Gone and Future
Review of 1975 (1984 minus 9) by Hans Keller
The New Review, 45/6, Dec. 1977/Jan. 1978
The end of the universe, astronomers say, will be the lukewarm death. The countless stars will have all burnt out. Egalitarian entropy will have ironed out all differences, and the dark void will be traversed only by the long waves of infra‑heat. This, on a human scale, is what Hans Keller foresees for us on our way to 1984. The end of the world, he says, could easily be its uniformity, 'the easy night of total dependence, the Liebestod of frictionless de‑individualisation'. He protests:
“there is no collective wisdom; there is only unacknowledged, collective stupidity. The ultimate value is the independence of individual conscience, while the ultimate vice is its cession, capitulation, loving surrender, arrested development, collective envelopment.”
The story begins in Vienna in 1938. On 11th March. Hans Keller's nineteenth birthday, the Austrian Chancellor von Schuschnigg abdicated; on the 12th Hitler made his entry into Austria. The very first wave of arrests caught more than 70,000 people. Not Hans just then. But the ensuing months were spent in unsuccessful attempts to get out of the country, while being beaten up in between. In November a junior official at the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst von Rath, was shot by a 17‑year‑old Polish Jew, sparking off a second pogrom. This time Hans was caught. He tells a moving story of the fortitude of fellow Jews, the orthodox, tinder torture, seemingly futile for there seemed no point in it. Prisoners were chased through corridors of SS men with rifles on either side to beat them as they ran through. Hans would wait for a gap, then cover his head with his hands and run through as fast as he could, so that he got most of the blows on his back. But the orthodox Jews were above any such evasive tactic. They walked slowly, upright, through those corridors, coming out at the other end unrecognisable. bin showing no sign in their behaviour of having been touched, telling each other the same Jewish jokes at the far end as at the beginning. The experience of indiscriminate mindless collective sadism was strangely forgettable, impossible to retain in memory in any living sense. It was a different memory that for ever after remained alive. At a moment when all hope could well have been given up it came to him that if, after all, he did survive, he would never again be in a bad mood. This one is still a wonder‑cure, and at the worst moments only needs to be recalled to make him glad to be still alive.
The next chapter in the story takes us to Prague in 1975, and the judging of an international competition for string quartets. Mr Keller. immensely experienced as he is, has no opinion of competitions: 'in art one does, not better, but something different'. Only Czech quartets and one Russian one were competing, and the system of judging showed a similar brotherly solidarity. When he felt inclined to protest, he was advised to shut up. Both the Russian members of the jury, he was told, and the quartet itself would have a very difficult time when they got home, if the quartet failed to shine.
Perhaps his most dismaying experience of the malign operation of collectives was at the 29th Congress of the International Psycho‑analytical Association, London, 1975. Mr Keller is one of the two or three men who, after Freud, have successfully completed their own self‑analyses. He concluded that Freud had indeed discovered world‑shattering truths: the dynamic unconscious. repression, infantile sexuality, the Oedipus complex and the validity of the free-association technique. Nevertheless at the Congress he found it impossible to communicate with fellow Freudians. He tried to talk to one of them about Nazi psychiatrists. 'Criminals', he found, was a word one absolutely must not use. 'You mean psychotics. he was told. There is a language which has to be employed in the 'diagnosing and self‑diagnosing stupor occupying the intellectual leisuretime of the profession'. Not to use it puts one beyond the shibboleth pale. The profession has become a secret, moralising, soul‑destroying society in the service of a group ideal. Indeed, if there were such a thing as a dog's dogma. his behaviour would be indistinguishable from that of a loyal member of the International Psycho‑analytical Association, a ‘good analyst' as they call him.
In his last chapter Mr Keller follows the stultifying influence of the team spirit and its suppression of individual gifts in British football; and here, perhaps, we do not need to follow him. By far the longest and meatiest chapter in Mr Keller's apologia is his discussion of what has happened to music since Schoenberg's revolution. There was once a universally intelligible idiom. Music was a closed society and, paradoxically, closed artistic societies produce a flowering of individual achievement. Schoenberg abandoned tonality, and thereby destroyed the tensions between foreground and background. The collective idiom was gone, or nearly so, although with what was left such geniuses as Britten and Shostakovich could still make themselves universally understood. This trauma is one from which the musical society of today has not yet recovered. Vast new liberties were opened up, bewildering for moderate talents, for which indeed a completely new technique is required. Music has raced ahead too fast for us. and the musical lingua franca has become a bedlam; a 'boiling sea' in which chaos interpenetrates chaos. Is the composer playing a game, or has he something serious to say? is the music two‑dimensional (Mr Keller's word), having a foreground and a background, contrasting and interacting? Mr Keller has invented a non‑verbal technique, 'functional analysis', in which music can be analysed in its own terms. He believes he has developed fairly dependable, objectively verifiable criteria for the evaluation of music, though he concedes that they may not distinguish between good music and great music. And great music, he says, is not just greater than good music; it's different.
Mr Keller is in charge of New Music at the BBC, and he speaks from first‑hand experience. He has pungent, arresting. provoking and often profound things to say. in general and instanced by such personalities as Boulez. Stockhausen, Cage, Ligéti. Berio. Henze and others. He has no use for 'instunding' coinposers. He wants a genius every time, one who transcends his epoch. He wants the unique communication. His voice, with its richly Viennese intonations. viii be familiar to BBC music listeners. He writes as he speaks. and his book is more like conversation than book‑making. We hear the same paradoxical quirks of wit ('gone and future are the days when… he was big enough, where Britten was bigger enough…'). His thought bifurcates. One limb break off short, to be returned to later, or never. There are afterthoughts to afterthoughts, parentheses within parentheses. Affirmations provoke denials, in the same sentence. He has so much to say about music ‑ no aspect is untouched ‑ yet one has difficulty in saving where it all gets to. What remains at the end, in this chapter as in the rest of the hook, is the dominant theme: stupidity, insensitivity, conformity must be rebuked. Mediocrity must be stigmatised. If 1978 is to go on to 1984, it must not be without violent protest. To re‑quote his own quotation:
Do not go gentle into that good night Rage, rage against the dying of the light.