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    PloughCast #30 Liberal Arts for Everyone, Plus Q & A

    Why We Make Music, Part 6

    By Susannah Black Roberts, Peter Mommsen and Zena Hitz

    April 26, 2022
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    • John Wilson, Jr.

      I wonder to what extent movies have reduced the power of music, made it background noise, or habituated us to do that. I think it was Bernard Herman, not sure, but whoever it was taught film composition at UCLA. He played the opening sequence to “Citizen Kane” without the soundtrack and then played the soundtrack without the visual. He then played them both together and then suggested that neither the music by itself or the visuals by themselves were as interesting as the both of them together. That suggests that the music and the visuals were created to go together. As a result, it seems that growing up with movies we were being trained to think of music as background, got used to music as background, and that has affected our listening practices when it comes to music. There is a lot of busy-ness in movies that music accentuates. I wonder if people listened to music as background as much before the movies.

    Zena Hitz discusses liberal arts and the Catherine Project, then Peter and Susannah answer your questions.

    Listen and subscribe to The PloughCast

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    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah talk with friend of the pod Zena Hitz, author of Lost in Thought, about the state of the liberal arts, how those not in academia can continue their humanist education, and the Catherine Project, her new organization dedicated to helping people do this.

    What is the value of the “great books?” Why these books and not others? How do we read closely, and why is it important to do that in community? Zena, Peter and Susannah address all of these questions.

    Then Peter and Susannah tackle listener questions, facing #Imaginegate head-on. Other listener questions include the question of bad music: can music make you worse? Also, the importance of silence.

    • I: Zena Hitz: The Catherine Project
    • II: Zena Hitz: Liberal Arts for Everybody
    • III: Listener Questions: Music’s Power
    • IV: Listener Questions: Attentiveness and Silence

    Recommended Reading

    Transcript

    Section I: Zena Hitz: The Catherine Project

    Susannah Black: Welcome back to The PloughCast. I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief at Plough. On this final episode of this season of The PloughCast, we’ll talk with Zena Hitz of the Catherine Project, and then we’ll be taking your questions.

    Susannah Black: And now, welcome to Zena Hitz. Zena is a tutor in the Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and is the author most recently of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of Intellectual Life. Her most recent project is the Catherine Project. And that is what she’s here to talk about with us today. Welcome, Zena. Do you want to just give us the very basics? What is this thing? How did it come to be?

    Zena Hitz: So the Catherine Project is an online education institution. It’s meant to provide high-quality education connected to great books to anyone. We wanted to take advantage of the capacity of something like Zoom or video conferencing to connect individuals with one another.

    Online education has, in general, been a matter of mass education. You break things down into some content and then you promulgate it as widely as you can. And there’s some good things you can do that way, but the type I’m interested in has always been personal. It’s been forming communities where you talk about the fundamental questions, the deep questions with one another.

    It was in the summer of 2020 when we were in lockdown and I was struggling to find a way to do my emergency Zoom teaching for my regular day job at St. John’s. And one of the things I noticed was that small groups or one-on-one conversations worked better than larger ones. And in a way that there was less of a difference than one might think between talking to a person, a very small group or one-on-one over Zoom or over video conference, and talking to them in person. So, that stuck somewhere in the back of my mind.

    And then, of course, when Lost in Thought came out, ever since then, I’ve started to get a fair number of letters and emails or Twitter direct messages from people who really are taken with this type of education that I described in the book, this type of activity of learning for its own sake.

    These people would write to me and they would ask me for advice as to how they could live the kind of activities I talk about in the book, given that they weren’t graduate students, they weren’t undergraduates, they maybe were full-time caregivers. They may have had young kids at home. But they wanted to take what spare time they had to do this.

    Somehow those two things came together and I realized that it would be very possible to connect people who wanted to learn together, and to find some volunteers to help lead them in conversations, or to lead them in small group tutorials, which is something else that we do.

    And that was the Catherine Project. I ran it on no budget out of my Twitter account for a year. We’ve grown enormously. We now have a mailing list of 1500 people. We have, in our groups right now, about 300 readers. That’s not counting the people that we’ve served in the past. So there’s more or less unlimited demand for this kind of thing. And the question is, for us, is just how to meet that need, that desire that people have as best we can while keeping the spirit of the thing, and the character of the thing.

    Peter Mommsen: Which is that in-person teaching that is the genesis of the idea. And it is amazing that that desire is out there. What are some of the texts, the books that you interact with?

    Zena Hitz: One component is that person-to-person conversation, the other component is great books and great traditions. Every culture has its own wisdom tradition. And these are often, especially these days, written down. There are conversations that take place over centuries.

    And the advantage of learning from books is that the books equalize the students in the classroom, and the teachers and the students. I get asked a lot, what’s a great book? It’s a book that can do that. It’s a book that can teach someone at any level.

    So, I can sit down with my freshmen at St. John’s and read a Greek tragedy, and maybe I’ve read it a dozen times; they’re reading it for the first time. It’s sufficiently rich, and sufficiently deep, and sufficiently complex that I can keep learning about it even after many years. And they are learning about it, even though they’re just beginners. So you can develop these types of conversations that are collaborative, that are spontaneous, that are alive, where everyone is learning. So that’s why we use books as well as conversation in our work.

    We’ve done particularly well with literature. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are something that we always have managed to offer. Virgil, and Ovid, so Latin literature, and Dante. We also have done a fair amount of philosophy, Plato, Kierkegaard. And right now we have two groups on Confucius, on Chinese philosophy, Confucius and Mencius. The background of the volunteers is in what goes by the name of the Western tradition, the European tradition. But we think of a tradition as any group of excellent books that’s connected with a tradition. So there’s a Chinese tradition, and an Islamic tradition, and an Indian tradition, and various other traditions. And we’re open to teaching any of them. We are just dependent on our volunteers to come to us with the willingness to lead groups on them.

