Friday, October 30, 2009

Career tips for young musicians

Want a satisfying, low-stress job with decent pay and benefits? Then don't become a church musician, says CNN. "Music ministry director" is fifth on CNN Money's list of "Stressful jobs that pay badly," following hot on the heels of "reporter" and "probation officer."

Anyone who's worked as a church organist will know exactly why this is: performances every week, a schedule that makes it impossible to take a weekend off outside of vacation time, the terrifying world of parish politics, mechanical problems with the organ at odd moments, and the dreaded Sunday morning phone calls from sick tenors that scuttle your carefully laid music plans at the last minute. Add to this the fact that most organists work a second job during the week to pay the bills, and you have a singularly unattractive career path.

For many church musicians, conflicts with clergy are a major cause of work-related stress. But don't look so smug, organists - your local priest probably finds you just as irritating as you do him. ("Minister" is tenth on the CNN list.)

(h/t The New Liturgical Movement)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pitch-class set class 3-3 is like a journey

The staff of TBWCTW has lately been provided with much hilarity by Sigmund Spaeth's Great Symphonies: How to Recognize and Remember Them. Published in 1936, Spaeth's book sets lyrics to the principal themes of the most frequently performed symphonies from Haydn to Franck. Judging by the number of used copies floating around the Internet, Spaeth's works seem to have been quite popular: it would be hard to imagine another book of music appreciation from the Depression era that can still be readily obtained for under two dollars. Yet something seems to have changed between then and now: Spaeth's lyrics to the great symphonies, which he intended as memory aids, are now unintentionally hilarious. So for the opening theme of Schumann's "Rhenish" symphony, we have the following:
Rhineland, lovely Rhineland, Super-fine land,
Full of beauty, song and story,
Land of legend, land of glory!
For the english horn melody in the slow movement of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony:
English horn, all forlorn,
pipe your plaintive lay,
Dreaming slow, soft and low,
What does Dvorak say?
Nothing loud, nothing proud,
naught of pomp and pow'r,
Simple song, not too long,
shy as hidden flow'r.
Once again, sad refrain,
here it rise and fall,
Tender, true, ever new,
human heart-throbs' call.
and for the contrasting second theme (approximately 4:50 in the video):
Whither away?
No answer?
Whither away?
No answer?
Seeming to say,
"Let the music play,
Let's call it a day."
And, finally, Spaeth's arguable masterpiece, to be sung to the opening of Mozart's 40th:
With a laugh and a smile like a sunbeam,
And a face that is glad, with a fun-beam,
We can start on our way very gaily,
Singing tunes from a symphony daily.
And if Mozart could but hear us,
He would wave his hat and cheer us
Coming down the scale,
All hale
and strong
in song,
all hale and strong in song.
Now, whatever one might say about the quality of this verse, Spaeth's book has one great strength - the author's ability to communicate the essence of a symphonic narrative to a broad audience without vulgar programmaticism. Spaeth is not embarrassed to give his readers a concrete image to associate with each musical theme, but he usually derives these images from musical characteristics that are already obvious (the peasant dances in Haydn symphonies, or the gypsy fiddling in Brahms's Second). In the absence of explicit references of this sort, Spaeth never makes up fanciful stories about leprechauns and herds of wildebeest; instead, he generally gives us a skeletal narrative about a "hero" and his struggles, with their eventual resolution. This sort of thing is precisely what an untrained listener wants when he tries to follow an hour-long symphonic narrative: he doesn't need a fanciful story to distract him, but he should be told to listen for the varying characters of the different musical themes, to try to perceive an agonistic or complementary relationship between them, and to be aware of an eventual resolution to the conflict, when it arrives. Spaeth's book may be too dated to return to general circulation, and his lyrics may deserve oblivion, but his basic approach to music education is by no means unsalveagable.

