Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Yule - a happy solitude. On televisual mind-rotting and books.

I had just a couple of days off for Yule, so visited my mother to make the most of it. She lives on Anglesey now, which meant that I was able to spend my time there exactly how I like it: peaceful tranquility, "far from the maddening crowd".  The above picture was taken on Aberffraw beach on Thor's day (i.e. Xmas day). The sky was incredibly beautiful, shades of crimson and topaz setting behind the Snowdonia mountains in the background.

Most television programs broadcast today, generally speaking, represent an abomination of mediocrity and turgid mindlessness, but never before can I remember there being such a dearth of anything remotely worth watching as over this festive period. When I say that there was nothing - I mean it completely literally. A morass of reality television and populist "light entertainment" (sarcasm fully intended). Apart from watching a DVD (The Pursuit Of Happiness, with Will Smith, which was, quite surprisingly (given my initial scepticism about Mr. Smith's capabilities of acting a "serious" role), fairly good), the television never actually went on. Music all the way - Brahm's piano works and Bruckner symphonies.

Where were all the films? Are all the television channels cost-cutting in the present economic climate and showing infinitely cheaper (in all senses of the word) reality TV shows?

Bah humbug, and all that. Give me a decent book any day. My disdain of modern television broadcasting has reached the point where I almost view it as actually mentally toxic. I am one of these people that will quite specifically make sure to always mute the television when adverts come on; I find nothing more grating that being subjected to a barrage of manipulative images and sounds - particularly since some of them are known to deploy almost subliminal images to product place something into your unconscious. We all have enough mental garbage to automatically filter out in modern life without adding more.

Unfortunately, I can't be in such an exquisitely beautiful place all the time. And so I disappear into my inner world. Which in large part, for me, is through books. My overcrowded bookshelf - modest as it is; I dream of my own house, with my own "library" - a room filled with bookshelves packed with hundreds, if not thousands of books - is my portal somewhere else, somewhere higher. When your immediate surroundings represent a poverty of beauty; I don't even have my own home, not even an incredibly modest dwelling, simply a cramped room I rent in a shared, messy and ugly house, in an unremarkable set of streets; then you have to either compensate with your inner world, or fall prey to mental illness (which comes in many disguised forms in the modern era). Or at least, in my case, anyway. Opportunities to truly escape are rare, so cherished when they occur.

It's the usual conundrum: the places where you'd like to live don't generally have much in the way of available jobs. And cities are infinitely more pleasant if you're rich (which I'm not, obviously).

So, one can but struggle on.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

From dental pain to Messiaen

It has been an extremely busy week so far.

Little time to be. Apart from longer hours at work during this busy Yuletide, I have had to subject myself to the personal horror of the dentist - be cursed the modern diet and my poor dental genetics. I feel like I'm fighting a losing war when trying to keep all my teeth healthy, despite endless brushing, mouthwashes, etc, etc.

Such is the mundane sphere of life.

Still, last night was an experience to remember. For I had the inestimable enlightenment served by seeing a performance of a truly rarefied order of mastery. I saw Steven Osborne perform Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus here at the Sage in Gateshead.

Ostensibly this is a deeply religious, Christian work. One could easily form pre-conceptions about its content from the subtitle, which is on the theme of the Nativity.

But lest anyone assume that what we have here is some syrupy, meek, parochial and insipid devotional to the Christian faith, they couldn't be more wrong. And most importantly, we have an example of devout religiosity ultimately serving Art as the highest exemplar; for what we have here is music of utterly exceptional quality. Through Osborne, this music is served by an interpretor of such ability that he possesses the necessary capacity to render this music - for this is very difficult, very obtuse and highly inaccessible music.

If anything, this music should come with a warning. For, it may only apparently be a work for a solo piano, but it is surely some of the most violent, extreme and demanding music ever created. I can state this with confidence from the perspective of someone whose musical tastes could be described as extremely eclectic, unconventional, and in many cases highly extreme in comparison to cultural norms.

When I say demanding, I should clarify that it is in equal measure for the listener as well as the performer. First off, we have a continuous piece of music (in twenty sections) for solo instrument that lasts in excess of two hours - and the concert, quite appropriately given the musical content, was performed without an interval or break. Next, we have the extraordinarily chromatic and polytonal musical tonality - no adherence to happy major keys or simple chord structures here. Into the mix we have an astonishing dynamic range, from the gentlest notes barely disturbing the substrate of silence... to a colossal cacophony, a veritable battery; a grand piano assault. Finally, we have the immensely complex structure to the piece; tied together throughout with the original theme introduced in the very first part.

It is often said that the silence, the space between notes, is absolutely as important as the notes themselves; nowhere is this more true than here. This work positively dances around silence; before exploding out as if in some Old Testament Divine judgement from the Almighty, to rip into the backdrop of silence and populate it with multifaceted, ambiguous forms. In that respect it reflects life.

