Friday, November 06, 2009

The Cosmic Symphony

This post has been sitting around unfinished on my desk. It's part of a much larger project that investigates the possibility that we love and need music because it discloses important insights (or insounds) into the nature of reality. Dedicated to the memory of Ximese.

To what point must we enlarge our thought so that it shall be in proportion to the phenomenon? --Schelling

The problem with the various -isms ,-ologies, and ismologies of our day is that they are simply not in proportion to the phenomena they seek to explain. Rather, in every case, they make the phenomena go away by subsuming it into a system out of which it could never have arisen to begin with. As a result, man has a total explanation of the cosmos, but at the price of eliminating himself from it. It seems that no one asks what kind of cosmos must this be in order for truth -- and a being capable of knowing it -- to exist in it.

In other words, let us say that Darwinism as commonly understood by tenured vulgarians is "true." This immediately creates a host of problems for the theory, for now one has to explain how it is possible for truth to be known, given the impossibly narrow constraints of natural selection. For to know truth is to adapt oneself to the timeless, so to speak, whereas natural selection is strictly an ephemeral adequation to a changing environment. How can that which only changes know that which never does?

Traditionally, we have a word for "the thing that never changes." We call it God. Unfortunately, this word has become detached from what was once extremely experience-bound, so that it is often an empty abstraction (or alternatively, a saturated concretion) -- especially for those who "do not believe" in God. In the end, it is not a matter of belief or disbelief; rather, it is -- and must be -- a matter of experience, to which we only subsequently give the name "God" (even those who wrote the scriptures had to simultaneously have the experience; I don't think they were just glorified stenographers).

The experience must be of something that is "other"; and yet, there must be a part of us that is capable of conforming itself to this object. In other words, humans can only know what they are capable of knowing, and they either can or cannot know this transcendental object.

If they cannot know it, then this hardly resolves the problem. Rather, then you have to explain what all those people were experiencing when they thought they were experiencing God, including many of the most brilliant and accomplished minds in human history. It will not do to simply say it was "nothing." At the very least, you would have to concede that it was something, just not "God." It's like saying, "I thought I was in love, but it turned out I wasn't." Just because things turned out that way, it doesn't mean that the object of your affections didn't really exist. You just thought that she was something she wasn't.

Let's think about this transcendental Object. For human beings, since vision is our dominant sense, when we consider the word "object" we probably imagine something material, like a pen, or a cup, or a hat. But this can be misleading, for there are also "aural objects," most notably, musical objects consisting of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Note the first difference between a visual and an aural object; the former exists all at once in space, while the latter unfolds serially in time. Specifically, a melody is a kind of "musical object" that is "nothing" at any instant. That is, to hear just the note in isolation is to kill the melody -- like looking at a letter in isolation from the word, or a word in isolation from the sentence. An individual note is not just "nothing" -- i.e., neutral -- but a kind of lie if it was really meant to be part of a melody or harmony.

Now, human beings exist in time. I think we can all agree on that. But this is not just the physical time of pure duration, as it is for a stone or an aerosmith. Rather, we live in developmental time, in which we constantly change and grow, and yet, retain our "selves." A helpless infant who stayed a helpless infant would not be an occasion for hope and joy, but a tragedy and a nuisance.

As time passes and the infant reaches various developmental milestones, he unfolds like a flower. The adult could hardly be more different than the infant if looked at in isolation, like an object in space. But we are always, from infancy to adulthood, an arrow aimed beyond our present state to a future self we cannot know until we arrive there. To grow is to coherently unfold in time, not merely expand in space.

Along these lines, please note that it may be as artificial an exercise to separate the first living thing from the last man as it would be to separate the fetus from the baby. Who said that things are really as separate as they appear to our eyes? Who said that the future doesn't disclose the meaning of the past? Indeed, how could it not?

