A Society That Has Forgotten How to Sing

The repetition of great works through verse and song used to characterize the great cultures of the West. It has been replaced by a torrent of online words and noise with no memory of the past.

For the last two years, my wife Debra and I have been publishing an online magazine called Word and Song. It is devoted to introducing or recalling people to some of the fine things from our cultural heritage, by way of language, poetry, classic films, and music both sacred and popular. Producing Word and Song has been a lot of work. We publish six days a week and each day’s entry is no small task, but we derive satisfaction from work well done. Even more, we appreciate the gratitude of our readers and their own intelligent comments, which sometimes set us, too, on another avenue of reclamation.

We have found poetry to be the hardest sell, and music the easiest, especially Debra’s entries called “Sometimes a Song,” in which she tells stories about songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin, or about “the Voice”—Frank Sinatra—or about Benny Goodman’s clarinet and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. Again and again, we find ourselves in awe of what ordinary people did, often without formal training. In variety, technical skill, linguistic intelligence, human sensitivity, good humor, and downright beauty, those artists far surpass anything you will hear on the radio now.

It’s odd, though, that there should be so great a separation in readers’ appreciation of poetry and music, since they used to be considered close sisters. Muses both; poetry was musical and was declaimed or chanted or sung, and music was poetical. Dante wrote sonnets and ballads and canzoni in his great youthful work of love and inspiration, La Vita Nuova, and all those words describe genres of musical composition. As for the composers, much of the time they were setting poetry to music, as in the haunting and rhythmically complex hymn that runs through Bach’s cantata Jesu, Meine Freude, or the straightforward and bold song of triumph, “See Where the Conquering Hero Comes,” that crowns Handel’s opera Judas Maccabeus. But even when the composers did not have specific poems in mind, the music itself had poetic structure, motifs, departures and returns, “stanzas” of sound, complication and resolution: think of the first three movements that are echoed and brought together and transcended in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” before you even get to Schiller’s poem.

They say that when you are old and losing your memory, music is the last to go. An old woman who cannot carry on a conversation may join in a song she knew when she was a girl, getting all the words and the notes right. Debra’s grandmother used to play the organ in her nursing home. It was a wonderful thing to behold the skill in her fingers and her mind, though occasionally when she was in the middle of a hymn in the Sunday service she would veer off into a riff of big band music; from “Abide With Me” to Artie Shaw and back again. But what happens when you don’t have any poetry or any music to begin with?

Or I might turn that question around. If a people has no music or poetry to begin with—I do not mean as individuals here, but precisely as a people, a culture—are they already beyond dementia?

We all know about dementia sine verbis, dementia without words, as when an elderly person can no longer speak, and perhaps cannot understand when he is spoken to. But what about dementia per verba, a dementia in and by means of words? When words have lost all their musical and poetic power, ultimately they lose all of their power to pierce to the heart of reality itself. How does one treat the dementia of people who can talk but cannot mean, who can shout but cannot sing?

Social media, a moniker straight out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, has given us experience of a world flooded with words, words, words, but words without intelligence or settled and sensible meaning, accompanied by noise, noise, noise, but without grace or order. 

That is our problem. Social media, a moniker straight out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, has given us experience of a world flooded with words, words, words, but words without intelligence or settled and sensible meaning, accompanied by noise, noise, noise, but without grace or order.

Let me give an example. I am an ordinary married man, and for anyone touched by intelligence and a sense of beauty, that reality should stir up gratitude and even wonder. Why should a man devote his strength and energy to providing for his wife the means of setting up and beautifying a true home, fit for the virtue of hospitality? Hospitality is a concept that a lot of people pay homage to when it means having a porous national border, but ignore when it means spending good time in the home and helping make your neighborhood a human place rather than a geographical abstraction. Isn’t that pas de deux between husband and wife a fine and culturally vital thing? Doesn’t it bring life?

