Shostakovich and the Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves

by Margaret Rowley

Ethnographers tend to like stories, as do many non-ethnographers. Much of the point of ethnography is simultaneously to hear people tell their stories (interview) and watch them live their stories (observation), and then try to critically analyze what’s happening (theoretical intervention). At least one ethnographer, Clifford Geertz, has suggested that the definition of culture is “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” This awards a tremendous amount of importance to stories, particularly if we recognize that they shape who we are in the present and who we may become in the future.

geertz

And so ethnographers, myself included, eventually try “turning the tools on ourselves,” as my anthropology professor put it this week.  Asking what “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” is usually a fruitful venture, at least where self-exploration is concerned. For me, recognition facilitates adaptation as needed, which can help provide a fuller and clearer representation of who I am and who I aspire to be. Therefore, I’d like to share a story that I’ve told myself, and how this story has changed over time.  Call it my “narrative.”

For about fifteen years, I told myself that the first thing I wanted to be was a musician. This is a handy narrative to have for someone studying music, not only because it helped me justify my goals during those inevitable quiet moments of panic, but also for the practical reason that people were always asking. “You play flute for a living! What made you want to do that?” My response, initially, was concise enough to be bullet-pointed:

–I remember recording myself singing self-composed songs for my kindergarten teacher into a cassette recorder (they were … not good).

–I remember drawing pictures of myself on stage as a child.

–I remember seeing an orchestra for the first time, and I can’t have been older than four.

Another response was slightly more complex, and eventually evolved into an intertwined narrative, both mine and that of Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, a mid-century “Russian composer of the Soviet period,” as Wikipedia carefully puts it.

shosto

When I was fourteen, my family visited my grandparents who had built a house near the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. My grandfather was particularly interested in music, and as a result, he and my grandmother took us to a number of concerts. Among them was a program including Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in c minor, sometimes known as the “Ghost Quartet.”

This quartet, I would find out years later, was written in 1960, at a truly terrible time in Shostakovich’s life: he was noticing increasing weakness in one hand (always devastating for a musician) and was under a great amount of pressure to join the communist party in the U.S.S.R., something he had been resisting. Soviet rhetoric at the time of the quartet’s composition posited that this may have been Shostakovich’s way of siding with “the victims” (of the communist dictatorship), but many musicologists agree that this quartet is obviously, tragically autobiographical; that Shostakovich himself was the victim. This is partly corroborated by Shostakovich’s unrelenting use of his musical signature: D-Eb-C-B (D. Sho. in German musical transliteration, after a motif used by J.S. Bach to musically sign his works). Peter Rabinowitz has suggested that the “ghost” behind the quartet’s nickname is actually Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Metamorphosen, the former work being autobiographical, and the latter being Strauss’s “late response to wartime destruction.” (1) This reading allows for even more depth to the work, a story-within-a-story.

The liner notes of the Borodin Quartet’s early recording tell another story about the composer re-hearing his work, offered here without any attempt at unpacking: “The Borodin Quartet played this work to the composer at his Moscow home, hoping for his criticisms. But Shostakovich, overwhelmed by this beautiful realisation of his most personal feelings, buried his head in his hands and wept. When they had finished playing, the four musicians quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room.”

shosto 2

Again, I didn’t know any of this at the time. But I was a teenage literary fanatic with a penchant for the somber, and I was enthralled. By the time the quartet on stage began the piece, it was dark outside. The musicians sat elegantly in a very inelegant venue-shack, in tuxedos and red satin. The venue-shack was open to the woods on three sides, and rain was dripping sadly through the black pine trees on either side of the stage; it was cold, and I was underdressed, shivering in my seat. But, I felt that this music was doing something glorious: it was communicating without words. I may not have known the specific story, but I was convinced by the anguish. I thought, this is what I have to do. I went back to my grandparents’ home that night humming the theme, which I later found out was Shostakovich’s musical signature.

This story eventually became the main part of my narrative, the story I told myself about myself. I pursued music, in some way, because of that night, and whenever I would feel doubts about my path, I could direct myself back to my story to remind me of my intent. These doubts surfaced regularly in college, as I suspect it does for most music majors, but it became even more pronounced during the coursework for my two master’s degrees, one of which was in ethnomusicology.

I drifted fairly aimlessly after graduation, unable to reconcile my story with the slowly increasing ambivalence I felt about performance. Half a decade later, I decided with a kind of forced finality that my narrative had been correct after all, and performance had to be the right path for me. With the help of my extremely organized partner, I learned repertoire, made recordings, and flew to seven schools to audition for a Doctor of Musical Arts degree. I ended up in Boston with a life-changing sort of teacher, in one of the most exciting cities for art music performance in the country: the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, The 200-year-old Handel and Haydn Society, and the James Pappoutsakis Memorial Flute Competition.

I was ready to jump in with both feet, and when I did, I quickly realized that I was trying to make my Doctor of Musical Arts into a PhD in ethnomusicology. I was enrolling in music history seminars intended for PhD students in the academic music disciplines, voluntarily taking on huge writing projects that ate into my practice time, and submitting more papers to conferences than recordings to auditions. Once again, I felt like my narrative was at odds with my direction.

After much thought, many long walks, and a more than a few listens to the Shostakovich quartet, I stopped deliberating about my direction and started wondering about the completeness of my narrative. Of course, my memories about that night at Brevard were (and remain) true, whatever “true” means when it comes to memory. But I started to wonder if I could construct a different narrative out of the pieces that would work better for this new direction.

