Rhythm and Trance

My latest piece for my column at Nomos Journal is up.  It’s an analysis of the Afro-Atlantic legacy of contemporary popular music, specifically in light of two interrelated aspects of Afro-Atlantic music: rhythm and trance.  The use of polyrhythmic beats in the spirit possession rituals of Afro-Atlantic traditions parallels the structure of the trance experiences that those beats occasion.  The beats mix two-pulse and three-pulse beats and the experiences likewise manifest liminal mixtures of humans (possessed) and deities (possessors), as well as mixtures between conscious and amnesiac states, between performer and audience members, between ritual and art, between humans and animals (e.g., the horses we become when we are possessed/mounted by gods)….

I’m always bothered by the inadequacy of the terminology of music theory.  Polyrhythm is a better term than syncopation, a striking-together wherein one beat is considered regular or normal, against which the irregular “off”-beat strikes.  Such a hierarchy is missing in Afro-Atlantic music; neither duple meter nor triple meter is heard as primary or regular.  In fact, there is no abstract meter at all, only the play of multiple meters.  Along those lines, polyrhythm seems like a much better term, since it does not assimilate the plurality of rhythms into a hierarchy of regular/irregular beats.  However, as Mikel Dufrenne points out in The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, polyrhythm is still an inadequate concept for describing the phenomenon itself.  It presupposes a mono-/poly- distinction that is not present in the actual performance or experience of the music.

I’m reminded that there is a magic formula that many of us are still searching for, a formula that would equate the singular and the plural, mono- and poly-, the one and the many, monism and pluralism.  My commitment to pop analysis follows along those lines, listening for the truth of to hen in the music of hoi polloi.

Plato and Ecstatic Trance

In a passage from the Phaedrus (265a), Socrates provides an outline of the varieties of mania, of which there are two main types, “one arising from human diseases, and the other from a divine release of customary habits.”  Although discourses such as that in the Timaeus (86b) focus on mania as a disease, specifically dementia (anoia), the passage just quoted from the Phaedrus focuses on mania as it arises from divine release (theias exallages), wherein a god inspires a frenzy that brings one beside oneself (exallos) and out of one’s habits. 

A little later in the Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus recapitulate what they have agreed are the four divisions of this divinely inspired mania, naming each form according to the god that inspires it: 1) the mania of prophetic divination, inspired by Apollo, 2) the mania of rites (teletai), inspired by Dionysus, 3) the mania of poetry, inspired by the Muses, 4) and the mania of love, inspired by Aphrodite and Eros.  Of the four forms of divinely inspired mania, Socrates and Phaedrus agree that the enthusiasm of erotic mania is the best because it brings one to love and remember the ideal truth of beauty, of which all earthly appearances are imitations and reflections. This erotic mania is the focus of the account of Diotima’s speech in the Symposium, which suggests the possibility that Eros inspires a love for the Beautiful (which is intertwined with the Good), and only on the basest level is this love manifest as a love of boys (pederasty). 

Erotic mania is the best type of mania according to Socrates because it inspires a love analogous to the love of wisdom inspired by what is called in the Symposium philosophical mania (philosophon manias)—a love of ideal form expressed through the logos.  This is not to say that any type of mania not inspired by Eros should be inhibited or completely suppressed, but that other forms of mania are less immediate ways of participating in the Good and the Beautiful.  The only type of mania that Plato’s dialogues ever speak of suppressing is that of ritual mania, which is basically a mania of ecstatic trance.  In both the Laws and the Republic, the songs, rhythms, and dances that accompany weaknesses of the soul are deemed unfit for the citizens of the ideal polis, and ritual mania is said to be one way in which such weakness of the soul becomes manifest. 

Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy attempts to overturn the Socratic condemnation of Dionysian ecstasy as degeneration.  Against Socrates, Nietzsche argues that this madness was the source of the greatest joy for the Ancient Greeks, and that the rationality and morality attributed to Socrates are negations of life, which are characteristic of the disintegration of Hellenic culture.

Even though Socrates speaks of erotic mania as the best and of ritual mania as a weakness of the soul, in the Phaedrus he speaks of benefits given through each form of divinely influenced mania, saying that the “greatest of blessings come to us through madness, when it is sent as a gift of the gods.”  Socrates and Phaedrus agree that the Greeks have benefited from the ritual mania inspired by Dionysus, which consists in using prayer, song, dance, cathartic purification, and sacrifice to evoke the arrival of the deity.  Socrates speaks about how divinatory and ritual mania have worked together for the people, with the oracles divining and prescribing the proper rituals to perform in order to invoke a deity to help cure somebody of a disease and bring them back to a sensible state of mind. 

In sum, Plato’s writings are generally supportive of mania insofar as it cures diseases (including other diseases of mania) and promotes rationality in individuals and throughout the republic.  However, the trances and spirit possessions of ritual mania are generally regarded as expressions of weakness that should be withheld from the citizens.  Ritual mania is only deemed helpful in the Phaedrus, and then it is limited to its role in curing disease and curing other weaknesses of the soul.  To put it briefly, Plato suppresses ecstatic trance in favor of reason.  I would argue that this goes hand in hand with Plato’s suppression of the pharmakon.  I’ll say more about that another time.