Podcast • April 13, 2015

Barney Frank over 50 Years: the Talker of the House

Barney Frank’s memoir reminds me that we’re almost exact contemporaries – two white guys who’ve been watching a lot of the same stuff, in Boston and Washington, politics and culture, for 50 years, 1965 to ...

Barney Frank’s memoir reminds me that we’re almost exact contemporaries – two white guys who’ve been watching a lot of the same stuff, in Boston and Washington, politics and culture, for 50 years, 1965 to 2015, a long, crazy and almost coherent season of American life. We’re putting a conversation here into a time capsule.

If we’d been born a century earlier, we’d be talking about the start of an awful war in Europe and remembering an awful Civil War here. Between us, we’d have spent up-close time with Lincoln, Mark Twain, R. W. Emerson and P. T. Barnum, Henry and William James, and probably Willy’s unruly student who became president, Teddy Roosevelt.

As it is, we’ve been face-to-face with M. L. King, LBJ and all the Kennedys, James Baldwin, David Halberstam, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, Dorothy Day and Margaret Marshall, Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell, Bill Bulger and Kevin White, Howie Carr and Tom Winship, Frank Sinatra and Yo-Yo Ma, Tip O’Neill and Newt Gingrich, Anthony Lewis and George McGovern, Walter Reuther and Nelson Rockefeller, Ralph Nader and Ross Perot. But we’re trying to think about history, not celebrity. I asked Barney to begin with a list – with room for disagreement – of the most over-rated figures of our time, and the most under-sung heroes of our own experience, famous or obscure. Barney – as is his wont – accentuates the positive.

Barney Frank in conversation

Podcast • February 16, 2015

Roger Cohen: this “strange amalgam of identities”

Roger Cohen’s memoir of his Lithuanian-Jewish-South African-English mother’s suicidal depression is an inquest into the damage of displacement that seeps into genes: the longing for home, the need to belong – “right up there with ...

Roger Cohen’s memoir of his Lithuanian-Jewish-South African-English mother’s suicidal depression is an inquest into the damage of displacement that seeps into genes: the longing for home, the need to belong – “right up there with love and other fundamental human instincts.” Contrarily, his own prevailing instinct has been to get out, escape – not least from “this not quite belonging” of an Oxford-educated cosmopolitan Jew in the best London circles 30 years ago. “I was drawn to otherness, to observer-dom,” he is telling me in conversation. He took up the high office of Foreign Editor at the New York Times at the age of 46, before he was an American citizen, on the dreaded day: 9.11.2001. Nowadays he is the level-headed Times columnist from everyplace ominous: Iran, Gaza, Egypt, Israel, the breadth of Europe.

In our conversation he is tracking his uneasy path from searching the “strange amalgam of identities” in the hiding places of his family history, to the strain on his considered loyalty to Israel. At the end of 2014, wrote a cautionary piece called ‘Zionism and its Discontents.’ It was classic Roger Cohen for the eloquent long-view liberalism that draws fire from major Jewish institutions in the US for criticizing Israel, and from Europeans for his essential Zionism.

Where is this going? A 9-year-old child in Gaza has seen three wars. What kind of grown-up is that child going to grow into? Is this in Israel’s interest – to have a place that is sealed off with 1.8-million human beings inside it? Can we think again about this?

Roger Cohen, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 13, 2015

Podcast • December 25, 2014

“Why, it’s Christmas”

After the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, which our mama always read to us on Christmas Eve — and maybe O. Henry’s story, “The Gift of the Magi” – I don’t know an account of ...
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 - 1881) by his great illustrator Fritz Eichenberg (1901 - 1990)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881) by his great illustrator Fritz
Eichenberg (1901 – 1990)

After the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, which our mama always read to us on Christmas Eve — and maybe O. Henry’s story, “The Gift of the Magi” – I don’t know an account of the living miracle of Christmas as penetrating, as nearly abstract, as touching or as modern as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s in his memoir of prison. The House of the Dead was the scarcely novelized account of four years (into his early thirties) at hard labor in Siberia (1849 to early 1854). Dostoevsky had been sentenced to death for seditious literary associations, but he was spared the firing squad in a letter from Tsar Nicholas, and then dispatched in shackles to his prison camp in Omsk. If nobody writes better about Christmas, surely nobody ever wrote better than our Fedya about men in confinement. In the years I coached writing at the Norfolk and Walpole prisons in Massachusetts, I always found a way to read aloud some unlabeled excerpts from The House of the Dead. And invariably hands shot up from hardened Bay Staters in the class – thieves, junkies, murderers – who’d recognized the writer instantly. “He musta been here,” they would say. Or: “I knew that guy. He left here six months ago.”

