The Polyphonic Nature of Human Psyche:
From an Artistic Intuition to a Therapeutic Goal
Paper presented at the conference
“Psychoanalysis and Narrative Medicine”
University of Florida at Gainesville
February 19 - 22, 2004
Faculty of Philosophy
Department of Psychology
Cika Ljubina 18 - 20
Serbia and Montenegro
e-mail address: email@example.com
- Abstract -
Notions of polycentricity, “anti-identity” and “anti-integrity,”
lack of the “grand narrative,” and decentered, multiple selves are
all the more influencing in different humanistic disciplines, including psychology,
and they reflect the shift from the unique modern self to the fragmented postmodern
selfhood. Psychoanalysis reacted to this shift slowly and only after it had
discovered that something had been changing in the very nature of psychopathological
phenomena and psychotherapeutic processes. After reviewing some current aspects
in relational psychoanalysis’ dealings with the problem of multiplicity
of selves, I shall try to document that many of those were foreseen in an almost
forgotten paper by Heinz Kohut, which he himself left split off, unedited and
unpublished. Kohut used his extraordinary clinical intuition, but I suggest
that one of the factors that enabled him to introduce those innovations was
his lifelong devotion to music and the hours he had spent in the Vienna Court
Opera during his youth. This paper argues that the phenomenon of multiplicity
was first articulated as a differentia specifica of artistic masterpieces of
various Freud’s contemporaries and fellow Viennese. Specifically, I argue,
following Theodor Adorno’s analysis, that Gustav Mahler’s music
(especially his Ninth symphony, hailed to be the first work of the new music)
has foreseen major trends in postmodern philosophy and relational psychoanalysis.
I Relational psychoanalysis
and conceptions of multiple selves
One self or many? This question is often repeated and answering it is not easy at all. Answers vary. Pre-modern conceptions of the human psyche are perfectly reflected in the Greek term atomos, used to refer to what we now name person. As we all know from our physics classes, the atom was believed to be undividable, that which cannot be further divided. But the same can be applied to psychology. It is clear that the term individual, a common word in Western languages, has its roots in this Greek notion of personhood as a unit with firm boundaries - both external and internal, towards both societal pressures and inner conflicts.
Ever since these ancient times, the conception of unitary self has dominated the humanities. It corresponds both to intuitive conceptions of this problem, and to everything that philosophy and science claimed about human nature until deep into the twentieth century. As is well known, it can plausibly be stated that the very meaning of the term self implies singularity. Since it has first been used as a pronoun and an adjective meaning “the same” (Shakespeare’s Regan, for instance, claims “I am of that self metal made as my sister” - King Lear, I, 1: 69), the word was obviously intended to be singularia tantum. When it was transformed into a noun, it was used to represent someone’s innermost being (as, to use Shakespeare again, Polonius advises Laertes: “To thine own self be true« - Hamlet, I, 3:78). Within the domains of psychological science, many definitions of mental health include integration as one of its basic constituents, and many contemporary authors would agree with Baumeister’s claim that “the concept of self loses its meaning if a person has multiple selves, and the discussion of multiplicity should be regarded as heuristics or metaphors. The essence of self involves integration of diverse experiences into a unity … the multiplicity of selfhood is a metaphor. The unity of selfhood is its defining fact” (1998, p. 682).
And when modern study of the subject began, the singularity of the private self was at the same time reinforced and subverted. William James granted the self continuity, distinctness, and volition, but divided it into the self-as-knower (or the I) and the self-as-known (or the Me). He thought that only I was completely private, while Me was social and overlapping with Mine. This classical distinction has introduced a split between private and social aspects of the self that was later included into numerous personality theories, and to which I shall repeatedly refer here.
Still, the situation has changed even further during recent decades. More and more authors take a radically different standpoint claiming that every person contains several selves and that “singularity (uniqueness) of persons (except on so far as their bodies are materially distinct) is not a brute fact about human life, but the result of locally enforced norms” (Harré, 2001, p. 63). And so it is that, once more, the history of psychology parallels the history of physics, which now considers “the infinite hardness and impenetrability of atoms (which Newton considered axiomatic) [to be] a ‘vulgar opinion’ derived only from commonsense experience and hence not necessarily valid on the atomic scale” (Pesic, 2002, p. 82).
