The sound of madness

1. There is something true in the banal observation that madness cannot name itself and, consequently, analytic discourse always requires a triadic structure (whence the problem of ethics that requires that there is no third). To put it simplistically, madness indicates a radical and often irreparable departure of the cogito from the ego. What Derrida observes of the “me” of analysis applies mutatis mutandis to madness: how is it possible to translate what is in principle unpresentable into a discourse that by its nature must make it present? How is it possible to say something outside of sense when speech itself is nothing other than the repetition of sense?* It is in the midst of this bind that Derrida explicitly invokes the notion of iterability in the now familiar deconstructive technique of showing that what resists signification is ultimately the “real” of sense such that every act of analysis becomes its own subversion (in his words, “in this sense, deconstruction is the interminable drama of analysis”).

*Contrary to popular psychology, madness is neither chaos nor “complete nonsense” but, rather, a particular relation to sense that prevents reflection.

As Foucault observed, what was at stake in their confrontation over the possibility of writing (of) madness is whether philosophical discourse can tolerate an exteriority to which it must be blind. When Derrida says that everything can be historicized except the hyperbolic project—which, in classic Derridean fashion, requires a madness more radical than that of psychological madness—Foucault sees confirmation of knowledge fortifying itself against its own unconscious (conditions). But the archaeological “we” who must analyze these conditions, Derrida says, can never be its own contemporary, i.e., can never be present to itself, which simply defines the analytic position. For both, however, because knowledge can never renounce itself, the double bind of Enlightenment (or, more specifically, Kantian) critique is that knowledge only crosses its limit precisely by seeking to know itself: thought can never intend anything outside of itself.

2. This double bind is “endured in a thousand different ways” (Derrida) in a sort of passio essendi. Madness brings us to the limit between life and death, i.e., to the point where the dissolution of the conditions for life nevertheless persists in a sort of second life. Death lingers on the far side of madness at the impossible moment when madness can name itself; madness expresses itself, however, perilously close to us ourselves in ecstasy (which includes not only the experiences of the mystics but also, as Derrida points out, the problematic of finitude in Heideggerean ek-stasis).

Such expression, however, can never be in the order of signification (thus analysis is only what Derrida calls the “reconstitution of the symbolic pact”). But what Munch did for anguish in “The Scream”, Ornstein has done for madness in the eighth of the Poems of 1917. Ornstein’s tone clusters, instead of tarrying at the limit of tonality and noise, express tonality without being tonal. Ornstein never rejects the language of tonality. All the architectural and melodic elements are there but it is the very persistence of the triplets that attempt to establish a tonal center that fails to sublate the minimal (semitonal) differences into a standard resolution. The “center” of the eighth Poem is nothing other than the minimal difference that defines unison as the interval that differs from itself only by returning to itself. But the only difference, then, between a single note (unison) and silence is its negation in melodic progression.

What Ornstein’s “melody without tonality” expresses, by the absence of a tonal center, is simply the trace of tonality by its persistence in our relation to it. Against the referentialists, Meyer has argued that “affect … is aroused when an expectation—a tendency to respond—activated by the musical stimulus situation, is temporarily inhibited or permanently blocked” (emphasis added). In a sense, this thesis is the key to all modernist music. Meyer’s contributions to music theory have been to show that musical meaning (which is preferable to “sense”) is fundamentally triadic, i.e., that it is neither in the work nor the conscious observer but between those two and the extra-musical referent of the work. In the case of the eighth Poem, the latter is simply madness itself or, to put it another way, the eighth Poem is not a mad statement like the man who declares that his head is made of earthenware but simply an** expression of madness itself as a flight from sense that can, in principle, never be “made sense of” but nevertheless remains as a resistance and temptation to the reflective consciousness.

*I mark the article to insist that, strictly speaking, there is not one but many madnesses.