Archive for February 2008

Confucius and Mozi’s Perspectives on Music

February 22, 2008

Mozi says he does not despise music for its intrinsic qualities; indeed, he agrees that listening to it is a delight (Lau 110).  His objection instead follows the line of Judas Iscariot when he criticized the repentant prostitute for anointing Christ with expensive fragrance: it is wrong to spend money on luxuries when there are poor and hungry people who need charity (John 12:1-8).  Maintaining court performers is costly; dancers, for instance, need the best food and clothing so they can continue to be beautiful, so they take away resources from those who produce without giving the producers anything in return (Lau 113).  Being able-bodied young men and women, they could be working in the fields or spinning silk, producing commodities that are in too short of supply by Mozi’s reckoning, but instead they idle in court so noblemen can have music at their leisure (112).  Finally, music is not just a waste of the performers’ time; it is a waste of the listeners’ time, as well.  Rulers are bound to occupy all their time with affairs of the state in order to ensure abundance for the people, and while they are listening to music, they are not doing this work (114-115).  So while music is a good, it is not as high a good as food and clothing, and a lower good must be put aside until these necessities are available to everyone.  Note that Mozi’s eternal refrain is not “Music is wrong!” but “Making music is wrong!”

Confucius also cares for the poor and agrees that the government has a duty to ensure its people receive basic commodities.  He says that a person who provides for the people is not merely Good but also a sage (6:30), and that the basic responsibilities of a ruler are to provide sufficient food and armaments for the people and to inspire their confidence.  A philosopher who is also quoted in the Analects, Master You, says that even if the king cannot satisfy his own “needs,” if the common people’s needs are satisfied, a lord cannot be lacking, whereas if the common people are not provided for, even a wealthy lord cannot be content (12.9).  Surely, there were needy people in Confucius’s time as well as Mozi’s – as Christ says in reply to Judas’s argument, “the poor you will always have with you” (John 12:8) – yet Confucius does not reject music like Mozi does.  He says that the ancient rituals, of which music is a part, are necessary for the proper functioning of the state: “If those above love ritual, then the common people will be easy to manage” (14:41).  Furthermore, a gentleman needs music in order to perfect himself (8:8).  Confucius himself has chops: he harmonizes with other singers after learning the finer points of their songs (7:32), discusses the subject with the Music Master himself (3:23), and seems to have helped restore the Ya and Song to Lu (9:15).  In contrast to Mozi’s hierarchical ethical system, in which one must acquire the necessities before even thinking of anything else, Confucius seems to believe that lesser goods such as music can contribute to the attainment of greater goods, so the gentleman is better served taking a more holistic approach to life, simultaneously pursuing all that is worthy.

Music is one of Confucius’s greatest delights.  The Shao music affects him so much that after he hears it on one journey, he does not notice the taste of meat for three months because he is still marveling upon what he has heard (7:14).  However, music has two other important functions in the Analects: it teaches us about the way, and it teaches us about others.

Music is a metonym for The Way.  If music did not exist, Confucianism would still stand, so music is not an essential component of it in the same way that traits like filial piety and timeliness are.  However, Confucius strives to order his philosophy according to the same principles that order music and thinks we can investigate the principles of music in order to learn more about the good life.

The most important concept that music shares with The Way is harmony, which is the simultaneous combination of different but compatible pitches in order to make a new, fuller, and more pleasing sound.  Master You says that “harmonious ease” (和) is necessary for the practice of ritual (1:12).  I do not know if和carries the musical implications that Slingerland’s translation does, but the parallel is fairly easy to grasp regardless given Confucius’s opinion on music given in 3:23.  Confucius’s ideal man has many talents and also many passions: the ability to balance them all could be called “harmonious ease.”  Harmony could also refer to the gentleman’s ability to blend into any social situation, with any kind of people, even the barbarian tribes (9:14), thanks to his courtesy.  Confucius further develops the notion of social harmony in the statement, “The gentleman harmonizes, and does not merely agree.  The petty person agrees, but he does not harmonize” (13:23).  So the gentleman does not merely copy the opinions, or “pitch,” of his interlocutor.  Even when he agrees with his companion, he contributes new concepts to the conversation, and when these are contrasted to the original idea, we better enjoy both.  Confucius’s conversation with the Music Master helps us to understand how one can express complex concepts:

What can be known about music is this: when it first begins, it resounds with a confusing variety of notes, but as it unfolds, these notes are reconciled by means of harmony, brought into tension by means of counterpoint, and finally woven together into a seamless whole.  It is in this way that music reaches its perfection. (3.23)

At first, the piece is a “confusing variety of notes.”  The song, and The Way, are too complex to be understood all at once: for instance, when Zilu learned something, he was afraid to learn something new until he had put the previous lesson into practice (5:14).  Note also the value Confucius places in the creation and resolution of tension.  This is still a common metaphor for chord progressions, and it calls to mind the difficulties the gentleman continuously undertakes to better himself.  One sentence does not a philosophy make, nor does one action a state make: perfection comes from putting one thing on top of another over time, as Confucius did over his seventy years (2:4).