The critical point to bear in mind for those with ears to hear, is that man is not an object but a melody -- or rather, a complex musical object with a deep continuity extending back to the womb and before (and above). In the absence of this deep continuity, we could never have become the melody. Every man was once a helpless baby, and if he hadn't been, he could never have become a man. What this means is that man is not just melody -- which exists in time -- but harmony -- which exists in space.

Think, for example, of a chord, which consists of two or more notes played simultaneously. It is a truism that the childhood experience that we do not consciously remember is stored away in the "unconscious." But the unconscious is not "past." Rather, it is very much present, as one of its principle characteristics is timelessness.

Thus, if you want to understand the proper relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds, it is very much like two notes that must be harmonized. To the extent that they become "dissonant," this will result in what we call "symptoms," which are unconscious emotions or behaviors that clash with our conscious will, and cause pain or dysfunction.

Please note that symptoms are not unambiguously negative, as they can and do carry vital messages about ourselves which we need to understand and integrate. Not only that, but they can serve as important reminders that we are not yet "complete," and that we are ignoring something to which we need to pay attention. To cite one example, the atheist's obsession with God is a kind of painful reminder that God is absent in his life -- or present in an inverted manner.

But when the conscious and unconscious minds are harmonized, this leads to a new depth of experience that could never occur with just one or the other. In fact, it is very much analogous to one of those "magic eye" pictures which leap out of the page, or even like our two eyes which create the perception of depth owing to their having slightly different vertices.

Or, it's like a chord that is much more interesting to the ear than the bare note. I've always loved vocal harmony, e.g., the Beach Boys. I guess they remind me of the celestial harmelody of the Song Supreme. No wonder Brian Wilson called one of his greatest works, Smile, a "teenage symphony to God."

Our Prayer, from the original Smile:

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steve said...


All my life I have suspected that music was the opposite of an "escape." What is the opposite of an escape? A breaking in?

....your blog, too, has been that and even if it disappears I'll go to your site ever day to see if something is there. For as long as I live. And I'm going to live to be 113.

Gagdad Bob said...

A: an inscape -- coined by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Gagdad Bob said...

Perhaps you didn't notice the tag at the top of the blog: PURE INSCAPISM IN A LAUGHTY ATMASPHERE OF JEHOVIAL WITTICISMS

Retriever said...

Wonderful post, thank you. Thinking about the beginning of John's Gospel, which is about so much more than even the famous light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not. The idea of the creative Word. Become flesh. And God singing the world into existence--but perhaps I am too influenced by Lewis' image of Aslan breathing and singing life into Narnia. The Psalms were meant to be sung by the company of the faithful rather than hoarded and rationed out to oneself like individual k rations. thinking about how a depressed young relative o mine is temporarily lifted up and sorrow redeemed as she bursts into a Bach cantata she once sang as a choirgirl. Music hath charms not only to soothe the savage beast, the Saul in all of us, but to accompany the rebirth of hope and love after despair.

But our world is filled with bad music, false cruel Molochs. And our pitiful small graves of sacificed firsts.

walt said...

Bob wrote,
...if you want to understand the proper relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds, it is very much like two notes that must be harmonized. To the extent that they become "dissonant," this will result in what we call "symptoms"...

The human world that is re-presented to us in the reportage of current events seems plagued by dis-ease, indeed. To find an experiential basis for Harmony is crucial.

The post brought to mind a line from a song by The Perth County Conspiracy:

The whole thing is
that the soul sings flat
when people are out of tune...

Northern Bandit said...

Great post. I hope that someday Bob and/or other coons can expound a bit on the differences -- and commonalities -- between Jazz and the great classics. Dynamic evolution versus constraint through Form, that sort of thing.

One Cosmos has vastly improved my understanding of what Jazz is, but of course few things inspire as much sheer depth of feeling as this for me. (mixed feelings about this being used in an Amex commercial).

Anonymous said...

Sir Godwin's unfinished symphonigraphica in O major.
For the gagpipes, of course.

ge said...