What occurs to me, however, is that the themes in Spaeth's book - from composers like Schubert, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky, are already memorable to begin with. No-one needs lyrics to remember the opening of Beethoven's Fifth or the chorale theme in the last movement of Brahms's first symphony. Such a memory aid, however, might be invaluable in confronting, say, Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, or Xenakis's Keqrops. There's a substantial market, I think, for a latter-day Spaeth who can come up with catchy lyrics to the various tone-row permutations in Webern, the octatonic melodies of Messiaen, or the jagged-edged motives of Stravinsky. The book would sell to classical music newcomers, of course, but could also be popular with aged symphony subscribers, who have long complained of the lack of "singable melodies" in Maderna and Stockhausen. Prove 'em wrong!

Friday, October 23, 2009

The history of subjectivity

Part V of an occasional series.

In a series of posts over the life of this blog, I've attempted to come to grips with the way we write about music history, and why it's usually so awful. One is forced to choose between two versions of Whig historiography: one, slightly older, sees twelve-tone serialism as the apotheosis of musical development, while the other sees the New Tonality (always with capital letters) of Adams, del Tredici, Rochberg, Whitacre, and whoever else as being the logical continuation of the classical tradition. Both viewpoints, of course, besides being boring and useless, are unpleasantly doctrinaire. If the Old Whigs are correct, then all tonal composers are pitiable reactionaries; if the New Whigs are correct, then all atonal composition is a temporary historical aberration, a gruesome traffic accident at the side of the road. In reality, of course, hundreds of composers are at work at any given time, and future listeners will judge them by the quality of their work, not by how well they reflected a largely imagined Zeitgeist. In my most recent post, therefore, I proposed a metaphor of dynamic equilibrium: at any given time, hundreds of composers are at work, each with a unique musical language. Only from far away do the interactions of individual artists seem to coalesce into an identifiable pattern.

That's all very well and good, of course, and seemingly uncontroversial, but one could very well object that this approach negates the obvious differences between historical periods. Isn't music history something more than just the record of works produced by individual artists, interacting only with each other? If I am to avoid conceiving of music history as a wholly random process, irrelevant to the rest of the world, I find myself in need of a credible metanarrative. So I offer you the following history of Western music from the emergence of polyphony to the present, conceived as a process of subjectivization: whatever virtues it may or may not have, it at least avoids the usual fallacies of the Whig historians.

Stage One: The Catholic Church promulgates a metaphysical picture of an orderly universe, in which man has a relatively insignificant place; fallen from grace, he can reach his ultimate telos only by the grace of God. Aside from a few warning tremors (Ockham's nominalism and Scotus's voluntarism), this ideal seems stable. Music is conceived as an imitation of this heavenly order, giving audible form to its beauty. It is thus classed as a speculative science of sorts, and the writings of Pythagoras are used to determine a priori which intervals are "perfect" and which "imperfect." The sounds produced are thus concordant, but sounding nice is not really the point. Medieval polyphony.

Stage Two: Pico's Oration on the Dignity of Man inaugurates Christian humanism; the self-sufficiency and power of the individual over his destiny is asserted. The Reformation encourages individuals to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Music adopts the so-called contenance Angloise, admitting the "imperfect" intervals of thirds and sixths because they sound nice. Renaissance polyphony.

Stage Three: Pietism increases further the subjective focus of Christianity, emphasizing the individual's acts of personal devotion over the communal life of the Church. The formerly synthesized body of human knowledge begins to separate into a variety of component disciplines, most notably with the development of empirical science. The subjective focus of music is made explicit by Frescobaldi and Monteverdi, who advocate a new aesthetic of expressiveness, with the rules of polyphony subordinated to the desired affective character of the music. Goal-directed tonality replaces modality. The Baroque.

Stage Four: The Age of Reason; a fully-developed humanism elevates the intellectual faculty above all other human qualities, and cultivates a mythology of medieval obscurantism and anti-intellectualism. Rationalistic approaches to politics lead to bloody revolutions in France and America, the first of which aimed to immanentize the utopian vision of an egalitarian society through an upheaval in the social order. In music, the static binary, ternary or strophic forms of previous generations give way to the goal-directed sonata principle: themes are no longer merely "worked out", but must "develop." Classicism.

