Death and the Maiden
I’m having one of those inward days, a combination of reading Viktor Frankl’s recollections of his time in Nazi concentration camps, and listening to Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet while driving to pick up my granddaughter at high school.
Music can conjure up whole worlds and philosophies: Thought doesn’t necessarily come in words.
It isn’t the words or the title to the lied that Schubert wrote based on the poem by Matthias Claudius, but the music itself, opening with a unison fortissimo D in all four instruments, a triplet figure C-B-flat-A, over a constant D bass, resolving to an open fifth, with D still in the bass and a G in the viola and second violin. It is loud, it is oppressive, it is hollow, with no third to define whether it is in minor or major. It is the sound of an empty universe. One of the most powerful openings to any quartet ever, and one that can rip your heart out (Link here).
There are two other powerful pieces of music that use the open chord, with no third to define it. Both produce that sense of universal hollowness: The Tragic Overture of Brahms and Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie. They press down on your emotions. And so the “Death and the Maiden.”
That, and the Frankl book and the specter of Auschwitz, turn on the Weltschmerz current, full voltage. One becomes intolerably aware of suffering, heartbreak, death, war, famine, loss, hatred, divorce, the death of children, fear, dread, oppression, disease, injustice, crime, humiliation — and one’s own finity.
And with my teenage granddaughter in the car, we talk of cheerier things, but there hangs over the conversation that Lebensleid. I remember when I was her age, and the pangs of emotion that exploded in my adolescent heart. My emotions seemed so big, so important. Nothing could be more overwhelming than the pains of a teenager. But when I look back, I realize how self-involved that suffering was. I wore all of myself on my sleeve.
But an entire life has passed, and the mortifications have accrued, the losses have piled high, the debilities have increased, and the world has gotten no better. I watched a film made in Hiroshima a few days after the surrender, and could hardly miss the similarity of the devastation to the nightly footage from Syria or Yemen. Rubble flat on the ground from horizon to horizon. And when you know what old books tell and that no better can be had, know why an old man should sob and weep.
The Weltschmerz of a young Werther rings false, a player playing a part, assuming a self-importance not earned. But as an old man, the suffering isn’t mine, it is the world’s; I see it and my heart cracks wide. So much lost, so much vanished, so many deaths, so many things left unsaid or undone for fears, valid and phantasmal. It weighs heavy.
This comes with having lived. It is simply experience. It piles beside a life like the gray, sooty snow plowed off a winter road. And the worst — the absolutely worst — is that there is no way to convey this sense to another person, let alone to a young person you might wish, out of love, to help avoid those thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. You can tell them as best you can, and they can nod their heads, believing they have understood, but unless they have actually lived through these things, they cannot fully grasp them. It is all “book learning.”
I will carry to my grave — as will everyone else on this planet in their own time — all the experience I have lived through and suffered or enjoyed. It cannot be conveyed from one sensibility to another. Bits and pieces, yes, but the vast preponderance will evaporate, only to learned the hard way once again by generation after generation.
So, the granddaughters will experience heartbreak, perhaps divorce, illness, disruption, disappointment and the death of those they love as they have already suffered that of their grandmother. It will all build up the backpressure of Schmerz in their own lives, leaving them to sorrow over their own inability to use that experience to protect those they love.
It is no wonder the innocent young look at us with such pity.