    Susannah Black: Both your book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, and available wherever you get books, I guess, and also the Catherine Project have this premise, which is that there’s something called an intellectual life that humans, by nature, seem to have a hunger for. And obviously, the demand for the Catherine Project and the response to it seems to at least somewhat back that up. Do you want to talk about your experience with that fact of human nature?

    Zena Hitz: I began writing about intellectual life and great books in the liberal arts about seven years ago, about 2015. And I did so because there was a lot of conversation in the magazines about it, “the crisis in the humanities,” as it was called. But all of the writing was defensive and put in terms that seemed to me alien from the kind of thing it was.

    So it was for some time the main strategy of people like me or people who worked in jobs like mine, humanist academics, to say that these studies build your critical thinking skills. And they’re great training for designing apps in Silicon Valley. And they’re great for Wall Street and you can make a lot of money, and you can do all kinds of high-prestige work if you study something like philosophy or something like literature. And it’s not that that’s wrong. I think that these kinds of studies can help you do all kinds of things, but it wasn’t the reason why any of us ever got into these things.

    So, the reason that we all got into it was because, and I think it’s very general, even if it’s not always cultivated, there’s a natural human desire to know, and to understand, and to think about things. To think about the basics of human life, the nature of the family, the nature of community, the nature of political organizations, the nature of God, the nature of nature itself. So, birds, and trees, and oceans, and chemicals, and the way that things move. These are part of what it means to be a human being, to think about these things. And there’s a testament to that in the fact that, as I say, every culture that we know of has a wisdom tradition.

    They have a tradition of thinking and contemplating what a human being is, and their place in the world. And we have this beautiful thing in the United States and in Europe, and in Europe-descended communities where there are these books in which these things have been collected, and preserved, and studied. And they have been shown, time and time again, to be educators of people, not in a way that indoctrinates, or tells them what to think, but just to help people develop their capacity to reflect on these fundamental questions of human existence. When I first started out, I thought that I was being a bit romantic. I thought, “Of course, I think that everyone has this desire.” But since my writing has come out, and since the response to the book, and since seeing people come into the Catherine Project, I get more and more confirmation every day that in fact, I was right, it is a natural human desire and there’s way more of it out there than our institutions are responding to. So there’s a real need, not just for the Catherine Project, but for organizations like it to just provide opportunities to think, and to study. Not to get a better job, not to necessarily advance yourself, but to just, to become a richer, fuller human being.

    Susannah Black: We have this vision of education, even a liberal arts education, as this thing that you do for four years at the end of high school, which is kind of like an intellectual finishing school. And then once you’re done with that, then you are done with that part of your life. And then you go on to whatever other hobbies or, employment, or relationships, or whatever you may have.

    But the fundamental insight, I think, of the tradition that you’re talking about, that came to you through St. John’s College in Annapolis – I went to Amherst, it was a similar kind of thing – Is that there are these two principles. One is that all humans have the desire to know, like you see something going on, you want to know what’s going on. You want to know explanations for things. This is what drives journalism. This is what drives science. This is what drives all the things when your curiosity gets piqued. And that curiosity can be both for the external world, and for the internal structures of the world. And then the other aspect, which I really think that the Catherine Project and your book both seem to me to be getting at very well, is the idea that the philosophy begins in wonder, it begins in a contemplation of beauty of some kind. And then getting curious about that beauty, and getting curious about your own response to that beauty.

    And these are such fundamental human experiences that you start having as soon as you’re conscious, basically. And that I think it can get beat out you by a difficult life or a life that doesn’t seem to encourage that. But it can also get beat out of you by an education that is attempting to address that officially. Do you want to talk about the unofficialness of the Catherine Project? You guys don’t offer any certifications or anything.

    Peter Mommsen: I guess neither did Socrates.

    Susannah Black: Neither did Socrates!

    Zena Hitz: No credits, no degrees.

    Part of that is that we wanted to keep our organization simple. And we thought, given that there’s a natural desire to know, there can be also a natural sense of accountability. If people want this, they’ll sign up for it. If they like it, they’ll stay and do more. And if they don’t, they won’t. There’s something beautiful about that kind of simplicity. So we’re running on the love of learning alone. All of our staff are volunteers apart from one executive director, but all the teaching staff, all the group leading staff are volunteers. And that means that you have to want to be there.

    There’s plenty of official education, education for credit, which is excellent, or good. There’s all kinds of people, especially individual teachers who, however hostile the institutional environment, are trying every day to connect with their students and to mentor them, and to teach them, and to pass on to them something good, but they are often acting against the institutional constraints.

    I think that’s gotten worse and worse over the course of my lifetime. Part of that is a problem of scale. So colleges and universities, for instance, for the past twenty years, they’ve been trying to pack more and more students into every classroom, because that way they get more tuition revenue to support the salaries or the compensation of a staff person, of a faculty person. So they’re trying to keep their bottom lines clean, and they do that by packing the classrooms.

    When you pack the classrooms, you’re diminishing the quality of your education. And there’s a point where you’ve gone too far and what you’re doing is actually not worth doing anymore, but there’s no sense of accountability for when that happens, because people need the degrees, they need the credits, they need to make their way in the world. There’s such a strong custom of going to college.

    I was really inspired when I was writing Lost in Thought, and thinking about education in reading about the grassroots intellectual organizations of the past. From late 18th century, through the 19th century, into the mid-20th century, you had grassroots intellectual organizations, often from people who were shut out for one reason or another from conventional education institutions.

