The Voice, the Song, the Vision, the Light

[Video: 10,000 Maniacs and David Byrne (live), performing Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be.” (Lyrics here.)]

From whiskey river:

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])


Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning

There are questions that I no longer ask
and others that I have not asked for a long time
that I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time
yes I am old now and I am the child
I remember what are called the old days and there is
no one to ask how they became the old days
and if I ask myself there is no answer
so this is old and what I have become
and the answer is something I would come to
later when I was old but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone

(W. S. Merwin [source])

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Midweek Music Break Playlist: Windows to the Soul

[Image: girl, dancing, in giant eye costume. Note the hands: one giving “thumbs-up!” sign,
one holding a cocktail. I have no idea if this is an advertising image or what; found it at a couple
of places, never with any explanation.]

(Note: The playlist goes automatically from start to finish, once you click the Play button. Total playlist length: around 31 minutes.

Windows to the Soul: A Playlist

Though most of us don’t hunt, our eyes are still the great monopolists of our senses. To taste or touch your enemy or your food, you have to be unnervingly close to it. To smell or hear it, you can risk being further off. But vision can rush through the fields and up the mountains, travel across time, country, and parsecs of outer space, and collect bushel baskets of information as it goes… It may even be that abstract thinking evolved from our eyes’ elaborate struggle to make sense of what they saw. Seventy percent of the body’s sense receptors cluster in the eyes, and it is mainly through seeing the world that we appraise and understand it. Lovers close their eyes when they kiss because, if they didn’t, there would be too many visual distractions to notice and analyze.

(Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses)

Windows to the soul, right. That’s what they say about eyes, anyhow. Which, if true, is good news for everybody but (poor) liars.

I poked around to see if anyone knew, definitively (or even convincingly) who first came up with the “windows to [or of] the soul” metaphor. Best guess, as far as I can tell, seems to be that it came from Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations. I’ve found a translation of that work (by Andrew Peabody, in an 1886 edition) at the Internet Archive. The passage there (in a chapter called “On the Contempt of Death”) reads as follows:

Therefore it is that often, when hindered by being absorbed in thought or by some morbid affection, we neither see nor hear, though both the eyes and the ears are open and in a healthy state, so that it may be readily inferred that it is the soul that sees and hears, and not those parts which are like windows of the soul, but through which the mind can perceive nothing unless it be actively present.

When you pick this apart, it’s actually pretty plain that he’s lumping the eyes in with the ears as windows of the soul. But let it pass, let it pass, and give the guy the benefit of the doubt: after all, windows are predominantly an architectural feature which serves the eyes.

Whether they’re good or bad for people facing interrogation, eyes are without question a godsend to songwriters. If, as Diane Ackerman says, 70% of our sensory wiring is given over to support of vision, it’s easy to imagine that at least 70% of our music deals with it in some form or another. It (haha) focuses on the orbs themselves, or on the things the orbs perceive; the songs are full of color, light, shadow, and of course blindness. (Let’s not forget Talking Heads’ “Cross-Eyed and Painless.”) And given the other pop-music preoccupation — love, et all the cetera that goes with it — songs often deal with the color the lover sees when he sees the beloved’s eyes. Indeed, try to substitute in a song title any other sensory organ or its sense in place of the eyes and vision and you wind up with ridiculously Daliesque imagery: “Doctor My Ears”; “I Only Have Sniffs for You”; “Taste Bud of the Tiger”…

(As a thought experiment, I turned it around: pick some other art form, and some other sense, and try to think of examples of that art’s preoccupation with that sense. It’s not easy — although I suspect you, clever readers that you are, could run off a dozen examples.)

This was a difficult mix to put together — way too many choices. We take vision very, very seriously, and the eyes are everywhere in our songs.

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