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Ursula K. Le Guin on Growing Older and What Beauty Really Means

“There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.”

“A Dog is, on the whole, what you would call a simple soul,” T.S. Eliot simpered in his beloved 1930s poem “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” proclaiming that “Cats are much like you and me.” Indeed, cats have a long history of being anthropomorphized in dissecting the human condition — but, then again, so do dogs. We’ve always used our feline and canine companions to better understand ourselves, but nowhere have Cat and Dog served a more poignant metaphorical purpose than in the 1992 essay “Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts about Beauty” by Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929), found in the altogether spectacular volume The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library), which also gave us Le Guin, at her finest and sharpest, on being a man.

Le Guin contrasts the archetypal temperaments of our favorite pets:

Dogs don’t know what they look like. Dogs don’t even know what size they are. No doubt it’s our fault, for breeding them into such weird shapes and sizes. My brother’s dachshund, standing tall at eight inches, would attack a Great Dane in the full conviction that she could tear it apart. When a little dog is assaulting its ankles the big dog often stands there looking confused — “Should I eat it? Will it eat me? I am bigger than it, aren’t I?” But then the Great Dane will come and try to sit in your lap and mash you flat, under the impression that it is a Peke-a-poo.

Artwork by Mark Ulriksen from ‘The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.’ Click image for more.

Cats, on the other hand, have a wholly different scope of self-awareness:

Cats know exactly where they begin and end. When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it. They know you have to keep holding the door open. That is why their tail is there. It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.

Housecats know that they are small, and that it matters. When a cat meets a threatening dog and can’t make either a horizontal or a vertical escape, it’ll suddenly triple its size, inflating itself into a sort of weird fur blowfish, and it may work, because the dog gets confused again — “I thought that was a cat. Aren’t I bigger than cats? Will it eat me?”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on Gay Talese’s taxonomy of cats. Click image for details.

More than that, Le Guin notes, cats are aesthetes, vain and manipulative in their vanity. In a passage that takes on whole new layers of meaning twenty years later, in the heyday of the photographic cat meme, she writes:

Cats have a sense of appearance. Even when they’re sitting doing the wash in that silly position with one leg behind the other ear, they know what you’re sniggering at. They simply choose not to notice. I knew a pair of Persian cats once; the black one always reclined on a white cushion on the couch, and the white one on the black cushion next to it. It wasn’t just that they wanted to leave cat hair where it showed up best, though cats are always thoughtful about that. They knew where they looked best. The lady who provided their pillows called them her Decorator Cats.

Artwork by Ronald Searle from ‘The Big New Yorker Book of Cats.’ Click image for more.

A master of bridging the playful and the poignant, Le Guin returns to the human condition:

A lot of us humans are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like. The most extreme example of this ignorance must be the people who design the seats on airplanes. At the other extreme, the people who have the most accurate, vivid sense of their own appearance may be dancers. What dancers look like is, after all, what they do.

Echoing legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham’s contemplation of dance as “the human body moving in time-space,” Le Guin considers the dancers she knows and their extraordinary lack of “illusions or confusions about what space they occupy.” Recounting the anecdote of one young dancer who upon scraping his ankle exclaimed, “I have an owie on my almost perfect body!” Le Guin writes:

It was endearingly funny, but it was also simply true: his body is almost perfect. He knows it is, and knows where it isn’t. He keeps it as nearly perfect as he can, because his body is his instrument, his medium, how he makes a living, and what he makes art with. He inhabits his body as fully as a child does, but much more knowingly. And he’s happy about it.

Photograph from Helen Keller’s life-changing visit to Martha Graham’s dance studio. Click image for details.

What dance does, above all, is offer the promise of precisely such bodily happiness — not of perfection, but of satisfaction. Dancers, Le Guin argues, are “so much happier than dieters and exercisers.” She considers the impossible ideals of the latter, which cripple them in the same way that perfectionism cripples creativity in writing and art:

Perfection is “lean” and “taut” and “hard” — like a boy athlete of twenty, a girl gymnast of twelve. What kind of body is that for a man of fifty or a woman of any age? “Perfect”? What’s perfect? A black cat on a white cushion, a white cat on a black one . . . A soft brown woman in a flowery dress . . . There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.

Photograph by Zed Nelson from his project ‘Love Me.’ Click image for more.

