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Harmony, Linguistic and Musical

My hero, Charles Peirce, rightly says that logic exists in the service of ethics, and ethics in the service of aesthetics. Following this triadic characterization of the foundations of knowledge, both language and music, in order to be good and beautiful, must be underpinned by well-formedness, alias logic. Thus even a child’s grammatically and lexically well-formed utterance is to be deemed superior to an adult’s cacoglossic one, just as the harmonically grammatical commercial jingle always puts the typically cacophonic piece of contemporary classical music to shame. In this matter, my favorite pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus “The Obscure” (of “No man ever steps in the same river twice” fame), has something pertinent to say.

One of Heraclitus’ most famously enigmatic fragments goes like this:

Οὐ ξυνίασι ὅκως διαφερόμενον ἑωυτῷ ὁμολογέει·
παλίντροπος ἁρμονίη ὅκωσπερ τόξου καὶ λύρης.

Ou xyniasin hokōs diaferomenon heoutoi homologeei palintropos harmoniē hokōsper toxou kai lyres.     

(“They do not comprehend how a thing agrees at variance with itself [literally how being brought apart it is brought together with itself]; it is an attunement turning back on itself, like that of the bow and the lyre.”)

This fragment is typical of Heraclitus’ forma mentis in that it begins with a negation (“They do not comprehend”) that seems to be a polemical retort to and denial of some prior position held by others. This immediately engages dialogism as a constitutive principle of the form of Heraclitus’ utterance. Leaving aside the phrase “at variance with itself” for the moment, what is crucial to the interpretation of the whole fragment is the combination palintropos harmoniē (backward-turning structure [attunement/connection]). The original sense of harmoniē seems to have been joining or fitting together, and that is the way it is used by Homer and Herodotus among others in the context of carpentry or shipbuilding. But harmoniē also has from the beginning a figurative meaning—“agreements” or “compacts” between hostile men (as in the Iliad)—from which it can move to the connotation of reconciliation (personified, for instance, as the child of Ares and Aphrodite in Hesiod’s Theogony). Finally, harmoniē occurs in the familiar musical sense of the “fitting together” of different strings to produce the desired scale or key.

It is in this final sense that speaking harmoniously is accordingly a matter of fitting together the bow and the lyre. But in order to be aesthetically pleasing, language use must be undergirded by both ethics and logic. This is where Heraclitus joins hands with Peirce.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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