Saturday , June 22 2024

The philosophy of Dostoevsky: Chapters 4 and 5 Review

Chapter 4

If God does not exist everything, is permitted: a Kierkegaardian perspective

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov’s philosophical and theological ideas are complex and develop in the course of the novel. However, near the beginning of the novel, in Book 2 Chapter 6, an idea is attributed to him by a character named Miusov who reports that at a recent meeting Ivan began by saying that if love has existed between people, it is only because they have believed in immortality. Moreover, without the belief in immortality, there would be no morality and everything would be permitted. If someone ceases to believe in God, then logically he should be an egoist and even become an evil doer. Ivan is asked by the Elder Zosima if this is his view and he says: “Yes, it was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality.” (p. 70) The Elder seems to commiserate with Ivan, accepting that, indeed, he neither believes in God, nor in immortality.

There is no need to go into the ins and outs of Ivan’s theology, nor be overly concerned about who said what and when in the novel. The idea that is being put forward is that morality and love of other human beings in some way depend on immortality with the implication that immortality depends on God. The inference is that God and immortality are really one and the same belief or at least interconnected. To cease to believe in the one is to cease to believe in the other. But why should this be so? It is worth investigating in what way morality is dependent on belief in God or, perhaps, more accurately in the existence of God.

Let’s look at the situation from the point of view of someone contemplating doing wrong. If by wrong we mean something like theft or murder, why do I not do these things? One reason is that there are laws and the police, and I realise that if I commit a crime, there is a reasonable chance that I will be caught and punished. I therefore decide out of self-interest not to steal from a shop or to commit murder, because I don’t want to end up in prison or have some other punishment given to me.

The problem with this is that if everyone thought in this way, law would rapidly collapse. The population of a country massively outnumbers the police. If everyone sat waiting for their chance to break the law, when they thought there was a chance of getting away with it, how could the police catch all of them? The law works only insofar as a minority of people are criminally minded. The majority do not break the law because they are scared of the police or punishment, but because they think breaking the law is wrong. But from where do we get this sense of wrong? From where do we get the concept of something being morally wrong?

Furthermore, what of things which most of us consider to be wrong, which are not illegal? Why should couples remain faithful to each other, why should we not tell lies? Is it that we fear that if we are unfaithful, perhaps, our marriage will break up, or if we tell lies, then no one will trust us further? But what if we know at this moment that we can tell a lie and get away with it? What if we are in another country when we have the chance to be unfaithful? And yet we might choose to remain moral. Why do people act sometimes in a way that entails self-sacrifice, why, indeed, are people kind and altruistic?

It’s worth focussing on how we actually learn morality. We learn morality normally from a mother who watches. From an early age, she sees me do something and says don’t do that. If I continue to do the thing which is wrong, she may punish me. Let’s say I steal sweets from the sweet jar. The first time, she says ‘don’t steal sweets, it’s wrong.’ And so I learn not to steal sweets while she is looking. I may think that I can steal sweets when she is not looking and so when she is in another room I creep up to the jar and steal a sweet. But mother is cleverer than me, she has counted the sweets. I’m asked did you steal a sweet? I say ‘no’. She knows better. She counts out the sweets, one is missing. I’m punished, moreover, she shows disapproval and I want that approval. I feel shame. In time I don’t steal from the sweet jar even when I know that I could get away with it. This feeling of guilt is developed in a myriad of ways such that eventually about a whole mass of matters I have an internalised sense of guilt when I contemplate doing wrong. This is what we call conscience. It is based on the idea of mother somehow overseeing what I do, even when she is not there.

But when I grow up and can reason about these things, why do I not realise that I can throw off this conscience? Mother is now far away. I know that she will not discover if I take from the sweet jar. Who else can be overseeing me? The police observe. And so I should be careful not to be caught. But this is simply a matter of self-interest and we are back to the idea of morality being simply a matter of law. What about God? Can He take the role of the mother watching to see if I steal from the sweet jar? Perhaps. But if I begin to study philosophy, I quickly realise that this whole matter of God’s existence is rather uncertain. Descartes is not even certain of the existence of the outside world. Perhaps, all my perceptions are deceptions. Any course of philosophy seems to see scepticism win out. First year philosophy classes are dominated by questions like “How do I know the sun will rise tomorrow?” But if I don’t even know this, how can the fact that a God who might exist and might be observing me steal from the sweet jar motivate my behaviour? Is God, indeed, not just an extension of the observing mother, who created my conscience in the first place?

