Art and Societal Constraints

I was moderately upset today when the classical music station where I live played only two movements of a Beethoven String Quartet.  The String Quartet is meant to be heard as a whole, not in pieces.  All four movements relate to one another and make a musical whole.  We live in an impatient world, with short attention spans, craving for instant gratification, short cuts in the movies we watch, sound bites, Twitter snippets–everything packaged in tiny packets that take up less and less time.  And our short attention span reflects these tiny packets of data.

How many people have an hour and a half to listen to the whole B-Minor Mass of Bach?  45 minutes to listen to a Beethoven symphony?  Does my classical radio station need to chop up whole pieces to package music in small bites because of today’s short attention span?

Maybe.  Our world is different than the world of Bach and Beethoven.  Imagine a world with no TV.  No radio.  No internet.  No cell-phones.  No electricity.  Can you imagine such a world?  That’s the world of Bach and Beethoven.  Imagine what time, and pass-times would be like then!  I imagine that people in such a world would have a lot of time to kill.  How long could the nobility just chat, who had no job they had to go to to fill up their day?  I imagine they would welcome a 50-minute string quartet they could listen to in someone’s chamber.  On Sundays, everyone had to go to church.  Then what?  No football games to watch.  Why not hang around the church and hear a musical mass for another hour.  Why not a cantata?  Why not a 20-minute prelude and fugue before the preacher?  They had the time.

The fact is, people in the 18th and 19th-century did have an hour and a half to listen to Bach’s B-Minor Mass.  They wanted a 50 minute symphony.  But we need to carve out time specially if we want to listen to a whole string quartet.  I’ve only heard the whole B-Minor Mass once, and it was a live performance.  As it happened, it was on a Sunday afternoon, too.  It was really rewarding.

The social forces today are different than those of Beethoven.  We can wile away time mindlessly glued to the TV, as I often do.  But I do, on occasion, set aside an hour or two in order to live with sublime art.  Art that was generated by a society that time to kill.  Art from a society much different than ours.  This blog could be considered deconstruction, if you like.

Advertisements

Tacit Complicity in Racial Injustice

I recently attended the Christian Unity Gathering of the National Council of Churches of Christ, USA.  The theme was “A.C.T. to End Racism—Awaken, Confront, Transform.”  I entered the world of African-American experience from narratives spoken by speakers in seminars.  Being a white, suburban male, I appreciated hearing stories about the African-American experience in the US.  One speaker said that probably every African-American in the audience at one time or another, probably several times, was told to be careful in how they act and respond to white authority figures in public.  One participant who worked at a high-profile financial institution shared an experience in which he was pulled over by police on his way home from work.  He was pulled over for no other reason than the fact that his skin was black.  His race mattered more than his high standing in the financial institution.  We learned that 80% of police are white.  I recalled a story of one African-American man who told us he always has to keep his hands in plain sight whenever he enters a convenience store, so the proprietor would see he isn’t carrying a weapon.

White people like me don’t often hear stories like these.  And I think that it is fair to say that I don’t actively promote racial injustice.  But I am part of a socio-economic structure in which racism is embedded.  Statistics could be produced about income disparity, job disparities, incarceration rates, and silence in educational institutions about racial atrocities like the 1919 Red Summer in Elaine, Arkansas or the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  I took away from a dinner speech one important idea that I took to heart.  The speaker talked about the silence of white people in the presence of racism.  By keeping silent in the presence of racism, we are tacitly supporting the structural injustices in society.  I thought about a racial slur that a man sitting next to me in a blues club made about another patron down the bar from us.  I said nothing.  I thought about the many disparaging remarks a new acquaintance made about First Nations’ people at a dinner party.  In order to ingratiate myself further in this new friendship, I said nothing.  While we may not actively promote racial inequities, by silence in the face of racism we are complicit in the structural inequities of Western society.  Awaken, Confront, Transform.  In the future, I intend to do just that.  The conference awakened me.  I have the power to confront.  And the hope of transforming.

WHERE I COULD HAVE BEEN

Recovering from a 26-year sleep

Pills, soporific pills to

Keep me out of the psych-ward

Relearning old accomplishments

Looking at my colleagues

Where they are now

Where I could have been

But for . . .

Where I could have been

Asleep

The hospital I never want

To see again

Why I was there

But for . . .

Pills, soporific pills

Spirit and Matter and Life

Dead matter.  That’s how I saw the material world.  My understanding of Jesus added to this world view, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63).  I understood this statement of Jesus according to the science I was raised with.  The atoms, chemicals, material compounds were all dead matter.  There was the spiritual world which is alive, and there was the physical world made up of dead matter, atoms, chemicals, material compounds.  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”  Even Nature was made up of dead matter.

The cells in our bodies, the leaves on trees, the soil in which plants grow are all made up of atoms, chemicals, and material compounds which are dead matter, I thought.  This world view is called Cartesian dualism.  Renee Descartes tried to come up with a theory to account for the relationship between spirit and matter.  Willing your arm to move is spiritual.  Wanting, or willing, is spiritual.  But your arm is physical.  How can something spiritual like the will affect something physical like your arm?  I’m not sure Descartes ever came up with a satisfactory solution to this problem.  But he described the problem well—movements of the soul are spiritual; movements of the body are material.  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”  Actually, Cartesian dualism actually goes back to Plato.  In Plato, there are two worlds: the world of the unchanging Ideal Forms, or ideas (ideai, eide) and the world of matter (hyle).  For Plato, what is really real, and our eternal home, is in the world of Ideal Forms; we end up on earth through a fall from the realm of Ideal Forms.  So the separation of spirit and matter can be traced way back to Plato.