From “Christmas,” Chapter Ten of The House of the Dead.

At last it came. Quite early, before daybreak, as soon as the morning drum sounded, the wards were unlocked and the sergeant on duty who came in to count over the prisoners gave them Christmas greetings, and was greeted by them in the same way, with warmth and cordiality. After hastily saying their prayers Akim Akimitch and many of the others who had geese or suckling-pigs in the kitchen hurried off to see what was being done with them, how the roasting was getting on, where they had been put and so on. From the little prison windows blocked up with snow and ice, we could see through the darkness in both kitchens bright fires that had been kindled before daybreak, glowing in all the six ovens. Convicts were already flitting across the courtyard with their sheepskins properly put on or flung across their shoulders, all rushing to the kitchen. Some, though very few, had already been to the ‘publicans.’ They were the most impatient. On the whole, all behaved decorously, peaceably, and with an exceptional seemliness. One heard nothing of the usual swearing and quarreling. Everyone realized that it was a great day and a holy festival. Some went into other wards to greet special friends. One saw signs of something like friendship. I may mention in parenthesis that there was scarcely a trace of friendly feeling among the convicts – I don’t mean general friendliness, that was quite out of the question, I mean the personal affection of one convict for another. There was scarcely a trace of such a feeling among us, and it is a remarkable fact: it is so different from the world at large. All of us, as a rule, with very rare exceptions, were rough and cold in our behavior to one another, and this was, as it were, the accepted attitude adopted once for all.

I too went out of the ward. It was just beginning to get light. The stars were growing dim and a faint frosty haze was rising. The smoke was puffing in clouds from the kitchen chimneys. Some of the convicts I came upon in the yard met me with ready and friendly Christmas greetings. I thanked them, and greeted them in the same way. Some of them had never said a word to me till that day.

At the kitchen door I was overtaken by a convict from the military division with his sheepskin thrown over his shoulders. He had caught sight of me in the middle of the yard and shouted after me, ‘Alexandr Petrovitch, Alexandr Petrovitch!’ He was running toward the kitchen in a hurry. I stopped and waited for him. He was a young lad with a round face and a gentle expression, very taciturn with everyone; he had not spoken a word to me or taken any notice of me since I entered the prison; I did not even know his name. He ran up to me out of breath and stood facing me, gazing at me with a blank but at the same time blissful smile.

‘What is it?’ I asked wondering, seeing that he was standing and gazing at me with open eyes, was smiling but not saying a word.

‘Why, it’s Christmas,’ he muttered, and realizing that he could say nothing more, he left me and rushed into the kitchen.

I may mention here that we had never had anything to do with one another and scarcely spoke from that time till I left the prison.

Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett

Podcast • August 8, 2014

At Peking University: the Rising Generation

What I went least prepared for was the openness of Chinese people in what we call a closed society. So the last audio postcard from this trip is a 10-minute distillation of a conversation that sprang up like music to my ears in a dormitory room with five students at the venerable Peking University in Beijing. These are aspiring middle-class kids – a random sample of the top of the heap

We call ourselves the ’90s generation. The late ’90s — not so much the rising generation as the boasting generation, the blossoming generation — meaning we are about to open up ourselves and explore the outer world, just like a flower blossoming.”

Max, a student from Hong Kong at Peking University in Beijing.
2014-06-27 17.10.17

Future leaders of China, from left to right: Max, Rebecca, Flora, Nick, Payton.

What I went least prepared for was the openness of Chinese people in what we call a closed society. So the last audio postcard from this trip is a 10-minute distillation of a conversation that sprang up like music to my ears in a dormitory room with five students at the venerable Peking University in Beijing. These are aspiring middle-class kids – a random sample of the top of the heap. Nobody here is bent on being a billionaire. All voiced versions of a searching interior life. Nobody mentioned political participation as they listed their ambitions. But social idealism infuses their talk. Several volunteered that inequality – of incomes, education, opportunity – is the blight on their society, a problem their generation will have to address. None expressed the slightest confidence in ideological communism. They sounded more embarrassed than outraged by official controls on information (of which they have plenty) and expression (in which they feel individually free). They credit their government with overall effectiveness. And they all spoke comfortably of loving their country and their moment in its history.