It is a work that is sublime and fantastic in the most absolutely literal sense of those two words. For me, the real essence of the work distils down to the following conflict: the tension between the transcendent and the immanent.

I am currently reading de Benoist's On Being A Pagan, which is a book written by an author of great learning and insight. Interestingly, the process of reading this book deepened my experience of the concert last night.

For, in dialectically contrasting the traditional Pagan/polytheist teleology with its usurpation by the [currently] prevailing Judeo-Christian/monotheist world view, I was drawn into recognising features in the music that correspond to the philosophical and theological precepts discussed in this book. Specifically, the Otherness, the great, unapproachable Other that characterises the relationship man has towards God in the Judeo-Christian world view. Judaism's Yahweh is distinctly not of this world; he is the creator, or more impotantly, the ultimate authority, the Law and the Word of this world. For all the ancient Pagan religions, the gods are distinctly a part of this world; they interact through this world; they are idealised Man; they are not some impossible Other: permanently [virtually] unreachable, intractable, and entirely transcendent not-being.

Anyway, the reason I draw inferences to this point is that Messaien's music, and especially this piece, seems to struggle with the reconciliation of this primordial alienation with the equally primordial being as a being in this world. These are themes that Nietzsche, and more recently, Heidegger elaborate on. For, in the final analysis, as a human being, one must partake of what is humanising.

The work occupies a realm of tremendous spiritual depth but also one that is almost cold, existentially terrifying, and somewhat detached from this world. Chilling sections are contrasted by violent episodes that almost suggest a Divine authority from above crushing you from without; or, conversely, with the inner struggle of man to acheive supremacy over himself, to reintegrate into a whole what for most of the time feels like a mysterious and discontiguous assemblage of unknowables. This is definitely an innately human quality that anyone who reflects on the human conundrum must experience at least some of the time.

The work gradually metamorphises and the grand reconciliation begins to seem possible; through intensity the two elements - id and ego; unconciousness and conciousness; intuition and intellect; transcendent and immanent; spirit and form - seem to achieve the necessary higher synthesis and coalesce into a recognisable whole.

Messaien's approaches the line from the side of the Other and gradually reaches down to the ground of common experience by always, musically looking up, to the beyond. His is the calculus of finding the particular from the universal.

It only takes a listener willing to open themselves up to the experience to recognise the great uncommunicable, spiritual unity visible in this work - regardless of their personal religious and spiritual views. This is music that truly does transcend.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Gender stereotypes, being a miserable bastard (purportedly), and love (lack thereof)

I suppose it isn't surprising - since it makes perfect biological sense - but it is nevertheless a source of continual amazement to me how, when it comes to the world of human attraction, that even in the supposedly enlightened 21st century, we are still stuck in an apparent pattern of very rigid gender typing.

And at the risk of igniting a cultural veritable hot potato, it does seem to be accentuated in the North vs. South thing, here in England.

As soon as you start talking about Northerners or Southerners one is immediately on shaky ground. But irrespective, it is rather a hobby of pretty much every English person, so why not ;-)

The generalisation I have personally observed - insert disclaimer here - is that people in the North tend to be more overtly gender typed than in the South. On average.

So, basically, what I'm saying is that the men up here tend to be very bloke-ish - so lots of bravado, braggadocio,  machismo, and the portrayal, in general, of a thick skin and a habit to simply laugh things up and, wherever possible, to take the piss [out of each other].

The more "feminine" qualities of empathy, support, and well, refinement, for want of a better word, are less cherished.

Now, this obviously occurs in the South too. But in my circle of acquaintances "down there" (e.g. Woking, Surrey), in comparison with up here (e.g. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne), it was noticeably less, well, overtly gender stereotyped.

There does seem to be more of a hard-drinking background up here too. I suppose it is perhaps a case of the historical working class background "dying hard".

So, to put all of the above into an example, if I'm feeling low then my circle of (male, and yes, also straight) friends down South were more inclined to try to cheer me up and offer sympathy, engage me in conversation; up here they are more likely to make jokes about my misfortunes and perhaps try to cheer me up by getting me to laugh it off.

But anyway, pointless comparisons between North and South aside, and still generally applicable to both equally, and probably the UK as a whole, this gender stereotyping reveals itself more starkly than anywhere else on a night out.

Boys have to be boys, girls have to be girls, so to speak.

What I find ironic, is that the qualities that women seem to want in terms of their behaviour - at least when they're out on a night - from their men are not what they actually seem to want when they describe what they want during (sober) conversation.