    There were working class groups connected to labor unions. They would get together and form institutes. They would read Plato and literature, and they would talk to one another. And they would help to teach themselves, teach one another in the education that they were being deprived of elsewhere. And they would find in that the dignity that might be denied them by their exploitative working conditions

    There’s also a wonderful tradition, not told enough, of Black American reading groups, reading clubs, literary societies all through the 19th century. Again, people who were shut out from other educational institutions in the United States, but who knew that their dignity lay in developing these parts of themselves, knew that they were capable of it and had a desire for it. And so they found their own way to do it.

    So we’re also inspired by those groups, that is groups, which relied on the premise that people, that everyone was capable of learning, everyone desired to learn, and everyone was capable of taking responsibility for their learning. And that all we needed was to form communities to help one another, support one another in this endeavor. So we’re also trying to tap into that.

    Peter Mommsen: When I was a little kid, some of my mentors were these older guys who were part of the trade union movement in the 1930s. They were mechanics, they were tool and die makers, whatever. They had no pretensions to … I mean, they were kind of proud to be proletarian, and yet you’d go to their living room and they would have Tolstoy, or Nietzsche, or that kind of stuff lying around the living room. That’s what’s forgotten, because it seems, you say the phrase, intellectual life, and people instantly think it’s a certain caste of credentialed people.

    Zena Hitz: One of the reactions that people have about my work is they say, “Well, intellectual life is elitist. It’s for aristocrats. Leisure is for aristocrats.” And part of me wonders, “Yeah. How seriously did aristocrats, when there were aristocrats and when this was their privilege to have this kind of education, how seriously did they take their learning?”

    It was something that you did. I mean, there were certainly people who took to it and who really thought about things and who wrote wonderful books, but as a part of a standard education, I don’t know that it was ever taken very seriously. And I think that those, the people that Peter’s talking about, the mechanics and construction workers who found those things for themselves, they took more seriously to it than I think their aristocratic forebears did. It means something to them.

    And that’s the same with our Catherine Project groups, people are incredibly serious. I just keep getting blown away by the level of commitment and the level of zeal that people from all walks of life are bringing to our groups. And that’s partly because it doesn’t get you anywhere. We don’t have any job opportunities at the other end. This network is probably not a network through which you can make your way in on Wall Street.

    Peter Mommsen: And nowadays it doesn’t even get you a lot of cultural prestige points to quote any of this stuff. Right? So in a way there’s maybe an advantage to that, that you’re not just burnishing your finishing school credentials. You’re actually doing it because you love it.

    Susannah Black: You’re maybe making yourself more objectionable and more cancelable, the more you know. The Catherine Project is the most, in a way, the most pure form of this that I know of. But there are a couple of others that I know of that tend to be more Christian associated. So the Theopolis Institute and the Davenant Institute and then the Thomistic Institute is associated with colleges and universities, but it’s also aimed at the public. Humans need this apparently, and they’re not going to not do it. They just are going to do it either badly, or well, it seems to me.

    Zena Hitz: I love those organizations. I lecture for the Thomistic Institute. I’m a big fan. But I think that one thing that we do do that’s distinctive from them also is that we don’t have an agenda that’s religious or political in any way. I think of that as being an exercise of hospitality, this type of learning is something which all kinds of people are interested in. And these books are bonds of unity between very different kinds of people.

    And they help all of us to connect with our humanity in a really rich, deep way. And that doesn’t determine particular outcomes. And that’s quite precious to me, even though quite a lot of people involved, especially our board and our executive director, most of us are religious or are Christians in some way or other, but our participants, some of them are, some of them aren’t.

    But I feel like we used to have more institutions that were open to that kind of just human earnestness and willingness to connect on fundamental things. So I’m happy if, I mean, we teach religious texts, we have Augustine’s Confessions, and Dante, and all kinds of things, the Hebrew Bible, and we’re happy to keep doing that. But we want to not present it in a way from a perspective of commitment. And I think that might seem weird to people who haven’t been in a community like that, which are rarer and rarer. But that is important to us I think.

    Peter Mommsen: Where the pieces aren’t being instrumentalized. One other institution that is like that, I think, is one of our sister magazines that we’re huge fans of, The Point. In 2020, Jon Baskin, the editor, and Anastasia Berg, also an editor, wrote a New York Times op ed, where they talked about “the reopening of the American mind.” And basically, in a somewhat provocative way, prophesied that the future of humanities, of liberal learning in its original sense, was outside the university proper. That caused a bit of an uproar among some. What do you think of that idea? Because it seems like the Catherine Project might be held up as an example of what they were talking about.

    Zena Hitz: Well, I want to be a bit more cautious than one might suspect, for the following reasons. I’ve spent most of my life in universities. Enough of my life to know not only that they have very serious problems, especially when it comes to teaching basic education, but also that there are a lot of things that will be lost if those institutions continue on their trajectory of decline. There are things which an organization like the Catherine Project can never do. We can’t have a biology lab. We’d like to have a library someday, but we’ll probably never be able to have a research library. It’s quite expensive to have a research library.

    So there are things which I think will be lost. It’s actually my hope, my first choice would be for organizations like Catherine Project or The Point, which I think is wonderful, or all of the grassroots intellectual organizations that are blossoming right now, that they put some pressure on the old-school institutions to open up, to change, to reform themselves, to reach back out to the human need to learn, and to try to bust out a little bit of the straitjacket of everything else that’s going on.

    So that would be my first choice. That said, if that doesn’t happen, and it can’t be guaranteed. If they do continue on the trajectory of decline, then I’m happy to have the Catherine Project be out there as a place where people can find this type of learning as it becomes rarer and rarer elsewhere. It’s already very rare, to be honest. It could be revived in institutions, and there would be advantages to that. But I’m not going to depend on that. And I’m happy to see us think with more freedom about how to fulfill our lives, how to be bigger and better human beings.

