This article investigates the “musico-philosophical” perspectives of the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821–1881) and the twentieth-century British writer and musician Anthony Burgess (1917–1993). In this study, I revisit and expand upon issues raised in my past three presentations at Generative Anthropology Summer Conferences in 2021, 2022, and 2023. I consider the ways in which music operates metaphysically and allows for the exploration of ontological dichotomy­––the tensions caused by ultimate existential questions––through the “musico-philosophical” convergence of musical features and philosophical reflection in selected works of imaginative literature by Dostoevsky and Burgess.

Keywords: Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, Burgess, 1985, music, Gans, Girard, Bakhtin, Dante, Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart

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Ambiguously soulful “music” in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) resonates in the “polyphonic” voices of the two main characters, the underground man and his potential love interest, Liza. Their conversational polyphony is echoed, if not imitated, in Anthony Burgess’s hybrid work 1985 (1978), a tribute to the better-known Orwell novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or, as it is alternately known, 1984. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Burgess’s 1985 are paired for discussion here because of their noteworthy similarities: both are divided into two distinct parts––the first a set of reflections on historical and intellectual topics, the second a fictional novella; both works are preoccupied with profound philosophical issues of their times, rendering them literary dystopias; and both, for the main purpose of this study, are structured according to various “musical” features.

Dostoevsky and Burgess structure their works musically by alternating between metaphoric and literal “euphony” and “cacophony,” mediated by “polyphony.” Burgess places “cacophony” in a broader context in Part I of 1985 when he characterizes the book’s principal topic, Orwell’s imagined dystopia in 1984, as “a cacotopia on the lines of cacophony or cacodemon. It sounds worse than dystopia” (48). In the fictional dystopias or cacotopias devised by Dostoevsky, Orwell, and Burgess, cacophonous sound is one of the main techniques for creating the worst of all possible worlds.

In polyphonic and metaphysical terms, both Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Burgess’s 1985 can be understood in light of ​​Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of “coexisting” voices in the polyphonic novel, contrasted with ​Girard’s theory of “fused” voices in the metaphysical novel. “Sounds” and “noises” so thoroughly suffuse the identities of the characters in the novels of Dostoevsky and Burgess that the question naturally arises, as it was posed by Eric Gans in his remarks at GASC 2022: “What is the origin of music?” Intimations of the originary question about music can be divined in the musico-philosophical perspectives explored in Notes from Underground and 1985. Tentative explanations of “the origin of music” may emerge from the ways in which the two musico-philosophical authors Dostoevsky and Burgess incorporate such musical elements as euphonious sound and cacophonous noise into works that deal with ultimate questions of ontological dichotomy.

Bakhtin’s “Coexisting” Voices vs. Girard’s “Fused” Voices in Dostoevsky

The twentieth-century Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1984) viewed the novels of Dostoevsky as “polyphonic,” by which he meant that “Dostoevsky’s world is profoundly pluralistic” (26). Bakhtin compares this pluralism to the “church as a communion of unmerged souls, where sinners and righteous men come together” and describes his polyphonic model as “the image of Dante’s world, where multi-leveledness is extended into eternity, where there are the penitent and the unrepentant, the damned and the saved” (26-27). Moreover, Bakhtin asserts that Dostoevsky’s novels consist of “coexisting” polyphonic voices, not “merged” voices. He claims that Dostoevsky “created a fundamentally new novelistic genre. . . [as] the creator of the polyphonic novel” (7).

Bakhtin developed his “polyphonic” theory of Dostoevsky’s novels under the influence of two other Russian literary critics: One influence, Bakhtin notes, was Dostoevsky scholar Vasily Komarovich (1894-1942), who compares Dostoevsky’s works with “polyphonic music” (21). Bakhtin cites Komarovich to explain the metaphor of “polyphonic” music in the novels of Dostoevsky: “The five voices of a fugue, entering one by one and developing in contrapuntal harmony, remind one of the ‘harmonization of voices’ in a Dostoevskian novel” (21). The other influence acknowledged by Bakhtin was Dostoevsky scholar Leonid Grossman (1888-1965) who described the structure of Dostoevsky’s novels as “multivoicedness,” a term which refers to “the musical principle of polyphony” (41-42). Musically, polyphony involves two or more independent melodies operating simultaneously, as opposed to harmony with movement in either direction.

By contrast, in Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky, René Girard (1923–2015) takes a markedly different position on music in relation to Dostoevsky, focused on his growth as an artist: “One should not compare the author’s successive works to the musical exercises by which musicians gradually increase their virtuosity” (3). Girard prefers to speak less of music and more of Dostoevsky’s “metaphysical” interests, claiming that Dostoevsky’s characters want to be “fused,” in the sense that characters who attempt to imitate Christ want to be “fused” with Him. While this may surely be a consummation devoutly to be wished, such a resolution of ontological dichotomy is­ rarely straightforward. For example, in Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, Girard observes that in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, “Kirillov is obsessed with Christ. . .” and “in his pride is imitating Christ” (277). In such ways, Girard considers Dostoevsky to be “the metaphysical novelist” whose works prefigure “the Dostoyevskian apocalypse” (288), the revelation of sacred knowledge hidden in plain sight within secular life. Metaphysically, Girard’s “Dostoyevskian apocalypse” can be understood, at least indirectly, in musical terms––as a manifestation of the ontological dichotomy presented in Notes from Underground through the polyphonic interplay of the characters’ voices identified by Bakhtin and Grossman.

Bakhtin acknowledges his debt to Grossman in his use of Grossman’s musical term “polyphony” to interpret Dostoevsky’s novels. As Bakhtin notes, “Grossman emphasizes the musical character of Dostoevsky’s composition.” Indeed, Bakhtin praises Grossman for his “observations on the musical nature of Dostoevsky’s compositions [which] are very true and subtle” (41–42). Grossman’s views on Dostoevsky are helpful in untangling the competing assessments of Dostoevsky’s “musicality,” i.e., Bakhtin’s “coexisting” model and Girard’s “fused” model.