I suppose a man who espouses "alpha" qualities is perceived as having more sexual prowess and power, and of possessing more of the masculine principle; therefore they are more attractive, in general. At least initially. In terms of actually having a relationship with someone, if they are orientated towards the extreme pole of their particular gender, then this will make them more difficult in terms of compatibility for a successful stable partnership; they would probably need to be counterbalanced by someone equally as extremely orientated towards the other pole.


I'm not personally into heavy drinking, bragging, showmanship, and overt "laddishness". (And I'm not claiming that I've never done any of this in my life either, since that would be a lie).

But it is a shame that it seems to be assumed that if you don't have these characteristics, then you are less masculine (and viz., less attractive). That seems to be the common cultural gender archetype over here [in the UK].

To give an example: my idea of a good night out is a nice meal with friends and good conversation. I'd much rather have a intimate meal over a bottle of wine with a lovely woman than go on a binge drinking pub crawl getting plastered with her. Etc.

I suppose I would like to identify myself with a more "continental" archetype; slightly quiet, relatively serious, somewhat intense, philosophical, and passionate. Perhaps I am overbearing - what can I say. My favourite writers include such luminaries as Arthur Schopanhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant...

Pah. I'm probably doomed. Just because I'm a serious type doesn't mean I'm not fun. Or at least, I hope that is the case. Besides, I don't see fun and seriousness as two diametrically opposing concepts. One can have fun... seriously, surely ;-)

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Odin's soil

My time of need
Where the aimless and unidentifiable moment
a frozen river, still; then gone
so my memory passes, seeking purchase
on some outcrop of truth
a small victory, against a tide of escaping time
swept into a blank sea
finally resurfacing, clambering aboard
a small boat, a vessel of hope
finding bedrock on awareness
ashore, upon Odin's soil;
finally, earthed

Monday, 8 December 2008

Poverty in the true sense of the word

Perhaps it is a function of an ever expanding memory (in terms of the library of life experiences), but life increasingly seems like a dream world. Increasingly, I find myself projecting myself somewhere else; either recollecting images from the past, or imagining new, possible futures. Yeah, daydreaming as it were. Increasingly so. But isn't daydreaming the norm, interrupted by brief excursions into so called "normality"?

Australian Aboriginals were no doubt correct to view the dream world as being ever bit as real (if not more so) than "real life". For how much of the time can one say that one is fully present in the moment? Or perhaps one should ask, how often would one want to be fully present in the moment? For, unless you are fortunate (or, speaking satirically, Buddhist), a moment by moment analysis would reveal a cruel fate of tedium, boredom, endless repetitive tasks, an impossible struggle with entropy.

But this question is probably negatively coloured by my own personal experience [of being presently "stuck"]. For, one would have great joy in being fully present, fully attentive, fully aware of the moment if one is doing what one truly believes your life purpose is. In other words, if you are fortunate in that your life's work is spiritually or perhaps intellectually fulfilling - for properly [inwardly] directed, any intellectual pursuit can become a spiritual exercise.

I am guilty of insularity sometimes, probably more through a tendency to withdraw into myself due to a lack of [apparent] availability of what I truly need from what is externally present in my day to day life, rather than through some type of misanthropic or innately anti-social prejudice.  

Life's work; life's joy. It really can be a bitch to find; or perhaps, rather, pursue. In the Western world the ultimate chain is debt; credit, far from being a freedom, is ultimately always a denial of freedom. For to accrue debt is to give away ownership of your own life to a concomitant degree. If you're not able to financially unlock the chain through earnings, your only way to break the chain is to allow it sink to the bottom of the material sea, and take with it every single possession, every single external thing about your life; everything thing except what is most important; yourself. So in that sense, you can be truly free again. But that is both artificial and too idealistic.

So you sell a little piece of your soul every time you need to borrow a penny - certainly when the person lending the penny is a faceless organisation, an abstract corporate entity.   

Life has never been a panacea for anyone, but the defining quest of freedom is the search for oneself. The search to make the life one leads authentic towards yourself - the search to make the inner and the outer worlds reflections of each other, different only by degree.

On that set of parameters, I have an awful long way to go...

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The architecture of sexual desire

There seems to be an increasingly stark contrast between my mundane life and the my intelligible life.

Work is about wearing a mask to some degree. Interaction with anyone but the closest and deepest of friends involves wearing a mask. The working week, the normal week, is a constant occupation of the mundane sphere, where everything is structured according to time. Morning, wake up, breakfast, leave house; various tasks at work, lunch; lunch break - enter the intelligible world - over; afternoon, various tasks; finish work, walk home; prepare stuff, go to gym; return home, cook and eat; various tasks; internet, books, music a brief period of time to return to awareness.

Being non-stop from seven in the morning to nine in the evening doesn't leave a great deal of time for much else. And this sort of schedule is pretty normal for a lot of people who live in the West. So many things; in the Western world we have so many forms, that is, material objects. Clutter. Clutter in mind.

