Verdi’s Requiem: reflections on metaphysical dogmas in the arts

copyright Robert M. Ellis, 2011


Verdi’s Requiem is an extremely dramatic and beautiful piece of music. The intensity of its words combines with the beauty of the orchestration, the emotional impact of the human voice, and the sudden moves between terrible majestic fortissimo and gentle reconciliation, to create one of the most moving pieces of music I have experienced. When I recently went to see a performance I was in tears within minutes of the beginning.

Yet I listened on that occasion without more than a vague awareness of the meaning of the words. When I listened again at home with the Latin text and a translation before me, a deeper difficulty with the piece became more obvious. Verdi’s Requiem (like all the other great requiems, such as Mozart’s and Fauré’s) is a celebration of cosmic justice.

Dies irae, dies illa,

Solvet saeclum in favilla,

Teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futures,

Quando judex est venturus,

Cuncta stricte discussurus.


The day of wrath, that day,

Will dissolve the world in ashes,

As David prophesied with the Sibyl.

How great a terror there will be,

whenthe judge shall come

to try everything with rigour!


It doesn’t stop there with abstract and general judgement, but has to bring it home more personally.


Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?

Quem patronum rogaturus,

Cum vix Justus sit secures?


What shall I, wretch, say?

Whom shall I ask to plead for me,

When scarcely the righteous shall be safe?


There I am, a worm wriggling on the end of a pin, transfixed by the power of music into the suggestion that a perfect pattern will be imposed on the imperfection of my life. No wonder the text then goes on to beg Jesus’ mercy to rescue us from our sinfulness and the eternal death we deserve for it.


Love the music, hate the metaphysics. The belief in cosmic justice fixes us in a conviction of the ideal which we then impose upon the world around us, ignoring the messiness of what we actually experience. The sense of sin is a huge rhetorical manipulation, telling us that if we are not perfect (as inevitably we are not) we deserve punishment, only to be relieved at last by the grace of God working through Jesus.


If there’s anything that’s more manipulative than cosmic justice itself, it’s the belief that it exists but we can somehow still short-circuit it after all. You have to start with the cosmic justice and then bring in the mercy to get the full manipulative effect, because of course if you started with the mercy the cosmic justice would have no credibility. We would have no fear of it if we knew we could get out of it. But if we really feel we have been saved from damnation, whilst having felt  the power of that damnation, we are left with gratitude to Christ. An open, cathartic emotion circumvents all objections to the gaping contradiction of it, and we are left open to the suggestions of the Church. Now we are saved, how will we express this burning gratitude? Shall we go and fight a holy war?


The music can almost take you on this kind of journey – almost. But I need to remind myself of this “almost” and the big difference it can make. Actually, I have followed this journey only in imagination. It is this “almost” that is the key to how I can continue to enjoy this music, indeed be deeply moved by it, whilst maintaining a strong critical sense towards the metaphysics it seems to be trying to communicate.


I am not about to make a strong distinction between the music and the Christianity, as though I could separate the two. The music is part of the Christianity, and the Christianity is part of the music. Some Buddhists that I have met, who strongly object to Christian doctrine yet love such music, claim to listen to the music whilst ignoring the doctrine. It is not impossible to do this, but much is lost if we do. The whole organisation of the music depends on the progress from judgement to redemption. If we do not imaginatively feel that progression, then we are missing a good deal of what the music has to communicate to us.


Yet nevertheless, there is a distinction that needs to be made here, as I move between aesthetic appreciation and critical awareness. Verdi’s Requiem has to be acknowledged, at one and the same time, as an aesthetic wonder and as a metaphysical monster. That distinction, in the terms of the Middle Way Philosophy I have been developing, is the distinction between meaning and belief.


The traditional Christians have usually made one kind of philosophical mistake, by feeling the meaningfulness of cosmic justice but turning this meaning into belief. Even the postmodernist Christians like Don Cupitt have turned it into a negative metaphysical belief, asserting that there is no reality to this metaphysics whilst celebrating it as a mere human construction. The logical positivists, on the other hand, rejected Christian belief on the grounds of its lack of meaning. Any logical positivist listening to Verdi’s Requiem would have to insist that it was ‘not strictly meaningful’ and ‘only expression of emotion’. However, in doing so, he would be denying half of his experience of meaning, the emotional and aesthetic half, and trying vainly to build a philosophy adequate to our experience on the dessicated remnant of meaning that results when you insist rigorously that meaning is only cognitive.


The alternative to both of these extremes is to make a distinction between meaning and belief, such that we can fully acknowledge the meaning of metaphysical claims whilst failing either to believe them or not believe them. To fully enter into the metaphysical journey imaginatively, we suspend our disbelief, just as we do whilst listening to a story or watching a film. At another point, the reflection returns that we also need to be able to respond to these metaphysical claims critically. It would be nice to be able to stay away on our imaginative trip indefinitely, without having to come back, but it might almost be said that we have a duty to come back, in order to balance out our total response and address all the conditions that Verdi’s Requiem creates. If we are intoxicated by imagination but do not maintain an alternative perception somewhere in the background, we may as well be seduced by the metaphysics. When we start to lose our critical perspective, the recruiting sergeant for the holy war rubs his hands in satisfaction – another sucker has taken the king’s shilling. 


