When I started this blog a few weeks ago, my plan was to add to it regularly, but of course life has a way of changing our plans. In addition to all the typical responsibilities of a family guy, we were recently slammed with some unexpected home repairs (short version: a few water spots turned into a gutted and – hopefully – soon to be remodeled bathroom). Needless to say, waxing philosophical about the deeper meaning of saxophone slide to the back burner. Paradoxically, even practicing saxophone has started working against this deeper meaning. Summer is quickly fading and the joy of reconnecting with the instrument and playing new music I experienced at the beginning of break is rapidly deteriorating into a scramble to finish learning everything before school starts – discovery is replaced by urgency.
In this we find a tension between our ideal world, the world as we’d like it to be, and the world as it really is, between the artistic drive (to imagine, create and express, to reach deep levels of human experience, to practice without interruption until we are actual finished for the day) and everything we end up doing instead (cutting the grass, doing the dishes, calling contractors, messing up passages we have worked in excruciating detail). The list goes on and on. In the end we find that all of the doing and deadlines pull us away from the way we’d really like to spend our time, not just in art, but in all aspects of our lives: the people we want to see, the activities we find rewarding, the books we’d rather be reading…
The tension between the ideal world and the ‘real’ world is also expressed in religion and philosophy, especially if we take Plato seriously. Platonic idealism offers a radically different perspective from the way our modern scientific-empirical society sees the world – and that’s the question, how do we ‘see.’ To over simplify, from an early age we are taught (or indoctrinated) that the real world is the world around us, the one we can see with our physical eyes, hear with our ears, and touch with our hands. Certain knowledge comes from measuring that world, and if it can’t be measured it can’t be known. In idealism this is reversed, the physical world around us is the illusion and reality, the real reality, is the sphere of ideas (hence real in quotes above), or as Plato called it the Forms. This reality is experienced through the mind (Greek nous, sometimes translated as intellect). For our purposes the key point is that this reality is non-physical and that reason, the faculty of mind (as distinct from brain), is the way we interface with what is real. From this perspective measurements wont tell you much about reality. This also means that all religious, spiritual systems, and metaphysics are, at least in a very general way, Platonic in the sense that they emphasis what is not physical as primary, more vital, or more real than what is seen with the physical eyes. Master Yoda is direct about his Platonism: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
The Neo-Platonists (Plato’s interpreters working several hundred years after him) focused on the religious implications of Plato. Chief among these was Plotinus, who said that the source of this non-physical reality is the One, which spills over from itself and fills reality with its essence (sounds a bit like the Force to me). Although the mind is the faculty by which we approach the One, it so transcends the limits of human reason that it cannot be known. Any attempts we make to understand or describe it fall woefully short because our thought and language are limited to what we can understand. Every attempt to articulate or even think about the One is necessarily faulty because our understanding is bound to our material existence in time and space – how do we think a thought that cannot be thought. The One exists beyond time and space, which is to say it is eternal. But we still have a problem of language because the One cannot even properly be said ‘to be’ because existence itself is too limited a condition for the all encompassing One. Here we come to the roots of aphophatic or negative theology. Since nothing can be said about the One, we can only say what it is not, but these negative statements are as equally inaccurate as the positive ones.
So we are in a negative loop of incomprehensibility that can bend the mind of the average westerner, but is old hat in India: “The Seers…call Him akshara, the Imperishable Reality. He is neither gross nor fine, neither short nor long, neither hot nor cold, neither light nor dark, neither of the nature of air, nor of space. He is without relations, without taste or smell, without eyes, ears, speech, mind, vigour, breath, mouth; he is without measure, without inside or outside. He experiences nothing and nothing experiences him” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishads 3.8.8). Note that not only is ultimate reality described in terms of what ‘He’ is not (which is not a description, but a negation, not to mention the whole masculine pronoun issue), but each negation comes with its opposite (neither hot nor cold, light nor dark) so that there’s no temptation of describing Imperishable Reality as the opposite of what it is not – both are equal faulty. This process of negation also works in the positive: he is light and he is also dark, thus reconciling opposites. Ultimate reality simultaneously is (and is not) it’s opposite, and by being both oppositions of every polarity (and not those oppositions) it dissolves into an ultimate, unlimited unity; what better to call this than ‘the One’. (For the record there’s no evidence that Plotinus got his ideas from India, but the parallels are striking.) If all these seems bizarre or groovy, it’s really nothing new for monotheists either if you stop to think about it, “‘for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite developed Plotinus’ idea of the incomprehensible, indescribable, unknowable source. In his brief but very dense and rewarding treatise Mystical Theology, he discusses Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai, and there he encounters the limits of the senses and reason in the face of the utter transcendence of God: “leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union…with it that transcends all being and all knowledge. For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of yourself and of all things you may be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the superessential Radiance of the Divine Darkness.”