    It’s one of the great traditions of the United States that maybe we’re neglecting a bit, to form organizations and little communities. And we can’t keep beating our fists against the wall, trying to get institutions to change. I mean, it’s a bit of a cliché, but you want to be the change that you want to see in the world. If there’s something that you need and there’s something that you want, well, get some people together and do it. It’s one of the parts of American culture I find most touching and most inspiring. So that’s also, I suppose, part of our spirit.

    Peter Mommsen: And you mentioned the history of that in the 19th century with those Black reading groups and with the trade unions, and the interest that you’re seeing, which is so encouraging. And frankly, I can say with our work with Plough, there are at least several tens of thousands of people who are really interested in having these conversations. And care about it and are willing to do some work too, to read some things and talk about some things that you don’t do just because it’s easy and it’s not necessarily beachside reading.

    Zena Hitz: Right.

    Peter Mommsen: Although, I guess it could be.

    Section II: Zena Hitz: Liberal Arts for Everybody

    Susannah Black: You teach in an ordinary classroom, or not ordinary, St. John’s is not ordinary, but you teach in a classroom in a college setting, and you also teach through Catherine Project. What have been some of the differences that you’ve seen?

    Zena Hitz: I’ll be honest, the Catherine Project is pretty heavily St. John’s influenced. A lot of our group leaders are alums. Because St. John’s has developed, over time, habits of conversation, which really work well for the purposes that we’re talking about. So, you can get a bunch of random people into a Zoom room with a reading, and it might not be a particularly good conversation. People can Google random facts about the authors, or they can share various little bits of expertise they’ve picked up here and there. That’s not going to get down into the fundamental human questions.

    So, at St. John’s we train our students and we train ourselves to do that, to have conversations of that kind. So I don’t think the style of conversations is so different. It’s definitely a wider swathe of humanity which comes to Catherine Project. That’s truthfully the main difference in terms of what happens in the room: you have adults from all different walks of life, with various kinds of experience. And unlike undergraduates, they know why they’re there.

    They’re not just going off to college because they’re going to college. They’re taking time out of their week, night after night to read and to talk to people. So there’s maybe a bit higher level of commitment and it looks more like the human race in a Catherine Project room than your average St. John’s classroom.

    People come from all over the world, and they love these books. They come alive for these books. And it was one of the things that testified to me of the human value of a great book. That is, we think they have a reputation for being nationalistic, jingoistic. These are American books, these are European books, these are Western books, but when you have people from Nepal, or Namibia, or Korea, or wherever, and they come in and they love the books, then you know that something else is going on it seems to me. So anyway, that, I would say that’s the main difference.

    And it’s a bit more spontaneous also. So our groups sometimes just go on longer than they were originally scheduled to do, because people are so excited. And, but St. John’s also has a reading group custom, custom of reading groups, spontaneous reading groups on various topics. And we also work by conversation.

    But the main contrast is not between the Catherine Project and St. John’s, the main contrast is between those places and conventional universities where classes are not conducted by discussion necessarily, even in the humanities, they’re conducted by lecture. If there are discussions, they’re not generally taken as seriously. They’re led by TAs or grad students, not necessarily by the professors. Everything is driven by grades. And there’s so much that’s lost in terms of real learning, independent thinking, spontaneity, joy. So much of the goodness of learning gets lost in that process.

    Peter Mommsen: I have one last question. So, if I don’t feel the need to have an intellectual life, why should I have one?

    Zena Hitz: That’s a great question. I think that it’s a delicate thing. I’m not interested in shaming people for not being interested, but I do think that probably that isn’t the final word on who a person is if they say, “I’m not interested in having an intellectual life.” So something has to happen to that person whereby they realize that in fact, this thing that they’ve been doing all along or this thing that they might really enjoy manifests itself to them. Maybe it’s reading a certain kind of an article in Plough. Maybe it’s a conversation. Maybe it’s an encounter with a certain reality in the world, a bug, or a bird, or a particular kind of plant.

    But I think that’s not a permanent condition. So it’s what they say in the Prophets, right? “A bruised reed, he will not break.” I’m not interested in breaking any bruised reeds. I’m not interested in going after people who feel themselves to be comfortable with not having intellectual interests. But I suspect that the more the culture is infused with wholesome human ways of doing it, the more they’ll see that this is in fact a part of their heritage too.

    It’s person-by-person. Like everything that matters. And I think it’s not so different from how Christians like us think about God or the gospel. There are people who say like, “You know what? I just don’t need a religion. It’s just not for me.” And you want to respect that. That’s something that that person, that means something to them. On the other hand, you’re probably pretty confident that’s not all that’s going on. And that, eventually, with certain kinds of experiences, something else will open up.

    Susannah Black: There are two other things that I think are like that, as well as basically philosophy writ large, and then religion, the gospel writ large. The other two kinds of things that I feel like people often will say, “It’s just not my thing.” And then you can be like, “Oh, I kind of think it is. And you just don’t know it yet.”

    Those are something like physical activity – not “doing sports” because that’s a horrifying thought to me – but, like, running, or doing something with your muscles, or walking. You can say, “I’m not really a sportsy person.” But there’s part of you that definitely is. You are a human being, and one of the things I know about you is that you are made to move around in the physical world. And then the other thing that people often say is like, “You know, I’m not that into nature.” Like, “I’m not an outdoorsy person.” And it’s kind of like, “Oh, I kind of think you are though.”

