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The Crux Project Archives: Art


by Peggy Rosenthal

On Saturday evening, September 15, 2001, I went to a chamber music concert. Most entertainment events for the weekend had been cancelled, since the country was in mourning. I was grateful that the musicians had decided to go on with the concert. Hearing the music (some popular opera arias, then Mozart’s "Gran Partita" Serenade for winds), drawn into the performers’ concentrated creative energy, I felt my spirits lifted for the first time since September 11. I wasn’t alone in this response. The somber audience was more than usually appreciative. Since then, when I’ve felt overwhelmed by news of horror upon horror, I’ve put on a CD of Chopin’s Etudes or Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, or read a Sara Maitland novel or Adam Zagajewski’s poetry, or sat with the paintings in Sister Wendy’s Book of Meditations, a recent gift from a friend. Clearly I need the arts in time of war.

I’ve been wondering why. What follows are some thoughts on the subject, reflecting on this and other wartimes I’ve experienced. The reflections are numbered, because—like movements of a musical work—each has a certain independence. Yet, inevitably, some tones and motifs recur.

(1) During the Cold War, I left my upstate New York home for a year to live in Santa Fe. My purpose was to be near the nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, to get to know the physicists who worked there. It was the mid-1980s, the height of the national dispute over nuclear deterrence, with arms-race supporters and opponents at each other’s throats. The nuclear standoff with the Soviets may have been "cold," but the war of opposing visions of our national threat was decidedly heated, fueled by genuine fears on each side. To deterrence supporters, the Soviet nuclear arsenal was an apocalyptic threat, from which only our own superior nuclear arsenal could save us; to opponents, these arsenals themselves were the apocalyptic threat. I was in the second camp, but longed to find some ground for reconciliation. I hoped that if I could come to understand how good people, my fellow countrymen, could dedicate their lives to designing nuclear weapons, I might see a way past our dreadfully divisive national conflict. But internalizing the battle took its toll. After a day spent at the lab with weapons designers, struggling to sympathize with their pride in their work, I’d come home headachy and jangled, feeling a wreck.

For restoration, I’d browse Allan Houser’s sculptures. The gallery permanently showing his work was in the Santa Fe plaza, a few blocks from my rented casita. I’d stroll over and plant myself, standing, before any of his massive bronze or stone creations. The gallery staff never interrupted my meditation or made me feel unwelcome, though obviously I wasn’t there to buy. Maybe they were simply nice people. Or maybe, spending hours surrounded by Houser’s figures of powerfully quiet hope and healing, they were transformed—as I was—by the spirit of his work.

My favorites were the groupings of life-sized figures, formed in a single mold or carved from one huge rock. Clearly meant to look Native American, like Houser himself, the solidly tranquil human figures seemed inseparable from each other—or from their material of stone or bronze. One or two children emerging from the larger forms of one or two adults: these were the works that most drew me, held me, healed me. The violent clashes at my core would settle down as I stood there. So I’ve wondered: what was it about these creations that calmed me?

The journal articles on the gallery’s table gave hints of an answer. They spoke of Houser’s "classically fluid lines," and of the "serenity, balance, and grace" of his work. One noted that "his figures capture the distinctive character of individual Indians, yet move from the particular to the universal." To say that great art moves from the particular to the universal is a cliché, of course. And yet, truly, it does.

The particulars of Houser’s work lie in the historical suffering of his people, which he manages both to represent and transform. Houser once said of his work, thinking of his Chiracahua Apache ancestors who were almost exterminated under U.S. Army imprisonment: "I recall all those times when Indian people have been so looked down on, and now I’m trying to bring some dignity and beauty to the people." The dignity is deep because it doesn’t deny distress but doesn’t dwell on it, either. Houser’s figures express a serene solidity grounded in an injustice endured yet silently forgiven, passed over into patience and self-assured strength.

There’s a literal solidity, too. The massively solid stone or bronze calls just enough attention to itself that we see the material as grounding and holding its human figures as if in an embrace. In the groupings I was most drawn to—of a few children and adults—the solid embrace enfolds the continuity of generations. I’ve never seen family love look more secure. Yet an incompleteness, a yearning, is expressed as well. Though molded as one, the figures usually gaze not at each other but beyond. Firmly together, they face a future that can be absolutely secure for no one, no family, no people. Gazing at them, with them, I’d be drawn out of myself into a humanity tested by suffering but healed and hopeful.

When the Gulf War began in January of 1991, I took Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey from my shelf and settled into it, day after day. The Iliad might have seemed the more relevant book to reach for, since war is its subject. But that’s precisely why I didn’t choose it. I knew its searing picture of war’s futility, and what I desperately needed was knowledge of another kind: not of our human destructive powers but of our restorative ones.

Restoration is what the Odyssey is all about. The title word has come to mean adventurous wandering, but the poem’s whole thrust is toward restoring Odysseus to his rightful place at home. And what home means is articulated in Odysseus’s famous speech to the young girl Nausicaa after she has welcomed him to her father’s island, Scheria:

And may the gods accomplish your desire:
a home, a husband, and harmonious
converse with him—the best thing in the world
being a strong house held in serenity
where man and wife agree.

“The best thing in the world” isn’t in the Greek, which literally says “there’s nothing more excellent or better than.” But Fitzgerald was wise to bring “the world” in via the English idiom—because the Homeric household is very much in the world. The domestic concord for which Odysseus claims prime value isn’t a private peace cut off from the harsh, cruel world. Quite the opposite: the harmonious households visited throughout the Odyssey make the world a better place by spreading their blessings. They do this mainly by extending hospitality, welcoming all strangers and treating them to a feast. These feasts are not the gluttonous gorging of the suitors who are sponging off Odysseus in his absence (symbol of why he must get back and set his house in order), but ceremonial meals in which the meat and wine’s abundance is tempered by proper homage to the gods.