While early Christians were sympathetic to Plato, notably Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, there is a problem with Plato.  The Bible says that when God created Nature, God called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  Plato’s contempt for the material world is not shared by Christians.  Nature is created by God and is good; we are meant to be born here by God’s creative design.

But is matter dead?  Is the theory of matter that I grew up with true?  I am not a physicist.  But after reflection on Swedenborg’s theology, and after dialogue with a Cree elder, and from what I know about contemporary quantum physics, I think there’s only a thin veil between spirit and matter—not the drastic gulf one finds in Plato and Descartes.

Quantum physics tells us that matter is continually in flux.  Sub-atomic particles are popping into existence and vanishing out of existence all the time.  Atoms and molecules are continually vibrating.  Electrons are more a shell of probability than they are particles that are here or there.  Furthermore, matter is not solid.  Consider atoms.  The electron shell around a nucleus is like a pea in the middle of Shea Stadium.  There is that much space between the electron shell and the protons and neutrons in the nucleus.  But not empty space.  There are electromagnetic fields, gravitational fields, and all manner of other forms of energy that make up “dead matter.”  Energy fields such as the electromagnetic field permeates all of the universe.  Our very thoughts are electromagnetic impulses.  Sparks.  Electromagnetic energy.  If our thoughts are electric sparks and if electromagnetic fields permeate everything—even rocks—how different are our thoughts from rocks?  From the matter in our thoughts and the matter in rocks.  Both are made up of sub-atomic particles and energy fields that are always in flux—are alive?

The veil between spirit and matter is very thin, probably porous.  Now, I don’t think matter is dead.  Now, I see God in all God’s creation.  Now I revere Nature as I do Nature’s Creator.

Kavanaugh and the Evaluation of Memory

I’ve been reflecting on an incident from 1976 that is burned into my memory.  That is 42 years ago.  A very successful piano player who is my friend played one of my own compositions with me in a hotel bar.  I have an original song called “Space Blues.”  I wrote it in 1976.  One night, I sat in with my friend’s band; I played keyboard.  The band’s keyboard player had a beard, and he asked me if I wanted to sit in.  He yelled out from the audience for me to play a mambo, since he’d heard me play one before.  My friend was playing bass on a Moog Synthesizer.  The lead singer had sung on a Motown record, and he worked with my father at the Fisher Body plant in Livonia.  My friend asked me what song I wanted to play, since I was sitting in.  I told him the chords to Space Blues and the band and I started playing it.  The lead singer liked it, and started improvising some lyrics.  Actually he really sort of sang tones without words, since I hadn’t written the words yet.  I was thrilled to have this song of mine being performed in public.  I was thrilled to be playing in a bond with my friend, since I had a lot of respect for his musicianship.  Playing Space Blues in that hotel bar with my highly respected friend is seared in my memory.

Now, 42 years later, I have finally recorded Space Blues.  I sent it to my friend, the same friend who played with me in 1976, who has been producing my recordings.  He did not remember the song at all; it was as if he heard it for the first time.  I feel like telling him, “You played this song with me in 1976!”  But he has no recollection of any of this.  It didn’t make the same impression on him as it did on me.  He has played innumerable songs since, has played in countless bands, doesn’t even remember me sitting in with him that night in the hotel bar.

That’s the nature of memory.

Stanley Kubrick’s Priest

Stanley Kubrick doesn’t portray the human condition as only depraved power struggles.  True, nearly every Kubrick film depicts the worst tendencies of human nature.  It is no coincidence that at the dawn of humanity, tribes of proto-humanoids fight for control of a water hole.  What propelled the advancement of humanity was the discovery and exploitation of a weapon, in the case of early humans, an animal’s jawbone.  A Clockwork Orange is essentially about one power group dominating another person or other power group.  Alex’s droogs rape, steal, and commit ultra-violence on individuals.  The prison system exerts power over Alex.  Then Scientists exert power over Alex.  Then, after treatment in a behavior-modification laboratory, Alex’s past victims find him and violently exact revenge on him.  Finally, Alex is aligned with the controlling political powers after he is restored to his rapacious previous personality.

Then there is the voice of the priest.  “Goodness comes from within,” the priest tells Alex.  “Take away free will, and you no longer have a human being.”  And after Alex’s cruel behavior modification, it is the priest again who claims that Alex is as evil as ever, he simply can’t act on his evil will.  A Clockwork Orange came out in 1971, a time in which religion was generally rebelled against in society and was often portrayed in the worst light.  The film Papillon is a case in point.  After Papillion escapes from Devil’s Island, it is a nun who alerts the authorities and sends him back to the prison Island.  In MASH, the pious Frank Burns is also an incompetent surgeon, and even blames the death of one of his patients on God’s will.  Countless other films could be adduced.

Then there is the voice of Kubrick’s priest.  The voice crying for free will in human morality and spiritual development is put in the voice of a priest.  Free-will is the essence of human life, what makes us human, the only basis on which real growth happens.  A psychologist could have made the argument in the film.  A philosopher could have made the argument.  But this truth is uttered by a priest–the representative of God on earth.  The only character who doesn’t exert power over another, is the priest, who utters the words, “Goodness comes from within.”  To me, this shows that Kubrick isn’t entirely devoid of spirituality, despite the admitted predominance of human depravity in his works.