As it turns out, the old “story I told myself about myself” was missing a few elements.

–I started keeping a journal at five years old.

–As a child, I would pore over books with biographical information about composers, seeing if it changed my own concept of the music.

–In high school, I averaged seventeen book per week.

–During my undergraduate education, I could always talk myself out of practicing if I had reading to do.

These snippets were already enough to start constructing a new narrative. In this story, which is “true” in the same way that the old narrative was “true,” music wasn’t my first love: text was. I could supplement whatever thing a piece of music was saying with language, offering specific meaning for myself and other listeners to grasp when music’s meaning became too ephemeral.

I still had to be convinced to take the complex step of dropping out of my DMA, re-applying for PhD programs, and committing to the years the degree would consume. There is more complexity to this specific narrative, as there is to every story. Suffice to say, allowing my narrative to consciously and organically change eased the cognitive dissonance I felt when shifting my focus. This allowed me to explore the literal stories behind music, as well as what is now becoming my primary interest: why we tell the stories we – musicians, musicologists, composers, humans – tell ourselves about ourselves, what the telling means, and how the stories shape us.

Notes

  1. Rabinowitz, Peter J. “The Rhetoric of Reference; Or, Shostakovich’s Ghost Quartet.” Narrative15, no. 2 (2007): 250.

Categories: Essay, Essays

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28 Comments »

  1. Excellent narrative, weaving threads of historical, personal, and theoretical concerns in such a way as to bring out the colors of all three in a complementary way. Well done.

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  2. Lovely essay. How I admire your combination of musical and literary fluency. I say that having always longed to be able to play music. I failed horribly but not for want of trying. I even failed with the bugle! I love music but cannot understand it, seeming to suffer from the musical equivalent of colour blindness.

    Happily we are capable of many kinds of fluency, not only musical and literary, but also mathematical, athletic, dance, drawing, song, oratory, emotional, etc. So there is hope for us all. 🙂

    When we develop a dominant natural fluency and change our lives to follow it, we discover fulfilment, as you have. But, as you have hinted, it takes a defiant act of courage to make that step. It is worth it because we discover the special synergy of a life aligned with one’s natural fluency.

    This fluency becomes the predominant colour in the multi-hued rope of life, woven from the many narrative strands in our life. Most of us weave these narrative strands in an unreflective way, hardly aware of what we really are doing. You have brought your special insights to this process. In your writing you have hinted at other narrative strands in your life and in time you will reveal more of them. A rich life contains many narrative strands, some long, some short. We make our lives richer when we develop these narrative strands in a conscious, reflective way, as you have done.

    Thank you for your insights.

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  3. “I could supplement whatever thing a piece of music was saying with language, offering specific meaning for myself and other listeners to grasp when music’s meaning became too ephemeral.”

    There are some deep questions here. I don’t doubt that stories can be told which help us understand the music by understanding the circumstances surrounding its composition. Psychological, personal and political factors can be usefully discussed. Images can be used (as sometimes conductors do to give expression to the vision of the music they are trying to realize). But isn’t there ultimately a huge gulf between the syntax of music and the syntax (and semantics) of language? Does music even have a semantics in the sense that language does?

    The other thing I want to say something about is personal narratives. These stories (I am not talking about yours) are typically not well aligned with reality. Very often others – even comparative strangers – see us more clearly than we see ourselves. People are notoriously blind to what would satisfy them or make them fulfilled or happy. (There is plenty of research on this, I think.) Obviously there is no one “correct” narrative for a person, just more or less plausible ones, that is, stories that to a greater or lesser extent fit the facts of one’s nature and the wider world.

    One particularly harmful idea is that one should follow one’s dream no matter what. And if it doesn’t bear fruit you’ve got to double down because failure is seen as a failure of self-belief or a failure of positive thinking – when it might be, say, because the “market” is too small or is absurdly competitive, or because
    one lacks the necessary ability, or is simply unsuited to whatever it is one is trying to do. Of course, having an overly-positive view of one’s own abilities or qualities doesn’t necessarily do any harm. I saw some research which indicated that mentally healthy people routinely overestimate their own abilities, whereas those subject to depression have a more accurate view of themselves. If this is so, it says something very sobering about the way we operate. Illusions, it seems, are a normal part of a normally happy life.

    But your story of picking out different sets of childhood clues to your deeper nature at different times in your life beautifully illustrates how an intelligently flexible approach can work.

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  4. Labnut, thank you for such a kind and insightful comment. I heartily agree- there are many kinds of intelligences (and thank goodness for that! Nobody wants a world full of just musicians!). 🙂

    When I was a child, we used to get this magazine that would feature a famous woman on the second-to-last page. But before one turned the page to see her face and story, there was a profile of her as a child, including four things she may have done, been interested in, or been passionate about. The reader was instructed to guess what profession the woman pursued when she grew up.

    “This girl enjoyed horses; she loved to read; she built a treehouse by herself; she was involved in the chemistry club at her school.”

    On the last page, we would find out that the woman had pursued one of these, and that she had become an author or an architect or a scientist. I remember thinking then about how I was just positive that those other interests don’t go away, that they must become some part of her narrative as an adult. Now that I’m an adult (on most days), I know that to be the case.

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  5. Mark, thank you for your thoughts!

