Honors Essay 05: You Mortal Engines

2,410 words, including quotations. My ending is surprisingly depressing, and I probably could have explored some of the themes more, but considering the trouble I had manifesting this piece, I’m quite happy with how it turned out.


J. S. Bach, in response to praise for his mastery of the organ, reportedly declared, “There is nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right notes at the right time, and the instrument plays itself.”[1] Although his first intention was modesty, and this quote may speak primarily to his own style of composition with its genius primarily in technique and pattern rather than dynamic expression, his statement is interesting in the light of the recent mechanization of music. With keyboard instruments, the human is not and does not have direct contact with the raw source of the sound. Now, living in an age where music can be recorded, transmitted, and produced by a mechanical source, the role of the mechanical in art and, indeed, the rest of human life, is a subject worthy of discussion.

This essay shall examine a few of the statements of Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, the twentieth-century German musicologist and minor composer, in his 1926 article “Mechanische Musik” and note their possible significance to the wider art world. It shall then look briefly at the arguments of Gertrude Bäumer in her 1919 essay on the role of the intellectuals in society, “Die Intellektuellen,” and contrast some of the underlying ideas. Although on the surface these essays have little overlap in subject, both are concerned with a few fundamental issues and themes which serve as a common challenge, namely inhumanity, detachment, and utility. Ultimately, each position has implications on the existence of significant meaning, where Stuckenschmidt’s materialistic reduction of music clashes with Bäumer’s firmly human perception of how the intellect should function.

Stuckenschmidt, who would be come an internationally recognized music critic, was barely twenty-five when he wrote “Mechanische Musik,” and it glows with the devotion of a young composer who found a voice and a cause. Here he comes out strongly on the side of mechanical music, and presses for recognition of its inherent superiority. He first observes the state of his contemporary music world: composers write increasingly complex pieces, while a reduced audience makes only the simplest of musical performances to be economically feasible. “Instrumental music of the last hundred years,” he concludes, “clearly suggests the necessity of replacing the musician, whose technical capacities are obviously restricted by a thousand physical and psychological deficiencies, by something less limited.”[2]

As Stuckenschmidt spells out clearly in the article, he believes that the future of the art lies in a mechanical production of music. This is, as he admits, a radical step. But he is eager to justify its necessity to those “individualists” who “believe the sacred rights of music have been infringed upon and proclaim the end of the world.”[3] He proclaims the triumph of the phonograph, whereby a single recording satisfies all needs, and the of possibility that a machine can reproduce precisely all the nuances of a human instrumentalist, and with greater technical perfection.

Most interestingly, he includes a passage on the relationship of the musician to the art, and insists that a machine can reproduce the same effect. He does so in metaphysical terms.

Ten more or less trained fingers set the keys in motion. The type of movement is dictated by the spirit of the pianist. At the moment, however, that the movement is decided upon, it ceases to be spirit and soul. It is now mechanical. Controllable. Concrete. It can be recorded, catalogued, cinematographed. It will not be easy for anyone to identify a soul in it. Naturally, the spirit of the pianist is contained in it. But the spirit has been transformed, has become matter. The critical point is that it remains in the music once the movement has been mechanized![4]

Here he makes a distinction between soul and spirit. Soul and spirit both exist in the musician. The expressive spirit is materialized in the music, but the soul of the musician does not translate in the same way. On the according assumption, Stuckenschmidt can argue that the machine can create the same effect of the spirit more easily and with greater possibility, as the machine has the ability to follow rules to produce the same basic material of expression.

To this author, Stuckenschmidt’s argument seems a disingenuous and unsatisfactory way to refute charges of impersonality and detachment in mechanical music. He insists that the effect is the same—that we can feel the same emotions and connect to the music every bit as much as if a human being were the vessel. To do so seems not specially to glorify the machine but denigrate the complexity of humanity. This works if a human being is nothing more than a series of buttons to be pressed. Doubtless, some humans connect to art in that way, but not all. One factor that appears common to human experience, based on my own observation and conversations with others on the subject, is an indescribable but satisfying empathy we feel with knowing that a human artist is on the other end, and this extends to other arts than music as well. Art is arguably as much about relationship as anything, and to altogether and permanently cut off the musician from the triad fellowship of composer, performer, and receiver would doubtless bother a great many, the musicians who love their art not least.

