I was reading Wittgenstein (lawks! He's so fancy!!) by which I mean violently, numbly, clubbing my way through a short book of his notes recently. He made what struck me as an interesting observation. To be fair he made more than one, but this is the one I want to address.
We commonly attempt to explain the value of music specifically, and Art generally, in terms of its
ability to evoke emotion. The value of Beethoven's 9th is how it makes us feel this way and that way
as we listen to the various movements and themes and odds and ends flowing by. Similarly, the value of
a Monet is to be located in, or at least next to, the emotional response it evokes. The fact that it looks
a bit like a lot of water-lilies might be pointed out, but honestly doing so would mark you as a bit
of a dunce.
Wittgenstein's point, if I understood it correctly, could be expanded to something like this: what if
someone invented a pill, or an injection, or even piece of gum (pace Roald Dahl) which induced
precisely the same sequence of emotional response as Beethoven's 9th symphony. Perhaps even, by
some chemical witchcraft, it tailored the sequence to you, in your current emotional state, accurately
recreating what you at this exact moment would feel if you were in the concert hall?
In no way would we consider the pill, injection, or gum to be an adequate replacement for the symphony.
Ok, maybe some fringe weirdos would, but they probably drink Soylent and take a lot of Adderall because they
think it makes them smart. But the majority of normal humans would stare at you if you proposed this
equivalence. Of course the pill isn't the same thing as the symphony. No, no matter how accurately it
recreated the emotional roller coaster. No. And yet, this is supposedly the value of the thing, isn't it?
This is the obsession Wittgenstein is working through in these notes (The Blue and Brown Books.)
He's interested in the idea that many things have symbolic content, many things signify something, but it
seems that they always leave something. The emotional content of Beethoven is real and important, but there
is something else, there is more. There is, in fact, something essential which is not described by
the emotion, or by the musical notation, or an analysis of the harmonic progression, or the repetition
of themes, or anything else.
Any attempt to carve away superfluity, or conversely to surgically locate an essential core, will inevitably fail.
We recognize it as failure the moment we even pose the question. "Of course that won't work, of course there's something
else there" even when, perhaps especially when, we seem to have analytically removed the entirety of the thing.
The only reason we accept the idea that emotional response is really the thing, when it comes to Art,
is because we're not thinking about it very hard. I have certainly accepted it, and probably even said it,
but it's clearly wrong if you think about it in terms of Willy Wonka's gum and the sad sad fate of Violet
I haven't got any answers here. Monet's water lilies are more than the emotional response they induce, and
also they're more than swooshes of paint on canvas, and they're more than representation of water and flowers.
I can't tell you, tbough, what they actually are. Just... not that. At least, not merely that.