China is searching, the China we see today is shaped by different factors: traditional Chinese civilization, and also the western culture since 1840, when Great Britain launched a trade war and broke the gate of the Qing empire. [By now] it’s another aspect of tradition… also the communist ideology… The problem for China is we lack a national philosophy. We as a people, as a nation. We lack a philosophy that supports the spiritual life of our citizens. It’s a problem in the whole country.”

Nick, a philosophy major, whom I’ll remember specially for his short list of cultural treasures for the proverbial desert island: Collected Poems of the Tang Dynasty, Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3.

There’s societal pressure, and family pressure, to do financially at least as well as your parents. That’s one of my anxieties, and a big anxiety of a lot of my friends. You’re supposed to do well and your parents have paid a lot for your education. But you don’t know what you want to do. I haven’t declared a major yet. I’m focused on finding something I really enjoy doing.

Rebecca, a rising sophomore at Carleton College in Minnesota.

I think it’s not difficult for us to find good jobs. To earn money is not important for us, we can earn so much money. The most important thing is to find ourselves, to be ourselves.

Flora, pursuing a double degree in law and Chinese literature.

I read American books, we talk about the system of American politics almost every day. America is everywhere. I want to have my graduate education in America. It’s necessary to get to know and understand America — necessary to understand the whole world. I don’t like nationalism, and I don’t like to emphasize enemies. I think we have to cooperate, but we are not genuine friends. But we have to cooperate with each other.”

Payton, who rounded up his friends for us at the University of Peking.

Special thanks to Jiang Xueqin, an activist teacher and school reformer, for introducing us on campus.

July 20, 2014

Artist in a Revolution: Ganzeer and his Wounded Cat

It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language.

 It’s a thrill to read about the graffiti genius Ganzeer in the New York Times Sunday Arts Section, and about his prominence in a big show at the New Museum in Manhattan. And it’s a chill to discover that Ganzeer is a refugee in Brooklyn now — because Egypt under military dictatorship again is not a safe place for an artist of revolution. Ganzeer’s imprint on the walls of Cairo was my epiphany in 2012 about the depth of the art and passion under the so-called Arab Spring, and the universal reach of its graphic language. So I’m re-posting that enlightening moment, and linking to a few of our conversations with Arab artists that, after so many reversals, feel still current: the novelist of The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany and the historian, Khaled FahmyMy brief season in Cairo in 2012 was also a grave crisis moment in Gaza.

CAIRO — A coin dropped yesterday as I was looking at Ganzeer‘s painting of a wounded cat in the stylish little Safarkhan Gallery on Brazil St in Zamalek. This is what I came for — the painting and the feeling it induces. Out of an Egyptian tradition of cats and calligraphy, it’s a stunning large (guess: 8′ x 4’) canvas of a cat: fur painted in red; left eye shot out and bandaged, right eye on the horizon. It’s an irresistible image of suffering and survival in a revolution. In an all-Ganzeer show just being taken down, called “The Virus is Spreading,” the cat painting is the piece I would steal. Ganzeer himself is in Berlin, doing a month’s workshop — which tells you something about the spreading of his insight and his touch. Not yet 30, he is exemplifying and teaching defiance in his young generation in the face of every establishment, though in a familiar Egyptian language. Mona Said, daughter of the gallery founder, says Ganzeer (aka Mohamed Fahmy, aka Mofa) was a painter before he was a graffiti artist, and always more humanist than painter.

Immediately, I thought, here’s a statement that will keep, or is keeping, the revolution deeply alive in the world, a current more charged than politics or journalism or social media, finding its own network and resonance. Ganzeer as I imagine him has something in common with the young rockers and rappers in the decorated Egyptian film “Microphone” about the music underground pre-revolution in Alexandria; except that Ganzeer has a much grander talent and now global reach. The musicians remind me of our own Amanda Palmer — defiant energy and confidence to “make art every day” … and then? Ganzeer reminds me more of the late Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986): “every man is a plastic artist who must determine things for himself.” Ganzeer’s work looks more considered, more beautifully executed, older, newer, more political, more universal than anything new I can think of. It’s worthy of a book project to decode this work, and find the others. Part of the fun of his work, specially this cat, is the element of old “Pharaonic” Egypt about it: the semi-sacred cat who symbolizes freedom and endurance, not to mention the Egyptian tradition of formalist painting on the walls of tombs. The words in the stylized Arabic script come from the cat, in a vernacular Egyptian expression: “One day he entertains me. The other day I’m on my own. And I can work with that.”

