Paradise, Nature, and Reconciliation, or, a Tentative Conversation with Wagner, Puccini, Adorno, and The Ronettes                                           


  1. During the early war years, while living in West Los Angeles, T. W. Adorno and his close friend and colleague Max Horkheimer jointly authored a text they first named Philosophical Fragments in a 1944 mimeographed edition, and later Dialectic of Enlightenment when the text was formally published in a revised version in Amsterdam in 1947.

  2. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, the
    Theodor Adorno at the piano
    Adorno at the piano
    Marxist foundation of Critical Theory is shifted away from class conflict to what Adorno and Horkheimer regarded as something more fundamental, namely, the subject’s historical relation to nature as one of conflict that turns the subject against others and, ultimately, against the self. As they put it, “What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men” (4). Adorno and Horkheimer famously (or infamously) argued that the fundamental forms of domination organizing modernity had their roots in the primordial efforts of human beings to survive in a nature—a primordial totality—that men feared. Fearing nature, to be sure, expressed not least a fear of the self to the extent that human beings are not only in nature but also always already of nature. Stated differently, the alienation of the human from nature was doubly articulated: the othering of nature othered as well as the self.

  3. And yet human subjects lament the very separation from nature upon which their subjectivity is ultimately grounded. Thus by the principle Adorno and Horkheimer articulated, the designation of national parks that first occurred during the heyday of the industrial revolution—signaling the final triumph over nature—directly responded to the fractured relation of the subject to nature. That is, the setting aside of small and as-yet “untamed” geographies signified less a nostalgic return to nature than a material acknowledgment of the permanence of the damage done to it. In the same way, contemporaneous salvage anthropology in essence picked among the graves and ruins to remember what “advanced man” had destroyed to become advanced. (There’s a parallel here to charity—or as it’s now called, compassionate conservatism—that substitutes for social justice, and which functions not so as to alter the foundation of domination4, but to make injustice more tolerable to some people’s stomach and to other people’s conscience).

  4. Dialectic of Enlightenment critiques the self-satisfied ideology that structures the heart of historicism, the myth of history as progress, which itself underwrites the ideological ground of modernity as the supposed realization of the Enlightenment. The authors’ over-riding concern is instrumental reason and its function in domination. Reason instrumentalized is reason not concerned with social truth and its implications for social justice, but reason of the bottom line, whether in economics or cultural politics—reason degraded to wit, smarts, and especially cunning,5 serving as agent in the subject’s war on nature, broadly understood. As Adorno and Horkheimer put it: “As soon as man discards his awareness that he himself is nature, all the aims for which he keeps himself alive—social progress, the intensification of all his material and spiritual powers, even consciousness itself—are nullified, and the enthronement of the means as an end, which under late capitalism is tantamount to open insanity, is already perceptible in the prehistory of subjectivity. Man’s domination over himself, which grounds his selfhood, is almost always the destruction of the subject in whose service it is undertaken” (54).

  5. In his last book, Aesthetic Theory, not quite complete at the time of his death in 1969, Adorno stakes out his position on natural beauty, which he regards as the defining issue of aesthetics and a good deal more besides. Our longing for nature—for example, ecological regard, wilderness preservation, but also art in Adorno’s argument—is a projection of a lack that develops alongside our separation from and domination of nature.6 As he puts it, “The concept of natural beauty rubs on a wound” (61–62).7 Art is called upon to answer for natural beauty, in effect to substitute for it; art—wholly artifactual, that is, literally unnatural—perpetuates the attack on nature. And yet art does more, for it acknowledges the natural beauty that the human subject has otherwise degraded yet nonetheless desires in its non-extant “perfect” state; art reflects on this fact. Art, Adorno says, “want[s] to keep nature’s promise. … What nature strives for in vain, artworks fulfill” (62, 65–66).8 Natural beauty, he insists, is “the trace of the nonidentical in things under the spell of universal identity” (73).9

  6. The Ronettes—from 1965, courtesy of Phil Spector, a song called “Paradise.” The Wall of Sound, Spector’s evocative metaphor for what he achieved in his favored monaural, is a good deal more than a promotional tag. Set within the sonoric milieu of the mid-1960s, the Spector sound was fundamentally discursive, in ways that I will outline in a moment. Permit me first to remind you how the sound came about.