And just like that, Le Guin pirouettes, elegantly but imperceptibly, from the lighthearted to the serious. Reflecting on various cultures’ impossible and often painful ideals of human beauty, “especially of female beauty,” she writes:

I think of when I was in high school in the 1940s: the white girls got their hair crinkled up by chemicals and heat so it would curl, and the black girls got their hair mashed flat by chemicals and heat so it wouldn’t curl. Home perms hadn’t been invented yet, and a lot of kids couldn’t afford these expensive treatments, so they were wretched because they couldn’t follow the rules, the rules of beauty.

Beauty always has rules. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves. Most of the time I just play the game myself in a very small way, buying a new lipstick, feeling happy about a pretty new silk shirt.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

Le Guin, who writes about aging with more grace, humor, and dignity than any other writer I’ve read, turns to the particularly stifling ideal of eternal youth:

One rule of the game, in most times and places, is that it’s the young who are beautiful. The beauty ideal is always a youthful one. This is partly simple realism. The young are beautiful. The whole lot of ’em. The older I get, the more clearly I see that and enjoy it.

[…]

And yet I look at men and women my age and older, and their scalps and knuckles and spots and bulges, though various and interesting, don’t affect what I think of them. Some of these people I consider to be very beautiful, and others I don’t. For old people, beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with bones. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.

But what makes the transformations of aging so anguishing, Le Guin poignantly observes, isn’t the loss of beauty — it’s the loss of identity, a frustratingly elusive phenomenon to begin with. She writes:

I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty — I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.

[…]

We’re like dogs, maybe: we don’t really know where we begin and end. In space, yes; but in time, no.

[…]

A child’s body is very easy to live in. An adult body isn’t. The change is hard. And it’s such a tremendous change that it’s no wonder a lot of adolescents don’t know who they are. They look in the mirror — that is me? Who’s me?

And then it happens again, when you’re sixty or seventy.

Artwork by Mark Ulriksen from ‘The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.’ Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls Rilke to mind — “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” he memorably wrote, “since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” — Le Guin admonishes against our impulse to intellectualize out of the body, away from it:

Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me… I am not “in” this body, I am this body. Waist or no waist.

But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.

[…]

There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.

And yet for all the ideals we impose on our earthy embodiments, Le Guin argues in her most poignant but, strangely, most liberating point, it is death that ultimately illuminates the full spectrum of our beauty — death, the ultimate equalizer of time and space; death, the great clarifier that makes us see that, as Rebecca Goldstein put it, “a person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world.” With this long-view lens, Le Guin remembers her own mother and the many dimensions of her beauty:

My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing — I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm — I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.

That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.

The Wave in the Mind remains the kind of book that stays with you for life — the kind of book that is life.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man

A journey to where the semicolon meets the soul.

Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s enduring words, “are together with no one but ourselves”? However much we might exert ourselves on learning to stop letting others define us, the definitions continue to be hurled at us — definitions predicated on who we should be in relation to some concrete or abstract other, some ideal, some benchmark beyond the boundaries of who we already are.

One of the most important authors of our time, Ursula K. Le Guin has influenced such celebrated literary icons as Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. At her best — and to seek the “best” in an altogether spectacular body of work seems almost antithetical — she blends anthropology, social psychology, and sheer literary artistry to explore complex, often difficult subjects with remarkable grace. Subjects, for instance, like who we are and what gender really means as we — men, women, ungendered souls — try to inhabit our constant tussle between inner and outer, individual and social, private and performative. This is what Le Guin examines in an extraordinary essay titled “Introducing Myself,” which Le Guin first wrote as a performance piece in the 1980s and later updated for the beautifully titled, beautifully written, beautifully wide-ranging 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library). To speak of a subject so common by birth and so minced by public discourse in a way that is completely original and completely compelling is no small feat — in fact, it is the kind of feat of writing Jack Kerouac must have had in mind when he contemplated the crucial difference between genius and talent.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

Le Guin writes:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market, and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn’t make it to the bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.

Illustration from The Human Body (1959)

Noting that when she was born (1929), “there actually were only men” — lest we forget, even the twentieth century’s greatest public intellectuals of the female gender used the pronoun “he” to refer to the whole lot of human beings — Le Guin plays with this notion of the universal pronoun:

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

Le Guin turns to the problem of the body, which is indeed problematic in the context of this Generic He:

I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man, and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. I am shaped wrong. People are supposed to be lean. You can’t be too thin, everybody says so, especially anorexics. People are supposed to be lean and taut, because that’s how men generally are, lean and taut, or anyhow that’s how a lot of men start out and some of them even stay that way. And men are people, people are men, that has been well established, and so people, real people, the right kind of people, are lean. But I’m really lousy at being people, because I’m not lean at all but sort of podgy, with actual fat places. I am untaut.