The Music of Polyphonic Voices Echoing from Dostoevsky to Burgess

Among the musical features of Dostoevsky’s novels, the voices of “coexisting” characters face uncertain odds of being successfully “fused” into harmony. Voices that are not “merged” may end up as dissonance, which, as noted earlier, Burgess prefers to call “cacophony.” In such works as 1985, Burgess uses musical effects similar to those that Dostoevsky employed in his novels. Any deliberate imitation by Burgess can only be surmised, though Burgess was clearly familiar with Dostoevsky’s works. Metaphysical and polyphonic features like those in Dostoevsky appeared early in Burgess’s literary career, following the visit to Leningrad in 1961 that Burgess made with the stated intention of appreciating Dostoevsky and other Russian writers in their native milieu. In both Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Burgess’s 1985, such musical elements as “voice” and “song” are major recurring features. (As will be discussed later, music figured prominently throughout Burgess’s life and works. Musical elements were already conspicuous in A Clockwork Orange, which Burgess published in 1962, the year following his visit to Leningrad.)

Music and musicians were undoubtedly significant influences on the life and works of Dostoevsky. In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, under the influence of Grossman’s musical perspectives, Bakhtin identifies “voices” with “polyphonic” aspects in Dostoevsky’s novels––the same elements of “song” and “singing” that were later used by Burgess. In effect, Bakhtin argues, Dostoevsky created a new kind of fiction, the “polyphonic” novel which illuminates “thinking human consciousness and the dialogic sphere of its existence” (270). Reflecting on the ways that consciousness is manifested in “the dialogic sphere,” Girard contends in Deceit, Desire and the Novel: “It matters little whether Dostoevsky’s underground man believes in or denies the existence of God; however violently he argues for or against God, it is only his lips which speak” (62). Implicit in the phrase “his lips which speak,” though, is a voice with the capacity for dialogue, in which the underground man struggles but ultimately fails to engage, as well as the latent potential to “sing,” as indeed he does on at least one occasion.

Frequently, Bakhtin uses the word “visualization” to describe Dostoevsky’s skills as an artist; however, by calling attention to “voice” in the musical elements in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Bakhtin asks readers not only to “visualize” but also, in ways similar to Girard, to “auralize” the novel, as it were, and listen closely to appreciate its “polyphonic” features. Matters of ontological dichotomy­ can be explored through such parallel dichotomies as sound and sight. Sound, however, tends to dominate in Notes from Underground. In the “voice” of the anti-heroic underground man, readers may hear some of the novel’s musical structures. Grossman presents Dostoevsky’s personal correspondence showing how the author was thinking of the novella’s structure in musical terms.

Originally, the story was to have been divided into three chapters, each differing in content but internally united. The first chapter was to have been a polemical and philosophical monologue, the second a dramatic episode, preparing the ground for the third, the disastrous conclusion. In a letter to his brother about the forthcoming publication of Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky wrote:

“The story is divided into three chapters. The first will be something like thirty-six pages. Do you really think it can be printed separately? It will evoke ridicule, for it has no juice without the other two (main) chapters. You know what modulation [transition] is in music. It is exactly the same here. The first chapter appears to be idle chatter, but in the next two chapters the chatter suddenly erupts into unforeseen disaster.” (316) [Emphasis added.]

The letter shows how Dostoevsky contemplated adapting musical structure into his novella. Indeed, the musical elements in Notes from Underground provide clues to what Dostoevsky learned from his favorite musicians and musical pieces.

Chief among those favorites, the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) had a profound impact on Dostoevsky. According to Grossman, Dostoevsky “delighted in Beethoven” (606). Dostoevsky’s widow Anna Dostoevskaya recorded in her memoirs  that her husband was “particularly fond of the opera Fidelio” (120). After serving four years in a Siberian prison camp of unspeakably squalid conditions, Dostoevsky would have understandably responded with enthusiasm to a hymn to freedom like Fidelio (1805–1814), Beethoven’s only opera, which, significantly, is set in a political prison. Under the influence and inspiration of Beethoven and other favorites like Mozart, Dostoevsky adapted features resembling operatic duets and orchestral themes and variations into the structural elements of his “polyphonic” novels. Musical effects that appear in Notes from Underground (1864) persist and expand in subsequent works, culminating in the complex alternations of polyphony and cacophony to be found in the exchanges of multiple voices in the family disharmony that pervades Dostoevsky’s sprawling final novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880).

Traces of Dostoevsky’s creative interplay of music and literature can be detected in Burgess’s works. Among the nonfiction pieces in Part I of 1985 is “1948: An Old Man Interviewed.” It is an ostensibly conventional interview in which the voice of an unnamed old man reflects on the social consequences of the scarcities and grievances in Britain during the years immediately after the Second World War, with attention to the year 1948 of the title. Responding to minimal prompts from a similarly anonymous interviewer, the old man expounds at great length on the postwar conditions that gave rise both to the British Labour government and to George Orwell’s responses to the dramatic changes in British society under the shadow of the early atomic age, anxieties that culminated in his novel 1984. (Orwell wrote much of the novel in 1948, and one theory suggests that he devised the title by reversing the last two digits of the year.) Throughout the interview, the anonymous old man refers to numerous English songs and melodies––from music-hall tunes, to British Army wartime propaganda songs, to post-war socialist anthems––as he engages in a polyphonous dialogue with the interviewer, ending with the interviewer’s concluding remark: “Thank you, Mr. Burgess” (34). In that last line, the “old man” is unmasked as Burgess himself, or more exactly as his fictionalized doppelgänger, revealing that Burgess had ventriloquized both voices of the interviewer and the interviewee.

Part II of 1985 is a dystopian novella in which Burgess imitates the manner in which Orwell created 1984 by extrapolating from post-war British conditions into an imagined dystopia set years in the future. Similarly, Burgess takes the dysfunctional British social conditions at the time of his novella’s 1978 publication and follows them to their worst possible conclusions in an imagined Britain of seven years later in 1985, just one year after Orwell’s novel is set. Not encompassing the entire world as 1984 did, 1985 is a more localized dystopia in which tyrannical labour unions have nearly paralyzed the British social order with perpetual labour strikes, while enormously wealthy Arabs acquire vast amounts of British real estate on which to build a proliferation of mosques that serve an ever-growing Muslim immigrant population in the UK. The imagined British future is literally a cacotopia, typified by the scene in which the protagonist, a former history teacher named Bev, is enlisted as a government journalist to cover a “double strike” in London (pp. 214–215). Bev witnesses a truly horrific event, essentially a cacophonous political battle of the bullhorns. In a disharmony of polyphonous dialogue, a loudspeaker truck supporting non-union labour duels with a union spokesman shouting through a personal “loudhailer.” Each side struggles to win over an angry crowd of striking workers at the construction site of an immense mosque rising, symbolically, near Westminster Abbey.