Perhaps one of the particular joys of climbing a mountain is the sense of space, free from clutter, free from endless material junk. Free, if only for a while, from time.

It is easy to see why certain major religions, particularly Christianity, effectively regard sex as a "sin". Sin, properly understood in this context, should be taken to be obsession with form, with the material object as its goal, to the exclusion of higher spiritual precepts. As a man in his twenties, one can certainly easily identify with the originating basis of this prescription; a person in harmony with oneself, can conquer the sense of loneliness and detachment one can often feel, and transform it into a comfortable solitude; a peaceful existence free from the endless and constant superficial intrusions of Western noise. The sense of sexual desire, never. Not authentically I believe. People may conquer it through a sense of denial, and a prescription of "sin" to cast it into a negative light might allow them to intellectually justify a denial of what ultimately is a fundamental basis of being human; but it will always remain.

In this sense, it is both the biggest enemy - as an inclination that will never be fully satisfied; as a feeling so powerful it can drive someone to complete self-destruction or violence (in whatever form) - and the biggest strength - as a chance to existentially connect with the limitless spiritual basis of authentic being; a chance to fully harmonise with oneself completely.

Those of us who identify more intimately with a Pagan theogony, who see ourselves as spiritually connected in the world as a part of nature rather than above it, who feel no need to separate the animal nature as being automatically inferior, rather than to merely recognise its characteristic as integrated into our sense of being; we see sex as an overwhelming positive force. Positive, but still cruel, where it is unavailable. 

If love is the Ideal, as the intelligible spiritual synthesis for the hamonising principle between two people, sex is frequently the catalyst, and always a chance to bring a little of the intelligible world into the mundane, even if it does so completely outside the realm of love; for providing it is done willingly, consensually, and with genuine desire, it is always therefore authentic, and to this degree the persons involved always share an existential, and necessarily to some degree, spiritual experience.

So, to be denied this key, an incredibly powerful and overwhelmingly immediate one at that, is just one more frustrating closure of from the authentic sense of self that you seek. The denial carries with it the additional penalty of being a constant laborious distraction; for it feels like the golden apple that is always just out of reach, yet always visible.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Freedom, where art thou?

In a shitty mood today. One of the particular modes of depression is a feeling of being immensely trapped. Freedom is an elusive ideal; perhaps more than any other, it is one of the defining characteristics of the human situation.

Frequently I get sick of the seeming banality and changeless stasis of my life. One week passes by much like the previous, and much like the next. Going nowhere, doing nothing much. Living in a room. An external prison mirroring your internal one. It is so easy to dream of all the places on the planet you could be, all the things you could be doing. But you're stuck in a prison that you don't know how to escape from - no money, no car, no proper home. Television programs and films can offer up an acute form of torture; you see places you wish you could be, see people doing things you wish you could be doing, people living lives you wish you could live.

The difference in quality between the child like sense of wonder and openness is that when life hasn't worked out how you planned, when your dreams seem to have been crushed... instead of dreaming and wishing with the residual optimism that "I'll do that someday", this feeling is instead replaced by the emptiness resulting from "I'll never get a chance to do that before I die". A sense of dreaming has been replaced by a sense of loss.

Of course you can't possibly know that for a fact, generally speaking, but it isn't about objectivity. It is about the feeling. It becomes difficult not to feel bitter.

And it is a grim, dark, and miserable place to be. A place barren of hope. Alone.

It wouldn't be so bad if you had some firm idea about what to do to change things. But when you can't see a way forward - then your soul might as well be sucked out of you, for you start to feel like merely a breathing corpse.

We all get glimpses of freedom. But increasingly they feel like mere shafts of light reaching down from a high ceiling in a dark cold cave; tantalising but ultimately unreachable.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Some one: Someone and blogging

It is, indeed, a wonder that anyone finds anyone at all.

First off, the logistics. Most people, after a while, settle into a steady job. Even if they work in a big corporation, in reality they interact with a relatively limited number of people who they see on an almost daily basis.

Assuming that no one finds love through their workplace, that obviously means they have to find it outside. Now a typical job is somewhere in the region of 40 hours per week. Add to that average commute times, and in general we could say, quite reasonably, that 50 hours per week of the 168 are taken up by work. That leaves about 118. Of those 118, based on an average of 8 hours sleep per night, that uses up an additional 56 hours, which reduces the available hours to 62.

Now, during the working week, average Joe or Jane then has to do all the usual chores around the house such as cooking, cleaning, washing and, of course, relaxing - which is of course usually a solitary exercise if someone is single, be it reading a book, watching a film or some junk on TV, etc. Including the time spent getting ready in the mornings, it is quite reasonable to suggest this takes up another 2-3 hours per day. Anything that doesn't get done during the week will get dumped at the weekend or days off, so even these days will have a similar time usage. So that is another 21 hours, taking our remaining time down to 41 hours.

