Have you ever noticed how your eyes, and those of everyone in the room glaze over when listening to an accountant present a report on an organization’s financial landscape? Similarly, when an academic expostulates on the nitty-gritty of a theory in physics, astronomy, micro-biology, or on the algorithms that infest our digital devices? Or, even more traditionally, when a politician or a bureaucrat digs deeply into a matter of public policy….often that glaze morphs into total sleep.
There are, mixed with such cocktails, moments of what become epic in the life of an individual, family or country because they are so memorable, moving, uplifting, inspiring and authentic. And those moments are engraved in the hearts and imaginations of all who encounter them, in their original presentation, or from a “record” years later. Some examples include:
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your
“Give Peace a chance!” (John Lennon)
“Yes We Can!” (Barack Obama)
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
(When I warned them that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their generals told their Prime minister and his divided Cabinet, ’In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken! Some neck!” (Winston Churchill, Ottawa, Dec. 30, 1941)
Composers also generate melodies and rhythms that are so magnetic they become an integral, even intimate, ingredient in the public (and private) consciousness. There is a clarity and a particular quality to the ‘riff’ that evokes memory, long forgotten scenes, former friends and family, and they ‘connect us to each other. Similarly, painters, playwrights, novelists and actors, dancers and singers are constantly searching for that ‘aha’ moment when their life experience and vision and hope and purpose and meaning seem to align in what today we might call a “laser” insight. This profound link between the one (originator) imagination and the rest of the world has so much resonance, we are moved to pause, drink in whatever is happening and somehow determine to “store” the feelings and the sensibilities for future reference.
The sources of our individual memory banks may differ. Nevertheless, we all share such moments, from our personal lives, as benchmarks, signs and markers in time that will live forever in and through us.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the one who introduced this scribe to the notion “Politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose!” And while there is an obvious link between the two (poetic promises have to be executed in legislation), there is a different rhythm, melody, harmony and counterpoint to each.
Some argue that the tension that vibrates between the two kinds of experience (poetry and prose) is the kind of tension that beats through our veins and arteries, our horizons from morning to night, our seasons from hot to cold, and our personal choices. It is not that the binary oscillation does not offer multiple options between the extremes but that in our confusions, ambiguities, uncertainties, misunderstandings and fogginess we continue to search for beacons that help to orient us and to reassure us that we are not “losing it” completely.
Each of us has a small cupboard filled with aphorisms that we had “fed” to us in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood when we were most impressionable. And many of these shibboleths take on a life of their own through repeated expression and application in different situations with different people. Occasionally, one or two of them will be challenged by the events we go through, often shattering a belief or perception which we would never have previously believed was possible.
My father’s “good men do not choose divorce” when explaining his choice to remain in an obviously highly stressful marriage for over sixty years, is an example of such an aphorism. In fact, it could be argued that much of the maturing process involves the “shattering” of the myths or cracker-barrel philosophies that had embedded themselves in our families, towns, schools and cultures.
Such convictions, as that of my father, cut both ways: they provide a ‘firm’ foundation of moral propriety and ethical stability and they also lock the individual into a “belief” cell from which there is no key to unlock the door. Just as the inspiring quotes, riffs, canvases and dramas offer insight and inspiration, they can also so enrapture some to exaggerated adulation and commitment to a cause/person/cell/ideology.
Unfortunately, what we are watching and listening to in this culture is an exchange of inspiring and toxic reductionisms each vying to outdo the other side in their extreme natures. The One Love Manchester benefit concert on Sunday inflated the “love” balloon in a direct response to the venomous hate of the earlier terrorist attack in that city and the London attack of Saturday night. And as an emotional antidote to the hellish slaughter of innocents, for an audience of primarily adolescents, not only did it raise some $4 million to support the victims and their families, it was “a brief relief in the general drama of pain” (this time of terror). The quote is from the fatalist Thomas Hardy, from The Mayor of Casterbridge …”happiness is….”
What we humans are doing, (this is also not rocket science!) is processing both internal and external messages often when those messages are in direct conflict, and too often in conflict coming from the same source (our own or another). As processors within the natural system, we seek survival and a healthy life. And, at the same time, we know that we are incomplete and imperfect as is the world we inhabit. And riding a series of waves of emotion, some of which we consciously articulate and “manage” while others throw us off our little psychic ‘ski-boards’, we interpret and emit messages and interpretations of varying colours, tones, rhythms and moods sometimes consciously sometimes not.
Such a turbulent cocktail of both emotions and thoughts inside will inevitably generate a storm of conflicting ideas, feelings and conflicted and simultaneous moods. Of course, anyone near such volcanic eruptions will be confused and likely “put off” by the complexity of the many layers of the “message”. And yet, if we were to be truly and fully honest with ourselves and our fellow humans, we would openly acknowledge the profound variety, complexity, changeability and vicissitudes of our “living system” of our body/mind/spirit.