Among the victims of this cacophony is the venerable British patriotic hymn––“I Vow to Thee My Country,” with its early twentieth-century text by British diplomat Sir Cecil Spring Rice set to the stately melody of the “Jupiter” movement from Gustav Holst’s 1918 orchestral suite, The Planets. Here the solemn music and words typically heard at state funerals and Armistice memorial ceremonies are transformed into an “unearthly blast of music” blaring from unseen loudspeakers, in an absurdly over-orchestrated arrangement with “a thousand voices, a Berliozian orchestra, brass bands added” (216). Moreover, there is truly bizarre irony, typical of Burgess, in the way that Spring Rice’s ode to Christian duty in this world and the next has been culturally appropriated to serve as theme music for efforts to break a British labour union strike at the construction site of an Islamic mosque. The cacophony of this musical street propaganda suddenly “stopped in mid-minim” (p. 217), with a brief moment of silence preceding the fresh discord of a brutal knuckle-dusting, union-busting crackdown by light infantry that ends the cacotopian scene.

The elaborate musical features of 1985 reflect the fact that Burgess was himself an accomplished pianist and composer who inserted musical elements into many of his works. Indeed, in some ways Burgess can be considered the successor of Dostoevsky in relation to the “polyphonic” novel. As in the works of Dostoevsky, the novels of Burgess often feature musical “voices” converted into songs that create harmony and dissonance, alternations between “euphony” or “cacophony.” Burgess’s undeservedly infamous work, A Clockwork Orange (1962), is a dystopian satire inspired in part by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). In both novels, the protagonists wrestle with some of the most urgent moral issues of their day (and of all time), notably the place of “free will” in human affairs that literally involve matters of life and death. Moreover, such confrontations with ontological dichotomy in these works are intertwined with music, even at the level of the dramatic situation. In Crime and Punishment, the disturbed Raskolnikov enjoys listening to a barrel organ and singing to a street organ; in A Clockwork Orange, the violent young Alex revels in the music of Beethoven.

Burgess’s reliance on Beethoven and Mozart for musical features in his novels reveals the parallel interests he shared with Dostoevsky. In his own works, Burgess frequently lets his readers hear the varieties of individually “sung” voices blended with the flow of music. Burgess’s use of musical structure can be detected in the fictionalized Part II of 1985 where the voices grow louder with the previously mentioned “unearthly blast of music,” and unseen loudspeakers create a cacophony of “a thousand mixed voices” (216), narrative devices which echo the often discordant “polyphony” in the novels of Dostoevsky. The “voices” in Burgess’s 1985 and A Clockwork Orange can be understood in relation to Bakhtin’s analysis of the protagonist of Notes from Underground: “Dostoevsky’s hero is not an objectified image but an autonomous discourse, pure voice; we do not see him, we hear him” (53). The underground man, in effect, is really more of an anti-hero and eerily suggestive of a ghost. Though he seems almost invisible, his “voice” is clearly perceptible to other characters and may be his most definitive feature.

Musical history illuminates Bakhtin’s discussion of “polyphony” in Dostoevsky’s use of musical structure. For example, music critic Ian Thomson notes that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) studied the polyphony in the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Mozart used what he learned from this august predecessor to compose his own operas. Furthermore, Thomson observes, Beethoven and subsequent composers inherited polyphonic style to express such themes as “rebellion against power” (325) and “Christian apocalypse” (352). Similar themes can be recognized in Dostoevsky’s works, together with his musical techniques of coexisting voices. Such musical features as polyphony––as employed by Dostoevsky and incorporated a century later by Burgess into his own novels––are illustrative examples of writers borrowing and possibly imitating musical elements and motifs for literary purposes.

Bakhtin observes that Dostoevsky’s polyphonic structuring of his novels becomes deeper but also more complicated through the convergence of music and literature with philosophy: “Dostoevsky’s extraordinary artistic capacity for seeing everything in coexistence and interaction is his greatest strength, but his greatest weakness as well. . . . Everything that seemed simple became, in [Dostoevsky’s] world, complex and multi-structured” (30). Such barely manageable complexity can be understood as the inevitable result of Dostoevsky’s desire to confront contemporary matters of ontological dichotomy, issues of free will and determinism, utopianism and nihilism, being and nothingness––all of which, of course, are not easy to simplify. Within this context, Bakhtin identifies the nature of Dostoevsky’s use of music to structure his novels. The tension of “two contending voices”­­––the cynical, nihilistic anti-hero known only as the underground man, and Liza, a young prostitute who is the only character to show the underground man any kindness––can be heard in their emotionally fraught exchanges in Part II of Notes from Underground. Moreover, such counterpoint appears in subsequent works of Dostoevsky, particularly in the intense conversations between the anti-hero Raskolnikov and his devoted Sonya in Crime and Punishment.

Grossman elucidates Dostoevsky’s polyphony still further, showing how musical form is transposed into literary structure: “Dostoevsky uses great finesse in applying the metaphor of musical modulation to the plan of a literary composition.” In such ways, Notes from Underground is constructed on the basis of “an artistic counterpoint” (316). Concentrating on the “voices” of the underground man and Liza in their fraught exchanges, Grossman asserts,

This is indeed contrapuntal. It is different voices singing the same theme, with a difference. It is polyphony, displaying the manifold images of life and the manifold complexities of human existence. “Everything in life is counterpoint, that is, contrast,” as M. I. Glinka (one of Dostoevsky’s favorite composers) says in his memoirs. (316)

Dostoevsky’s musico-philosophical stance, then, is manifested in his use of polyphonic voices in Notes from Underground and in later works.

