The Corner

Hell and Mozart’s Requiem

Mozart died 222 years ago today, and I’m thinking about his Requiem. For me it is something singular in music, quite apart from the lore surrounding its composition. The choral movements are truly awful, in the archaic sense.

It was among the first pieces of music, most of them by Mozart, to make a deep impression on me. I was given a recording of it when I was maybe seven and I listened over and over, transfixed. I was too young to have known much suffering or much feared death, but the weight of what I heard seemed unearthly. It had the density of a neutron star.

Consider the second “Voca me” of the Confutatis movement. Can you imagine anything sadder? The first “Voca me” is optimistic. Then hell opens back up with the second “Confutatis.” And then that second “Voca me,” bereft of hope, barely a plea. Contrition, the text calls this attitude, and the prayer is not finished yet. But if you believe in damnation, you must believe that for some the prayer fails of its purpose, or that God fails to move some to offer it.

The violin parts here, which you can see on page 30 of the autograph fragment, are especially pathetic. Desiccated leaves—or feathers—or ash—fluttering down an abyss. Now wafted a moment upward; now resuming their gentle, pitiless descent.

This music is quite famous. I hope familiarity will not have inured you to its enormity. You should listen to it very seriously before you say that God throws people away forever, or else creates them—in love!—knowing they will throw themselves away.

I used to consider such ideas unbelievably repugnant. Then I realized I didn’t know what they meant. What sense has “forever” to a being like me? Should I think of it as endless duration on the model of human life, something like Hegel’s “bad infinity,” and if so where and when does that happen? Is it like Augustine’s doctrine of eternity, a state beyond our measure of time and so not definable except as the negation of everything we now could experience? Then what sense is left to “suffering” or “joy”?

Whatever form of words we dogmatically connect with “eternal damnation,” how can man’s freedom be reconciled with God’s power and foreknowledge in a way less paradoxical than this supposed question, whose terms denote what in the first place?

I can extract an experiential truth from the idea of hell, namely that wrongdoing, the failure of love, brings suffering to the wrongdoer. I do not think this can be demonstrated, but life may teach you its truth. In that sense hell is now, as also any relief from it. Perhaps this is in the spirit of Origenian ideas of hell as present and temporary separation from God, or Luther’s conviction that grace is given even in hell. But I see no final point in abstracting the experiences one would like to describe this way into a theological vocabulary, even if we prudently do so along the way to block harmful alternative non-definitions.

The limit of self and world, the very idea of a limit to them, is ungraspable. Experience, including its open and unbounded quality, is real. Problems of belief and unbelief can go away together. There is a strategy to it. Instead of saying yes or no, you look for definitions, until you don’t.

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