Illustration by Yang Liu from Man Meets Woman, a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes

For an example of someone who did Man right, Le Guin points to Hemingway, He with “the beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences,” and returns to her own insufficient Manness with a special wink at semicolons and a serious gleam at the significance of how we die:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.

But between the half-assed semicolons and the guns lies the crux of the gender-imitation problem — the tyranny of how we think and talk about sex:

Sex is even more boring as a spectator sport than all the other spectator sports, even baseball. If I am required to watch a sport instead of doing it, I’ll take show jumping. The horses are really good-looking. The people who ride them are mostly these sort of nazis, but like all nazis they are only as powerful and successful as the horse they are riding, and it is after all the horse who decides whether to jump that five-barred gate or stop short and let the nazi fall off over its neck. Only usually the horse doesn’t remember it has the option. Horses aren’t awfully bright. But in any case, show jumping and sex have a good deal in common, though you usually can only get show jumping on American TV if you can pick up a Canadian channel, which is not true of sex. Given the option, though I often forget that I have an option, I certainly would watch show jumping and do sex. Never the other way round. But I’m too old now for show jumping, and as for sex, who knows? I do; you don’t.

Le Guin parlays this subtle humor into her most serious and piercing point, partway between the tragic and the hopeful — the issue of aging:

Here I am, old, when I wrote this I was sixty years old, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” as Yeats said, but then, he was a man. And now I am over seventy. And it’s all my own fault. I get born before they invent women, and I live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I forget all about staying young, and so I didn’t. And my tenses get all mixed up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?

Not a whole lot.

I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Olay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young. And then I look back on all my strenuous efforts, because I really did try, I tried hard to be a man, to be a good man, and I see how I failed at that. I am at best a bad man. An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons. And I wonder what was the use. Sometimes I think I might just as well give the whole thing up. Sometimes I think I might just as well exercise my option, stop short in front of the five-barred gate, and let the nazi fall off onto his head. If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.

The Wave in the Mind, like Le Guin’s mind, is joltingly original in its totality, Chinook salmon in the wild. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us.

BP

MLK’s Lost Lectures on Technology, Alienation, Activism, and the Three Ways of Resisting the System

“There has always been a force struggling to respect higher values. None of the current evils rose without resistance, nor have they persisted without opposition.”

MLK’s Lost Lectures on Technology, Alienation, Activism, and the Three Ways of Resisting the System

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic,” Maya Angelou observed in her finest interview, “because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

A decade earlier, in his 1967 Massey Lectures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) examined the forces that dispirit the young into cynicism — that most puerile form of impatience — by mapping the three primary regions of reaction and resistance in the landscape of social change.

Launched in 1961 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and named after Vincent Massey — the first Canadian-born person to serve as governor general of Canada, who had spearheaded a royal commission for Canadian arts, letters, and sciences, producing the landmark Massey Report that led to the establishment of the National Library of Canada — the annual Massey Lectures invited a prominent scholar to deliver five half-hour talks along the vector of their passion and purpose, which were then broadcast on public radio each Thursday evening. Eventually, the CBC began publishing the lectures in book form. But some of the earliest ones, including the five Dr. King delivered in the final months of his life, remained unprinted for decades, until they were finally released in 2007 as The Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from Five Great Thinkers (public library).

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964 (Photograph by Dick DeMarsico. Library of Congress.)

In his third lecture, titled “Youth and Social Action,” Dr. King presents a taxonomy of the three types of people into which the era’s youth had been “splintered” — his own superb word-choice — by the era’s social forces.

More than half a century hence, it is a useful exercise, temporally sobering and culturally calibrating, to consider what the equivalents of these archetypes might be in our present time, in our present language. Our language might have changed dramatically — Dr. King was writing in the epoch before the invention of women, when “man” denoted all of humanity; an epoch when the acronym BIPOC would have drawn a blank stare at best and “Negro” was his term of choice — but we are still living with the underlying complexities which language always seeks to clarify and contain. The social forces splintering the present generation of youth have changed, and they have not changed — an eternal echo of Zadie Smith’s observation that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

With the caveat that the three principal groups sometimes overlap, Dr. King describes the first:

The largest group of young people is struggling to adapt itself to the prevailing values of society. Without much enthusiasm, they accept the system of government, the economic relations, the property system, and the social stratifications both engender. But even so, they are a profoundly troubled group, and are harsh critics of the status quo.

