A Return of Cheer
The image above would perhaps be more appropriate at the end of this letter, dear readers. But I always find it so cheering to open my blog and see an image on the front page, so there it is. I will now address you on the subject of The Flute.
Mr. Galloway, a star of the modern flute, once recorded a a few Mozart concertos for that instrument. Having bought the CD, years ago, on a hazard that it might be good, I discovered that it was perfect background music for my mom’s antique shop, where I then worked. I went in at 9 o’ the clock, morning after morning, and pressed first Play and then Repeat on the CD player. In the year and a half I worked there I conceived a decided dislike for both the flute and and for that genius, Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozart. (Not always expressed as Amadeus: sometimes called Theophilus, as at his baptism, and sometimes called Gottlieb in his native German tongue. Oddly, I find this fact fascinating, more so than anything he ever wrote.)
I am digressing and I am not apologizing for it. Digression is one of the great pleasures of writing, and as I am at the moment taking up again my reading of The Anatomy of Melancholy, my model is Robert Burton, a glorious digressor and piler of phrase upon phrase.
Something has come to my door to remedy my dislike of the flute.
One of the lovely things about this city (I say little enough about this city that is happy so I want to give it its full and just due) is its classical radio station. It’s supported in part by the government, in the guise of an otherwise useless school system and public television station, and partly by listeners who understand better than denizens of other cities how much is at stake if everything beautiful is lost to the general population.
I was bumping along on the freeway one day, and a lovely flute melody began winding about my head in flourishes and flowers and brambles. I listened intently to the announcer who said, in a starchily amused voice, that Alison Melville had “rather naughtily” named her album She’s Sweetest When She’s Naked and that the melody I’d heard was a James Oswald variant of Greensleeves. It hadn’t sounded anything like Greensleeves as I knew it, but the sound had indeed been so sweet that I could well believe anything the title might tell me.
Alas, the album could not be purchased on Napster so I had to order it from over the river at early-music.com for a rather expensive price. The CD arrived today and I listened to it all the way through twice, now very much in love with that ancient and best of instruments, the flute. The cover, never fear, shows only the slightest sliver of a bare shoulder and one gleaming eye. The music is mostly about flowers though one number advises the reluctant to get on with it and roll “her” about in the hay a bit. This is the attitude, you see, about sex before it was sex. Dang Victorians spoiled the whole thing, I’m certain. Before them there was nothing dirty about getting dirty.
I once read a book called God’s Funeral, in which the author commented that many Victorians developed strange fetishes that had to do with the regular switchings they experienced at school and which they were constantly watching their same-sex fellow scholars undergo, usually with howling and dropped pants. In this case, sweetness and nakedness did not at all accompany one another. It all had something to do with the Death of God movement, which had its flowering in the Victorian era – but I don’t remember exactly what. And then of course there was Freud.
Ish. Do not buy the line that the Victorians were extra-virtuous, my friends. No, they were engaged in a deadly experiment to see how virtuous they could be without worshipping and that is why their virtue was ridiculously exxagerated and it is also why successive generations have castigated their hypocrisy but, unable to regain what they threw away, have instead completed the process and thrown away the virtue, too. At least that’s the part of the story I know.
Reading Robert Burton is a slow and oft-interrupted process. Everything he says is delightful and instructive and he draws from endless sources, most of them ancient. He recommends understanding one’s limits so as not to throw away one’s life on vain ambitions. Take what you can get and let it be enough for you, he says. He is quoting Democritus, an old Greek philosopher who sat in his garden cutting open animals to discover the physiological causes of manic-depression, or melancholy as they called it then, and laughing at his fellow men for their folly in running about exhausting themselves with pursuits which they would only lay aside the next year, or with loves and enthusiasms which they would later revoke. Robert Burton originally published Anatomy under the name Democritus Junior, so you can see where he might be going with all this.
To see where I am going with all this may be a bit more difficult.
Dear readers, you must excuse me; I’m in high spirits tonight. I finally got a call from Scottie, the first since he arrived at his destination. The training, he says, leaves off where – well I am dangerously close to discussing the kind of thing that we are not supposed to talk about on the internet (not that my regular readers can’t figure it out, but that I can’t use words that could be search terms for certain subjects.) Let’s just say “they” are doing their best to weed out anyone not quite qualified for the position he seeks. Scottie has a hurt knee but he refuses to have it looked at because the training is so tightly paced that if he misses a day he has to start over, which would mean being away from us longer. I didn’t get the chance to let him know that would be all right, for his health. I only got to talk to him for about two minutes, and only by the kindness of a high-ranking officer visiting down there from here, so there was barely time to assure each other that we were well and to say I Love You. I didn’t even get to explain that I hadn’t sent any letters because I had failed to catch an important number in his address, which he gave me over the phone the last time he called for two minutes, about a week and a half ago, when he first arrived. A few minutes later I rued my thoughtlessness. Greatly daring, I called the officer whose phone Scottie had been using (Hi, this is Frank, he answered) and got that dang number.
