We are a bit like savages who, having been discovered and evangelized by missionaries, have converted to Christianity without having experienced all that came before and after the revolution. The fact that most of us never would have heard of Oedipus if it were not for Freud should make us aware that we are almost utterly dependent on our German missionaries or intermediaries for our knowledge of Greece, Rome, Judaism, and Christianity; that, however profound that knowledge may be, theirs is only one interpretation; and that we have only been told as much as they thought we needed to know. It is an urgent business for one who seeks self-awareness to think through the meaning of the intellectual dependency that has led us to such an impasse.
~Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 156, emphasis mine.
This came from the concluding paragraph of a chapter on the influence of German philosophy on the American mind. If I knew more about Nietzsche, I would try to evaluate Bloom’s argument that Nietzsche provided the grounds for our current cultural value-relativism. However, I can say that Bloom’s words addressing our unconscious intellectual dependency are worth dwelling on.
Why do we put up with developing ‘acquired tastes’? What acquired tastes have you come to enjoy? Coffee, wine, diet soda- lutefisk? The first time that you tried it and found it wanting, what gave you the desire to give it another try? Acquiring a taste for something reminds me of a recurring difficulty I had as I began my flailing efforts at a liberal arts education. I was asked to read all sorts of things. So many times I was told to expect grandeur only to find a bore, or worse, a wall of esoteric inaccessibility. Take an example I’m not terribly proud of- I hated reading through my first two Charles Dickens novels. I can’t remember which novels they were, but something clicked with David Copperfield. I finally saw the light.
For other books, the ‘click’ took longer to arrive. My perennial question became how do you tell a dud before you spend time with it? There are so many books worth reading, surely, so how do you know when you’ve been given jug wine instead of a classic vintage? Starting out, it is sometimes hard to tell. Charlotte is still my only Bronte, and I can only read T.S. Eliot with Google close by. I have, however, stumbled onto a principle that has assisted me in trusting the annals of time with something I don’t immediately appreciate that I probably should.
Imagine writing that seemingly obtuse opening chapter, composing that quirky score, or creating that set for the initial scene. I remember recognizing the usefulness of this principle by remembering my baptism into the art of saxophone. I was immersed in the world of middle school symphonic band, back when it was ok that your saxophone sounded like a lawnmower. I wanted to play everything that came across my path. After a gloriously short stint in a jazz band (we did manage to play in a coffee shop), I came to appreciate the complexities that accomplished players would display in all sorts of performances. The hours of grueling practice across a variety of genres made it easy to imagine myself in this band, producing that tone. My experience made awe a possibility.
Imagine writing the piece that you are trying to appreciate. What would you do differently? Would you be able create the same intrigue that the author has? Listen to Bethoven’s 5th, imagining that you are the composer- beginning with that smallest initial motif that continues throughout the piece. Many times- not every time- you’ll get a glimpse of excellence that bids you plod along.
Unless you’ve tried to harmonize a choral in the style of Bach, you haven’t a clue how perfect this music is- how subtle are the inner voices, how wonderful the harmonic choices, how superb the baseline! It’s great art! ~ Robert Greenberg
I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on the history and development of music in Western Civilization and Martin Luther surprisingly came up. In keeping with the changing commitments in his time, Luther seemed almost Socratic in his attitude about the powerful influence of music on our lives. Socrates, recognizing the extreme power of music, thought the poets should be banned from the state. Luther agrees about its power, but argues that music can be a resource for soul-enhancing change:
Greetings in Christ! I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone. But I am so overwhelmed by the diversity and magnitude of its virtue and benefits that I can find neither the beginning nor end or method for my discourse… We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions- to pass over the animals- which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found- at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate- and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good? – what more effective means than music could you find? The Holy Ghost himself honours her as an instrument for his proper work when in his Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her his gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha [II Kings 3.15]. On the other hand, she serves to cast out Satan, the instigator of all sins, as is shown in Saul, the king of Israel [I Sam 16.23]. Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener’s soul, while in other living beings and [sounding] bodies music remains a language without words.
Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ed., Theological Aesthetics: A Reader (Grand Rapids: MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 145.
Many of us regularly listen to music with an almost religious fervor. I wonder how this music affects our emotions, and how we are using music as a tool to challenge and to elevate our minds? Another question comes to mind- if all music is a form of meditation- how much do you think singing should be incorporated into the rhythms of our lives- both communal and solitary?