Never Leaving the Circle

Once in a class, after delving into a reading, we were asked to discuss whether Claude Debussy was or was not influenced by German music.

What a tough discussion.

We referred a lot to Debussy’s yearning to get out of German music’s shadow. At the same time, however, we learned of his fascination with Wagner’s music in his youth. Such a question of influence became less of an either/or. It was an affirmative for both sides.

How could that be? How could have Debussy used German music and went against it at the same time?

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida describes such a state in “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”. This state is described by Derrida as a kind of vortex. If we substituted “metaphysics” for “German music” in the following passage, it could very well describe the environment of influence Debussy existed in:

“The circle is unique. It describes the form of the relationship between the history of [German music] and the destruction of the history of [German music]”.

Derrida exclaims that in order to attempt the annihilation of a discourse, you must use said discourse:

“There is no sense in doing without the concepts of [German music] in order to attack [German music]…[W]e cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest”. 

Debussy had never left the circle. He still needed German music to “leave” it.

In one sense it could be said that Debussy was using the technique he learned from German piano rep (Beethoven, Liszt, etc.) to achieve different ends. Compare the first movement of Beethoven’s op. 111 sonata (one Debussy played in a competition) with, say, “Claire de Lune”.

There is also an extensive knowledge of German music needed to know when not to be caught in that trap. This can lead to moments similar to when Roadrunner teases Coyote through such evasions. See Debussy’s Wagner gag in “Golliwog’s Cakewalk”. And yet even if Roadrunner evades Coyote another time, Roadrunner is still caught in the game of being chased. Roadrunner’s identity is in part because of Coyote.

Debussy had never left the circle. That fact alone leaves us to approach our enquiry differently.

Perhaps, to put it in Derrida’s language, it is a matter of asking ourselves how Debussy interacts within that circle which “describes the form of the relationship between the history of [German music] and the destruction of the history of [German music]”.

It is a matter of not taking influence as a binary (yes or no) but as a given (caught within the circle). Once that is out of the way, the real inquiry can take place.

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