So, at this present moment, more and more authors are becoming open for the notion non-pathological multiplicity. Be it what Jennifer Radden (1996, p. 18-20) named “discontinuity: heterogeneities of self over time” or any kind of simultaneous multiplicity, this is now an important topic in philosophy and psychology, and it attracts considerable attention of psychoanalysts as well.
The history of psychoanalytic conceptualizations of the self, as is true of almost any other psychoanalytic concept, goes back to Freud. It is now very well known and thoroughly discussed that Freud’s conception of the self was mostly implicit and never separated from the meta-psychological ego (see, for instance, Kernberg, 1982, p. 894), and in a way stuck between Romanticism and Modernism (Gergen, 1991, p. 27). The very same Freud who proposed the tripartite model with boundaries between the instances, and that people are not masters of their cogito, could not think of human personality but as unitary and monolith.
Several decades later, however, with models of classical psychoanalysis and Ego psychology receding, we encounter quite a different psychoanalytic scene. More and more authors write about multiplicity issues, more and more journals publish debates about it. We can only hope it will prove right that “the most interesting feature of contemporary psychoanalytic perspectives on self is precisely the creative tension between the portrayal of self as multiple and discontinuous and of self as integral and continuous” (Mitchell, 1993, p. 115).
Although there can be no definitive answers, I think that we can already present the essential elements that fostered the shift. I shall briefly discuss each of them.
Widely accepted as the most important shift in the history of psychoanalysis, the emergence of the relational paradigm introduced changes in the conception of the self as well. In line with James’ thinking, relational psychoanalysts stressed the social aspect, and thought of self as a product of relations. Whether this originated with Sullivan’s explicit or with Fairbairn’s more implicit conclusions, relational psychoanalysis could not conceive of selves but as discontinuous and multiple, as being created in every single important relationship. Furthermore, Mitchell (1991, p. 127; 1993, p. 103) claims that this shift happened when they came to “portray the id as a person or collection of persons in passionate relationships to other persons or parts of persons.” Though he is undoubtedly right, I would like to add two more innovations to what he named the “key transition.”
Another important improvement of the psychoanalytic theory came with the introduction of schizoid mechanisms (Klein, 1946). It not only gave us an insight into “parts of persons,” but for some authors was the very explanation of our relational nature - babies relate, first and foremost, because they need a container for their fear of fragmentation. The mechanism of splitting provided us with the possibility to think of the coexistence of mutually exclusive personality elements. It was now possible to think of the self as fragmented, and its unity was claimed to be either an illusion (Sullivan) or a symptom (Lacan). And with Lacan came the notion of the essentially subverted subject whose most intensive - and equally unrealizable - wish is to be whole, and whose destiny is to be alienated.
Finally, Multiple Personality Disorder, disorders of the borderline and narcissistic spectrum, together with new emphasis on trauma and traumatic disorders, provided clinical evidence for processes of identity diffusion and dissolution. Although it is impossible to say what came first - improvements in psychotherapeutic technique and our ability to observe “deeper” or the change in the very nature of psychopathological phenomena, at one point it turned out that the classical theory of psychotherapeutic technique could no longer give satisfactory results. Along with it, the classical conception of the self had to be abandoned. Thus, the changes in psychoanalytic notions of multiple selves were triggered more by clinical data than by speculative investigation of the changes contemporary mankind was undergoing.
