Some weeks ago, encountering the latest bleeding-woman fantasy of the U. S. president, I read his tweet, related tweets, commentaries, commentaries on the commentaries, and the unjustifiably sneering and leering National Enquirer story about this woman and her television co-host. My initial notion that such attention-grabbers were ultimately insignificant compared to the problems our planet faces was soon transformed into the conviction that this eruption, and others like it, are in fact incredibly important. Their debasement of our discourse and of our thinking makes it less likely than ever that we will find our way to rational, fact-based, and therefore potentially productive analyses of issues such as ways we might reduce racism, the challenges of health care, the problem of terrorism, the realities of climate change – and our culture’s treatment of women.
I closed all my browser windows and began listening to a Bach cantata. About two hundred of his sacred cantatas, originally performed as parts of church services, survive. There may be art as great, but I have yet to encounter any that surpasses their inexhaustible river of song, emotion, thought, and inspiring form.
Though I have been listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas since my mid-teens, I now experienced a new, and stunning, shock. The collision between the tabloid culture I had just immersed myself in and this sublime music created a stunning dissonance that illuminated both. The degradation of mind and spirit that results from the former contrasts violently with the tender, loving, deeply respectful and profoundly humanizing way that these polyphonic compositions that match text to melody, the two inextricably intertwined in expression and meaning, address the listener, and, on occasion, God. Rather than being treated as the target of an assertion, one is initiated into a gentle, complex, worshipful dialogue, not dictated what to think, but invited to participate in prayer. Bach’s delicacy of approach, the sculptural qualities of his melodic lines, the extreme subtlety with which the parts are interwoven, and the ways in which the limning of luminously-evoked feelings become almost architectural, deeply and fully engage the soul. A mindful encounter with this music’s ever-renewing, almost unfathomable depths has an effect directly opposite to that of crudely aggressive statements that are one with the shallowness and superficiality of our consumer culture. This music's inviting, engaging fabric, replete with surprises and beauties large and small, leads to a journey both through time and amidst the spaces created by interlinked melodies, until one arrives at the glorious illusion that the listener is the composer, creating the music in one’s own mind. If there were ever an argument that an aesthetic experience can leave the receiver more aware, more intelligent, and more reverent, it is to be found here.
It should not be forgotten that this music was not written for some rarified elite, but for the ordinary German churchgoer of the first half of the eighteenth century. How much of what makes our species different from other animals, and worth valuing, have we lost in our descent from the Thomaskirche of Leipzig to the assaultive pornography of our current age? And how changed might any of us become by an authentic involvement with this music, which would, perhaps after a bit of an introduction, require fully attentive and receptive listenings, individual pieces heard many times.
One could substitute other names for Bach's, the names of other composers, and musicians, painters, sculptors, architects, choreographers, photographers, filmmakers, novelists, poets, playwrights, philosophers, historians, mathematicians, and scientists. The best of their civilized and civilizing works surely count among humanity’s finest achievements. But one also wonders, contemplating the way today’s vulgarities seem to command the overwhelming share of our energy and attention, if all the value we might ascribe to human civilization could ever outweigh the massive destruction we are increasingly inflicting upon each other, the other species, the entire planet, and ourselves.
July 31, 2017.