The quality of divine mercy

Look to Beethoven to answer Adorno’s famous post-Holocaust critique of Western culture

James MacMillan

We can never forget that the Holocaust was committed by people from one of the great Western civilisations, one like ours, people who cultivated their fine artistic tastes in music and other forms. The house at Wannsee was a lovely, serene setting for a conference devoted to planning the world’s greatest crime, but it was typical for the Nazis to surround themselves with beautiful scenery, classic buildings, classical music and books. Some of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps were built in beautiful locations and had such incongruous features as flower gardens, bird houses, orchestras, a library, a zoo, and a swimming pool. Reinhard Heydrich, who chose this spot for the conference, was an aristocratic and cultured man — an athlete and a talented musician. Most of the participants were educated men and several had law degrees. Many cultured men and women today talk in elevated terms of the spirituality of the arts, and even of the arts filling the vacuum vacated by religion in the modern world. There are lessons from recent history which should make us wary and cautious of this.

Theodor Adorno argued that after Auschwitz it is barbaric to attempt to write poetry — that art can never be a guarantee of empathy or morality or even civilisation. The Nazis taught us that, with their fine appreciation of classical music. Adorno argued that Auschwitz has demonstrated irrefutably that culture has failed: “That it could happen in the midst of the philosophical traditions, the arts and the enlightening sciences says more than just that these failed to take hold of and change the people. All culture after Auschwitz, including its urgent critique, is rubbish.”

This stark analysis asks what “culture” could possibly mean after the absolute failure of culture. The academic Elaine Martin writes:

The Shoah, a systematic, mechanical annihilation of a specific group “selected” on the basis of alleged biological traits and perversely organised with bureaucratic efficiency, was a mockery of the very idea of culture which had survived into the twentieth century. What credibility could cultural and artistic discourse possibly have, having themselves emanated from the very same “culture” from which Auschwitz had sprung?

And George Steiner wrote:

We now know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. The mass murder of millions was carried out within the framework of a society at the peak of cultural and artistic achievement. No wonder many have judged that such a society has lost its legitimacy of artistic discourse, after this “culture” had gone so catastrophically awry.

Could Adorno be right when he argued that Auschwitz was far more than just an unpleasant but nonetheless temporary glitch in an otherwise progressive culture? Auschwitz, he said, was part and parcel of modernity and progress themselves:
Millions of innocent people — to wrangle over the figure is in itself inhumane — have been systematically murdered, this was no superficial phenomenon, it is not to be seen as an aberration from the otherwise progressive tendencies of progress and Enlightenment and supposed steady perfection of humanity.

In fact, our still-fashionable view that man can be perfected is the very reason our culture has been able to produce Auschwitz and will continue to do so until humanity embraces a truly radical counter-ontology.

The fact that centuries of Enlightenment culture failed to predict and prevent the forces of fascism and eugenics is an implacable indictment of that culture. And remember that eugenics was very popular among the liberal, civilised bien pensants of the US, UK and Scandinavia before the Nazis got excited about it. And it’s back on the agenda today in the modern world’s obsession with screening out the disabled. Adorno then wrote:

The idea that after this war life could go on as normal, that culture can be resurrected — as if the resurrection of culture would not itself be its own negation — is idiotic. Millions of Jews have been murdered and this should be an interlude and not the actual catastrophe? What exactly is this culture awaiting?

Those of us with eyes to look around us might be alarmed to see that we might not need to await too long for another catastrophic answer to Adorno’s question. It may have begun already.

Enlightenment values cannot be disentangled from the iron fist of Progressive Politics. They were hand-in-glove from the start and evident in the revolutionary violence and terror of the French Revolution — a terror which attempted to replace God with Revolutionary Man, emptying the churches of the images of Jesus and his mother, and replacing them with the gods and goddesses of the future. It didn’t take long for “new, improved Man” to unleash the violence inherent in the new creed across Europe, and this was to happen time and time again in the centuries ahead.

There is an extraordinary but brief moment in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis where the Lamb of God overcomes the terrors of contemporary war and revolution. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis — Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. In many musical settings of this Mass movement the composer will attempt to invoke solace and peace. But in the Missa Solemnis the world breaks in — the ontology of violence which seeks to overthrow the Kingdom of Heaven, the ideology of ever-improving human society, whether we want it or not, invades this sacred text, attempting to sweep the loving God aside, attempting to take control imperially, and to become the new Spirit of the Age. In this tread of military drums and trumpets the usurper is the revolutionary clamour that sought to bring the merciful Lamb of God to its knees and lead it to the slaughterhouse. The voices respond anxiously, fearfully — dona nobis pacem — but the defiance is there: the counter-ontology is announced and expressed in Beethoven’s transformation of the sounds of violence into the glorious mercy of God.

This is a signal from musical history that every time the Lamb of God is led to the next slaughterhouse, whether it be in pogrom, gulag, concentration camp or the constant redefining of human worth and nature, there is an answer, and a way of fighting back — a way of remembering who we are and that we are indeed loved by a merciful God.

Beethoven was an extraordinary seismograph of political ethics and religion. He was inspired by resistance to despots, as well as moral ideals in human behaviour. He wrote a Siegessymphonie for the 16th-century hero Egmont, and Wellington’s Victory, not to mention Fidelio (which celebrates married love, freedom from slavery and the defeat of tyrants). Tyrants can only be defeated by brave resistance, and tyrants must never be flattered. So when the scales fell from his eyes he changed his mind over the dedication of the Eroica Symphony and erased the name of Napoleon from the score when he declared himself Emperor. Many talk of Beethoven’s search for justice in these works, but it is tempered with a profound knowledge of divine mercy, expressed with insight and vision in his Missa Solemnis. Would he have fallen silent if he had witnessed the Holocaust, according to Adorno’s advice? Or might he have embraced its horror in a new Mass setting? He brought a glimpse of mercy in the heart of the abyss into Mass and opera. Perhaps that’s how composers, poets and the rest could answer Adorno now too.

There is something in mercy that is rather humbling to all sides, which is why secularists despise it as a pity that shames human nature. To say that we all need it undermines modernity’s shibboleth of autonomy, the claim that I can give myself (auto) the law or meaning (nomos) because my nature is perfectly intact and needs no redemptive underpinning from the Sky Fairy and His grace, thank you very much. Real peace and understanding, based on an ontology of divine love, requires a recognition that we are all needy sons of Adam, needy of mercy which is our redemptive truth and, in the end, our liberation.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"