Confucius thinks propriety is as important to music as it is to the rest of life.  His assessment of “The Cry of the Osprey,” the first of the Odes, is an eloquent argument that restraint preserves the effectiveness of art.  In comparing Music Master Zhi’s rendition of the ode to “a wondrous ocean of sound” (8:15), Confucius assigns to the piece massive, strong, and powerful emotions, but elsewhere in the text he says that “the ‘Cry of the Osprey’ expresses joy without becoming licentious, and expresses sorrow without falling into excessive pathos” (3:20), so Zhi’s arrangement must not have mirrored the 1812 Overture.  Bombastic music loses the listener, but emotions expressed in a more balanced way may overwhelm him because they are more genuine.

The philosopher thickens the concept of appropriate music through his harsh criticism of the Zheng style.  He compares Zheng’s seductive melodies to a clever person who has attractive words but dishonest intentions (15:11, 17:18).  He considers the style licentious and hates that it has become more popular than the music of the Shao and Wu.  It is interesting that though Confucius is a lover of music, he hates the style that is most popular with his contemporaries.  This indicates there is something particular about his tastes in this pursuit just like in others.  Confucius told the music master he loves music which develops harmonic complexity over time, but according to the commentary of 15:11, the Zheng tunes had simple but catchy beats, so it would appeal to a different and perhaps a shallower appetite than the Shao.  Since Confucius said that he did not achieve his current excellence until age seventy, and he would need to study fifty more years to free himself of faults, he is not one to believe in either instant gratification or a three-minute pop song (2:4, 7:17).

It is even more interesting that he wants to prohibit the Zheng (15:11).  He can choose not to listen to this style, but if it is prohibited, no one can enjoy it anymore.  He must believe, then, that silence would be preferable to the deleterious effects of the Zheng.  Perhaps the Zheng uses the same emotional portal to the spirit – music – as the Shang and Wu, but rather than drawing the spirit toward harmony and profundity, the Zheng draws it toward baser pleasures like sex and merriment.  Hence the popularity of the Zheng is undermining the cultural art of music, and a ruler who cared for his people would stop this from happening.

Music need not be perfect in order to instruct us, however: a person’s character is inextricably linked to the way he makes music, so we can learn much about others by the way they sing and play instruments.  Confucius says that a scholar-official examines other people’s words and observes their demeanor, and he also instructs his disciples, “Do not be concerned about whether or not others know you; be concerned about whether or not you know others” (1:16).  So the pursuit of this knowledge is indeed worthwhile.

Confucius never explicitly claims that music tells us about personality, but a description of a person’s musical style is substituted for a judgment of his character in three different excerpts of the Analects.  When Confucius criticizes his aggressive disciple Zilu’s zither playing (11:15), the other disciples, in turn, disrespect Zilu, so they must consider Confucius’s words to be the damnation of Zilu as a student.  Confucius is judged himself by a man with a wicker basket who has simply heard him playing the stone chimes (14:39).  This educated man says to the Master, “Whoever is playing the chimes like that certainly has something on his mind!”  Upon listening to Confucius further, the man accuses Confucius of stubbornness for hopelessly trying to turn people back to The Way.  The man’s knowledge of the Odes suggests he is a sage who chose exile over social engagement, so by the logic of the Analects, it is no surprise that Confucius’s chime-playing grabbed the man’s attention: the two are kindred spirits who understand each other but have chosen opposite life paths.

Confucius uses music to assess not just contemporaries but the sage kings as well: “The Master said of the Shao music, ‘it is perfectly beautiful and also perfectly good.’  He said of the Wu music, ‘It is perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good’” (3:25).  According to Huang Kan’s commentary on this verse, both Shao and Wu ascended the throne at the will of the people, so the ruler’s relationship with the ruled was harmonious.  Wu, however, had to overthrow his king to take power, and though this followed the Mandate, it violated the principle of obedience to superiors.  Confucius could just be using music as a prop to indirectly comment on the rulers, but 7:14 also indicates his very high opinion of the Shao music.  In my opinion, then, the meaning of this passage is that the quality of a king directly affects the quality of his court’s music.  Indeed, as the state of Lu declines, its music ministers scatter to the four corners of China; supposedly, they can no longer tolerate such a state (18:9).