Polyphonic and Metaphysical “Voices” in Dostoevsky and Burgess

Dostoevskian polyphony eventually made its way into the works of Burgess, accompanied by other musical and literary influences. For example, Dostoevsky’s underground man speaks throughout Part I of Notes from Underground, repeating such musical terms as “piano keys.” The underground man confronts his fears of the ontological dichotomy of free will and determinism in a sardonic remark that masks his anxiety: “Two times two makes four even without my will. Is that what you call free choice?” (23). In his epigraph to 1985, Burgess rephrases the formula as “2 + 2 = 5,” followed by the explanatory note: “A notice put up in Moscow during the first Five-Year Plan, indicating the possibility of getting the job done in four years, if workers put their backs into it.” Burgess’s equation, of course, echoes the exact same formula that Orwell used in 1984 to represent the gaslighting illogic of authoritarianism. In 1985, Burgess may have meant the formula in much the same way. Burgess also gave the epigraph a plausible origin story, though one that he may simply have written himself.

Dostoevsky’s underground man wants someone to listen to his voice, and verbal polyphony serves his purposes until it undoes them. He delivers several dramatic monologues that recall the soliloquies of Hamlet, though largely emptied of poetry. In Part I of Notes from Underground, the underground man’s voice echoes hollowly. In Part II, however, he expands his use of pronouns from “I” and “you” to include “we” and “they,” suggesting his nascent desire for a wider audience. Moreover, “voice” starts to assume the form of “singing” or “song.” The underground man “rejoiced and sang Italian arias,” but only when he is “ecstatic,” i.e., momentarily outside himself.

Whenever Liza’s voice overrides the voice of the underground man, however, “silence” descends and his monologues periodically shut down. The effect is like inserting a rest or a pause into a musical score. There are audible silences when the underground man’s voice tries to coexist with Liza’s voice, but silence ends, at least temporarily, when he attempts to fuse his voice with hers through his efforts to regain control of the dialogue. In her efforts to befriend the underground man, Liza tries to hear his supposedly “true” voice. Unfortunately, though, he rejects her good will with his incessant rudeness; their voices never fuse and instead merely coexist uneasily as their conversations steadily diverge. Eventually, Liza abruptly leaves the underground man, and he and his voice are left without an interlocutor.

The underground man’s brutish rejection that drives Liza away has a sort of inevitability that would be tragic were it not so pathetic. As Girard explains in “Mimetic Desire in the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky [1997],” the underground man is trapped in the self-defeating logic of “obstacle addiction” inherent in mimetic desire:

What this addiction really entails is clear: underground people are irresistibly attracted to those that spurn them, and they irresistibly spurn those who are attracted to them . . . . [The underground man] is in a straitjacket. . . . He got into it himself and he made it himself, or rather Dostoevsky made it for him. (253–254)

In effect, the underground man has created a dystopian hell for himself that prevents his voice and his character from functioning in harmony with anyone, even with himself, except in maladaptive ways.

As a musico-philosophical writer in the tradition of Dostoevsky, Burgess composed his hybrid work, 1985, in part as a tribute to the giants on whose shoulders he stood––among them Dostoevsky and Beethoven, and certainly Orwell, too. Burgess constructed 1985 in two parts, much as Dostoevsky organized Notes from Underground. (Part I of 1985 is a collection of essays and interviews about troubling conditions in British society in the late 1970s, involving trade unions and Islamic immigration ; Part II is a novella extrapolating those conditions into an imagined dystopia in the then-not-too-distant future.) In his essay “Clockwork Oranges” in Part I of 1985, Burgess considers the issue of human freedom in relation to early Soviet utopianism:

The Soviet State wished to remake man, and if one knows the Russians one can sympathize. Pavlov deplored the wild-eyed, sloppy, romantic, undisciplined, inefficient, anarchic texture of the Russian soul, at the same time admiring the cool reasonableness of the Anglo-Saxons. Lenin deplored it too, but it still exists . . . . The Leninist proposal [aimed] to rebuild, with Pavlov’s assistance, the entire Russian character, thus making the works of Chekhov and Dostoevsky unintelligible to readers of the far future. (90)

Of course, the works of Dostoevsky––and Chekhov, with many others––were never made obsolete. Moreover, as it was impossible for Lenin or Pavlov to foresee, the entire Soviet project would collapse in 1991, while the critical appreciation of Dostoevsky persists long after.

Dante, Dostoevsky, Burgess, and Dissonance in Dystopia

Throughout Dostoevsky’s career, several other incarnations of the polyphonic anti-hero appear, notably in Crime and Punishment, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov. A century later, Dostoevskian “notes from underground” (in both narrative and musical senses) resonate in Burgess’s novels, including A Clockwork Orange and 1985, which use such musical forms as song, opera, and hymn for literary purposes. The persistence of Dostoevsky’s underground man has been observed by several critics. Orwell scholar William Steinhoff contends that “Dostoevsky’s anti-hero stays underground. . . . and has ‘the underground in [his] soul’” (137). Gans observes in A New Way of Thinking: Generative Anthropology in Religion, Philosophy, Art, that “pure nihilism is a Dostoevskian fantasy” (103).

The voices of anti-heroes and nihilists represent dystopia, though, as noted earlier, Burgess, in 1985, prefers the term “cacotopia” (48), particularly in relation to Orwell’s 1984. It is not implausible that Orwell borrowed the nihilistic cacophony of the “Dostoevskian fantasy” from such works as Notes from Underground and adapted it in 1984, with its authoritarian autocracy personified by the epithet-designated Big Brother, much as Burgess imagined that trade-unionism would assume authoritarian dimensions in 1985.