Ceremonial meals are the classic stuff of comedy in its largest sense: comedy as celebration of human concord and continuity. All the singing, dancing, and athletic games that go on at the Odyssey’s feasts are collective body language expressing a comic vision of exuberant harmony. And I do see the Odyssey, with its defining activity of feasting, as Homer’s comedy—balancing his tragedy, the Iliad, whose defining activity is fighting (from the battlefield slaughter to the squabbling of the gods). Comic and tragic visions are essentially inseparable, though. Just as at the instant a warrior in the Iliad bites the dust in gory death, a brief glimpse is often given of the peaceful world being lost, the  Odyssey recalls repeatedly the terrible waste of the Trojan War, giving a sense of precious value to the time of joy. Homer couldn’t bear the thought of war without the possibility of people living in harmony, and we can’t either. At least, I can’t. That’s why when our political world is behaving tragically, I need the balance and restorative hope of comedy’s harmonious vision.

“Harmony” is a metaphorical term for all the arts but music. This might help explain why, during the aftermath of September 11, 2001, I keep finding myself sitting—expectantly, gratefully, hopefully—in concert halls.

The word “harmony” has an interesting history. It’s a Greek word (harmonia), originally meaning anything well joined. The Odyssey uses it to describe the fastening of a ship’s planks. Classical Greek quickly extended harmonia’s semantic range to cover the human skeletal frame, orderly government, and a strung musical instrument: all good joinings, good fits. The musical meaning was elaborated by Pythagoras into a mathematical cosmology. For him, harmonia was a cosmic reality; the universe was ordered by the same numerical proportions as a musical scale. Succeeding centuries, taking their Pythagorean cosmology mainly from Plato’s Timaeus, tended to blend it with the Republic’s “music of the spheres”: that mythic vision of the heavens as eight concentric turning spheres, each carrying a Siren “borne around in its revolution and uttering one sound, one note, while from all eight mian harmonian symphonein”—a single harmony sounded. Plato loved the term symphonein, which literally means “to sound together.” Its English translation is the Latin-derived “concord,” but of course the Greek word is carried on in English for both a musical form and a body of musicians “sounding together.”

Harmonia and symphonia are moral terms for Plato. The music of the spheres comes into the Republic as part of a story of human choice between the good life and the bad. The story, the myth of the warrior Er, is recounted by Socrates for his young friend Glaucon to demonstrate that we must live as if the ideal state were real. Er’s story is one of those mythic journeys beyond death, in the apocalyptic glimpse-of-heaven genre. Plato usually turns to myth, like this, when he wants to picture something he perceives as true but can’t possibly prove. He’s sure that there is a cosmic order and that it’s just. He cares about it because (as Socrates says of the Er myth) “it will save us if we believe it.” Our happiness lies in choosing the life that’s well-tuned to moderation and justice—like “a true musician,” Glaucon says, picking up Socrates’s metaphor that “the wise person will continually attune his body’s harmonias for the sake of the symphonia of his soul.” Music, for Plato, is a moral metaphor; harmony is a moral ideal.

I think we must all be Platonists on this point. At nearly every concert I’ve attended since September 11, 2001, the sponsor or a performer has made introductory remarks about music’s special power to speak to the soul, to uplift the human spirit in painful times. When La Bohème played in Paris in 1896, one reviewer wrote: “Its Italian melody remains the sign of something almost sacred. When these songs reach our ears, an ineffable sweetness of life penetrates us and inspires within us a vague desire for tears.” The diction of “ineffable sweetness” is dated, but the vague desire for tears is not. At the September 15 concert that I attended, this collective desire was almost palpable in the packed chamber music hall during Mozart’s Serenade. And also during a performance of Beethoven’s C Major Quartet at a recital I went to on October 14. There wasn’t anything sentimental about this emotional response. Rather, it was a multi-layered perception much like Plato’s: a shared pain at how far the world had fallen from being “well-joined”; a shared recognition that, despite current appearances, there is a cosmic order that is well-tuned, harmonious, just; and a shared hope that “it will save us if we believe it.” And probably, too, a shared dread: that if we don’t believe it, there really is no hope for us.

During the 1989 nonviolent revolution against Communism in Czechoslovakia, National Public Radio’s Alex Chadwick went to Prague to do a radio documentary. His piece begins with the audio track of a video of state police brutally beating students who’d been peacefully demonstrating. Chadwick then interviews one of the students, a young woman who has been showing this video around the city. She sounds surprised by its power to arouse people’s revolutionary outrage and courage; she sounds surprised, as well, by her own newly released energy to resist injustice by waging a nonviolent campaign. Then Chadwick cuts to a meeting of hundreds of students in an auditorium a few days later. He points out that as people are gathering in the room, a chamber music group is playing a Dvorák slow movement. I hear in the music a sober transcendence which also seems a confidently calm yearning. As the music continues quietly in the background, Chadwick describes his interviewee sitting at the long table on the stage. Evidently she is to be a speaker at the meeting. His narration, as closely as I can recall it from my notes, then goes: “She looks exhausted. She’s wearing the same clothes I saw her in three days ago; probably she hasn’t changed them. As the Dvorák plays, the whole auditorium of students is silent. Eventually she rests her head in her arms. I think she’s asleep. But then I notice her head moving slightly to the rhythm of the music. For the first time in days, she seems to be at peace.” •

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