Ganzeer — painter, graffiti master, humanist — in Cairo. Photo Credit: Baldwin Portraits

June 20, 2014

How to Listen to Our Podcast

Getting our podcast is easy and free. No matter what internet device you are using, iPod, smartphone, PC, or another, you can get every episode of our show and listen on your own schedule. Chris Lydon hosted the first podcast, and currently we're the longest running podcast series in the world! We make every show available under a Creative Commons license, so store them, copy them, and pass them on.

Getting our podcast is easy and free. No matter what internet device you are using, iPod, smartphone, PC, or another, you can get every episode of our show and listen on your own schedule.

Chris Lydon hosted the first podcast, and currently we’re the longest running podcast series in the world. We make every show available under a Creative Commons license, so store them, copy them, and pass them on. (And we’re serious about the first podcast. Look it up.)

iTunes on Mac and Windows

The easiest way to subscribe to the Open Source podcast is through iTunes, which comes preinstalled on every Mac, and is available for download on Windows.

Click this link to visit the Open Source page in iTunes. To subscribe to the podcast, simply click the “subscribe” button under the Open Source picture on the left side of your screen. While you’re at it, we’d love if you could leave us a rating or review by clicking on the “Ratings and Reviews” tab.

Open Source podcast in iTunes

 

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On Apple’s mobile devices, there are several podcasting apps that you can use to easily subscribe to our podcast. Apple’s own ‘Podcasts’ app, available in the App Store, is free and works well, especially if you use iTunes on your computer. Once you have installed the ‘Podcasts’ app, use this link to go to the Open Source page.

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Podcast • June 17, 2014

Robin Kelley’s Transcendental Thelonious Monk

Robin Kelley‘s superb biography brings the Thelonious Monk story back from the ragged edge to the creative center of American music. And it brings my reading year to a blessedly loving, gorgeously swinging, dissonant, modernist, ...

Robin

Robin Kelley‘s superb biography brings the Thelonious Monk story back from the ragged edge to the creative center of American music. And it brings my reading year to a blessedly loving, gorgeously swinging, dissonant, modernist, and utterly one-off climactic note. There may be another jazz biography as thickly detailed, as audibly lyrical, as passionate, as thrilling as this one, but I can’t bring it to mind.

There’s a vastly detailed, fresh take here on an immortal jazz pianist and composer whose life is often remembered as freakish, at best impossibly mysterious. Not that jazz players hadn’t known from the early 1940s that young Monk was a giant, and ever afterward that those odd, distinctive Monk tunes (nearly 100 of them) are the exotic orchid-like treasures of the American song book.

But this was a man who mumbled at the keyboard, got up and danced around it onstage, showed up late and sometimes disappeared; who did time for small drug offenses and famously lost his “cabaret card” required to play in New York jazz joints. This was a man who suffered bipolar disease and finally died in 1982 in the care of the same rich European lady who’d been Charlie Parker’s last refuge almost 30 years earlier. It is an impossibly eccentric story until Robin Kelley fills in the life of an unshakeably original musician, and with endless family detail paints a fresh picture of a consistently generous friend, a revered and attentive son, father and husband, in triumph and trouble.

In this telling Monk emerges as (not least) a heroic African-American Emersonian at the keyboard. Monk’s insistence that “the piano ain’t got no wrong notes!” resonates with Emerson’s war on conformity and consistency. Monk’s stubborn, self-sacrificing attachment to his own aesthetic summons up Emerson’s “trust thyself” wisdom, and his advice that “a man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within.” “To believe your own sound,” (paraphrasing “Self-Reliance”) “… that is genius.” Monk knew.

One of Robin Kelley’s many arguments with the received wisdom on Monk is that, though he was the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem after 1941, and a cornerstone of the regeneration of jazz at mid-century, he belongs to no genre, no “period.”

I kind of break with tradition: I don’t see him as part of the bebop movement. I see his harmonic ideas as being fundamental to so-called bebop, but he wasn’t really out of that. He spent more time in the early forties hanging out in these old piano parlors, at James P. Johnson’s house, with the great stride pianists up in Harlem at that time, Clarence Profit, Willie “The Lion” Smith… He learned piano from an African-American woman who lived in his neighborhood named Alberta Simmons. Nobody’d ever heard of her until my book. She was a fabulous stride pianist. She was part of the Clef Club. She knew Eubie Blake and Willie “The Lion” and all these cats. And so, he grew up playing that and maintaining the old stride piano style because of three things.

