Friday, September 2, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 3)

(part 3 of 4)

The biggest problem with this book is the same problem that always happens with Gnostics. No matter how hard Gnostics try, they always, always smuggle in passivity and elitism. Elitism comes before a fall. Once you quantify soul units (Huneckers, right?) you will start down the road in which some people are large-souled and some people are small-souled. The lines get redrawn: vegetarianism is a symptom of this condition, as is, contrastingly, dismissive attitudes toward the fetus. Once you try to enlarge your own consciousness you look around and see that other consciousnesses appear smaller. The section of the book where you hypothesize about switching your character traits with a football-watching, woman-ogling "red state" person is a big red flag. You can't get around the fact that you consider football watchers and right-wingers to have smaller souls than you. Which itself causes you to have a smaller soul: a paradox of the highest order!

Your line for "soulishness" is drawn at the ability to have friends. But you stop too soon here. In your introduction you mention that one of your sisters cannot understand and cannot speak. Throughout the book I was looking for you to talk about this, but she is not mentioned in the text more than fleetingly. I would really like to know how you look at her – I know you must love her – how does she fit into this book? She stands as a silent reminder of what may not be included in your philosophy. (This is one of the reasons I cannot write this as a dialogue. I simply don’t know how DH would respond.) A theological book called Suffering Presence by Stanley Hauerwas comes to mind as a way that these kind of things "fit" better into a philosophy than to yours. I know, there's enough to engage in with the study of the mind that you can't read everything -- but I would suggest that thinkers like Hauerwas offer a different way that stands in stark contrast to your philosophy at this very point.

And then, well, here comes the part where I get personally put off. At the end of the book you get to the point that really gets under my skin, in the section titled “Dig That Profundity!”. You describe how disappointed you are in a vocal group that sang one of your favorite Bach pieces at double tempo with vocal trills and – heaven forbid – SMILING at the audience. Your writing seems to recognize with its many qualifiers that you are elevating personal opinion and taste to universal standards for musical performance here, yet you go ahead and do it, which reinforces the apparent elitism of your position.

Let my strange loop comment to your strange loop on this one, because my strange loop has seen the world from the other side of the stage, and there's several things you aren't seeing. I work with a small ensemble to sing pieces from all musical eras, before and after Bach. For a three-minute piece you must dedicate several hours of rehearsal time. And you have to follow your leader – the conductor wants to go fast, you go fast, and the conductor will ALWAYS tell you to smile more, because most people actually like that, and the musician is always tempted to focus on the making music than the appearance of the body (although I would prefer to focus on the music myself, guilty as charged).

So because the ensemble you saw changed the piece you love away from the version that you had imprinted on your neurons as a teenager (by a biochemical chance, according to your philosophy, because I read a study that the music you hear when you're 14 will be the best music to you for the rest of your life), you jump to conclusions about the interiority of that ensemble, that they are flashy self-obsessed small-souled singers who just want to sell CD’s. Maybe if this was a Bach piece specifically about death or civil war, something inherently slow and melancholy, this critique might make sense, but it is just called “The Great” – it has no referent that I know of, and musically no reason not to change it away from your personal favorite parameters. I don’t know about those musicians, but I do know you can’t judge their motivations from the fact that you musically disagree with them. I’ve had a lot of judging comments just like this come back after we sing (in both directions: smile more! smile less!), which may be appropriate, but the problem is the certainty of the commenter. Ultimately you don’t know and you shouldn’t judge the self-centeredness of other people from a single piece at a concert. It seems pretty small-souled to do so!

It comes down to the act of judging others to be better than yourself, of humility (which you mention, yay) and, even if they're self-centered divas, of forgiveness (which you don't, boo). You know, I admit I'm often a self-centered divo, which probably shows from my own reaction to this. But I volunteer hours of my time every week to make music for God with my friends, and there are lots better ways to get attention and applause, quite frankly. I make the music because once in a while it's a thing of unique beauty that says something on a level that other things can't. Sometimes I even smile.

So I see a lot of similarity between your philosophy and my Christian belief: the Golden Rule, the lion lying down with the lamb, the importance of empathy and internalizing the “other” … but what I don’t see in this 400-page book is anything about forgiveness, which I think is absolutely necessary to life. By negating free will, have you also negated forgiveness? Is this philosophy therefore doomed to be limited to the comfortable or those who want to be comfortable – just like Gnosticism?

(Part 3 of 4 -- for those offended by my offense in the above paragraph please note all the positive comments in parts 1 and 2!)

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