Wednesday, December 12, 2007

my apologies to philosophy

In an apparent tribute to unilateralism the University Chancellor held out and opted to hold classes despite a formidable glaze of ice. Oh, well, 'water under the bridge' as they say. I was thinking again and realized that I think often. And that seems ironic. Okay, I'll come clean: I don't hate philosophy. In fact, it can be interesting and aid our understanding of the world. It's just that often the people who love it most seem so pretentious and out of touch. Philosophy is like a tropical poison tree frog. It may look cool, intriguing, and occasionally pretty- but. if you lick it (or get too intimate) it WILL murder you! Indeed, the cancerous effects of elitism can be found throughout the higher reaches of any field. (Philosophy merely has a long and noble tradition with this). You know the people: "I'm too busy with my terribly important x, y, and z to waste my time dealing with people. It distracts me from important things, like (fill in blank with respective discipline)." They are everywhere and certainly musicians have been guilty too! Sure, concentration and dedication are necessary for any success but if people take a back seat our priorities are screwed up. Maybe I have too much youthful naivety but I like to pretend that people like jobs/career fields because they want to make the world a better place by changing individual people's lives- one at a time. And heaven knows we need some changing! Look at the news: A troubled teen from suburban Omaha, NE guns down 8 random people at Westroads Mall. Of course, no one is truly random. Everyone has a life and a story that is utterly unique. Brutal toying with that defies explanation. All the sociological and psychological analyses in the world won't undo grief. They never will calm the human soul stunned in the face of raw evil. The smallest and simplest response is love. And it is the best. I read a marvelous op-ed piece by Leonard Pitts the other day entitled "Deliver Us from Our Capacity for Evil." He goes to the Holocaust Museum every holiday season. It reminds him why we need deliverance- often from ourselves. But the response is simple. When we realize that everyone is ultimately trying to get by, trying to find some sense of happiness, fulfillment, or love in their life, then the world is much smaller. There are suddenly no random people- for we share all the most important things! That solidarity is wonderful and yet it is so terrible that it often takes evil to refocus the perspective. I was reading a Christmas letter today from my great-aunt whose husband passed away on their Kansas farm this summer. In talking about great uncle Walt's passing this lady used language so similar to everything I've been reading in the paper about the Westroads Tragedy. It struck me. Grief is one of those precious few things that binds people from all time and space together. I once encountered a 4th century poem by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius that offers a vivid and powerful imagine of death and eternal life. This translated text, "Take him, earth, for cherishing," was set to music in 1963 by English composer Herbert Howells- to be sung in a memorial service for JFK at Washington National Cathedral. Howells' writing is distinctive to say the least- full of exquisite dissonance and elegiac nobility. The spirit of this text and Howells' composition style were a match made in heaven- the result is one of the finest motets of the 20th century. A grand piece of nearly 8 minutes, Britain's musical expression of solidarity and sympathy with a grieving nation captures all the fear, pain, and uncertainty of death as well as the steadfast joy of salvation. I have never heard confidence more powerfully portrayed in music than at the words "take, o take him" in the final stanza. (It's not gender neutral, but perhaps we can forgive our ancient Latin poet). The choir of St. Paul's in London has an excellent recording of this in a Howells compilation on the Hyperion label. Borrow it. Buy it. Listen to it. You can hear heaven.

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