But for those lost in the dementia of words, I am a “cis-het male” (a cisgendered hetrosexual male), a phrase that is both ugly and politically tendentious. It is used to reproach. If you called me a “box man,” I’d at least know, by that jocular criminal patois, that you had some specific bad action in mind: I’d be a safe-cracker. But “cis-het male,” aside from accusing me of the chilling crime of being attracted to girls after the ordinary way of boys since time immemorial, is not meant to signify anything. One may as well call me a “fascist,” and in fact that, too, is an accusation tossed about with about as much relevance to Mussolini and the state centralization of all human affairs as to the moons of Neptune.

Or I hear that Donald Trump poses a threat to “democracy.” I am tempted to reply, “If only!” Set aside the inherent weaknesses of democracy. In the United States and elsewhere in the West, what of it is left to threaten? I have no idea what people who toss that word about mean by it, other than that whoever receives an apparent majority of electoral votes in a presidential election should become president.  They cannot mean that they believe that ordinary people are fit to determine public policy in their own towns, schools, and neighborhoods; they cannot want to empower the “cis-het male” and his conspirator or lackey, the “cis-het female.”

Otherwise, they might acknowledge that cis-het parents might be correct to want school librarians to resist the frisson of delight that comes from introducing other people’s children to pornographic novels. They might want doctors and nurses to abstain from the heady pleasure of getting a child with a bad sore throat away from his mother to ask him if he has ever thought of cutting that throat from ear to ear with a razor. They might be suspicious of measures to centralize all power for means of locomotion, so as to permit agents of government to assess your carbon footprint as if they were Baptist church ladies gone mad, sniffing the breath of everyone in the congregation to detect traces of whiskey. But the word is out: out of all sense, that is.

One may wonder how dementia per verba can afflict a society full of college graduates, with so many readily available means of communication. The answer is that only such a society can become demented by words. Seeding, engrafting, and dispersing the dementia is one of the main functions of schools, colleges, government, and the engines of mass entertainment and politics.

Consider the pre-demented world. Imagine that you are a teacher of literature at an American school in 1890. What have you been reading? If your tastes run to the popular magazines at the time, magazines I collect, you have been reading the serialized novels of Henry James, Mark Twain, and William Dean Howells; essays on art and architecture by Edith Wharton and M. G. Van Rensselaer; accounts of explorations by John Muir; appreciations by world-class composers of other world-class composers, such as Saint-Saëns on Liszt; political analyses by men like the young Theodore Roosevelt; histories, literary criticism, light poetry, short stories, forays into foreign lands and cultures; all intelligent, enlightening, well-written, and sane.

But what will that schoolteacher read now? Clickbait from across the political spectrum; romance novels with the intelligence of a hen and the moral balance of a bitch in heat; “scholarship” that is political action in fancy dress; “memes,” as they are called, most of them falsehoods or inanities proliferating like mold spores in a Petri dish.

How has it come about? I don’t think the answer is far to seek. The guardrails against the stupid have been knocked down. Consider poetry. The difficulty of writing any metrical poem once kept people from embarrassing themselves with clumsy attempts. We may call it the Bad Violinist Principle. There are no bad violinists, because you must play the violin very well if your audience is not going to bleed from the ears. But anybody can pretend to write a poem in free verse, unmusical, and often unmeaning.

We can say something similar about scholarship. I look a few feet to my right, and I see on my bookshelf stupendous scholarly works. Works that people used to associate with old men in studies piled with books from floor to ceiling: the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, Strong’s Concordance, the many-volumed Navarre Bible, the Talmud, H. W. Janson’s History of Art, and on and on. One could not publish a half-baked study of Old English in the days of Walter William Skeat, because that gentleman and his fellows would have shown you up for a fool straightaway. One could not get away with a feminist trashing of operas in the days of Henry Edward Krehbiel. One would not dare to try. Imagine someone recommending to the mathematicians G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramunajan some “non-Western mathematics,” on the grounds that the discipline itself and its principles were flawed by reason of race. They would roll their eyes and stride past you, figuring that you probably never got past Euclid’s first book.

But those conditions no longer apply. Widen the banks and the stream loses force. Make the game easy and the genius fades into the crowd. Bobby Fischer is no better at tic-tac-toe than an eight-year-old boy. Few people have the minds or the dogged patience for original scholarship. When every professor in the land—and there are far too many—must publish, the quality must sag across the board.  Some of the stuff will be put out too quickly, without sufficient time for informed insight into truth. Some of it will be slovenly. Some of it will mingle analysis with a great deal of wishful thinking. This is especially true of people who work in social sciences, and in the natural sciences when the situation calls into play a bewildering array of interacting influences, impossible to quantify. 