Other arts could suffer from similar trends. A computer can take in the variables and design a more functional and efficient building. Photographs obsolete the need for strict visual representation, and not a few artists have tried to find mathematical bases for more perfect abstract forms. A computer can produce an endless variety of aesthetic forms if it is given correct algorithms, and of course is constantly in the detached, serene state that many artists seek. There are machines today that supposedly can competently write poetry, novels, and nonfiction on just about any subject—advocates praise its efficiency and the way it cuts down on the need for human involvement.[5] If the receiver of the art can look at a work and be unable to tell if it springs from a human artist or the algorithms of a computer, does it really matter?

In contrast to this discussion of music by Stuckenschmidt, we now turn to the article by Gertrud Bäumer, “Die Intellekruellen.” Bäumer, a prominent feminist and social liberal politician, then in her late forties and soon to be elected to parliament, offers a commentary on the problem of the class of “intellectuals.” To her, the issue is clear-cut and simple. A cult of intellectualism has rendered the entire class useless to society, as they have drifted from the real world into mere mental exercise. The problem is perpetuated by the education of new intellectuals to follow similar paths of thought.[6]

No realistic solution can be offered to such a problem short of true revolution. Bäumer looks to the future of the class and their impact without much hope, for she sees one of increasing detachment from the essential nature of reality. In her contemporary society, perhaps comparable to the society of today, intellectuals were uprooted figures whose intelligence served, if anything, as danger and not benefactor—“boundless and treacherous.”[7]

One of the underlying broader themes she deals with is the alienation of the intellectuals. There are some fascinating highlights, startlingly accurate to personal experience, to her obloquy. The insight of the following passage is remarkable, and merits quotation at length.

People of culture are such complicated pieces of work that all of their primal feelings are also articulated on an artificial and literary level—a secondhand level. They experience themselves as if in the theater or in a novel, playing a role, and scarcely knowing anymore what is authentic, what is their own. This is complicated by the face that such people are even able consciously to imitate what they lack: faith, warmth, instinct, simplicity. Their intellectuality is a self-reflexive pleasure that they cultivate by declaring war on themselves, dissolutely intoxicating themselves with instincts and passion they lack.[8]

They imitate, play roles, and profess deeper connection, but it is all superficial. The mind of an intellectual ought to be keen and coruscating, but instead it tends to follow artificial construction and pattern. With a lack of genuine experience, the intellectual carries the pretense of it, fitting it into his narrow useless paradigms and proclaiming his own consequent superiority. There is almost a sense that such persons are less than human (at one point she calls them “patched-together half-beings”),[9] living in a shell and deriving pleasure from bouncing around worthless ideas.

The question arises, when looking at these two writings, is Stuckenschmidt’s mechanized rapture in some way connected to that which Bäumer is eager to denounce? Bäumer, of course, is directing her excoriations to the society of intellectuals, and Stuckenschmidt is looking forward to a revolution in music. Despite the dissemblance in fields, however, a common concern is addressed by both: the encroachment of inhumanity. In the art world, machinery threatens to virtually eliminate the artist, or some important traditional aspects of artmaking. Stuckenschmidt pours a justification of this movement into his pages, but ultimately cannot clear the charges that some human connection is lost. Is it any surprise that he labels his opposition the “individualists”? Bäumer sees a trend in intellectual society that threatens to destroy the positive force of the intellect by reducing it to mere academia. It would perhaps be going too far to say that she perceives intellectuals as turning into machines or even becoming purely formulaic in their distraction, but it would not to say that she sees men and women dehumanizing themselves—machine-like, “playing a role” and pressing buttons as a substitute for authentic, relevant thought and experience. In a sense, that is becoming machine-like, although not for the sake of legitimate and effective purpose, in Bäumer’s eyes, but in diversion from it.

Here arises another point of comparison where these authors’ mentality of goal does overlap, in the area of utility. Bäumer wants the intellectuals to do something of good for the world. Stuckenschmidt claims that mechanical music can do something better than a musician, which means, to him, that it is superior. They both agree that the artist or the intellectual should have practical importance. But Bäumer is clear: intellectuals can do no good unless they throw off their detached state and take root in nature and honest human exploration. Stuckenschmidt suggests that the disinterested ability of machines to produce art, a fundamental part of human experience, is actually of profit.