    Zena Hitz: No, I think that’s right. And I think that, especially the case of sports, that hits home for me because I’ve never been much of a sports person. And that’s partly because of the wounds I received as a child being so bad at them and being humiliated. And that’s a very, very common feature of intellectual life. People who think they’re not intellectual. And it’s very painful to me. I hear it all the time. “Oh, I’m not a real thinker. Oh, I’m not a real reader. Oh, I’m not a real this, I’m not a real that.” And there’s some wound talking, because they’ve been exposed to things in a competitive context, and they’ve been judged by some outsider not to be worthy of entry into the holy of holies.

    And I think that that’s one reason why it’s very important to have non-competitive, collaborative intellectual community where the marker of success is, well, do you feel like you’ll learn something? Not, how are you compared to the other people in the room?

    So I think, like with many things, a little kindness, and I think trying to create environments that are really respectful of individuals and recognizing that each person has their own way of living out their humanity. Not all of us are mountain climbers, but we can all really enjoy being outside in some beautiful scenery for a bit. So I think that’s a great analogy, too. Yeah. Thank you.

    Peter Mommsen: Thank you, Zena. Thank you for making time for this, and for this great conversation, and good luck.

    Zena Hitz: Thanks so much, Peter and Susannah.

    Section III: Q & A: Music’s Power

    Peter Mommsen: And now it’s time for the questions and answers from you, our dear listeners. So all about music, I assume. Susannah, do you want to ask the questions?

    Susannah Black: Sure. We have a number of questions here. Many from repeat offender friends of the Plough, or friends of the pod. Many from Twitter, some not from Twitter. Let’s just start out with a couple of really interesting ones from Paul Duggan that get right to it. One, has music ever made anyone a better person? Combined with two, has music ever made anyone a worse person?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, clearly the answer is yes.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. I think that’s true.

    Peter Mommsen: And yes.

    Susannah Black: Yeah, yeah. But it is not straightforward. I mean, we talked about this in the first episode because your editorial addressed this a little bit. There’s clearly a sense in which music does something to you, it enlists your emotions, it can enlist your emotions on behalf of good ideas or good associations. It can manipulate you and make you worse. I think it is –

    Peter Mommsen: And the same music, weirdly enough, can do all those things to you. So, there’s a bunch of ways to branch off here, right? There’s music with words, music that carries a message, the original ancient Greek idea of music is encompassing all of the arts including poetry that may be –

    Susannah Black: … Drama

    Peter Mommsen: … chanted, drama. And then there’s what the Romantics called pure music: the music that’s instrumental and acts on your soul without any verbal component. Right? And then there’s the question of, is there music that makes you good morally, and is thus good music, morally good music? And is there morally bad music?

    Susannah Black: … .I mean, I’m not sure. I kind of tend to think that there is music that, even in the absence of any context, would push you in one direction or another. I’m pretty sure that’s true. Even without words. However, we’re human beings, and just like we don’t encounter hardly anything without any context, we certainly don’t encounter music out of context.

    So, I mean, if you are at a, as you described in the editorial, if you’re at a performance of “Ode to Joy” with Goebbels in the audience, and you’re sitting there and you’re sitting there listening to “Ode to Joy” and this beautiful music is washing over you, and you are repeatedly deciding, like letting the music carry you away rather than getting up and leaving the … I don’t know what you would do? Shooting Goebbels or something. That’s probably out, this is a pacifist podcast. But if you’re letting music soothe you away from a conscientious response or attention to reality, then even beautiful music in the wrong context I think probably screws you up.

    Peter Mommsen: And you can watch this performance that Susannah is referring to, happening in the midst of World War II in Berlin, under the baton of the conductor Furtwängler, a famous performance, on YouTube. You can find the video, which is a propaganda video and in the audience are not only Goebbels, but all these German officers just straight back home from the front. So this is music being instrumentalized too, right? So this is Beethoven being the Aryan genius, and we’re playing his music. We’re celebrating his music.

    So music, in that instance, is making you worse because you’re using it for evil ends. So I guess, and this question is really huge and really broad, but is there music that, granted that music can be used for bad purposes, and of course, we want to say too that music can be used for good purposes. Right? It’s hard to imagine for me that something like Johann Sebastian Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion could be used for a bad purpose. I find it really hard to imagine how. And that to me is also something inherent in the music. Just to a degree that there’s a spirit of prayer that went into writing that music. And Bach, of course, is famous for writing, soli Deo gloria, To God alone be glory, at the end of his compositions. I think there is a spirit in that music that probably would resist it being used for horrible means. And I think that also would really help that music be used for really good ones.

    And we’re staying in the realm of classical, but I think you could apply that to music that’s not classical. I think of folk music, music that came out of pain, out of struggle. We spoke earlier in this podcast with Stephen Newby about Black spirituals. I think of a lot of European folk songs that came from the suffering, the loves, the pains of people over centuries that were loved, that were sung to children, that were sung at people’s death beds, because it was the only music that an old person would still respond to. Songs that have survived and that have still a kind of innocence to them that resists being manipulated. Now, of course, you can manipulate anything.

    Susannah Black: … I mean, as you were talking, I was thinking about, all right, so you can twist scripture. You can twist the word of God towards a bad end. And that has to do with you having a bad will, and then using this as an instrument to try and do something bad. There are a thousand different ways that you can do this.

    One thing that happens with scripture though, is that, we have descriptions of this, it is sharper than a two-edged sword. It turns back on you. And it actually, I think the words of scripture, even if the devil is trying to quote them to tempt Jesus, or even if someone else is trying to, in a very abusive church, is quoting scripture and this is taken in as an association with abuse.

    I think those words, I think God’s actual word kind of won’t let you mess with it as much as that. I think His spirit is in His words and does this “sharper than a two-edged sword” thing back on the person who’s trying to misuse it. And I think that, obviously, music is not inspired in the same technical sense, but I think that there is a kind of beauty in really good music that has that same kind of reflexive power: it will accuse you, if you’re trying to misuse it, it will accuse you, and it won’t work, and it will fundamentally undermine itself. Or you will fundamentally undermine yourself if you are trying to use something like that for a bad purpose.

