May 09, 2008

Cultivate Your Sense of Wonder, and Live Ecstatically

I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity. Through the ministrations of radio and the phonograph, we are rapidly and quite properly learning to appreciate the elements of aesthetic narcissism -- and I use that word in its best sense -- and are awakening to the challenge that each man contemplatively create his own divinity. -- Glenn Gould, quoted in "Glenn Gould: Musical Individualist"
In "Passing on the Sense of Wonder," I wrote:
I know that some people view my writing as bleak and pessimistic; they think I approach events from a perspective that is despairing and fatalistic. Some believe my primary message is that we're headed into monumental catastrophe, and there is nothing to be done about it. In the most important sense, such a view of my work strikes me as surpassingly strange. It is absolutely not how I think about the world at all. To begin with, the fundamental fact of life itself, coupled with the further extraordinary fact that we are aware of it, is nothing less than miraculous to me. Many times a day, as I'm reading or listening to music, and once in a very, very great while when I'm writing and think I may have stumbled onto a particularly pleasing way of expressing some idea, I'll think: "Isn't this just the most amazing thing, that people can create in this manner!" I consider the supreme artistry of Maria Callas, and I am overwhelmed and inspired by the greatness of which human beings are capable. The breadth of that kind of vision, together with an exquisite sensitivity to the smallest detail and an unbreached dedication to settling for nothing less than the absolute best we can do, fills me with wonder. It makes my own soul sing, and I am determined to work harder than ever in my own small way.

If I had to select just a single word to express my deepest feeling about the world, and about humankind, it would be that one: wonder. I consider it a measure of how unevolved we are that so many people appear to be capable of that feeling only when they contemplate an imaginary, supernatural plane. It is hardly surprising that our world holds so much unnecessary suffering, when so many people are willing and eager to condemn it to second-rate status in favor of one they've made up out of whole cloth.
A little farther on in that essay, discussing what may lie in our future culturally and politically, I said:
I think it highly probable that our circumstances will continue to get significantly worse, although this deterioration may come quickly or comparatively slowly. You may live the rest of your life without seeing the worst of what will happen, or even anything close to the worst -- or you may not. There is no way to know, and the variables are close to infinite. But I say again: it does not have to be this way. Extraordinary events have transpired in history before, and they might again. We need a miracle, but not one delivered to us from a supernatural realm: we require a miracle that we create.

It can happen. Hold on to your sense of wonder; if you do not have a sufficiently strong one, then develop it. For me, it is the most precious resource in the world.
I read the Glenn Gould passage that appears at the beginning of this piece, and which I don't recall ever seeing before, in this fascinating entry, which I came across because of this post. I offer my sincere thanks to Peter Saint-Andre; the particular terms of his kind words mean a great deal to me. "Flecks of Light" and the earlier Callas essay may be my two favorites of my own essays, because they are so deeply personal. I myself am not at all certain that I merit in any significant way Saint-Andre's comparison to Gould. Aside from my incurable dissatisfaction with my own work and my reluctance to claim too much for it, I am largely unfamiliar with Gould's writing and thought, although I have a number of his recordings. Clearly, I will need to read the books that Saint-Andre mentions.

In the second half of "Passing on the Sense of Wonder," I mentioned two works that I had recently viewed and read, and that capture aspects of this perspective, Alan Bennett's The History Boys, and Albert Jay Nock's, Our Enemy, the State. I quoted a brief speech of Hector's in The History Boys; as I wrote, Hector is "a teacher of about 60 who 'merely' provides 'inspiration,' which the headmaster considers 'unquantifiable' and therefore insufficient." Hector tells his students:
Pass the parcel.
That's sometimes all you can do.
Take it, feel it and pass it on.
Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.
Pass it on, boys.
That's the game I wanted you to learn.
Pass it on.
From the conclusion of Saint-Andre's essay about Gould:
Although Gould never accepted students, he emphasized to those who did that "your success as teachers would very much depend upon the degree to which the singularity, the uniqueness, of the confrontation between yourselves and each one of your students is permitted to determine your approach to them" (Gould 1984, 5). He cultivated in himself "those virtues of temperamental independence which signal the genuine re-creative fire" (Gould 1984, 252), almost to the point of becoming a hermit. He longed for "a world where nobody cared what anybody else was doing -- in which the entire group-think ... syndrome utterly disappeared" (Gould 1984, 460). This ethical individualism is fully consistent with his views on the mission of the artist, which Payzant describes as follows:
According to Gould, artists have a moral mission and art has an unrealized potential for the betterment of humankind. Human improvement can occur only as the result of modification in our attitudes as solitary, private individuals, and not as some kind of collective modification of our species, voluntary or not. Each person must accept the challenge of contemplatively creating his own "divinity." "Divinity" here refers to the better part of individual human nature, which for Gould is the introspectively and ecstatically contemplative part.... (Payzant 1984, 120)
Yet this artistic mission is not moralistic, nor does it involve the kind of "preoccupation with an art that communicates easily with the masses" or "insistence upon an overt message" (Gould 1984, 174) that Gould found so repugnant in Socialist Realism. For Gould, "the purpose of art is ... to serve its own end, from which each man will derive what he chooses to derive" (Gould 1984, 170). It is this ideal that Glenn Gould pursued throughout his life as a musician and thinker, and that makes him a powerful example of aesthetic and ethical individualism.
And the final paragraphs of "Passing on the Sense of Wonder":
We should note the conclusion of Nock's Epilogue too, where Nock proposes "a violent frontal assault" on the "vocationalists" like Murdstone, who think "the world be merely a place to work in," a world where "nobody seems to be having a very good time," whether poor or rich:
All the physical apparatus of happiness is about us, and yet no one, apparently, is having a cent's worth of fun out of it. Well, here is the classicist's opportunity. He can throw his experienced eye, trained by his incessant commerce with the ages, over this anomaly and show cause for it. He can survey the life of our well-to-do and poor alike, and show that about the only fun to be had out of such a life is the search for fun, and show why the desire remains ungratified. He can show by practical example -- by horrible example -- where, in the preparation for life, certain essential values which have been disregarded by the vocationalist, come in. Thus he has now an advantage which he never had before, in the opportunity to appraise a whole society which represents quite fairly the finished work of his opponents. But we are convinced that he will once more merely fumble this advantage unless he stands immovable upon the bed-rock thesis that life is given to human beings for their enjoyment, that all its other purposes, if it have any, are incidental and ancillary to this one; that the human world by its original intention is not Murdstone's world, not a world of industry and efficiency, but a world of joy.
Just before Hector's final speech in The History Boys, Hector's rival, Irwin, says: "He was a good man but I do not think there is time for his kind of teaching any more." One of the students replies: "No. Love apart, it is the only education worth having."

Live in the sense of wonder, and in the world of joy. Take it, feel it and pass it on.

That's sometimes all you can do -- for someone, somewhere, one day. It's everything.
I now add that, when you engage in this process, you yourself live ecstatically -- today.

And that is everything.