    I hesitated to jump into the ontology of the music, especially as I struggled with staying focused on my point while writing this- there are just so many directions to go when talking about stories! That being said, this is something that ethnomusicologists struggle with a great deal.

    Certainly, an understanding of what a composer “intended” to do (from a primary source like a diary, or a secondary source like the comments of a close friend) may be helpful for the lay listener. But do they really convey what the composer “intended?” Almost never, if ever, I would argue. Take the case of Charles Ives, who changed his own mind about his own compositions over time- which Ives do we believe about his intent? The Charles Ives of the composition date, or the one who revised the piece twelve years later? Ultimately, I believe strongly that telling stories *about* composers helps audiences to connect with the piece, a vital pursuit for those interested in the survival (“survival”?) of Western Art Music in the U.S. Does it help us get at the ontology of the music? No, I don’t think so.

    The idea that music is a language is similarly difficult and flawed. On the one hand, music is fairly adept at communicating emotions, some of which may be difficult to communicate with words. Most listeners would agree. The problem is that each individual listener may interpret these emotions differently, as they hit and interact with enculturated ears – something that sounds joyful and energetic to me might sound like a funeral, and therefore deeply sad to someone else. On the other hand, music cannot communicate specifics, no matter how hard Western composers have historically tried. Music (without words) may be able to say “peaceful” or “mournful” (again, dependent on the ears hearing and the body/mind interpreting), but it cannot say “please go to the fridge and get me some cheese.” Therefore, I would posit, music is not a language by our usual definition of the word “language.”

    The difficulties that lie in recognizing our own narratives – something I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about – are certainly something to think about. This is one of my main interests in anthropology and ethnomusicology, specifically that I hope to be able to help students gently prod their own narratives. I suspect a narrative is something that the vast majority of us have, and I also know from experience (as much as one can know anything) that a narrative can also be leveraged for attaining personal happiness and satisfaction. I don’t know where my compulsion to read and write originated, but I’m a lot happier doing it when I recognize and perpetuate the story that I’ve wanted to do it all my life.

    Truth is another element that deserves a second look here- the “truth” of my wanting to be a musician, the “truth” of my insatiable reading habit (something my glasses prescription will happily corroborate). But, in my response above, I suggested that narratives have many truths… like, dare I say, a Shostakovich string quartet has many melodic lines. All we do is choose to bring one of those lines to the front.

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  6. Margaret,
    The idea that music is a language is similarly difficult and flawed. On the one hand, music is fairly adept at communicating emotions, some of which may be difficult to communicate with words.

    While I agree with you, I think it goes deeper than just communicating emotions. My own belief is that music serves to harmonize or synchronise our emotions towards some group goal.

    Consider the South African toyi toyi, of which I have seen many live performances. See the linked Youtube movie as an illustration of what I mean.

    A toyi toyi is a rythmic, stamping dance and chant. It is probably an example of humankind’s most primitive form of music, directed at mobilising violence against another group, humankind’s most urgent and compelling activity. You may think of it as a mass synchronised, musical war dance where the musical instruments are mankind’s earliest weapon, clubs and the accompanying drums are the thuds of thousands of stamping feet.

    The toyi toyi serves to guide mass action through several stages:
    1) Mobilisation. As the column sweeps through the township it draws in more and more participants, who are infected by the mass emotion.
    2) Motivation. As they participate in the toyi toyi their emotions are intensified and synchronised. They start to believe in their invincibility.
    3) Commitment. They become totally immersed in the goals of the toyi toyi, to the exclusion of all other considerations, especially moral considerations.
    4) Attack. This is usually begun with attempts to intimidate the enemy and to provoke him to break formation. The toyi toyi sustains the high levels of motivation and commitment during these preliminaries.

    In today’s toyi toyi I belief we are re-enacting the origins of music in its barest, most basic form. So it cannot be considered to be a form of language but is instead a powerful means of harmonizing group emotions. Other music is derived from this. In its most basic form these were the sad ululations of grief from the defeated and the exultant, triumphal chants of the winners.

    In war, in grief and in triumph we need to be united or harmonized in solidarity and music performs this function. It is not a language but it is a synchronised dance of the emotions.

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  7. Thanks for the reply, Margaret. As you say, we can’t deal with all of these issues here.

    “The difficulties that lie in recognizing our own narratives – something I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about – are certainly something to think about… Truth is another element that deserves a second look here – the “truth” of my wanting to be a musician, the “truth” of my insatiable reading habit (something my glasses prescription will happily corroborate). But, in my response above, I suggested that narratives have many truths… All we do is choose to bring one of those lines to the front.”

    I suspect I tend to focus more on the difficulties and dangers, specifically of self-deception. It’s not as if the narratives are just “there” to be discovered, because a narrative always involves interpretations. Two quick examples: the girl (a textbook case) who believed she loved her pony and fussed over it, etc., but realized in later life that it was actually a bad-tempered beast that she didn’t really care for at all and she was just going along with expectations. I had a similar experience with playing cricket: I was kind of pushed into it, but thought I liked it, and even continued to play after I left high school for some strange reason though I didn’t really get any pleasure out of it and, despite knowing a lot about technique and so on, I wasn’t really any good. Strange that it took me so long to stop wasting my time. Actually, the captain of the team (an older man who happened to be a professor at my university) asked me directly why I was doing this. Suddenly, the penny dropped. I had no answer. It was a bit embarrassing, but I was grateful to him!

