In early December 2014, my friend Elina wrote, requesting my comments for the poems of Mickiewicz, and informed me that she has began to work on ‘something very special.’ That letter marked the beginning of our correspondence over “Chopin: A Letter Through the Parisian Years”: http://elinaakselrud.com/the-chopin-project/
Elina’s Chopin project is a philosophical message; or more precisely, an illustration of Chopin as a manifestation of a philosophical resolution. This piece intends to provide the historical and philosophical background to enable audiences of the performance to better understand and appreciate the project, and to inspire dear readers to see the composer under a more empathetic light.
In the 19th Century, partly due to the increasing success of the natural sciences in explaining natural phenomena, the efficacy of religious teachings was undermined. Most evidently, religion as almost an undisputed source of morality, was placed under doubt. A result was a loss for a sense of moral guidance, and by extension, a loss for a sense of purpose in life. Nihilism was born.
No fate is more tragic than that of this child, whose birth most promptly summoned its executioners. Even Schopenhauer, who claimed to have accepted this sentiment, played his flute regularly. Some might claim that he had not lived his own philosophy. However, this would be a rather superficial observation. Schopenhauer had been heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. His “pessimistic” world view was more so an acceptance of the meaninglessness of a mechanistic universe, than seeing this meaninglessness as a lack. Others more directly opposed the sentiment. Dostoevsky launched arrows from all directions, but they fired from a central idea that recurred, albeit in various dresses. “Notes from the Underground” and “The Idiot” respectively spoke of the appreciation of life as the appreciation of concrete reality, and the figure of the Christ as nothing more than a mortal human being. However, suffering was central, and one must become friends with suffering. Friedrich Nietzsche on the other hand, spent his entire life overcoming Nihilism. ‘God is dead, and we have killed him’ was his exposition of the scenery, and ‘the long fermata’¹ of the artist’s life was his overcoming. In America, the pragmatist John Dewey also dwelled on the same issue. Remarkably, he provided a resolution in a strikingly similar manner to that of Nietzsche’s.² They have both rejected the postulate of an absolute as the source of knowledge and morality. Instead, knowledge and morality are to be located in concrete reality. In particular, morality is to be derived from our innate desires and sentiments, and facts in the world are needed for satisfying such desires and sentiments. Thus, meaning must be created, rather than existing as a predetermined entity. These ideas were most explicitly conveyed in the words of Sartre: ‘Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.’ All these writers turned to a common underlying thesis: Meaning is to be created, and it must be done so in order to overcome the terrifying emptiness of Nihilism. At the same time, the condition for the possibility of this creative freedom throws us into an existential angst — once we realise our absolute freedom, we bear the burden of infinite responsibility. Thus, the process of finding the meaning of life is more difficult than it at first seems. If one is to create meaning, then one must bear the suffering that necessarily arises with the acceptance of one’s freedom. This was how Fryderyk Chopin lived.
The poet of the piano ‘murmured without words the most haunting sentiments, which are resurrected from within our own hearts each time a piano sings.’ With this first line in my short biography of Chopin for the programme of the performance, I wish to direct readers to the thesis that when an artist creates, the work persists as long as there are audiences. This implies that although the meaning of life is not to be found in the absolute, but created by mortal beings, they do not cease to exist with the death of their authors, but live on to resonate with and provide beauty for the lives of others. Thus the sufferings of Chopin did not only serve to overcome Nihilism, but also to ‘redeem our sins’. They help us to overcome our own Nihilistic sentiments. When we enjoy or appreciate a piece of artwork, whatever form it may be in, we enjoy or appreciate them as ends, not as means. Thus we find satisfaction. This satisfaction is what Nietzsche meant by the ‘long fermata’ — just like the end of a piece of music, we find completion, we feel ready for death. This cannot come with possessions that serve as mere means, or utilities.
To be free is to realise that you already are free.
Chopin’s life mirrored the turmoils and losses of his homeland. He resided in Paris as a Pole in exile, just like many of his artist compatriots. Like Mickiewicz or Norwid, Chopin did not evade but savoured the sorrows of his exile, the thoughts toward his homeland, the cold feelings of not belonging. He intimately and sensitively embraced these pains and phrased them onto his manuscripts, in his most fluent language — music. However, the greatest genius in him was a keen eye for beauty in even his most corroded reflections. He wrote music that expressed the most agonising melancholy, yet with such elegance and intricacy that one would learn to enjoy and revel in sadness. His music were silent cries, they were mazurkas and waltzes that could be danced only by the intoxicated. They are usually phrased into familiarly regular stanzas, yet with a plethora of flourishes that defy convention in the most lively manner. They speak of the infinite freedom of being human within the human condition. We are conditioned in many ways — our birthplace, our parents, our encounters; yet we are always free to decide on our actions, on how we receive our conditions.
We are in an age where obsessions with predictions, with control, with information have dominated our lifestyle. We meet people with intentions, we only go to certain places to make certain friends, we ignore or escape unwanted encounters. Whereas Chopin embraced encounters, both in the world and in his mind. He had accepted the bleak conditions in which he had found himself, and penned an interpretation that created his identity. He chose to identify himself as a Pole, despite his father’s French origins, his French citizenship and residence, his Parisian years of prolific successes; just as he chose to savour all the despair of Poland’s tragic fate, and experience them as his own. Chopin’s life was a manifestation of the existentialist thesis:
One is what one chooses to be, through one’s actions.
With the creating of meaning, of beauty, comes the creation of one’s identity, which is conditioned upon the embracing of encounters, even the most traumatising. Yet, it is this embracing of encounters that the ordinary folks evade, especially in this reckless age. And it is this lack of an appreciation for encounters, for the unknown, for suffering that renders our lives dull.
It was not that Chopin had to create in the face of immense obstacles, but that those obstacles were necessary for his creations. They were his acceptance of the infinite responsibility that came with his infinite freedom.
The project illustrates this message with the Parisian letters of Chopin. His music, photos of his artefacts, his letters, and the poems of his contemporaries are weaved together to tell a story of Chopin’s life as a figure that constantly defines and redefines itself, a figure who savoured all the torments it had to bear, and turned them into the most delicate fragments of a beautiful life.
19 March 2016
1. See “Gay Science” 376 for the aphorism.
2. Email me for my paper on this particular assertion.