Stage Five: Technical progress leads to widespread economic prosperity; rural society gives way to urban life, farming to industry. Human strivings are ordered by the "American dream" or the "Protestant work ethic;" metaphysical consciousness survives, if at all, as a secondary concern. The rationalist, revolutionary strain in politics exemplified in Marx. The birth of nihilism as an explicit philosophical movement. The artist is encouraged to plumb the depths of his individual personality for material, particularly if he can dredge up something particularly grotesque; in return, he can expect to be fĂȘted as a hero, with the concert hall recast as a secular temple. This new subjectivity is represented in music by an increased chromaticism, by self-conscious nationalism, or by the imposition of programmes on unsuspecting instrumental works. Romanticism.

Stage Six: Technical progress has totally transformed society; science has been recast as the crowning glory of human endeavour. At the same time, this total freedom is seen by many as ambivalent at best, and the default state of mankind has become a sort of bored anomie, interrupted only by wars of unprecedented violence and savagery. Composers strip away the "restrictions" of conventional tonality or pulse, and cultivate a wide range of new styles. The Romantic cult of expression is maintained in the fetishization of originality, and in the Expressionist's fascination with the depths of the subconscious mind. In apparent contradiction, scientific positivism appears in music in the guise of serialism, nevertheless retaining the construct of composer-as-hero ("Who cares if you listen?").

Stage Seven: While technical progress continues unabated in the wake of the two world wars, the world loses faith in its ability to bring about real improvement in society. The idea that liberal democracy is capable of bringing about a fully just society is diagnosed as a secular eschaton, parasitic upon lingering Christian metaphysics. Social change is now pursued through non-democratic channels, beginning with the violent cultural revolution of the 1960s, which aimed to remove all remaining restrictions on individual behaviour. Epistemic relativism becomes the default philosophical position; European thinkers adopt an ontology of violence, in which the only true metaphysical reality is that of individuals with conflicting thought systems attempting to impose them upon each other. Composers adopt chance techniques (Cage), use repeating processes in lieu of traditional development (minimalism), or make more or less fatuous attempts to reconcile their literate tradition with the new pop music - turning completely on its head the Stage One picture of music as a representation of an external order.

Stage Eight: As yet hypothetical. The work of subjectivization seems more or less complete, with the metaphysical picture we began with turned completely upside down. The only hope for further development lies in a truly postmodern school of thought, one which offers a true critique of the philosophical premises in the previous seven stages. A first glimmer of Stage Eight can be seen, perhaps, in the work of theologians associated with Radical Orthodoxy, whose goal is precisely to offer a retrospective, diagnostic critique of modernity. Radical Orthodox theologian Catherine Pickstock, writing in the winter 2007 issue of Sacred Music, describes Messiaen's music (along with some works by Schnittke, Ustvolskaya, and James MacMillan) as adopting a truly "postmodern music" in this sense - not merely a reactionary critique of modernism, but a synthesis of the modernist impulse with premodern materials. In Messiaen we hear, arguably for the first time in centuries, a music that can credibly express the idea of eternity. The circle completes itself; everything old is new again.

What you read above is not complete. There are certainly omissions; there are undoubtedly some mistakes as well. Your comments welcome.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Two reasons to be a musician

But when intemperance and disease multiply in a State, halls of justice and medicine are always being opened; and the arts of the doctor and lawyer give themselves airs, finding how keen is the interest which not only the slaves but the freemen of the city take about them.

Of course.
And yet what greater proof can there be of a bad and disgraceful state of education than this, that not only artisans and the meaner sort of people need the skill of first-rate physicians and judges, but also those who would profess to have had a liberal education? Is it not disgraceful, and a great sign of want of good-breeding, that a man should have to go abroad for his law and physic because he has none of his own at home, and must therefore surrender himself into the hands of other men whom he makes lords and judges over him?

Of all things, he said, the most disgraceful.
Would you say 'most,' I replied, when you consider that there is a further stage of the evil in which a man is not only a life-long litigant, passing all his days in the courts, either as plaintiff or defendant, but is actually led by his bad taste to pride himself on his litigiousness; he imagines that he is a master in dishonesty; able to take every crooked turn, and wriggle into and out of every hole, bending like a withy and getting out of the way of justice: and all for what? --in order to gain small points not worth mentioning, he not knowing that so to order his life as to be able to do without a napping judge is a far higher and nobler sort of thing. Is not that still more disgraceful?