“Eating plain food and drinking water, having only your bent arm as a pillow – certainly there is joy to be found in this!” Confucius says in 7:16, so he does not consider luxury a requirement for a happy life.  He never speaks of the glories of sedentary luxuries like fine dining or large mansions.  When he says that the cultural arts refine man’s native substance, then, he truly believes that such study is not a luxury but a requirement for spiritual development (6:18).  The music that a person makes reveals the state of his heart, be it jarring, like Zilu’s zither playing, or sublime, like the music that will issue forth from the Son of Heaven when the Way prevails (16:2).  If Confucius is correct, then the benevolence the ruler learned from song would more than repay the tax he levied from his people for the musicians.  This would demolish Mozi’s argument, though Mozi would probably be happy the people were receiving these spillover benefits.  The modern reader should mark the music himself to determine how much time to invest in it.

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“Home Burial” and the Need for Compassion in Order to Be Versed

February 11, 2008

Home Burial,” though it is stylistically one of Frost’s “fat psycho-social monologues,” is just as didactic as anything in his lyric poetry.  The theme: without compassion, there can be no communication.  On a physical level, the action is binary: rising and falling on the staircase, opening and closing the latch, entering and exiting the door, the husband advancing, the wife taking doubtful steps and then undoing them to retreat again (4-6).  However, while there is the specter of physical coercion in lines such as 11 and 120, the couple’s conversation is the real battleground, and they struggle in particular over who is the most perceptive, whether they can understand each other, and whether they should express themselves at all.

Time and again the husband asks whether he can speak of the death of his own child (36-37, 74).  He says that to level with his wife, he must lower himself in some way (52-53, 72), but he also says that when he does speak it invariably offends her (48), so that even in reaching for her, he is breaching her.  He directly addresses the subject of naming in order to acknowledge the vast space between them and to propose a truce of sorts:

We could have some arrangement

By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off

Anything special you’re a-mind to name.

Though I don’t like such things ’twixt those that love.

Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.

But two that do can’t live together with them. (53-58)

The offer is ignored.  So, too, he resents that she goes to others to confide her grief: “Don’t carry it to someone else this time” (60).  Whether these rivals are relatives, friends, or even other lovers is not specified: what is important is that the husband is no longer the person the wife loves and trusts most, which violates the marriage covenant.

The wife interprets her husband’s arguments as “sneering,” a direct claim that he has no compassion for her (70).  She erects a series of assumptions against him, thinking him a “blind creature” as if he were a baby bird (16).. First, she thinks he cannot see what she fears (15-16, 20), and later she retorts instead that he cannot understand anything (45), cannot speak (75-76), and finally that she cannot make him understand (117).  She finally tells her husband that “one is alone, and he dies more alone” (105).  It is a fallacy that two people can face the hardships of life together (106-109).  Compassion and communication do not go that far.

Every person has his own perception, and though Atticus Finch suggests we walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand him, this won’t get us all the way to empathy because while we can put on someone’s shoes, we can’t put on his mind.  So we must resort to communication.  Words, however, are heard and read through the senses, and just as our opinions color what we perceive in nature (“One had to be versed in country things / Not to believe the phoebes wept”), they color our perceptions of other people.  The husband and the wife in “Home Burial” have different styles of communication, but they both show some aptitude for expressing their feelings.  The husband is a slow-speaking type, perhaps consciously masculine in his expression: “a man must partly give up being a man with women-folk” (52-53), and the tombstones of his family members are “broad-shouldered little slabs” (28).  When he realizes how terribly his wife has misunderstood him, he says awkwardly but memorably, “I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed” (93).  Under the stress of the burial of his child, he turns to a pastoral metaphor: “‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build” (96-97).  In other words, nature will destroy even man’s best efforts, as natural causes have killed his child.  The wife can express herself sharply with interjections: “There you go sneering now!” and “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t” (32) and “I won’t; I won’t!” (111). Her poetic style, in response to her husband’s, is more descriptive and florid, and she provides some the poem’s only rhyme and assonance: “I saw you from that very window there, / Making the gravel leap and leap in air,  / Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly” (78-80).  The two should be able to understand each other.  The problem is not capacity but willingness.  He will continue to believe she is overreacting, and she will continue to believe he is emotionless, because they are both too hurt to believe otherwise.