The current status of the concept is, unfortunately, not very clear. Not only is the term self insufficiently defined, but debates over its own multiplicity are growing stronger. Relational theorists (such as Aron, Bromberg, and Mitchell, to name but a few) take it for a fact that we are not talking merely about “(cognitive) representations of self; rather, they are each versions, complete functional units with a belief system, affective organization, agentic intentionality, and developmental history” (Mitchell, 2000, p. 63), where “each version [of the self] does all the things generally attributed to the ‘ego’” (Mitchell, 1993, p. 249). As a result of normal development, someone does not have to be aware of these different selves, but lives in a state of “healthy illusion of cohesive personal identity,” while dissociation remains “a healthy, adaptive function of the human mind” (Bromberg, 1998b, p. 273)
These conceptual changes produced further changes in treatment and technique. The shift of emphasis from interpretation to relation was widely accepted long ago, but what is now requested is no less than the rejection of any therapeutic frame (Pizer, 1996, p. 505), so that the “patient can feel free to enact new ways of being without fear of traumatically losing continuity of ‘who he is’” (Bromberg, 1998a, p. 386). In the analytic setting “many moods, or states, of the patient are invited to enter playfully” (Pizer, 1996, p. 505), since “it is mistaken to assume that a digestion and blending of different versions of self is preferable to the capacity to contain shifting and conflictual versions of self” (Mitchell, 1993). The analyst is required to accept his/her own multiplicity and focus “on exploring the way in which the self-states comprising a patient’s personal identity are linked to each other, to the external world, and to the past, present and future” (Bromberg, 1998a, p. 168).
I would like to conclude this part of the paper with an attempt to reverse the injustice done to Heinz Kohut. It is generally accepted that Kohut would have many problems with postmodern thinking (see, for instance, Strozier, 2001, p. 180) and that he would consider multiple selves only a pathological condition and a product of splitting (see, for instance, Mitchell, 1991, p. 136). Though this may be true for the major part of Kohut’s theory, I suggest that we should give him more credit and grant him a transitory position regarding the self/selves problem. I am here in complete accord with Judith Guss Teicholz, who wrote that “newer theories not only followed upon Kohut and Loewald’s work, but Kohut and Loewald themselves forecast and paved way for them” (1998, p. 270).
What could be the arguments for the assertion that Kohut was a middleman between theorists of unitary self and theorists of multiple selves? To begin with, I would like to remind that Kohut was involved in each of the three important changes I have discussed so far. First, he considered fragmentation (as a pathological process, to be sure) to be one the four basic concepts of his theory (Kohut, 1979), and gave important contributions to our understanding of what he termed vertical splitting. Second, it was Kohut who wrote that “the primary psychological configuration (of which the drive is only a constituent) is the experience of the relation between the self and the empathic selfobject” (1977, p. 122), making this the basic principle of his developmental and therapeutic theories. And finally, Kohut was among the first who described narcissistic personality disorders and formulated principles of therapeutic work with these pathological conditions (see especially Kohut 1971, 1984; Kohut & Wolf, 1978). I believe that this justifies the idea that Kohut was in several aspects among the few authors who initiated the change I wrote about. But there is even more.
A more important argument for the thesis that Kohut did prepare the emergence of American relational psychoanalysis and contemporary notions of multiple selves is in a kind of a “split-off” part of his theory. My suggestion is that Kohut did write a paper that was far ahead of its time, proposing the multiple selves hypothesis, added it a case study to illustrate the theory, and then left it unedited and forgot it in his drawer as if he dissociated it from the main body of his theory. The paper is now generally forgotten, and even its editor, Charles B. Strozier, wrote a mere two pages about it, in his otherwise comprehensive biography of Kohut. In a nutshell, I am trying to encourage a re-reading of Kohut’s paper “On Courage” (1985).
Why do I think that this paper is so important for my topic? First, because here Kohut writes about the self as a configuration and a representation (p. 163). I hold that he makes - or rather sketches - a shift compared to all previous psychoanalytic conceptions of the self, since, according to what Kohut wrote in this paper, self is not “something,” although, on the other hand, it is not completely devoid of structure. As any other configuration, it consists of many elements, but its key ingredient is a cohesion force that holds the elements together. The self has stability and duration in time, but it is here conceptualized as much more variable and dynamic than in any previous theory.