One, they believed in virtuosity, but virtuosity that is expressed through your individual expression, not just through speed. How could you take a tune that everybody plays, like “Tea for Two,” and really make it sound like you, like your inner soul.

Two, Monk learned from these guys all the tricks that became fundamental to his playing: the bent note, for example. We say “Monk was so amazing because he could bend notes.” Well, wait a second. Listen to James P. Johnson play Mule Walk. He’s bending notes. It’s all about that. Monk learned all that from those guys, the clashing, the minor seconds, they’re playing that stuff back in the twenties.

And then, you mention Monk’s mumbling. Well, Willie “The Lion” Smith said in his own memoir, “if a piano player’s not mumbling or growling, you ain’t doing anything.” That’s old school.

What Monk did was take the oldest, rooted tradition of the piano, in Harlem, New York, all over the country. And then he combined it with a future we have yet to achieve. It’s collapsing space and time. And his whole approach to the piano is one that brings past and present and future together in one. And he had never ever left his roots as a stride pianist — all the way to the very last tune he ever played.

Robin D. G. Kelley in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 18, 2009

Podcast • June 12, 2014

Sino-American Relations: An Interactive Timeline

By Matt Ellison & Will Madaus View Full Screen With Chris heading off to China this month, we took a look back at where our two countries have been and what we’ve done for and ...

By Matt Ellison & Will Madaus

View Full Screen


With Chris heading off to China this month, we took a look back at where our two countries have been and what we’ve done for and about each other. From Isolation to Entanglement, US-Chinese relations from first contact, through war and revolution, see China through the ages in this Radio Open Source timeline.

Incorporating text sourced from the U.S. State Department’s chronology of Chinese-American relations and from the Council on Foreign Relations, we complement the facts and figures with additional media curated from around the web.

From the Archives • April 8, 2014

Cold Wars, and How to Survive Them

Ahead of our show with Elaine Scarry this week, we're reminding ourselves of how we got into the nuclear standoff called the Cold War, and how Ronald Reagan dreamed we would get out of it. With a nuclear cold war taking rhetorical shape between Israel and Iran, with Pakistan and India ever in range of the brink, it is no academic or merely historical question: how did the US and USSR get out of their four-decade staring contest without a single one of their many thousands of nuclear guns going off?

Ahead of our show with Elaine Scarry this week, we’re reminding ourselves of how we got into the nuclear standoff called the Cold War, and how Ronald Reagan dreamed we would get out of it:

The danger of a nuclear weapon being used, whether against us or against somebody else, is actually greater now than it was in the Cold War. But the big difference is that it’s only going to be one or two, and it’s not going to be five thousand or seven thousand … We have to take this very seriously, but at the same time, it’s not a Cold War scenario.

John Lewis Gaddis on Open Source

Ronald Reagan dreamed of disarmament. A final, total abandonment of nuclear weapons…

He and Gorbachev would come to Iceland, and each of them would bring the last nuclear missile from each country with them. Then they would give a tremendous party for the whole world…. The President would be very old by then and Gorbachev would not recognize him. The President would say “Hello, Mikhail.” And Gorbachev would say, “Ron, is it you?” And then they would destroy the last missile.

John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

With a nuclear cold war taking rhetorical shape between Israel and Iran, with Pakistan and India ever in range of the brink, it is no academic or merely historical question: how did the US and USSR get out of their four-decade staring contest without a single one of their many thousands of nuclear guns going off?

Richard Reeves’ revisionist appreciation of Ronald Reagan, subtitled “The Triumph of Imagination,” compounds the impression in Gaddis’ history that part of the answer was Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood intuition that the picture of two cowboys each pointing 10,000 six-guns at each other — forever — made for a lousy screenplay. The script needed a doctor, Reagan realized. Around the same time Mikhail Gorbachev remembered saying to his wife, Raisa, “We can’t go on living like this.”

Gaddis writes that to break the human habit of escalating violence, and of using all the tools that worked: “It took visionaries — saboteurs of the status quo — to widen the range of historical possibility.”

The heroes of his story are: Pope John Paul II, who “set the pattern by rattling the authorities” throughout the Soviet bloc. Margaret Thatcher, “who relished being tougher than any man” in reviving the reputation of capitalism in the world. Ronald Reagan, who used his theatrical skills to rebuild confidence at home, to spook Brezhnev and enlist Gorbachev. And Gorbachev himself, who put his private instincts ahead of the party line in softening communism’s emphasis on the class struggle and its old claims of historical infallibility.

