The Hatred of Music
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by the intersections Quignard unearths between the mind and the world of sound. And that topic is just that: sound. How all manner of sounds constitute music, how some predate music and how our perception of sound—our history with it—affects our appreciation of music.
The nonfiction book is divided into what Quignard terms 10 treatises, but it often reads like a collection of connected fragments from the author’s journal. Entries are separated by a small bullet point, and the book feels in sections like a prose poem, or really, at times a riddle. As The New Yorker has noted, Quignard is a writer with “an oblique, aphoristic bent.” In an interesting and detailed Translator’s Note at the end of the book, the author is quoted as saying the work falls into a category called “speculative rhetoric,” and it’s a type of writing, he says, that dates back to the invention of philosophy. Readers schooled not only in the classics but in the classics in their original language (Greek, Latin, French, et al) will be in good stead since the superb translators, Matthew Amos and Fredrik Rönnbäck, preserve the richness of the original text by including snippets of the original languages.
Quignard, a noted novelist, music aficionado, and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, is adept at illuminating the overlooked role that our sense of hearing plays in all things and all thoughts. One of the most poignant examples is St. Peter, the Catholic Apostle who is considered the religion’s first Pope. According to the Christian Bible, Peter thrice denied Jesus as he was being led off to slaughter, only to hear the sound of a cock crowing, as his master had warned. Quignard tells us in the book’s first treatise, called “The Tears of Saint Peter,” “It is said that as Peter grew older he could no longer bear cocks.” Indeed, he had any kind of animal of flight in and around his home killed. As I read this, I found myself grieving, if you will, for St. Peter, across the centuries. How he must have regretted his denial, how he must have been hemmed in by his mistake, which was marked forevermore in an inescapable shorthand by the sound of a bird’s call. None of that ever occurred to me before reading Quignard’s book.
In the book’s eponymous, seventh treatise, he also makes the painfully astute observation that music was the only art to have been an instrument in the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews. The Germans used marches and other songs to reinforce discipline and compliance. Quignard quotes none other than Primo Levi as saying that the music heard in the camps “will be the last thing from the Lager we will forget” because it is “the voice of the Lager.”
Yet as dense and erudite as the book is, “The Hatred of Music” abounds with short, pithy thoughts that cause the reader to wonder why these ideas aren’t routinely bandied about in everyday conversation. In the second treatise, Quignard writes, “To hear is to be touched from afar.” Oh, yes, c’est vrai! A page later, he writes, “Before birth, until the final moment of death, men and women hear without a moment’s respite. There is no sleep for hearing.” Well, now that you mention it. In another section, a fragment reads simply, “Not knowing the name of what haunts us in sound.” Yes, that. These ideas are collected in the chapter called, “It So Happens That Ears Have No Eyelids.”
All of these straightforward yet profound statements build a case for hearing as perhaps the most powerful of the five senses, a hidden motor of activity that can be blamed for all manner of problems and conditions and predilections that travel with us from birth to death. It’s as if he’s peering into our thoughts.
In one especially evocative section, he speaks of the continuity of sound, even within our heads when nothing external could potentially reach our ears. He uses the term “surging hums,” which strike us as we walk, modulating “according to the rhythm of our gait.” What are these “surging hums”? Hymns, he says. Old songs. “Childish and protective refrains. Lullabies and nursery rhymes. Polkas and waltzes. Singalong tunes.” He’s probing an internal soundtrack of which we are often dimly aware even as it’s broadcast inside of our heads.
Indeed, he’s often writing about things we sense but cannot articulate. He’s writing about sound in a way that’s arguably rare for the common reader in America to come upon, including this reviewer, but which nonetheless is germane and perceived on some level by every single person alive. That’s because he’s approaching sound as a primordial force within us, that is common to all of us, whether we routinely read the work of French essayists or not. To wit, he writes, “Nonvisual sounds, forever withdrawn from sight, roam within us. Ancient sounds tormented us. We did not yet see. We did not yet breathe. We did not yet scream. We heard.” The thought is so true and essential that, though it appears only on page 9, one could put the book down, having already grasped something vital about the connection between sound and consciousness.
Yet a reviewer should issue this warning: Abandon all hope—ye who read this book—of traditional structure or tight narrative weave. As the journal Quarterly Conversation has noted about Quignard’s oeuvre, “One is struck by the feeling that they are witnessing someone transcribing his thoughts, pure and fresh as they form in the mind, or to use a fitting mythological connection, Athena springing from the head of Zeus.” Indeed, in the translators’ notes at the end of the book, they say Quignard strives to “make language an endeavor of disorientation,” which often gives his prose a “refined coarseness.”
Some of the sentences in the book are almost prohibitively arcane, including this gem: “There is a fragment by Pacuvius that formulates what interrupts the plurimillennial hammering march.” This sentence is followed first by a sentence in French that is translated only in the footnotes and then by the same thought in Latin, which is untranslated. Which is not to suggest the translators, Amos and Rönnbäck, phoned this job in. On top of writing a comprehensive afterword, they have been careful to insert footnotes throughout the text, even indicating at one point where the popular definition of a word (formidable) deviates from Quignard’s usage in the text. (Oh and, if ever a book needed a team of translators, it’s this one.)
Here and there in the early sections of the text, Quignard signals how sound in the form of music has become his own personal torture device. For example, he writes, without elaboration, “The recent religion of happiness turns my stomach.” Then in the book’s ninth treatise, which is tellingly called “To Disenchant,” he writes by way of explanation that music is now so ubiquitous in modern life that “it has become incessant, aggressing night and day, in the commercial streets of city centers, in shopping centers, in arcades, in departments stores . . . even at the beach . . .” In the translators’ afterword, we learn that in 1994 Quignard suddenly retreated from all of his professional activities—including his senior roles at the Gallimard publishing house and the International Festival of Baroque Opera and Theater at Versailles. He resolved only to write in solitude.
One hopes Quignard will find the solitude he needs to write because this reviewer believes he could recount the entire history of literature through the lens of sound. And here’s hoping he does just that.