Poetry, Up Against Philosophy

Last Sunday, at my poetry-reading group, I read an excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, his epic-style poem about the ninth-century English King Alfred’s repulsion of a Viking invasion.  I read what I found to be the most moving part in the entire poem: the song of the villain, the Viking King Guthrum.  It begins:

He took the great harp wearily,
Even Guthrum of the Danes,
With wide eyes bright as the one long day
On the long polar plains.

For he sang of a wheel returning,
And the mire trod back to mire,
And how red hells and golden heavens
Are castles in the fire.

“It is good to sit where the good tales go,
To sit as our fathers sat;
But the hour shall come after his youth,
When a man shall know not tales but truth,
And his heart fail thereat.

“When he shall read what is written
So plain in clouds and clods,
When he shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods.

“For this is a heavy matter,
And the truth is cold to tell;
Do we not know, have we not heard,
The soul is like a lost bird,
The body a broken shell….”

It’s a stunning expression of a pessimistic philosophy.  Not that I would call myself a pessimist — and, part of the pleasure in reading this section was knowing that Alfred himself, who has come into the Viking camp anonymously as a minstrel, would soon rebut it with his own song — but, the actual rebuttal I found disappointing after imagining what a potential rebuttal might consist of; and Guthrum’s song remains my emotional high point of Chesterton’s Ballad.

It also reminds me a bit of W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

“In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day….”

Auden’s stanzas, and many of Chesterton’s, are in the classic form of a ballad: the so-called common meter, rhyming ABCB.  And there’s a reason, too, why “ballad” is a word applied to songs as well as to poems: this type of thing sticks in your head.

Here’s my point: Chesterton and Auden reach me with their pessimistic philosophy in a way that a mere exposition of such a philosophy wouldn’t.  Now, this reach doesn’t actually consist of making me think pessimistically about life: instead, it’s poignant.  But, the lines of their pessimistic philosophy are ones I already know by heart.  Guthrum and Auden’s clocks sing a well-known song, make it beautiful, and make it ring in your head.  Philosophy is the preparation: with these ballads, you live with what the philosophy is saying — encapsulated as an element in your life.

Is it too much to say the same for all poetry?  Even though it often wants to introduce philosophical ideas to its audience, I don’t think poetry is nearly as good at it as philosophy itself is.  In poetry, things are more relative: we have to deal not only with the meaning of the words themselves, but with the meaning of the fact that the poet is saying these particular words, which, I find, often offsets the literal meaning.  If you want to take a position and mean it, you’re better off with philosophy.  And, as someone who so often thinks the structure of one’s internal ideas determines one’s life, well, that’s pretty important.  What does poetry have to give, instead, up against philosophy?

And, let me argue exactly this: that it makes philosophy itself stick in your head.  It takes the elements of a familiar philosophy and translates them into an earworm, or, if not literally, at least a mind-worm.  And, it can make the dourest of philosophies beautiful.

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Schneiderman’s Throwdown

Rob Schneiderman is the author of my favorite article in Princeton University Press’s The Best Writing on Mathematics 2012, edited by Mircea Pitici, which I’ve talked about before in this blog.  Schneiderman’s article, “Can One Hear the Sound of a Theorem?”, was the first piece of writing I ever read that finally provided me with some sort of answer to the question, which I’d been struggling with for a while, of what exactly was this vaunted link between music and mathematics I’d heard so much about.  Schneiderman’s answer: music and math are both self-contained systems of expression, ones that require no references to the outside world to do what they do.  Other comparisons are fluff and bluster.

And really, I’d say, Schneiderman (who apparently knows my great-uncle) is best in his fluff-and-bluster mode.  Here’s one choice quote:

The problem is that mathematical content comes in the form of proven statements about well-defined structures, and attempts at “explaining” musical phenomena usually involve structures that are not well defined, with conclusions justified by carefully chosen examples and multitudes of counterexamples ignored.  And any logical development of well-defined structure is inevitably based on dubious or pedantic musical principles, so that the resulting conclusions can say precious little about what is important in music.  (p.97)

Over and over again, Schneiderman demonstrates that many of the links often drawn between music and math, taken in their entireties as disciplines, are superficial, tenuous, or worthy of extreme skepticism: they fail to get at the heart of what’s so beautiful and gripping in at least one, most likely both, of music and mathematics.  Take this excerpt, too:

… after mentioning musical affinities of Galileo, Euclid, Euler, and Kepler, the author [of the book Emblems of Mind, Edward Rothstein] includes Schoenberg, Xenakis, and Cage among a short list of examples that seem to point back from music to mathematics.  Even most mathematicians with an affinity for these composers would… surely recognize that this juxtaposition is way out of balance.  This comparison leads to such contradictions as claiming the existence of “a systematic logic that guides musical systems” but then admitting later that the great musical compositions “create their own form of necessity, the binding coming not from logic but from the unfolding of ideas…” (p. 106)