Religion can be like the nervous musician frantically working on learning a part, but missing the music. Too often religion is reduced to morality, ethics, or (worst of all) doctrine – the actions and doings of faith, all of which bind us to the sensory-material world that can be defined and understood (i.e., measured). This misses what I would argue is the true mark of religion, which is to experience what Dionysius describes so well as the “Radiance of the Divine Darkness.” This experience comes not from doing or knowing or being anything, but rather form negating all knowledge, action and being, all of which are qualities of time and space. All of our conceptions about God are fundamentally flawed because when we conceive of something beyond conception, by definition, we are going to miss something. I think this is why the 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhart meant when he declared, “I pray God that he may quit me of god, for [his] unconditioned being is above god and all distinctions.” The goal is to transcend the material world and enter into the wholly other existence/non-existence of eternity. (To be sure ethics and morality are important, but they are results more than causes of this experience.)
If you hung in there this long and you felt like the system crashed, than you got the point – this type of negation is designed to crash rational thought and remind us that the mysteries of life and existence, and the ultimate source from which they spring is beyond our ability to comprehend, imagine or represent. Joseph Campbell sums all this up succinctly when he says that ultimate reality is “beyond names and forms.”
In his Celestial Hierarchies, Dionysius proposes that symbols are an essential way to interacting with that which is beyond names or forms. Psychologist Carl Jung defined a symbol as “the intimation of a meaning beyond the level of our present powers of comprehension,” while Art historian Anada Coomaraswamy describes symbolism as “the representation of a reality on a certain level of reference by a corresponding reality on another.” In other words, a symbol gives form to something we can’t understand or articulate and links the physical to the ideal. Symbols take many forms, but I think that what makes a proper symbol is the intent to use something material that we can encounter through the senses, to lead the mind beyond the senses to non-material reality.
St. John of Damascus, following Dionysius, explains the symbolic importance of religious icons: “Visible things are corporeal models which provide a vague understanding of intangible things…Anyone would say that our inability immediately to direct our thoughts to contemplation of higher things makes it necessary that familiar everyday media be utilized to give suitable form to what is formless, and make visible what cannot be depicted, so that we are able to construct understandable analogies…a certain perception takes place in the brain, prompted by bodily senses, which is then transmitted to the faculties of discernment, and adds to the treasury of knowledge something that was not there before” (On the Divine Images). Also influenced by Dionysius, Abbot Suger developed the Gothic style during his restoration of the Basilica St-Denis in Paris. The large stained-glass windows of the Gothic flood the church in light in order that, as his inscription on the church doors tells us, “the work should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights to the True Light where Christ is the true door” so that “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material and, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.” This symbolic goal is characteristic of sacred art and architecture around the world and from many traditions. Again we turn to Campbell to neatly summaries, “Behind all these manifestations is the one radiance, which shines through all things. The function of art is to reveal this radiance through the created object” (The Power of Myth).
The symbols I am most interested in are sound-symbols. The ultimate goal of music making is not technical accuracy (despite my increasing stress about learning my parts!), but rather musicality. But what does it mean to be musical? We hear a lot of talk about feelings, emotions and self-expression in music circles, and to be direct I’m not very interested in any of those things. What I am interested in is the symbolic function of music (and more precisely sound) to reveal the “Radiance of the Divine Darkness.” I will even go so far as to say that this goal is at the core of my unique musical language. But fearing I have already exhausted the reader’s patience, I’ll leave the particulars until the next post. Besides, it’s time to practice.