Ask people to name one thing they can’t live without and an astonishing number of them will say music. If I had my goddamn copy of A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman I could quote something gorgeous and insightful and relevant that her research uncovered about people and music, but I left it in Chico. (This is the first time I’ve ever moved anywhere without it, and suitcase space has never seemed less important than now. I feel naked without this volume, and not in a fun way.)
As I type this I’m listening to a popular Australian band, which is actually proving pretty distracting. I’m one of those people who enjoy listening to music (or a variety of background noises, like those provided in your hopefully friendly neighborhood coffee shop) while working. But pulse-pounding, makes-me-feel-alive music probably isn’t the right choice when trying to complete focused activities. But for some reason I just can’t turn it off. It will be right there waiting when I get back to it, exactly the same as I left it – ready to be enjoyed and rediscovered all over again for the umpteenth time. But there is something enormously compelling about music that is nearly unmatched by other experiences. And this is a nearly universally occurring phenomenon. Nietzsche famously said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” It’s a sentiment understood by many.
Not everyone shares this seemingly universal delight, however. Vladimir Nabokov, for one, had an almost inhumane lack of regard for music. While Nabokov’s characters did not (one would hope) share his own traits without fail, some of them shared his bemusement with the art. Humbert Humbert’s suffering surely was not eased by poor Lolita’s taste in music. No character in this particular novel really enjoys good music at any point, though H. does employ “the words of a foolish song which was then popular” in order to “hold her under its special spell” as he attempts one of his early molestations. The only references are to the sort of musical drivel that illustrates Lolita’s simple common interests with other children of her age. Really, the only music present in the book at all is presented as being objectively bad.
On the subject, Nabokov explained, “I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly. When I attend a concert – which happens about once in five years – I endeavor gamely to follow a sequence and relationship of sounds but cannot keep it up for more than a few minutes.” There seems to be something horribly unjust about one of the world’s greatest artists, a Russian-born writer who used the English language to beautiful and astonishing effect, missing out on what most of us see as such a compelling, soul-shaking and even vital experience. Nabokov, too, thought it unjust, but mainly because he was aware that his own son was an objectively fine singer and felt it was unfortunate that he could not appreciate his talents along with the rest of the world. Of course, as with any taste, those who do not have the capacity to appreciate something will never quite know what they’re missing. “I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to cooperate?” Nabokov said. Those among us who live and breathe music may be even more saddened and bemused by his continuing statement: “But I have found a queer substitute for music in chess – more exactly, in the composing of chess problems.” Whatever, Vlad.