Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Atticus Finch, the noble defense attorney in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, coined a useful courtroom adage: “Delete the adjectives and you have the facts.” The reality of a situation tends to be hidden behind layers of embellishment and prejudice. It suffocates under the weight of bias and interpretation, losing its neutrality and assuming a character dictated by the commentator. This is a natural function of human perception. We are not robots; our big brains are wired to assess rather than sterilely measure. The process is sometimes harmless and sometimes not. What Atticus strove for is the ability to isolate intrinsic essence from cluttering vocabulary.
Atticus’s maxim finds a musical parallel in the writings of philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903-1985). In Music and the Ineffable, Jankélévitch reminds us that music is made to be heard, not to be talked about. In the intangible way music can be said to exist, it inhabits an abstract and ephemeral realm. Each listener associates sounds with personal images and feelings, which can be discussed in ornate—yet ultimately equivocal—detail. Music is a self-contained phenomenon, occurring apart from our attempts to decipher or characterize it. For this reason, Jankélévitch considers the music-language relationship a one-way affair: music can elicit endless talk, but talk gives nothing back to the music.
Musical description is a type of linguistic performance, in which the reader (or auditor) is manipulated to hear music a certain way. Once exposed to suggestive language, the possibility of “pure” listening becomes a near impossibility. This is true whether the adjectives are unsophisticated (“good,” “bad,” “pretty,” “ugly”) or flowery, as in Lazare Saminsky’s appraisal of Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service: “[It possesses] an awed gleam of cognizance of the Supreme force that clasps the universe into oneness.” More than simply allowing us to experience music through another’s sensibilities, figurative remarks irrevocably color our perception. To a certain extent, we end up processing the music as someone else wants us to.
Opinion and bias are inevitable outcomes of human cognition. A thinking brain is a judgmental brain. What the fictional Atticus and philosopher Jankélévitch stress is that objectivity demands resisting and overcoming: resisting the temptation to embroider the facts, and overcoming our susceptibility to such embroidery. The extramental thing—the thing-in-itself—is not language-dependent. It is what it is, as the tired saying goes.
Clearly, it is a fantasy to think that prejudicial adjectives will ever be expunged from the courtroom, or that music will ever be experienced in a non-verbal vacuum. One could even argue if it is desirable in all cases to dispense with a reasonable dose of colorful wordage. Nevertheless, we should pause to recognize that reality resides beneath the words.
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