3 Feb

Cadences which break (or mend) the heart

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/03/16

George Steiner on the mystery of musical meaning

“[O]ur perceptions, the immediacy of our perceptions of harmony and of discord would seem to correspond not only to our readings of inner states of personal being, but also to that of the social contract and, ultimately, of the cosmos (that ‘music of the spheres’). The energy that is music puts us in felt relation to the energy that is life; it puts us in a relation of experienced immediacy with the abstractly and verbally inexpressible but wholly palpable, primary fact of being. The translation of music into meaning, into meaning that is entirely musical, carries with it what somatic and spiritual cognizance we can have of the core-mystery (how else is one to put it?) that we are. And that this energy of existence lies deeper than any biological or psychological determination. Thus we do seem to harbour at the threshold of the unconscious, at depths precisely unrecapturable by speech and the logic of speech, intimations, incisions in the synapses of sensibility, of a close kinship between the beginnings of music and those of humanly-enacted meaning itself. A world without music is, strictly consideed, outside our persuasions of order and desire. It need not be a dead world in the geological or biological sense. But it would not be explicitly human. . . .

“We know of music as we know the spark and pressure at the centre of our own selves (or, perhaps, as we know of our own sleep). But we have no defining, systematic grasp of its constant, enormous impact. We can say that music is time organized, which means ‘made organic’. We can say that this act of organization is one of essential freedom, that it liberates us from the enforcing beat of biological and physical-mathematical clocks. The time which music ‘takes’, and which it gives as we perform or experience it, is the only free time granted us prior to death. We can speculate, and have done so from the ancient rhapsodies to the neurophysiologists of today, on possible concordances — themselves a musical borrowing — between bodily rhythms and subliminal cadences on the one hand, and the structural conventions of music on the other. But where it is not metaphor, almost everything said remains, in a chasteningly etymological sense, verbiage. . . .

“What we know is the relevant power. Folktale and metaphysics, myth and psychotherapy, Eros and religious rites, share the knowledge that music can literally madden, that it can make violence vibrant, that it can console, exalt, heal, that it can wake Lear out of crazed blackness. There are cadences, chords, modulations which break or mend the heart, or, indeed, mend it in the breaking. There are tone-relations which make us strangers to ourselves or, on the contrary, impel us homeward. There are andantes (Mahler’s trick of transcendence) which seem to break open the prison house of the ego and to make us one with the tidal peace of being. There are scherzos (too many in Mozart) in which laughter is perfectly real and, at the same time, where laughter is a last, unconquerable sadness. Melodies — I have cited the conviction that they are ‘the supreme mystery of man’ — can arch across an abyss or they can, as it were, pulse underground, unsettling all foundations. All these, however, are lame banalities. . . .

“Where we try to speak of music, to speak music, language has us, resentfully, by the throat. This I believe to be the buried meaning of the fable of the Sirens. More ancient than language possessed of ‘thrones, dominions, powers’, more secret than those bestowed on speech, music lies in wait for the speaker, for the logician, for the confidant of reason (Odysseus par excellence). The Sirens promise orders of understanding, or peace (harmonies) which transcend language.”

—George Steiner, Real Presences (University of Chicago Press, 1989)

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3 Feb

The risk of stories

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/03/16

George Steiner on the necessity of vulnerable imaginations

“To starve a child of the spell of the story, of the canter of the poem, oral or written, is a kind of living burial. It is to immure him in emptiness. Mythology, the voyages through Scylla and Charybdis, down rabbit holes, the turbulent logic of the biblical, the ‘gardens of verse’, are the great summoners. A comic-book is better than nothing so long as there is in it the multiplying life of language. The child must be made accessible, vulnerable to the springs of being in the poetic. There are risks. His visitants can turn ugly or hypnotic. There are adult men and women whose sensibility has not outgrown, has not ironized into self-awareness, childhood charades of mythical heroism or fantasies of the despotic. The nursery tale, the pathos of stuffed and furry things, can translate damagingly into later needs. The shock of the revelatory fable, often misconstrued, can lame mature sexuality. But such risks must be run. If the child is left empty of texts, in the fullest sense of that term, he will suffer an early death of the heart and of the imagination.”

—George Steiner, Real Presences (University of Chicago Press, 1989)

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6 Jan

From Descartes to Nietzsche

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/06/16

Leszek Kolakowski on modernity and the loss of meaning

“We experience an overwhelming and at the same time humiliating feeling of déjà vu in following and participating in contemporary discussions about the destructive effects of the so-called secularization of Western civilization, the apparently progressive evaporation of our religious legacy, and the sad spectacle of a godless world. It appears as if we suddenly woke up to perceive things which the humble, and not necessarily highly educated, priests have been seeing — and warning us about — for three centuries and which they have repeatedly denounced in their Sunday sermons. They kept telling their flocks that a world that has forgotten God has forgotten the very distinction between good and evil and has made human life meaningless, sunk into nihilism. Now, proudly stuffed with our sociological, historical, anthropological and philosophical knowledge, we discover the same simple wisdom, which we try to express in a slightly more sophisticated idiom.