Second, and this is my main point, this is a paper where Kohut writes explicitly about the problem of multiplicity. He thought that the idea of just one self is internalized from non-analytic approaches, and that it simplifies the real state of matters (p. 135), or otherwise our lives, and our psychoanalytic treatments, would have been incomparably simpler. Instead, Kohut suggests that everyone of us has “contradictory selves” (p. 135), involved in “fighting for ascendancy, one blocking out the other, forming compromises with each other, and acting inconsistently with each other at the same time” (p. 162). This is also one of the papers where Kohut wrote about the nuclear self (p. 164), but the only one where he would suggest “the modifiability of the nuclear self” (p. 136). It is, Kohut suggests here, an inherent feature of nuclear self that it “does not necessarily retain the central position” (p. 156). Kohut’s originality is best reflected in the claim that this phenomenon does not need to be pathological. One can be subjected to the change of nuclear selves, without experiencing something sick, harmful, or bad. Although it will make an important difference in personality dynamics, it is not a qualitative change. Nothing can tell us in advance whether it will turn out to be beneficial or not, since “there may be no objective standards which determine ‘the’ best self” (p. 163).
I see no reason why contemporary relational psychoanalysts would not accept many of those theses. I would not like to guess what made Kohut leave the paper unpublished. Anyway, he made a coherent theory that contained almost no traces of what he wrote about in “On Courage.” Still, thanks to Strozier’s editorial efforts, the history of psychoanalysis can use this paper and make a more balanced picture of Kohut ideas as a connection between the two models of self.
II - Polyphony in the arts
It is now very well known that contemporary philosophical, psychological, and psychoanalytic conceptions of multiple selves have many different roots. Many authors have investigated the relation among these conceptions and various cultural phenomena. The role of literary studies has been of special interest here, and various writers and their work were investigated in detail. And the role of narrative analysis could prove to be even more important.
According to the narrative approach, self is “the center of narrative gravity” (as Daniel Dennet is quoted in Flanagan, 1994, p. 139). Consequently, self is not a psychic structure of agency, and, instead of these structures, to feel a solid identity “we require that there be narrative connectedness from the first-person point of view, that I be able to tell some sort of coherent story about my life” (1994, p. 135-136). This is also the gate through which Ricoeur’s idea of narrative identity - an identity expressed and understood through storytelling - entered psychology. But people constantly “re-tell” their lives, so that it can be said that they constantly “re-create” themselves and change their narrative identities. And these narratives cannot but vary each time, depending on what Brockmeier named retrospective teleology (2001, pp. 248-254) and actual needs of the storyteller.
Narrative identities can be multiple as well, but the word polyphonic, which I put in the title of this paper, suits better here. Modern thinkers of this orientation claim that a polyphonic nature, together with temporal and intertextual bases, is characteristic not only of the contemporary novel but of narrative construction of life and self as well (see, for instance: Brockmeier & Carbaugh, 2001, pp. 7-8, Hermans, 2001, pp. 245-246). The term polyphonic (often used interchangeably with polyvocality or multivocality) was in this context first used by Mikhail Bakhtin, whose literary theory and philosophy of language exert a rising influence on contemporary psychology. Writing about Dostoyevsky, Bakhtin noticed that an important innovation was that his novels included a real polyphony of voices, since several of his characters are subjects of their own words, “ideologically authoritative and independent” from the author himself (1973, p. 3), “having their own voice and telling their own story” (Hermans & Kempen, 1993, p. 40).
When this principle of novel writing, similar to polyphonic music, is applied to psychology, we can say that just like the author lost the privileged center place in Dostoyevsky’s novels, the unitary self of the modern era lost the privileged center place in contemporary personality theories. The self of our theories, and hopefully of our patients and subjects, seems to be rather polyphonically organized, with many voices searching their right of free speech.
