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In the Panthéon

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At the same time Diderot and d’Holbach have been denounced as immoral, ridiculed as talentless, kept out of some school syllabuses; their bones moldered in an anonymous heap, their books were printed only sporadically and in small editions. When spoken of, Diderot was softened into an eccentrically Gallic novelist and editor of a long-outdated encyclopedia, and d’Holbach was relegated to the status of a dim and boring precursor of Marxist theory. The salon and its guests were quickly forgotten: the Parisian house where for twenty-five years Europe’s most brilliant minds—“Sheiks of the Rue Royale,” Hume called them—met and debated still bears no plaque or visible recognition of any kind.

The grand narrative of a rationalist Enlightenment that freed humanity from superstition only to subjugate it once again, this time to the dictates of reason and rationalization, suited the interests and self-image of an economy driven by entrepreneurship and fueled by a cult of efficiency and cheap labor. We have inherited the truncated history and repeated it to one another, tacitly encouraging a narrowness of thought that bears little resemblance to one of the freewheeling exchanges over candlelight at d’Holbach’s salon.

Stalin had photographs originally showing him with murdered rivals edited, the offending figures removed—a commissar vanished here, Leon Trotsky disappeared there. Normally history does not go to such exacting trouble. The existence of a second, more radical Enlightenment tradition is not denied completely, but two centuries of historical bias have done their work, slowly but surely.

As interpreters, historians have more in common with musicians than with poets like Schiller. A historian faces the same challenges as a pianist: Ludwig van Beethoven, for example, was in the habit of putting exact metronomic markings above his pieces, and a musical fundamentalist would have solid ground on which to stand when claiming that this is exactly as fast as they ought to be played. But we have different instruments today requiring different techniques, and Beethoven himself, who ruined many a piano in his quest for more sound, might have preferred the weighty sound possibilities of a modern concert grand, or the power of a modern orchestra. Concert halls today are larger than any he ever heard his music played in; some are too resonant for playing as fast as he indicated because the music would turn into an acoustic blur, while the dry sound of a small room or a studio may demand a higher speed and therefore also a different phrasing. Musician and audience, finally, live in a world after Wagner, Brahms, Schönberg, Cage, the Beatles and the Stones—a myriad of associations and resonances that the composer and his contemporaries did not share. How then is it possible to mediate any kind of truth between Beethoven’s intent and today’s ears?

A musician is inevitably left with the task of translating the factual basis—the music, the score—into the reality of living art in a particular setting. Even in the best of circumstances, the result is not going to be the one truth about a work by Beethoven but one interpretation that may or may not be accepted by listeners because they find it fascinating, illuminating, and authoritative. The score in itself is dead and can be brought to life only as a subjective account informed by knowledge, craft, taste, circumstance, and personal style. The result is always mired in perspective, in a particular horizon, but that is not to say that it is arbitrary. It is always contingent, but not relativist in a postmodern way: it is based on facts in a score and relies on stylistic conventions, technical competence, and experience—and ultimately it must resonate with perceptions of the audience. An interpretation that obviously ignores pertinent facts will not be accepted by those who know them; but things can still be seen very differently, as illustrated not only by the debate about the relative merits of Voltaire and Diderot, but also when we ask whether Stalin was a great visionary hero or a monstrous criminal.

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About the Author

Philipp Blom is a historian and novelist living in Vienna. His books include Enlightening the World: Encyclopédie, the Book That Changed the Course of History, The Vertigo Years, and Luxor. His most recent work, A Wicked Company, was published in 2010.

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