Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Dead White Men

I’m a huge advocate of expanding the base of who is worthy to inspire the better parts of ourselves. For a long time, I’ve been a fan of poets Basho, Rumi, Hafiz, Mirabel, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver, novelists Zora Neale Hurston, Rohinton Mistry, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Khaled Hosseini, Lisa See and more. Then there’s the long list of African-American jazz musicians—Louis, Duke, Ella, Billie, Bird, Diz, Monk, etc.— and scores of West African, Brazilian, Bulgarian, Cuban, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese musicians whose names are not known in the West. Not to mention Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and the like. 

But to be perfectly honest, most of the deeply influential artists and thinkers in my life who continue to refresh me come from that now unpopular lineage of Dead White Men. Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles Dickens, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Bill Evans, Joseph Campbell and the still-living Keith Jarrett and Gary Snyder. Almost daily, my fingers rove through the prodigious intellect and imagination of Bach and elevate me to a higher plane. And most every Fall my whole adult life, I’ve read and re-read and re-read again a Charles Dickens novel. 

But I seem to have taken a break these last three or four years, so decided to dive back in with Nicholas Nickleby. Having just finished A Man Called Ove with author Fredrik Backman’s sparse, simple and effective prose, it was a bit of a transition to get back into the opaque, long sentences of Dickens. But once in the groove, the rewards were—and are— many. Sentences that just make me sit up in admiration and wonder. Little things like: 

“Mr. Squeers appearance was not prepossessing. He had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favor of two. …”

Brilliant! And then there is this passage revealing both everything I’ve tried to correct in our view of music and affirm in its power. A group of strangers are thrown together by a carriage accident and awaiting rescue. One turns to another passenger and asks if he can sing.

“I cannot indeed,” replied the gentleman.
“That’s a pity,” said the owner of the good-humored countenance. “Is there nobody here who can sing a song to lighten the time?”
 The passengers one and all protested that they could not; that they wished they could, that
they couldn’t remember the words of anything without the book…

The passengers asked the man who brought it up to sing and he replied:

“I would if I could,” said he of the good-tempered face, “for I hold that in this, as in all other cases where people who are strangers to each other are thrown unexpectedly together, they should endeavor to render themselves as pleasant for the joint sake of the little community as possible.”

There you have it. People already in the 1800’s limited by their book-dependence, unmindful of their musical heritage, but aware of music’s power to bring together a little community and pass the time in a most pleasant way. How did Dickens know what my life’s mission was to be?

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