“Butterfly Dreams” – BYUNG-CHUL HAN

Sometimes, with extremely long pieces, I used to feel like I was playing a Gameboy. I would get lost in Mozart, would hop around inside, like I was playing Chinese jump rope, and with Tchaikovsky I discovered a passion not so different from making a run for the opposing team’s goal.

—Lang Lang

In Travel Pictures, Heinrich Heine lavishes praise on the music of Gioachino Rossini. He invokes the golden tones, the melodic flashes, the butterfly dreams “that so beguile him.” His heart is kissed “as if by the lips of the graces.” Heine calls Rossini divino maestro, the Helios of Italy. He casts his “sonorous beams” down over the world. He flutters lightly, as if given wings by God. Heine begs Rossini to forgive his poor compatriots, who fail to grasp his depths because they are covered over with roses. In Hell, Heine affirms, they will not evade their deserved reprimand, and will be condemned to hear nothing but Bach’s fugues for the length of eternity.

It is well known that not everyone praised Rossini so enthusiastically. For many, he was synonymous with frivolity and light entertainment. Robert Schumann called him a “decorative painter” whose melodic flourishes and ornamentation aimed no higher than sensuous enjoyment, a mindless, truthless intoxication of the senses. His music was a fleeting butterfly dream, a beautiful illusion that fell apart completely when stripped of its “deceptive theatrical distance.” Rossini’s compositions were sumptuously ornamented frames that lacked a picture capable of expressing a thought or idea. E. T. A. Hoffmann speaks of the “sweet, Rossinian lemonade” that “art-savorers” “slurp down without the slightest complaint.” He contrasts this with the “fiery, strong, potent wine of a great dramatic composer.” Rossini, according to Hoffmann “careless, and therefore unworthy of true art,” indulges “faddish tastes.” Hoffmann wonders: “How can it be … that even in Germany, where otherwise only truth and seriousness matter in art, this decadent taste finds such a multitude of adherents?”

The dichotomy of seriousness versus entertainment is already crucial in music criticism of the nineteenth century. In Wendt’s biography of Rossini (1824) we read: “In the first place, he satisfies the ear, working for a sweet, charming music. He has always had the greater public—not the critics—in mind; the effect was ever his God, and the easier it was for him to earn acclaim by means of it, the more enthusiastically and recklessly he pursued it, with disregard for serious artistic practice.” Rossini’s music is portrayed as popular music that bows down before the taste of the masses.

Wagner, too, blames Rossini’s musical faults on his excessive attention to his public. For Wagner, the “distinguishing feature of the good” is that “it is there for itself” and requires no public. The “good in its pure form,” which is only realized in the “work of a genius,” stands aloof from the “demand for entertainment.” The “bad in art” corresponds to the intention “simply to please.” In his theory of art, Wagner posits a dichotomous tension that absolutizes or hierarchizes a putatively relative difference into an unyielding moral law. Wagner designates the “good in art” as a “moral good.” A sharp dichotomy of this kind generates an aura of depth. Its violation entails the dissipation of this aura.

An excess of pleasure in melodies, however seductive it may be, generates “disgust.” The melodies themselves grow “suddenly unbearable,” even “risible.” But was the “eerie splendor of [Beethoven’s] stare, painfully broken, withered from longing—and yet undaunted unto death” not also, in the end, risible or comic?

For Wagner, music is akin to poetry. It is fertilized by “the thoughts of the poet.” True melody is suffused with words and meaning. Music is preeminently expression. Beethoven “throws himself” “into the arms of the poet” “in order to beget true melody, infallibly real and redemptive.” Where music is bare of expression, of the poetic word, of passion, it provokes “disgust.”