    Peter Mommsen: And I do think that, just as there is music, and I mentioned Bach that tends to the good, there’s music that at least, for a certain kind of person who does not have a strong inner anchor, can easily dispose them toward evil. And to stick in the classical register, I’ll mention Richard Wagner’s operas that are clearly designed as a direct appeal to religious emotions, but without the object of worship being very clear. Except it’s pretty clearly not the true God.

    Susannah Black: Whatever else it is, it’s not Jesus.

    Peter Mommsen: So while I greatly enjoy, and I actually can appreciate, through a Christian understanding, Wagner’s opera –

    Susannah Black: Parsifal

    Peter Mommsen: … Parsifal, I also think that particularly if you see the Met’s recent staging of it, it’s available as a high definition movie, it’d be very easy to experience that in an extremely anti-Christian way. In a potentially idolatrous way. And the music invites that. It’s not simply a series of decisions on the part of the director. And it speaks to the greatness of the music. And I think this is the point. This is great music that you can experience either way, and it really depends on you, but I think it does reflect a moral quality of the music. So you can have really great music that is morally problematic.

    And so our fellow editor, Caitrin Keiper, who studied with the great scholar, Leon Kass, likes to repeat something that he apparently told his students a lot, which is, there’s a thing about great books: if you accept that a great book can make you a better person, you also have to accept the possibility that a great book can make you a worse person. To the extent that it’s great art, it will act on you. And certain books tend more to act toward the good, I mean, the Bible is probably, generally is, a good thing to read. And certain books are going to generally be bad. We can think of some of those quite easily. And then there’s going to be some in the middle that are going to act on you a little bit, depending on where you’re at. And I think music is very much the same. So we spent a long enough time on this.

    Susannah Black: All right. Well, he has another, he has another sub question here, which we can –

    Peter Mommsen: Let’s do it.

    Susannah Black: … Let’s go for it. Has music ever moved anyone’s reason?

    Peter Mommsen: Has music ever moved your reason?

    Susannah Black: No. I mean, music has never moved my reason. That’s not, I don’t think that’s what music does. I mean –

    Peter Mommsen: I couldn’t disagree more.

    Susannah Black: … OK. Oh my gosh. All right, fine. Well, I was about to disagree with myself anyway, so you tell me why you were going to disagree.

    Peter Mommsen: Let’s start with an example, right? Let’s start with again, Bach. There is his absolutely incredible “Chaconne in D minor” written for solo violin. It’s in one of his Sonatas and Partitas, it’s written for a single instrument that’s obviously mostly thought of as a melodic instrument, not as a music that plays harmonies. And yet, he essentially uses the violin as an organ in this piece, which is incredibly intellectual. It’s also incredibly emotional. It’s not dry. It’s a chaconne, so it’s based on a recurring base.

    And he’s working in all kinds of things. There’s speculation that some of the inner harmonies follow the melody of the choral, the Passiontide chorale, “Christ Lay in Death’s Dark Prison.” And this was influenced by some tragedies that Bach had experienced himself in his life. Like so much of his music, there is layer upon layer of both play and intellectual interest you can see going on, as well as sheer emotional power.

    And it’s the type of music that you engage with on all levels. I believe it was Aaron Copland that once said, he thought it was a bad habit to allow yourself to be carried away by music. You should almost take a step back and allow your reason to continue to function and to look at music. And I realize you’re saying no, just let … you’re probably going to talk to me about Stephen Sondheim now.

    Susannah Black: No, I’m not. No, Stephen Sondheim –

    Peter Mommsen: Let yourself be swept away by the emotion and just –

    Susannah Black: … Well, not with Sondheim.

    Peter Mommsen: … OK.

    Susannah Black: OK. All right. Fine. A, whatever, you win. I lose this one. But B, also, I think I disagree with myself anyway. But C, Sondheim is not a good example of being swept away by music. Sondheim actually is, has that same quality of distance, and there’s cleverness, and there’s wit. There’s not reason necessarily, although there sometimes is. Certainly there’s plenty of songs with lyrics to them that have, there’s rational content to the lyrics and that goes with music. No, I think you’re absolutely right. There was one other thing that I do want to put in a plug for being swept away by some kinds of music. By –

    Peter Mommsen: Which kind of music should we be swept away by?

    Susannah Black: … I mean, I think you can be swept away by … I heard a live performance of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto yesterday. And it was like one of these things where the music just kind of gets inside your body. And it did feel like it turned off my brain, and that felt fine. I didn’t, I mean, it felt like that’s what it was meant to do. Like it was, it felt, I mean, it was one of these experiences of listening to music that feels like you’re running. It feels like almost an athletic thing. And that does not feel, that does not, in any way that I recognize, engage my reason. It feels like a physical activity almost. And I think that that is absolutely fine.

    Peter Mommsen: I think though, even there, even there, you’re not being swept away by it so much as that it takes you to a place where your power of reason is still active – it’s just not verbal.

    Susannah Black: OK. Possibly. The other thing that I was thinking as I was about to disagree with myself after my initial, very certain answer, is that there’s a quality of the resolution of musical phrases that feels like the resolution of a syllogism. It feels, it’s almost a similar physical feeling to, you get to the end, you know where the musical phrase is going. It has to get there. If it doesn’t get there, you feel like you might have to scratch out your brain a little bit or your ears. And there’s some quality to that that reminds me of the way that you can’t really hear all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is. … ? Like, you have to go “mortal.” It feels like that kind of a thing. Not sure what that is, might be reason?

