“the sensuous in its elemental originality”

I don’t have anything else to post today, so I’m bringing up one of my comments from the Mahalia Jackson post below. Because it’s so important that everything I write has at least a chance of being read …

Rufus had mentioned that Mahalia Jackson made for an interesting pairing with the Kierkegaard quotation, which got me thinking about what exactly he meant (Kierkegaard, that is; Rufus is clear enough).

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music.

I include it with all those Music Video posts because I imagine some kind of justification is needed. Kierkegaard wrote it in Either/Or, about the opera Don Giovanni specifically, which makes perfect sense given the Don’s erotic proclivities.

What I think he means by “the sensuous in its elemental originality” is longing or even appreciation, not yet described or perhaps even consciously understood, and fundamentally erotic in nature. The “sensuous”, or the source of feeling—waves on the beach, a bird in flight, the opposite sex—is certainly physical, but the feelings aroused are abstract. Even if science now teaches us that these feelings are basically material, the rush of blood and chemicals in the brain, they are initially felt as something that beyond their material being.

Music is the medium that seems least material and is therefore best suited to express the abstract. And this makes sense if we consider that, even if music has a material basis in acoustic vibrations, it is for all intents invisible—the mathematical nature of rhythm, counterpoint, melody, harmony and all the rest are often described as form, but what the content actually is is a little more mysterious. With lyrics there are at least images inferred by words, and the nature of those images is the subject of much debate these days. For Kierkegaard, it was enough for the libretto to match “the sensuous in its elemental originality”.

The sensuous is most strongly felt as an erotic force, and Kierkegaard’s point, I think, was not only that music was ideally suited for Don Giovanni, but that Don Giovanni as a subject was the highest expression for music. Whether it’s the Don singing Finch’ han dal vino or Taylor Swift singing Style, the love song is primal because it’s about love and ideal because it is a song.

What then do we make of Mahalia Jackson singing Take My Hand, Precious Lord, much less I Know that My Redeemer Liveth or Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme? There’s a tendency now to emphasize the essentially erotic nature of religious feeling, and I think because Kierkegaard was similarly trying to sublimate his own erotic longing to attain the sublime, he tended to emphasize the destructive side of that longing. Somewhere else on this blog I wrote that Kierkegaard would have been an entirely different philosopher if he had take Le Nozze de Figaro as a model instead of Don Giovanni. It’s no less concerned with the havoc wreaked by the erotic, but much, much more forgiving of the human actors so tangled up in blue.

And in the same way Le Nozze is forgiving, Wachet Auf might be in search of something much different than the erotic. Or it might just be an entirely different order of sublimation.

On Valentine’s Day Artur Rosman made a slightly different point on the nature of the erotic and it’s relationship to song. It’s more Catholic, and includes twerking, and you can read it here.


  1. Rufus McCain says

    I’m glad you brought this up from the comments. A helpful explication of a difficult bit from Magister K, and definitely worthy of a post in its own right.

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Seems to me SK may also be hinting at a more profound overarching metaphysical mystery/paradox. That phrase, “the most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality,” makes me think of the creation of the tangible material world (the sensuous) out of nothing (the ultimate abstraction). So the most concrete thing is at its heart the most abstract. Paging Drs. Plato and Augustine?

    • Quin Finnegan says

      Yeah, I think you’re on to something there, and Plato and Augustine are our best guides. I’ll also put in a plug for Tolkien, and specifically The Silmarillion, and even more specifically the first chapter (I’m pretty sure), called “The Music of the Ainur”, about the creation of the universe through singing. One of my favorite things in Tolkien, actually.

  3. Louise Orrock says

    I’m too tired to read today.

  4. Louise Orrock says

    Which doesn’t mean I’m sick but it’s because of the cold and indigestion.

  5. Southern Expat says

    This comment is here to indicate I have read, am interested, but have nothing original to contribute.

  6. Quin Finnegan says

    As an addendum, I’ll add that I think Jobe was on to this in Bird’s Nest in Your Hair, specifically in the scene in which the pornography DVD is hidden inside the DVD case for The Sound of Music.

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