Friday, December 30, 2016

The End of Music - The End of Magic

By the white straits of Soléa
and the bowed red branches
that bent their blossoms over
her bowed head, heavy
with sorrow for the lost lover.
by the red branch and the white branch
and the sorrow unceasing
do I swear, Serriadh,
son of my mother and of Morred
to remember the wrong done
                      forever, forever

Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Wizard of Earthsea"

In a post on my "Cassandra's" blog I discussed about the need of closing the gap between sciences and humanities. I said that they are the same thing and we should stop this silly quarrel. That generated a comment by David Collins about the loss of some old habits, such as singing together. That, in turn,  brought back to my mind an episode in Ursula's Le Guin's trilogy "The Wizard of Earthsea" (1968). It takes place in the third book, the one titled "The Farthest Shore", where the protagonists, the mage Sparrowhawk and the young warrior Arren, embark in a quest to seek to restore magic to a land that has lost it. And they discover that not only magic has been lost, music has been lost as well. This is how Le Guin tells the story.

They were still: the bitter faces and the shrewd, the hard-worked hands and bodies. They sat still in the warm rainy Southern dusk, and heard that song like the cry of the grey swan of the cold seas of Ea, yearning, bereft. For a while after the song was over they kept still.
"That's a queer music," said one, uncertainly.
Another, reassured as to the absolute centrality of the isle of Lorbanery in all time and space, said, "Foreign music's always queer and gloomy."
"Give us some of yours," said Sparrowhawk. "I'd like to hear a cheery stave myself. The lad will always sing of old dead heroes."
"I'll do that," said the last speaker, and hemmed a bit, and started out to sing about a lusty, trusty barrel of wine and a hey, ho, and about we go! But nobody joined him in the chorus, and he went flat on the hey, ho.
"There is no more proper singing," he said angrily. "It's the young people's fault, always chopping and changing the way things are done, and not learning the old songs."
"It is not that," said the skinny man, "there's no more proper anything. Nothing goes right anymore."

And this is how David Collins describes something similar taking place in the real world, in our times.

At a dinner party ≥50 years ago, we were discussing what invention (“gadget” in your terminology) did only good. My wife proposed “record players” (stereo, hi-fi, other names of the day). The oldest man present, then a 70-something, politely demurred. He fondly remembered when people made their own music, sang their own songs.
I remembered my then-recent undergrad days at the University of Michigan (1950’s). Men’s dorms SW of Main Campus, women’s dorms NE of Main Campus; dorms ≈1 mile apart. There were closing hours for the women’s dorms, not for the men’s. Thus, when on a date, we guys never dropped our gals off at their dorms until the last moment, in a spectacle known as the “midnight show.” Then we would gather in places for guys from our dorm. When we had enuf of a group, we would walk together, singing. In harmony. (“Sloop John B” was very popular.) In 1958 this started to wane; by 1960 it was gone. We didn’t sing at parties or in the dorms any more, either. We simply turned on our Magic Boxes and listened to the professionals do it better.

This isn’t the fault of the boxes. It’s our fault because we let it happen. To sing, play a musical instrument, we need to study and practice. To use the boxes, all we need to do is spend money. As with music, thus with much other "Kultur."

Thus went the dinner conversation. After dinner, we sang. In harmony. (The wine helped.) We were trying to deny reality. (For whatever it’s worth, we men were all engineers.) The unhappy reality is that literati have been gobbled up by this Brave New World as completely as technophists.

And here we are: people don't sing together anymore. In a way, we have lost our songs and, in other ways, we have lost our magic - we are a civilization looking for a lost soul. Ursula Le Guin saw this happening with the exquisite sensitivity of a poet and she described it in her "The Wizard of Earthsea" already half a century ago. We took our path toward the "Dry Land" described the novel, patterned after the "Kur" of the ancient Sumerians, where the dead lie down like birds at dusk, eating mud and drinking dust. And it is there that we are marching to, pushed by our fears of losing what we have thus making sure that we will lose it.

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