Sound-Image Relationships in Literature

1 Music in/as Text

Literature, especially in German, has found the subject of music a challenge since the late eighteenth century: music is supposed to be the better, the true, the ideal language.[1] This topos of the inexpressible was a constant companion of those artists from Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck by way of E. T. A. Hoffmann to Franz Grillparzer who not only created artists as characters and took music and dance as their subjects, but also tried to feel—and imitate—their wondrous language. Where words no longer suffice, musical notes speak. What figures cannot express, a sound paints.[2] It would be difficult to attribute that statement to a specific German-speaking author between 1790 and 1830. But the price is high: Wackenroder’s Berglinger from Herzensergießungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders (Outpourings from the Heart of an Art-Loving Monk), Tieck’s protagonist Franz Sternbald, and Hoffmann’s Kreisler had no opportunity for a successful life; social displacement, illness, or early death was planned for them. The competition between the media of painting and music also revealed potential dangers: when the painter Franz Sternbald turned away from his art—which had been identified as thoroughly German-Nurembergian by making Albrecht Dürer his teacher—he receded as an autonomous fictional character. The plot initiatives were taken over by his friend Rudolf Florestan, who appears suddenly and adds an erotic dimension with Italian songs and dances.

In his Lebensansichten des Kater Murr (The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr), the jurist, composer, music critic, graphic artist, and writer E. T. A. Hoffmann narrates in alternation fragments from the successful Bildungsroman (novel of education) by the philistine cat Murr and the discontinuous biography of the Kapellmeister Kreisler. The text spins between wonderful contrapuntal intricacies and the labyrinthine pathways of some fantastic park[3]; but even there it does not find a specific place. Moreover, the double structure of the novel tries to imitate musical forms such as polyphony—an ambition destined to fail, given the linear discourse of texts. It results in discontinuous writings mixing prose and poetry with no clear conclusion—which can be attributed either to the overly ambitious, early Romantic artistic program (not coincidentally, many of the advocates of the latter converted to Catholicism) or to expecting too much of literature.[4]

The French philosopher, writer, and encyclopedist Denis Diderot unsparingly depicted this idealistic and exorbitant elevation of music in his dialogue Le neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew).

These skeptical diagnoses were made even more acute by nineteenth-century authors writing in German and French, such as when Adalbert Stifter dedicated himself to painting or Honoré de Balzac tried to become a French Hoffmann with his characters Gambara and Frenhofer, who were of German origin. The style and rhetoric of an endless searching and failing to find give way to a clear, sometimes even cynical assessment. Grillparzer’s poor minstrel is simply a failure; in Balzac’s tales of artists, money, fame, and alcohol dominate as the driving forces of bourgeois society and the artists who work for it. Stifter’s protagonist Friedrich Roderer from Nachkommenschaften (Descendants) of 1864 can effortlessly abandon the landscape painting he had just been pursuing almost fanatically (a new painting of the Lüpfinger Moor every day), burn his paintings, and marry his distant relative Susanna Roderer. Together they want to create something even more Roderer like, which should be greater than anything a Roderer has ever achieved before[5]—a capitulation of the visual arts to the reproductive arts. Logically, it led Stifter to the conclusion that poetry is only the bearer of the thought, as for example the air carries the sound to our ear. Literature is therefore the purest and highest among the arts.[6] Previously, such statements could have been made of, at best, music and dance. The late nineteenth-century French painter novel presents in a particularly pitiless way the banality of failure and the increasing focus of the world of culture on economic matters.[7] The idealizing and Romantic elevation of art and the artist’s life seems to have become outdated at the moment when authors perceived the text as image, fabric, and resounding body.

Poems such as Charles Baudelaire’s Correspondances (Correspondences; 1857) or Arthur Rimbaud’s Voyelles (Vowels; 1871/1883), in their coupling of scents, colors, and sounds, or of vowels and colors, employ synesthetic experiences that are no longer tied to real objects.[8] Symbolism’s effort to make the linguistic material absolute was aimed at a poésie pure (Stéphane Mallarmé), which was supposed to recapture for literature what it had lost to music. Using the means of rhythm and sound such as assonance, onomatopoeia, and synesthesia, words should be turned into musical sounds. Oder as Paul Verlaine put it: You must have music first of all / and for that a rhythm uneven is best, / vague in the air and soluble, / with nothing heavy and nothing at rest (Art poétique, 1874/1882).[9] The spiritual unity of all phenomena the Symbolists sought could also be experienced through drugs (Le haschisch) or religious ecstasy.[10]

On the issues of Universal poetry cf. Gesamtkunstwerk  
Rimbaud was alluding here to the phenomenon of neurological synesthesia, in which photisms—i.e., visual sensations—are triggered by sounds, letters, numbers, and so on. He had come across synesthesia, which at the time was usually given the more restrictive label audition colorée, (colored hearing) when studying books on medicine. The lively debate over his poem even led to more intense research on synesthesia in the years that followed. See Kevin T. Dann, Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1998), 22–26.