Recently I was driving home after running some errands, upset over difficulties in a relationship that’s important to me. As I sat at a stop light, seething with a mix of unhappy emotions, the Largo from Handel’s Xerxes began to play on my tape deck. Even if you don’t recognize it by name, you might recognize the music. I have long loved this piece for its slow gentle dignity and its mood of meditative serenity. In a complex emotional reaction that I’m not sure I entirely understand, the music brought the sadness in my mind to the forefront (ahead of the anger and frustration), and it also brought a welcome feeling of acceptance and even peace. Since I’ve known this music for years, through many different moods and events, and it’s been around for centuries, I felt my problems of the day being cast in more manageable proportions. Set against the emotional ebb and flow of everyday life was the tranquil beauty of the music, steadfast in time.
Several years ago at an ethnic music festival I remember jotting down some notes about how maybe art is one of the answers to the problems of being thinking meat. I’ve thought a lot since then about how art does this. I don’t know why we evolved in such a way that we create art. That’s a topic for another day. What I’m speculating about here is the ways that art can make it easier to be a thinking mortal animal on this planet.
At the music festival I was thinking that music lets us share our feelings, so we know we’re not alone, and create something beautiful out of them, so we can experience the grace that, as U2 sang, makes beauty out of ugly things. A Cajun band, for example, sang about the homesickness of Acadians for their homeland. A Mongolian woman sang of the long journeys the men used to take in search of salt to bring back home, and the loneliness of the women who waited for them to come back. The artists who created this music took painful experiences and transformed them, through some alchemy of the mind, into beauty (art can also turn misery into humor or food for thought). Art simultaneously shares the specific details of another person’s experience, and tells a more generic story that most people can identify with (for who has not been homesick, or missed a beloved person who was far away?). We’ve all been there. There is some poignance and perhaps even beauty in the sadness, and comfort in knowing that you are not alone.
The specific details of some art—novels, songs, some poems, some paintings—let us share in the lives of other people that we will never have the chance to know, and to experience things far beyond what we could otherwise cram into our time on this planet. One of the troublesome things about being thinking meat is that we are here for such a short time. There are so many times and places and minds we will never know. We are born with curious and thirsty minds, but we’re always encountering limits to how much information we can soak up about the world. Art lets us experience vicariously some of these worlds that would otherwise be closed to us.
In particular, art can allow us to share the thoughts and emotions of people who lived in other times. If we’re lucky enough to create great art, it lives on after we’re gone. Even for most of us, who can’t reasonably expect to leave any masterworks behind, it’s comforting to sit in a concert hall or read a book or look at a painting that some other person conceived long before we were born, and to touch the mind of someone else. Carl Sagan wrote of how amazing an activity reading is: “You glance at a thin, flat object made from a tree…and the voice of the author begins to speak inside your head. (Hello!)” I think that experiencing the arts in general begins a similar amazing process. It gives me a feeling of continuity, of being a part of an interchange of ideas much bigger than myself, something that I hope will go on long after I am gone. For all the inherent fragility and transience of each human mind, we can still reach out to other minds across sometimes vast gaps of time and space.
A couple of months ago I was at an early music concert on campus and heard a Handel oratorio, a passionate piece that was intricately put together and beautifully performed. Audience and performers alike were caught up in the dense interweaving of voices, human and instrumental, and at the end of it I turned to the woman in the next seat, whom I did not know, and we smiled broadly at each other before breaking into applause. Imagine leaving behind something that can inspire 40-odd people to rehearse and perform it several hundred years later, and total strangers to grin at each other like delighted children upon hearing it. I didn’t write it, or even perform it, but I felt like my narrow spot in space and time was somehow widened by the experience.
One thing we can gain emotionally from art is the knowledge that emotions come and go, that people survive them, and that it can sometimes be possible to stand back from them and take a wider view. Wordsworth said that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”. And that tranquil recall can help the artist shape a balanced, more orderly view of the emotional events. Art involves picking out the most telling details or selecting just the parts of experience that tell a particular story, and recognizing a pattern in the welter of emotions and experiences that make up our lives. (Even abstract art often involves an element of selection and composition.) Art frames life in a meaningful way by shaping happenings into some kind of a form, often a narrative. It gives us at least the feeling of having some control over life. Julian Barnes, in Flaubert’s Parrot, wrote that he could understand why people prefer books to life: “Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.” True, but in books, or music, or paintings, we can sometimes see things that help us decide on the meaning we will give to our own lives, even—especially—at times when we are eternally left in the dark about some essential aspect of the situation.
And when we know, or have decided on, a meaning, we can shape our emotions accordingly to some degree. Art can be an excellent way to do this. When I was angry and bitter about my problems the other day, there was not much I could do at the moment, and dwelling on the anger and bitterness were not helping me get through my day any better. The music fostered a mood of sadness and resignation, which set my mind at rest so I could accept where I was and go on with something else. I was surprised at how quickly I shifted mental gears, but I’m certainly familiar with the emotional effect that music can have.
In fact, music might be one of the more common mood-altering substances around. Who hasn’t played lively music to get through a boring job, or sunny music to pull out of a brief emotional slump? Who doesn’t have some favorite vacation music that echoes the freedom you feel driving down the road, or rainy night music or comfort music? The music festival where I started thinking about art and thinking meat was full of rollicking danceable music that spread happiness to everyone within earshot. Poetry has a similar range of applications, and perhaps the other arts do as well, but I suspect words and music might be among the most accessible on an everyday level. Much has been written about the Mozart effect, which I consider to be overhyped psychobabble for the most part, but music can certainly change an attitude or an emotion and we use it that way all the time.
I’d love to say that my mind is no longer troubled in the least by the difficulties that were making me so miserable when I stumbled into the soothing effects of that piece by Handel recently. Art doesn’t make being thinking meat easy, however; it just makes it easier. It gives us some tools that can help us get through the bad parts with more grace than we might otherwise be able to muster. That’s enough, though. I’m happy about any gift of grace that I can find.