Yes, he said, that is still more disgraceful.
Well, I said, and to require the help of medicine, not when a wound has to be cured, or on occasion of an epidemic, but just because, by indolence and a habit of life such as we have been describing, men fill themselves with waters and winds, as if their bodies were a marsh, compelling the ingenious sons of Asclepius to find more names for diseases, such as flatulence and catarrh; is not this, too, a disgrace?

Yes, he said, they do certainly give very strange and newfangled names to diseases.

[. . .]

[But] our youth, having been educated only in that simple music which, as we said, inspires temperance, will be reluctant to go to law.

And the musician, who, keeping to the same track, is content to practise the simple gymnastic, will have nothing to do with medicine unless in some extreme case.
Plato, Republic III: 405-410, s. v. "The vanity of doctors and lawyers".

We all perhaps recall the medieval story of the juggler who could not speak or pray or craft well, but who silently before the altar performed his juggling act. He was more pleasing than the rest to God.
James V. Schall, Another Sort of Learning, 220.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Heavens to Betsy

High on my list of coveted possessions at the moment is the new DVD of Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a live performance of this work during a centenary festival dedicated to Messiaen's music; the experience of hearing the score performed by a live orchestra, chorus, and soloists remains one of my most memorable musical experiences. Messiaen's score is one of enormous power; although the spiritual journey of Saint Francis is long and accompanied by often dissonant music, the score builds inexorably toward moments of exquisite beauty, and the final C-sharp major peroration is jaw-dropping.

You can imagine my reaction, therefore, when I encountered a review of the new DVD in my hometown paper, the Toronto Star, which begins as follows:
It may not be the right thing to say in polite company, but sitting through a lot of new music feels like sonic self-flagellation. If, as the late philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, pleasure is the absence of pain, silence might be bliss. That concern could come to a head during the 5 1/2 hours of Olivier Messiaen's only opera, a series of vignettes depicting St. Francis's hourney toward light and grace. The music is atonal. Jean Kalman's set is stark, laden with rough-hewn symbolism.
Had I read this when it originally came out, I would have been sorely tempted to report an error in this article to the editors. Saint Francois, of course, is not atonal. This is simply factually wrong; Messiaen's score, like almost all of his music, is organized using an extended tonal language which encompasses many dissonant chords but which always resolves to a tonal center. If Mr. Terauds really believes that Messiaen's music is atonal, he has quite a bit of homework to do; it would be as though the Star's pop music critic thought that John Denver was a death metal artist. Of course, I don't think Terauds is quite that foolish; rather, I think he's using the word "atonal" carelessly, as a sort of mental shorthand for any music that sometimes doesn't sound nice. But, people, if any music that contains dissonance is atonal, then all music since the abandonment of parallel organum is atonal. Words have meanings.

But the broader problem (and one I see came up the last time Terauds reviewed Messiaen) is that this sort of classical music reporting, the kind that assumes a priori that all contemporary music is undesirable, is unhelpful, anti-intellectual, and tiresome. The presumption is that before listening to a piece of new music, you ought to assume that it's awful and atonal and unlistenable, and that you should abandon your preconceived opinion only slowly and with great reluctance, should the work turn out to be any good. (Terauds does in fact come around and give the opera a qualified recommendation, but by the time you've read that far into the article, the damage is already done.) This attitude should be anathema to a critic, consisting as it does in reviewing a work before hearing it. It also reflects a very small view of classical music: under this model, the normative pattern of classical music is to take a score by some long-dead composer off the shelf, perform it, and put it back. Performing a work of "new" music (and by "new" we mean anything written more recently than the birth of your grandparents) is a peripheral activity, one to be regarded with great suspicion.