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  8. Margaret,
    I suspect a narrative is something that the vast majority of us have,
    Truth is another element that deserves a second look here

    I would go further than that and say it is narratives all the way down(instead of it being turtles all the way down 🙂 )

    Let me use a rope analogy to explain what I mean.

    Just like beads on a string, all episodic memories are strung together on a narrative thread. It is the narrative thread that makes the episodic memory accessible to the consciousness, and gives it meaning. Lost memories are those we never put onto a narrative thread.

    Our narrative threads are woven into a larger rope that represents the totality of who we are. The end of the rope, with its visible threads, is our present moment. As life progresses we add episodic memories to existing narrative threads or create new narrative threads, extending the rope and creating a new surface on the end of the rope.

    The visible threads, at the end of the rope, are the narratives immediately available to our consciousness. These visible narrative threads directly shape our values, goals and expectations. The earlier narrative threads, lost from view, are no longer directly available to our consciousness. But they are available as intuitions. In fact all earlier narrative threads make up the vast store that we call our intuitions.

    Reflective, observant and curious people have built of a rich store of narrative threads, the great majority of which become available at a later time as intuitions.

    The truth of who we are is not just contained in the surface of the rope, with the narrative threads directly available to our consciousness. The truth of who we are is largely made up of the earlier narrative threads that we call our intuitions.

    Intuitions are very powerful things. Every input, before it reaches our conscious mind, results in an automatic scan of our intuition store for a match. The closest match is attached to the input which appears in our conscious mind, together with the associated intuitions. We then consult the narratives directly available to our consciousness(the narrative threads visible at the end of the narrative rope). Finally we make an assessment which is a balanced consideration of available narratives, our intuitions and the input itself. But since the input arrives in our conscious mind already with attached intuitions, these dominate.

    Given all this, what then is the truth? It is something not directly accessible to us but is instead something veiled by our intuitions and shaped by our narrative threads. How close we come to the truth depends on the care with which we constructed our narrative threads, especially our earlier narrative threads which are now available as intuitions.

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  9. Hi Margaret, this was a nice piece that agrees in large part with how I think people live their lives, constructing (and in the process testing) narratives about themselves. Of course your replies in commentary make it more explicit that there may be more than one, and you can bring others forward.

    Although you did not discuss this, I think it works with the idea of other metaphors such as “trying on different hats/shoes” or “wearing different masks”. We try out different stories, especially when we are young (or have accomplished a goal and want to make a change), and some storylines are always there but very personal, or very public (only coming forward in the proper context). Your example is a narrative about professional and/or intellectual interests, but I’m sure you are more than just this, each facet of your life having its own narrative that is just as real.

    Something that Mark English wrote made me consider an added dimension to your story of personal story telling. In a sense you are very lucky to have had the opportunity and freedom to pursue and examine your own story. Many people find themselves blocked in trying to find themselves, or (even worse) figuring it out only to have someone else present a counter-narrative such that others come to view/treat one as being something else… leading to frustration and lost opportunities to fulfil oneself.

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  10. Hi Mark, while I agree with the fact that people can fool themselves, about their interests (which seemed to be Margaret’s focus) and their abilities, I found myself reacting to what you said.

    “Very often others – even comparative strangers – see us more clearly than we see ourselves. People are notoriously blind to what would satisfy them or make them fulfilled or happy. (There is plenty of research on this, I think.)”

    While this *can* be true, it is a horrible mistake to view it as *essentially* true, or true about most things in one’s life. Much of life can been spent (or wasted) being told by people (in positions of power to affect what one can do) deciding that what one likes is not *really* what one wants or will make one happy, then forced (by social pressure or active coercion) into roles wholly contrary to who one is.

    Yes, people can *sometimes* see something we miss, but they are just as easily able to project false images (what they want) onto others, and fail to recognize that is what *they* are doing. Mostly what people spot better than ourselves are small habits that are not relevant to who we are and what we want out of life… especially when most of our lives are spent outside their view.

    “One particularly harmful idea is that one should follow one’s dream no matter what. And if it doesn’t bear fruit you’ve got to double down because failure is seen as a failure of self-belief or a failure of positive thinking – when it might be, say, because the “market” is too small or is absurdly competitive, or because one lacks the necessary ability, or is simply unsuited to whatever it is one is trying to do.”

    Well, I do hate the concept that failure in something is only due to failure of positive thinking. One may legitimately lack capacity, talent, ambition (dedicated interest + energy), or (if we are talking a career) there may not be a viable market (at the time).

    But again, this (I think) is a terrible way to live one’s life, and opens the door to frustration and failure… and professional sabotage.

    If you have a dream it will be important to make some course corrections (get some feedback), or a lot of hard work (not wishful thinking), if you are trying to make it a reality, but there is a limit to how much one should let others (including markets) judge your worthiness to keep working at it.

    There was little to no “market” for Van Gogh or Lovecraft. Yet they persisted and their dreams have come to be major influences for (on top of just plain entertaining) many people… more so than contemporaries that were lauded and well paid. Should JK Rowling have gotten off the dole and a “real job”, listening to the rejections she received?

    Much of the arts is lived in criticism, rejection, and poor market value… until something hits.

    The same can be said for the sciences, or anything. I began listing more examples but I think the point is made.

    It might be said that these examples are exceptions, and most go down in (unseen and unheard) flames, but that would miss my point. Unless one is born rich (and even then who knows) “success” in life (or posthumously) is pretty much beyond one’s control. Following dreams or passions should be about what gives one excitement and interest in life, regardless of ends (success).