Moreover, I quickly realise when studying philosophy that there are lots of systems of morality that do not depend on God. Each major philosopher seems to have such a system. One says that I should do that which leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Another thinks that I should imagine what would happen if everyone followed a course of action and act accordingly. There are any number of such systems and they don’t all mention God. But why should I follow such a system? Who is to make me? Perhaps, it’s in my self-interest to do so. But that is not morality. That is just another form of egoism. Perhaps, I realise that it’s my duty to follow a particular philosopher’s system of morality. But why should I follow my duty? Perhaps, I realise that rationality calls for me to follow a particular morality. But then why be rational? Let me be irrational just so long as I get what I want.

This is our problem. Either I follow the system of morality out of self-interest in which case it is really the same as law (just a matter of pragmatism and self-interest), or I follow the system out of duty. But then I’m already moral. But whence this morality as it cannot be coming from the system? There is obviously circularity here.

The problem of morality goes far back. It is stated as well as anywhere in Plato’s Republic with the story of the ring of Gyges. If I had the ring of Gyges which makes me invisible, such that I could get away with any crime, would I refrain from doing so? Only if I would refrain from doing wrong, even if I could get away with it, can I be said to be truly moral.

The idea of the watcher is present here also. If no one can watch, because I am invisible, would I steal from the sweet jar? I don’t steal from the sweet jar, even when mother is not around, because she has shown that sometimes she knows better than me. Eventually, I internalise this into conscience and I don’t steal even when I know I would get away with it, because I have this thing called conscience taught by my mother. But what if I realise that I’m being a mug, that this conscience thing is just a fraud? Why then not put on the ring of Gyges and do what I wish so long as I can get away with it?

Of course, here God can play a role. Even if someone wears the ring of Gyges and can do what he likes on Earth, God observes him. The idea of God and with it the idea of immortality is the idea that even if you get away with immorality on Earth, even if you are a criminal who is never caught by the law, still God watches. God is the ultimate mother and the fundament which underpins conscience. God’s justice, the fact that He can reward or punish can be seen as a reason to be moral, for it may seem to solve the problem of the ring of Gyges. Even if I am to get away with evil here and now, it may not be rational to do so if I am to be punished later in eternity. God is like a universal police force. The lawbreaker may not be sent to prison on Earth, but there is the equivalent of prison after death. Is this the reason that Ivan thinks that if there is no immortality, then everything is permitted?

The observant mother is now in the transcendent sphere and able to judge according to how I lived my life. There is no chance that I can escape detection. All my sins will be found out. But this is our problem. If I do good in order to gain salvation or to avoid hell, then this is really no different from law. It is in my self interest in the long run to do good. Out of egoism and selfishness, it would be rational for me to choose to do good in order to obtain a reward and to avoid punishment. But this is no more morality than the person who is law abiding solely because he fears the police. The police have simply been transferred to a transcendent realm with powers to detect every crime, even those committed with the ring of Gyges.

Perhaps, the solution is in this way. The idea that I can treat God as a policeman who rewards and punishes like the police and the courts is to misunderstand the nature of God. Salvation both does and does not depend on what I do, how I live my life. My actions are both necessary and unnecessary. Salvation is by faith alone and by good works. In Kierkegaardian terms, salvation is a matter of both of what he calls “Religiousness A” and “Religiousness B”, inwardness and externality, relation to self and relation to other, how I act and how I believe. In the Reformation debate between Protestantism and Catholicism we must hold together both sides of the argument even though they contradict each other, we must have both Luther and the Pope, ‘works righteousness’ and ‘faith alone.’

What this means can be explained in the following way. I must believe that how I live is decisive for my salvation. This is Kierkegaard’s religiousness B and decisive Christianity. Therefore, I must want to witness to the truth and imitate the life of Christ as far as is possible. The lesson that Kierkegaard has to teach us, indeed, is that my faith is my action. This is the importance of the Epistle of James in his work. What is it to suppose that someone has faith? It is to see that he acts in certain ways. This was the lesson from Wittgenstein. How can I know if I can whistle a tune? I must whistle it. How can I know if I have faith? I must act according to it. There is no faith without action. Once I understand that faith is action, then there can be no question of faith without it. But and here is the crucial point. Although I believe that how I live is decisive for my salvation, I cannot bargain. God’s choice is free and from the point of view of eternity already made.