But most of the other players in the last half-century — including Truman after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Stalin and Eisenhower and most assuredly Reagan — came to realize, each in his own epiphany, that the damned nukes were un-usable.

The lesson among all of us Cold War survivors, Gaddis writes, was that “war itself — at least major wars fought between major states — had become a health hazard, and therefore an anachronism.”

First of my questions, awaiting yours: do the nuclear players and wannabes on the 21st Century stage know the futility of those weapons as well as, say, Reagan and Stalin did?

Second question, especially for Richard Reeves, who recruited me for the New York Times in the late 1960s: as Ronald Reagan’s reputation is revalued upward, what needs to be said of Reagan’s worst enemies in the Republican power elite (figures like Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger) who envisioned “limited” nuclear conflicts but successfully labeled Reagan for most of his career as the “extremist.”

And which of those Republican forebears — Rockefeller’s imperial personification of oil power and Wall Street, and Ronald Reagan’s cowboy populism — is the true ancestor of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd that rules our roost today?

John Lewis Gaddis

• Robert A. Lovett Professor of History, Yale University
• Author, The Cold War: A New History

Richard Reeves

Journalist and Presidential BiographerVisiting Professor,Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern CaliforniaAuthor, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination

From the Archives • March 31, 2014

Speaking of Music Again: Oliver Sacks

We've been contemplating the mysteries of music over the past few weeks, since our conversations with Gunther Schuller and Richard Powers. Perhaps the essential question here is what neuroscience is contributing to the delicious mystery of music. Will any discovery in the brain circuitry of music trump Proust's reflections on the experience of sound?

We’ve been contemplating the mysteries of music over the past few weeks, since our conversations with Gunther Schuller and Richard Powers. What makes a piece of music “great”? It can’t just be revolutionary rhythms or technical difficulty. From where does that inexplicable effect of music on our emotions come?
proust

The andante had just ended on a phrase filled with a tenderness to which I had entirely surrendered. There followed, before the next movement, a short interval during which the performers laid down their instruments and the audience exchanged impressions. A duke, in order to show that he knew what he was talking about, declared: “It’s a difficult thing to play well.” Other more agreeable people chatted for a moment with me. But what were their words, which like every human and external word left me so indifferent, compared with the heavenly phrase of music with which I had just been communing? … I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communication between souls. It is like a possibility that has come to nothing; humanity has developed along other lines, those of spoken and written language. But this return to the unanalysed was so intoxicating that, on emerging from that paradise, contact with more or less intelligent people seemed to me of an extraordinary insignificance.

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: The Captive, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, page 260 in Volume III of the Vintage edition, 1982.

OliversacksMusic uniquely among the arts is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly. It needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him. [Henry Purcell’s opera, from 1689] Everyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia, p. 300.

I was always doubly tantalyzed by music: first of all by its patterns, its symmetries, its proportions, its mathematical perfection and abstractness; and and second by the excruciating pleasure which it could produce, and the sweet pain which was beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond expression by anything else…

Oliver Sacks, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Cambridge Forum, November 5, 2007

As Paul Elie argued elegantly in his Slate review of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, there seem to be two Oliver Sackses. In our conversation, we welcomed both the observant clinical neurologist and the patient with 70-plus years of soaring, passionate musical memories:

Language of the heart, and language of souls. There’s part of me which sort of rebels against words like the heart and the soul and transcendence, and yet, and yet, one can’t avoid them. Interestingly, Williams James never uses the term ‘soul’ in The Principles of Psychology, but he continually used it in conversation and correspondence and of course he uses it, it’s central, in The Varieties of Religious Experience

I had a dream the other night. In dreams one escapes from the shackles of one’s own reason and reductionism. And in my dream I dreamt some Fauré; I didn’t know what it was, though when I woke up I realized it was his Requiem. But this in fact went with a vision of star nurseries, the sort of thing which the Hubble reveals and galaxies being formed. I don’t like words like ‘the beyond’ or ‘eternal’ but maybe one can’t avoid them. I may soften up here, but I’m not sure what to say…. Again, my feet are … I’m narrowly, childishly planted in the clinical. I can’t talk about transcendence, and galazies. I think of my patients, you know, who on the whole do not speak in cosmic terms.

Oliver Sacks, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Cambridge Forum, November 5, 2007

Perhaps the essential question here is what neuroscience (still ragingly conflicted about, for starters, the place of music in our evolutionary history) is contributing to the delicious mystery of music. Will any discovery in the brain circuitry of music trump Proust’s reflections on the experience of sound?