Still, my task will not be to examine details of literary studies or narrative theories that could be of relevance for the first part of my paper. I shall try to study the musical roots of contemporary conceptions of discontinued, fragmented identity. In order to do that, I shall study compositions that contain almost every feature attributed to multiple selves. I find that the most suitable setting for this study is Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, the time and place of appearance of Freud’s first masterpieces. I believe that it is not a mere coincidence that the beginnings of psychoanalysis are temporally so closely connected to the beginnings of some musical traditions, and that possible mutual influence were not properly studied so far.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century Vienna might have been justly regarded the cultural capital of Europe. During Fin-de-Siècle, Vienna was home to probably more men of genius in arts, philosophy, and psychology than any other city. Among those living and working there at that moment were: Klimt, Otto Wagner and Schiele; Wittgenstein, Weininger, Kraus and Victor Adler; Freud and his early circle; Hoffmanstahl and Zweig; Bruckner and Brahms, then Mahler and Richard Strauss, then Schoenberg and Berg. This was also the cosmopolitan city where various traditions met, and where Nietzsche was celebrated while still alive.
But this was also the city involved in a process of social and political disintegration. The Empire was falling apart, and “not only Vienna’s finest writers, but its painters and psychologists, even its art historians, were preoccupied with the problem of the nature of the individual in a disintegrating society” (Schorske, 1981, p. 4).
Disintegration was the central subject of every aspect of life in the Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: of philosophy, politics, sociology, painting, literature, as well as of the daily life of the crumbling Empire’s capital. In Berggasse 19, however, this does not seem to have been admitted before 1938 - when Freud both left Vienna and wrote the paper on splitting. Still, there was another Bohemian-born, German-speaking Jew living in Vienna at the turn of the centuries, who perceived and described this phenomenon, and who, I believe, foretold some future developments in humanities. Although I believe that Gustav Mahler’s biography is more “for our time” than Freud’s, it will not be the primary subject of my study. I shall focus on his compositions in an attempt to demonstrate that they are indeed a source from which contemporary humanistic disciplines can learn a lot and that they have exerted a still unrecognized influence on the history of psychoanalysis.
During the ten years of his directorship in the Court Opera (1897-1907), Mahler’s position was extremely unusual. He was considered a genius and a dictator, a person both charismatic and intimidating, he was adored and hated, Vienna respected him and yet forced him to leave the position and the city (I take Bruno Walter’s book to be the most reliable first-hand account of this). Among his often-quoted statements is that he is “thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed” (Mitchell, 1995a, p. 2; for a very detailed account of Mahler’s social position see Lea, 1985; for caricatures of Mahler in Viennese press, see Kennedy, 1974, chapter 6). Mahler was a hero not only to musicians, but to younger Viennese artists in general. This is especially true for those of the Secession movement, who invited him to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the opening of Klimt’s Beethoven frieze in the Secession building (Schorske, 1981, p. 255). However, outside this small informal circle, Mahler was a famous conductor, but not a very well accepted composer. His music was too different and innovative to be widely praised during his days. The most important differences in Mahler’s symphonies compared to the ones built on the image of Beethoven’s are in abandoning the idea of a single basic key (this is applicable to Nos. 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, and to Das Lied von der Erde) and in the frequent use of irony and parody (see Lea, 1985, p. 67; special examples of Mahler’s irony are to be found in the Frere-Jacques funeral march of the First Symphony and in Rondo-Burleske of the Ninth). From our contemporary point of view, it could be said that what various audiences of his time found unacceptable was the element of Expressionism in his music.
Though Mahler’s music might seem Romantic at first glance, it contains many features of what will later be named Expressionism. Although the Expressionist movement was formed after Mahler’s death, its origin is in his last two symphonies. He is, specifically, well known for frequent combinations of styles (he merged symphonic and song music in a unique way; his combinations of popular and high art, though typical for cosmopolitan Vienna of his day, are still intriguing for analysts), he was deliberately ironic, his music has no clear national, religious, or stylistic roots (for a detailed discussion see Lea, 1985, pp. 117-120). On the other hand, Mahler’s music differs from Expressionism music in that it does not tend to be purely subjective; as Adorno put it, it is not a “seismogram of the soul” (1992, p. 25). Therefore, I think one would do best to agree with Barford that “Mahler's mind, in extremis, is a microcosm of the romantic-expressionistic crisis in the early years of the twentieth century” (1977, p. 61).