    It is about enjoying the journey.

    About the only thing I would caution is to not have too specific a dream, especially about monetary/career success in something specific. That I will be top X of Y is very hard to realize, and sets one up for disappointment. It’s like saying I’ll have the best spouse in the world, and the happiest marriage/family ever. You can invest energy toward that dream but achieving it is totally not up to you.

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  11. Labnut, thank you for your nuanced thoughts! It’s such a joy to have discussions here.

    I wanted to expand on something you mentioned above:

    “A toyi toyi is a rythmic, stamping dance and chant. It is probably an example of humankind’s most primitive form of music, directed at mobilising violence against another group, humankind’s most urgent and compelling activity. You may think of it as a mass synchronised, musical war dance where the musical instruments are mankind’s earliest weapon, clubs and the accompanying drums are the thuds of thousands of stamping feet.”

    Musicology has long had the idea (whether explicit or implicit) that music on the African continent is somehow “primitive,” “ancient,” or preserved (as if in a sealed container) from time immemorial. Recent scholarship in music has strongly questioned this narrative, positing that music that happens in 2017 in Kenya IS just music from 2017 in Kenya. How did we get to the place where we believed that music in Africa was “primitive” compared to European “modern” music? For an extremely simplistic explanation, early musicology (German, mid-19th century- Hanslick and his contemporaries) decided that the music of “savages”/Others was primitive BECAUSE European music was modern, and that it was simple because European music was complex. This was a way to stay on top of the evolution of humanity by asserting that others were less evolved.

    This perspective was legitimized by people like Hegel, who claimed that Africa “is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” Therefore, non-African philosophy, bounded in time and place, declared that Africa has no history. What you see is how it’s always been.

    Do we have any proof that African music is primitive? No, because there is little in the way of written record. Musicology in a European tradition has never done very well without a written record. This type of music was assumed to be primitive largely because it was passed down in an oral/aural tradition. But, we know, from playing those childhood games of telephone, that oral transmission tends to alter things, not to keep them static.

    One more comment unrelated to music: I’m right at the end of Sarah Hrdy’s “Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding,” which makes a compelling argument that violence wasn’t “humankind’s most urgent and compelling activity”: rather, getting along and forming bonds was more urgent for reasons of reproduction. The raising and protecting of young who are naked, floppy, and born extremely immature developmentally takes a great deal of protection, and peoples with strong alloparental ties had (and have) the highest survival rates. Her point seems to be that evolutionarily, if our most important task was waging war, our species would have died out long ago.

    This goes along with something that has been thrown out there as a “universal” (as universal as one can find) in music: not war songs, but lullabies.

    This is already long, but I’ll wind it up by agreeing with you- in my mind, one of music’s strongest functions is to synchronize bodies. I don’t think it’s an airtight case, but we can see it in Southern prison songs, Sacred Harp singing, the bloodless Estonian singing revolution, Balinese gamelan… the list goes on and on.

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  12. dbholmes, you are absolutely right. I count myself extremely fortunate to be able to not only pursue this degree program, but also to have it sync with my narrative. I have to admit that I live in a household where we at least make a strong attempt of following our dreams, and when everyone around me is doing it, I sometimes take for granted how comparatively rare it is.

    I’ve also had, simultaneously, the good fortune to encounter lasting mentorship along the way (and here I’m looking at Dan Kaufman). In a perfect amalgam of life circumstances that allow one to follow a dream, mentorship provides the valuable direction that ensures that the good fortune isn’t squandered. 🙂

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  13. I think the essay captured really well the tensions and paradoxes that arise when reasoning with our narratives in an attempt to be authentic to who we are.

    Here is another essay enjoyed that I think illustrates these tensions well incorporating a rather odd mix of philosophers ( Wittgenstein, Nagarjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty). I figured it might interest some here. Not vouching for the authors interpretations as I know these philosophers less well than most here.

    https://absoluteirony.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/nagarjuna-nietzsche-rorty-and-their-strange-looping-trick/

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  14. Margaret,
    One of the delights of these discussions is the unexpected gift of insights and references. Sarah Hrdy’s book looks fascinating and I look forward to some enjoyable reading.

    Most urgent and compelling activity? I suppose my opinion was shaped by my experiences of conflict. My wife, with her child rearing experiences, would agree with you. Behavioural traits can co-develop in different contexts and quickly transfer to other contexts.

    Which was the real origin of song? The parents have a rich repertoire of caring behaviours already available, even without song. For example, rocking, cuddling, stroking, patting and walking. I cared for both my son and little sister by walking with them and gently rocking them at the same time. My wife cooed and whispered, which I suppose is a form of song!

    Which came first? For the purposes of my argument it doesn’t matter. I suspect they were both very early forms of expression. We are territorial animals in a world of limited resources and that inevitably produces conflict. Mobilising the group to meet the challenges of conflict was vitally important for the group’s survival. Time and again I was struck by the considerable power of the toyi toyi to mobilise and motivate action and this led me to believe that this or something like it might be the origin of song.

    Of course I shouldn’t dispute the origins of song with you, given your expertise!

    One of the questions that has intrigued me for some time is the origin of our system of virtue ethics. In an earlier discussion Massimo maintained that it is derived from reasoning. I disagreed and said instead that co-operative living required trust, first and foremost. I maintained that our system of virtue ethics was primarily a means of signalling, detecting and maintaining trust. I suspect that Sarah Hrdy’s book will lead me to see the question in a new way. Thanks for the reference.

