Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part III

Redemptive Music…

The Merchant of Venice…The Phaedo…

Inner and Outer Hearing and Sight…

       Demonstrating again the durability of such ideas and their ability to transcend the divisions of time and religious culture, the notion that music can be redemptive, inasmuch as it echoes the heavenly music of the spheres,  is rehearsed in another classic expression of the topos in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here we will sit and let sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches [i.e., by the finger on the string] of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica.  Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring [i.e., “choiring”, but with a pun on “book”] to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come ho, and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear
And draw her home with music.

I am never merry when I hear sweet music.

The reason is, your spirits are attentive.
For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music.  Therefore the poet [Homer]
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods;
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, strategems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirits are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.  Mark the music. (V, i 55f.)

There are many points to note about this remarkable passage.  First, though it is a set-piece (which need have no other raison d’etre than the traditional authority of the topos itself), its relevance to the dramatic context is plain enough.  Jessica is the apostate daughter of the Jew Shylock, whose unwillingness to trust and be trusted is proof enough that he has no music in his soul.   He is a devout of a merciless Old Law, a singer of the Old Song, which in Pauline terms, as we’ll see later, means that he is carnal and worldly; he understands only the superficial letter of the Law, the visible outward symbolum but not its invisible inner spirit; and correspondingly, when he reads the book of the world, his eyes are fixed downward upon the earthly visibilia (especially in the form of wealth), rather than upward upon the everlasting treasure of heaven.   Shylock’s Law is purportedly the Law of Justice, but lacking love, it is really only the outward show of justice, which like love, is a condition of concord, of which the harmony of the spheres is the macrocosmic expression.

The main point, however, is that a man has, or should have, this celestial harmony “in him”, “in his immortal soul”, even if it is difficult to detect.  And it is difficult to detect.  When Lorenzo (that is, Shakespeare) explains that the reason we can’t hear it is that “this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close it in”, he is offering a different explanation, of course, from either Cicero or Aristotle.  Yet, though fifteen hundred years and another religion later, Shakespeare’s is ironically truer to the original Pythagoreo-Platonic ethos out of which our topos first arose.

The harmony of the spheres, says Lorenzo, ought to resonate in the depths of the “immortal soul”, but for the gross material body in which it is enclosed.  Somehow, he implies, the body blocks out the sound.  Lorenzo does not explain in further detail how this occurs, beyond his allusion to the traditional Platonic metaphor of the plight of the embodied soul which is “closed in”, “imprisoned”, or “entombed” by the body.  In a cognate metaphor, the carnal envelope is said to “suffocate” or “extinguish” the immanent scintilla dei, and so alienate the soul from heaven, even as it alienates our secular personalities from our inner divine selves.  The extinction of the fire and obscuration of the light of heaven (causing inner blindness) must then be the ocular equivalent of the deafness of the soul to the harmony of the spheres.


In any case, such metaphors, in conjunction with the theme of the inaudibility of the musica mundana, seem to be articulated with the epistemological problem that Socrates identifies in the Phaedo. Here are a couple of representative passages, with which you may already be familiar:

And thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her—neither sounds nor sights nor pain, nor again any pleasure,–when she takes leave of the body, and has as little to do with it, when she has no bodily senses or desires, but is aspiring after true being.


And he attains to the purest knowledge of [the Ideas] who goes to each with the intellect alone, not introducing or intruding in the act of thought sight or any other sense together with reason, but with the intellect in its purity searches into the truth of each thing in its purity; he who has got rid, as far as he can, of eyes and ears and, so to speak, of the whole body, these being in his opinion distracting elements which when they associate with the soul hinder her from acquiring truth and knowledge…


For the body is the source of countless distractions by reason of the mere requirement of food…it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery….Whence come wars, and conflicts, and factions?  Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?  All wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake of the body and in slavish ministration to it; …and even if the body allows us leisure and we betake ourselves to some speculation, it is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our inquiries…

(65c ff.)

The inner reason or intelligence, which is the essential and immortal component of the soul, strives to achieve knowledge of the otherworldly ideas, but the body interposes itself between the two; it cuts off the soul’s access to the heavenly realm in which it was born.  The constant bombardment of stimuli streaming in through the physical senses interferes with the spiritual frequency, so to speak, upon which the reason must tune in the invisibilia.  In order for the inner intellectual faculties to function without such interference, the outer eyes and ears must be tuned out, and the carnal passions must be tranquilized.

In another of those longstanding topoi to which we must return, there is an inverse relationship between the health and vigour of the inner and outer senses.  The man whose outer sight and hearing are acute is usually blind and deaf to the spiritual significance of things, while the man who is physically blind or deaf perceives, with his inner sense of sight and hearing, these hidden mysteries.  Teiresias the prophet is such a blindman who sees farther than those with normal sight; the divine Homer is another, whose blindness, according to the ancient commentators, was compensated by an inner vision with which he surveyed the cosmos from the depths of Tartarus to the summit of Olympus.  (Amongst modern poets, Milton is the son of Homer in this regard).  Oedipus is another legendary example, since he only comes to see the truth after he plucks out his eyes; Shakespeare’s Gloucester is another, who says “I stumbled when I saw”.

And his Jessica, too, seems to belong to this type.  The outwardly sensible earthly music, she says, has no effect on her, because her inner sense of hearing, what Lorenzo call her “spirit”, is already “attentive” to such heavenly melodies as will remain forever inaudible to her seeing and hearing, but spiritually blind and deaf, father.