Certain paradoxes are inherent in dystopias. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Orwell’s 1984, and Burgess’s 1985 all present conflicting, contradictory efforts to reconcile irrational human impulses with supposedly modern organizing principles along rational lines. In practice, of course, both kinds of desire, irrational and rational, are highly prone to be self-defeating. As Steinhoff observes,

To Orwell, on the contrary, it [the equation, 2 + 2 = 4] is reason’s essence, the secret doctrine which guarantees the existence of objective reality. A number of writers­­—Chesterton, Dostoevsky, Proust, Andre Breton––have used this proverbial metaphor for self-evident truth in the context of argument about the superiority of the irrational over the rational. Orwell puts it at the center of the struggle between O’Brien and Winston Smith, and it is therefore interesting to examine Dostoevsky’s detailed exposition of the point in Notes from Underground, which we know Orwell had read. (173)

Both Dostoevsky and Orwell, and later Burgess, projected into their works variations on present and future dystopias where life might be experienced as a dissonance, a cacophony. As Gans asserts in A New Way of Thinking,

The “tragedy” of the human condition is sometimes described in terms of the tension between body and soul, the worldly mortality of the human being and the immortality of the signs by which he communicates. But in order for this originary tension to give rise to the agon of tragedy, there must exist a human analogue to the absolute difference of the central object. (108)

Gans’s view of the tragic dissonance between the flesh and the spirit can be understood as an exemplar of ontological dichotomy, a timeless struggle reenacted endlessly throughout human experience and consequently reflected in literary history. For example, Robert Hollander observes of Dante Alighieri’s dystopian vision in the Divine Comedy that “we can see the continuance of this medieval outlook in a later literary tradition, particularly in Dostoievski [sic]” (6). Hollander’s perception of a direct line from Dante to Dostoevsky suggests that dystopia is a recurring nightmare extending across the centuries.

By contrast, the countervailing literature of “utopia” seems otherworldly, strangely less than real. Stacey Meeker argues that

utopia is typically “boring” while the dystopian film and novel attract an enthusiastic public. Fourier was never a best-seller and More’s Utopia has never been made into a film. The public is able to identify with dystopian desire in a way that is structurally impossible in utopia; a “suspension of disbelief” or, as Gans would put it, an indefinitely deferred question of truth maintains the dystopia as an esthetic object whose experience can be renewed. (7)

Meeker is reflecting here on a perennial literary problem, namely the great difficulty of making virtue interesting, a challenge known to writers from Milton to Dostoevsky to Burgess who found that the most appealing characters tended to be the most diabolical.

One way around the problem of making virtue interesting is to give a story comic treatment. Meeker explains that her title “Utopia Limited” derives from Gilbert and Sullivan’s rarely performed 1893 light opera of the same title, Utopia, Limited (Meeker 9). Burgess, in his role as music critic, asserts in his essay “S. Without G.” that “Sullivan in his day was considered to be England’s answer to Mozart” (570). Indeed, Arthur Sullivan earned a knighthood for his mastery of the very forms and styles of romantic Italian opera that he often parodied, topping off his compositions with the ethereal lightness of Mendelssohn and Mozart. Sullivan’s scores became the ideal musical accompaniment to the mad absurdist comic dramas spun by his eccentric artistic partner, William S. Gilbert. The range of Gilbert and Sullivan stretches from the ridiculous to the sublime, not unlike Mozart’s final opera, The Magic Flute––showing that the combination of glorious music and dramatic narratives, even highly fanciful ones, can produce fine art that is also thoroughly entertaining.

Turning from comic opera to epic poetry, parallels can be drawn between Dostoevsky and Dante, who both explored matters of ontological dichotomy through the intermingling of music and literature with philosophy. Bakhtin claims that in Dostoevsky “each novel presents an opposition of many consciousnesses, and they do not merge in the unity of an evolving spirit, just as souls and spirits do not merge in the formally polyphonic world of Dante” (26). Grossman cites Turgenev’s depiction of Dostoevsky’s work as “Dantesque” (258). Girard observes in Deceit, Desire and the Novel,

For the sacred to have concrete significance, the underground man must first return to the earth’s surface. Thus, in Dostoyevsky, the return to mother earth is the first and necessary stage on the road to salvation. When the hero emerges victorious from the underground he embraces the earth from which he sprang. . . . The opposition and the analogies between the two transcendencies are found in all novelists of imitative desire, Christian and non-Christian alike. (62)

Such representations of ontological dichotomy in “the opposition and the analogies between the two transcendencies” are, in musical terms, known as “counterpoint.” Girard insists in “Marcel Proust [1962]” that “for Dostoevsky and Dante, the fall and the redemption are opposed, yet dialectically joined. But the opposition is less radical for Dostoevsky than for Dante” (69). When viewed from the Girardian metaphysical perspective developed in “Mimetic Desire in the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky [1997],” the underground man in Notes from Underground may seem to desire being “fused” with his “obstacle” (248). Nevertheless, while the underground man may “coexist” polyphonically with his interlocutor Liza, he can never be “fused” through “love” or anything else with her because he is incapable of either giving or receiving affection, let alone love. Dostoevsky offers Liza a free choice: to “coexist” or to “be fused,” in a figuratively musical sense, with the underground man. In the end, faced with the underground man’s unrelieved abuse, Liza freely and wisely rejects both choices and abruptly leaves. Presumably she returns to her brothel, which, while hardly paradise, at least occupies a higher circle of hell than the underground man’s apartment.

Such images of hell in Notes from Underground and elsewhere in Dostoevsky, with all their Dantesque connotations, are not simply metaphorical. Girard claims in “Mimetic Desire in the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky [1997],” that Dostoevsky’s underground world shows that “hell truly exists.” He continues, “Hell is not a figment of a human imagination still imprisoned in archaic thinking. Dostoevsky’s interplay of obstacles and models is a terrestrial version of hell with a religious significance that still awaits definition” (253). Viewed in this context, Liza’s decision to cut her losses and flee the underground man is a perfect example of acting in one’s own rational self-interest.

Maintaining the connection of Dante and Dostoevsky, in “Conversion in Literature and Christianity [1999],” Girard observes:

[A]ccording to Dante the function of profane literature is to guide us through Hell to Purgatory. This is what Virgil did for Dante, and it was a great help to Dante because hell is not a very nice place to live. It is not even a nice place to visit. If you still have even two cents worth of common sense when you are in hell, you will want to get out, for very selfish reasons. (263-264)

Considering the earthly hell that Dostoevsky created in his works (and sometimes in his own life), it is not unlikely that, as a reader of world literature and as a visitor to Italy, Dostoevsky had at least an acquaintance with Dante. Moreover, it is not hard to imagine the Italian master serving Dostoevsky as his Virgil––as a literary model and possibly even as a conductor through personal hell on the way to the paradise of redemption. Girard himself acknowledges that on his own spiritual journey, he was led “through hell,” as he puts it, not by Virgil or Dante but by the five Continental novelists he examined in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, with Dostoevsky prominent among them (264).

