Monday, May 10, 2010

Seany Time

By Joel Marks

Sometimes we wonder how we became the way we are. Was it nature or nurture that made me come to love the same music my mother loved? Now that I've had the experience of raising a child of my own – that is to say, my stepson -- some of the mystery has been resolved for me. Sean’s musical talent probably came from his parents, but at least some of his taste will have come from me.

I think it began when my mother died. I retrieved my LP collection and old KLH phonograph that had been stored at home. The KLH was perfect because it did not skip no matter how much you bounced. And bounce we did, Sean, since your introduction to art music was as an athletic activity. I knew you would want to be moving and not just sitting and listening.

Do you remember? -- Every weekday night, after dinner and doing the dishes, it was "Seany Time." These were some of the most blessed moments of my life. Do you know which one was the best for me? -- when you wanted me to carry you in my outstretched arms while we listened to your "flying music.” (This was "Something's Coming" from West Side Story.) You were stretched out like Superboy. We “flew” together around and around the living room, looking down at the grain of the carpet as if it were trees or clouds far far below. Sean, you were totally into that music, and so was I. We shared the rhythm of it, the imagination. We were one!

The music you especially liked was music we could run to ... the more frenetic the better. Remember how we would chase each other from the living room to the dining room and through the kitchen and up the landing and back into the living room, faster and faster? That was Prokofiev, either the frenzied first movement of the Third Piano Sonata or the magnificent first movement of the First Piano Concerto. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (first movement) was another favorite.

You also had a deep and mysterious side. How many times we sat inside the "boat" you made of the couch and pillows, lights off in the room, peering out into the gloomy darkness (sometimes with a flashlight), waiting for the appearance of the sea monsters. (That was Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.) Then they would suddenly attack while we tried desperately to fight them off. Other times it would be the approach of a mighty typhoon, roiling the waters, clashing thunder, forcing us to hold on for dear life. (That was Liszt's Totentantz.)

You showed talent on your mother's (actually, her mother’s) somewhat-the-worse-for-wear piano at a very early age. Therefore when my mother died I decided to have her Steinway grand moved to our place. She had been a composer and a pianist. Her spirit seemed at once to enter into you. From upstairs I would hear you picking out tunes by ear and creating your own. "This is a miracle," I would think, holding back the tears. I was determined to have you begin lessons with the perfect teacher I knew. Sean, I'm so proud of you: You've kept it up.

I was also eager to bring you to concerts. You became acquainted with the extraordinary musical resources of nearby Yale University (as my mother used to take me to Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center). You first heard Amahl and the Night Visitors there, and Peter and the Wolf (that night the high point for you was after the concert when you got to swing on a tire hanging from a tree in the college courtyard).

And do you remember the Yale student at the "Speed and Fear" concert who played the thrilling third movement of Prokofiev's Seventh Piano Sonata, then jumped on to the piano bench and then into the audience right next to you?

We went to several concerts in the large Woolsey Hall, where we would sometimes sit in the very last row in the upper balcony, and other times in the very first row of the orchestra. Do you remember when the incredibly fat lady was playing the breathtaking cadenza of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto … and we had to slink out right beneath the piano and then up the aisle, facing hundreds of people in the audience … because you had to go to the bathroom!

(Woolsey Hall is also where I took you some evenings to rollerblade in the courtyard with the Yalies. Always music went with moving for you, Sean.)

So when you are an adult, if you find yourself attracted to “classical” music of a certain sort, this is probably why. This is exactly how it began, Sean. I know … I was there.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

A Funny Thing about Consciousness

by Joel Marks

Published in Philosophy Now, issue No. 44, January/February 2004, p. 35

My local newspaper recently switched from a black-and-white format to color for the daily comics. That is quite an innovation. For my whole half-century-plus of existence, color had been reserved for the Sunday comics section. For a child and, generalizing from personal experience, for many an habituated adult, seeing that journalistic tome wrapped in tinted drawings has been a weekly source of delight. So some marketing genius has now got the idea to spread the joy to the six other days.

