Unconscious Composers

[A PDF version of this post may be found here.]

Ideally, a good life is a larger version of what happens in the production of music – ideally, because not every effort to produce music succeeds. Some only yield cacophonous sound or music that makes its hearers cringe. Just so, the striving that is living does not inevitably issue in a harmonious production. But let’s consider what happens under ideal circumstances.

Suppose that I am a violinist. Moving the bow across the strings and working the fingerboard, I strive. My right hand holding the bow, my right arm moving it, my left hand dancing on the fingerboard, and my fingers pressing down on it, all work together, their movements coordinated by my skill and my understanding of the music I am attempting to generate. In my activity, potentially disparate movements are pressed into a complex coherent unity that will cause the sound issuing from my instrument to present itself to human ears as an equally complex unity of a different sort, namely as music.

As a musician, I always strive on at least these two fronts: to coordinate my movements so as to produce a sound that counts as music and to have the particular coordination I achieve match the objective that is the producing of the particular music I am trying to generate. Differently put, I strive for harmony, not musical harmony, but something akin to it. It is, on the one hand, a harmonious coordination among my movements, and, on the other, a perfect attunement between my activity and its objective.

As I hear the music I produce, my activity meets up with its goal progressively realized. It also meets up with an image of itself. The music is also a striving, a continuous questing for a goal, both internal and external to it. The internal goal is musical harmony, the gratifying integration of sounds, textures, and voices, that achieves its ultimate completion with the last sound or silence. The external goal is the achievement of an analogous effect on the audience in the form of a coherently integrated musical experience. The internal goal is harmonized sound. The external goal is harmonized auditory sensation and understanding.

Now when it comes to living, I am never just a musician. I am always also a man or a woman, a spouse or a parent, a son or a daughter, a citizen, a friend, a worker, and a human being. Moreover there is no score to follow. In my life, I am both the composer and the performer, and the only thing I have going for me is the quality of my ear. If it is a good ear, it tells me when my activities cohere and when they don’t, when my behavior is at odds with my convictions and when they are in tune, when my judgment insults my feelings and when the two harmonize. It will tell me as well when my beliefs are unrealistic, my feelings extravagant, or my thoughts confused. It will have me cringing at all of that. And unlike a good ear for actual music, which comes to its owners mostly by nature, a good ear in the larger context is educable. I can attend to the quality of mine and improve its receptivity. If I do that, I will both hear better and create fewer occasions that will cause me or others to cringe.

Though it may sound like one, this is not a sermon about how people ought to behave. It is a brief adumbration of what confronts us as humans. Whether or not I am interested in composition and performance on that larger scale, and irrespective of whether I even think of my life in such terms, I live with what is so, which includes the results of my own and of others’ behavior. I may be indifferent to my obligations as a parent or a spouse. The results confront me in children I increasingly dislike or in a marriage that feels like an ordeal. I may not care if I am divided against myself, or feel impotent, in any case, to remedy that state of affairs. I live that self-division all the same.

I may not care either if 14% of the people in my town live below the poverty line, or if yet another zealot somewhere sets off a car bomb in a crowded marketplace. But whether I care or not, I live with the result, which is a misery-filled, unsafe, and unharmonious world. It takes a toll on my peace of mind.

The music I hear is often jarring, irrespective of whether I am the one producing it or stand by while others do. Its sound can be so hard to bear that it brings out the unconscious composer in me. I stop reading the paper or watching the news. I render myself selectively deaf, typically by turning up the volume of sounds I’d rather hear. I willfully limit my attention to all that is good in the world or to my own small part of it where the going happens to be good. I avoid poor neighborhoods or low end shops where I may run into the poor and see them counting pennies. Instead, I lavish attention on my own house and on my own neighborhood. I turn into a connoisseur of nice places to visit and of stores in which shopping remains an unspoilt pleasure.

The typical unconscious composer is a Romantic, meaning a person who seeks redemption of all that is jarring in the one moment that drowns out the world’s trying disarray. If my personal life is a disaster so unbearable that I can’t take the edge off it through rationalizations – actually also a form of composition, I will flee from it into oblivion of one sort or another. In intermittent alcoholic haze and partial numbness, I may find a soothing equanimity that knows only its own pleasing harmony. In the physical or emotional intensity of the occasional affair, or in the exciting prospect of replacing my spouse with a new one, I may drown out the hopelessness of my marriage. In obsessive absorption in my work, or in some hobby, or in some great social cause, I may find the unity that is missing from my life. It may not only justify my half-hearted or irresponsible parenting, but render me mercifully oblivious to its consequences.

The list could go on, both for better and for worse. If my convictions are at odds with one another to the point where I can no longer ignore that, I’ll find a way of modifying them, even if the result is another incipient clash, somewhere down the road, with something else that I believe. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Or perhaps I talk myself into the grand belief that reality itself is somehow mysteriously contradictory, in which case my own inconsistencies testify loudly to the quality of my receptivity. Sometimes, modifying my convictions in the interest of greater harmony can be a good thing. Sometimes it isn’t, as when the result, however gratifying temporarily, increases the overall cacophony.

