Listening In: Music, Mind, and the Modernist Narrative

Listening In: Music, Mind, and the Modernist Narrative

Listening In: Music, Mind, and the Modernist Narrative

Listening In: Music, Mind, and the Modernist Narrative


What can music teach a novelist, autobiographer, or playwright about the art of telling stories? The musical play of forms and sounds seems initially to have little to do with the representational function of the traditional narrative genres. Yet throughout the modernist era, music has been invoked as a model for narrative in its specifically mimetic dimension. Although modernist writers may conceive of musical communication in widely divergent ways, they have tended to agree on one crucial point: that music can help transform narrative into a medium better adapted to the representation of consciousness.

Eric Prieto studies the twentieth-century evolution of this use of music, with particular emphasis on the postwar Parisian avant-garde. For such writers as Samuel Beckett, Michel Leiris, and Robert Pinget, music provides a number of guiding metaphors for the inwardly directed mode of mimesis that Prieto calls "listening in," where the object of representation is not the outside world but the subtly modulating relations between consciousness and world.

This kind of semiotic boundary crossing between music and literature is inherently metaphorical, but, as Prieto's analyses of Beckett, Leiris, and Pinget show, these interart analogies provide valuable clues for bringing to light the unspoken assumptions, obscurely understood principles, and extra-literary aspirations that gave such urgency to the modernist quest to better represent the mind in action.


When Philip Quarles speculates about the possibility of writing a musical novel in Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point, he takes care to distinguish the specifically narrative scope of his project from the more traditional, poetic use of music as a source of prosodic metaphors. What interests him is not the subordination of sense to sound (which he derides as "mere glossolalia”) or the use of musical thematics but the possibility of using music as a model for narrative "on a large scale, in the construction” (Huxley 301). This desire to incorporate musical principles into the construction of the narrative text has been a recurrent preoccupation of storytellers over the course of the twentieth century. Beginning with symbolist writers such as Mallarmé and Edouard Dujardin, continuing with what has been called the first generation of musical novelists (Proust, Joyce, Mann, Woolf, and Gide), through the work of the French New Novelists (Robbe-Grillet, Butor, Duras, Pinget), and on to more recent writers such as Anthony Burgess, Thomas Bernhardt, Milan Kundera, and Pascal Quignard, music has served not only as a theme for modernist storytellers but also as a model for the semiotic functioning of the narrative text, affecting the ways their narratives make and communicate meaning.

This specifically narrative use of music is unprecedented in literary history. It is true, of course, that poets and bards have, from time immemorial, looked to music as a way to reflect upon or supplement their own art (the interrelations of music and poetry go back to the very origins of the two arts), but it is only toward the end of the nineteenth century that music begins to be used as a model for narrative in its mimetic dimension. This development implies two distinct types of questions. First, given the long and venerable tradition that links music and poetry, why is it that music only gains influence as a model for narrative in the modern-

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