The Philosopher’s Touch: Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes at the Piano by François Noudelmann

“How do those who profess themselves to be abstract thinkers experience emotions, the body, and touch?” philosopher François Noudelmann asks in The Philosopher’s Touch: Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes at the Piano. In this lyrical essay on philosophy and music-making, Noudelmann contends that the piano provides another kind of “voice” for a philosopher, one that channels different rhythms and tones than those we hear in their writing and speech. And in understanding their music, we have a different means of understanding their philosophical outlooks. Drawing heavily on the philosophical discipline of phenomenology, Noudelmann’s highly original book shows that engaging with the piano allowed these philosophers to re-think how they experienced and understood the world.

Noudelmann shows that piano-playing is a transformative experience that collapses the distinction between performing and listening and between hearing and understanding. “The whole of one’s being reveals itself in the body’s position at the piano,” he claims. For Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes, this was true even though they were not great musicians. Sartre, an “insatiable amateur” at the piano, played with “astonishing clumsiness,” and despite being an adept sight-reader, he stripped Chopin’s nocturnes of their rhythm. Rhythm was also a problem for Sartre away from the piano: Unable to produce writing as quickly as he wanted, he caused permanent damage to his heart by overdosing on stimulants. He had a great love of jazz, but lacked the rhythm and improvisational spirit to play it. Noudelmann argues that this arrhythmia was Sartre’s “unique tempo,” and that it was reflected in his writing and political activism.

In addition to his works of philosophy and poetry, Nietzsche authored around seventy symphonies, choral works, lieder and various piano pieces. Though he despised Romantic sentimentality in literature, his musical works show him clearly engaged with a Romantic sensibility. His 1872 composition “Manfred-Meditation” displays the influence of Wagner, and he sent it to the great composer for his approval, as well as to Hans von Bülow, the famed conductor of Wagner’s Tristan. Von Bülow thought it was either a joke or a “crime against morality”—an insult Nietzsche never got over. He apologized, “blamed Romantic morbidity, and claimed that he would listen to Tristan for redemption.”

This incident made Nietzsche consider Wagner less favorably. Although Wagner was supposed to be “modernity itself,” Nietzsche believed that he had capitulated to Teutonic nostalgia. Instead, Nietzsche began to champion Georges Bizet, who wrote music that was “relieved of the burden of meaning.” Nietzsche believed that “to think is to hear, and music teaches the philosopher to become a better listener.” The composer being manipulated by the sentimental sublime, however, is no longer listening. For Nietzsche, there is a way of listening to music that is as much an act of intellectual engagement as writing.

Barthes embraced piano-playing out of sheer love, praising professional pianists for their “amateurism,” by which he meant enthusiasm for their “texts.” When playing, Noudelmann writes, he pursued “an alternative practice to technical mastery— one that, instead of perfect execution, privileged wandering, fragmentation, and sensible caprice.” In his writing as well as his piano playing, Barthes avoided a single totalizing approach. To this end, Noudelmann draws a brilliant parallel between the argument of Barthes’s Camera Lucida, in which the photograph embodies a present absence, to the piano scores Barthes inherited from his grandmother, which were covered in her musical notation. “The yellowing paper bears no visible imprint of the actual playing,” Barthes writes, “but provides a trust or depository in which to leave behind prior performance as well as the time spent arranging the body’s position at the piano—how to bend its fingers, move its thumbs, and flex its wrists.”

By allowing us into their music rooms, Noudelmann illuminates a surprising side of these philosophers that their biographers have not spent much time on, despite the fact that music clearly mattered to them. Nietzsche loved to hum, and criticized Wagner for not writing hummable music. Sartre would play the piano for his adopted daughter, and sometimes she recorded him. Barthes, a flâneur in his own music collection, would play scores slower or faster than indicated to hear them differently. For all of these men, engaging with the piano grounded their thought in a physical and emotional practice.

“Thinking is an affair of the ear,” Noudelmann notes, echoing Nietzsche, and although his ponderous pronouncements don’t always pan out, they do offer fertile ground for thinking through the many intersections between music, philosophy, and the body.

Lauren Elkin is a Paris-based writer and critic. Her first novel will be published next month by Editions Héloïse d'Ormesson.