Thus I cannot act in order to obtain a reward and to avoid a punishment. I recognise from my faith the need to act as a Christian or try to act as a Christian. I also recognise that these actions are crucial. Following Kierkegaard again, only through relating to other people, through living the Christian life, do I create the self that God can save. But I must trust in God. I realise, when faced with God, that nothing I could do would be enough. Therefore, I am absolutely dependent on his love and grace for my salvation.

This is not something that can be understood, for it depends on a Kierkegaardian paradox. Christian morality is the paradoxical unity of salvation by faith alone and salvation by means of good works. This is a genuine contradiction, and something that we cannot understand. A similar contradiction exists in the two ideas that salvation is a matter of predestination and that how I live is decisive for whether or not I obtain salvation. This is to look at the matters from the point of view of eternity and from the point of view of temporality. The combination of the positions is the truth. Just as Christ was the Eternal in time. So my salvation is the eternal in time. It is an absolute paradox and a matter for faith, not for reason. It is for this reason that the Bible at times seems contradictory on this matter. The thief on the cross will be with Jesus today in paradise, but salvation is a matter of waiting until the Day of Judgement. But this, too, is just the paradoxical combination of the eternal point of view with the temporal point of view. We cannot expect to fully understand these matters. Here indeed is something that cannot be fully expressed, something that defeats language and thought.

Thus I believe both that my good works are decisive for my salvation, that how I live my life is crucial and that nothing I do could ever be good enough. I am saved from egoism by my realisation that God’s choice is free and that I am absolutely dependent on his love and grace. Thus I am not acting in order to gain salvation, for there can be no bargaining with God. Faith is action. It can even be said that I am saved by faith alone. For when I understand that faith is not, or not merely a matter of inwardness, I realise that faith is simply what I do.

If faith is only inwardness, it is only the relationship to the eternal. In Kierkegaardian terms this is paganism, the relationship merely to God. The incarnation brings the eternal into time and enables us to relate externally. The only way to relate to Christ as a Christian is to love Christ and to try to live as He did. This means action. Once I understand this, then action inevitably follows.

It is the free choice of God that makes Christian morality and means that it is neither a matter of law, nor a matter of egoism. God’s free choice means that Christianity can never be a matter of self-interest. I have no guarantee, no matter how saintly I live my life. Thus we have the Bible story of the workers who turn up late getting just the same as those who came early (Matthew 20: 1-16). I cannot gain God’s perspective. But I know that God is love and therefore I have hope.

But what I realise also is that finally my only way of relating to God is through Christ. When I try to relate to the eternal, the infinite, the omniscient and omnipotent, then I deal with what is forever distant and remote from my life. I have no way really of relating. I can try to relate inwardly and I can have a sense of this faith, but it is not concrete. It’s like the idea that I can whistle the tune. Until I actually do whistle it, there is no whistling. Likewise with faith, it comes into existence through my actions. But when I begin relating to Christ, through imitation, witnessing. I relate to something, someone concrete. I can follow his lead. And through the fact that Christ is paradoxically both God and man, I in this way relate to God.

In Kierkegaardian terms it is the paradoxical combination of religiousness A (relating to God, through inwardness), (the eternal), (relation to self), (Protestantism, salvation by faith alone, for it has already from the point of view of eternity been determined), and religiousness B (Relation to Christ), (the temporal), (relation to another), (Catholicism, the idea that my salvation is not yet determined and depends on how I live my life). It is this combination that creates morality.

It is this combination also that creates the self that can be saved. This shows, indeed, that God is the fundament of morality. If God does not exist, then ultimately everything is permitted. It is for this reason that Ivan is to be pitied. Through his lack of faith he puts himself in a position, which makes it impossible for God to save him, for he has no self to save. Following Grushenka’s story in the Brothers Karamazov (Book 7 Ch. 3), God needs at least one onion in order to grab the self.

For Ivan, God is dead and everything is permitted. The unbeliever’s unbelief is for him the truth, for he has put himself in a position where God cannot help him. This is his eternal punishment. His eternal punishment is not that God judges him and condemns him, but that God cannot even judge him, cannot even notice him. His hell is that his atheism turns out, for him to be quite accurate.