We then have food shopping and time spent out the house doing other necessary non-recreational tasks, which easily uses up another, say, 5-6 hours per week. So down to 35 hours.

People that want to be healthy and fit (and by logic, anyone who is single probably wants to do their best to improve these aspects) need to do some type of regular exercise, of whatever variety whether it be going to the gym or cycling. So, based on an average level of exercise, including time showering, commuting to/from gym or other necessary preparations, we can say that this takes up at least another 6 hours per week. So 29 hours or so. Of these 29 recreational hours per week, most people will be lucky to have 1-2 hours actually spare in the evenings. Although people can and do socialise during the working week, typically most people will be tired and just want to crash out at home for these free hours. So that's another 10 hours gone. Down to 19 hours. Most people have two days off per week, so the majority of the 19 hours left for socialising will take place over these two days. Most real socialising - of the type where you can attempt to find someone of the opposite sex - tends to take place in the evening, say from 8PM till 3AM, which leaves us with 16 hours. On a typical working week this would be Friday and Saturday evenings. This is assuming someone goes out both nights, every week. Although some people will, probably most will go out on a proper night out once per week. So down to 8 hours.

Of these 8 hours, we then have a very hit and miss scenario. Most pubs and clubs have very loud background noise and music levels so real in depth conversation is not possible. Assuming this to be so, we are left with the more basic "dance floor" scenario to meet someone. Most people won't hit the dance floor until later on in the evening after several drinks, so probably from 11 or 12 onwards. So down to 3 hours.

That's a pretty low percentage opportunity. 3 hours. And to meet what? A pure random physical (and probably short lived) attraction, if you're lucky? The likelihood of finding someone you are genuinely compatible with is extremely low.

Of course I realise this analysis is unduly pessimistic, grossly so, as every moment in life, is, theoretically, an opportunity to meet some special someone. You might bump into them at the supermarket. You might talk to them in the street. You might even meet them over the internet. Whatever.

The point is, it is nevertheless surprising anyone finds anyone they are genuinely compatible with at all in the modern world. The fact is they do, but it is against all odds, rather than with the confluence of any - certainly if you look at the matter from a materialistic perspective. In fact the odds of even meeting someone you aren't compatible with but at least have some superficial attraction that goes a little somewhere is still pretty low - generally speaking.

I should add that this cursory analysis took an "average Joe" example doing an "average Joe" life. Some people are fortunate in that they have amazing jobs and lives, where every day is filled meeting new people, doing interesting things, going to interesting places, etc. But my example looks at the more mundane sphere of a typical job working in somewhere like an office or wherever.

It has been correctly pointed out that a better method of meeting someone is to join a club or participate in some community or activity whereby you stand a chance of meeting some "like minded" people. Even that is still not a high probability, necessarily, since many types of clubs/activities won't have a high turn out of appropriate aged people and much of a potential attraction base. Furthermore, sharing an interest doesn't mean that you are alike or a good match with someone, even if we were to presume that the initial attraction and match was there.

The aim of this rather vague and rambling, overly empirical analysis of the world of human attraction, was perhaps to underline in a rather mundane way the difficulty in even encountering reasonable numbers of at least potential matches. You can construct scenarios - such as speed dating sessions, etc. - but the inevitable result is that they are always, necessarily, rather contrived and artificial. I did once come across a post on the internet by a statistician who subjected the entire population of the planet to a set of reasonable assumptions with the result that the typical individual might have 11000 potential matches, world wide. Or something of that order. Reducing that to ones in the geographical vicinity, you start to realise the improbability of meeting such a person when one considers this expressed as a percentage in relation to the population of the planet. Something dismally small. This was based on a set of quite reasonable assumptions and basic facts, nothing "deep".

So we have a small potential base, of which to meet someone. So if you're looking for someone who isn't just merely a bit of fun to be around, but someone who, as it were, was a true spiritual match, someone you instinctively understand, someone who you truly resonate with, someone who... completes you... Well, then, that is a tough proposition.

Non-empirical factors of course do ultimately seem to shape human relationships, for most people do meet that someone (or indeed several, over a lifetime). But it can feel like an impossible dream sometimes.

Is blogging a fundamentally egotistical activity? The answer probably is yes. As a diary, it is a means of self-exploration. The fact that a blog allows you to publicly air your thoughts, but at the same time to a fundamentally anonymous audience, does change the dynamic somewhat. Most blogs out there, amongst the vast numbers on the internet, are primarily only of interest to the person writing them, and the fact of the matter is they probably barely get read by a single other person. Just yet another clump of data in a vast electronic soup.