    Peter Mommsen: So we were talking earlier about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and that piece has a famous adagio that goes on and on, and is absolutely heavenly. Literally, heavenly. Someone once told me, and I kind of agree, that if any piece of music survives the transition to the age to come, like more or less intact, it will be that one. And it will still work pretty well. And I think that kind of music makes you more reasonable in the sense that it … Reason in the big sense, right? Reason, the Logos that’s put in each person that it makes you more attuned to that.

    And weirdly enough, this is precisely what that Confucian text, the Book of Rites that I referenced in my editorial for the issue, points out that reason has that capacity to bring us into line with the natural law, the orders of creation, whatever you want to call it.

    Susannah Black: The great world.

    Peter Mommsen: And that is true of good music. Whether it’s Beethoven or Bob Marley, I think it can happen. So the next question.

    Susannah Black: All right, now we have a question from Alexi Sargeant, friend of the pod, Alexi Sargeant, husband to Leah Libresco, father to Thalia and Beatrice. “Who’s the funniest artist to whom to misattribute Imagine?”

    Peter Mommsen: I believe this is directed squarely at you, Susannah.

    Susannah Black: I’ve been suffering for the last couple of weeks.

    Peter Mommsen: Not without reason.

    Susannah Black: No, I brought it on myself, and I deserve it. And hopefully the suffering will purge me and I will emerge from it a better person, and a person who does not misattribute John Lennon’s Imagine to Bob Dylan on Twitter, and then get roasted for it for two weeks straight. But that –

    Peter Mommsen: And don’t imagine, Susannah, that the two weeks will bring an end to the roasting. But we had to note this. So your penance for the day has been done. I think we can leave Alexi’s question there.

    Susannah Black: … OK.

    Peter Mommsen: Because I’m not a mean guy.

    Susannah Black: OK. All right. Peter Blair asks, which Bob Dylan song do you both prefer? “The Final Countdown,” or “Friday”?

    Peter Mommsen: OK. More of the same.

    Susannah Black: Moving on. Sam Howard has no questions, but wants to heckle. OK. Consider us heckled. OK. Here’s one. What precisely is bad about CCM and why do you not allow it in your house? Pete, what is bad about Christian contemporary music and why do you not allow it in your house?

    Peter Mommsen: Generalizing here, Christian contemporary music tends to be insincere. It appropriates what was originally of value and vital in different musical genres, and manipulatively uses them to try to sell a religious message to young people primarily, and to artificially create a sense of hipness and religious worship services in a way that is an insult to the listener, to the Creator, and to anyone near it.

    There are very few things that I can see that are good about contemporary Christian music taken as an industrial genre. Right? Now, we had a great conversation earlier in this pod about some big exceptions to the rule. One of them is things like Christian hardcore that emerged as vital genres of music that had their own forms, their own inner logic, right? That were expressions of true creativity. But the standard model is –

    Susannah Black: Pastiche. Imitative.

    Peter Mommsen: … Imitative, and of course, many people have said this more interestingly than me, but I think there’s just something so deeply damaging about that, of looking for what’s hot in the industry, grabbing that thing, stripping out the supposedly bad secular words and adding on Jesus words on top, and then selling that as somehow a spiritually edifying product, or at least not deleterious product, to kids is just lying, insincere, degrading on so many levels, not least to the very gospel that is supposedly being served.

    So I’d almost without exception, not want that type of music in my house. I’d way rather have a few curse words in good music. And there is Christian music. There’s good Christian bands, right? But you have to be a good artist first. And the idea that slapping Christian words on somehow dignifies crappy music is just false. So that’s what I think about CCM. And I realize I probably just deeply, mortally offended many people who grew up singing some DC Talk song, which I can just barely manage to make myself watch. In fact, just in knowing this question was coming, I forced myself to listen to a bunch of CCM yesterday. And it put me into such a rage that I had to just calm myself down and take a long walk.

    Susannah Black: I have nothing to say. I have no background in CCM.

    Peter Mommsen: So we don’t have any CCM defenders? I was hoping that –

    Susannah Black: I literally –

    Peter Mommsen: Given the fact that you visited a, went to a Vineyard church for a while.

    Susannah Black: I did go to a Vineyard church for a while. I –

    Peter Mommsen: And surely, you had some moment that you’re going to tell me about now where one of these songs actually meant a lot to you and actually led to your conversion or, and the conversions of many of your friends.

    Susannah Black: No, although actually the songs that were really important to me was Rufus Wainwright’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s, “Hallelujah,” and a bunch of other Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen was very influential in my conversion. I don’t think that you can really –

    Peter Mommsen: I remember listening to a bunch of Christian-phase Bob Dylan at a certain point of time, a lot. “Ring Them Bells” and stuff.

    Susannah Black: “Imagine.”

    Peter Mommsen: That too.

    Section IV: Q & A: Attentiveness and Silence

    Susannah Black: OK. All right. Here. This is from longtime friend of the magazine, occasional foe of the magazine, dear friend, John Wilson. OK. Here’s one. “We happen to be living in a time when, on every hand from quite various angles, books centrally concerned with sound and ‘soundscape’ are appearing in abundance, ranging from scholarly studies, across disciplines, to memoirs. How does, or how should this many-sided conversation connect with thinking and talking about music?”

    Peter Mommsen: I really love this question. And this gets back to, does music make you a good person or a bad person? Right? We published a piece by friend of the pod Dhananjay Jagannathan on music and morals. And one of his conclusions –

    Susannah Black: Was basically that the background quality to a lot of the music that we experience now is something that’s deeply corrupting. The fact that we don’t attend to it, that we don’t actually encounter it, that we just encounter it as this very cheap, like entirely cheap drone that’s the soundtrack of our lives, is itself a problem.

