Aesthetic Experience in Buddenbrooks and Middlemarch


Actually an illustration by Sir Samuel Luke Fields for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but the closest I could get to something approaching the sort of scene in Middlemarch. Though of course we need a lady at the piano. Among other things. Ah well.

Both Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and George Eliot’s Middlemarch are concerned with the representation of the inner and outer worlds of individuals and collective units in society and with their interrelation. In both novels, aesthetic experience plays a key role in the author’s understanding of the relation of people to one another and to the world. However, while in Buddenbrooks the inner and outer worlds and the individual and collective experiences of its central characters become increasingly separate, in Middlemarch, Eliot seeks to draw together individual and community, inner life and outer life. In the realization of this project, aesthetic experience becomes key: in Buddenbrooks music and aesthetic experience offer an escape from the pressures and requirements of the every day world, creating an inner spiritual alternative to the strict values of the outside works, while in Middlemarch aesthetic experience serves to connect and unite. Art, though, is not something universally accessible or universally experienced. Rather, in order to be affected by it, one’s entire being must be oriented towards it. For the unsympathetic listener, music is only so much more noise—perhaps pleasing noise, but nothing beyond that; to the uninitiated viewer, a painting is only so many daubs of paint. To experience the aesthetic realm as transcendent—of one’s reality or of interpersonal boundaries, whether as performer or participant—one must open oneself up to it and the experience of it, having in mind no higher object than the aesthetic experience itself.

In looking at aesthetic experience in both of these novels, it is first important to note that in neither is aesthetic experience universally good or universally accessible. To take the example of music, both novels contain characters for whom music is nothing more than “measured noises” (65) in the words of Casaubon—and has the potential to be much worse. When the municipal band comes to play for the Buddenbrook firm’s 100th anniversary in Thomas’ house, he experiences the music as something far worse than “measured noises”: “all the notes run together, one chord devours the next, making everything melody absurd” (480) he tells us,  despite the fact that other people at the celebration enjoy the band, making it clear that music in Buddenbrooks is not a thing understood or perceived universally.

Middlemarch, however, goes further than Buddenbrooks in the portrayal of the spiritual failure of aesthetic experience. In Middlemarch, the most commonly heard music is that of Rosamund Vincy and her piano. However this music is not a living thing—as it is for Hanno—but something dead, literally executed by Rosamund as she performs it with her “executant’s instinct” (160), “give[ing]” music rather than experiencing it (160). The music matters nothing to Rosamond; she wants only “to know what her audience liked”—whether the demand is for popular songs or Haydn’s canzonets makes no difference to her (161). These performances of Rosamund’s are diametrically opposed to those of Hanno in Buddenbrooks, in which he loses himself in the music, allowing it to take him over.

Music, though, isn’t the only aesthetic realm susceptible to spiritual failure. When Dorothea travels to Rome, she is struck by an impression of decrepitude and degradation from the art and architecture she encounters. In order to appreciate this sort of art, one needs “the quickening power of knowledge which breathes a growing soul into all historic shapes” (193) to counteract Dorothea’s feeling that when she examines pictures, “the life goes out of them” (206). “Art,” Will tells her, “is an old language” (206), which must be learned and known in order to gain any pleasure—spiritual or otherwise. Art, then, can achieve lifelessness in a variety of ways, from its production in a passionless performance (as in Rosamund’s “echo” and simulation of passion at the piano) to its reception in an ignorant viewer.

None of this is to say that art and music do not have enormous potential for spiritual meaning in both these novels; indeed they do, but that potential is not universally accessible. In both novels, their authors advance notions of two types of people: those sympathetic to aesthetic experience, and those not. In Buddenbrooks this fault line mirrors the line between the artists and the non-artists: Thomas does not appreciate Hanno’s piano playing for what it is because he himself is not an artist, while Gerda understands because she is an artist and a musician. However, in Middlemarch the division is rather more subtle, falling between sympathetic persons and unsympathetic ones, allowing those who are not artists to have equally as deep experiences with art. Thus the potential for aesthetic experience to create either a spiritual alternative world or a spiritual connection for a character depends in both books on the capacities of that character.

It is partly this that renders Thomas so tragic in Buddenbrooks. Though he and his son are profoundly similar on many levels, the fact that one of them is an artist and the other is not definitively separates them and colors their experiences, despite their similar situations. Both Hanno and Thomas at the climaxes of their stories are unhappy with themselves. They feel the pressures of the outside world and its demands weighing on them too heavily to bear, but while Hanno has the ability to escape his reality through the creation of a spiritual alternative world through his piano playing, his father has no such alternative world to escape into—a fact of which he is painfully cognizant as we realize in his vision of himself standing “before a temple. . . Gerda stood at the threshold adamantly barring his way” (499). Thus in Buddenbrooks the division between those for whom art can create an escape from, a spiritual alternative to reality has no moral dimension. Thomas is no worse a person because music does not affect him as it does his son; he is simply unhappier.

In Middlemarch, however, the line between those who have the capacity to be moved by music and those who do not does have a moral significance. Rosamund is just as empty as her piano-playing; Casaubon just as closed-off as his attitude towards music. The “good” characters of the novel are those who can respond to and experience art and through it connect to those around them. In this Eliot does not exclude Dorothea simply because she does not understand the “language of art,” but rather Eliot emphasizes the importance of a certain openness and receptivity characterizing the orientation of a character towards aesthetic experience. Dorothea feels nothing from the paintings she sees in Rome not through lack of trying, but through ignorance. Indeed her experience of the city of Rome itself betrays deeply sympathetic tendencies in her as she sees the city as a series of “deep impressions” of a “wreck of ambitious ideals” which “fixed themselves in her memory” and elicited from her profound emotional responses (193). Indeed, we learn early on that Dorothea responded to the music of the organ at Freiberg in much the same way that Hanno Buddenbrook does to the grail leitmotif or the “Wedding March”: that is, the music “made [her] sob” (66) and makes him “feel sobs welling up deep inside” (692). Dorothea, then, does possess the receptivity necessary for aesthetic experience to generate meaning in a life.

She is not alone: Lydgate, Caleb Garth, and Will all are characterized by the same sympathetic receptivity to aesthetic experience, particularly music. But for all of them, rather than providing a spiritual alternative to reality as it does for Hanno in Buddenbrooks, aesthetic experience provides a means for sympathetic connection parallel with the sympathetic openness which allows these characters their deep aesthetic experience. When Dorothea sits alone weeping in Rome at the start of her marriage, Eliot observes that the capacity of most of us for sympathy is limited and that “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (194). But beneath the surface is a vast interconnectivity which she configures musically. The squirrel’s heart-beat and the hearing of the grass grow are part of a natural symphony, which, though constantly present, we must be receptive to in order to hear. They lie on the other side of the silence which most of us experience in our daily lives because we, like Celia, Rosamund, and Casaubon, are not aesthetically receptive; we “walk about well-wadded with stupidity” (194) unable to hear beyond the silence. For Eliot, the ultimate purpose of aesthetic experience is to open us up to the world and the people around us, to connect us to the world we live in, not help us shut ourselves out of it.

Though for Eliot and Mann aesthetic experience serves opposing purposes—the opening versus the closing off of the world—its importance in both novels is paramount to the author’s understanding of the world. For Mann, art defines one’s relation to the world, whereas for Eliot it defines one’s relation to the world, but more importantly, to one’s fellow man. In both novels, the spiritual experience of art signals a deep capacity for feeling in a character and indicates his or her orientation towards his world.


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