The Re-Humanizing Power of Great Musical Art      

As history repeatedly shows, it is under deteriorating social and economic conditions that the most unscrupulous, the most opportunistic–i.e., the very worst people–end up on top.  And because they are the worst, they demand even more, take even more, and abuse and intimidate and/or bribe anyone who stands in their way.  Such persons, clearly sociopathic (and in other ways perverted), keep trashing laws and institutions, and re-designing the remnants of a half-shattered society into a criminal enterprise serving their insatiable, people-destroying appetites.  They are clearly supremely motivated by limitless narcissism (with its usual contempt for everyone who doesn’t satisfy their “needs”).  They abhor real intimacy and love; what they crave is power–to force people to do their bidding (with the added satisfaction of humiliating and degrading them in the process).

Are we witnessing the slow, inexorable decay of the human spirit?  A human life — or rather, its degraded facsimile–has become cheap, even contemptible, in the contemporary, “winner-takes-all” U.S., an aberrant place where freakish “celebrities” are role-models and sociopathic mega-billionaires are revered.  But the shocking vulgarization of American society in recent decades is not only about Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump, about greed-addicted megalomaniacs, about the militarized thuggishness and gun-worship which have attained such truly disturbing proportions.

It is the age-old theme of moral corruption–of those who seek or seize power, not only for self-aggrandizement, but to revel sadistically in the humiliation of others.  Today, as millions literally starve in places like Yemen, we see, right before our eyes, self-aggrandizing mega-billionaires who shamelessly strut upon the world-scene, scorning the millions of hungry and despairing.  In a phrase, gleefully “rubbing the face of humanity in the dirt.”  Who cares about alleviating human suffering, these proto-sadists seem to be saying, when we are free to trample over millions of people, simply to satisfy our whims and caprices?

A long time ago, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow included two photos–one of a smiling, adorable baby and the other of a bitter, scowling middle-aged man–with the arresting caption: “What happened?”  When individuals, starting out in life with hope and optimism, later find themselves treated as commodities (“objects”), when they find that not only the boss but society as a whole treats them as disposable nothings…then something rather fragile dies within–perhaps a faith in human beings and in the value of living itself.  The “soul,” for lack of a better term, has its needs too: to care for others (and to feel that others reciprocate), to cultivate something truly beautiful to leave behind (given our fleeting lifespan), and to attain transcendence beyond personal insignificance by identifying with, and actively helping, humanity as a whole.

As I write this, I am listening to Soviet-era composer Nina Makarova’s Symphony.  The second-movement Andante–in its brooding, haunting, wistful, late-night mood–re-awakens powerful feelings that…but perhaps each of us cherishes deep emotions which cannot be reduced to words?

It is the heartfelt thesis of this midnight meditation that great modern symphonies can revive and heal the dying core of human sympathy and solidarity within us.  Sympathetic identification and generosity of spirit: these, among others, are emotional values which elevate the individual above his everyday concerns, which ennoble his emotions by reviving heightened awareness of shared human aspirations and the moral-humanistic essence of human relations.  We revere and fight for Universal Human Rights, not only for philosophical or legalistic reasons, but because, in our deepest feelings, we can transcend our personal “interests” by identifying with–and resolving to defend–the dignity and needs of all humanity.

One late night, I was listening to Henryk Gorecki’s sublimely moving Symphony no. 3 (“Symphony of Sorrows” — on youtube).  I suddenly noticed a post that I will never forget: a teenager, who no doubt had accidentally come across the symphony, mentioned some troubles at home, his current homelessness, and expressed a poignant moment of unguarded beauty:  “I never knew music like this existed.  Maybe life is worth it.”

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.