That, however, is not the point. The point is the very possibility that they could be [read by a particular someone] modifies the whole essence of the writing. The hidden (but assumed) agenda behind every blog - is the possibility of connecting with someone else who understands. This lies at the basis, as a component, of every piece of writing, of whatever type. The knowledge that it is being published - even if that is purely electronically on some random web page amongst thousands of others - is nevertheless a huge advance over merely writing something that probably won't ever see the light of day in any form. A writer fundamentally always wants some sort of audience. For, it is an opportunity to actually be heard - to genuinely say something, rather than merely utter pleasantries or  mechanic social parlance. We all say many words without actually necessarily saying much. A large part of conversations are merely social lubrication or mundane information exchange, rather than true human to human communication about the mysteries of life.

The written word quite often has a cogency, authenticity and level of expression missing from most spoken conversations in the real world, where there are always some degree of barriers erected, even amongst good friends.

A blog is usually a story about the individual life experiences of the particular person's own life. An autobiography. So, the real agenda - regardless of whether the person is happily married, with someone, or not - is the hope that somewhere, out there, in the vast and incalculable electronic nexus of the web, will be some one, someone, who reads, and understands. Not on a rational or even intellectual level. Beyond that; on an intuitive level. On a spiritual level. For, in effect, it is a means of confirming one's own existence; a moment of existential recognition. Everyone has that need buried in them somewhere, regardless of how strong or self-secure they may suppose themselves to be.

Some blogs are a lot more personal than others. Some are a lot more detailed. Some deal a lot more with "external" [life] rather than "internal" events. Regardless. The same fundamental principle underlies them all - else they would simple keep their writing to themselves on some personal computer file. Blogs are about sharing, in a more or less uninhibited fashion. So in that respect, they are altruistic as much as they are egotistic. A lovely paradox.

Or probably just a truism if one looks at the matter on a deeper level.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Brahm's piano music

Brahms was a mighty composer in every sense of the term. All of Brahms music requires depth, conviction, and above all, authority.

The composers that normally first get name-checked as the greats are typically Beethoven, Mozart, Bach... all with some, quite considerable, justification. Brahms is one who slips somewhat under the radar, yet in my opinion stands comparison with any composer and deserves to be counted among the absolute elite.

As sweeping and majestic as his symphonic works are, Brahms himself was first and foremost a pianist - and a truly formidable one, at that. So deciding to rectify a gap in my collection, I decided it was time to obtain a survey of his solo piano music, and so I awhile back I got Gehard Oppitz's complete cycle on RCA, a modern digital recording.

This is music of profound beauty, depth, and above all moment. The exemplary pianism conveys the sheer gravity of the notes. Brahm's delicate melodic lines carry with them an almost transcendental expression; crystallising in the air, the essential silence around them providing a foundation for the tremendous spiritual depth of the music. The playing is often beautifully subtle, in equal balance to the sheer fortitude required to drive the music forward. Yet the music always flows; steeped in the traditional dances from which he drew significant influence. This is not music about flurries of notes, arpeggios, or indeed any overt displays of technique. It is so much more than that. There is none of the whimsical, self-indulgent, and almost childish - perhaps naive would be the fairer term - but above all, superfluous melodic lines that virtually overflow from Mozart's piano sonatas. For where Mozart would lapse into showmanship, every note in Brahm's music is vital, considered, and deeply resonant.

I contrast Brahm's with Mozart since for me they are almost antithetical to each other, despite the fact that necessarily Brahm's owes much to the Classical tradition [that Mozart helped forge] - Brahm's sought a higher synthesis of the Classical and Romantic traditions. Needless to say it should be obvious whom I favour. Mozart's finest works came near the end of his life, where it becomes apparent in his music that there is a spiritual depth, but above all, maturity, somewhat absent from his earlier music - his Requiem being a particular example. No one could deny his prodigious genius and unparalleled melodic ingenuity; but a certain sense of true awareness of the inherently human situation seems lacking, and in such cases we are left with elegant, extremely attractive but perhaps slightly superficial music. One that reflects a certain vanity - though an incredibly productive one - due to self-involvement rather than service to the fundamental Mysteries of life.
Brahm's has a depth and awareness that is incredibly manifest coupled with an incredible economy of line, without ever sounding dry or ascetic. There is tremendous tonal and harmonic complexity in this music, yet it always remains beautifully melodic. Each sonata is, in effect, an entire symphony in itself, with huge dynamic demands.

I suppose it should be obvious that this is without doubt some of the finest and most exquisite music I have ever heard. This is art of the highest possible calibre. It communicates with an erudition that words struggle to approach; this is music in service to Art in its highest and most perfect form; it goes beyond, and suggests towards that which is but Ideality, as the limit of which Art is merely the tool that simply can but strive; can suggest, without stating.