It is easy to picture the young of our own time, roiling with the same restless ambivalence, the same resentful submission to the system, perched on their standing desks across the glassy campuses of Google and Facebook, drinking corporate kombucha on tap while composing impassioned tweets against police brutality, homophobia, and climate change, tender with the terror of being a person in the world, a budding person in a world that feels too immense and immovable. Dr. King captures this ambivalence with his characteristic compassionate curiosity:

In this largest group, social attitudes are not congealed or determined; they are fluid and searching.

Illustration from How to Be a Nonconformist — a high school girl’s 1968 satire of conformity-culture.

He contrasts the first group with the second — those in outright and outspoken rejection of the status quo:

The radicals… range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather than in men or in faulty operation. These are a new breed of radicals.

This claim of novelty is somewhat ahistorical, or perhaps too narrowly American, for Dr. King’s perceptive description of that generation’s spirit is an equally apt description of the spirit of the generation that fueled the French Revolution two centuries earlier, an ocean apart. He sketches the radicals of the 1960s:

Very few adhere to any established ideology; some borrow from old doctrines of revolution; but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of a new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. They are not repeating previous revolutionary doctrines; most of them have not even read the revolutionary classics. Ironically, their rebelliousness comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality, and met tenacious and vivacious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam War, and experienced futility. So they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order.

In a sentiment that fully captures today’s social media — that ever-protruding, ever-teetering platform for standing against rather than for things, a place increasingly unsatisfying and increasingly evocative of Bertrand Russell’s century-old observation that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it” — Dr. King adds of these so-called radicals:

It is fair to say, though, that at present they know what they don’t want rather than what they do want.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity, 1956.

Identifying the third group as the era’s “hippies” — a group the contemporary equivalent of which is especially interesting to identify and locate in our present generational landscape — he writes:

The hippies are not only colorful but complex; and in many respects their extreme conduct illuminates the negative effect of society’s evils on sensitive young people. While there are variations, those who identify with this group have a common philosophy.

They are struggling to disengage from society as their expression of their rejection of it. They disavow responsibility to organized society. Unlike the radicals, they are not seeking change, but flight. When occasionally they merge with a peace demonstration, it is not to better the political world, but to give expression to their own world. The hard-core hippy is a remarkable contradiction. He uses drugs to turn inward, away from reality, to find peace and security. Yet he advocates love as the highest human value — love, which can exist only in communication between people, and not in the total isolation of the individual.

Art by Corinna Luyken from The Tree in Me.

In an especially insightful comment that applies to so many fleeting but vital and vitalizing movements across the sweep of history, he adds:

The importance of the hippies is not in their unconventional behavior, but in the fact that some hundreds of thousands of young people, in turning to a flight form reality, are expressing a profoundly discrediting judgment on the society they emerge from.

He proffers a prediction substantiated by history, contouring the possible future of some of our own social movements when they have become another era’s past:

It seems to me that hippies will not last long as a mass group. They cannot survive because there is no solution in escape. Some of them may persist by solidifying into a secular religious sect: their movement already has many such characteristics. We might see some of them establish utopian colonies, like the 17th and 18th century communities established by sects that profoundly opposed the existing order and its values. Those communities did not survive. But they were important to their contemporaries because their dream of social justice and human value continues as a dream of mankind.

Art by Nahid Kazemi from Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon by JonArno Lawson.

The most interesting challenge of applying Dr. King’s taxonomy to our own time is that of seeing beyond the surface expressions that shimmer with the illusion of contrast, peering into the deeper similitudes between the attitudes of the past and those of the present. Escapism doesn’t always look like escapism — escapism can masquerade as pseudo-engagement. A generation’s drug of choice might be a psychoactive molecule, or it might be an intoxicating self-righteousness masquerading as wakefulness to difference. Technology might give the illusion of participatory action in democracy while effecting alienation at the deepest stratum of the soul — something especially true of the vast majority of pseudo-political uses of our so-called social media. Dr. King writes:

Nothing in our glittering technology can raise man to new heights, because material grown has been made an end in itself, and, in the absence of moral purpose, man himself becomes smaller as the works of man become bigger.

