Sights and Sounds

In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey observed that most people make the mistake of assuming that humans are merely passive to the effects of music. It is not simply the music acting upon the ear that makes it pleasurable; “it is by the reaction of the mind upon the notices of the ear (the matter coming by the senses, the form from the mind) that the pleasure is constructed, and therefore it is that people of equally good ear differ so much in this point from one another.”

Virginia Woolf’s The String Quartet provides a fascinating example of the mind reacting the the sensations produced by music. In her classic stream of consciousness style, Woolf shows us all of the mental impressions inspired by a piece of music by Mozart: “Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the mountain. Fountains jet; drops descend. But the waters of the Rhone flow swift and deep, race under the arches, and sweep the trailing water leaves, washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy where–it’s difficult this–conglomeration of fish all in a pool; leaping, splashing, scraping sharp fins; and such a boil of current that the yellow pebbles are churned round and round, round and round–free now, rushing downwards, or even somehow ascending in exquisite spirals into the air; curled like thin shavings from under a plane, up and up….How lovely goodness is in those who, stepping lightly, go smiling through the world! Also in jolly old fishwives, squatted under arches, obscene old women, how deeply they laugh and shake and rollick, when they walk, from side to side, hum, hah!”

It is clear that these images are primarily the product of the listener’s own mind. It is true that composers often have specific imagery in mind themselves (Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov and the storm section of Rossini’s William Tell Overture come to mind,) but it is all but inconceivable Mozart wrote Woolf’s detailed scene into his music. As sublime as the music is, it is Woolf’s own mind that constructed the pleasure.

And because the processes of the listener’s mind are at the center of the how pleasurable music is, it is little wonder that mind-altering substances and music go together so often. As far as I know, Woolf did not drink, but De Quincey used to get high on laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) and buy cheap seats to the opera. And there is reason that Grateful Dead concerts smell the way they do.

So have a beer (or more) and see if it doesn’t make music a bit more enjoyable.

Beer of the week: Flying Fish Abbey Dubbel – This Belgian-style ale from New Jersey is alright. The aroma is is sweet and yeasty, with notes of dark cherry and red wine. But the flavor does not quite deliver the same punch as the smell. I would very much like this beer to have a bit more spice, or sweetness, or something in the finish.

Reading of the week: The String Quartet by Virginia Woolf – The excerpt above describes only the first movement of the performance. The rest of the music evokes a sinking boat, a sword fight, and much more.

Question for the week: Have you ever, like Woolf, had vivid images elicited by live music?


Sincere Flattery

This is the seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VII: Confessions of St. Augustine and The Imitation of Christ

How fortuitous that Good Friday should happen to coincide with my reading of this volume of The Harvard Classics. But it occurs to me that not every reader of this blog is a Christian, and even those who are may not appreciate the import of Good Friday, St. Augustine, or The Imitation of Christ. And so, a quick review:

Good Friday – The Friday before Easter, the day on which Jesus Christ was executed by crucifixion. A day of solemnity and, for many Christians, fasting. Astute observers will notice that Friday is only two days before Sunday, despite the fact that many Christians talk of Jesus being “three days in the grave.” The origin of this apparent counting error is the expression “on the third day.” Jesus died on and was buried late on Good Friday (the first day), remained in the tomb for all of Holy Saturday (the second day) and was raised from the dead first thing in the morning on Easter Sunday (the third day). And so, he was raised on the third day, but was only entombed for one day and two nights.

Augustine of Hippo – Bishop, theologian, philosopher, and canon regular. According to the Wikipedia article about him, Augustine influenced “virtually all subsequent Western philosophy and theology.” He is also a patron saint of brewers.

The Imitation of Christ – An extremely popular Christian devotional book from the late medieval period. According to the introductory note to The Harvard Classics edition, “with the exception of the Bible, no Christian writing has had so wide a vogue or so sustained a popularity as this.” Although published anonymously (which nowise surprising, considering how emphatically the work emphasizes humility,) it is probably the work of Thomas à Kempis.

Thomas à Kempis – Probable author of The Imitation of Christ and a German-Dutch canon regular.

Canons regular – Priests who live communally under a common Rule, most often the Rule of St. Augustine. Distinct from monks in that canons are members of the clergy. In some cases, as at Tongerlo Abbey in Belgium, canons regular got quite good at brewing beer.

Beer – “Proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” – B. Franklin

Beer of the week: Tongerlo Blond – This history of Tongerlo beer begins with the canons regular of Tongerlo Abbey, so it is a particularly apt pairing with Thomas à Kempis. Tongerlo Blond is a bottle-conditioned ale from Haacht Brewery in Belgium. It is a pretty, copper-colored brew. The aroma is of yeast and malt, with hints of banana and honey. The flavor is a bit subdued, but it is quite good. 

Reading of the week: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis – The primary theme of this book is retreating from the world to seek spiritual self knowledge. “Better of a surety is a lowly peasant who serveth God, than a proud philosopher who watcheth the stars and neglecteth the knowledge of himself.”

Question for the week: Thomas writes that “the greater and more complete thy knowledge, the more severely shalt thou be judged.” Is this truly an warning against pursuing great learning, or is it simply a reminder that great learning comes with great responsibility?