To begin with, we must look for ruptures, gaps and mismatches since they are the markers of a certain kind of cultural work: the ego, according to both Freud and Lacan, papers over epistemological and ideological gaps, tries to hide them, rushes to fill them and this is the main mechanism of its ‘psychosis’:
In the ‘emancipated’ man of modern society, this splitting reveals, right down to the depths of his being, a neurosis of self-punishment, with the hysterico-hypochondriac symptoms of its functional inhibitions, with the psychasthenic forms of its derealizations of others and of the world, with its social consequences in failure and crime. (Lacan: 'Aggresivity in psychoanalysis')
This historicity of the ego, then, is our starting point. Its general function is to maintain the fantasy of a containment, a wholeness, a uniformity of the self; its various specificities are to be located in the ways in which that fantasy is held in place at the local level. What, then, are the cultural materials that the ego utilises to underpin the fantasy of its wholeness at the historical moment of Adolph Bernhard Marx’s Beethoven in his 1859 biography of the composer?
Certainly, the ego will encounter quite specific threats to its putative cohesion and in such cases must find a way of maintaining its strategic sense of wholeness: in this sense it functions as a balm or defensive suture. The gap, or ‘split’, we have encountered in this understanding of the ego, then, does a cultural work that I will henceforward term ‘ego work’.
In writings on music from the middle of the nineteenth century, discursive gaps can be read as markers of a certain anxiety about personality formation and are present either only by surreptitious intimation, as having already been papered over (and thus as traces of the ego’s healing work), or as cautionary, invoking the need for ego-work to be set in motion. Scott Burnham has shown how Marx was able to draw on the Beethovenian ‘heroic style’ as a resource in constructing a certain moral personality:
Like the great myths, the Beethovenian heroic-style sonata form assumes a place as one of Western culture’s master plots … The attachment of this particular musical-formal procedure to an ethical position severely alters the way in which other forms are viewed. As a particularly telling example of this, remember the way in which the Beethovenian sonata form acts as the crowning form in A. B. Marx’s Formenlehre: it is the motivating telos of his derivation of all other available forms … Marx’s pedagogical program enlists Beethoven’s music (and thus music in general) in the all-important agenda of Bildung, a process concerned primarily with the aesthetic and ethical development of self.
Burnham is undoubtedly right to draw attention to the centrality of the Beethoven style in Marx’s pedagogical agenda, but there is something missing here, I would like to suggest. The specificity of Marx’s reading of Beethoven, especially if one concentrates one’s scrutiny on the 1859 Beethoven monograph, is to be found as much in its construction of the Beethovenian figure at large as in the (anonymised, generalised) Beethovenian style.
The shift in my reading from style to figure might seem a conservative move, a nostalgic return, perhaps, to an heroic biography, or even a neo-liberal celebration of the individual as some kind of privileged site of cultural work: certainly, Burnham’s delicately drawn historiography points to some of the ways in which Beethoven’s style comes to be held at the level of a certain mentalité, a collective and anonymous discursive modality (‘Marx treats Beethoven’, so Burnham would have us believe, ‘as a Hegelian telos: only from the vantage point of the end of history can History begin’ ); yet what this reading misses here, it seems to me, is the prodigious materiality of the Beethoven figure itself, as avatar of a certain moment in the development of what Bourdieu has termed the modern habitus, the enacting of culture onto the body: this is a crucial moment in the sealing of the modern personality into that habitus when, crucially for our purposes here, the ego emerges as a kind of body-sense, functioning rather as a field that is folded onto the space occupied by the body – in this sense, the ego and the habitus are crucial agents in this moment of the history of Western bourgeois masculinity. Marx seems to grasp as much in his narrative of Beethoven’s ‘breaking out’ into the world, as a newly formed and powerful agent in it:
His build had become stocky, though not tall, thick set, full of vitality, a picture of strength; at that point illness did not yet seem to be an issue. His head was covered in bushy dark hair, that lay unkempt, more mane-like than curly; his forehead was broader and protruded all the more for being mounted above the darkness of his cagily receding eyes; his nose was strong and had developed a broadness rather than protruding, in German profile rather than the Roman profile of most artists’ noses. His mouth was well formed.