A wholly different notion of music lies behind Arthur Schopenhauer’s enthusiasm for Rossini. In The World as Will and Representation, he writes: “Thus if music ties itself too closely to words or tries to model itself on events, it is trying to speak a language that is not its own. Nobody has avoided this error as completely as Rossini: which is why his music speaks its own language so clearly and purely that it has no need of words at all and retains its full effect when performed on instruments alone.”10 In the opinion of an Ital- ian contemporary, Rossini liberates music from the fetters of expression and thought. His music is therefore freer than that other music which is “paroxysm from the first to the last notes,” and merely “harnesses” the text, offering noth- ing but a “fabric” of “thoughts and modulations” that “attack one another in the eardrum.” Hence the sardonic rhyme:

Voici le mot; songez y bien;
Crier est tout, chanter n’est rien.

If music is conceived as something other than passion and expression, then Rossini’s songs certainly sing more than that song “which is not song, but rather only an eternally unbroken longing to sing.” Viewed thus, Beethoven’s Fidelio, which lacks free singing, is not opera, but simply “declamation set to instruments.” Music “full of thrusting, leaping, moods, that is enraptured by the shifting storms of passion” lacks the freedom of “sustained, penetrating song.” Hence Rossini’s smile would have a splendor of its own, no less dignified than the splendor of Beethoven’s painfully broken stare. Not only the face twisted in pain, but the serene smile would have depth, albeit a depth not apparent at first glance because, to quote Heine, it is covered with roses.

Rossini marks a contrast with that tragic hero who, while striving “to make the entire world his own,” is laid low by his “enemy,” that is, by “indomitable nature.” Rossini succeeds in conquering the world, though his way of doing so is utterly different. His power is “pleasure,” the “enchantment of melodies,” which dominates by gratifying. A power that entertains is stronger than one that compels: “Submitting to the flights of his genius, he strives onward, never even conscious of a conquest so immense, it finds its counterpart in the fable of Orpheus. Pleasure is his helpmeet, nature his allied power.”

Rossini’s music is free insofar as it is hostage neither to thoughts, nor to ideas, nor to words. When the German singers remarked that “the leaden nature of the German language made it impossible to clearly pronounce and appreciate the words at a rapid tempo,” Rossini apparently shouted: “Che cosa? Parole? Effetto! Effetto!” Often Rossi- ni’s melodies express nothing so much as that luxuriant, frolicking foliage Kant describes as “free beauty,” because it depends on no thought or concept. Rossini’s music hovers as though “given wings by God” because it is not freighted with that “appalling longueur” of “pathos” from which Nietzsche distances himself. Rossini’s music is rife with tones that long for nothing, that require nothing, that have no need of redemption.

Being free from specific expression, his melodies achieve a global effect. His music thus becomes both popular and global.

Strange to each other in language, strange in customs […]
Are the Indian, the Mexican, and perhaps Even the Hottentot and the Huron Gripped by the exalted magic
Of Rossini’s song? What new power Is this? Wherefore sinks melody
So gladly into man’s heart?

Even Hegel allows himself to be carried away by Rossini’s melodies. After hearing Rossini’s Barber of Seville for the second time in Vienna, he wrote enthusiastically to his wife: “It is so glorious, so irresistible, that one cannot leave Vienna.” Hegel takes Rossini’s side against his critics: “Rossini’s detractors dismiss his music as empty titillation for the ears; but if one penetrates its melodies more deeply, this music is, to the contrary, replete with feeling, rich in spirit, a goad to the mind and heart.”

Hegel’s enthusiasm for Rossini is less than self-evident in light of his asseveration that art that serves merely for “pleasure and entertainment” is “not independent, not free, but rather servile.” “Free art,” in contrast, neither pleases nor entertains. It works toward the truth. Hegel’s “spirit,” as the subject of art, is itself work and passion. The relationship to truth and spirit forms the basis of the kinship between art and philosophy: “Now, in its freedom alone is fine art truly art, and it only fulfills its supreme task when it has placed itself in the same sphere as religion and philoso- phy, and when it is simply one way of bringing to our minds and expressing the Divine, the deepest interests of mankind, and the most comprehensive truths of the spirit.”