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  15. Margaret,
    the good fortune to encounter lasting mentorship along the way

    That is a gift. Good mentors are rare. Remember to repay the gift by becoming a mentor to others.

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  16. dbholmes

    “Much of life can been spent (or wasted) being told by people (in positions of power to affect what one can do) deciding that what one likes is not *really* what one wants or will make one happy, then forced (by social pressure or active coercion) into roles wholly contrary to who one is.”

    Sure. In fact, those two examples I gave, trivial though they were (the girl’s pony, and cricket-playing), involved the individual breaking out of a more-or-less imposed pattern of thought and social expectation to find their own way.

    But I still think we are generally bad at knowing ourselves or knowing what will make us happy. I am emphasizing this side of things. You are emphasizing the (real) dangers of being pushed in the wrong direction by others with their own agendas. And I can’t help feeling that our respective backgrounds and personal experiences are playing into this.

    I was a particularly naive and opinionated boy/young man (hard to believe, I know), and would have benefited greatly, I think, from strong intervention by some wise father or uncle-figure. You know, someone who would have stuck his neck out for me, made me see reason. I needed stronger guidance. Take my word for it. (I’m talking about more serious things than cricket.)

    You might have been what they call in the East an “old soul”, able to wisely chart your own course. I wasn’t.

    Note that in my previous comment I put “market” in quotes. I am certainly not saying everything should be market-driven.

    But I have a much less *Romantic* view of art and literature than you do. And many of the plays and novels and other writings which have influenced me have been about self-deception in one way or another. As I see it, we live not in an illusory world but in a world of illusions.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. @sethleon2015: “The point all of it isn’t to see some new deep truth, but to change one’s perspective on what one already sees.”

    Great read; thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Seth,
    your reference is so apposite to Margaret’s post. The article said

    And thus, the ultimate meaning of things ends up just being a matter of what, ultimately, we want to do with ourselves.

    I agree. This of course was Margaret’s central question. She answered the question by uncovering a new narrative in her life.

    Some other replies, from the article were:

    Nietsche:
    You shall become who you are

    No. My reply is that you shall become who you can be.

    Rorty:
    From Rorty’s point of view, we’ll never have a final answer to that question. The thing we should do with ourselves is “continue the conversation,”

    This is true because who we are is not our destination. Our destination is who we can be. And the conversation reveals who we can be. But even that destination changes as we continue the conversation because the conversation changes us.

    Nāgārjuna
    The point all of it isn’t to see some new deep truth, but to change one’s perspective on what one already sees.

    This is false because the conversation changes what one sees. The conversation is an impetus that keeps us moving and seeing new things. As we move our perspective changes as well.

    So finally, the answer to this question:

    And thus, the ultimate meaning of things ends up just being a matter of what, ultimately, we want to do with ourselves.

    is a moving target. It is a moving target because we grow and change as we continue the conversation. Or, at least, we should grow and change. The saddest thing I see in life are the people who have lost the capacity for growth and change. Their conversation has become a self-regarding monologue. They are the dead wood who will be pushed aside by newer generations. Most of these will in turn become dead wood, to be pushed aside as well.

    This really is the challenge we all face. How do we continue the conversation, enabling growth and change? And in what direction should we grow? Margaret has given her answer.

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  19. Hi Labnut –

    Nāgārjuna – Would not characterize ‘what one already sees’ in any static or essential sense. He was a Mahayana Buddhist and would consider anything that we can ‘see’ or ‘speak of’ or ‘conceptualize’ as being ultimately empty ( without intrinsic or essential character ), impermanent, and interdependent. This includes any sense of self. So his target is not only always moving and always in process of being created ( Rorty’s becoming ), it is for him also only conventionally real.

    My understanding of Nietsche is less informed so I’m not sure if he had this idea of some essential character we have within us that makes us ‘who we are’.

    Otherwise I am in general agreement with your comment.

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  20. Both Seth and Labnut,

    Thank you for your (more) nuanced reading (than mine!) of this resource. I also read the Nāgārjuna in a vaguely Eastern sense (but more specifically some amalgam of Buddhism and Hinduism), where what we “see” is everything we can see- like sitting in a room (as I am now) and staring at a bookshelf. The longer I stare, the more I will conceptualize, digest, and retain the contents of the bookshelf; I might even find something useful there, or realize after five minutes of staring that one of the books might be a perfect reference for a project. But I have already “seen” the bookshelf, even if I didn’t truly see or understand its contents.

    I also suspect that my reading of this was, like everything seems to be in my life these days, influenced by Geertz and his “thick description,” where a description could never possibly be “thick enough.” This is the turtles-all-the-way-down idea- no matter how long I stare at that bookshelf, I’ll likely never be able to write down every detail, and I will continue to see new things the longer I look.

    For the record, Geertz is not even my favorite ethnographer, despite the fact that I am constantly bringing him up!

    I appreciate the different understandings- they are extremely helpful and appreciated by this non-philosopher.

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  21. Margaret,
    Geertz and his “thick description,” where a description could never possibly be “thick enough.”

    This is a fascinating concept. For reasons of cognitive economy we always stop at a description which is “thick enough“.