In the early morning of a Memorial Day, a boy is awaked by martial music--a village band is marching down the street--and as the strains of Reeves majestic Seventh Regiment March come nearer and nearer--he seems of a sudden translated--a moment of vivid power comes, a consciousness of material nobility--an exultant something gleaming with the possibilities of this life--an assurance that nothing is impossible, and that the whole world lies at his feet. But, as the band turns the corner, at the soldier's monument, and the march steps of the Grand Army become fainter and fainter, the boy's vision slowly vanishes-his 'world' becomes less and less probable-but the experience ever lies within him in its reality.

Later in life, the same boy hears the Sabbath morning bell ringing out from the white steeple at the 'Center,' and as it draws him to it, through the autumn fields of sumach and asters, a Gospel hymn of simple devotion comes out to him--'There's a wideness in God's mercy'--an instant suggestion of that Memorial Day morning comes--but the moment is of deeper import--there is no personal exultation--no intimate world vision--no magnified personal hope--and in their place a profound sense of spiritual truth--a sin within reach of forgiveness. And as the hymn voice dies away, there lies at his feet--not the world, but the figure of the Saviour--he sees an unfathomable courage--an immortality for the lowest--the vastness in humility, the kindness of the human heart, man's noblest strength--and he knows that God is nothing--nothing--but love!

Whence cometh the wonder of the moment? From sources we know not. But we do know that from obscurity and from this higher Orpheus comes measures of sphere melodies, flowing in wild, native tones, ravaging the souls of men, flowing now with thousand-fold accompaniments and rich symphonies through all our hearts, modulating and divinely leading them"

(Ives, Essays 30-31)

Anonymous said...

For a second there Bob, I thought there might not be any gags in this post. I was a strange feeling as I didn't miss them.

Djadja said...

Jazz is like a conversation over a good beer that goes here and there, back and forth, searching and finding. Like good conversation, good jazz requires a meeting of minds. When we listen, we enter that shared freeform space.

Classical music is like a novel. Tightly constructed, the notes, like the words, are fixed on the page. But the meeting of minds takes place nevertheless. The listener, like the reader, connects with the mind of the composer.

Northern Bandit, constrain through form is the best description I have heard of the art. Here is one of the classical pieces that can carry me closer to God. All, please enjoy.

jwm said...

Including here what the author of Genesis omitted:

In the beginning God {put on the first movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony, cranked his bitchen stereo up to eleven, and} created the heaven and the earth.

Thanks, Bob.
Just thanks.


Anonymous said...

My curiosity is definitely a musician I have long felt the power of music to disclose Reality.

There are very few books, at least I am aware of that really delve deeply into this matter. Some decent things here and there...but I long for a more extended treatment.

If I were capable of doing so, I'd write it myself...but alas.

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is Music."
-- Aldous Huxley

Gagdad Bob said...

Theology begins where music leads to. --Luther

Anonymous said...

You who thought Tolkien were only children’s books might want to reconsider that if you read his other works that takes place before Bilbo or Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien draws up a beautiful creation story in The Silmarillion where Illuvatar, the Supreme Being of cosmos, literary sings the world into being. The whole book is kind of like the Old Testament with a lot of stories of a refugee people (the elves) struggling against evil (in form of the “dark lord” Morgoth) and disputes among their own ranks.

And do remember that Tolkien was a catholic, orthodox and conservative.

Yes, I was kind of a Tolkien geek as a teenager :)


Northern Bandit said...

Syncoonicity? David P. Goldman writes this week about the relationship between sacred music and time. Goldman BTW is one of the few people I've come across who rank in Bob's "league" when it comes to wisdom. Different style to be sure, but mostly pointing to the same things.

Sacred Music, Sacred Time

Van said...

"But this is not just the physical time of pure duration, as it is for a stone or an aerosmith. Rather, we live in developmental time, in which we constantly change and grow, and yet, retain our "selves.""

Zeno might have played a better tune had he heard of that.

Excellent post...

Van said...