Some of it will take the easiest and most common and most remunerative way, which is to turn scholarship into politic action. When that happens, expect scholarly language to be inflated in an inverse-square relation to intelligence and truth. What is stupid and false must festoon itself in pretentious words, like “cis-het,” “nonbinary,” “heteronormative,” “phallogocentric,” and such nonsense.

We may laugh at all this, but the stupidity has leached into the watershed. People endowed with middling intelligence, a fair degree of industry, and the sociable desire to say what everyone else is saying will work themselves into a stupidity far more dense than unassisted Nature could ever have produced. With the words come the falsehoods, everywhere, with all the variety and intransigence of mental weeds.

Everyone thus “knows” that Christians have spent two thousand years doing little more than betraying their divine Founder by oppressing women, waging wars of aggression against peace-loving Muslims, pillaging the poor, stifling scientific inquiry, and smothering cultures wherever they went. Everyone “knows” that 1,500 species of animals do the Greenwich Village fox trot. Everyone “knows” that the world is going to fry like bacon on a griddle unless we eliminate fossil fuels by the day after tomorrow. Everyone “knows” a million things that nobody knows, sometimes because the things are simply false, and sometimes because not enough sense can be made out of them to determine whether they are true or false; they are like the splutters of a child in mid-tantrum. Such noise does more than express what is not genuine thought. It chokes out thought from the roots.

The obvious solution for this environmentally induced dementia, if we are talking about a single person, is not to get mixed up in it in the first place. Keep away from social media, television, newspapers, magazines, and Hollywood; read good books; learn how to read German or butcher a pig or illustrate a parchment manuscript. You will be able to form rational thoughts. But what can we do for a whole society? It is a question that no important institution is asking; not medicine, education, or government; the churches themselves do not go near it.

They who shout cannot think, and they make it hard for those around them to think; they also cannot sing, not while they are shouting, and not while their brains are in a state of perpetual unease.

Now, this dementia per verba, as it batters the mind and the ears with the noise of false or unmeaning words, makes it nigh to impossible to fashion a melodic tapestry of words, or to recollect such a tapestry and to rest in its beauty. They who shout cannot think, and they make it hard for those around them to think; they also cannot sing, not while they are shouting, and not while their brains are in a state of perpetual unease. Fancy a mob of looters in the night, smashing windows and stealing things for fun and profit, gathering in the city park after the hours of mayhem have passed, to sing “Morning Has Broken.” Fancy the faculty senate at a state university, after having slogged for hours at the usual task of trashing their cultural forebears, concluding their meeting with the sweetness of “Auld Lang Syne.”  Fancy the members of the House of Representatives, singing anything at all.

For if the dominant motive of a society is to slander its heroes, tear down its statues, vandalize its churches, and bury its past, what can move anyone to sing? And if we do not sing, what will we remember? The relation, I suppose, goes both ways. If we have nothing we consider worth remembering, we will not sing, but if we do not sing, we will not remember. And we do not sing.

I have a Community Song Book published in Canada more than a hundred years ago that was falling apart from use when I found it in a junk shop. The editors say that there is nothing that brings a community together so powerfully as does song. Men and women, young and old, Sioux and Algonquin, English and French, might sing “Rule, Britannia” and “The Marseillaise” for the sheer patriotic warmth of it, or “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” for that love that renews the generations and makes the world go round, or “Abide with Me,” for hope and devotion, especially as the evening settles in.

There is no sense, in that book, that a beloved song could ever go out of date, because it would be like saying that patriotism, the love of man and woman, and hope and devotion could go out of date. There is no sense that songs come and go with the fortunes of political parties, nor was there yet anything like mass entertainment to supply the ejective and projective force.