    But what is “thick enough“? This question is strongly related to our deeply embedded Western belief in a causal web. “Thick enough” becomes when we have discovered a satisfactory causal relationship. We may stop delving, inquiring, testing or investigating when the description

    1) Is symptomatic. We confuse the world of appearances with the world of causes and accept the symptom as an adequate description or cause. This is the most common stopping point.
    2) Satisfies confirmation bias. It confirms our biases or preconceptions. Ideologues, militants, fundamentalists, the prejudiced and the lazy will stop at this point.
    3) Fits an existing framework. The description neatly fits like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. But a neat fit is a deceptive thing and need not be the same thing as truth.
    4) Results in the creation of a novel viewpoint or framework. This can be a very satisfying moment. But frequently the moment of satisfaction arrests further progress as you devote your time to defending your novel contribution.
    5) Satisfies the practical needs of the inquiry. For example an addressable root cause has been found for the problem at hand.
    6) Satisfies our curiosity. Some people are more curious than others.
    7) Has reached a terminus where further inquiry is apparently fruitless. Someone else will in time show that we were wrong.

    The enemies of a thick understanding of the world are(parodying Ryle’s analogy in Le Penseur):

    1) Scientism. (a wink is merely an involuntary twitch)
    We live in a world which tends towards simplifying descriptions that reduces it to a barren mechanism of cause and effect. This is the result of today’s ethos of scientism that pervades society, but it blinds us to the richness and depth of human experience.

    2) Skeptics. (that was a false wink)
    Skeptics make it their mission to expose errors in reasoning, facts and conclusions. Their missionary zeal, their list of logical fallacies and their schadenfreude stifle curiosity and innovation.

    3) Politically correctness. (you may not wink)
    They impose a narrow conformity based a particular received view of the truth.

    4) Secularism. (there is no eye, so winking is a harmful deception)
    Secularism denies the enchanted world of our creative imagination. This is like a colour blind person who further handicaps himself by looking at the world through one eye only.

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  22. Margaret,
    For the record, Geertz is not even my favorite ethnographer,

    Who is your favourite ethnographer? And why?

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  23. Margaret, Dan-K,
    These snippets were already enough to start constructing a new narrative. In this story, which is “true” in the same way that the old narrative was “true,” music wasn’t my first love: text was.

    I have just finished reading Massimo’s post “What Would a Stoic Do? Response to Jean-Paul Sartre“,
    https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/04/04/what-would-a-stoic-do-response-to-jean-paul-sartre/

    where he analyses a Stoic response to a life changing decision. Like Dan-K before me, I was shocked and dismayed by the cold Stoic attitude shown by his analysis.

    Trying to understand my own response I returned to your description of how you handled a life changing decision. I now read it in a new way. You consulted the narratives in your life and brought another narrative to the fore. But I think it goes deeper than this. By consulting the narratives in your life you discovered the kind of person you really are and then decided to create a narrative that was true to the kind of person you truly are.

    I think it is generally true, when confronted by life changing decisions, we ought to decide what kind of person we are and then decide accordingly. We might make a choice that is in accordance with the kind of person we are, or bravely make a decision in accordance with the kind of person we wish to be. Our narratives and values inform this decision.

    The ‘truth’ of the narrative is not the issue. The ‘truth’ of the kind of person we are is the issue. Our narratives inform this truth.

    Returning to Dan-K’s criticism of Stoicism(which I agree with), Massimo quoted Sartre’s dilemma:
    a young man who has to decide whether to join the anti-Nazi resistance or stay at home with his frail mother“.

    Sartre’s reply was that the decision depended on the details of the case and the young man should go with his instincts. Massimo disagreed and claimed that a Stoic would always choose first the cause of greater justice and therefore the young man should leave his frail mother to join the anti-Nazi resistance.

    You, I think, would ask what this young man’s narratives were, understand them and then, from this understanding, the right decision would become apparent.

    I would go further and say that, having consulted his narratives, he must ask what kind of person he is and what kind of person he wishes to be. Having understood this, he will know what the right decision is.

    I know for myself, that I am the kind of person who cares deeply about family and wish to protect my family, especially my mother. From this knowledge of the kind of person I am, the decision would be easy for me to make. I find the Stoic position advanced by Massimo to be abhorrent.

    Should this be generally true? Having consulted the book you recommended(Mothers and Others) I see motherhood in a new light. I think, as a consequence, our first priority ought to be to protect family and especially mothers.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Labnut, as always, thank you so much for the valuable insight. I apologize for the long delay- in truth, I’ve been trying to think about your question regarding who my favorite ethnographer is, and finding it very hard to answer! It might be better if I save it for a future post, because ethnographic trends (and my favorite ethnographer) are constantly shifting and therefore a little difficult to pin down. Our department recently went nuts over a book by a South African ethnomusicologist, Gavin Steingo, called “Kwaito’s Promise.” We liked several things particularly: first, he takes a stab at talking about the music (which, surprisingly, ethnomusicologists are not doing much these days). Second, he makes the assertion that music doesn’t just reflect who we are as music-makers or consumers. Rather, music can be mobilized to reflect who and what we *wish to be,* even if we know that we will never become that; in this case, even if we know that the promise of kwaito is an empty one. Reading your last comment, it sounds like this actually could relate.

    I think you are right on in your last comment, and that this is an important point for me, in my own small journey. The kind of person I am values knowledge, sure, but also knowledge production, reflection, and teaching. This next point is slightly difficult to phrase, but I also value things that I see as important in society, like encouraging students to think over a problem carefully, “connect the dots” (as another undergraduate professor of mine used to say), and try to understand difference in people. I believe that teaching ethnomusicology can do that. I’m not so sure that teaching applied flute lessons can.

