The Bull of Phalaris, or the Ambiguity of Musical Violence

[11 October 2007]

By Chadwick Jenkins

Lucian relates the tale of the tyrant Phalaris, who sent a magnificent bronze statue of a bull to the oracle at Delphi as a sacrifice to Apollo. In his message to the priests of Delphi, Phalaris explains that the bull was given to him by a skillful but corrupt sculptor named Perilaus. Perilaus constructed the bull as an elaborate form of torture.

The tyrant need only place his victims inside the hollow statue, place auloi (reed instruments from ancient Greece that were associated with the cult of Dionysus and therefore tended to be used in music that was orgiastic or emotionally overwrought) in the nostrils of the bull, and place the bull above a raging fire. As the bronze heated and burned the trapped victims, their screams would be transformed into “the sweetest possible music by the auloi, piping dolefully and lowing piteously” (see Lucian, Lucian, vol. 1, trans. A.M. Harmon. NY: Macmillan, 1913, pp. 17-19).

A depiction of The Bull of Phalaris

A depiction of The Bull of Phalaris

Thus, the contraption transmogrifies the excruciating pain experienced by those being burned alive into exquisite music designed to delight the tyrant; the shrieks of mortal despair serving as the source of aesthetic pleasure.

Søren Kierkegaard alludes to this story in one of the first aphorisms in Part I of his Either/Or. Here Kierkegaard defines the poet as “an unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music” (see Either/Or, Part I, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 19). Owing to his deformity, the poet (not unlike the victims in the bull) produces aesthetic pleasure where he wishes to communicate despondency. His auditors request more songs, by which they mean for him to experience more pain. All aesthetic delight, Kierkegaard seems to imply, depends upon a fundamental and willful misunderstanding.

These are alarming images. Moreover, they seem to give the lie to a foundational aesthetic precept that served as a central dictum at least since the Enlightenment and gained strength over the course of the 19th century, a precept that (despite the ridicule Modernism has heaped upon it) continues to besiege typical aesthetic notions today: the saying, which the Enlightenment borrowed from Horace’s Ars poetica, that insists “Si vis me flere, dolendum est primum ipsi tibi” (“If you would have me weep, you must first feel grief yourself”).

Music does not allow for the reflection necessary for a true moral education. Music is always of the moment.

At first, these tales might seem simply to illustrate the Horatian dictum. But whereas Enlightenment writers believed that the composer immersed himself in the same emotion he was trying to convey (a fine example in the musical world is the writing of music theorist and composer Heinrich Christoph Koch), Lucian and Kierkegaard insist that the emotion felt by the “performer” must necessarily be altered (through deformity or the machinations of a sadistic sculptor) in order to provide entertainment. In these tales, all aesthetic communication is, in actuality, miscommunication.

In another sense, however, the story of the bull of Phalaris does reinforce a central tenet of Enlightenment aesthetics, one that remains troublesome today for anyone who wants to take music seriously: the problem of musical meaning. Again we can look to Koch for an example.

To be sure, music itself speaks the language of feeling. It needs neither representation through pantomime, nor ideas or images expressed through words; it affects our heart directly and elicits pleasant as well as unpleasant feelings. But music is not capable of making known to us the reasons why this or that feeling is aroused, why we are led from one feeling to the other; it can make us comprehend neither the image of a pleasure whose enjoyment is to gratify us, nor the image of a misfortune which is to arouse fear. If the emotion caused by music alone cannot on the occasion of its creation forge a close relationship to our heart, if the music does not arouse joy in connection with a joyous occasion or sorrow in connections with a melancholy one, then the joy or sorrow aroused is without purpose. It interests our heart very little because we do not understand why the composer wishes to make us happy or sad. And these feelings present without reference cannot bring forth in us noble resolutions and cannot influence the education of our heart. (Translation by Nancy Kovaleff Baker in Aesthetics and the Art of Musical Composition in the German Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 150.)

Music induces certain feelings by communicating directly to our emotions, but the type of feeling that it induces is always relatively vague. We find the opening of Mozart’s B flat Piano Sonata, K. 333 joyous but we cannot point to the cause of that joy. We find the opening of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (with its famously dissonant sonority, the so-called Schreckensfanfare) terrifying but we fail to locate the reason behind that fear. Music is laconic in its expression; it implies much but actually says very little. Moreover, according to Koch, that lack of concrete volubility is precisely what could prevent music from accomplishing its ultimate purpose, which is to lead us to noble resolutions and provide us with a moral education.

Koch offers the typical Enlightenment solution. Music must be united with poetry so that the meaning behind musical expression becomes clear. Where music speaks to the heart and conveys emotion, poetry speaks to the mind and conveys concepts. Now we recognize the cause; Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus is joyful and the text reveals the cause of that joy to be the witnessing of God’s plan. As Koch explains, “Poetry not only precisely defines those feelings whose expressions are similar to one another and protects the composer from being misunderstood, but it also makes known the reasons why particular feelings are aroused, why we are led from one feeling to the other.” Music moves our emotions, but both music and the emotions that it elicits are relatively enfeebled when compared to language and rationality. Emotions are ambiguous, concepts concrete.

This is, perhaps, what the tale of the bull of Phalaris conveys. The inarticulate screams of a person in pain pull on one’s emotions but sounds can be manipulated. Without words, the cries of suffering can easily become enchanting melody. Music does not allow for the reflection necessary for a true moral education. Music is always of the moment. As Kierkegaard writes, music expresses the “immediate in its immediacy”. Concepts are not immediate; they demand reflection. Concepts (conveyed by poetry) slow the fluid motion of music’s ceaseless striving; language determines music’s vague meanderings.

