brass; chants surging from the intimacies of nature, but also from the sacred, from the solemn and golden dance of the Gods.
The arts are related in diverse ways to the existential conditions: thus, the plastic arts pertain to space, while poetry and music pertain to time; poetry and music are auditive and “inward,” whereas painting, sculpture, architecture are visual and “outward.” Dance combines space and time, while summarizing the other conditions: form being represented by the body of the dancer; number, by his movements; matter, by his flesh; energy, by his life; space, by the extension that contains his body; time, by the duration that contains his movements. It is thus that the Dance of Shiva summarizes the six conditions of existence, which are like the dimensions of Maya,and a priori those of Atma;if the Dance of Shiva,the Tandava,is said to bring about the destruction of the world, this is because, precisely, it brings Maya back to Atma. And it is thus that all sacred dance brings the accidents back to the Substance, or the particular, accidental, and differentiated subject back to the universal, substantial, and one Subject; this is moreover the function of music and, more or less indirectly, of all inspired art; it is above all the function of love in all its forms, whence the character intrinsically sacred—yet ambiguous under the reign of human decadence—of love and the arts.
There is the visual symbol and the auditory symbol, then the acted symbol, all of which bring about the passage from the outward to the Inward, from the accident to the Substance, and thereby also from the form to the Essence.
In a particularly direct way, music and dance are supports for a passage—at whatever degree—from the accident to the Substance; and this is above all the meaning of rhythm.
Let us mention the very great importance among black peoples of drums, whose function is central and quasi-sacred: they are the vehicle for rhythms which, when communicated to human bodies, bring the whole being into contact with cosmic essences. However paradoxical it may seem, it is the intelligence rather than the body of the black man which is in need of rhythms and dances, and that precisely because his spirit has a plastic or existential and not an abstract way of approach; the body, for the very reason that it is the limit of crystallization in the demiurgic process, represents “being” as opposed to “thought,” or “our whole being” as opposed to our relatively particular preoccupations or to our outward consciousness. The roll of drums marks, like heaven’s thunder, the voice of Divinity: by its very nature and by its sacred origin it is a “remembrance of God,” an “invocation” of the Power both creator and destroyer and thus also liberator, through which human art canalizes the divine manifestation and in which man participates through dancing; he thus participates with all his being in order to regain the heavenly fluidity through the “analogical vibrations” between matter and the Spirit. The drum is the altar, its roll marks the descent of God, and the dance the ascent of man.
We meet with the same symbolism in dervish dances and, in principle, in every ritual dance. Love dances, harvest dances, or war dances are designed to abolish the barriers between different levels of existence and to establish a direct contact with the “genius” or “divine Name” in question. Human infidelities do not in any way change the principle or take away the value of the means: whatever may be the importance given to utilitarian considerations or to magical procedures in the case of some African animism or some Siberian or Red Indian shamanism, the symbols remain what they are and the bridges towards heaven are doubtless never altogether broken down.
The magic power of a sacred song,
The thunder of a drum afar one hears.
The movement of the stars is in the dance,
The everlasting music of the spheres.
Our inner truth needs to be heard and seen:
The dance means our deep nature and its speech.
Our body shows the language of the Self;
It lets us grasp what thinking cannot reach.
Dancing is born of nature’s inner part;
From thence it comes, then goes back to the Heart.
1 In an analogous manner, Jalal ad-Din Rumi introduced music and dance into Sufism, not out of invention, of course, but through inspiration.