The melodies themselves are lovely and memorable. Some are jaunty, for comic songs; others are sweet, or sad, or spirited. They come from the heart, and when you sing them they enter the heart again, with all your bodily memory of your own voice, and of the voices of people around you, many of whom, as you grow old, will have passed away.  Imagine what it might be like to sing, when your voice totters a little with age and the gravel of your throat, while you hear in your mind the voice of your grandfather at whose side you sang long ago, and you hear in your ear the voice of your grandson, in that boy soprano that is like the sound of a living recorder, pure in its timbre, and so soon to pass away. You will remember not just the words and the melodies, but the very life of it. You will remember.

A Welsh schoolboy learns his lessons: the word is gwersi, verses; and the old idea was that you learned them in poetic form, or you learned how to read and recite poetry itself. You learned to sing. Imagine the effort and the devotion that went into the singing of long heroic or devotional poems before the invention of musical notation, or even before any kind of written records. The blind poet Demodocus, in Homer’s Odyssey, strums his lyre and sings of the battles at Troy. Odysseus, who has specifically asked for such a song, cannot help himself but must shed a tear as he remembers the men at whose side he fought, some of whom, like Achilles, did not survive the war. 

If one heard a rhapsode singing those very verses in Homer hundreds of years after the original singer had died, it probably would not have struck one as odd, because Homer was present to you in a way that no one from long ago—with perhaps one exception—is now present to Western man. You were still walking with your fathers.

dementia sine verbis, poetic power, Western man
“King David Playing the Harp”,
a 1622 oil painting by Gerard
van Honthorst. (Centraal
Museum, Netherlands)

The single possible exception is, of course, that Galilean preacher whose words resounded in the minds and hearts of Western man for the many centuries since he walked the earth. But let us consider. Jesus himself on the night he was betrayed ate the Passover meal with his closest friends, in the praise of God and in commemoration of an event that had happened 1,400 years before. They prayed the ancient prayers and when the meal was over they sang hymns. They sang: and if they sang from that songbook called the Psalms, what they sang had also been sung for many centuries, by the children of Israel no matter where they happened to be, even in their Babylonian exile. Indeed, Jesus set many of his own sayings in the form of Aramaic poetry; the Our Father is a compact and powerful Aramaic hymn. Do we do the like with Jesus’s words?

Here I could lament the proliferation of English versions of the Bible, some of them clodhopping and often misleading, like the New American Bible, others watered down and dosed with saccharine, like the Good News Bible. The variety and the dissimilarity make it hard for people to hear and remember biblical verses, and the drab and prosy quality makes it hard for people to hear them as verses to begin with.

But, regardless of that, I doubt very much that most Christians, no matter how often they attend Sunday services, have the words of Jesus ringing in their minds, because they will not meet them at any other time in the week, even supposing what is not likely, that their Sunday hymns are intelligent and probing meditations upon Scripture. The words will not be sung about, in part because nothing else is, either.

Charles Péguy could write, as a leitmotif to his The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (1911), “A man had two sons,” and expect that everyone in France would understand the reference to the Gospel parable—even an atheist like Émile Durkheim or a pederast like André Gide. If one goes to a college now and writes on the board, “Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow,” almost all of the students will gape at you in incomprehension. One may as well write, “Bliss it was in that time to be alive,” or “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” or “On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,” or “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” If one names the authors of those lines—Wordsworth, Pope, Milton, and Tennyson—most students will not have heard of them.

So, too, have the words of Jesus been drowned out and swept away, where the words of the poets have gone before.  The sonorous lines of Tennyson’s Odysseus, as he invites his old mariners to “smite the sounding furrows” of the sea, are submerged in froth and chaos. And Jesus, who says, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and hinder them not,” has no more little children to bless; because their mothers do not bring them, because they have forgotten, or they never learned about the scene in the first place.

So we must take up the slow and necessary work, as I have said, of reclamation, of recollection. My wife and I are devoted, in a deeper way than we ourselves first understood, to both word and song, not because they are our hobbies, but because we want to give back to our fellows something of their and our lost humanity. Our old voices falter, sure; but other than capitulating to the maddening noise, what is the alternative, either for persons or for what remains of a civilization? Only to long for the dumb silence of the tomb.

Then let us, one by one, household by household, congregation by congregation,  learn to hear and to sing again. 

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