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Narrative 11.3 (2003) 292-311

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For Want of a Better Term?:
Polyphony and the Value of Music in Bakhtin and Kundera

Stephen Benson

Perhaps a thing is valid only by its metaphoric power; perhaps that is the value of music, then: to be a good metaphor.—Roland Barthes, "Music"

In a short subsection titled "Music" in Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the character Franz experiences a minor epiphany: drifting towards sleep, he realizes he has "done nothing but talk, write, lecture, concoct sentences, search for formulations and amend them." A moment of dreamy deconstruction follows, in which his own logocentrism appears to him as fatally flawed; addiction to the word has resulted not in a clarity of signification, but in slippage: "in the end no words were precise, their meanings were obliterated, their content lost, they turned into trash, chaff, dust, sand" (94). Rescue from such metaphoric losses is at hand, however, in the shape of what lies on the other side of language: "unbounded music." For Franz, floating towards sleep, music appears as "the negation of sentences, music was the anti-word!" As Kundera is eager to demonstrate, a belief in music's palliative care is far from the only way of conceiving the relation between music and language; indeed, as we shall see, it is far from Kundera's own conception. However, it serves here as an expression of a commonly held construction, whereby music is somehow extracultural, an escape from the messy contingencies of life in the language world. Much musical and literary capital has of course been made from this transcendence trope, but in recent years it has been subject to intense scrutiny, not least from musicologists themselves. Music has been opened up for examination in all its textuality, its entanglement in the language that we cannot but use as we listen, respond, and disseminate. Far from dismissing the notion of music as unmediated and as offering privileged access to the rhythms of our body or the sound [End Page 292] of the spheres, the expression of the need for music to carry such expectations is precisely where we can trace its positioning in culture, as part of the changing idea of the nature and function of culture itself.

One particularly telling instance of recent culturalist musicology has come in the not uncontentious application of narrative theory to music. The object of such readings—Western instrumental art music, on the whole—has traditionally been conceived as the defining expression of that condition of music suggested by Franz's pocket philosophy: music as categorically separate from the verbal, as well as devoid of the representational presence of the visual image. 1 Conversely, one of the problems attendant on narrative readings of nonprogrammatic instrumental music is that they run the risk of ironing out the specifically musical, which becomes merely a realization of a nonmusical narrative underpinning. 2 What we gain in the reading is potentially outweighed, if not negated, by the loss of music's musicality (whatever that might be).However, I want to propose here an alternative angle on music and narrative theory. In conventional terms, such interdisciplinary practice is predicated on an implicit but nonetheless rigid boundary, separating methodological paradigm from object of study: in this case, the models of narratology (classical or postclassical) and the texts of music. Critics strive to uncover, or to posit, narrative elements in musical texts, to various effect. What I want to consider is the extent to which such music is, at times, already present in the method itself. Unfortunately, music can never literally be incorporated into the literary-critical text, hence the need for the bridging act of metaphor. Of those uses of music-as-metaphor in this context, the most influential is undoubtedly Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of novelistic polyphony, a term employed on the whole without any thought to its musical orientation. As Lawrence Kramer writes, "As a communicative act, metaphor opens the possibility of two-way transfers of meaning between its constituent terms, each of...


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