But this sort of reporting is also extremely old-fashioned - it ignores the most interesting parts of the contemporary music scene in favour of the increasingly stagnant scene in the symphony hall and opera house. Festivals of new music like New York's Bang on a Can are attracting an increasingly mainstream audience, Greg Sandow reports that works like Messiaen's Quatuor frequently share the bill with pop musicians at clubs, and Toronto's recent Luminato festival combined more mainstream entertainment with a new music theatre piece by R. Murray Schafer. It is difficult to imagine that these events would have had the same appeal to a broad audience had the organizers instead programmed, say, all the Mozart string quintets. New music has proven itself to be capable of reaching out to a much wider audience than the blue-rinse brigade at your typical symphony performance; it can do this because its complexity, dissonance, and many of its mannerisms connect to trends in the experimental wing of the pop music scene. The traditional repertoire, especially the eighteenth-century music of Mozart or Haydn, seems more remote to non-classical music fans, like upper-class dinner music in a period film. For traditional classical music listeners (like Terauds and, let's face it, myself), there is something a bit counterintuitive about this, but we should welcome the development as a chance to rejuvenate the musical culture, and eventually bring more listeners into the fold.

The bottom line: should we review new classical music in a way that reflects the knee-jerk prejudice of your aged Aunt Mildred? Or should we consider reviewing new music with an open mind, witholding an opinion until we've judged the work on its own merits, just like arts journalists are expected to in any other area of creative endeavour?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Postmodernism and liturgy

In my previous post, I discussed an irritating and silly philosophical mistake made by a lot of people who ought to know better. Yes, our impressions of the world around us are dependent upon our idiosyncratic viewpoints as individuals; no, this does not imply that objective knowledge is impossible. Our experience of the world may be coloured by our own flaws and limitations, but at bottom it depends on an objective experience of reality that can be communicated to others. And I'd argue further that this is a good thing. Postmodernists, influenced as they are by post-1960s liberal politics, tend to associate any appeal to epistemic objectivity with an intellectual hegemony perpetrated by Dead, White, European, Heterosexual Males. Seen from this viewpoint, objectivity is merely a thinly veiled excuse for a power grab; indeed, the very concept of an objective viewpoint is indelibly associated with repression and violence. There are many points that can be made against this viewpoint, such as that it is paranoid and silly, but the most pertinent one is this: only by appealing to some common reality beneath our individual viewpoints can we overcome violence and build a better society. If I really believed that our ideological differences were incommensurable, that I had no possibility of genuine communication with the elderly gentleman in my congregation, or the woman on the bus, I would be quaking in my boots; for where the evils of European imperialism, racial hatred, or even National Socialism were at least circumscribed by a shared ideology, there is no limit to the violence and destruction that can be done in the name of Nothing.

I dwell on this point at some length because I increasingly believe understanding these presuppositions to be essential in effecting any sort of change. People are lazy, to begin with; they are overly fond of their own comforts and preferences; they are creatures of habit. Given an ideology that convinces them further that their every disagreement is a reflection of irreconcilable ideological presuppositions, that every position they might take is "just their own opinion", we can expect little positive change to be achieved, and much decadence and stagnation.

A clash of this sort occurs within most congregations surrounding the subject of liturgy, expressed crudely as some people wanting "more liturgy," and others wanting "less liturgy." As the so-called "worship wars" continue to take their toll, the faithful have increasingly taken to voting with their feet - moving between churches in the same denomination, or different denominations, until they find the "amount of liturgy" that is "right for them." It isn't my intention to cast aspersions on this process as such - for many people, certain forms of worship can be a genuine barrier to spiritual growth - but to point out that the entire discussion is miscast. There is no possibility of escaping from liturgy, or even of having a greater or lesser "amount," but merely a choice of different forms of worship. Consider, for example, the following liturgical text, found in a variety of denominational settings:

V. Good morning!
R. Good morning.

In most churches, this versicle and response is proper to all Sundays and holy days, falls immediately after the processional hymn or entrance antiphon, and is recited in the same tone of voice at its every appearance (with the congregational response usually at least 30% less enthusiastic). The Gloria in excelsis comes and goes with the changing liturgical seasons, the musical settings of the Mass change around, but "Good morning" stays. This level of liturgical standardization, of course, exceeds anything to be found in the Roman Missal. Given the prevalence of this response across all faith backgrounds, it is surprising that composers have not considered it for musical setting.