Continuing this analysis of the contrapuntal dance of Dante and Dostoevsky, Girard argues that in a world filled with mimetic desire, “we should imitate only Christ or Christ-like non-competitive models” (265). Dostoevsky would very likely agree, even if many of his characters fell short of the mark––as did their creator, wasting much of his life as a serially compulsive gambler whose bad luck left him perennially debt-ridden. In his later works, culminating in The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880) Dostoevsky prospected and mined dystopian territory, looking for veins of gold that represented, as it were, treasures to lay up in heaven. To such ends, his literary speculations were more successful than his failed attempts through card-playing to lay up treasures upon earth. (“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” Matthew 6:19-21.) Maurice Baring, an early twentieth-century historian of Russian literature and culture, observes of Dostoevsky’s works written after Notes from Underground:

Dostoevsky is great because of the divine message he gives, not didactically, not by sermons, but by the goodness that emanates like a precious balm from the characters he creates; because more than any other books in the world his books reflect not only the teaching and the charity but the accent and the divine aura of love that is in the Gospels. (60)

This consoling vision of a resolution to ontological dichotomy can be heard musically and metaphysically in Dante’s poetic voice expressing itself in cantos (which, after all, are varieties of song), following a musico-philosophical chain from Pythagoras to Virgil, and from Virgil to Dante, and by extension to Dostoevsky and Burgess:

O men, who cannot see the meaning of this Song,
Do not however reject it; but pay attention to its beauty,
Which is great, either for its construction, which concerns the grammarians;
Or for the order of its discourse, which concerns the rhetoricians;
Or for the number of its parts, which concerns the musicians.
(Cited in Guénon 8)

Notice that musicians occupy the culminating pinnacle of this verse, suggesting that among the seven classical liberal arts, music belongs with two members of the trivium, grammar and rhetoric, replacing logic as an organizing principle––at least when serving aesthetics in the composition of poetic song. Logic, i.e. rationality, it would seem, does not have much to do with poetry––or with redemption, either.

Clues from Dostoevsky and Burgess to Answer the Question “What Is Music?”

In recapitulation, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Burgess’s novel 1985 exemplify Bakhtin’s “polyphonic” constructions in relation to Burgess’s idea of “cacophony.” Both novels represent a metaphysical “Dostoevskian apocalypse” with highly dystopian features. Particularly in 1985, Burgess’s efforts to use musical aspects similar to those in the works of Dostoevsky can be understood in relation to “coexisting” or “fused” characters.

Sound, particularly musical sound, shapes the identities and even the destinies of characters in the works of the musico-philosophical writers Burgess and Dostoevsky. As noted earlier, the originary question about music was posed in remarks by Gans at GASC 2022. Any serious consideration of how and why music originated, however, would normally require at least a working definition of what music is. In “An Introduction to Evolutionary Musicology,” however, Steven Brown, et al. assert, “The question what is music? is one that has no agreed-upon answer. . . . Music is simply whatever people consider it to be” (6). While not entirely satisfying, the refusal of Brown, et al. to settle on a single definition of music has a curiously liberating effect. Essentially, they imply, there are no universal definitions of music. As beauty is proverbially in the beholder’s eye, so music resides in the listener’s ear, as a matter of taste and subjective judgment.

Accordingly, then, in at least one version of an origin story, music may have arisen from a desire to listen to something that transcends ordinary sound and noise. In “Art and Entertainment,” Gans observes that, paradoxically, “Desire takes us to our origin because that is what we all desire” (47). Music may be born of a basic desire to distinguish euphony from cacophony, intimating that sound can be differentiated into music and noise. What, then, is music and what is it not? A potential answer––ranging across psychology, sociology, and biology––appears in “Listening [sic] to Music,” where Wallin, et al. insist that “music is very much about who we are, as individuals, as societies, and even as a species. . . . [People] listen to music, to what it is telling us about ourselves” (483). Keeping in mind what Gans in “Art and Entertainment,” Brown, et al., and Wallin, et al. have said on the matter, “music” can be defined, at least tentatively, as “what or who we desire to be.”

Consequently, in contrast to “what music is,” the alternative––i.e., “what music is not”––could be considered as “noise” or “what or who we desire not to be.” Friedrich Nietzsche, an accomplished composer with a bent for philosophy, opined more than once: “Without music, life would be an error” (Liébert 8). From his position that “music is the metaphor of life itself, of life as it ought to be,” Nietzsche developed theories of music (and of culture more generally) arising from Dionysian and Apollonian tensions. Self-reflexively, Nietzsche mused that he was “a philosopher-musician––and a philosopher because a musician” (Liébert 9). [Emphasis added.]

Regarding another philosopher with a serious sideline as a composer (if not vice versa), Jean-Jacques Rousseau ruminated––in “Dictionary of Music” (1767) and in “Essay on the Origin of Languages” (published posthumously 1781)––on, among other things, the complementarity of music and philosophy found in classical Greek thought. From his own musico-philosophical origins, Nietzsche eventually found himself on problematic Dostoevskian ground. As Gans explains in The End of Culture: Toward a Generative Anthropology, “We might think to call this desire ‘envy,’ . . . Nietzsche gave it the more specific name of ressentiment” (173). From “the popular Nietzschean dictum, ‘God is dead,’” Gans reaches a perplexing conclusion: “A more profound understanding of the symmetry of the God-man hierarchy is expressed in Dostoevski’s ‘You will be as Gods each for the other’” (262–263). In this expression of ontological dichotomy, even if humans kill God in Nietzschean terms, they cannot be God, a philosophical dilemma that emerges in Dostoevsky’s novels and is reflected in his “polyphonic” style.

