Nietzsche, commenting on pessimism, once castigated Schopenhauer for taking things too lightly. He writes: “Schopenhauer, though a pessimist, really — played the flute. Every day, after dinner: one should read his biography on that. And incidentally: a pessimist, one who denies God and the world but comes to a stop before morality — who affirms morality and plays the flute … what? Is that really — a pessimist?”
We know that Schopenhauer did possess a collection of instruments, and we also know that Nietzsche himself composed music. There is no reason to think that either of them would ever banish music from the Republic of Philosophy.
But Nietzsche’s jibes at Schopenhauer are as much about music as they are about pessimism. For the pessimist who says no to everything and yet finds comfort in music, the no-saying of pessimism can only be a weak way of saying yes — the weightiest statement undercut by the flightiest of replies. The least that Schopenhauer could’ve done is to play the bass.
I’m not a big fan of the flute, or, for that matter, wind instruments generally. But what Nietzsche forgets is the role that the flute has historically played in Greek tragedy. In tragedy, the flute (aulos) is not an instrument of levity and joy, but of solitude and sorrow. The Greek aulos not only expresses the grief of tragic loss, but it does so in a way that renders weeping and singing inseparable from each other.
Scholars of Greek tragedy refer to this as the “mourning voice.” Set apart from the more official civic rituals of funerary mourning, the mourning voice of Greek tragedy constantly threatens to dissolve song into wailing, music into moaning, and the voice into a primordial, disarticulate anti-music. The mourning voice delineates all the forms of suffering — tears, weeping, sobbing, wailing, moaning, and the convulsions of thought reduced to elemental unintelligibility.
Have we rescued Schopenhauer from Nietzsche? Probably not. Perhaps Schopenhauer played the flute to remind himself of the real function of the mourning voice — sorrow, sighs, and moaning rendered indistinguishable from music, the crumbling of the human into the unhuman. The highest failure of pessimism.
COSMIC PESSIMISM, 2015