Brothers Karamazov, Translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992

Chapter 5
Throwing away the ladder
There’s an important little passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov which has in it the seed of an important argument. The great thing about this book, however, is that it is possible to pick any number of little passages that say something profound and important.
Alyosha, who has been living in a monastery, has the following conversation with his brother Ivan who tends towards atheism:
“I understand it all too well, Ivan: to want to love with your insides, your guts—you said it beautifully, and I’m terribly glad that you want so much to live,” Alyosha exclaimed, “I think everyone should love life before everything else in the world.”
“Love life more than its meaning?”
“Certainly, love it before logic, as you say, certainly before logic, and only then will I also understand its meaning. That is how I’ve long imagined it. Half of your work is done and acquired, Ivan: you love life. Now you only need to apply yourself to the second half, and you are saved.” (pp. 230-231, Pevear translation)
Alyosha is above all trying to save his brother. Ivan through the course of the novel makes a subtle, but penetrating attack on Christianity. For Ivan there is no God and no immortality. Dostoevsky puts forward one of the most powerful attacks on Christianity, but he also puts forward a very profound defence. In this little passage and others there is put forward the essence of Christian existentialism. It is from life and individual experience that it is possible to become convinced of the truth and to obtain faith.
I watched a film recently about the great scientist Stephen Hawking. It was called the Theory of Everything. At one point Hawking at a press conference says something along the lines of that he has explained everything in the universe. There was no need for God, there was no room for God. By explaining everything he had as it were left no room for God and, indeed, explained Him away. Everything that modern physics puts forward is, no doubt, true or as true as anything can be considering the present state of our knowledge. It is folly to question what great minds have discovered about the universe. But if physics describes everything and there is no room for God, it would appear that faith can no longer be possible. Where is God if Mr Hawking can explain everything?
Mr Hawking journeys outwards and his great mind travels outwards into the universe and backwards in time to the beginning of time. But his journey is in the wrong direction if he wants to find God. God is not in the journey outward. Rather God is found within. This does not, of course, mean that God is in me, or that I am God. That is nonsense and blasphemy, but the way to become acquainted with God is through a different way of reflecting than that which journeys outwards to the beginning of time.
What is it to love life? It is to love each second of life. But what is the experience of life? It is what I do on a day to day basis.  This morning I lay in bed and at some point I chose to get up. I could have lain there a little longer. I chose to make some coffee, I could have chosen to make tea. My basic fundamental experience of life and what I love about it is my ability to choose. My basic experience just like my experience that grass is green is that I have absolute freedom of will. Of course, I may be deceived in my experience. But then again since Descartes we know that I may be deceived in my experience of the external world. The route of scepticism ends in a cul-de-sac. But my sense of freedom is as real to me as anything else in the world if not more so. I would less readily doubt my freedom than anything else apart from my existence. I am free, therefore I am.
But my freedom is such that I am an uncaused cause. Every choice I make is uncaused apart from the fact that I choose. There is nothing or there need be nothing that compels me to choose to drink tea or coffee. I can do either. But Mr Hawking’s universe has no uncaused cause, at least not after the Big Bang. Physics amounts to billiard balls hitting against each other. Perhaps, they are complicated little billiard balls that behave in complicated ways, but still this is all materialism, for all there is, is matter.  Every action has a cause. A neuron hits against an electron, a quark flutters and I choose to drink coffee.
Science would like to explain my uncaused cause as biology. The brain is just a collection of atoms and through a complex series of reactions I choose to drink coffee. But why should I doubt the basic experience of choice for the sake of a theory about atoms and sub atomic particles that I cannot see? Why should not my fundamental feeling of freedom trump whatever science tries to do in order to explain that my feeling of freedom is illusory? If science could prove to me that the world I see was in fact an illusion, I would still believe in the world. Well, by the same token I still believe in my freedom despite whatever science can attempt to do that proves that I am really a complex automaton. I do not feel myself to be an automaton. Nor do you.
The rest follows of itself. My sense of freedom is my sense of something that is not controlled by the laws of physics. Every step I make is its own little miracle. It is an uncaused cause. It is this that makes me love life. If everything I did was caused by instinct, by need, by atoms, I would hate life and would consider it not worth living.
Alyosha is saying to Ivan ‘reflect on your own individual experience, the fact that you love life.’ “Love it before logic.” There is a mystery at the heart of life and that mystery is that we are free in a way that cannot be properly explained.
