Saturday, March 01, 2008

In all Senses

We are creatures bounded by our senses.  In a way they define who we are.  I refer here to our five senses which hardly need naming, viz., hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling. I have used the gerund or present participle or verbal noun, call it what you wish, to express the active sense of the senses as it were.  Not that I subscribe to a purely empiricist take on the world.  I am open to the possible existence of "things" or some reality beyond the senses or my senses of them, though, of course, I have no direct evidence of their existence.

There I was last evening viewing the Late Late Show on RTE 1 our national broadcaster, hosted by the inimitable Pat Kenny.  That irrepressible naturalist, one Sir David Attenborough, gave an impressive interview with the show's host.  Towards the end of the interview, in reply to the question as to whether he was a believer in God or not, Sir David replied that he was an agnostic, that he simply did not know whether God existed or not, but that the wonder created in him by the very mystery of music led him to believe in something "spiritual." Whatever music is it certainly  can create within one a powerful emotional, and indeed spiritual response.

Then, I was reading an interview with the great Benedictine monk writer and philosopher Mark Patrick Hederman O.S.B. who in describing what a monastery is for to his interlocutor, said the following:

For me, a monastery is a connecting link, a powerhouse...It's like art.  Artists are animals whose antennae pick up the storm before it arrives, what Heaney calls "the music of what happens" ... You are waiting and listening especially...It's listening to the signs of the times.  Spirit is manifested in people, in places.  There are psychic histories in places...In the monastery, we sing in Latin at Vespers, so prayer for us is liturgical.  It's wonderful.  It's like a river, being in some kind of movement.  Singing and breathing are very important.  It's breath and earth.  It's not about mind.  The Irish Soul in Dialogue, (Stephen J. Costello, ed., The Liffey Press, Dublin, 2001, 117-123

It need hardly be stated here that our modern culture is dominated firstly by the visual.  Every advertiser worth his or her salt understands this profoundly.  Images sell products.  Everywhere we go our eyes are literally assaulted by these self same images.  They demand our attention, indeed steal our attention both consciously and unconsciously.  Secondly our culture is dominated by the verbal - by the spoken and by the written word.  Words like images are everywhere.  As the late great Dr Anthony Storr, that brilliant and most sensitive of psychiatrists says in his wonderful gem of a book on music:

Both musicians and lovers of music who are not professionally trained know that great music brings us more than sensuous pleasure, although sensuous pleasure  is certainly part of the musical experience.  Yet what it brings is hard to define.  (Music and the Mind, Anthony Storr, HarperCollins, 1979, xii)

In this same book Dr Storr goes on to quote the musical expert John Blacking that the acts of singing and dancing preceded the development of verbal interchange. (Vide, opus citatum, p. 12)  I can quite believe this contention and am at one with both Storr and Blacking that such is the case, that singing and dancing are indeed logically prior in time to the emergence of verbal interaction.  One need only thing of the very potency of the rhythms we make when dancing.  People seem to have a primal need to express themselves in dance and sound or song.  After a while we begin to be in rhythm with one another and also in tune with each other.  Such seems to be the nature of the human beast as it were.  Language would appear, I believe, to  be an elaborate complexity of communication worked out at a higher cerebral level. 

And so to return to the title and the opening words of this piece of writing we are creatures who are in every sense of the word bounded by our senses.  And yet we are creatures who ask questions of meaning of the world of perceptions communicated to us by those very senses.  Hence we are sensual creatures seeking a  meaning to those sensations, seeking as it were some strange world of meta-sensation, some metaphysical world of meaning.  And sometimes music that ever-strange and moving supranational and supra-lingual phenomenon moves us beyond sensuous pleasure and brings us into some sublime and spiritual territory which is so hard to be captured in concepts or in words.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of a poster of the great music composer Puccini at Lucca in Toscana, Summer 2006

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