Oppitz, as both communicator and interpretor - whilst I have limited alternative recordings upon which to draw comparisons - plays at all times with what seems like an absolute command and intuitive understanding of the requirements of Brahm's composition. He combines effortless technical mastery with a true musical understanding. It is difficult to imagine this music being better represented than we have here.


Life seems like a rushed miasma interspersed with existential moments. Brief interludes, when, paradoxically, the artifice of this endless torrent is washed away with a sense of the timeless, limitless; the sense of a reconnection with self and yet not-self. Eastern esotericism has understood this truth for far longer than we have in the West, and we are still catching up.

For me, I live for these moments. To make the moments instead a thoroughgoing element of daily life, I suppose, is what you would call Philosophy at its most pragmatic. The requirement - certainly for most people - to make this possible would be a vocation that in itself provides intellectual and above all spiritual satisfaction. For most of us, this is but a romantic fantasy; so we merely greet these moments of existence when we have a chance to reflect, when presented with the wonder of nature or some sublime Art in some form. Finding it in the everyday and the mundane is an infinitely more subtle and difficult art; Buddhists spend a lifetime searching for it, so that it is at once everywhere; which is of course to say, they have to search within themselves.

Age allows this dimension to increase as the understanding draws upon an ever deeper library of experience; when other physical dimensions start to recede, this dimension can continue to expand unabated.

On the challenge of reconciling this spiritual connection and the increasingly industrialised Western world, Julius Evola said it best:

"The most peculiar thing is that this superstitious and insolent cult of
work is proclaimed in an era in which the irreversible and relentless
mechanisation eliminates from the main varieties of work whatever in
them still had the character of quality, art, and the spontaneous
unfoldment of a vocation, turning it into something inanimate and
devoid of even an immanent meaning."

The world needs artists, and equally, it needs listeners. For otherwise it is deprived of its purpose.

Listening to Brahms is but another way to find those existential moments.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Jazz and the Blue feeling

Few of the people I know are really into Jazz, besides which everyone was off elsewhere this weekend, so thought I'd head out to the Jazz Café here in Newcastle by myself regardless.

Excellent night out. Despite the inclement weather and partially resultant small number of people present, this small venue has a great yesteryear charm. Its all slightly run-down, which really just adds to the character of the place. Too many places are being turned into drab modernist clinical environments, particularly when it comes to the seeming mercurial rise of chain store style pubs and clubs. Places with an authentic sense of history are slowly dying out.

This is probably an overly cynical view, since no doubt plenty of new places are cropping up to create their own bit of history anew. But still. The critical thing is that the venue has to be run for the love of what it offers, rather than just seeing it as a one dimensional commercial opportunity where everything is ultimately considered purely in terms of profit streams.

Well the Jazz Café is clearly a labour of love under the helm of its idiosyncratic and charismatic owner (pictured above).

Even given weather considerations, it was a surprise to see such a small turn out. Does no one in the North East like Jazz? Pretty bizarre. Since for £4 entry you get yourself several hours of live entertainment. And the trio last night were undoubtedly highly accomplished. It was a set of traditional lounge jazz, delivered with confidence and feeling. I seem to have a refined talent for always locating places which are mysteriously quiet - I say mysterious because they are often places that are not normally particularly quiet. Maybe I have some misanthropic radar.

I love Blues, and bluesy Jazz or Jazz Blues, whatever you wish to call it. We live in a society where it is almost unacceptable to be melancholic. Maybe its a Northern thing; put a brave face on it, laugh it off, act all Alpha, whatever. But as Aristotle observed, tragedy has much more depth than comedy. And you feel a deepening of your sense of being when you sit and let the music seep into you. Sink into your soul, if that doesn't sound so clichéd. Melancholy is beautiful. Melancholy is profoundly life affirming.

Perhaps we merely connect most with what we associate most intimately with.

So life is ambiguous. The one certainty you can be assured of is the lack of certainty. This is the primary discrepancy between real life and all fictionalised accounts of life; life is always far more indistinct, more uncertain, and always less clear cut. You go out and you hope to connect with someone. Life is disappointing in respect to the type of meaningful moments that populate virtually all "deep" films. Those moments are rare, elusive. One wanders around in the cinema of one's own mind.

I think the primary benefit of getting older is that it almost seems that in direct proportion to your age, your sense of feeling deepens; as the catalogue of Experience grows, so you find yourself more readily able to connect with specific emotional states. Your sense of intuition deepens. Your spiritual depth increases. Everything, slowly but surely, carries more gravity.