Here again is the key to Christian existentialism. We must go beyond logic. When Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he set out the logic in pages of brilliance that staggered his examiners in Cambridge. They said they didn’t understand it, but it was clearly a work of genius, so despite there being no footnotes, he got his Ph.d. After the most brilliant logical demonstrations, however, Wittgenstein concluded his work in the following way:
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognises them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them (He must so to speak throw away the ladder after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent. (6.54-7)
The ultimate truth of the universe is beyond logic and beyond the ability of man to understand. It can therefore only be expressed in literature in art and in music. It can, however, be experienced and, indeed, is experienced by us every day in the miracle of our freedom.
From my freedom I know that I am not dependent on atoms and from this I know that I am something other in my essence from rocks and trees. What I am is not something I am ever going to understand for it is beyond the wit of man to explain. Mr Hawking is trying to storm the gates of heaven with his reason and finding nothing there, declares there is no heaven and no God. But his efforts are as vain as medieval monks who tried to come up with ingenious logical proofs of the existence of God. You cannot get there with logic, so don’t try.
If what I am is not dependent on physics, then why should my existence not survive the death of what I am physically. If truth ultimately is beyond logic, then why should not a virgin give birth, why should not God be both God and man or God and not God? Why indeed should not there be resurrection, death and not death.
We are not there yet. Alyosha tells us that Ivan’s love of life is such that he is halfway there. He still has to recognise that he has reached the top of the ladder and must then throw it away. He has to leap. As Kierkegaard taught us, he has to embrace contradiction.
Of course, once you have done that, theology and philosophy are finished, for which reason Wittgenstein recommended working on a farm. But what is left is the ability to experience God from within, from the miracle of freedom and existence, and to express this feeling in art. The greatest composer of all, I think, is Olivier Messiaen because he spent his life trying to express what was beyond the ladder and for brief moments as with, for example, his Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps he succeeds. We glimpse it. Or at least we can if we choose to do so.
Chapter 5
Dazzling with an excess of truth (a musical interlude)
Schopenhauer writes somewhere in The World as Will and Representation that music ought not to represent. It is many years ago that I read this and I do not intend looking it up even if I had the text readily to hand. Schopenhauer is on the wrong side of the great dilemma that faces philosophy, which in the end can be understood as a simple choice, either Kierkegaard or Hegel. You can choose the Hegelian path, which ultimately resolves itself into the idea that everything is one thing, or you can choose the Kierkegaardian path that everything is indeed individual. There isn’t a third option. For Kierkegaard the individual is the base unit, which is not to say that there are not relations with others. There are. But it is as an individual that I relate to the other. With Hegel, on the other hand, in the end, I will be subsumed in the other, and in that way all contradictions will be resolved.
The choice can be explained in another way. Either you think the path is to lose the sense of self through chanting a mantra and through meditation (this, too, will take you on the Hegelian path to Nirvana), or you think that the self is retained, in which case you will avoid meditation as tending towards losing what is most precious.
Schopenhauer likewise thought in the end there is only one thing. He called it Will. He could just as well have called it Nirvana, or some other such word. But even if I disagreed with him on this, for a long time I agreed with him on the idea that music ought not to represent.
Many years ago in school there was a music teacher who I liked to plague. I worked hard in other subjects, so thought it reasonable to play the fool in subjects that were not examined, like music and RE. This music teacher played a piece of music and asked the class what it represented. Even then I thought this was absurd, and so said I thought the music represented a rabbit with Myxomatosis in a field of prunes. For this I was belted. But I was right. Or at least that is how I understood matters for many years. Music ought not to represent and when it does so, it is bad music. I hated when in Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony there is a thunderstorm. It always struck me as ludicrous to try to emulate natural phenomena with music. Music ought to be completely abstract and express nothing, or at least nothing that can be spoken about.
But I have been on a musical journey these past few years and I have come to refine my view.
Two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century, produced some of their most important works in similarly difficult conditions. Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps while a prisoner of war. He wrote it for the only four instruments to hand in the camp. Likewise, Ludwig Wittgenstein while a prisoner of war wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Both end up with the attempt to express the inexpressible. But Messiaen didn’t finish there. He went further, much further.