    Peter Mommsen: It develops a habit of inattention. And one of our little favorite things on this pod, right, and I guess part of the Luddite aspects of what we try to get at is, so much of the technological world that we’ve constructed for human beings just in the last few decades is designed to lead us from distraction to distraction. Right? And music is one of the big culprits here. And music that is designed to be in the background, to just be running in your AirPods, earbuds, excuse me, is an invitation to this spiritual habit of just not ever really focusing on something. I think that is one of the big things we have to relearn is how to listen to music properly.

    Susannah Black: And how not to listen to music. So this is, I mean, I was trying to think about what is the vice that we’re discussing here? And I think it’s acedia. So this vice that’s something like, there are a lot of words that cluster around it. It’s a little bit like depression. It’s a little bit like not responding to reality as it calls you to respond to it. It’s a little bit like boredom. It’s basically being bored with an interesting world. I think it’s the way that I would describe acedia most. And it seems to me that both listening to music inattentively, so having music on, and then not listening to music, basically, not giving music the attention that it’s due, is something that’s going to do something bad to you.

    Peter Mommsen: On the Plough site there’s a beautiful essay on the virtue of studiousness, or studiosity, by Sister Mary Dominic Heath. And she talks about the opposite of what we’re just talking about and Aquinas and Aristotle apparently. And this was all news to me, but I found it very, very helpful in thinking about these things, talk about what it means to give something attention, and they call that studiosity.

    But backing away from just the subject of music, because John asked about soundscape more generally. So as I understand it, and I’m definitely not an expert here, soundscape is the term used to talk about the acoustic environment as human beings perceive it. So here, in the country, in upstate New York where I live, the soundscape right now is spring peepers, blackbirds, some distant cars, possibly a dog barking somewhere, maybe a tractor –

    Susannah Black: Kids shrieking.

    Peter Mommsen: … Kids shrieking. And that is the sounds that are here. Obviously in the city there’s a different set of sounds. And the types of environments that we’ve constructed for ourselves, those soundscapes have a pretty big effect on our lives. I would say, on our spiritual lives. What are those things that we just, that are … if it’s true, as Plato says, and it’s been an argument that we just have adopted here, that music and sound go directly to the soul, right? Have direct access to our emotions, then there’s got to be a sense in which the soundscapes that we live in affect us as well.

    Susannah Black: I do think that the lack of quiet, the lack of silence in our lives, especially in our urban lives is something that I’m not even sure we know we’re missing.

    Peter Mommsen: So, noise pollution, right? And I think the New Yorker had an article a few years ago about how the lack of noise is increasingly becoming a luxury good that only extremely wealthy people who can buy huge ranches in Wyoming are able to ever experience. A world that is quiet. And in that way, it’s a bit similar to the studies that show that the majority of people, I believe in the United States, cannot see the Milky Way at night.

    Susannah Black: I was thinking about that.

    Peter Mommsen: And there’s these very basic human goods, silence –

    Susannah Black: Darkness.

    Peter Mommsen: … darkness, stars that are by bit just being taken out of people’s lives and out of kids’ lives. I mean, you think of how many people had their first religious experience just on a dark quiet night, looking up at the stars. And very few people can do that now. Of course, you go to scripture, and the importance of silence, right? “Be still and know that I am God.”

    Susannah Black: The idea that you … that God’s voice, God’s is the still small voice that you have to be quiet in order to hear.

    Peter Mommsen: To the desert fathers and desert mothers who went to the desert in part for that quiet. And so that then the psalms, the chanted psalms in their case, emerged from a silence that gave them meaning. I think this question of silence is absolutely tied up to the good uses and bad uses of music.

    Susannah Black: I think there’s a kind of aspect to what people call dopamine fasting to this. I hate that phrase because it seems to me to reduce a very complicated and fundamental human experience to something that has to do with your neurotransmitters, which I think is reductive and not accurate in terms of the totality of what’s going on. But basically, you need to allow yourself to just be still, to not have input, to let your attention not be grabbed by something where it’s not, where it’s only partly engaged.

    You need to be able to be fully engaged when you’re fully engaged, and to be able to be still when you’re not. And I think that that’s something that we can do as an exercise. I think we can do this, there’s ways that we can approach this and get to this, especially maybe during this, or I guess it’ll be Easter season by the time that this is released. So, happy Easter everyone. But during a fasting season, especially, it seems to be appropriate to have some times of silence so that you can then listen to the music and really be there for it.

    Peter Mommsen: I was going to say the same thing. So in our community, in the Bruderhof community, it’s traditional on Good Friday, among other days, for it to be a silent day. And you just don’t run machinery. You don’t have loud games, you don’t do loud music. The day is quiet. Now, weirdly enough, in parts of Europe, I know where I still lived in Germany, that’s the case by law, that on Good Friday and on Armistice Day, by law, you cannot run your lawnmower.

    Susannah Black: Huh.

    Peter Mommsen: And then when you go to church and you sing the songs of the Passion, they’re coming out of this quiet … and it has, it absolutely has a special power. So, any more questions, Susannah?

    Susannah Black: I think that that wraps it up and that seems to me to be a good place to stop.

    Peter Mommsen: That’s it for this music-oriented season of The PloughCast.

    Susannah Black: Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you’re listening to this, and check out Plough.com for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe. For $32 a year you get the print magazine, for $99 a year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations, to special events, and the occasional gift. Go to Plough.com/membership to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: For the next six weeks, you’ll be able to listen each week to a new audio article from the current issue of the Quarterly. And we’ll be back with you in six weeks for more conversation on our new summer issue, “Hope in an Age of Apocalypse.” See you then.

    Contributed By SusannahBlack Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black is a senior editor of Plough.

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    Contributed By PeterMommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By ZenaHitz Zena Hitz

    Zena Hitz is a tutor at St. John’s College and the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (2020).

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