Continuing the inquiry into “what music is” and “what it is not,” dramatic scenes in the works of Burgess and Dostoevsky typically provide illustrative contrasts of music and noise. These scenes show similarities in what might be called the two writers’ irrational “operatic” tendencies and contain such musical elements as those that both Bakhtin and Grossman observe specifically in Dostoevsky’s musical structures. Such operatic musical features, perhaps inevitably, take on a psychological dimension. In “Art and Entertainment,” Gans observes, “The art/entertainment dichotomy. . . forces us to face the ontological dichotomy within ourselves” (52). In this regard, serious music requires listeners to consider inward conundrums that are not unlike Hamlet’s dilemma, the inner dichotomy of who or what we desire “to be or not to be.” To such ends, musical features in the works of Burgess and Dostoevsky metaphorically urge characters like the underground man in Notes from Underground, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and young Alex in A Clockwork Orange to transform into “new selves” by inner revolution, while dissonant noise torments them with invisible fears. As Gans continues in “Art and Entertainment,” “The future of the art/entertainment dichotomy is significant precisely because it cannot be in any sense determined; because its future determination depends on an ongoing process of freedom through self-understanding” (52).

With “self-understanding” serving as the prime directive, so to speak, musico-philosophical writers tend to venture beyond psychology and enter theological and moral territory, as already noted regarding Nietzsche. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard reflects on the common human tendency to fall into “self-misunderstanding”:  [Emphasis added.]

If we listen to Satan, who may sound like a very progressive and likeable educator, we may feel initially that we are “liberated,” but this impression does not last because Satan deprives us of everything that protects us from rivalistic imitation. Rather than warning us of the trap that awaits us, Satan makes us fall into it. He applauds the idea that prohibitions are of no use and that transgressing them contains no danger. (32-33)

In a Girardian sense, then, beguiling noise may be truly diabolical, as it is cacophony disguised as euphony, and in that way is analogous to the machinations of the prince of darkness himself. Those who have the misfortune to hear this seductive, siren-like noise can fall unthinkingly into moral traps that might be considered “satanic.”

Such traps can open up, then, when music transforms into noise, as exemplified in Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange when the anti-heroic protagonist Alex, a violent teenage gang leader serving a life sentence for murder, is chosen as an experimental victim of the “Ludovico Technique” (i.e., the thinly disguised “Ludwig Treatment”). It turns out to be a program of aversion therapy in which Alex is fed emetics and “forced to view films showing scenes of Nazi torture and other horrors while Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is sounded in the background” (Ziolkowski 118). This state-sponsored perversion of art enlisted in the cause of social engineering results in a living hell, with Beethoven’s sublime music turned into cacophonous noise that erases Alex’s “free will”––along with his love for Beethoven and all other forms of zest for living (violence among them, the intended target of Alex’s “treatment”). This monstrous travesty of musical therapy effectively snuffs out Alex’s humanity, as it deprives him of his capacities for both evil and good, together with his will to choose freely between them. (It should be noted, however, that Alex eventually recovers his capacity for violence, but as he reaches adulthood he decides to put aside “childish” things and renounce his violent ways––of his own free will.)

The moral and theological implications of A Clockwork Orange were originally lost in waves of negative publicity about the novel’s supposed glamorization of violence when the work first appeared in 1962. Even greater notoriety arose after Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian film––by the same title and loosely based on Burgess’s novel––was released in 1971. Years later, Burgess defended A Clockwork Orange as an Augustinian “allegory of Christian free will” in his preface to his dramatized retelling of the novel in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (originally published in 1986):

Man is defined by his capacity to choose courses of moral action. If he chooses good, he must have the possibility of choosing evil instead: evil is a theological necessity. I was also saying that it is more acceptable for us to perform evil acts than to be conditioned artificially into an ability and only to perform what is socially acceptable. (vi)

Like Dostoevsky, then, Burgess was prospecting in dystopian territory for theologically grounded “self-understanding.” In the two metaphysical writers’ works, sound can be polarized into euphonious music and cacophonous noise through human choice, and noise may be manifested as diabolical––or at least malevolent––voices of temptation that lure characters into the ontologically dichotomous traps of a moral and even spiritual nature that are inherent in dystopias.

Musical “Notes” from Underground––Resounding to the Operatic Heavens

In the works of Burgess and Dostoevsky considered here, several characters engage with music and struggle against noise in literary, psychological, theological, and/or moral terms. The characters’ identities change as they become who or what they desire to be under the influence of classical music and various types of songs, complicated by occasions when the characters are drawn astray by “noise” that lures them toward what, in moments of better judgment, they may desire not to be. As mentioned earlier, because music is deeply subjective and personal––residing, as it were, “in the ear of the beholder”––music may emerge from a natural desire to discriminate between euphonious sounds and cacophonous noises. If sound can be differentiated into music and noise, the question of “what music is and what it is not” seems inevitably subjective. Wallin, et al. suggest that music may be best understood less as a binary polarity and more as a continuous spectrum. In light of what Wallin, et al. (483), Brown, et al. (6), and Gans at GASC 2022 all have to say on the subject, it may be possible to define “music” as “what or who we desire to be.” Certainly the musical genre that celebrates human desire most highly is opera, regarded by art critic Kenneth Clark as, next to Gothic architecture, “one of the strangest inventions of western man” (241).

Always a dynamic musical form, opera greatly expanded in the wake of the innovative operas that Mozart composed in the five years preceding his tragically early death in 1791. According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music, “After Don Giovanni almost anything was possible” (529). Inevitably, new variations developed, and in the third quarter of the nineteenth century Richard Wagner (1813–1883) pushed the limits of mid-century conventional opera so far that he not only redefined the genre and but even renamed it, as he “preferred what he called ‘music drama’ to ‘opera’” (530). Burgess, in his essay titled “Ring,” agrees that Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, or the Ring cycle, 1869­–1876) surpasses previous operatic forms to realize Wagner’s “music drama,” a revolutionary art form which “opened up polarities of humans and nature, as well as humans and gods” (8). Wagner designed his “music dramas,” his late works typified by the Ring cycle, as “total works of art” that blended music with drama, poetry, and the visual arts. Such a radical transformation of the already thoroughly irrational art form of opera led Burgess to describe Wagner as “the most dangerous magician” (10).