Marx constructed this description of the 25-year-old Beethoven as a pointed and deliberate contrast to the famous silhouette of Beethoven at 16 included in the Wegeler-Ries Biographical Notes. Marx’s description of the younger Beethoven from that silhouette emphasises his ‘open profile’ with an ‘upturned nose’ and a light and ‘still undeveloped’ forehead. What is at work here is a pointed exercise in the narrating of body-Bildung, education through physical development, an enacting of the narrative of Bildung onto the habitus. A peculiarly German conception of personal development (although it finds many analogues in other cultures), Bildung has been characterised by Norbert Elias as ‘the inner enrichment, the intellectual formation of the individual, primarily through the medium of books, in the personality.’
This Bildung-narrative, as we shall see, is a crucial driver of Marx’s Beethoven fantasy; what is particularly interesting in this driver is the way in which Marx seeks, at certain isolated moments in the monograph, to shore up its effectiveness by making recourse specifically to the male body.
The pointed contrast between the two figures (the silhouette of Beethoven at 16 and Marx’s projected Beethoven figure at 25) is a material one, the difference between two technologies of representation: the earlier figure is referenced in relief, the silhouette tracing the outer markers of Beethoven’s personality; the later figure is imagined not in relief, but as an image available to the close scrutiny of the observer, such that the composer’s eyes give up their meanings under the protruding forehead, the mouth, well-formed, seems to work as a sign of health, and there is, as Marx stresses, no sign here of Beethoven’s coming illness.
This second image, at least, is fully legible. The technologies of nineteenth-century seeing, as Jonathan Crary has shown, were already under radical transformation by the late 1850s. Gustav Fechner’s Elemente der Psychophysik published one year after Marx’s Beethoven monograph, had gone some way to, as Crary puts it, ‘[formalise] perception’ and ‘render the specific contents of vision irrelevant’. Marx’s manner of ‘seeing’ here is in line with this formalisation, despite its heady romantic overtones and its commitment to ‘specific content’: in Beethoven’s forehead, the way in which it hides the eyes, in the well-formed mouth, and the racialisation of the artist’s German nose, Marx’s image promotes a manner of seeing that draws on the logic of the modernisation of optics that Fechner seeks to achieve.
What Crary terms the ‘human sensorium’ here finds a parallel in the intensification of Beethoven’s subject-status, not as Subjekt, but as Versuchsperson, as one subjected to intense scrutiny. There is thus a certain intensification of the look accompanied, paradoxically, by its disengagement; Marx’s ‘eye’ retreats from the scene of looking and the figure of Beethoven dominates, breaking into the narrative with a rude muscularity. Beethoven’s physicality dominates, and yet that physicality marks Beethoven’s susceptibility as one being-looked-at, his objectification.
The two figurations of Beethoven at 16 and 25 also tell us something about the specifics of Marx’s engagement of the Bildung-narrative: the story of Beethoven’s stepping out, ‘into the world’ [‘in die Welt’] as Marx calls this second chapter of his monograph, is told through recourse to a conception of Beethoven’s personality development as proceeding along a predetermined trajectory. Indeed, throughout this section, Marx draws prodigiously on the well-trodden clichés of Beethoven’s complex and difficult character and is particularly keen to tie these traits and his physical attributes into the musical works as if all this should add up to a self-consistent narrative:
This contradiction of an apparent closedness combined with an openness of the mind to all true sentiments and inclinations is a predominant element of Beethoven’s character [that remained] from his boyhood, a sign of the deeply invested powerful and serious nature at work within him, which should be evident from the first works onwards.
Suzanne R. Kirschner has termed this tendency to oscillate between the local-personal and the longer-term conjoncture of the Lebenslauf or life trajectory the ‘romantic spiral’, drawing explicitly on older German narrative traditions that outline man’s estrangement from and higher reintegration back into nature. In this sense, as Kirschner seems to suggest implicitly, the Bildung-narrative is a secularisation of the narrative of the fall from grace, rounded off with a neat reintegration, a kind of secular redemption. That secular narrative, in its most hegemonic form, calls into being fantasy figures whose progress is made to stand in for the progress of man at his most general towards that redemption.