Sunday, April 19, 2009

Inner Peace and Striving

Some random thoughts, not yet polished. The other day I enjoyed a show called “Classic Albums” on VH-1. The album discussed was Cream’s Disraeli Gears. An interviewee mentioned that the song “We’re Going Wrong” has a chord progression that makes you feel that you’re climbing and striving, but never reaching.

I thought of that the other day while listening to Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself.” That song’s much simpler chord progression (two chords repeated during the rap) is even more frustrating in its sense of climbing but not reaching.

These favorite songs, in turn, made me think of another, more epic piece of music, Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which I’ve not listened to for quite a while, mostly because of the time commitment of appreciating Wagner’s very long musical dramas. In his book The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2001), Bryan Magee writes (pages 208-209):

“The first chord of Tristan, known simply as ‘the Tristan chord’, remains the most famous single chord in the history of music. It contains within itself not one but two dissonances, thus creating within the listener a double desire, agonizing in its intensity, for resolution. The chord to which it then moves removes one of the dissonances but not the other, thus providing resolution-yet-not-resolution. And so the music proceeds: in every chord-shift something is resolved but not everything; each discord is resolved in such a way that another is preserved or a new one created, so that in every moment the musical ear is being partially satisfied yet at the same time frustrated. And this carries on throughout a whole evening. Only at one point is all discord resolved, and that is on the final chord of the work…”

Later Magee writes of Parsifal (page 269):

“All the characters except Parsifal … have been looking for fulfilment [sic] or redemption in the wrong place, therefore would never have found it except through him. Kundry has sought it not through loving but through being loved, or through being needed. Klingsor has aspired to it through power. Amfortas has grasped for it in death. The knights of the order have been hoping to achieve it by belonging to a society whose membership and vitality are in fact declining, and whose rituals, conducted by someone unworthy to do so, are a mockery. Only Parsifal understands that redemption is not to be found though observances and not through any form of self-gratification either, but through its opposite, namely denial of the will in all its forms…”

Perhaps that is why, in Parsifal, musical resolution is found, still toward the drama’s conclusion but not all the way to the last chord, but rather, just after Parsifal’s healing of Amfortas, the point where the frustrated desires of the characters, including the title character, are finally fulfilled through Parsifal’s self-sacrificing love.

I think of all this, I suppose, because of the difficulty of achieving that relinquishment of desire, for even our most praiseworthy, unselfish goals in our lives are at least partly characterized by striving and the hope for personal success. In our world religion class, recently, we discussed the Buddhist goal of nirvana: only through eliminating desire do we reach ultimate peace. But to achieve that—in our Western way of thinking—it seems necessary to give up a great deal that is important to us, like a driving passion toward fulfillment of personal goals.

I well remember how dissatisfied I felt when I first heard the Tristan und Isolde prelude (in the classic Wilhelm Furtwaengler recording). Without knowing the background of the music or seeing a score, I felt emotionally frustrated by the music. Yet I also loved the music: it drew me along with its continual resolution-discord development. Similarly, in a different way, to the two songs I first mentioned. Many of us gain a different sense of inner peace because we are pressing on to a goal. We are drawn along by something greater than ourselves--something to which we've sacrificed other things out of love and devotion.

Philippians 3: 12-14 comes to mind as an example of peace gained within dissatisfaction and striving:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

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