Making music “hospitable and deep enough…”

February 14, 2013

It was Nietzsche who dreamed of a music “hospitable and deep enough” to accommodate this moral imagination’s roundly punished exiles, described in Beyond Good and Evil:

“… music which does not fade, turn yellow, turn pale at the sight of the blue voluptuous sea and the luminous sky of the Mediterranean … whose soul is kindred to the palm-tree and knows how to roam and be at home among great beautiful solitary beasts of prey …

“… a music whose rarest magic would consist in this, that it no longer knew anything of good and evil, except that perhaps some sailor’s homesickness, some golden shadow and delicate weakness would now and then flit across it: an art that would see fleeing towards it from a great distance the colors of a declining, now almost incomprehensible moral world, and would be hospitable and deep enough to receive such late fugitives.”

The palm tree seen here by its shadow is one Elaine Scarry singles out many times over in On Beauty and Being Just, starting with an image that is easily missed in Lawrence of Arabia’s rapid-fire prose translation of The Odyssey. Ulysses, she explains, “having nearly drowned, comes upon [the child Nausicaa], whose beauty simply astonishes him.” The lines from Homer are:

I have never laid eyes on anyone like you …
I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me. Wait,
once I saw the like – in Delos, beside Apollo’s altar –
the young slip of a palm-tree springing into the light. …
so now I marvel at you, my lady: rapt, enthralled,
too struck with awe to grasp you by the knees
though pain has ground me down.

She is the only child not to run, when those playing with her notice they are being watched by a naked man washed up on the shore.

This steadfastness gives him hope, “that he will be made welcome” in Ithaca, the city he left behind so long ago, and be received with “mercy and some love.”


The magical distraction from the improbable journey behind him seizes him briefly in “the now,” instead of being daunted by the last leg of a voyage as bewildering as Xeno’s paradox.

The sight of her must have been the necessary reprieve, that makes going home seem possible after all, logic traps in pure math banished back to the chartrooms of stars.

A day enclosed in the fragrant pine walls
that keep our house warm, a boring day
with the deep eyes of a wine filled glass,
wondering what a closed window forecasts,
whether I should open it. Would light
and its bright reminders of life oppress
the room and disclose your absence? Night
visits the afternoon inside. What then
fades away is the right shape of the knife,
the memory. The ideal and loved voices
of the lost find us in our beds, the first poetry
exhausts its tenderness on these moments,
slight movements of thought shed light on a face.

The days twist together like braids of red
garlic that hang from the rafters, until
you have filled the house and the smell of bread
is imbued with the chambered bulbs’ thick, shrill
fragrance, strident as a woman’s voice, filled
with unspent hours collecting inside
the heart of our life together. What spills
onto the table top is the aside
to your companions, thinking of me
from that distance. I know you think of me,
but be unkind, so you will not be shattered
when you see, be amazed when I forget
to run toward if you come to me faster than I
could greet you. At war’s end you will come,
much as you went. If by sea, there is no light house.

False stars will light your way with every candela,
home to where a slender young palm tree bent
in the wind like a girl of Ithaca. I can’t believe
I allowed you to go, that you went with my blessing.
Some women do not seem to feel the blow,
their loss a gift to their country that brings
neither pain nor joy. I see them giving
their prayers over to the dead without thought
of virtue, just as the myrtle breathing
its fragrance in the night gives grace, untaught.
If you are changed, and do not wish to write,
and do not think on me, but still return
from the wilderness and the sight
of war wounds scattered like wild roses, learn
to love me again, promise to try, turn
aside from black death and look on the earth
won back for peace, a summer of yellow pears
and blue grass where it is, after all, sweet to sleep.

What have I struggled to remember all this time?
There are none of the flowers I described to you.
What buckled under the hours, drowned under
the weight of silence? Where has it sparkled
like iron, hot air dancing with embers? With you
I felt my hands were meant for more
than practice on the patient strangers calling
out of courtesy. To extend a kiss. I thought a letter
might come. Where is our love, where has it
overflowed? I stumbled over the thought of you
today, could sound out none of your promises,
senses bound. I broke a branch of acacia,
fragrant and turned many times. With this
I can comb the bleary numbness out of a
shadow overhanging the porch. Today I shun
the world of fantasy. I don’t recall
my name in your voice or shudder, enthralled.
Yet light persists. All is brown from stem to pith.

Yet such beauty is an enchantment, as dangerous as a faerie paradise where adventurers enjoy immortality just long enough for homesickness to become unbearable, only to return to a world in which their loved ones have been long outlived while they were carousing in the otherworld.


The hospitality of the immortals is both fabled and dearly priced, because their friendship lacks perspective on mortal life.

Take Admetos: when his hospitality to an incognito god was rewarded with a second chance at life, he found only his wife was willing to take his place to satisfy Death. The blessed man began to curse his fate anew, over his wife’s bleak objection, “Time will soften this. The dead are nothing.”

Her lucky husband wailed, “put on black garments, cut your hair, cut the manes of your horses.” In the Euripides rendition of this tragedy, the chorus found a lesson here more dire than the will of any god:

Necessity, you alone need
no altar,
no image,
no sacrifice.

Your will can crush iron.
And your spirit is a cliff that knows not shame.

So faith that the arc of history “bends toward justice” is rumored to be just a shadow of inner errata – the old self-serving bias acting up again.


Uninterested in deus ex machina as a literal basis for holding out hope for a better world, Freud looked at spirituality as a psychological projection, complete with our usual cognitive imperfections: “The dim inner perception of one’s own psychical apparatus stimulates illusions, which are naturally projected outwards, and characteristically into the future and a world beyond. Immortality, retribution, the world after death, are all reflections or our inner psyche …”

Music can be less punishing than such prose, yet ascertain its direction and feeling clearly.

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