Hector Berlioz’s Neurophysiological Imagination
Tuesday, 21 March 2017 | 10:00 | Trinity Long Room Hub
A public lecture by Dr Carmel Raz (Postdoctoral Fellow at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University) organised by the Trinity Long Room Hub.
Abstract: In his famous essay De la musique en général (1837), Hector Berlioz asserts that certain kinds of music induce “a strange agitation in my blood circulation: my arteries beat violently… a trembling overtakes my limbs and a numbness my hands and feet, while the nerves of sight and hearing are partially paralyzed.” Berlioz’s detailed self-report lends this account the veneer of a medical case study. Indeed, as the son of a well-known physician and himself an erstwhile medical student, Berlioz avidly followed many of the medical and scientific debates of his day. Examining the system of neurophysiological affect emerging from his critical writing, Dr Raz will focus on the composer’s documented engagement with contemporaneous neurophysiology, and in particular the pioneering ideas of Xavier Bichat. Challenging traditional conceptions of Berlioz’s musical writings as journalistic hackwork, Dr Raz proposes that the remarkable medical literacy presented in his arguments reveals a hitherto neglected dimension of nineteenth-century engagement with the embodied effects of music.
Bichat posits a comprehensive division of the body into two systems, la vie organique and la vie animale. The former is controlled by the passions, and comprises internal organs dealing primarily with nourishment and excretion. The latter, which corresponds to behaviors governed by the will and understanding, includes the higher functions of the brain. Both “lives” communicate with each other through a spiraling system of sympathetic interactions. Explicating Bichat’s theory of the interaction between la vie organique and la vie animale, Dr Raz argues that we can understand the biological and neurophysiological discourses underlying a number of Berlioz’s compositional innovations as calculated steps toward an aesthetics of overpowering neurophysiological experience. She will conclude by contextualizing this project within related developments in cognitive historicism and the neuro-humanities.