To Thine Own Self Be True

“I don’t know that we owe God or nature a death, but nature will collect anyway, and we certainly owe mediocrity nothing, whatever collectivity it purports to advance or at least represent.”

Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why

In my last post entitled “Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf”, I proposed a solution to the arguments about forming a canon of music/literature/art in Western culture.  I said simply, “Read everything.  Listen to everything”  That is very straightforwardly stated, but really oversimplified.  There are only so many hours in the day, and so many years in a lifetime.  There is not time to literally read everything ever written and listen to every bit of music ever sounded.  Certainly not (as the esteemed Mr. Bloom points out in the above quote) before nature collects our death.  Life is short.  Read great books, drink better beer and listen to Good Music.  When I said to read everything, I really didn’t mean to include the collected screenplays of Jennifer Aniston movies, nor did my idea of listening to everything  include the complete recordings of Justin Bieber.  

This raises the question of how to decide what to read or listen to.  What makes the cut?  How do we decide what is part of the mediocrity that we owe nothing, and what makes something a great book, or at least a good enough book to be worth a chunk of our short life to read?  One idea of Dr. Eliot’s Harvard Classics or various Universities Great Books programs, or the pieces of music that end up in the standard repertoire, is to try to identify masterpieces that are valuable enough with which to spend our precious time.  Usually I can’t argue with the items that are included in attempts to form a canon of masterworks.  Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and their colleagues all have stood the test of time for very good reasons.  But these lists of great works cannot be taken as definitive, closed, exclusive or in any way exhaustive.  They are often some of the basic building blocks, that modern great works build upon and refer back to.  Even Harold Bloom’s beloved Shakespeare built upon things that came before him, with lots of references to Ovid, or the Bible, and lots of borrowing of basic plots from classical Greek and Latin theatre.  None of us live in a vacuum.  But the canonical lists were created by people, people with flaws and the lists reflect some of those flaws.

Lack of diversity is an easy and obvious criticism of the various versions of the Western Canon or the orchestral standard repertoire.  Shakespeare Sonnets are great poetry, but so are the poems of Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes. Great works should not be thought to be the exclusive property of a single group.  There is some purpose to highlighting  art/literature/music by overlooked or underrepresented social groups, and that purpose is only to increase awareness.  Black History Month, the Latin Grammies, events promoting women authors, all help to bring attention to quality works that have been unjustly neglected.  At some utopian future point however, the goals of such efforts should be to put themselves out of business.  Someday awareness should have been raised enough that these social groups are no longer neglected or underrepresented.  They can proudly stand as simply authors, artists and musicians.  To call Joan Tower a great American woman composer in some ways is a left-handed compliment.  Tower is a fantastic great composer, one of the best of our time.  Her music is great, and not great only because a woman composed it.  

zenI would like to revise my previous recommendation to say, “Read and listen to everything of Quality for which you have time.”  Things of quality, the good stuff.  Spend your time listening to Good Music.  The obvious Western cultural, rational, scientific method thing to do at this point would be try to define and enumerate the elements that give Quality to a work of art/music/literature/theater.  Inventory the credentials that constitute Quality, and quantify those credentials in the world around us.  Those things that hold a good enough account of the elements of Quality shall make the cut and be worth our time.  But it is not that simple.  Quality is elusive, recognizable but actually impossible to define.  A quote from one of my favorite books says it best:

“Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others … but what’s the betterness? … So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”

Robert Pirsig, Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

Nevermind that Pirsig had a severe enough mental breakdown that he spent time in an in-patient mental health facility and underwent electric shock therapy.  His first book is a work of sheer genius, an autobiographical novel of sorts that delves deep into the roots of Western thought.   The germination of his ideas about Quality start when he is teaching writing and rhetoric to undergraduate students.  Ultimately he comes to the idea that Quality is undefinable, but very real.

“Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a non thinking process.  Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, Quality cannot be defined”

Robert Pirsig, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Over-Simply put, you know quality when you see it.  That seems trite, but so much of what I discover as music worth listening to, Good Music, comes from an initial first impression that something is there.  It catches my ear, holds my attention, I know it when I hear it.  That Quality moves me to want to learn more, hear more, begin to figure out how it works.  The Delta Blues recordings of Robert Johnson, just one man singing with his finger-plucked guitar, represent some of the most moving sounds ever made by the human voice. Those recordings inspired a entire generation of Rock and Roll musicians looking for authentic deep emotional expression.  Likewise, hearing Luciano Pavarotti sing “Nessun Dorma” is a hugely emotional experience.  I was hooked the first time I heard a recording of Pavarotti in his signature aria.  That was before I knew what the Italian words were saying, before I knew anything about opera or Puccini or the story of Turandot (the opera from which the aria comes).  Now I have enough academic skill to analyze the harmony, key areas, thematic structure and more, bar by bar of the piece.  I can explain the orchestration, translate the libretto, place the aria in the story of the opera as a whole.  But all of that does not contain and encompass the undefinable sense of Quality that turned my ears and held my attention the first time I heard it.  

This experience for me has repeated itself over and over.  The first time I heard Charlie Parker play the alto saxophone.  The first time I heard a Bach fugue.  The first time I heard the Count Basie Orchestra swing.  The first time I heard the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, or Samuel Barber’s First Essay for Orchestra, or Jimi Hendrix play the guitar.  Time and time again, I felt like an epiphany happened when I was first exposed to these pieces.  I listened to them repeatedly, learned them, searched out recordings, written scores, analyses, anything I could learn about each bit of music.  But the first thing that happened is that I intuitively recognized the Quality present in each.  Acknowledging that role of human intuition is one of the powerful things that Pirsig does in his writing in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  He ultimately finds a kindred spirit to his thoughts on Quality in Eastern philosophy, specifically the descriptions of the Tao in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

Opening of Tao Te Ching

I love the “classics”.  Shakespeare plays, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Beethoven Symphonies, Mozart Operas, Bach’s Art of The Fugue.  The standard repertoire, or the “Western canon” can be a useful guide, a set of very good recommendations.  But some of the most engaging and wonderful musical experiences I have had came from following my ears and intuitions.  Louis Armstrong playing “West End Blues”.  Duke Ellington Orchestra playing “Take the A Train”.  John Lee Hooker growling “Boom Boom Boom Boom”.  John Corigliano, David Diamond, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Gustav Mahler, John Coltrane, Giuseppe Verdi.  In the end, this is what my blog is all about.  Good Music speaks to me, has held my attention, engaged my mind and ear and about which I try to write something worthwhile for you to read.  Genre isn’t important, lists aren’t important, only that it sounds good.

“And what is good, Phaedrus
And what is not good –
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”


8 thoughts on “To Thine Own Self Be True

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  1. So enjoyed this post, esp. since I am a librarian and always telling my students be open to all writing, but in the end, read what you love. Someone was throwing out an unopened CD of Joshua Bell’s The Four Seasons played with St. Martins In the Field. I have been listening to it driving to work and I am overwhelmed by Winter. I have been listening to this music for 20+ years, but it is now that I find myself unable to express what it is about this particular rendition…it is sublime. I cannot speak of it.

  2. Reblogged this on What I write and commented:
    As a writer, thinker and appreciator of nearly every genre of music and writing, this post is something I couldn’t pass up, so am sharing it with my readers.

  3. As I listened to music on my walk today I found myself thinking many of the same things you wrote about here. “There is not time to literally read everything ever written and listen to every bit of music ever sounded.” But I will try.

  4. Excellent article. I feel it should be read by artists everywhere due to the same type of ‘quality’ that ‘cannot be defined’ outside the full collaboration of a meaningful experience. 🙂 Again lovely article.

  5. I really appreciate your thoughts.
    “There is some purpose to highlighting art/literature/music by overlooked or underrepresented social groups […]”
    I agree that diversity is very important, and in a certain sense, it’s necessary to work to protect the richness of smaller subcultures from the pressures of the mainstream. Nothing wrong with the mainstream either, of course.

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