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.

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Craving Transcendence

I believe that humanity needs transcendence.  We need moments that take us out, above, the tensions, pressures, stresses, and hum-drum complacencies of daily life.  There is a scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations that illustrates this.  A certain clerk at the office of an unscrupulous, callous lawyer is described as appearing like a mailbox.  His mouth is set so stiffly, it appears like the steel slot that you slide letters into.  But as he walks out of the office, and heads to his domestic life, his innocent home life, his face relaxes, takes on lively expressions, and his innocence emerges.  At home, the clerk finds a kind of transcendence.  His humanity retreats in the hostile environment of the law office, and re-emerges in the safe home in which he lives.  In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne meets Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, her lover, in the woods, far, far from the pressures of the intense Puritan village in which they live.  And perhaps the most clear literary example of transcendence is in the medieval romance Tristan.  In this work, the lovers Tristan and Isolde meet in the forest in a special “Love Grotto” which is a kind of cave that resembles a medieval cathedral.  Their bower of love, away from the life of the castle court, is a protected, transcendental place in which their love can be freely—carefreely–expressed.

We all need a place like the safe domesticity of the clerk at the law office, the woodland refuge of Hester and Dimmesdale, or the Love Grotto of Tristan and Isolde.  A place or an environment in which we feel safe, and more than safe, uplifted spiritually.  For ages, humanity has found transcendence in relationship with God.  A connection with God was found to be ecstatic, uplifting, calming, peaceful, enlightening.  The roots of many religions teach that God is somehow above the created world, and that connection with God would lift a person out of the pressures of worldly life, transform one’s emotions and thoughts, elevate one’s soul.  “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” Jesus said (John 16:33).  Religious transcendence is found in prayer, worship, meditation, devotional reading, and charitable works.

I have seen efforts to find transcendence without God.  This is because many today are renouncing belief.  Without God, and with a craving for transcendence, where can people find that place apart from the world, above the world, better than complacency?  I see in TV and cinema episodes that look like transcendental places.  One common transcendental space is in the experience of love.  Lovers create a kind of bubble which is known only to the couple.  Finding someone who treasures you above others, as lovers find, makes a person feel special.  At least to the beloved, you are more important than other people.  In strong love relationships, the beloved is treasured above anything else, everything else.  That feeling of being special to one other human, lends the feeling of transcendence, creates a space that we don’t find in the world.  Often the world can feel harsh and unloving.  In the movie The Big Chill, the friends lament their eventual return to the tough world they view from the treasured solace of their friendship.    These reflections suggest two other options for semi-transcendence: family and friendship.  Friendship is like love, but not as intense.  Indeed, lovers often are best friends, but best friends are most often not called lovers.  And families seem to hold the widest array of love relationships.  Parents love their children sometimes even more than their partner, and they also have that mutual love that couples know with their partner.  So family life is another powerful place of transcendence.  It is a place where the stresses of the world can be let go, and where each family member is special just for who they are.  Robert Frost calls family, “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve” (The Death of the Hired Man).  Other means of semi-transcendence can be art (the rapture of music), nature, sports (especially the communal experience of a live game), or, unfortunately, drugs.

My feeling is that these attempts to satisfy the universal craving for transcendence are not sufficient.  I think that they will lead to frustration.  Seeking something that lifts one out of the human situation can’t be found by other human creations.  I have felt the kinds of semi-transcendences that I listed briefly above.  And in my better moments, I have felt religious transcendence.  I have experienced the semi-transcendental episodes in cinema, for instance, and for me, they don’t fulfill my own craving.  It feels really good, indeed.  It does create a space outside the pressures of the world.  But it doesn’t uplift.  It doesn’t bring peace.  And so with other efforts to get away from it all, but not all the way to heaven.  Granted, as a believer, I have expectations grounded in religious experiences.  But as a human, I do feel love, friendship, family, art’s rapture, the enjoyment of sports, the quiet of nature (which, arguably, is God’s creation, and at least, not a human creation), and have experienced drugged relief.  My experience of spirituality feels higher than the other forms of transcendence.  In fact, my experience of love, friendship, family, art, and nature is enhanced by my spirituality.  I think the craving for transcendence can be relieved only by a transcendental Reality.  I don’t think that the craving for transcendence will ever be forgotten or sloughed off.  Humans will always want a place apart.  But I don’t think that humanity will find that place apart without God.  I see endless frustration, maybe unconscious frustration even, when finite forms are used to fulfill what is essentially an infinite urge.