It is our hard-wiring to be “social” (meaning connected to the human race, and needing the human race for our continuing growth and development) that reverberates with vibrating sounds, words, looks and attitudes in direct response to our stimuli. As the one who “takes all the oxygen out of the room” (in his case the planet) the current occupant of the Oval Office operates as a repeating echo chamber of vacuity, while providing water-cooler conversation across the globe. Never mind his specific chosen media, his messages are full of sound and fury signifying nothing….except the hollow reverberations of his empty ego and self.
And we quite naturally respond in dismay, incredulous that such an example of humanity would have the nuclear code at his disposal. Similarly, we have deep and profound attitudes and reactions to other shouting “ghosts” like putin and kim jong un, and more recently duterte.
On the other hand, people like Obama, who spoke in Montreal at the invitation of the Board of Trade in that city, to a sold-out crowd of 6000+ returned to his consistent theme of confidence and hope in democracy, with glancing references to the American divorce from the Paris Accord, and the dismantling of Obamacare. His tone, vocabulary, openness, confidence and his very presence are not only the antithesis to his successor, but are also a kind of music that more closely evokes the music of love from Manchester, while avoiding the simplicity and the depth of emotion of that melody.
It is the great composers, poets, writers, painters and dancers who have given us a city of museums filled with examples of the juxtaposition of beauty in context, roses with thorns, phrases and characters and narratives that inspire and uplift while also causing tears and pathos. We hear so often of people who wish to be artists being counselled to “get a real job” as if the accounting, legal, medical, bureaucratic, scientific job market is more likely to pay the bills (and there is some truth in that wisdom).
Yet the truth is that “reality” of the human condition, including all wholistic assessments of its poetry and prose, its challenges and dreams can never be separated, segregated nor compartmentalized leaving conflicting parts divorced from each other. No matter how virtuously and energetically we determine to “box” emotions out of history, or feelings out of the lab, or hope out of the headlines of assassination, or aspiration out of the garbage of our landfills our efforts will, thankfully, always be in vain.
The artists and the prophets and the visionaries and the shamans and the seers all know this, accept it and continue to remind us, if we are open and willing to suspend our disbelief, that our reality, both internal and external is complicated, complex, intertwined and not amenable to the most dramatic of chemical, physical, psychic, theological or philosophic experiment that would determine the distillate….the human spirit is not now, and was not yesterday, and will not be tomorrow amenable to dissection, regardless of how high the purpose of that pursuit.
And yet our headlong, headstrong determination to make sense our of reality by parsing it into micro even nano components, while enlightening for some abstract and perhaps even necessary application (the design of serums that comport favourably with our DNA, for example) will not help us to cross the threshold of accepting as both normal and edifying, instructive and cumulatively ennobling the truth that we embody conflicting thoughts, feelings beliefs and attitudes to the same people, topic or place, at the same time.
It is our so-called rational and pedantic intellects that demand we master our universe, and to do that we must reduce the scope of that universe so drastically that we delude ourselves and all others who cross our paths that we have indeed mastered our universe, our lives and our ‘truths’….when we all know that mastery is so much deception, of self and of course of others.
The internal tensions mentioned here are mirrors and lamps of the world around us, and our openness to all of their images, including those images we find unacceptable (as many kids do asparagus, or broccoli) can and will only nurture our persons in ways we cannot either imagine or predict.
Mozart’s symphony # 41 is said by some critics who should know, to be a compendium of conflicting sounds, melodies, rhythms and themes, so complex and complicated as to have slid into the record stacks of stillness and non-playing. And yet, this work, for all of its ‘extremes’ comprises one of the great symphonies of the great masters’s life work.
Here is how The Guardian writes about the 41st Symphony:
This C major symphony is written at the furthest edges of the possible for Mozart, in terms of seeing just how many different expressive and compositional contrasts he can cram into a single symphony. And he’s not doing that for the sake of reconciling these opposites or to create a greater unity…Rather I think he’s trying to achieve a complexity of emotional experience and richness of invention that is poised –sometimes on this side, sometimes on the other! – of a musical cliff-edge of coherence. A bit like the mixed metaphors of that sentence; what I mean is that this is a symphony of extremes, something that’s symbolized in the juxtaposition of the marital and the plangent in the two idea you hear in the symphony’s very first four bars.
Do we all not live on a similar cliff-edge of thought and feeling and observation and judgement and sensibility and conviction?
And if that is true, then why are we so desperate to keep ourselves and everyone around us confined and trapped in straight-jackets of convention, normality, and co-dependent conformity?