The notion that poetry ultimately reveals music’s real “meaning” is implicit in the numerous arguments over the past several decades concerning violence in popular and concert music. When Frank Palumbo, M.D. gave testimony on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics before the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring, and the District of Columbia on the social impact of “music violence”, he culled his examples from the violent and sexually aggressive lyrics of such figures as Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and the portrayals of violence against women in music videos. No mention is made of musical issues. Palumbo restricts the range of his condemnation to concrete images and words.

When the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled a performance of choruses from John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer in the aftermath of 9/11, the managing director, Mark Volpe, claimed to have done so not because of Adams’s score but because Alice Goodman’s libretto dealt with contentious Israeli/ Palestinian issues that may have disturbed audiences still shocked by the attacks. Even the composer’s justifiably perturbed response emphasized the need for audiences to deal with such subject matter (meaning, again, the plot of the libretto) in our time of continual crisis.

But music’s indeterminacy with respect to meaning entails a troubling consequence: if music is limited to ambiguous expression, then it might be made to mean anything or, worse, it could be totally devoid of meaning altogether. Indeed, it is this resistance to concrete conceptual meaning that accounts for the truly violent aspect of music’s nature. Music refuses to state its intention unequivocally. If music can take us unawares, if it can fly under the radar of our conceptual control, then we might be imbibing any deviant message without defense.

Medieval thinkers recognized this danger with a touching perspicacity. St. Augustine, in one of the most moving passages of his Confessions, chastises himself before God for his love of music and the carnal pleasures afforded through the sense of hearing. Drawing on the Platonic belief that there is some “mysterious inner kinship” between the soul and music, Augustine asserts that music set to the Word of God has the power to move auditors toward believing sacred truth in a manner unavailable to the Word alone. However, Augustine fears that music sometimes takes the upper hand:

But my physical delight, which has to be checked from enervating the mind, often deceives me when the perception of the senses is unaccompanied by reason, and is not patiently content to be in a subordinate place. It tries to be first and to be in the leading role, though it deserves to be allowed only as secondary to reason. So in these matters I sin unawares, and only afterwards become aware of it. (Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 208.)

Here, Augustine does not claim that instrumental music is the danger, but rather texted music listened to without the proper accompaniment of reason on the part of the auditor. Corporeal delight in music threatens to enervate the mind, to dismantle reason, and to cause us to sin unawares. If music is, as Kierkegaard later claimed, the “immediate in its immediacy”, then such immediacy is experienced primarily by the body.

The notion that music must be tempered by reason and text goes back to the ancient Greek division between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Indeed, the ancient Greek language encompasses both these limits on music’s power through the single word, logos (a word that ranges in meaning from word to reason to mind and beyond). The music most suited for the rational state was the Apollonian—music dedicated to the Sun God (the god of the rational and the principle of individuality; the god whose temple is inscribed with the dictum that served as the catchphrase of Socratic thought: “know thyself”) that carefully subordinated sound to the clear communication of the concepts conveyed by the text.

The genre of music dedicated to Apollo the Lawgiver was known as the nomos—the Greek word for “law” (supposedly the earliest laws of ancient Greece were set to music as a mnemonic device for the illiterate populace). Thus Plato’s concerns that changes in musical practice could only have a deleterious effect on society at large had a linguistic and traditional basis that moved beyond simple-minded conservatism. (Plato was certainly socially conservative but never simple-minded.)

But there was always another kind of music, a music dedicated to that other musical god who, in stark contrast to Apollo, was unruly, irrational, and clearly associated with the pleasures in extremis of the body: Dionysus. This was the music of corporeal ecstasy; this was the music of immersion in the group, the music that served as the means through which one lost one’s sense of self, of individuality. To Dionysus, the Greeks dedicated dithyrambs and it was apparently out of the dithyramb that tragedy itself arose.

If music is limited to ambiguous expression, then it might be made to mean anything or, worse, it could be totally devoid of meaning altogether. Indeed, it is this resistance to concrete conceptual meaning that accounts for the truly violent aspect of music’s nature. Music refuses to state its intention unequivocally. If music can take us unawares, if it can fly under the radar of our conceptual control, then we might be imbibing any deviant message without defense.

Whereas the nomos was performed by a solo musician and thus the exemplification of the rationality of the individual, the dithyramb was performed by a chorus, joining their voices together and dancing while accompanied by auloi and that most carnal of instruments, the drum. Apollo’s was the music of distance and clarity; Dionysus’s was the music of involvement and ambiguity.

Perhaps this is the aspect of music that we are still loath to recognize. Perhaps this is the power that repels and attracts us. Music’s meaning constantly slips our grasp and yet it communicates its meaning through that very act of withdrawal. The immediate is the fleeting and yet overwhelming awareness that suffuses our consciousness and tears us away from calm reflection. Music grounds us in the body and is non-conceptual in the strict sense that its communicative effects arise from a deliberate withdrawal from conceptualization. This is why Augustine sought sacred absolution for the sin of attentive listening—listening with respect to music as music, as opposed to music as the emotive conveyor of text.

Is this what the bull of Phalaris has to teach us? The screams of the victim were emphatically not the meaning of the music the bull produced; they were merely the means by which the bull produced it. The screams are translated into music and in this case the old Italian proverb rings true: “Traduttore, traditore!” (“A translator [is] a traitor!”). Perhaps the real danger lies not with the lyrics (we at least know what they are saying and can react accordingly) but in that intangible sonority, that endless motion, that continuous pulse of the immediate.

By working directly on the body, music as a whole has access to a form of violence that far outstrips the petty accusations foisted upon certain of its constituent parts, such as hard rock and rap. This is the true power of music; this is the nature of the ecstasy of musical pleasure. And like all strong pleasures, music is not without its inherent dangers. For when we listen, truly listen to that (as Dionysus instructs) we gain worlds of experience but lose ourselves.

Depiction of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen

Depiction of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen

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