Challenging Performance: The Book. 11.2 Philosophical obligations

11 Obligations to the dead

11.2 Philosophical obligations

Before offering (in 11.3) a sensible way of thinking about our obligations to composers, we should consider the philosophy of obligations to the dead. Recent work includes Bob Brecher (2002), who believes that dead people remain people (his italics, 114) and therefore are still present members of a community of beings higher than animals who really die (hedgehogs are his example, though what he has against hedgehogs I cannot imagine).[1] His further point is that we result from the dead and from the good things they did for us, and that we owe them for it: our resulting obligation is to remember them. This is nice. But it is a long way from being grateful—say, to Bach or Beethoven, which surely we all are—to having to reproduce their acts. We can be grateful for a score that gives rise—still more if it gives rise in many different performance styles over many centuries—to powerfully persuasive musical experiences. But we’re not obliged to remember by going over and over the same ground for ever. It would be, and even over a few decades it too often is, quite tedious.

Liz McKinnell (2007) and Geoffrey Scarre (2012) both offer ‘backward signification’ to argue that if we wrong the dead once dead we wrong them when they were alive.[2] Both start from the assumption that the long-standing and widespread nature of the intuition that we have obligations to the dead is ground enough to find a reason why we must. For McKinnell it’s not enough that the dead cannot know what we do: they could be wronged every bit as much as a spouse unaware that we have committed adultery (109). (I’d have thought it made rather a difference once the spouse was dead, but this is analytic philosophy.) McKinnell also adopts Scarre’s argument, which he further develops in Scarre 2012, that ‘backward signification’—the observation that the status of events changes in the light of what happens later—allows for the possibility of the dead being harmed by later actions. For example, if our view of Beethoven is changed for the worse by something we do or say about him then he is harmed by us during his lifetime, since the significance of his acts is changed (44–5). The muddle here is very obvious. His life was what it was. Its meaning changes later, and it will go on changing as long as people think about him. None of that changes his life, of which in any case we can know little. It certainly doesn’t affect him in 1802. Scarre asserts that past actions are devalued at the time they were performed if thwarted after death; but it is of course the meaning of those actions that he’s talking about, not the actions; and the meanings are ours, not his. As they should be. We are here, he is not: we make and use meanings for us, just as he did for him.

Underlying Scarre’s contortions is the desire to conclude that we owe something to the dead (such as to realise their aims). As we saw above, and with Brecher, this feels good (and reassuring when we apply it to ourselves). But it’s not an obligation to behave as people now dead would have wished us to (which is what follows from Scarre’s reasoning); or in the case of music, to do only what its composers could have imagined doing or wished to do themselves. If you take that route, then it’s your obligation to prevent any kind of change whatsoever: no piano, no penicillin, no coffee machine, no clothing.

A more down-to-earth view is offered by Yotam Benziman (2017) who dismisses arguments along the lines of Scarre’s and focuses instead on the wish of the living to honour their loved ones now dead.[3] Examples include carrying out their wishes for their funerals, and also remaining interested in their interests as a way of continuing to care about them. We could use this as a guide to understanding our feelings for composers’ intentions. We love (whoever we consider to be) the great composers and feel close to them, thanks to the intensity of the experiences we have listening to performances of their scores. We tend, because of the ideology in which we’ve been trained, to attribute those experiences to them rather than to the performers, and thus direct most of our loving thanks to our imagined versions of them. In this sense we feel for them somewhat as for departed loved ones. We feel we honour them by fulfilling their wishes for the performance of their scores, even though the honour is for our benefit, not theirs: we feel better for it, though they cannot.

This is all fine, as long as one recognizes the delusions along the way (that they are our loved ones, that we know their intentions, that we perform in accordance with them, that it serves their interests). One could equally argue, though, that we can honour them by showing how many other wonderful performances can arise from their scores, quite unlike any they imagined. Given that in no case can they be harmed or helped, it all remains a matter of how we feel about what we are doing.

The key question has to be, how much harm does our performance do to the living? Here we may well wish to argue—I do, needless to say—that some initial harm felt by listeners who prefer the status quo will in the longer run be more than balanced by the general good that will accrue from allowing more performer creativity and engaging more listeners in more varied and no less satisfying performances, all in a culture that will come to assume that that degree of creativity and variation is to be expected. This seems to me a desirable outcome which does no harm to composers (dead or, because they will become used to the new norm and work with it, living) and much good to everyone else. Others may disagree, though it seems mean-spirited to try to restrict such an evident good as artistic creativity.

If not dead composers, do their texts have rights? This is also a very curious idea. How can a text have a right? Rocco Capozzi (1997) offers a defence of Umberto Eco’s view that texts have rights that need to be respected; interpretation can’t be infinite.[4] But really this is just a defence of authorial intentions plus a bit (but not too much). In other words, it’s still the author who has these rights, not the text in itself, and to have rights (morally, though not always legally: that’s another matter (Chapter 15)) you have to be.

Continue to 11.3 ‘Ethical obligations’

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[1] Brecher, Bob. 2002. Our Obligation to the Dead. Journal of Applied Philosophy 19:2, 109–19.

[2] McKinnell, Liz. 2007. Do We Have Moral Obligations to the Dead? In Kate Woodthorpe (ed.), Layers of Dying and Death. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 107–15. Scarre, Geoffrey. 2012. Speaking of the Dead. Mortality: Promoting the Interdisciplinary Study of Death and Dying 17:1, 36–50.

[3] Benziman, Yotam. 2017. Dead People and Living Interests. Mortality 22:1, 75–86.

[4] Capozzi, Rocco. 1997. Interpretation and Overinterpretation: The Rights of Texts, Readers and Implied Authors. In Rocco Capozzi (ed.), Reading Eco. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 217–34.

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