  7. For starters, he first crammed into the studio as many instrumentalists as possible to lay down a R & B-derived rhythm track—say, four pianos, ten basses, and five drummers (Senoff 16).10 (By 1975, several years after his heyday
    The Ronettes
    The Ronettes
    recordings, he had as many as fifty-two musicians in the studio solely to set the rhythm track, though twenty-five to thirty was more typical. This at a time when most other producers were using only five or six musicians) (Williams 29).11 Next session came the vocalists, then the strings. The three were then mixed (People Weekly 84–85). Echo effects were produced by multiple recordings of the same instrument in unison (Tobler and Grundy 51). Each time something new was added, Spector usually copied from one master tape to another, which produced a certain fuzziness and acoustic deterioration, an effect he liked (Tobler and Grundy 51). The end result was sonoric excess, which in part depended on listeners’ awareness of the technological limits against which the sound was pushing: Spector worked with a finite acoustic space and made it seem almost infinite. At the same time, however paradoxically, the sound seems confined. Yet this confinement is crucial to his purpose, to the extent that by the recording process I’ve outlined, the sound seems to reach beyond the space allotted to it.

  8. Like the Rheingold Prelude, Spector’s “Paradise” evokes nature—and, not coincidentally, replicates the Wagnerian narrative by turning it on its head. (Spector, by the way, is a devoted opera aficionado.) The song tells the story of an as-yet unrealized future of requited love. The lovers will pass over a rainbow bridge, not to Walhalla but to Eden. They will be one with Nature, evoked, as in Wagner, by the sound of water—but real water in this case: recorded waves splashing the shore—as well as by chirping birds, both heard immediately before the music begins. (Hear Ex. 4) The song evokes ancient tropes connecting love and desire, on the one hand, with a putative reconciliation with nature, on the other, spiritualization of love experienced in the Eden of a paradise regained. It does so by musical means that undergird the lyrics—and in places virtually overwhelms them.

  9. The Ronettes’ voices discourse in specific relation to the instrumental sounds that accompany them. On the word “paradise,” the back-up voices and instruments come together to form a synchronized acoustic wave, at highest volume and thickest texture, a standard Spector feature (Hinckley). The Wall of Sound washes over listeners like an enveloping and benign tsunami, as if accomplishing sonically what the lyrics note at the start about the land of love, “where time is standing still,” that is, outside history and beyond the reach of ordinary reality. The first sounds we hear, water and birds, are wholly natural; the next sounds—instrumental—constitute a transformation of these natural sounds into their cultural-aesthetic analogue. The instrumental-vocal backing sonically and metaphorically supports the lover’s voice (Ronnie Spector) as together they build towards climax on the word “paradise,” which bursts from the musical fabric with fairly obvious repetitive orgasmic force, reminiscent of those time-lapse films of roses bursting into bloom, or more to the point, the commonplace trope that connects sexual release with the crashing of waves. (Hear Ex. 5) Put differently, the reconciliation of voiced subject with the natural paradise that mirrors the paradise of requited love is musically realized by the sonoric foreground and background that meld into a single unity: subject and object closing the gap that otherwise divides them. In the absence of the real lover, nature is the stand-in.

  10. Reconciliation, in the sense of oneness, is reinforced in the last verse when the back-up singers call out textual instructions, acting like guides: “stand by him,” “do right by him,” which the soloist immediately, antiphonally, echoes—a call-and-response device metaphorically homologous with the one Mozart used repeatedly in The Magic Flute, another musical text that connects the possibility of love to the necessity of reconciliation with nature.

1   2   3   4   Endnotes   Works Cited



Paradise, Nature, and Reconciliation

“Hello Cleveland!”


Yatrika Shah-Rais

Review Essay


Return to ECHO 4.1 Table of Contents
Return to the beginning of "Paradise, Nature, and Reconciliation"
Email the Editors of ECHO