Sunday, 23 October 2011

Paul Keating on Music

Yesterday's Weekend Australian contains a detailed interview with former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating and a short extract from his new book.  In it, he laments the narrowness of our current political culture, the inability of our politicians (especially his successors in the Labor Party) to tell an overarching story about Australia, where we are heading and our place in the world. 

Part of the problem, he says, is that they are too focused on logic and pragmatics at the expense of vision and aesthetics.

Friedrich Schiller, the German philosopher, said: "If man is ever to solve the problems of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom."   

Romantic and idealistic as that view may seem to some, the thought is revelatory of the fact that the greater part of human aspiration has been informed by individual intuition and privately generated passions, more than it has through logic or scientific revelation. The moral basis of our public life, our social organisation, has come from within us - by aspiration and by light, not by some process of logical deduction.

He then moves on to use music as an illustration of what he means.

Music provides the clue: unlike other forms of art, music is not representational. Unlike the outcome of the sciences, it was never discoverable or awaiting discovery. A Mahler symphony did not exist before Mahler created it.

E.T.A. Hoffman, a contemporary of Beethoven's, famously said: "Music reveals to man an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all feelings circumscribed by intellect in order to embrace the inexpressible."

This is not to turn our back on reason. Or to argue that modernism, with all its secular progress through education, industrialisation, communications, transport and the centralised state, has not spectacularly endowed the world as no other movement before it. But a void exists between the drum-roll of mechanisation with its cumulative power of science and the haphazard, explosive power of creativity and passion. Science is forever trying to undress nature while the artistic impulse is to be wrapped in it.

While these approaches are different - perhaps often diametrically opposite - they inform related strands of thinking in ways that promote energy and vision.

This is what I have found when these forces are contemplated in tandem. When passion and reason vie with each other, the emerging inspiration is invariably deeper and of an altogether higher form. One is able to knit between them, bringing into existence an overarching unity - a coherence - which fidelity to the individual strands cannot provide.

Apart from making me wish he was still Prime Minister (given the current alternatives on offer) Keating has said very eloquently something I often try to get out in my own hesitant way.  He applies the lesson to politics - we need to use our intuition, our aesthetic sense, to complement our rational decisions, not replace them.

I've been thinking the same in the church.  So often our songs are just another way of expressing our dogma.  Our songwriters and musicians write and play out of an intellectual straitjacket of "correct doctrine" which means only certain forms of words are acceptable.  This is part of what worried me about the Twist conference that I reacted so strongly to. 

Music at its best, whether in church or in wider society, should open up another realm to us, something that can't be easily encapsulated in theological or sociological formulae.  If it could be pinned down in words, music would no longer be necessary.  It alerts us to the fact that our formulae are only ever approximations of the truth.  Sure, "the truth is out there" but if we think we understand it we are selling it short.  Perhaps it's a bit like what the other Paul says in Romans 8:26-27.

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.

1 comment:

Brad McCoy said...

Looks like you and I have different takes on Keating's manifesto