09 May 2008

Much to Tell

This will be a post of length, because I had stuff I wanted to write about, and then there was a dramatic development, with the result that now I want to write about that, too.

Okay, dramatic event first:  S. collapsed on stage!  Not that I was there.  I read about it on his blog, where he narrated the entire event in "you are there" style, e.g., "As the performance proceeds my chest feels tight.  I have pins and needles radiating outward.  When
we get to the scene where I have to fake a heart attack, I think to myself, This must be what Brian really feels like..." And as I'm reading along I'm yelling at the computer screen, "Oh, my God, you're having a heart attack!"  Considering that the entry ended "...everything goes black," you can see why I might finish reading and call S. on his mobile phone.  I thought to myself, Well, obviously you were alive enough to write this post, but what actually happened, and ARE YOU STILL ALIVE?  Long story short, he rang me back to say, then posted on the blog that, he didn't have a heart attack, but that doctors don't seem to know what had happened.  Nonetheless, the whole incident managed to make it into The Scotsman and The Stage.  I find myself wondering if this will make his career (pushes him into the public eye) or destroy it (forever labelled "insurance risk:  Guy Who Collapsed On Stage").  The former, I hope, because S. is a wonderful actor, and I want him to have the wonderful life he's deserved since he was 23 (when I met him, so he might have deserved it before then, but I wouldn't know).

What I Meant to Write about Before That Happened

Music, as it happens.  Again.  Perhaps because my friend M. came to town with the band he works for a couple of weeks ago, or perhaps just because it's starting to get summery, and I've been listening to a lot of music in the warm, I've been thinking quite about why it is that I love so much the music that I love.

There have been studies, apparently, that show that music connects in some instinctual way to the brain, a way that bypasses intellect and processing and gets right to some sort of basic connection (like the sense of smell, in that way).  I'm willing to buy into that, because it seems to me that, with music I love, that is what I love about it.  I've talked about this before a bit in my post about New Order, but I'm trying to be a bit more exact about it, now.
There's a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, one of my very favorite writers, called "The Beach at Falesa."  In this story, one man kills another by stabbing him or slitting his throat, I can't recall which, and when he recounts the experience he says, "The blood came over my hands, I remember, hot as tea."  (Interestingly, and perhaps sadly given that teaching literature is my job, although I find this a very arresting image I didn't notice until today what it tells you about the speaker:  the lack of emotion he feels at this murder, if he can liken his victim's blood to tea).  Well, in reverse, this is exactly how I feel about one sort of music:  it spills over my hands like blood.  Under that label, I'd put almost anything by New Order, "A Night Like This," by the Cure, "When Love Breaks Down," by Prefab Sprout, and - weirdly - "Fluorescent Adolescent," by the Arctic Monkeys.

To describe another kind of music, I'd turn to another odd, but equally accurate, metaphor.  I used to have a boyfriend who'd been a born-again Christian (I don't know what it's called when you become un-born-again...).  Because he'd been raised in the faith since birth (although as a Presbyterian), and because he'd been to many Evangelical or Charismatic-Orientated churches once he'd been born again, he'd come into contact with many people who were much more Charismatic than he.  He told me once that a couple of those people had described to him what it was like to be Filled with the Spirit:  they said it was as if your heart or soul suddenly opened and was overtaken by happiness, while at the same time, some of them said, it was as if icy water had been poured on you.  Without the icy water, I'd say that's exactly how I feel about another sort of music:  at a sudden moment in the song, my heart is just opened outward. Under this label, I'd put "1234," by Feist, "Everybody Knows (Except You)," by the Divine Comedy, "In Between Days," by the Cure, and "Love Goes On," by the Go-Betweens.

The second sort of music is great, and wondrous, but it doesn't quite interest me as much as the first, perhaps because the second I can really sum up with "wondrous," while no word sums up my experience of the first (incidentally, there is a third type here, a type I think I'd call Music of Delight.  Under this heading would come a sub-moment of "Everybody Knows," when Neil Hannon says, "I told the passers-by; / I made a small boy cry...," "A Woman of the World," in which a group of people say, "She's a fake!"  and he says, "Sure, but she's a real fake," also "The King of Rock 'n' Roll," by Prefab Sprout, "You're so Vain," and "Justified and Ancient," by the KLF.  This music is fairly self-explanatory, I think).  Because this music, which we might call Blood Music for simplicity's sake, does have a very basic, very profound effect on me.  I've thought about it while I'm dancing to it and listening to it, and found the effect impossible to put into words.  The best way I can put it is to say that listening to that music is for me like being in a pressure cooker, or really more accurately like being a pressure cooker, but in an immensely powerful and not at all negative way.  It creates an enormous concentration of feeling in me, very very enjoyable feeling that is at the same time slightly painful, without being any less enjoyable because painful.  And that feeling very quickly builds to a very high level, where - if the song is good - it remains.  This sounds as if it would be deeply unpleasant, but in fact the reverse is true.  The intensity of the feeling is itself a powerful experience, and its very intensity... I was going to say renders it enjoyable, but it would be more accurate to say removes it from the realm in which the question of enjoyable/unenjoyable even exists (although I know I find it enjoyable, because I love listening and dancing to these songs more than any others).  It would be most accurate to say that such music causes me to be most myself.  By creating such an enormous amount of visceral experience, it excises everything but that visceral experience, and thus brings me into contact with what I would consider to be my most real self:  unintellectual, unimpinged upon by the surrounding world - just pure experience that isn't even aware of a self experiencing.  Years ago when I was writing an article about hearts in the Renaissance I found a little woodcut of the infant Jesus sweeping all the sin and moral filth out of a heart with a straw broom, and that's exactly what the experience of such music does to me:  it's as if it sweeps out my inside and leaves nothing but pure, uninflected, responding shell.

Perhaps weirdly, I'd say that the experience most similar to this for me is teaching.  Ever since I started teaching I've thought to myself and said to other people that in daily life teaching is the time I'm most purely myself.  This, too, is hard to explain.  When I teach, I have a job to do, but I can do that job in any way I want:  provided that the kids learn, I can do almost anything barring clothing removal to get them to learn.  And because I am in charge in the classroom - just by standing at the front I become an authority - I have a certain kind of power, and that power releases from concern about what these people think of me:  they're younger; they know less; they assume I know, and that means they're already on my side, in a way.  Also, I really do love literature, and I don't much care whether or not people know that.  For these reasons, teaching frees me.  In every other interpersonal interaction I have, I'm lying to some extent; I'm worried about whether the other person will like me, or think of me contemptuously, or I'm being careful not to hurt their feelings, or I'm keeping things hidden from them either because I want to keep certain things private or because I want to create a certain impression (these feelings are not necessarily conscious, nor is the lying).  This is not true when I'm teaching.  Needless to say, this is in part because intimate revelations don't play much role in my teaching, so I needn't hide certain things.  But I think it's also because there are no repercussions:  after the 50 minutes is up, we all walk away.  So in the classroom, too, I am the person I really am, the person I would be if I felt safe: funny, deeply eccentric, mystified, worried, deeply loving and supportive without fear that that will end up causing me pain, often homiletic or gnomic in nature (as an Old English professor of mine used to say), frank about my belief and sorrow that life brings undeserved and irresolvable pain.  I'm only not sad - but that's because I think if I were in a situation where I truly felt safe enough to be myself, I wouldn't be sad.  

In short, yay for teaching, and yay for Blood Music!  Where would I be without them?  A lot less happy.

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