Johan beat me to The Silmarillion, but speaking of C.S. Lewis, in one of the 'Out of the silent planet' trilogy, I think the last, there's a line in that that reminds me of a behaviorial movement of,
" Specifically, a melody is a kind of "musical object" that is "nothing" at any instant..."

he's describing a (still scientistic) character struggling with a decision, as being of several different minds about a problem... angry... scared... ambitious... and his comment is something like "He was still young, not yet an individual"... hadn't yet unified himself.

Made me think of the first portion of a song... you heard the opening notes, begin to catch a rhythm, but still haven't developed a grasp of the melody yet.

It's got to develop in time, before you can identify the song... Aristotle said you couldn't really judge whether or not someone had acheived Happiness, until their life was complete... dead.

Ah well... whistle while you work....

Van said...

... if you manage to tap into the central theme of the One Cosmos, perhaps by watching the cOneductor, you might better feel how the seemingly stacato notes of your life, are actually key to a lush melody.

Magnus Itland said...

The ability to perceive four-dimensional objects is a major benefit of having lived a while. Of course, it also requires that you have observed while you lived, and not been led astray by projecting onto the world what you think should be there. Still, few things beat actually witnessing the fourth dimension.

You can get ahead by listening to wise old people and read truthful accounts of developments in time. But this already requires the wisdom and judgment to find who to rely on.

It is no wonder wisdom is rare in the young, but it is a pity it so rare in the old.

Gagdad Bob said...

Just finished The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. What a great read. Wright has synthesized a vast amount of information, but the narrative drives forward effortlessly. He is an outstanding writer.

Anonymous said...

New Dr Z at Hotair

julie said...

Ximeze's sister left a beautiful message at my place today. It was meant for all of us, I think, so I'm sharing it here:

To Kathy’s friends,
Through my sister, lovely Ximese, I learned that the only real way to struggle and survive it all was to hold close to the truth, move through the “jello” (her word) with as much grace and dignity as you can, and run from the norm with as much speed as you can. There will never be anyone like her for me again…and I sometimes felt I could barely touch her wings.

Darcy DeWitt Mines

I still can't believe she's gone.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Amen, Bob! Thanks!

Kath certainly coontributed to the Cosmic Symphony in her own younique way while journeying along The Way.

Her song remains in my heart and I can hear her voice more clearly now. :^)

Skully said...

I loved the cut of her jib!
A jib that we can all learn from.

I nominate Ximeze for Raccoon of the year.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks for passing on that beautiful message, Julie!

God bless you, Darcy.

jp said...

Magnus says:

"You can get ahead by listening to wise old people and read truthful accounts of developments in time. But this already requires the wisdom and judgment to find who to rely on."

That's a real problem isn't it?

Figuring out who actually knows what they are talking about.

You can rely on yourself, but that really doesn't do the job. But at least you avoid the garbage.

River Cocytus said...

Bob, interesting stuff from a Bishop here...

By the way, we say that true prayer is 'putting the mind in the heart' - which may be done basically by focusing on one's heartbeat, but the ultimate goal is none other than harmonizing the conscious (perceptive, cognative) with the unconcious mind. The Hebrews had no distinction between 'mind' and 'heart' - they used simply 'heart' - and there is likewise evidence that the body 'remembers' in places other than the brain, and that this kind of deep memory is like the physical organ (which overlaps with other organs) of the 'heart' in this sense, or the unconscious.

To harmonize the mind and heart - it is like harmonizing the man and the cosmos, the man and his neighbor, or the man and God.

Northern Bandit said...


I recall reading an account of the aftermath of one of the first Jarvik artificial heart transplants. The medical people were somewhat shocked to discover that the patient -- a man in his 50s if I recall correctly -- described his state as one of deep emptiness, as though some fundamental part of his soul had been removed. This was a far more profound reaction than normal post-surgical trauma. The mechanical heart ran OK for a while (not sure how long he survived) but he spent much of his time severely depressed, often sobbing uncontrollably.

It would indeed seem that the heart is more than a mere pump.