I am not amused. Call me a curmudgeon who is set in his ways, but I see no good in the change. The appeal of the daily comics was quite apart from their artwork; instead they -- the good ones -- gave us a daily dose of wit. We are used to seeing through them, as it were; there are characters, jokes, ideas. Now our attention has been drawn to their superficial aspect, and there they are found lacking.

But it hit me with a jolt the other day that a deep metaphysical significance might also be intimated. The materialist project, according to which we are nothing but physical objects of a certain sort, maintains that we can do quite well without consciousness, thank you very much. So wouldn't that suggest that consciousness is just like that superfluous, indeed officious, color that has now been imposed on the funny pages?

I'll take that more slowly. It is obvious that we are physical beings. But are we also more than that? As I related in an earlier column about the psychologists James J. and Eleanor J. Gibson, my own "conversion" into a philosopher came about when I discovered consciousness. I honestly do not know how many of my readers know what I am talking about (and that is relevant to my theme), but simply put I am referring to what I experience when I enter a dark room and turn on the lights. Contrast that to what we would normally imagine to be the interior life of a robot: It could come into a dark room and flick the light switch, then light would fill the room; but there would be no corresponding filling of the robot's being with light. Indeed, there is no darkness in the robot's being either: It is simply not conscious.

When I speak of the light and darkness of interior being, I am speaking metaphorically. But the materialist would caution that I am in danger of taking the metaphor literally, of believing that there is something in existence that is not physical light or darkness, and yet which is not just brain cells either. To me (at least the me who was a nascent philosopher) it was obvious -- really, the most obvious fact in my new philosophical world, and the most marvelous -- that the light of consciousness was neither physical light nor neural matter. After all, I could sometimes still experience it in a darkened room or with my eyes shut (as when dreaming of a lighted room), and there was nothing corresponding to it in appearance beneath my skull (nobody peering inside would have seen a light shining in there ... unless they used a flashlight [Cf. instant water: Just add water]!).

Now, a wizened if not yet wise philosopher, I see so clearly how question-begging that argument is. If the light and darkness, and the interior being itself, are all metaphorical, then their literalness could be anything: even dull grey brain cells!

This business about the new color comics only brings home the point. You see, life went on merrily enough without that color. Indeed, I have suggested that the color is a nuisance, a distraction. Similarly might we not suppose that a robot or android could go about its tasks without a hint of "light" or consciousness? If so, it seems a small stretch to suggest that we ourselves could do so ... in fact, do do so, until some philosophical bozo (or impressionist painter?) happens upon this phantasmic bauble and becomes bedazzled by it.

Furthermore, do we not positively trip over our own feet when we do become aware of consciousness? Who will be the better dancer: the one who moves, or the one who thinks about the moves? Isn't this the meaning of: "You can't learn to ski from a book"? Isn't this what "The Zen of ..." is all about? Become the bow, become the arrow. Do, be, don't think. Do-be-do-be-do.

This is also just what J.J. Gibson said. The title of one of his books -- The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems -- was intended to convey the idea that "sensation" is irrelevant to perception. The balance sense was a favorite example: Although it is just as essential to our functioning as any of the "five senses," it tends to go about its work without invoking consciousness, without our taking notice of it in feeling or sensation. There does not seem to be anything corresponding to light or color or sound or taste or smell or touch to which we need or even can attend when trying to maintain our orientation to gravity. But if we did not perceive its direction, we could not maintain posture or move in a coordinated fashion. (It is only when the system malfunctions that we sense it, as when we become dizzy.)

Ah yes, I am aware of possible objections to my remarks. For example, it may only be certain types of consciousness that are useless or meddlesome, and even then maybe only in certain types of situations; thus, verbal consciousness may often interfere with playing the piano, but a sensitivity to tone and touch could be essential, and verbal thoughts may similarly inform poetic imagery (and writing good "Moral Moments"!). I could also be confusing self-consciousness with consciousness per se. Meanwhile, the gravity sense may be relatively unobtrusive only because it has one simple job: to ascertain which way is down. Even so, a devotee could probably develop a sensibility to equilibrium and an adept describe its phenomenology. Finally, consciousness could be totally physically constituted but still considered to exist for all that.

But those blasted new comics have at least got me thinking that consciousness could be more epiphenomenal than it is the real deal, and hence we ourselves be ... laughing matter.