Another distortion of the technological revolution is that instead of strengthening democracy… it has helped to eviscerate it. Gargantuan industry and government, woven into an intricate computerized mechanism, leaves the person outside… When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation — perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society… Alienation should be foreign to the young. Growth requires connection and trust. Alienation is a form of living death. It is the acid of despair that dissolves society.

In consonance with the animating spirit of this here labor of love, he insists upon the importance of mining the collective record of experience we call history “for positive ingredients which have been there, but in relative obscurity.” Echoing Whitman’s gentle long-ago exhortation that “the past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them,” Dr. King adds:

Against the exaltation of technology, there has always been a force struggling to respect higher values. None of the current evils rose without resistance, nor have they persisted without opposition.

Complement with Seamus Heaney’s vivifying advice to the young, Kierkegaard on nonconformity and the power of the minority, and Richard Powers’s antidote to cynicisms, then revisit Dr. King on the six pillars of resistance to the status quo.

BP

The Gifted Listener: Composer Aaron Copland on Honing Your Talent for Listening to Music

“There are few pleasures in art greater than the secure sense that one can recognize beauty when one comes upon it… Recognizing the beautiful in an abstract art like music partakes somewhat of a minor miracle.”

The Gifted Listener: Composer Aaron Copland on Honing Your Talent for Listening to Music

“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote to a friend, adding the requisite flamboyance of a 1920s radical: “Without music I should wish to die.”

Months after Millay’s death, Harvard offered its prestigious Charles Edward Norton Professorship of Poetry for the 1951–1952 academic year to the composer Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900–December 2, 1990) — the first non-poet to hold the post since its inception a quarter century earlier. More than a decade before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for capturing the human experience in music, Copland brought to his six lectures, later published as Music and Imagination (public library), not only the mind of an extraordinary musician but the central concern of his life — the artist’s role in the human family and the vital mutual nourishment between those who make art and those whose lives art touches, with a particular focus on the most commonly underappreciated agent in the musical universe: the gifted listener.

Aaron Copland on his way to a concert in Paris, early 1920s. (Photographer unknown. Library of Congress Archives.)

Copland begins by considering the surface contrasts and deeper resonances between poetry and music:

I used to harbor a secret feeling of commiseration for poets… trying to make music with nothing but words at their command. I suppose there exist at all times some few men* who have that much magic in them, but words at best will always seem to a composer a poor substitute for tones… Later… I came gradually to see that beyond the music of both arts there is an essence that joins them — an area where the meanings behind the notes and the meaning beyond the words spring from some common source… The poetry of music… signifies the largest part of our emotive life — the part that sings.

The poetry of music, Copland intimates, is composed both by the musician, in the creation of music and its interpretation in performance, and by the listener, in the act of listening that is itself the work of reflective interpretation. This makes listening as much a creative act as composition and performance — not a passive receptivity to the object that is music, but an active practice that confers upon the object its meaning: an art to be mastered, a talent to be honed. (In the same era, the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm was making the same countercultural point about the art of loving, as distinct from the damaging cultural notion of love as an object to be found and passively received.)

Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Copland observes that because the process by which music gives voice to our inner lives is so delicate and complex, it becomes “a very hazardous undertaking,” for there are many points at which it can break down:

At no point can you seize the musical experience and hold it. Unlike that moment in a film when a still shot suddenly immobilizes a complete scene, a single musical moment immobilized makes audible only one chord, which in itself is comparatively meaningless. This never-ending flow of music forces us to use our imaginations, for music is in a continual state of becoming.

This sentiment he borrows from Auden, who thought deeply and widely about the life of art and who believed that “a verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music is immediate; it goes on to become.” This becoming, Copland argues, is an imaginative act both for the musician and for the listener:

The more I live the life of music the more I am convinced that it is the freely imaginative mind that is at the core of all vital music making and music listening… An imaginative mind is essential to the creation of art in any medium, but it is even more essential in music precisely because music provides the broadest possible vista for the imagination since it is the freest, the most abstract, the least fettered of all the arts: no story content, no pictorial representation, no regularity of meter, no strict limitation of frame need hamper the intuitive functioning of the imaginative mind.

