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Bach, Religion, and What To Do With Yourself | Sam Debatin | Sat 29 Jan 2022 12:19:35 PM EST

Should you be a monk? I keep thinking about that, and though I have a strong desire to self isolate and simply think and reconfigure, I have a hard time wanting to abandon my normal life. And yet, I am continually called by the peace and reflection that would be required of a monastic lifestyle. Imagine -- quiet rooms, waking at sunrise, no phones, no over saturated stimulation.1 Where would you even do that though? Because as much as I love the aesthetic of a Catholic seminary, I don't think I could feasibly invest myself so wholeheartedly into being a true Catholic.

On that note though, I have been reading the Old Testament - or more accurately, the Hebrew Bible. Reading is good for you, as is writing. Time and time again I find myself returning to the values of this website as fundamental to what I believe.2 Text is important, reading is important. Images are deceptive and treacherous, and yet still powerful reminders of humanity. Perhaps it is right that some knowledge is limited. Christine Hayes, a leading scholar of the Old Testament and Talmudic studies, won't let her children read the bible. In Eco's The Name of the Rose, knowledge of certain books is treated as not suitable for young learners, leaving those texts to be interpreted by more wise and learned master scholars. While in some ways Eco's book is a critique on this stance, I think there is some truth to that statement.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a puritanical stance on knowledge, but I think of all the texts and works of art that have been so wrongly misinterpreted. People simply aren't ready for certain texts before a point in their learning. I really don't know where to draw that line, or whether that is a line to be drawn at all. Learning takes time. Or so I think? I haven't really done enough myself to know. What I do know is we all need time for reflection and meditation, and I don't think that nearly anybody is doing that. Blame the internet if you want, although that's a problem that is related to too many other things. How do you have the time to reflect if you are working all day? I sometimes think mail carriers must be some of the wisest people on the planet.

If he isn't already, Bach will soon be a subject of reiteration on this blog. While I have stated already that I am not sure about my own religious practices, Bach is the closest I have found to evidence for a divine order of the world. Whatever he was doing channeled something more intricate and deeper than most people could ever imagine. Sitting and listening to Bach alone is an act of contemplation in itself. The emotional complexity and depth with which he composes is somehow deeper and more intimate than any Romantic artist I have ever found. Sure, Chopin draws out the heartbreak and the day to day emotions, but there's something existential about Bach in the way that he draws out repetition and reflection and thematic development. I have no good words to describe him nor do I really have the musical vocabulary and experience to accurately pick out what is happening, so I will leave it at that.3

My overall point being, I don't think I believe in art that is not religious. I actually don't like the word spiritual, although perhaps it would be a more apt descriptor for what I believe, so religious it is. Because it is not simply a personal connection, it is a sense that the complexity and inner machinations of his art speak to something broader than our own personal spiritual experience. I feel a connection not just with a sense of a higher being, but with all those who have experiences. Cheesy? For sure. True? Undeniably.

And for that reason I think I am sometimes compelled towards religious experiences -- it is not simply a place of personal reflection, ideally a place of communal elevation. It is not enough to be personally spiritually enlightened, but rather it is necessary that those around you are working towards similar goals. In an ideal world, this monastic community would be the university, and at times in history, I think we have seen that. But the university today is nothing more than a career machine, with perhaps a couple of classes that bring about a sense of something greater. I have learned during my time in university, for sure, but it does not feel like I have learned as a group. There is no sense of a cohort, no sense that those around me are reaching similar conclusions, and no spaces that actively encourage discussion. I want to talk about my thoughts without feeling like it is an imposition to others. And sure, I have friends who are interested in this too, but damn it if it isn't hard to socially organize when none of the institutions you are a part of seem to make that any kind of priority. I feel constantly as though I am wasting my time, and yet I know it is counterproductive to think that way. One week at a time, as my mentor told me last week, but that only seems to get me so far. Thus, I'm back at square one -- I need a monastery.

Maybe I'll win the lottery and be able to spend my days contemplating, but even that seems undesirable. What about the thrill of drama, of vices, of vast emotional highs and lows? Are these truly devilish vices, or are they part of a human experience? Should I be pious or nihilistic? Hmm.

Something tells me there is more to be learned in the nature of languages. I spend too much time thinking about words and talking to not know more about what it is the words are doing. Words feel translucent at best, hiding something greater.

Either way, take a minute and listen to some Bach. Preferably the Partitas (Bb has recently been my favorite). Maybe after graduation I'll ditch my devices except for a laptop and just maintain my life around books and music. They seem comfortable and less treacherous than images, and certainly less so than screens.

1. As a side note, I think I am born to be a watchman. I wake at the smallest noise, and would do very well guarding a primeval campfire.
2. See post here. Also see this post for a good breakdown of how to use images.
3. I really hate writing about art. Words don't do it good, that's why it's art. But that's another post. Why am I an art history major again?