Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Beethoven, Freud, and the mystery of genius

leave a comment »


“The joy of listening to Beethoven is comparable to the pleasure of reading Joyce,” writes Alex Ross in a recent issue of The New Yorker: “The most paranoid, overdetermined interpretation is probably the correct one.” Even as someone whose ear for classical music is underdeveloped compared to his interest in other forms of art, I have to agree. Great artists come in all shapes and sizes, but the rarest of all is the kind whose work can sustain the most meticulous level of scrutiny because we’re aware that every detail is a conscious choice. When we interpret an ordinary book or a poem, our readings are often more a reflection of our own needs than the author’s intentions; even with a writer like Shakespeare, it’s hard to separate the author’s deliberate decisions from the resonances that naturally emerge from so much rich language set into motion. With Beethoven, Joyce, and a handful of others—Dante, Bach, perhaps Nabokov—we have enough information about the creative process to know that little, if anything, has happened by accident. Joyce explicitly designed his work to “keep professors busy for centuries,” and Beethoven composed for a perfect, omniscient audience that he seemed to will into existence.

Or as Colin Wilson puts it: “The message of the symphonies of Beethoven could be summarized: ‘Man is not small; he is just bloody lazy.'” When you read Ross’s perceptive article, which reviews much of the recent scholarship on Beethoven and his life, you’re confronted by the same tension that underlies any great body of work made within historical memory. On the one hand, Beethoven has undergone a kind of artistic deification, and there’s a tradition, dating back to E.T.A. Hoffmann, that there are ideas and emotions being expressed in his music that can’t be matched by any other human production; on the other, there’s the fact that Beethoven was a man like any other, with a messy personal life and his own portion of pettiness, neediness, and doubt. As Ross points out, before Beethoven, critics were accustomed to talk of “genius” as a kind of impersonal quality, but afterward, the concept shifted to that of “a genius,” which changes the terms of the conversation without reducing its underlying mystery. Beethoven’s biography provides tantalizing clues about the origins of his singular greatness—particularly his deafness, which critics tend to associate with his retreat to an isolated, visionary plane—but it leaves us with as many questions as before.

Sigmund Freud

As it happens, I read Ross’s article in parallel with Howard Markel’s An Anatomy of Addiction, which focuses on the early career of another famous resident of Vienna. Freud seems to have been relatively indifferent to music: he mentions Beethoven along with Goethe and Leonardo Da Vinci as “great men” who have produced “splendid creations,” although this feels more like a rhetorical way of filling out a trio than an expression of true appreciation. Otherwise, his relative silence on the subject is revealing in itself: if he wanted to interpret an artist’s work in psychoanalytic terms, Beethoven’s life would have afforded plenty of material, and he didn’t shy from doing the same for Leonardo and Shakespeare. It’s possible that Freud avoided Beethoven because of the same godlike intentionality that makes him so fascinating to listeners and critics. If we’ve gotten into the habit of drawing a distinction between what a creative artist intends and his or her unconscious impulses, it’s largely thanks to Freud himself. Beethoven stands as a repudiation, or at least a strong counterexample, to this approach: however complicated Beethoven may have been as a man, it’s hard to make a case that there was ever a moment when he didn’t know what he was doing.

This may be why Freud’s genius—which was very real—seems less mysterious than Beethoven’s: we know more about Freud’s inner life than just about any other major intellectual, thanks primarily to his own accounts of his dreams and fantasies, and it’s easy to draw a line from his biography to his work. Markel, for instance, focuses on the period of Freud’s cocaine use, and although he stops short of suggesting that all of psychoanalysis can be understood as a product of addiction, as others have, he points out that Freud’s early publications on cocaine represent the first time he publicly mined his own experiences for insight. But of course, there were plenty of bright young Jewish doctors in Vienna in the late nineteenth century, and while many of the ideas behind analysis were already in the air, it was only in Freud that they found the necessary combination of obsessiveness, ambition, and literary brilliance required for their full expression. Freud may have done his best to complicate our ideas of genius by introducing unconscious factors into the equation, but paradoxically, he made his case in a series of peerlessly crafted books and essays, and their status as imaginative literature has only been enhanced by the decline of analysis as a science. Freud doesn’t explain Freud any more than he explains Beethoven. But this doesn’t stop him, or us, from trying.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: