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Musicalization as Speculative Collaboration in Modernist Narrative

For years, I have asked students in my modern and contemporary literature survey to compare the passages in E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) (the latter a clear homage to the former) in which the narrator and characters perform parallel exegeses of a classical masterpiece. In Chapter 5 of Howards End the main characters attend a live performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; in Chapter 7 of On Beauty they attend a summer outdoor concert series featuring Mozart’s Requiem; in both novels the reader has immediate access to a set of characters’ interiority as we witness their conscious and unconscious responses to the music being played.[1] I begin by asking my students to think about what purposes these scenes of listening serve. Most obviously, we consider the scenes as providing an early distillation of each of the main characters’ philosophies, psychologies, and personalities, and focus on what each character’s way of listening tells us about that character, as well as what it foreshadows about their interactions with other characters in the novel. Beyond operating as a narrative shortcut, however, these scenes of listening reveal what I would argue is a distinctly modernist sense of the collaborative relationship between the act of listening and the expression of the self. For it is in the reporting back, in the attempt to make a substantive connection with another human being through the personal expression of a shared or social experience, that novelists such as Forster, Smith, Virginia Woolf, and—perhaps most notably—Aldous Huxley powerfully demonstrate the profound isolation of the modern individual within society.

In this short piece, I treat Huxley’s novel Point Counter Point as a case study of the collaborative relationship between music (and acts of listening) and narrative in the modernist novel, one that moves beyond localized depictions of music or scenes of listening, to a large-scale, musically inspired structure. Huxley’s use of music in the novel, both in the sense of analyzing the qualities of specific musical works and of utilizing musical structure, is the method by which he both creates and explains the role of literature in communicating philosophical concepts (a form of intellectual collaboration). By claiming counterpoint as a structural framework for the novel, Huxley highlights his incorporation of human discords and disconnects that do not, by definition, comprise true musical counterpoint.[2] For the purpose of this piece, counterpoint is defined as the coherent combination of distinct melodic lines in fulfillment of the aesthetic principle of unity in diversity.

Though I am primarily concerned here with narrative, the possibilities and limitations of words, and the communicative possibilities opened up by interart relationships such as those between literature and music, often surface in modernist poetry as well. Take, for example, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (the title and form of which we are fairly certain come from his fascination with Beethoven’s late quartets, as I touch on below):

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For one thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it.[3]

[. . .] And what you thought you came for

Is only a shell, a husk of meaning

From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled

If at all. (Eliot, Four Quartets, 50)

Howards End’s famous and oft-cited epigraph, “Only connect . . .” is frequently invoked as a philosophy or aesthetics of inclusion—a solution to the “husk of meaning” that haunts and eludes Eliot. This optimistic interpretation requires reading Margaret Schlegel’s tireless attempts to build “the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion” metaphorically, and the application of music (passion) to words (prose) as a “solution” to the “failure” of words alone (Forster, Howards End, 150). But if we look closely at the scene of musical listening that occurs in the novel, Forster treats the supposed universality of Beethoven’s Fifth with clear irony. More than 100 pages before Margaret’s impassioned invocation of the epigraph “Only connect!” the narrator interjects:

It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. . . . Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come . . . or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; . . . in any case, the passion of your life becomes more. (26)

On the surface, each of these individuals is connected to the “passion” of this “sublime noise.” But as this scene of listening unfolds, it becomes clear that they are not connected to one another by it. The passion and the prose can only help an individual achieve unification; the connection of two selves is fraught, if not impossible. At the end of this scene, Helen “push[es] her way out during the applause . . . to be alone. . . . The notes meant this and that to her, and they could have no other meaning, and life could have no other meaning” (28). The trouble, of course, is that Helen’s tangible, fixed meaning only exists for her: she listens for “the goblins,” while her brother listens for the “transitional passage on the drum” (27). Her desire to be alone after experiencing a philosophical breakthrough—and we are told she “is always going away in the middle of a programme”—constitutes the ultimate failure to connect, as she has no desire to attempt to communicate her experience, or the insights she has gained about life’s meaning. The failure of the “sublime noise” of the symphony to connect its listeners is just “a different kind of failure,” and music has not solved this communicative crisis. Other modernist authors push this failure even further, rejecting even the possibility Forster raises of the unification of the self. Yet even as a number of other contributors to this cluster consider the limits and perceived “failures” of collaboration, I am inclined to view these failed attempts at collaboration between individuals, as well as between the listener and the music, through the lens of what Brian Norman in his piece calls the “space of possibility in the wake of failure.” Failure to connect upon one’s first (or tenth) attempt at collaboration does not diminish the possibility of communication; it only emphasizes the worthiness of the goal.

In addition to this cluster’s sustained consideration of the existence of true collaboration in art, I join Brian Norman and Jarek Ervin in wondering whether we might challenge the very notion of a collaboration as a basic unit of creative exchange between (at least) two people. Certainly, if we pay closer attention to the modernist turn toward music as a narrative model in the works of authors such as Forster and Huxley, their divided characters, yearning for connection and communication, help us think about the arts as a (messy, but inextricably interrelated) whole. Huxley works out his theory of multiplicity in Point Counter Point through the character of Philip Quarles, a novelist and intellectual who keeps notebooks close at hand to record his ideas.[4] The human polyphony of isolated individuals is, for Huxley, the “the nature of reality,” and Point Counter Point comes closest to capturing “reality” for him on both structural and thematic levels, most directly in the frequently cited Chapter 22, subtitled “From Philip Quarles’s Notebook” (to Dr. Humphry Osmond, December 23, 1955, Letters, 778–80, 779):

The musicalization of fiction. Not in the symbolist way, by subordinating sense to sound. . . . But on a large scale, in the construction. Meditate on Beethoven. The changes of moods, the abrupt transitions. (Majesty alternating with a joke, for example, in the first movement of the B flat major Quartet. Comedy suddenly hinting at prodigious and tragic solemnities in the scherzo of the C sharp minor Quartet.) More interesting still, the modulations, not merely from one key to another, but from mood to mood. A theme is stated, then developed, pushed out of shape, imperceptibly deformed, until, though still recognizably the same, it has become quite different. In sets of variations the process is carried a step further. Those incredible Diabelli variations, for example. The whole range of thought and feeling, yet all in organic relation to a ridiculous little waltz tune. Get this into a novel. How? The abrupt transitions are easy enough. All you need is a sufficiency of characters and parallel, contrapuntal plots. While Jones is murdering a wife, Smith is wheeling the perambulator in the park. You alternate the themes. More interesting, the modulations and variations are also more difficult. A novelist modulates by reduplicating situations and characters. He shows several people falling in love, or dying, or praying in different ways—dissimilars solving the same problem. Or, vice versa, similar people confronted with dissimilar problems. In this way you can modulate through all the aspects of your theme, you can write variations in any number of different moods. Another way: The novelist can assume the god-like creative privilege and simply elect to consider the events of the story in their various aspects—emotional, scientific, economic, religious, metaphysical, etc. He will modulate from one to the other—as, from the aesthetic to the physico-chemical aspect of things, from the religious to the physiological or financial. But perhaps this is a too tyrannical imposition of the author’s will. Some people would think so. But need the author be so retiring? I think we’re a bit too squeamish about these personal appearances nowadays.[5]

In this passage, Huxley (via Quarles) makes explicit the potential connection between musical forms of expression and the structure of a novel. A number of critics look to Quarles’s journal as proof that the novel is in the literal sense a roman à clef—a “musicalized” piece of fiction—and seek to map the intricacies of the “contrapuntal” plot suggested by the title and by the above passage, focusing on Quarles’s desire to produce a novel that is musical “on a large scale, in the construction.”[6] Most music-based analyses of the novel that read the novel as successfully “contrapuntal” disregard Quarles’s uncertain tone: “Get this into a novel. How?” If we focus on the uncertainty of the project of the “musicalization of fiction”—on the frequent failure to connect—we can see that Huxley’s theory of multiplicity extends to interart relationships (what Daniel Albright terms “panaesthetics”).[7] True collaboration, whether between arts or among individuals, can only be achieved by understanding the self as multitudinous, not monolithic.

Huxley’s use of music is similar to many other modernist writers who employ interart collaboration to work both within and against the constraints of the traditional form of the novel in order to express a keen sense of their own modernity. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony gradually came to epitomize the composer’s life and musical style, which perhaps explains its presence in Forster in 1910. In the decade after Howards End, however, modernist artists’ musical tastes became even more precise, and it was a mark of sophistication in certain modernist circles to express familiarity with and enthusiasm for late Beethoven, specifically his late quartets. Many modernist writers, seeking to communicate, not alienate (which perhaps explains their proclivity for Beethoven over, say, Stravinsky?), describe themselves experiencing the failure of words to express the traumas of war and modernity. In response to these linguistic failures, many writers turn to music, and more specifically to Beethoven’s late quartets. There was an almost cult fascination with Beethoven’s late quartets among certain intellectual sets, including both Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Eliot, and Huxley. The late quartets were revered in the early twentieth century for their almost mystical, spiritual, even modern qualities, though Beethoven had died almost a century before. Many critics have noted parallels between Four Quartets and Beethoven’s Op. 132 (or is it Op. 135? and does it even matter?).[8]

Such parallels are often based on purported structural and technical similarities, and much critical attention has been paid to the correlation between musical and literary form in works such as Eliot’s Four Quartets, Huxley’s Point Counter Point, and Woolf’s “The String Quartet,” to name just a few. Huxley’s use of a composer character in his novel’s extended scene of listening stretches far beyond a merely fashionable familiarity with late Beethoven and his “spirituality” and into the realm of the philosophical. In Point Counter Point’s final scene, Huxley uses the A minor Quartet, Op. 132, to express his dissatisfaction with popular spiritual interpretations of Beethoven. In this scene the character Maurice Spandrell addresses the character Mark Rampion:

Spandrell was very insistent that they [Rampion and his wife Mary] should come without delay. The heilige Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart [Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode] simply must be heard. “You can’t understand anything until you’ve heard it,” he declared. “It proves all kinds of things—God, the soul, the goodness—unescapably. It’s the only real proof that exists; the only one, because Beethoven was the only man who could get his knowledge over into expression. You must come.” [Spandrell continues:] “I heard quite by accident yesterday that the A minor Quartet had been recorded for the gramophone. I rushed out and bought a machine and the records specially for you [Rampion].” (Huxley, Point Counter Point, 425)

Spandrell’s attempt to convince Rampion of the absolute proof provided by Beethoven, followed by his devastating failure, dovetails nicely with Helen’s extremely personal, philosophical reaction to Beethoven’s Fifth in Howards End. However, the way that Huxley uses music in the rest of this scene, and throughout the rest of the novel, constitutes a rejection of any Helen-esque philosophy that makes claims on an absolute truth. Huxley’s use of music throughout Point Counter Point also exposes the limitations of analyses that approach the novel as a musically contrapuntal literary text. Attempts to reconstruct a musically complex structure within the novel—and there have been many—assume literal applications of what is clearly an analogy, at the expense of a more productive investigation of what I call the novel’s “musical philosophy.”

Huxley was generally philosophically reserved, and often labeled a skeptic at this time, suspending final judgments and carefully considering all doubts. By considering the possibility of “other categories of existence,” he was able to consider multiple versions of truth, as debated from the differing perspectives of the characters in his novel. One of the most striking methods of seeking philosophical truth is demonstrated by the character Spandrell, who uses music as a means of expressing his philosophical proofs, only to find that multiple listeners do not hear the same answers that he does. In the above scene, Spandrell attempts to persuade his friend Rampion that without having heard Beethoven’s Op. 132, he cannot hope to understand anything. Reading this scene alongside the one from Howards End allows us to test the possibilities for the type of collaborative musical communication Helen refuses to attempt. At first, Rampion refuses to be convinced, but after hearing the entire third movement, he experiences what he calls “the most perfect spiritual abstraction from reality I’ve ever known” (Huxley, Point Counter Point, 429). Though he questions its abstract nature, Rampion experiences Spandrell’s spiritual proof—as long as the violins are playing. Yet Spandrell only registers Rampion’s rejection of his proof as an “abstraction,” and the consequences of Rampion’s rejection, and Spandrell’s resulting failure of communication, are devastating: Spandrell knowingly opens his door to an assassin and is shot while his friends listen to the final strains of Beethoven’s musical proof in the other room.

Rampion’s nuanced and conflicted reaction to Spandrell’s spiritual ideology is just one example of the multiplicity of philosophical views held by each character in Point Counter Point. The sheer number of viewpoints within the novel allows Huxley to comment on the futility and naivete of equating one’s personal, subjective opinion and perception of the world with objective reality—a rejection of the ego-based philosophy adhered to by Spandrell. Few of Huxley’s characters fail to have at least one moment of realization in which they are aware not only of life’s multiplicity, but also of their own multiplicity of ideas and opinions. By holding fast to one of the many ideas within their minds, Huxley’s characters think they are simplifying their lives by adopting an ideological core, while in reality they are ensuring a discontinuous and fragmented relationship with those around them. Huxley’s philosophy of musicalization (i. e. multiplicity) differs from Forster’s aesthetics of connection—unless, that is, we read that ellipsis in his famous epigraph as indicative of the inevitable failure of the whole enterprise . . .

In her 1925 essay “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf famously expressed her increasing conviction that the novel must evolve from its conventionally chronological, detail-driven form in order to capture the fragmented experience of everyday life. Woolf argued that the “two and thirty chapters” standard in realist fiction “more and more cease[d] to resemble the vision in [modernist writers’] minds.”[9] Huxley’s novels of the 1920s, too, seem to ask the question Woolf poses in her essay: “Is life like this? Must novels be like this?” (Common Reader, 212). The answer Huxley gives in his early novels is found in the form of these novels’ experimentation with narrative techniques; his experimentation with musico-literary form offers a critique of realist representations of interiority, as well as of the relationship of the novel to history.

Both Woolf and Huxley gravitate toward musical forms of expression as alternatives to realist depictions of the self. While revising Mrs Dalloway (1925) for publication, Woolf writes in her diary after attending a concert: “For its [Guilhermina Suggia’s cello] music I want; to stimulate & suggest [in my novel].”[10] In his novels of the 1920s Huxley refines the connection between musicalization and the articulation of the multiple nature of the self. Though, as Robert Baker points out, Huxley’s artistic philosophy was that many parts of experience defy language, Huxley did not abandon the search for viable forms of expression outside of language.[11] Critics turn most frequently to Point Counter Point as an example of Huxley’s use of musical form in a novel, but the story of Huxley’s search for literary answers in the musical realm actually begins with his earlier novels: Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), and Those Barren Leaves (1925).[12] Written over a period of seven years, each of these novels employs expressly musical language and techniques in order to grapple with their particularly modernist quarrel with form. Critics have overlooked the compelling fact that these four works exhibit different “degrees” of musico-literary sensitivity in a progression that culminates in the meta-commentary of Philip Quarles in Point Counter Point.

Thinking about interart experiments as collaborative, even when undertaken by a single artist, allows for an investigation into the motivations for such a proliferation of speculative interdisciplinary collaborations within the modernist period. The struggle to articulate the effects of the inclusion of music within literary narrative is particularly relevant to the question of “imitation” versus “influence,” which arises in any discussion of Huxley’s early novels. I recognize in Huxley’s use of music the shared goals and concerns of literary texts that attempt simultaneous presentation of multiple subjective consciousnesses in order to understand and express perceptions of reality more authentically. Interpreting an author’s narrative and aesthetic goals as influenced by music, as opposed to interpreting this as an attempt at a direct imitation of musical forms, allows for a greater understanding of how musico-literary experimentation expands our understanding of many of the shared objectives of modernist experimentation more generally. The search for new forms of literary expression results in an attempt to incorporate the expressive possibilities of music in order to communicate a new, distinctly modern, understanding of human subjectivity. In my reading, Huxley’s methods answer Woolf’s questions about modern fiction, “Is life like this? Must novels be like this?” with a resounding “No!”

Tracing the development of Huxley’s speculative collaboration between literature and music in his first four novels (1921–1928), culminating in his invented “musicalization of fiction” under the guise of a novelist character’s journals, demonstrates that his theory of the relation between music and literature relies not on an imitative account of the relations between the arts—one of analogy—but on multiplicity, dependent finally on irresolvable tensions between the two. Counterpoint, the central structural metaphor of the novel, can thus be understood as comprising a form of collaboration. Indeed, many modernist writers and composers grappled with this relationship, turning to music after experiencing the failure of words to express the realities of modern life, and to literary modernism as a promising partner in representing the character of an age. Huxley begins to make the connection between the competing perspectives housed within a single consciousness, and within interart relations, with Crome Yellow’s Denis Stone, whose realization that interiority isn’t privileged—that it is accessible—results in an intense, and ultimately insurmountable, discomfort. The other writers considered briefly here alongside Huxley confront this discomfort by turning to interart relations within the novel not as a way of refining each discipline down to its essence (as Stone seeks to do with human beings), thereby reinforcing the separation of words and music, but as a way of forging indissoluble bonds between the arts through the act of collaboration.

These early instances of modernist writers’ use of music as a communicative device in their writing are important for a clearer understanding of the musico-literary collaborations of Forster, Huxley, and Woolf not as isolated experiments, but as hallmarks of a period of consistent and evolving exploration of the connections between music and literature. In this way, the collaborative relationship of music and literature—even while it remains speculative—models the potential for the expansion of the expressive potential of literature.


[1] See Zadie Smith, On Beauty: A Novel (New York: Penguin Books, 2006); E. M. Forster, Howards End (London: Pearson, 2009).

[2] The term counterpoint was first used in the fourteenth century to describe the combination of simultaneously sounding musical lines according to a system of rules. It has also been used to refer to an entire composition created according to the principles of counterpoint. According to Klaus-Jürgen Sachs, the anonymous fourteenth-century treatise Cum notum sit contains a definition of counterpoint as “nothing but a setting of note against note” (Sachs and Carl Dahlhaus, "Counterpoint," Grove Music Online, 2001, Oxford University Press). This is the same broad definition used by Huxley in his 1928 letter to Harold Raymond (see Huxley to Raymond, May 1, 1928, in Letters of Aldous Huxley, ed. Grover Cleveland Smith, [New York: Harper, 1970], 295–96, 296). The importance of the presentation and regulation of simultaneous parts in a contrapuntal composition to make “harmonic” sense is one of the primary focal points of critics who read Point Counter Point as an example of literary counterpoint. It is important to note that though one interpretation of Huxley’s title is that the novel contains a “literary counterpoint,” this term remains effectively undefined.

[3] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Orlando, FL: Harvest Books, 1971), 30.

[4] The novel is often read as a roman à clef in that the following characters are generally understood to be taken from life (as outlined by Nicholas Mosley in his Introduction to Point Counter Point): Mark Rampion is based on D. H. Lawrence, Denis Burlap is based on John Middleton Murry, Everard Webley is based on Oswald Mosley, Lucy Tantamount is based on Nancy Cunard, and both Walter Bidlake and Philip Quarles are based on Huxley himself.

[5] Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point (Dublin: Dalkey Archive Press, 2004), 293–94.

[6] For various interpretations of the novel as literary counterpoint, see Gerald Cockshott, Music and Nature: A Study of Aldous Huxley (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1980); Peter Firchow, “The Music of Humanity: Point Counter Point,” in Aldous Huxley: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert E. Kuehn, (Edgebrook Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974), 97–118; Jerome Meckier, “The Counterpoint of Flight: Huxley’s Early Novels,” in Aldous Huxley: A Collection of Critical Essays, 81–96; Murray Roston, “The Technique of Counterpoint,” Studies in the Novel 9, no. 4 (1977): 378–88; Akhilesh Kumar Tripathy, The Art of Aldous Huxley. Varanasi: Rasmain Tripathy, 1974); Donald Watt, “The Fugal Construction of Point Counter Point,” Studies in the Novel 9, no. 4 (1977): 509–17; Werner Wolf, The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999).

[7] See Daniel Albright, Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

[8] See David Barndollar’s discussion of Eliot’s Four Quartets, in which he argues the poem better matches Op. 135 “in its return to a sparser, simpler style” (“Movements in Time: Four Quartets and the Late String Quartets of Beethoven,” in T. S. Eliot’s Orchestra: Critical Essays on Poetry and Music, ed. John Xiros Cooper, [Shrewsbury, MA: Garland, 2000], 179–94, 191).

[9] Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, ed. Andrew McNeillie, (New York: Harcourt, 1984), 211.

[10] Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 2, 1920–1924, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, (New York: Harcourt, 1977), 320.

[11] See Robert S. Baker, introduction to Aldous Huxley, Complete Essays Vol. 3, 1930–1935, ed. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton, (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), xiii–xx.

[12] See Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004); Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay (Dublin: Dalkey Archive Press, 2006); Aldous Huxley, Those Barren Leaves (Dublin: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998).