Bäumer believes that humanity is necessary to the process—in this case the intellectual process. She never actually refers to machinery as being a substitute; perhaps, in an age before the computer and artificial intelligence, it would not have entered her mind. But she does emphasize the importance of the inner reality, such as when she says, “Both [the facts and views of life]… are rooted in each individual’s own being.”[10] Elsewhere she adds, “Alienated from nature and removed from powerful emotions, these [intellectuals] are shallow human beings who take their inspiration from ideals, from intellectualism as a sport or game.”[11] Apparently, powerful emotions are a part of humanity that the intellectuals cannot afford to miss.

Stuckenschmidt, on the other hand, would argue that humanity is not necessary to the process—in this case the artistic process, where the same manifestations of music may be produced by a machine as by a performer. But in doing so, he neglects the side of humanity that needs a human to truly connect to the art. We go to concerts and talk to artists about their work because of the importance of empathy in the artistic relationship. We know, or want to know, that we feel because another feels, not because there is a machine on the other end generating triggers to our feelings. This empathy, this raw encounter with humanity, is pragmatically necessary to Bäumer; Stuckenschmidt would say that it is not pragmatically necessary in something most of us would consider far more human than intellectual activity: art. The materialized spirit may be there, yes, but we want to apprehend a soul behind it as well. It is a psychological need. Eighty-five years after Stuckenschmidt’s boast, we are not significantly closer to eliminating the human artist, even though our ability to reproduce their processes and products has increased.

All this comes back to our need to find meaning behind things. The intellectual cannot exist significantly in a sterilized, airy, formulaic world, but in a world of real and significant symbols. The famous Einstein statement that imagination is more important than knowledge bears on this. Music, as with all art, becomes suddenly meaningless if it merely exists as a stimulant that can be produced just as well by an impersonal being. Our Christ is of no use to us if he is not of God, else he might as well be a rulebook to living life in a vain and hollow world. Bäumer is right to fear a world where all serious thought is no longer “rooted in a strong, simple nature, in an unwaveringly clear high-mindedness, and in a relationship to reality that is respectful and competent….”[12] Such people have an “aversion toward reality,”[13] and cease to deal in true meaning. When meaning is no more than an algorithm, it ceases to have import beyond itself, which means that humans are wretched creatures, detached from reality and longing for the nonexistent. We continue to rebel against this in society, given our spiritual and psychological need, whether they consider meaning subjective or objective. Most of us have not disposed of the human artist yet or the importance of the relationship between inner and outer realities. But the appeals of comfort and efficiency may yet lead to a day when art and thought alike are mechanical, meaningless beyond themselves, and horrifyingly inhuman.



Bäumer, Gertrud. “The ‘Intellectuals.’” Translated by Don Reneau. In Kaes, 287-288.

David, Hans, and Arthur Mendel, eds. The Bach Reader. New York: Norton, 1966.

Kaes, Anton, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimenberg, eds. The Weimar Republic Sourcebook. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, Ltd., 1995.

Stuckenschmidt, H. H. “Mechanical Music.” Translated by Don Reneau. In Kaes, 597-600.

[1] Hans David and Arthur Mendel, eds., The Bach Reader (New York: Norton, 1966), 291.

[2] H. H. Stuckenschmidt, “Mechanical Music,” trans. Don Reneau, in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimenberg (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, Ltd., 1995), 598.

[3] Ibid., 597.

[4] Ibid., 599.

[5] For example, the book-writing machine of Dr. Phillip Parker; Marc Abrahams, “Automatic Writing,” The Guardian, February 5, 2008; see also the program Gnoetry; Jerome Ludwig, “Automatic Writing,” Chicago Reader, August 4, 2005.

[6] Gertrud Bäumer, “The ‘Intellectuals,’” trans. Don Reneau, in Kaes, 287.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 288.


One comment on “Honors Essay 05: You Mortal Engines

  1. salvageroost says:

    Your phrasing in the explanatory paragraph, that you “had trouble manifesting” this, made me quite happy. 🙂

    While much of this does read as if it were forcédly manifested, you did manage to work it to a point where you were clearly discussing ideas which have meaning and urgency for you as an artist. It bogs down now and again, but you fought your way out; not a bad essay for being one you didn’t want to write.

    I enjoyed the biographical tidbits about Baümer and… that S-fellow… S- suddenly became much more connect-withable in my mind, knowing he was at the proper age to be both fervent and naïve.

    I did not at first see the connection between Baümer’s and S-‘s essays, but once you got to the compare/contrast paragraph, I had a series of “oh–but of course” moments and felt I should have seen that all along. You did a remarkably convincing job there.

    Also, the intro bit about J.S. Bach was quite interesting.

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