“All art,” in Walter Pater’s famous phrase, “constantly aspires to the condition of music.” This class asks how literature has tried to approach that condition by emulating the sounds, forms, and experience of music. The bulk of our investigation will track this question across two intertwined traditions: European (primarily German) musical culture from Romanticism to modernism, and African American musical culture from spirituals to hip hop. We will see how both traditions use music to explore dimensions of race, gender, social and political belonging, historical progress and decline, the philosophy of art, and the limits of language. We will also pay close attention to the ways that poets, in particular, have understood and exploited the musical qualities of language itself.
As we plot a chronological trajectory from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, we will be on the lookout for unexpected interactions between writers who shared a historical moment but are almost never read together. We will ask how our received literary and historical narratives must be modified to see the correspondences and divergences between Leo Tolstoy and W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcel Proust and James Weldon Johnson, Gwendolyn Brooks and Thomas Mann, or Toni Morrison and Thomas Bernhard. Throughout the course, our readings will be paired with major theoretical texts (Moten, Adorno, Barthes) as well as recordings, films, and music videos.