Hegel draws attention to the “conditions of our time,” which “are not favorable to art.” “Our life today,” writes Hegel, is oriented to “general considerations” that exceed the scope of the art’s domain, that is, the sensory. Whether from a deficit of generality or an excess of sensuality, art for us is “a thing of the past.” For the contemporary frame of mind, it does not represent a medium of truth. “Thought” and “reflection” have, as Hegel remarks, “spread their wings” over fine art. The site of passion or the work of the spirit has shifted to philosophy and science, which are more suited to knowledge and truth. Art does not work efficiently enough as it were, or else its products no longer satisfy the criteria of truth.

Art yields before science and philosophy, and at the same time is delivered from service to truth. De-passioned, it becomes the object either of “immediate enjoyment” or of scientific observation. This de-passioning of art is what inspires in Hegel that carefree enthusiasm for Rossini’s music. He forgets, for a moment, the work for truth, thinking as passion. He indulges in a very different passion, a passion for the beautiful, which is delightful to the degree that it is free from compulsion to meaning or truth, from any kind of work as passion. To his wife, Hegel writes from Prague: “I enjoy such beauty, and live in utopia.” Not knowledge and understanding, but rather the lack of meaning, leads to utopia. “Utopia” does not form part of Hegel’s philosophical vocabulary. Only once does he speak of the “ideal of a philosophical utopia.” In doing so, he opposes the idea of an “originary truth” that “submits wholly to the passivity of thinking, which need only open its mouth to consume it completely.” Thinking, for Hegel, is work and passion. Knowledge is the result of “doing.” It is hence anything but that strange “fruit” that falls from the “tree of knowledge,” “already chewed and digested.”

Awash in beauty, Hegel believes he dwells in utopia. Utopia is absolute entertainment. Pure happiness exists only where work comes to rest. Rossini’s music, its “gratified tone,” excites and cheers him, puts him in a utopian mood. His “melodic stream” is a “divine furor.” It delights and liberates every situation. Rossini’s god bears no family resemblance to the god of Hegel. His is a god of entertainment, unworried by truth or the word. His god was the effect, as it was said. The god of entertainment and the god of passion, the god of pure effect and the god of pure truth, the god of pure melody and the god of the pure word, pure immanence, and pure transcendence are therefore closely allied.

The Greeks, according to Nietzsche, had a special inclination toward the word. Even when passion was played out on the stage, it was necessary that “it speak well.” A proclivity for the word is “unnatural” insofar as passion in nature is “so poor in words, so embarrassed, and all but mute.” The Greeks reveled in this unnaturalness: “the tragic hero still finds words, reasons, eloquent gestures, and altogether intellectual brightness, where life approaches abysses.” This “deviation from nature is … the most agree- able repast for human pride.”

It is not speechless affect, but the word that gives delight. Art is based on this “lofty, heroic unnaturalness.” It salvages the moment of intense, inscrutable speechless- ness in the word. The transformation into words is redemptive: “At this point nature is supposed to be contradicted. …

The Greeks went far, very far in this respect—alarmingly far.” For the Greek poets, the aim was not “to overwhelm the spectator with sentiments.” Instead, they transform every- thing into reason and word, retain no “residue of silence” in

their hands. The “law of beautiful speeches” is addressed to passion, to the sentiments. The masklike but ceremonial stiffness of Greek actors reflects that unnaturalness that transforms passion into word, abyss into ground, darkness into spiritual brightness, the absence of concepts into sense and meaning.

