Saturday, January 10, 2009

On liturgy and Wittgenstein

I shall try to elucidate the problem discussed by realists, idealists, and solipsists by showing you a problem closely related to it. It is this: "Can we have unconscious thoughts, unconscious feelings, etc.?" The idea of there being unconscious thoughts has revolted many people. Others again have said that these were wrong in supposing that there could be only conscious thoughts, and that psychoanalysis had discovered unconscious ones. The objectors to unconscious thought did not see that they were not objecting to the newly discovered psychological reactions, but to the way in which they were described. The psychoanalysts on the other hand were misled by their own way of expression into thinking that they had done more than discover new psychological reactions; that they had, in a sense, discovered conscious thoughts which were unconscious. . . But it is not right to say that in any case the person who talks both of conscious and unconscious thoughts thereby uses the word "thoughts" in two different ways?
Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 57-8.

Wittgenstein's basic idea here seems to me to be that ideological and philosophical differences boil down to linguistic misunderstandings. Here, Freud's disciples argue with traditionalists over the idea of "unconscious thought" - really, however, their only substantial difference is that some define "thought" as a strictly conscious activity, and the rest don't. By pointing out this multifaceted, non-standardized nature of language, Wittgenstein offers us a way out of otherwise endless, circular argumentation.

But could this apply to any of the vocabulary we use in talking about music? Words like "atonal", "minimalist", "conservative", "reactionary", "revolutionary," or "traditional"?

  • "The real reactionaries are the revolutionaries who react against tradition!" (Edmund Rubbra)
  • "I hold that it was wrong to have considered me a revolutionary. . . If one need only break a habit to be labelled revolutionary, then every musician who has something to say and who in order to say it goes beyond the bounds of established convention would be known as revolutionary." (Igor Stravinsky)
  • "I personally hate to be called revolutionist, which I am not. What I did was neither revolution nor anarchy." (Arnold Schoenberg)
  • "Atonal music is, after all, nothing else but tonal music in which the tonal functions occur and permute in the shortest possible space of time." (Peter Jona Korn)
  • "[Most people] think of minimalism as connoting the orchestra music of Glass, Reich, and John Adams. . . [We no longer] have a word to specify what the Theater of Eternal Music, Phill Niblock, and early Philip Glass had in common, without falsely implying syncopated brass chords and big Romantic melodies." (Kyle Gann)
All of these, it seems to me, are examples of major linguistic confusion; the people I quote want to be able to restrict the meaning of aesthetic terms to a specific definition (their own), but they are continually flummoxed by a public that insists on giving it a different meaning, sometimes completely opposite. How else to explain the description of both Debussy and Ravel as "Impressionist" composers, or the time a parishioner described Andrew Carter's Toccata on "Veni Emmanuel" to me as "atonal"?

I'd like to unpack a specific word, though: "tradition". Working in Christian liturgy, this term is one absolutely fraught with peril; depending on the predilections of the person you're talking to, mentioning the word can lead either to enthusiastic approval or a fistfight. It's become a commonplace for clergymen to take potshots at "empty tradition" in their sermons - I've heard this trope several times in recent weeks. These comments seem motivated less by any desire to uproot older forms of liturgy and music, and more by an attempt to be down-to-earth and likeable. (In my experience, the clergy members most likely to make these comments are Anglican bishops - it's very rare for an episcopal visit to go by without the bishop making a joke about their mitre or crozier.) Yet the most interesting thing about all of this is the opportunity to look around the congregation when clergy comments about the need to "re-evaluate our traditions" or "adapt to changing times" - the response is generally either ecstatic approval or stunned horror.

What's going on here? It seems to me that we're working with (at least) two different meanings of the word:
  • tradition (A): slavish and uncritical devotion to past practices.
  • tradition (B): a process of considered dialogue with history, or in T. S. Eliot's words, a "sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together".
It should be obvious that I favour definition B. Any tradition - whether Eliot's literary tradition or the tradition of Anglican church music which I practice - is constantly refined and improved by continual pruning. Each element in the tradition speaks to its own time (the medieval tradition of plainchant; the age of Tudor polyphony; the Edwardian era; the present day), but is retained because it also contains something which transcends its period. Repertoire which fails to speak to this timeless sensibility falls out of use. (When was the last time you heard Maunder's Olivet to Calvary?) Other, new repertoire takes its place. That this process sometimes moves too slowly is demonstrated by the endurance of 19th-century hymns like "Amazing Grace" and "What a friend we have in Jesus" - clearly they have associations that still mean something to someone, but to my ears they reek of the worst aspects of the Victorian era. I apply the same standard to the 1970s "worship songs" which have begun entering hymnals - "Shine, Jesus, Shine" is objectionable not because it's too new, but because it's too dated. Looking through selections like these in 50 years will be embarrassing, but no more so than looking through most 19th-century hymnals.

You'll notice, though, that the process of critical examination and re-examination that I suggest is thoroughly "un-traditional" for the person brought up on definition A. The person who defines tradition as blind adherence to past precedent will naturally use the word in a different way than I do:

Parishioner X: This liturgy is too traditional.
Osbert: This liturgy is boring and stupid.

Parishioner Y: I don't like traditional music.
Osbert: Your music is not traditional; it is only played badly.

By making some attempt to reconcile the two definitions, we can come to terms with the underlying problems. Hopefully.

1 comment:

Eric said...

What revolutionary insights you present here, Osbert. Some truly reactionary -- if a tad untraditional -- thoughts.