Mahler was, among other things, famous for his uncompromising attitudes towards artistic creation and performance, and never did anything just for the sake of demand from the audiences. That is, I think, how we should understand a specific feature of his music which Adorno named “regression of hearing,” Mahler’s effort to communicate his music to “ego-enfeebled humanity incapable of autonomy or synthesis” (1992, p. 56). Still, this was not Mahler’s way to get approval and popularity, but a way to reach his contemporaries, and maybe even give them an interpretation of what is going on with their world and their identities. And, for Mahler, these were inextricably connected. While even in the Finale of the Sixth, destiny crushes humans as if they were trees, Mahler’s Ninth “does not present the world’s course as something alien and painful to the ego, but as if it were internalized in the subject, as if the subject were himself enslaved to it” (Adorno, 1992, p. 162). The individual was not to be separated from the world, and since the world was disintegrating, the individual was becoming, as it were, very dividable. Therefore, in Mahler’s case, “the musical self, the ‘we’ that sounds from the symphony, breaks down” (Adorno, 1992, p. 7).
The brokenness in art is something we take for granted today, after Joyce, Picasso, or David Lynch, and after Mahler’s admirers Schoenberg and Berg. But, when Mahler’s compositions were first performed, one critic regarded them as “gigantic symphonic pot-pourris” (as quoted in Schoenberg, 1950, p. 23), since “the whole, once a priori ground of the composition, becomes the task of each Mahlerian movement” (Adorno, 1992, p. 49). Mahler introduced the technique of making abrupt and intentionally rough shifts of various kinds, and the first impression about his music may easily be that it contains so many changes, such a plentitude of motifs. For both the critics and the audience of that era, this was rather embarrassing. Barford named this embarrassing feature spiritual anxiety, explaining that Mahler’s music is “ ... almost a study in the disintegration of consciousness expressed in the disruption of tonicity, groping chromaticism and spine-chilling sound-colours which awaken turbulent apprehension” (1977, p. 64). His contemporaries were used to something completely different: “Even great music before Mahler was tautological. Its correctness was that of a system without contradictions. It is consigned to the past by Mahler, the breach becoming a formal law” (Adorno, 1992, p. 14). I think it is plausible to say that this introduction of breach, of brokenness and fragmentation is the defining feature of his music. And Mahler is, as far as I know, the first composer whose music can be described in this manner. I would even dare say that this was the most important innovation of Mahler’s music, and that he opened a new era in the history of music with it.
The brokenness is, of course, most evident in Mahler’s specific use of polyphony - “the art of combining independent, logically self-contained musical lines in a meaningful and convincing manner” (Traber, 2002). Mahler’s passion for Dostoyevsky (documented by Mitchell, 1995a, p. 102; see also Lea, 1985, p. 36) might have implicitly contributed to the emergence of his “symphonic dialogues” (Adorno, 1992, pp. 156-7) analogous to those discovered by Bakhtin. Be that as it may, Mahler is claimed to have said that his “musical thinking was, oddly enough, never anything but polyphonic … from quite different directions must the themes appear; and they must be just as different from each other in rhythm and melodic character … “ (quoted in Adorno, 1992, pp. 111-2). But it was not only that his general outlook on music was such that he found polyphony important. Polyphony was in the very core of his creation, and in developing it he went further than anyone before: “In Mahler’s orchestra … for the first time … the individual voice is clarified at the expense of the total sound” (Adorno, 1992, p. 52).