My example may seem rather facetious, but the broader point is this: liturgical patterns are not restricted to antique formulae found in missals and breviaries. Liturgy is nothing more or less than a corporate expression of our human need for routine and predictability. Denominations which attempt to eschew formal liturgy, whether a megachurch service of the Willow Creek variety or the "informal" youth service in the Anglican church basement, quickly settle into predictable patterns. The essence of liturgy is found in any circle of close friends, where conversations keep returning to the same old inside jokes, or a favourite topic of discussion. We liturgize our own environments instinctively, establishing a communal routine. This sort of routine is not to be derided; it comforts us, orients us toward our central values and interests, and causes differences from the pattern to stand out more clearly. Easter Sunday would not be so different from a normal Sunday if not for the innumerable ways it was precisely the same.

If there is no escape from liturgy, then, it follows that our task is to determine who determines the forms we use. Some portion of the liturgy will inevitably be determined by the particular worshippers and their unique traditions and habits. Another portion will be determined by the individual habits and mannerisms of the priest. But the rest of the liturgy is up for grabs: will we follow a particular historical pattern to the letter, will we allow some individual or group to create a liturgy as they see fit, or will we let the service fall together in a more or less inchoate manner? Your answers to these questions will depend on your theological stance, and may not be arrived at easily, but the question of liturgy suddenly seems much more difficult and more complicated than it did when liturgical matters were "just my opinion." The choice of what to eat for lunch is "just my opinion," and is therefore of no conceivable interest to anyone; the choice of how to celebrate a worship service, however, is of wide interest precisely because it is subject to objective discussion and debate.

There is a deadly facetiousness in the way many people, including clergy, approach the liturgy. We imagine liturgical form to exist in a content-free neverland, in which there is no reason whatever except personal preference to prefer a Mass following the Sarum Rite, a Mass following the Canadian Book of Alternative Services, or a Mass in Pig Latin. There is something remarkably wooly-headed about this: it requires you not only to believe with the postmodernists in the irreconcilability and immutability of individual preference, but also to profess a quasi-Gnostic idealism about human activities. (Our actual words and actions, according to this view, are wholly irrelevant and carry no meaning; the only real meaning is inside our minds, or our hearts, or perhaps on a cloud somewhere.) Such people are impossible to argue with; they simply smile at you and say that yes, your opinion is perfectly valid, and then continue to think up other equally valid liturgical innovations, perhaps involving cotton candy machines.

Let us, then, disagree about every aspect of the liturgy; let us reconsider the most basic elements of worship from the most elementary theological standpoint; let us argue for hours over the smallest detail of the service; but if we must go through all of this, let's do it because liturgy matters, because our actions as a community shape the way that we think, and because the way that we think is, at bottom, based on a common experience of an external reality.

Postmodernism and the work-concept

The central insight of postmodernism is that there is no privileged standpoint from which we can know any subject perfectly. All of our perceptions are coloured by our individual perceptual habits, our particular life experiences, our everyday heuristic routines, and the value judgments of our society. When I claim to have access to objective knowledge about some subject, therefore, my readers ought to look more closely - is he really stating a universal truth, or is his perspective coloured by some bias, or some attempt to serve his own interests?
All of this, of course, can be accepted without capitulating fully to the postmodern philosophical picture. Indeed, a version of what I describe above was known long before the twentieth century, under names such as "critical thinking" and "common sense." Where postmodern thought goes astray is in its extension of this principle, via a breathtaking leap of illogic, to the idea that our individual worldviews prevent us from ever knowing the ultimate reality (if any) beneath our subjective perceptions. This argument, described by Australian philosopher David Stove as "the worst argument in the world," can be roughly summarized thus:

"We can know things only as they are related to us/under our forms of perception and understanding/in so far as they fall under our perceptual schemes, etc.":


"We cannot know things as they are in themselves."
which is roughly analogous to the following:

"We can see objects only as they appear to us with our eyes":


"We cannot see objects as they really are."
In other words, much of contemporary philosophy, including the debased form of philosophical language we use in everyday conversation, is based on the presupposition that having any particular means of perceiving the world utterly prevents us from perceiving it. I don't know who first conceived this little argument, or why no-one picked up on the problem with it, but you have him to thank every time you hear someone say "Well, that's only your opinion" about a matter that should be subject to external verification.