In the 1940s Messiaen produced a number of works with religious titles such as Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus and Visions de l’Amen. But if you played someone a CD of either of these pieces without giving them the cover, I doubt anyone could guess what they represent. In that sense they remain completely abstract, though they express something about theology which cannot be thought.
But Messiaen in the 1950s goes beyond this completely. He goes all around France and eventually all around the world collecting birdsong. He notates it and then transforms this into music. Is he then representing birds in his music? In one sense he is, but once more if you played someone Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux, I’m not at all sure that he would guess that it is about birds. Perhaps, he might guess, but really it has been transformed so, that it doesn’t sound much like birds at all, or rather it goes beyond birdsong.
He continues in this way in the 1970s with his Des Canyons aux Étoiles which purports to represent a canyon in Utah and perhaps, it does, but no-one could guess where the canyon was and really the music goes so far beyond canyons that it even goes beyond the stars. And this is the point. This is what Messiaen is doing with his representing. He is transforming what he represents in such a way that he gives us a glimpse of what cannot be expressed.
Finally, with his greatest work Saint François d’Assise Messiaen does something quite extraordinary. This I believe is the greatest opera of the 20th century, perhaps, the greatest piece of music. This incredible composer does something that ought quite literally to be impossible. He shows us Heaven.
Saint Francis meets an angel who plays music that gives a foretaste of the beyond. The music is so beautiful that Francis reflects that if he had heard just one more note, he would have died. The angel before playing the music sings to Francis the following:
God dazzles us with an excess of truth. The music brings us to God when the truth overwhelms us. If you speak to God through music, He will answer through music. Learn the joy of the blessed through the sweetness of sound and colour. And may the secrets of bliss be revealed to you. Hear this music that hangs life to the scales of heaven. Hear the music of the invisible (Act 2 tableau 5).
What does this mean? What is an excess of truth? It is the truth that is beyond our understanding. It is the truth that Christ is God and Man. These are two truths that are incompatible with each other, God and not God, Man and not Man. Likewise, the resurrected Christ is dead and not dead. It is the combination of truth that expresses opposites that is the excess of truth that dazzles us. It is contradiction. When we are sitting perplexed having failed to understand the deepest truths of theology, then we can by all means reject it as all lies and nonsense. That is the rational thing to do. That in one sense is the correct thing to do. Alternatively, we can allow the music to bring us to God. If you are open to the music that Messiaen is playing, you may just get an answer. It is only when the intellect is crushed, when doubt overwhelms us, that if we are open to it, there is the chance of glimpsing what is beyond when we climb above the ladder and throw it away. Messiaen represents birds but uses them to represent heaven. They are the rungs on the ladder that carry him higher, so that finally he reaches where they cannot even fly. So Schopenhauer is wrong, but he is also right. Music represents and does not represent.
Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise has more truth in it than whole libraries of theological speculation that amount to so much very dull argument about nothing at all. It is an opera that is rarely performed, but you can see it on DVD. The experience if you are open to it is the nearest thing to heaven that can be found here on earth. Even if you are not religious, you will find expressed the inexpressible. The deepest things cannot be expressed through reason. The attempt to do so simply brings them down to a level that is human all too human. As Francis says near the end:
Music and poetry have brought me to You, in images in symbols because the truth escaped us. Lord, light me with Your presence, free me, stupefy me, blind me forever with Your excess of truth.
Music and poetry can express what is beyond the ability of reason to depict. It is in this sense that music both represents and does not represent. It represents what is beyond our words, that about which we must remain silent. Messiaen created a new language of music in order to go beyond what had hitherto been possible. This new language is difficult. Like every language it requires time and effort to learn. But to dismiss it without having taken the time to learn is like someone who has not learned Russian going up to a Russian and saying you are talking gibberish.
If it were up to me, if only I had the courage and the ability to sacrifice self-interest, I would take my students and give them a course in Messiaen. I would tell them to learn Russian, so they could read Dostoevsky, German so that they could read Wittgenstein, and Danish so they could read Kierkegaard. When they had made some progress in this, I would play them Saint François d’Assise and tell them to go home and do something useful with their lives, above all, be kind and try as far as they are able to follow the example of people like Francis. I would then say I have nothing more to teach, for there is nothing more to be taught.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog:

About Effie Deans

Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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