Though elements of brokenness and a specific type of polyphony can be found in both his early and Wonderwork symphonies, they are particularly developed in his last works. Therefore, writing about Mahler’s most famous song (Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde), Adorno will even claim that its “chords decay into parts” and we are facing an “always sparely woven whole [where] the instruments disperse, as if each wanted to speak by itself, unheard” (1992, p. 154). This is even more striking in the Ninth Symphony, “his masterpiece” (Adorno, 1992, p. 155), “the first work of the new music” (Traber, 2002) and “the best example of [Mahler’s] mastery in treating the orchestral voices” (Walter, 1937, p. 105). The Symphony contains all previously mentioned features of Mahler’s music: its first movement (“his most advanced and original instrumental piece” - Kennedy, 1974) is organized around seven variations on the central theme and a number of independent counter-melodies; the second brings four different dances, each in a different tempo, making the movement “probably the first case of musical montage” (Adorno, 1992, p. 161); the third, the famous Rondo-Burleske, represents Mahlerian irony at its highest; finally, the Adagio is important both because it is full of quotations, either from earlier movements, Mahler’s earlier symphonies, or music by other composers, and because, under the influence of Frau Mahler’s interpretation, it is considered to be the fatally ill composer’s requiem.
For all these reasons, I find the conclusion quite self-evident. Mahler’s
music (neither more nor less than the creative products of many other great
artists of that period) contained many features that would be attributed to
personal identities decades later. In this respect, Mahler’s importance
for this paper is twofold. First, he was the first composer who was devoted
to these matters in more than a passing manner. Second, and more important,
he was at least temporally in contact with the birth of psychoanalysis and was
quite personally connected to some of the most important psychoanalysts of the
Conclusion - Yet another Viennese root
When groups of tourists visit the Vienna Opera, the first place they are shown is Gustav Mahler’s office. His large-size portrait is on the wall, some of the memorabilia in the room, and the guides need quite a time to list all the things that made Mahler the most important director of the most famous opera house in the world. Bruno Walter claims that Mahler’s genius was most obvious when he was rehearsing, directing and conducting Mozart and Wagner. In his final years, Mahler-the-conductor received a general acclaim, both in Europe and in the US. There was only one character of this story that was almost completely unaware of that. Sigmund Freud almost never attended concerts and had no affinity for music (Gay, 1988, pp. 168-9), and, generally speaking, remained untouched by the arts of his age (Gay, 1988, p. 165; Schorske, 1981, p. 244).
Instead of learning from his contemporaries, Freud preferred applying psychoanalysis in interpreting the arts (and he did it in a reductionist manner, we cannot but agree with Peter Gay). Had it been at least slightly different, had he been aware that the music of his age was falling “backwards as in a kaleidoscope” (Adorno, 1992, p. 45), he might have been more open to the possibility that both society at large and every single individual were sharing this same destiny.
Therefore, psychoanalysis had to wait for contributions of another Viennese doctor, whose mother tongue was German and who was of Jewish origin as well, but who was born during the last years of the great Austrian empire. Heinz Kohut not only was sensitive to everything that post-Habsburg Vienna had to offer, but music was one of his real passions. His father’s dream was to become a concert pianist, and Kohut started his career of author with two papers on psychoanalysis and music (Kohut & Levarie, 1950; Kohut, 1957). As he will do later in Chicago, he often went to rehearsals of the Vienna Symphony while still a boy (Strozier, 2001, p. 398), attended the Opera on a regular basis and even wrote a libretto (ibid., p. 44). Although Kohut’s list of favorite composers did not include Mahler (ibid., pp. 109-10), the spirit of Mahler’s innovations was everywhere in the institution, the Orchestra, and among the creative artists who followed in his footsteps and who were by that time widely acclaimed (such as Schoenberg, Webern, and Adorno’s mentor Alban Berg). Implicitly, this spirit influenced the young man’s formative years so profoundly, that it will become one of the foundations of his intellectual career.
Mahler’s creative mission seems to have been in articulating all the features ascribed to the other works of art that are said to have heralded present day conceptions of multiple selves. And when the moment came for science to do the same, when decades later Kohut was in need of innovations in therapeutic technique and reshaping the theory of self, the model was implicitly present. He sensed that there is not just one self, his patients taught him that. But almost equally important were the hours of enchantment he had spent in the theatre house, only a decade or so after the time when this theatre was under the sovereign rule of Mahler’s vision and baton.
To me it seems that we are left with one riddle only, and that is why Kohut
decided not to edit and publish the paper devoted to his discoveries. However,
my option here will be different from Freud’s - I will refrain from interpretation,
hoping to learn more through wonder.
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