While elsewhere on the Harvard campus the psychologist Jerome Bruner was incubating his pioneering insight into the key to great storytelling and positing that creative writers both need and make creative readers, Copland writes:

All musicians, creators and performers alike, think of the gifted listener as a key figure in the musical universe.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, inspired by the artist’s experience of listening to a Wagner symphony. (Available as a print.)

A century after the underappreciated genius Margaret Fuller insisted that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Copland nuances the mathematical splendor of music with the shadings of its subjective reception in the listener’s mind. In a sentiment evocative of Nabokov’s famous aphorism “There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” Copland insists that the fancy — the creative imagination of the gifted listener — is what renders “the facts of music, so called” meaningful. He writes:

Listening is a talent, and like any other talent or gift, we possess it in varying degrees… There are two principal requirements for talented listening: first, the ability to open oneself up to musical experience; and secondly, the ability to evaluate critically that experience. Neither of these is possible without a certain native gift. Listening implies an inborn talent of some degree, which, again, like any other talent, can be trained and developed. This talent has a certain “purity” about it. We exercise it, so to speak, for ourselves alone; there is nothing to be gained form it in a material sense. Listening is its own reward; there are no prizes to be won, no contests of creative listening. But I hold that person fortunate who has the gift, for there are few pleasures in art greater than the secure sense that one can recognize beauty when one comes upon it… Recognizing the beautiful in an abstract art like music partakes somewhat of a minor miracle.

Echoing Goethe’s exuberant case for the perceptive powers of beginner’s mind, he writes:

The sensitive amateur, just because he lacks the prejudices and preconceptions of the professional musician, is sometimes a surer guide to the true quality of a piece of music. The ideal listener… would combine the preparation of the trained professional with the innocence of the intuitive amateur… The ideal listener, above all else, possesses the ability to lend himself to the power of music.

[…]

Without theories and without preconceived notions of what music ought to be, [the gifted listener] lends himself as a sentient human being to the power of music… We all listen on an elementary plane of musical consciousness… On that level, whatever the music may be, we experience basic reactions such as tension and release, density and transparency, a smooth or angry surface, the music’s swellings and subsidings, its pushing forward or hanging back, its length, its speed, its thunders and whisperings — and a thousand other psychologically based reflections of our physical life of movement and gesture, and our inner, subconscious mental life.

One of William Blake’s paintings for The Book of Job, 1806. (Available as a print.)

In essence, music performs an enchanted act of subconscious storytelling. (Which might be why Maurice Sendak considered musicality the key to great storytelling.) In a sentiment at first blush inflammatory, especially for music-lovers and especially coming from a musician, Copland writes:

The power of music to move us is something quite special as an artistic phenomenon [but] I do not hold that music has the power to move us beyond any of the other arts.

The singular power of music, as Copland conceives of it, makes me think of what it feels like to stand beneath the star-salted sky beholding the universe, with all of its immensity and intimacy — that grand cosmic silence singing with everything there is. He writes:

There is something about music that keeps its distance even at the moment that it engulfs us. It is at the same time outside and away from us and inside and part of us. In one sense it dwarfs us, and in another we master it. We are led on and on, and yet in some strange way we never lose control. It is the very nature of music to give us the distillation of sentiments, the essence of experience transfused and heightened and expressed in such fashion that we may contemplate it at the same instant that we are swayed by it.

Aaron Copland conducting in rehearsal at the Shed, Tanglewood. (Date and photographer unknown. Library of Congress Archives.)

Leaning on philosopher Susanne Langer’s influential inquiry into what gives music its power and her conclusion that “music is our myth of the inner life,” Copland returns to the gifted listener as a crucial instrument for the power of music and a crucial agent in its collaborative mythmaking:

A healthy musical curiosity and a broad musical experience sharpens the critical faculty of even the most talented amateur.

[…]

The dream of every musician who loves his art is to involve gifted listeners everywhere as an active force in the musical community. The attitude of each individual listener, especially the gifted listener, is the principal resource we have in bringing to fruition the immense musical potentialities of our own time.

Complement this fragment of the wholly insightful Music and Imagination — which went on to inspire the young John Coltrane and an entire generation of other artists — with composer Elliott Schwartz, writing a generation later, on the seven essential skills of listening, then revisit Bob Dylan on music as an instrument of truth, Aldous Huxley on music as an instrument of transcendence, and a tender meditation on music and the mystery of aliveness.

BP

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