A “deviation from nature” may also take the opposite direction, as a thoroughgoing “lack of regard for words.” Rossini, Nietzsche affirms, “had everybody sing nothing but la-la-la.” In this “la-la-la,” in this musical deviation from nature, Nietzsche glimpsed a reason constituted through the liberation of being from work and passion. This “la-la-la,” Nietzsche declares, is the essence of opera, even of music itself: “Confronted with the characters in an opera, we are not supposed to take their word for it, but the sound! That is the difference, that is the beautiful unnaturalness for whose sake one goes to the opera.” “Serious opera,” however, Nietzsche reproaches for its lack of courage: “Occasionally picking up a word must help the inattentive listener, but on the whole the situation must explain itself, and the speeches do not matter! That is what all of them think, and hence they have their fun with the words. Perhaps they merely lacked the courage to express fully their ultimate lack of regard for words.” For Nietzsche, not even the recitativo secco is a verbal structure beholden to interpretation. It rather permits a “rest from melody” which soon provokes a “new desire for whole music, for melody.” It is melody, not the word, that animates song. Perhaps all entertainment partakes of the beautiful unnaturalness, of that miraculous deviation from nature, which delights and redeems.

In “Orpheus in the Underworld,” Theodor Adorno remarks critically on best-selling art music titles. There is something almost peremptory in the distinction he draws between art and popular music. Art is heaven. The popular is the underworld: “Many chart-toppers that accepted stan- dards classify as art music are, in terms of character, popu- lar, or at the very least have grown exhausted and banal through countless repetition: what was art can become popular.” Everywhere Adorno suspects “pop music in disguise.” Everything is “chirping,” “jabbering,” “hopping about.” Consumers expect nothing but “splendor and pomp”: “A primitive notion of vibrancy seems to exert a power of suggestion, as if the purchase of a record were thought to grant one the right to something in color.” Passion lacks this vibrancy, this splendor and pomp. Its color is ash gray. Art music dresses in mourning.

Even in Tchaikovsky, Adorno discerns elements of popular music. His work represents a “mingling of the genius and the base.” He has a rare talent for creating extraordinarily penetrating yet, for that very reason, often quite vulgar characters. The secret of his music’s effect must be sought in a deep-seated stratum of infantilism. His music is “nourished by an ungovernable yearning for joy.” It is drunk on the “fulfillment denied those who revel in their daydreams of great passion.” This is a child’s relationship to happiness. True happiness, however, it not there for the taking. It is possible “only in a broken form,” as “a memory of what has been lost, a longing for the unattainable.” Tchaikovsky’s yearning for joy has not discovered this brokenness through music. His imagery is “not sublimated, but crassly fixed.” Entertainment “objectively vitiates those who experience it and who subjectively crave it.” It is “no more than a substitute for things people are otherwise disallowed.” He concludes: “The world of entertainment is the underworld passing itself off as heaven.”

Popular music lacks “great passion.” Hence its joy is a false appearance. Brokenness alone lends truth and authenticity to joy. Consequently, only the painfully broken, people like Beethoven, the Homo doloris, have access to true joy. All true art music is passion music in the strictest sense. Adorno describes Beethoven’s records as the “pièce de résistance” in the midst of “pop music in disguise.”

Not only is Tchaikovsky’s ungovernable yearning for joy infantile; so is Adorno’s defiant no, which condenses into passion. His brokenness is simultaneously a hindrance, an inability to live. His colorblindness bars him access to anything but gray. The joy that can only be articulated through brokenness is an illusion. Every joy is illusory.

It may be that the most beautiful music, which con- verges on true joy, rings out in this same underworld. Famously, Orpheus’s singing frees existence from suffering all at once. Tantalus no longer reaches for the flowing water. Ixion’s wheel stands still. The birds stop tearing at the liver of Tityus. The daughters of Danaus let their jugs lie still. And Sisyphus sits quiet atop his stone. Work comes to rest. The air is cleared of passion. Perhaps Eurydice’s liberation is divine reward for Orpheus’s entertainment in the underworld.


Byung-Chul Han, “Butterfly Dreams”, Good Entertainment. Transl. by Adrian Nathan West. Cambridge/London: The MIT Press, 2019.

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