wisdom channels

When I was 15, Led Zeppelin was my favorite band. Zepplin's first album was released before I was born, so obviously I regarded the music as ancient wisdom and Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones as revered elders. Today "Good Times, Bad Times" comes up on my iPod shuffle– In the days of my youth I was told what it means to be a man/ Now I've reached that age I try to do all those things the best I can— and instead I think that Plant was in his early twenties when he sang that. So perhaps I was overly naive or maybe I am being hyperbolic when I say I regarded Zeppelin as wisdom back then. It does seem more than ironic to hold up this particular band of wild rockers as wise. 

On the other hand, if there is wisdom there, then it came through them rather than from them, right?

You pick up a guitar, and you discover an object with a powerful lineage. It doesn't just tell you its secrets. It takes years to learn, and maybe you invent your own "sound" but at the same time you know that you are channeling centuries, millennia even, of sound. Zeppelin takes up the blues, folk, and 60s rock, but of course each of those has a deeper history. Each of these are withdrawing objects that we encounter. Learning to play music, as I did when I was a teen (and now have lost), requires a particular kind of encounter with the other. It demands bending your body to the will of the object: the frets, the strings, the keys, etc. I am reminded here of evolutionary psychology and the invention of the needle. The needle, as it is argued, is one of the earliest tools that was not simply an extension of the body's operation (e.g. the way a club is an extension of the arm). The needle demanded a new set of operations from the body, a new dexterity. On an individual level, learning music is like that as well. But it is more than dexterity, of course. You have to feel it. As a consumer of music, we all feel what we hear. As a musician though, it is more/other than that. In playing an instrument, you feel the music in your hands and body as readily as you hear it. You're building new channels in your mind as you accustom your body and senses to the demands of music.

As such, when you play the blues, it's not just you. It's your body and mind attuned to the affective, cognitive and physical demands of music, and the blues coming through you. And it's not just when the instrument is in your hands. The changes in your mind don't go on and off; they are with you all the time. You live, eat, and breathe music. The instrument/object mediates the world. A train, rush hour traffic, neighbors arguing, conversations in a crowded restaurant, a walk in the woods: all music. So then you listen to Zeppelin (if you're me or whatever band) and you experience this affective sense of connection, of a wisdom, a sharing. But it's not just you and the song or you and the band. It's a whole network that resonates, going back millennia, to that first, prehistorical, perhaps even nonhuman moment of the blues: a historical genre that gives name to the affective response to a fundamental ontological condition, objects withdraw.

Clearly we must recognize that writing is the same way. We attune ourselves to our instruments. We live through them, see through them. Then we perform these careful balancing acts. Musical performance may be about genre but rhythm, pitch, harmony and such are deeper than that. Writing too has its genres but also its deeper practices. But you don't just learn those on some explicit level. You have to experience them through attunement. Perhaps that is what is so difficult to understand about learning to write. As a musician, even at a fairly beginner level, you can experience the joys of jamming, of losing oneself in the music, of being part of something bigger. Without that experience I'm not sure why you'd play music or how you'd know you were on the right track. 

Writing is exactly the same way. But for some reason it's harder to feel. Maybe (obviously) because it is mostly a solitary act. The "jamming" is vicarious. But it is still there, just as it is there for the songwriter, sitting alone and composing. Without that feeling, none of the rest of writing makes sense. If you can't figure out how writing can connect you to something other than yourself, the way the blues connected some 20-something Brits to something profound, then you're lost in a world of office memos and Muzak intended to anesthetize rather than aestheticize. Which is not to say that all writing as to be "poetic" or "aesthetic" in conventional literary terms, or that it needs to eschew the political or purposeful or rhetorical. Not at all! The point here is not so much about what the text will do in the world but rather the activity of composing. And that activity requires feeling, and it requires an attunement of feeling.

It is through such feeling, moreso than citation, that one channels wisdom and knowledge. It is through such feeling, moreso than an outline, that one structures an argument. And it is through such feeling, moreso than a guidebook, that one discovers a style.

Unfortunately such learning is not especially compatible with the drive-by innoculation model of writing instruction we "prefer" institutionally.

 

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