All this unconscious or stop-gap harmonizing to which one resorts when one is not interested in, or perhaps incapable of, envisaging one’s life as a classical composition is a very interesting phenomenon. It strongly suggests that whether we see ourselves as composers or not, we always are and have no choice in the matter. It is our natural response to the music we hear, especially to its dissonances, apparently as inevitable as night follows day.

Does this show that living is a striving? It comes close to it. None of this behavior makes any sense without the assumption that humans are chronically in the harmonizing business. They are not all equally good at it. Judging by the results, some are embarrassingly bad unconscious composers. The only harmony in their lives comes to them in those rare moments of pleasure or involvement the intensity of which eclipses the otherwise ubiquitous cacophony. But in their relentless pursuit of such moments, even they appear engaged in a striving the object of which transcends those moments. They yearn for a unity that, for one reason or another, eludes them in their larger lives, and for the absence of which those moments have to make up.

Furthermore, that yearning itself is incomprehensible absent a felt discomfort with life that would be inexplicable but for the roots it has in the sensing of disharmony and in the emotions that perception induces. Not all obsessive pleasure seeking, for example, can be explained as a natural response to a life filled with actual misery or deprivation. Pleasure is not only the poor man’s illusion of the good. The rich man may love it just as much, if not more. How explain that, if not in terms of a life experienced as empty or as downright unbearable without the relief that momentary gratification brings? But how can an opulent life feel empty or unbearable? It can by virtue of its apparent randomness, ostensible lack of purpose, or perceived meaninglessness, all of which are forms of disharmony the effects of which make themselves felt as emotional discomfort with that life.

If I paint a depressing picture, it is to encourage its perception, not as the antithesis, but as a version of the prettier picture that I could paint. Not all pleasure is a reprehensible flight from reality. Not every engagement in a great social cause is a quest for anesthesia. And not every recourse to anesthesia is a cowardly betrayal of who we are.

As there are inept parents, so there are many good ones. For every disastrous marriage, there are countless unions between people the quality of which reinforces one’s faith in love and companionship. For every person who talks himself into even greater confusion trying to sort out his confused beliefs, there is another who emerges from that endeavor more clearheaded.

My point is that whether they are individually good at it or not, and whether they care or not, all humans strive at very moment for the same thing: harmony. We are all musicians, artists at heart, who cringe at the sight or sound of ugliness because we love beauty. Confronted by ugliness or its possibility, we do what we can to mitigate its impact on our sensibility and to put beauty in its place. That is why we love actual music when it is good, or good art. They confront us as poetic realizations of our deepest yearning. In them, we meet up with ourselves as the beings we are.

Of course, we also meet up with ourselves in terrible music and execrable art, but not with joy.

I am obviously oversimplifying a complex state of affairs. In talking about beauty and harmony, I am trying to put a face on the generic biases apparently built into human sensibility. The actual face of those biases is not nearly as clearly defined as those concepts suggest. But as we do to cacophony or to terrible music, we tend to cringe at ugliness, disarray, disorder, inconsistency, disharmony of every kind. The other side of that cringing presents itself as a yearning for the opposite of all those offending realities. In identifying that yearning as a love of beauty and harmony, I am pushing the conceptual envelope. Are there not people who love terrible music and execrable art? But I don’t see that much would be gained by characterizing the object of that yearning as wholeness or unity, for example. I need to think some more.

In short, I am rushing things a bit. I do so because I am anxious to make good on my promise to show that our perception of structural qualities – beauty, for instance – depends not on what one might call their objective presence, but on their virtual (i.e. context-dependent) presence. The latter is experienced as real, but not comprehensible except as a feature of contexts in which our sensibility plays a central and animating role. It is because I have a generic – genetic, if you prefer – predilection for wholeness, harmony, unity, or some such thing, built into my sensibility that I perceive structural qualities at all. That does not make those qualities projections in the sense that other ways of perceiving are available to me (or to any other human). Nor does it make those qualities unreal or their perception subjective in a sense of the word that would have those perceptions be unreliable.

It may seem an issue of interest only to philosophers of art whether aesthetic beauty is real. It becomes somewhat less trivial in ethics, where the same issue presents itself as the question whether moral goodness is real, as opposed to a mix of convention and private preference that lacks genuine normative authority. But it ceases looking trivial altogether when one considers that consistency in thought is a structural quality too. If a particular sensibility is required to sense structural qualities and to resonate to them, then human susceptibility to emotion turns into a necessary condition of the possibility of rational thought. That would tend to suggest that in the absence of sensibility and emotion, there may well be no cognition worth talking about. In other words, it seems that before I can even start being a thinking thing, I have to be a loving, or at least a feeling, thing. So much for Descartes. So much even for Plato. It is not the Good with a capital G – or the One with a capital O – that underwrites the comprehensibility of reality. It is our instinctive love of those things, translated into inveterate striving.

As for my promise, this will have to do for now.

© Serge Kappler 2014

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