Conversely, this can be a burden, hence it is a double-edged sword; but if age is the boat with which to sail into the inexhaustible reservoir of intuition, it is a burden worth bearing. For who knows just how deep those waters are except the explorer cast upon them? You can only understand in direct proportion to the level of experiential awareness you have developed. In Kantian terminology (for on most important matters, Kant said much that bears consideration) only objects of possible experience are objects for you at all; else they are mere thought entities. Whilst I use this in a slightly different context, the basic principle applies.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Consolation of Philosophy - indeed

So it doesn't make sense to me when people say they're not interested in Philosophy.

Or that it is pointless.

How could you not be interested in the big questions? In the final analysis, the only ones that actually matter. The classic ones; freedom of will, existence or non-existence of God (or Gods), the existence or non-existence of the soul (and its corollary - permanence or impermanence thereof), the nature of the origin of the universe, etc. These are the "pop" questions of Philosophy, and the very asking of any of these questions automatically presupposes a whole set of associated conditions. For ultimately Philosophy is concerned with universals, that which is unconditioned to which everything else is ultimately subservient.

But anyway - you see my point. Everyone simply must have at least some interest, even if they don't intellectually recognise this fact.

The second, often connected attitude of the pointlessness of it all carries with an unacceptable attitude of defeatism and apathy. For the lack of any certainty to such questions should not be considered the end of such speculation, but rather the start. To paraphrase Kant (and no doubt many others).

There is no natural delineation from where Philosophy ends and Theology begins. The Philosopher must always remain neutral, however, and seek wherever possible to subject everything to the utmost ratiocinative powers at their disposal. Whilst such an attitude is advisable for the Theologian, it is not necessarily required, as they are more willing to adopt a greater range of unknowables as given true as articles of faith. Theosophy is the natural synthesis of the two, and integrates the wider spectrum of occult and esoteric learnings into the canon.

Of course such distinctions are rather artificial and somewhat coloured by the over-specialisation and over dependence on modern empirical Science. Lo, those who would try to bring Philosophy as a specialisation of empirical, materialistic, Science. It is a move so absurd that it scarcely merits conversation. After all, originally, Philosophy was called Natural Science. So to subject this to an involution of primacy is merely a reflection of a lack of understanding of the proper architectonic upon which the nature of appropriate generalisation and specialisation, the proper order of subjects, belongs.

No, Philosophy is always the ultimate root parent subject to all others. Or rather, all others are ultimately subject to a Philsophy.

So anyway, life is frustrating. We all make our errors of judgement. I went to University and studied Computer Science, only to realise half-way through that I'd picked the wrong degree as it progressively bored the hell out me, and I felt a yearning to study ultimately more fundamental matters - i.e. Philosophy. Of course had been someone of the pragmatic and sensible type, I would have just finished it, continuing on from my excellent results in the second year... and probably could have some well paid job now, albeit unsatisfying.

But such a pragmatism is out of character for me, I am ultimately driven by more impulsive undercurrents, despite perhaps appearances to contrary in terms of my outward seemingly sensible, almost staid, navigation of life's challenges.

So I find myself in murky waters of discontent. A feeling of not having actually come close to fulfilling my potential in any respect. Almost a sense of being inauthentic towards myself.

So I could do an external Philosophy degree now. But guess what. Yeah, money. It'll have to wait until I'm out of debt, as it isn't cheap. It is tiresome waiting. But Philosophy, I suppose, is one of those powers of mind that merely improves with age. Philosophy should be rushed. In fact, the slower the better. A 100 brilliant words can contain more coherency than a 10000 garbled pages.

Zen masters intuitively comprehended this truth.

The sense of discontent would be eased if I more people in day to day life to share this stuff with. I mean, I have one particular person the other side of the globe who I randomly converse with over Facebook, then in my day to day life maybe one or two people.

Patrick is one of them. He has a PhD in Mathematics so invariably our discussions revolve around perplexing mathematical abstractions and in-jokes about Wittenstein. Kant talked rather penetratingly about mathematics. Mathematics won't ultimately help you with the deep Philosophical problems, but as a tool for the construction of concepts, and as a tool for exploring the universal in the particular, in concreto, as it were, it has an efficacy no other subject has. It also encourages a rigour and clarity of thought and method like no other.

I was far too lazy in school with Mathematics. I had plenty of ability but lack of application, so never it took it that far beyond GCSE. I should probably go back and correct that. But I'd start from a different standpoint. It all starts to become a lot more powerful when one approaches it from the Mystery perspective, the Pythagorean school. Rather than assuming them as abstract concepts in itself, it instead relates the abstractions as analogues of deep philosophical observations, and builds them up there. So instead of a mere structure "for the sake of" it is a structure that reflects instead a certain something. The great Pythagorean Tetraclys is the profound example of this.

Anyway, its a beautiful winter's day outside. Cold, frostly, crisp and sunny. My favourite type of weather in many respects. A fine day to wander, sit and have a coffee, and consider things anew.