The juxtaposition, of course, is way out of balance because the group of twelve-tone composers that includes Arnold Schoenberg, Iannis Xenakis and John Cage can in no way be said to stand in for all of music.  And this, indeed, is Schneiderman’s point: that perhaps mathematics can form a basis for certain pieces or indeed compositional styles, but that that basis is merely one choice to be made within the universe of music, and has no bearing on the nature of that universe itself.  (As for music forming the basis for mathematics, contrariwise — forget it.) Properly looked at, too, this point of view is liberating.  Why indeed must a piece of music unfold according to an internal logic as tight, dare I say foreordained, as mathematics?

Yet Schneiderman implicates even the august Princeton Companion to Mathematics as falling victim to such false comparisons (p. 107).  What’s going on here?  A desperation, even among mathematicians who should know better, to imbue mathematics with just a drop of the intuitive beauty we all know can arise from a fragment of music?  … Or something more sinister: a desire among the quantitative explainers of the world to own music as part of their own field, even if its internal richness is reduced thereby?  A notion of mathematics as the golden road to absolute knowledge, outside of which further paradigms are unnecessary…?

To such attitudes, Schneiderman offers a throwdown.  Music, as he sees it, exists in a realm apart, and that realm’s dialogue with math’s goes both ways.  It’s a good thing, too: my love of math and my love of music combine to result in that much more love.

Is Music Philosophy?

I’ve been reading David Sheppard’s biography of professional music-maker Brian Eno, On Some Faraway Beach.  Eno is perhaps best known as the popularizer of the “ambient” aesthetic in music, but there was a time, the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was entranced by African musical sensibilities as well.  Sheppard records Eno, in that period, remarking about his “Fourth World” collaboration, the album Possible Musics, with trumpeter Jon Hassell: “We talked about music as embodied philosophy, for every music implies a philosophical position even when its creators aren’t conscious of it.”  Eno would soon take his philosophy of Africanized rock to the band Talking Heads, for the creation of whose album Remain in Light he would, Sheppard implies, exert an undue amount of control as producer — perhaps swamping the contributions of some of the band members in the process.

Eno’s remark — music as philosophy — is reminiscent of anti-web-2.0 technologist Jaron Lanier’s proposition, in his book You Are Not a Gadget, that “We [technologists] make up extensions to your being….  These become the structures by which you connect to the world and other people.  These structures in turn can change how you conceive of yourself and the world.  We tinker with your philosophy by direct manipulation of your cognitive experience, not indirectly, through argument.” (pp. 5-6) It’s a persuasive idea when Lanier states it, and it’s key to his book: he infers that technologists really need to think about the philosophies that their creations would foster before releasing them on the world (and that, all too often and to deleterious effect, they don’t).

Is Eno’s version of the argument as persuasive?  Don’t get me wrong: I’d love for music to be, or even to imply, philosophy, thus forging a fierce link between two of my strongest interests; but, after listening yesterday to Eno’s collaborative album with German band Cluster, After the Heat, with this question in mind, I didn’t feel so sure.  Yes, Eno’s music is more philosophical, in the sense of “direct manipulation of your cognitive experience”, than most; few musicians seem as conscious of the different contexts, at least, in which their music can be listened to.  But, it’s notable that nowhere does Sheppard record exactly what the philosophies Eno links his music to actually consist of.  At times, actually, the picture Sheppard paints of Eno reminds me of Dean Moriarty, the Neal Cassady character in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:

“And he said, ‘Yes, of course, I know exactly what you mean and in fact all those problems have occurred to me, but the thing I want is the realization of those factors that should one depend on Schopenhauer’s dichotomy for any inwardly realized…’ and so on in that way, things I understood not a bit and he himself didn’t.” (p. 6)

Don’t get me wrong: Eno’s music is exciting, relaxing, mysterious: he runs a great gamut of emotions.  And, there’s something to be said for the high Beat aesthetic of continuous conversation about whatever, or as Allen Ginsberg put it in “Howl”, “whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes”, whether the conversation makes ultimate sense or no — something Eno has, apparently, been pretty much fantastic at for a long time.  But, so far — and, maybe it really is just because music has so much less to do with lifestyle in the here and now than in Eno’s heyday — I’m going to have to guess the pessimistic answer to this post’s title question: No, music is not philosophy; or, at least, it hasn’t proven that it is.  It’s okay, though: actual philosophers, anyway, can rest easy.