“I admit that by being old and simple, this wisdom does not necessarily cease to be true, and indeed I do believe it to be true (with some qualifications). Was Descartes the first and the main culprit? Probably so, even on the assumption that he codified philosophically a cultural trend that had already paved its way before him. By equating matter with extension and therefore abolishing the real variety in the physical universe, by letting this universe infallibly obey a few simply and all-explanatory laws of mechanics, and by reducing God to its logically necessary creator and support — a support, however, that was constant and thus robbed of its significance in explaining any particular event — he definitively, or so it seemed, did away with the concept of Cosmos, of a purposeful order of nature. The world became soulless, and only on this presupposition could modern science evolve. No miracles and no mysteries, no divine or diabolical interventions in the course of events, were conceivable any longer; all the later and still-continuing efforts to patch up the clash between the Christian wisdom of old and the so-called scientific worldview were bound to be unconvincing for this simple reason.

“To be sure, it took time for the consequences of this new universe to unfold. Massive, self-aware secularity is a relatively recent phenomenon. It seems, however, from our current perspective, that the erosion of faith, inexorably advancing in educated classes, was unavoidable. The faith could have survived, ambiguously sheltered from the invasion of rationalism by a number of logical devices and relegated to a corner where it seemed both harmless and insignificant. For generations, many people could live without realizing that they were denizens of two incompatible worlds and, by a thin shell, protect the comfort of faith while trusting progress, scientific truth and modern technology.

“The shell was eventually to be broken, and this was ultimately done by Nietzsche’s noisy philosophical hammer. His destructive passion brought havoc into the seeming spiritual safety of the middle classes and demolished what he believed was the bad faith of those who refused to be witnesses to the death of God. He was successful in passionately attacking the spurious mental security of people who failed to realize what really had happened, because it was he who said everything to the end: the world generates no meaning and no distinction between good and evil; reality is pointless, and there is no other hidden reality behind it; the world as we see it is the Ultimum; it does not try to convey a message to us; it does not refer to anything else; it is self-exhausting and deaf-mute. All this had to be said, and Nietzsche found a solution or medicine for this despair: this solution was madness. Not much could have been said after him on the lines he had laid out.

“It might have appeared that it was his destiny to become the prophet of modernity. In fact, he was too ambiguous to assume this task. On one hand he affirmed, under duress, the irreversible intellectual and moral consequences of modernity and poured scorn on those who timidly hoped to save something from the old tradition; on the other hand he denounced the horror of modernity, the bitter harvest of progress; he accepted what he knew — and said — was terrifying. He praised the spirit of science against the Christian ‘lies,’ but at the same time, he wanted to escape from the misery of democratic leveling and sought refuge in the ideal of a barbarous genius. Yet modernity wants to be satisfied in its superiority and not torn asunder by doubt and despair.

“Therefore Nietzsche did not become the explicit orthodoxy of our age. The explicit orthodoxy still consists of patching up. We try to assert our modernity but escape from its effects by various intellectual devices, in order to convince ourselves that meaning can be restored or recovered apart from the traditional religious legacy of mankind and in spite of the destruction brought about by modernity.”

—from Leszek Kolakowski, “Modernity on Endless Trial,” in Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990)

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15 Dec

From darkness [sic] into light [sic]

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 12/15/15

David Bentley Hart on the ignorant myth that banishes the transcendent from modern public spaces

“[T]he history of modernity is the history of secularization, of the retreat of Christian belief to the private sphere; and this, for many of us, is nothing less than the history of human freedom itself, the grand adventure of the adulthood of the race (so long delayed by priestcraft and superstition and intolerance), the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradition and doctrine.

“Hence modernity’s first great attempt to define itself: an ‘age of reason’ emerging from and overthrowing an ‘age of faith.’ Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjection to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and fideism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the fires of faith, and even the great achievements of ‘Greek science’ were forgotten till Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness. Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new and revolutionary sense of human dignity. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state or, in the course of time, to something altogether separate from the state, and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. Now, at last, Western humanity has left its nonage and attained to its majority, in science, politics, and ethics. The story of the travails of Galileo almost invariably occupies an honored place in this narrative, as exemplary of the natural relation between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ and as an exquisite epitome of scientific reason’s mighty struggle during the early modern period to free itself from the tyranny of religion. This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.

“To be fair, serious historians do not for the most part speak in such terms. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, ‘intellectual journalism,’ and vulgar legend. . . .

“Sadly, however, it is not serious historians who, for the most part, form the historical consciousness of their times; it is bad popular historians, generally speaking, and the historical hearsay they repeat or invent, and the myths they perpetuate and simplifications they promote, that tend to determine how most of us view the past. . . . And so, naturally, among the broadly educated and the broadly uneducated alike, it is the simple picture that tends to prevail, though in varying shades and intensities of color, as with any image often and cheaply reproduced; and the simple picture, in this case, is the story that Western society has been telling us about itself for centuries now.”

—from David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

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11 Dec

Gnosticism, medieval theology, transhumanism, and human identity

Category: What We're Reading
Published: 12/11/15

Mark Shiffman on the theological origins and modern context of transhumanism

What do an early Christian heresy, medieval theological debates about our language for God, and the belief that we can someday exist as virtual avatars all have in common? Quite a lot when it comes to how we think about human identity and especially how we think about human freedom and purpose. In a recent essay published by First Things, classics professor Mark Shiffman deftly examines how transhumanism has its logical roots in theological shifts made during the late medieval period as well as within various precedents of Gnosticism that have persistently surfaced throughout the Western tradition. Shiffman's summary, entitled “Humanity 4.5” was so helpful that we decided to interview him on the subject and release the interview as a free streaming audio. Even though we highly recommend that you read the article, if you do not have a subscription to First Things, we hope that this interview will shed some light on some of the radical—though increasingly plausible—claims of the transhumanists.