I find Susanne Langer’s prose clear and eloquent. She would seem to be at her most passionate when she writes about life and art to share her understanding of their relationship. Consider this passage: “What, then, is the essence of all music? The creation of virtual time and its complete determination by the movement of audible forms.” Why is this important? Why is music important? Because, as she explains later in Chapter 7 of Feeling and Form, with music we may understand again the nature of time, not the moment by moment succession of mechanical ticks of the clock (which she calls “metaphysically a very problematical instrument”) in a one dimensional train, but the multi-dimensional passage of duration. Music is an image of lived or experienced time, it is vital and not mechanical, it is creative and not restrictive.
I recently talked with a young man about Joseph Campbell, one of the greatest mythologists, and his notion that modern man was somehow diminished by our lack of rituals of passage, by our loss of a shared contextual duration of lifespans and the rhythm of life. I agree with this but given how we have changed since Campbell formulated his ideas, I think he had no idea of what would come about, when so many consider their lives richer in texture through electronic friending and multi-tasking. As Charlie Chaplin recognized in his movie, Modern Times, we have reduced the richness of life by clocking. Even some of the emphasis on fitness seems narrowly focused on achievement, on adrenalin and endorphin surge, on faster and better, even as we willfully ignore the necessity and richness of the quiet reflection needed to experience fully our time here with Gaia. Consider the experience of thru-hiking on the Appalachian Trail and the many who describe it as a time of grounding, of expansive spirit among the difficult journey, and of a deepening understanding of our time here. Then consider the yokel who recently set the speed record for completing the journey and considered himself a superior man. As Yoda said, “All wrong that is.”
One more passage from Langer: The great office of music is to organize our conception of feeling . . . to give us an insight into what may truly be called the ‘life of feeling,’ or subjective unity of experience; and this it does by the same principle that organizes physical existence into a biological design—rhythm.” So, as I understand this, when we listen to music, we hear an image of life’s song emerging from matter’s noise, not as a scientific or positivistic progression of tick-tocks but as the mystic experience of attunement with some universe.
Langer was an excellent musician herself and she appreciated the modern luxury of electronic recordings, but she also said these taught us how not to listen, how to have music as the background of our lives and to miss thereby its richness. Sort of empty, non-nutritive calories, I guess, like so much of our fodder today. As we wander these trees, looking for the forest and a way through, listen for the song of the Waldenhexe. Travel on.