    This is not meant to suggest that music performance is worthless- far from it. But it doesn’t align with who I am or who I want to be. I’m not interested in teaching the “canon” of white, male, European composers to the next generation, tacitly also teaching them about the kind of people who should be writing and performing art music. There are *plenty* of other people who are interested in such things, and I would like to leave this rich body of music to them. I’m happy to complement their work by offering their students alternative repertoire, critical ways to think about the music they play, and a view of music that moves things and people outside of the three or four European countries commonly represented in the canon. This may sound harsh, especially to those who love Bach-Brahms-Beethoven, but I feel very strongly about it.

    And also, as I wrote about here, I love to read and write and think. It’s both the kind of person I am AND the kind of person I want to be.

    I’m glad you got a chance to check out the Hrdy book! Biological anthropology has some research difficulties as a discipline, but I thought this book made some interesting points.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Hi Mark, sorry about the delayed reply. I agree our different backgrounds may have played into our different concerns.

    “You might have been what they call in the East an “old soul”, able to wisely chart your own course. I wasn’t.”

    If only. No, at least with career interests, I had to explore just like most people. The problem was when I was doing what I wanted I kept getting pushed away from it, and trusting/believing those doing the pushing. Long, painful story… lots of damage… so I won’t get into it. Eventually, I figured out the game. But a bit too late all around.

    In other facets of my life, it was easier to detect when someone did not have my best interests at heart, or were profoundly ignorant, and so it was easier to call their BS in time.

    I think I reacted to your statement most because it said that following one’s dream no matter what was “particularly harmful”. Regrets that one has not done something, or really went for it, are (from what I have seen) worse than having tried and failed… even unto the end.

    And in this cutthroat world, it seems to me, there are more people trying to sideline and sabotage others, than people honestly informing others what they really want in life (to which they had no clue).

    “If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.” – Frank Zappa

    I wish I had heard that when I was much much younger.

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  26. Hi Labnut, you gave many nice replies, and there is much I could agree with. But I wanted to disagree on a couple points…

    “1) Scientism… This is the result of today’s ethos of scientism that pervades society…”

    I agree that scientism prevents thick descriptions, and that it is problematic. But I wholly disagree with you that it pervades society. At least not in any that I am a part of. Scientism is held/practiced by a very small percentage of people in the world, even if they are a bit loud, much like their opposite number (religious fundamentalists). We are not suffering from an overabundance of interest and trust in science. We are not suffering from the hubris of scientific meritocracies gone wild. The entire actions of the current US administration, and the fact they got in, is a strong counterexample to your claim.

    I think the best you can say is that many people have become reliant on technology to save them, and so are uninterested in knowing much of anything in the world.

    “2) Skeptics… Skeptics make it their mission to expose errors in reasoning, facts and conclusions. Their missionary zeal, their list of logical fallacies and their schadenfreude stifle curiosity and innovation.”

    Again, I don’t think the world is suffering from overabundance of actual skepticism, skeptics. You seem to be describing a subset of skeptics that basically fall to the same problem of scientism-ists.

    “4) Secularism… Secularism denies the enchanted world of our creative imagination. This is like a colour blind person who further handicaps himself by looking at the world through one eye only.”

    I totally disagree with this, as it is quite opposite my experiences. That religious people may believe in some specific set of imaginary things (rejecting only one less set than a secularist), does not mean they inherently accept “the enchanted world of our creative imagination.” There are some versions of secularism which can be dogmatic, but there are versions (especially if you include political secularism) that are well open to creative imagination, possibilities, and exploration.

    “Should this be generally true? Having consulted the book you recommended(Mothers and Others) I see motherhood in a new light. I think, as a consequence, our first priority ought to be to protect family and especially mothers.”

    In another reply, I was with you up to this last paragraph. What if your mother abandoned you? What if she hurt you? Women do not possess some mystical attribute making them good, or worthy of being first priority, just because they give birth. This is not to run down women or mothers. But it is an answer to the question you posed at the start. It *shouldn’t* be generally true, because there are all kinds of mothers… some of whom never should have been.

    Same goes for families, unless we are talking about the families you choose to be such.

    Although I suppose, if biological families (including mothers) accepted your rule (that family should be first priority), that would set the conditions it would make sense for others to follow.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. “Regrets that one has not done something, or really went for it, are (from what I have seen) worse than having tried and failed… even unto the end.”

    Trying and failing is fine. I’m all for it. I’ve seen a couple of examples of those terrible regrets about *not* trying.

    But your “even unto the end” moves into other (Romantic?) territory (= my “no matter what”?). Sometimes one continues/persists when one shouldn’t continue, when it is just damned stupid to do so. I have seen examples of messed-up lives directly attributable to stubborn dream-following.

    “And in this cutthroat world, it seems to me, there are more people trying to sideline and sabotage others, than people honestly informing others what they really want in life (to which they had no clue).”

    I agree. But I am saying that I was pretty clueless and would have benefited greatly from benign intervention.

    You quote Frank Zappa: “If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.” And you say you wish you had heard that when you were much younger.

    That’s just the advice I *didn’t* need!! I only wish my Dad (or someone else with some worldly wisdom and my interests at heart) had been able to get through to me when I was in my teens.

    (Not saying you’re wrong, of course. Just that our personalities/circumstances were different.)

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