The reason for this rupture is the dead child.  He represents, to put it plainly, the death of their relationship.  I had a Spanish professor, Antonio Ramos, who said that communication is copulation: two people come together, and in the heated exchange of ideas they create something new and unique.  This metaphor is especially fitting for this work with its issues about issue.  Marriage, according to the Church, joins two people as one.  Children are the physical and spiritual fruit of this union.  Spirituality aside, a child is something both parents make together and care intensely about.  The death of a child, then, can deal a fatal psychological blow to a relationship.

The husband also remarks the family graveyard is “not so much larger than a bedroom,” hinting at the act which created the child, which is perhaps ruined for them now (26).  Neither the child nor the cause of death is named in the poem, but the husband describes the death as a “mother-loss,” which subtly places blame on the wife and indicates miscarriage (67).  The wife says she wants to leave the house (39).  However, by the husband’s account, she has been inconsolable and cannot move on (65-69).  Perhaps, then, she feels like she and the house are both dead places, and as the baby could not live in her womb, she could not live in the house.  Fighting her husband, at least, lets her feel emotions again.

The silence between the two extends to even one of the most basic conventions of conversation: the use of names.  In etiquette classes, one is encouraged to address a person by his name whenever possible, as this acknowledges his individuality and the friendship between you and him.  In “Home Burial,” the husband and the child are never named.  The husband twice shouts his wife’s name – Amy, or “beloved” – in his pleas to keep her (41, 115).

Without compassion, there can be no communication.  Why did Frost use a long poem, written in prose style, to say this?  I believe that he is above all seeking the best way to express truth.  When he writes about nature, he does so believing that what occurs there has import for more than just that particular situation, that something small can represent something bigger.  Some of the traits of humanity, though, such as language and society, that have no analogue in nature, and so only a direct approach can work.  A domestic drama is more memorable than a nonfiction tract and more comfortable to read than a simple confession.  A first-person perspective would have been biased toward the narrator, so Frost uses a bird’s-eye view instead.  Frost’s most famous lyrical poems are as much about the narrator as they are about the scene, and the narrator even affects poems like “Spring Pools” and “The Gum Gatherer.”  Here, the characters do the work.

The work reads more like prose than poetry, lacking Frost’s typical rhyme and meter, but it is divided into verse.  This choice has several important effects.  First, it gives the work a sense of realism.  Beautiful language can make a poem, but it can also give it a sense of other-worldliness.  This isn’t how we would like ordinary people to speak; it’s how they do speak.  Frost gives us enough information to ground ourselves but not enough to make it feel expository.  Darker truths are revealed in little phrases and involuntary words like “mother-loss.”  The candor reminds me of post-World War II American plays, but impressively, “Home Burial” was written a generation prior.

Second, the short lines, especially when they produce long, twenty-verse blocks of text, create a falling sensation.  Fragments pile on top of each other, and full-stops occur in the middle of sentences.  The quarrel is “rational” in the sense that the parties use complete sentences, but the divisions of verses imply brokenness.  Finally, this style allows for some interesting two-verse sentences, in which the first verse introduces an apparently innocuous idea, and the second lifts the curtain and shows the dark thing beneath, as is characteristic of their marriage.  For example, the first verse, “He saw her from the bottom of the stairs” seems ordinary, but the finishing clause “Before she saw him” introduces the idea of competition (1-2).  “But I understand: it is not the stones, / But the child’s mound—” provides the biggest surprise in the poem (30-31).  “We could have some arrangement” sounds conciliatory, but then “By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off / anything special you’re a-mind to name” shows it a grim bargain (53-55).  The poet, at least in the St. Martin’s edition, also alternates left and right indentation to set the husband and wife’s interjections opposite each other on four occasions: 18-19, 31-32, 45-47, and 70-71, amplifying the sense of conflict.

Frost further illuminates the poem through the title.  As in “Mending Wall,” the title has a double meaning: it names the event which is the catalyst the poem, but it also describes the effect this event has on the two parties involved.  It is an inflection and an echo, with apologies to Stevens.  The word “mending” in “Mending Wall” could be either a verb or a participle: if taken as the former, it refers to the act of repairing the wall, which is what the two characters are doing.  If the latter, the title assigns to the wall the quality of mending, and indeed, the wall chore annually renews the friendship of two neighbors who are “all pine” and “all apple orchard,” respectively.  “Home Burial” most clearly refers to the burial of the child on the husband’s property, which the woman cites as the reason she loathes her husband and the reason she cannot stay in the house anymore.  In a larger sense, however, the poem describes the failure of the household, or marriage.

Just as the title, in its echo, encourages greater understanding of the poem, the poem in its echo encourages greater understanding of Frost’s oeuvre.  “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build”: this is the same Frost who writes of walls and woods.  He can indeed portray “complex” human problems.  Hence, his thoughts on “lighter” subjects also merit respect.