I let Johnny talk to Scottie for a moment, just so he knows his Daddy is still alive and loves him. Then it was goodbye and I sat on the floor crying in a release of anxiety that I had never quite acknowledged. Scottie’s spirits are high. He is a slight man, who didn’t get quite enough to eat when he was growing, and although he’s a natural runner, in most other ways the training doesn’t appeal to his more native virtues. My brother is a different sort. He said the training was like summer camp on steroids. Not everyone feels the same as my brother, who is a very large and well-knit man with a loud voice and a massive grin and thick dark hair sprouting from his head in a profusion that aptly suggests the steadily-surging strength of all his energies. When my brother was in pre-training, they brought in a bunch of city cops, and my brother’s unit was supposed to simulate a riot so the cops could practice quelling it. My brother led the charge screaming, his face monstrously distorted, his clothes rearranged to give a sense of madness. He was the only person the cops never caught. Apparently they were laughing too hard to get near him. My brother betrays a relish for all such heightened and hard activities. My husband is in high spirits for a different reason. This is his third training – he goes every year. At the first one he shed his fear and came back a man who scoffs at death and effort and suffering. He taught me to run, and as I learned to push against my own fear of the pain and effort and shortness of breath that comes with running, I grew in my ability to push against all sorts of other fears. With the result that, nearly three years later, I can actually wash my own dishes (as I previously chronicled – and by the way, dear readers, the order has spread – who knew! – and I am now keeping up on my laundry, too!) When my husband is in training, he lives in a different world, one where there is no stress about subsistence and the only thing required of a person is to do what his superiors direct him to do, with all his heart. In this mood I catch a glimpse of what it would be like to live as Democritus recommends.
But ought you not to be seeking to live as Christ recommends, someone will ask. Well, yes. “Do not worry about tomorrow: what you will eat or drink or wear, because your heavenly Father knows that you need these things.” The life Scottie lives when he is away from me (and of which he brings back some essence when he returns) approaches this one. To live under authority, without stress, knowing that one’s superiors have one’s life in hand, a life that can be sacrificed at need but will in the meantime be well maintained, this life approaches that in which you realize at last that your life does not consist in the things you aquire or in the bread you eat or even in the continuance of your own body on this earth. For man lives by the decree of God and not by bread. Not really by bread.
I recall reading a book about a Christian in China. The church, any church, had all but died there, and Christ came directly to this man after he had passionately and steadily searched for a Bible. He had evangelical antecedents and so his Christianity had a somewhat evangelical cast, although in many respects it was more apostolic than otherwise. Through his efforts many were converted to faith in Christ and he did many miracles. At last he went to prison, where he fasted for I think 160 days, not as a hunger strike but as a testimony to God’s power. At the end of that time, in which he had eaten and drunk nothing, his body had withered away till he was the size of a small child, and he sat in the corner of his cell praying, leathery and still. Still his body and soul remained united. How many others there have been who fed and watered themselves tenderly, risked nothing and heaped up medicine and riches to ward off death, and yet they died suddenly through accident or chance disease or some other cause.
(I sounded almost Burtonian, there.)
Enduring hardness can teach some of this. Sometimes certain pleasures can teach it as well, if the heart is in any respect wise toward the instruction. To contemplate what is offered to our view in a work of human skill can be an excercise in discerning that human life consists in something more than that which fuels our body.
Have you danced recently, dear reader?
Tonight I learned why it is that, though nowadays we talk of toe-tapping, in times past people tapped their heels. Music dictates certain movements of the body and early music teaches me to tap my heel and not my toe. I am learning dance steps that may be quite ancient. Skipping and hopping and wheeling. And there is one my son loves, in which I swing him from arm to arm. When he is in the right arm, I fling out my left. When in the left, my right. All the while half-hopping in the opposite direction. He giggled joyously the whole time, and if the steps became too boring through my shortness of breath, he’d beat me on the shoulder and beg, “Round-a- round” and I’d swing him in circles.
There is some music that you have to listen to with your whole body, not just your ears.
What’s interesting is that not all of this early music (in Melliville’s album: Scottish music published in 18th centry Scotland, but of course much of it was merely collected at that time and was composed far earlier) is metrical. That is, it does not always have a steady beat, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, etc. Much of it has a more natural shape, like vines or clouds, which do not have measured symmetry but find balanace in a different meandering manner. This music is much like the kind of music that our Liturgy has historically been set to, and if Orthodox Christians are going to write new settings to the Liturgy in an effort to have an American Orthodox music, they ought to study the early music of the British Isles because those are our musical roots.
Listen to the Canadians; they have the edge on this sort of thing in the New World.
I wonder if all the classical music (Italianate, Mellville calls it) that we generally listen to, with its strict meters, is more or less dance music. And if we have lost the ability to hear the beauty of clouds and vines and only hear the glory of numbers now. Numbers can, of course, be ravishingly glorious in their own way. And so can dance music.
But oh! for gentle, deepening entrancement of that which ripples and courses and makes its way down happily to the sea whether it can be strictly divided into wholes or not!
And since we are talking about the flute – we are, really – let me recommend Chris Norman “and his wooden flute” as players of wooden flutes seem always to be introduced. (It helps because there are other musicians with this name.) It’s a sort of novelty instrument but it shouldn’t be. No, it should not. Just as the flute is, for me at the moment, the only instrument, the wooden flute is at the moment the only flute.
And I find I have come to a stop. Good night, and good morning as well, dear friends.