Note also that this philosophy is impossible to apply consistently. If you believe that another person is so locked in his perceptual cage that he is incapable of perceiving or responding to an external reality, why would you try to change his mind about some topic? (Indeed, what makes you so sure that your own perceptual apparatus reports accurately that he is disagreeing with you?) Likewise, if you think that the following caveat is necessary in an introductory book on the philosophy of music:

[T]here are two habits of thought which are deeply ingrained in Western culture as a whole and which largely determine the way we think about music . . . [One is] the tendency to think of language and other forms of cultural representation, including music, as if they depicted an external reality.
Nicholas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction, 50.

Now, if Cook actually believed that language, as a mere "form of cultural representation," cannot really "depict an external reality," no task could be more futile than writing a book to tell us this. If language had no relation to external reality, Cook's eventual readers would be just as likely to conclude that the book is a study of the mating habits of the flamingo or a collection of Indian recipes as to conclude that it is a critique of the classical work-concept. By expecting you to agree with him that language cannot represent reality, Cook affirms that language is, at bottom, a perfectly clear and comprehensible method of communicating meaning. One must simply remember that this meaning is composed not only of facts about the external world, but also of the subjective impressions of humans - not only the human who wrote the words, but also the human who read them. But then, is anything necessarily wrong with that? And would we want it to be otherwise?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Epilegomena to any past metaphysics

or An Attempt to Correct the Meteorological Misunderstandings of Various Dead Philosophers

The division of reality is essentially bipartite, and can be divided into:

1) The majority of the physical world, which is so designed that it is governed by a complex set of natural laws, each of which are at best partially determinate.

2) The weather, which is so designed as to annoy me personally.

Even in its irresistible personal vendetta against me, however, the weather is bound to observe various physical laws. By understanding and following these laws, the wise person can deflect the fullness of the weather's wrath. One of these laws, discussed previously in this space, is the inverse relationship between your decision to carry an umbrella and the probability that it will actually rain. Carrying an umbrella about in plain sight, especially if it is large and unwieldy, will greatly reduce the chance that you will have any reason to use it. If you happen to be an organist, the chances that it will rain are further reduced to (approximately) zero.

What has not, however, been hitherto understood is the degree to which the umbrellas themselves, far from being mere tools in the battle of mortal men against the weather, obey a teleological imperative of their own, viz.:
  • The goal of an umbrella's existence is to become a broken umbrella. The state of "broken-umbrellahood" represents a state of social stability which umbrellas strive for, just as humans strive for a comfortable home, satisfying work, an adequate salary, and an impeccably organized iTunes library; more than that, broken-umbrellahood seems to bear some resemblance to the theological concept of the eschaton, representing the ultimate fulfillment of each umbrella's aspirations and the end to its terrestrial struggle.
  • To fulfil this end, young umbrellas gather in such places as dollar stores, pharmacies, and souvenir shops at tourist traps across the land.
  • The umbrella's journey towards self-fulfillment begins by being "purchased" by a "customer." If the umbrella is lucky, it will discover itself to be one of the cheaper and flimsier brands of umbrella, and at its first use a passing breeze will serve to turn it inside out, cause its tightly stretched fabric to rip away from the frame, or otherwise negate its water-repellent properties.
  • If stymied in their attempts to achieve this goal by insufficiently cheap construction or by being carried about by an organist, the umbrella pursues its second-best strategy: to become a lost umbrella. Its owner forced to go out in the rain unprotected, the lost umbrella considers its mission in life adequately accomplished, even though it has not fully realized its telos by becoming broken.
  • Broken umbrellas, having reached the fullness of their destiny as umbrellas, feel no need to pursue the secondary goal of becoming a "lost umbrella;" rather, they cling to their owners with a strong affection, thankful to them for having enabled them to reach their state of blissful brokenness. This is why any household will accumulate at least eighteen broken umbrellas.