Mark Edmundson, a university professor of English at the University of Virginia, had published in The Chronicle of Higher Education last week an interesting article titled "Can Music Save Your Life?" wherein he concluded:
My wonderful former teacher, Geoffrey Hartman, said that most reading was vague and lazy, like girl watching. Feminists gave him the bastinado for that, but he was right. Something similar is true about listening to music. Usually it's about getting your emotions packaged for you, quieting the static inside, fabricating an exciting identity ... to counteract one's commitment to a life of secure banality. Most music listening, like most reading, is passive. It's about girl watching rather than woman wooing, which is a tougher game. Schopenhauer says that most reading is letting other people think your thoughts for you. I'd add that most music listening is about letting other people feel your feelings for you.While I take Dr. Edmundson's point, I think he's rather missed the mark. Music listening can go far deeper than that. A personal experience: I've been on serious dope for a period of time but once in my life: during a one-year recovery from a particularly nasty and should-have-been-fatal motorcycle accident in the early '70s. That experience with dope was an eye-opening and consciousness-raising one which to this day remains unforgettable. The dope was administered intravenously by medical personnel for the first month or so and self-administered orally thereafter for a period of another few months. That first warm rush and the immediately ensuing feeling of transcendent wellbeing after each dose simply has no equal in ordinary life — at least not in my ordinary life. Needless to say, I became hooked on that feeling and slipped into the habit of checking my watch repeatedly to see whether it was permissible to administer another dose without exceeding the safe limit. One day I caught myself actually doing that and it scared me straight. On the spot and cold turkey I ceased taking the stuff and depended thereafter on aspirin alone for whatever pain relief it could offer. While it's not quite the same thing, I today, in the closing years of my life (I've passed the biblically allotted three-score-and-ten and so figure I'm now living on borrowed time), experience much that same feeling of transcendent wellbeing and when the music's over the need for "another dose" every time I listen to a Glenn Gould performance of a Bach keyboard work; the Partitas, the Goldberg, and Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier most especially. Once the CD gets going in the player with the repeat set to ALL, it requires a substantial effort of will on my part to stop it going no matter how long it's been going which at times could be an entire day without break. I've of course attempted many times to analyze and explain this phenomenon to myself, a phenomenon I experience with no other music and performer, and of course always come up with an answer. But in the end, that answer, no matter how well-thought-out and detailed, always turns out to be woefully inadequate and no explanation at all. I know the phenomenon has something to do with Gould's unique and uncanny ability to delineate each voice in the music's dense polyphonic texture with perfect clarity as if he had a separate hand devoted to each yet maintain at all times a perfect horizontal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) contrapuntal coherence in the gestalt and in so doing seems to be inhabiting and giving voice to the very mind of Bach himself which, in turn, seems, in this one respect, the very mind of God. No other so-called "absolute" music and no other keyboardist of my experience comes even close to being able to accomplish that in my case. But, by itself, that's no real explanation either. Am I merely "getting [my] emotions packaged for [me], quieting the static inside [me], fabricating an exciting identity [for myself] ... to counteract [my] commitment to a life of secure banality" by "letting other people feel [my] feelings for [me]" as Dr. Edmundson suggests? I seriously doubt it. But, then, there's always the possibility, no matter how disquieting, that I might be doing just that. If so, I'm content to let it be so — that is, as long as I can always get another dose.