The imaginative journey with the critical perspective in the background is a necessary part of an integrative process. If I only maintained either the imaginative or the critical perspective, they would create opposed, divided forces in my psyche. The traditionalist Christian, egoistically identifying with the beliefs in God’s judgement and God’s grace, has to reject all aspects of her experience that would support a challenge to this belief. The awareness of being manipulated, the awareness of contradiction, the awareness of any way that these beliefs can be tested in experience – all these kinds of awareness must be suppressed. The longer this suppression goes on for, the more likely it is to become a repression in which we actually lose conscious access to these alternative perspectives. They turn into vague nagging doubts that make us more and more defensive. The logical positivist, on the other hand, has to make the same suppression in reverse in order to reject the meaningfulness of the imaginative experience – provided, of course, that he makes any attempt at all to relate the philosophy to his experience, and does not erect a complete barrier between philosophical analysis and listening to music.


The Middle Way suggests that we need to acknowledge and explore the meaning of both. In doing so we potentially become able to move between both worlds, critical and imaginative, like amphibians moving between water and land. If we can reach this point, we have integrated the meaning of the two areas of experience and are in a position to use both to address different kinds of conditions. We become a little less hasty in condemning what we do not know, a little more open to emotional exploration. When others try to communicate with us in one mode or another, we will know what they are talking about.


Nevertheless, another level of integration, the integration of belief, demands that we take the critical perspective more seriously than the imaginative one. Integration of belief is achieved through the justification of our beliefs. At this level we have to use criteria to sort cognitive claims. As I have argued elsewhere, the two sorts of criteria we need here are coherence and agnostic foundationalism: that is, that the beliefs we accept should be coherent with others and be accepted in a state of mind that recognises the possibility of error. The claims in the text of Verdi’s Requiem fail on both counts here: cosmic justice directly contradicts grace, so it is not coherent, and the dogmatically asserted Catholic beliefs do not take into account the possibility of being wrong, both because of the absolute faith that is required in them and because they are unfalsifiable. At this level, greater integration is gained not by suspending disbelief but by applying critical awareness and clearly rejecting these metaphysical claims. Anything other than clear rejection gets in the way of the integration of belief here, and stops us addressing conditions by having more correct beliefs. It is the rejection of metaphysics that, at the extreme, keeps us from holy war, or even from the delusion that we could apply the terms ‘damned’ or ‘saved’ to ourselves or to anyone we actually experience around us.


Nevertheless, integration of belief and integration of meaning are inextricable, and the pursuit of one without the other cannot be sustained for long. A rejection of metaphysics, without an alternative less judgemental type of awareness to support it, will almost inevitably turn into negative metaphysics, and the repeat of all the same patterns in inversion. We can effectively reject the metaphysics of Verdi’s Requiem not through atheism or logical positivism, but through having a sense of an alternative wider perspective where such judgements do not apply. A fish swimming in the water and having no awareness of other perspectives beyond it has to be a dogmatist, at least about the land beyond its experience, for it does not recognise the existence of any alternative. An amphibian, on the other hand, has an alternative world with which to compare the fish’s dualisms and find them wanting.


But now we have come full circle. For in a sense, the verses of the requiem with which I began are precisely about this. The Christian doctrine that it refers to does tell us about human experience as well as about metaphysical claims. For what is the judgement of God, if not a correlate to the integration of belief, and what is God’s grace if not a correlate to the integration of meaning? The judgement of God is imagined to immediately give us the highest possible perspective, just like complete integration of belief. The grace of God, on the other hand, is imagined to immediately smoothe over the conflict of judgement and enter a sphere where there are no barriers whatsoever to understanding and sympathy. In the imaginative journey through which Verdi’s Requiem passes, we first experience the desiccation that an attempt to integrate belief without meaning would leave us with. Grasping for ‘truth’ and rejecting ‘falsehood’, all we are left with is ideals that we vainly try to impose on a shifting experience, and that experience seems shamefully inadequate to the ideals of the truth we have chosen. In the pain of that contrast we turn towards another, apparently incompatible perspective, in which judgement is not applied to reject any view, but rather all symbols are absorbed and found meaningful. In the integration of meaning, rejected symbols can be imaginatively embraced, just as God’s love is said to embrace us, whatever our sins. All we have to do is be open to it.


The mysteries of Christian teaching, including the mysteries of the Trinity, offer all this symbolic potential, just as do many other religious symbols. Not only can the stern Father represent the integration of belief and the loving Son the integration of meaning, but we have the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to represent the integration of desire. However, they can only mean this, and gain increasing richness by doing so, if we refrain from believing in them. All the richness of the system depends on the practice of the Middle Way in relation to it, and is undermined by sole concentration on either belief or meaning at the expense of the other.


It is this sense of the metaphysical dogmas having symbolic meanings that are actually spiritually helpful in some ways that could potentially, I think, allow me to enjoy Verdi’s Requiem without a sense of conflict. The integration of meaning requires me to adapt apparently metaphysical sources and make them meaningful to my experience, separating helpful and unhelpful approaches to them. The unhelpful metaphysics is not interpreted away by doing this, but the music becomes much more than just the metaphysics. In this respect, it is no different from a book, a philosophy, or a person, that I experience as mixed.


Overall, then, I think it is easier in some ways to enjoy a work of art with attached metaphysics if one is quite clear about neither accepting nor rejecting the metaphysics. This allows the metaphysics to form part of the meaning, without which the work of art would be eviscerated, but at the same time not to dominate and just be reinforced by the work of art. Though one may have to struggle to maintain a focus on this position at first, it does get easier with practice. I think this position is preferable, not just philosophically but artistically, to one that either rejects the metaphysics and tries to separate it completely from the art, or on the other hand accepts the art uncritically. Art thrives on tension: it is not just about reassurance. Whilst maintaining this balancing act we can potentially appreciate the art more.than we could otherwise. It is a truism that art requires a suspension of disbelief, but perhaps not so widely appreciated that it requires a suspension of belief at one and the same time.


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