For better or worse, the musical heritage of the most dangerous magician continues to enchant (or hex) compositions and productions of modern opera. In “Ring,” Burgess explains:

In the late twentieth century composers are still trying to free themselves from the Wagnerian heritage. Wagner died a century ago, but we have only to listen to the opening of Das Rheingold, where the very ground bass of Nature is heard, hardly distinguishable from the voice of the eternal river, to be seduced into feeling that this is what music is about, and Mozart and Haydn and even Beethoven were merely playing parlor games. It is an illusion, but a very powerful one. (10)

If, as Burgess claims, The Nibelung’s Ring, The Gold of the Rhine is “what music is about” then Wagner’s Ring cycle may represent the magical nature of music at its most profound and mystifying. In “Ring,” Burgess splits Wagner’s Ring into separate genres of fairy tale and political allegory. Beginning facetiously, he claims that, at least superficially, the last of the four operas in the Ring cycle, the apocalyptic Twilight of the Gods, “suggests a cosy tea with muffins round the fire while the lights are low” (1). Burgess then shifts to a serious analysis of the Ring cycle:

Let us consider what the fairy tale is about. . . . It looks, on the surface, like children’s stuff, but, if we look more deeply, we shall discover a very powerful political allegory. The Ring is about the corruption of money and power and the need for revolutionary action in a world dominated by cynical tyranny. (1)

In effect, Burgess sees the world of turbulent desires in Wagner’s Ring as a moral universe running parallel with the human world in all its turmoil and ontological dichotomy, the conflicting desires of the heart and the will. Provocatively, Burgess contends, “Wagner liked to think that The Ring was an illustration of Schopenhauer’s philosophy” (6). Indeed, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) argued in The World as Will and Representation (1818) that the world is a site of human emotional struggles that are represented by music. Christopher Janaway affirms Schopenhauer’s musico-philosophical stance with the observation that “Schopenhauer’s view is that music is a ‘copy of the will itself’” (84).

Burgess contends in “Ring” that Wagner “wanted a break with the past––not only socially but musically––and the works he began to sketch in 1848 and 1849 combined the desire for a reformed society with the ideal of a new, freer, kind of dramatic music” (6). In effect, Wagner’s Ring represents “the dangerous magician’s” thwarted desires for a reformed society sublimated into ambitions for a revolution in music. In the process, Wagner broke traditional distinctions between the fine arts and the performing arts and reworked them all into a grand synthesis. The goals that Wagner could not achieve politically through his participation in the European uprisings of 1848-1849 he pursued by other means––that is, through the magic of music drama, his project for the remaining three and a half decades of his life.

As a side-note, considering once again the polarity of music and noise, not everyone agrees that Wagner’s music dramas represent the zenith of orchestral music. In a quip variously attributed to Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw, “Wagner’s music is much better than it sounds.” As noted by his widow, Dostoevsky was among those who did not care much for Wagnerian music; yet, paradoxically, both masters in their separate ways explored similar spiritual territory. Maurice Baring, in An Outline of Russian Literature, draws a comparison of Wagner and Dostoevsky in musico-philosophical terms:

[Dostoevsky’s] words have a power beyond that of words, a power that only music has. There are pages [in The Brothers Karamazov and The Devils] where Dostoevsky expresses the anguish of the soul in the same manner as Wagner expressed the delirium of dying Tristram. I should indeed put the matter the other way around and say that in the last act of Tristan, Wagner is as great as Dostoevsky. (60)

One of many qualities that made Dostoevsky and Wagner great was their ability to transcend the conventional limits of artistic forms in their time and create original works from their cross-disciplinary musico-philosophical explorations of the grounds of ontological dichotomy, at the confluence of the profane and the sacred, sin and atonement, time and eternity.

Such artistic high-wire acts, however, require not only imagination and courage but also a certain humility. In his essay “From the Novelistic Experience to the Oedipus Myth,” Girard says of great works of literature, “The masterpiece contradicts the artist’s original intention” and asserts, “In short, [the artist] recognizes that he is not God. That is the first step of true art” (11). The artist who aspires to greatness, then, must renounce his pretensions to divinity. That was a major task for the three musico-philosophical artists, Dostoevsky, Wagner, and Burgess––namely, to overcome the desires of artistic pride and personal egotism, both in themselves and in their artistic creations, their works and characters. Almost of necessity, musical features in literature take on psychological and spiritual dimensions. Gans’s words deserve repeating: “The art/entertainment dichotomy. . . forces us to face the ontological dichotomy within ourselves” (52). For Dostoevsky and Burgess, music was a metaphysical force and an instrument of choice for presenting characters working toward “freedom through self-understanding” in their literary creations.

Music urges characters in the works of Dostoevsky, Wagner, and Burgess to transform their incomplete nature into “new selves” by inner revolution, even as noise torments them with invisible fears. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard reflects on the human tendency to fall into “self-misunderstanding” (32–33). Facing such perils directly, however, Dostoevsky, Wagner, and Burgess found ways to use the mythic power of music to intensify the drama of the characters they placed on the edge of “satanic” traps of self-misunderstanding, allowing the characters to work out their own salvation through the human capacity for self-transcendence.


With hearts beating, sometimes audible to the inner ear, humans listen to sounds and noises in the natural and social worlds and try to make their own sounds or noises to create evidence that they are still alive. In this article, I focused on the ways that Dostoevsky and Burgess dealt artistically with ontological dichotomy through their musico-philosophical perspectives. Music brings these writers’ literary characters to life, while noise creates dissonance that threatens to cancel life altogether.

Further investigations of imaginative literature in relation to the effects and influences of music are worth undertaking. The “musico-philosophical” perspectives of two nineteenth-century British scientists, Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin, promise to yield valuable insights into the convergence of music, literature, nonfiction, and early modern science. In a similar musico-philosophical way, the twentieth-century British writer E. M. (Edward Morgan) Forster pursued lifelong interests in the merging of musical and literary matters. All three figures–Nightingale, Darwin, and Forster––are attractive subjects for future exploration of the places where music, literature, and philosophy converge.

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