Words from the past

A couple of posts back, I asked what a musical philosophy might sound like — how it would differ from more clinical or problem-solving approaches. A friend has just reminded me that I had faced that question – the question of a musical or lyrical philosophy — 16 years or more ago in an essay he had just read for the first time. It was on Henry Bugbee and it explored what I called his “Lyrical Philosophy of Place.”[1] It was blushingly refreshing to reread those forgotten passages. They go like this:

So I return to Socrates and the voice that whispered, “Socrates, make music and compose.” Does this mean his life was off-course, that he should have turned to music, become less cerebral, more poetic? Or is he musing on a vision he has in fact partially fulfilled, that he finds himself answering in his action? If his life served to answer this haunting voice, it would be already not merely critique but musical, poetic.

Architecture has been called frozen music. We could alter this image to our advantage: when music freezes, it becomes architecture. If Bugbee ever had to choose between thought as music-frozen and thought as music-fluid there’s no doubt which he’d have. The thinking of our best builders aspires to erect a frame to outlast floods and fires and ravages of time, a frame aspiring to immortality. Yet the power and eternity of liquid streams is something else again.

Music is the most passing of the arts, yet nonetheless eternal for all that. As music, lyrical philosophy is not depleted by being transitory, caught only in passing. Its power lies in how it passes, how it grows and builds, winds down, and disappears into a silence not alien to itself but all its own—and lasting in its passing. It creates its own life, and its own wake and aftermath, which is its eternal glory or sadness—its lightness or heaviness—all spun out as flow.

If philosophy resurrects only Descartes’ or Kant’s architectural aims—to build a lasting edifice on strong foundations to span the ages—then we will sadly gravitate toward an impersonal, weightless language, and thus become weightless ourselves, good mainly for detached, clinical cogitations. There is an austere beauty in the static reflections of remote cables of logic and engineering, a beauty that can attain the frozen eternity of geometry. But lyric philosophy will aspire to embrace the prospects of a contrasting and fluid eternity. It will be held in the fragile perishability of flowing streams and simple calling sounds.

[1] That essay appeared in a collection I edited, Wilderness and the Heart: Henry Bugbee’s Philosophy of Place, Presence, and Memory, foreword by Alasdair MacIntyre, and later as a chapter in my Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell.

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3 comments on “Words from the past

  1. Don Klose says:

    These reflections on musical, lyrical philosophy draw me to the distinction between process and product as pertaining to doing philosophy. The process of doing philosophy, necessarily, given the very nature of thought, and of speech whether spoken or inward and subvocal, shares that quality of music of flow and spontaneity, of each phrase issuing forth, then perishing into the next, yet still present in the unfolding of an idea or emergence of meaning. I am aware of this process right now, as I wait for the right way to formulate the thought I am reaching for but has not quite taken form yet. Then it bubbles up. I may like and keep it, or I may not. It’s my thought, it flowed out of me, and in some sense from my agency, but I was not aware of it in advance. It announced itself as it happened, as might a new phrase or rhythm in a musical composition. How does thinking happen? How do ideas flow forth, when they do? What shall we call it, thinking? that happens behind the curtains of awareness?

    When it comes to the products of doing philosophy, I think of articles, books, and perhaps recorded presentations. The most impressive of these have given rise to systems of thought that we have studied, can recite and argue about. We often measure our accomplishment and success in doing philosophy my counting and assessing these products. I imagine walking among the stacks of the university library with philosophy journals on all sides, thousands of articles collected in journals and bound into annual volumes–and now see them as the fossilized record of countless moments of ideas springing forth, no doubt in the context of much hard work, but nevertheless spontaneous, unexpected, surprising, revelatory.

    I am now remembering one of my most fun experiences of doing philosophy–in conversations. Some 44 years ago during my brief venture into academic philosophy, at Vassar, Art Bierman was teaching there for a year, on R & R from San Francisco State, and would summon us on Friday afternoons out of our offices down to the local pub, off-campus, for spirited philosophical conversations. Art, our Socratic exemplar, would challenge us to think out loud, and inevitably the exchanges would contain enthusiastic flights of ideas and discoveries about each other and ourselves–in thoughts we did not anticipate. Art was a master at teasing out subtleties of thought and argument. The conversations were not purely intellectual, but had an esthetic quality and were uplifting to the spirit. And it wasn’t just from the beer.

    • efmooney says:

      It’s fascinating how philosophy can spring from reading and writing formal responses, from conversation with spirited (and listening) others, from reading blogs and writing spontaneous replies, from watching water shimmer at twilight, from disgust or exaltation at being human, from an infant’s smile or a voice from the past or a dream of tomorrow. It’s both the most natural thing in the world and the most difficult and rare and fleeting. I remember Art B as a name in the news and no doubt needing R&R after the tumultuous San Francisco sixties. I’m moving to Portland Maine this spring, a bit closer to your haunts than Israel.

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