On nostalgia

What we grope to capture in writing, screen and music is the stream of consciousness that characterises what it is to be.  Of course, this cannot be grasped, translated or presented: but I think it can be evoked.  Take an apparently very simple piece of music - say, Mozart piano sonata no16 in C, K454, second movement (his little sonata for beginners).  Such a deceptive work, simple textures with straightforward Alberti bass and single theme.  Yet, like all good music, it immediately plunges us into experience: a gently wistfulness, shifting from phrase to phrase from sadness to joy and back, in a seamless whole.  It is remarkable how much "classical" music, especially of Mozart and Haydn, in its most innocuous moments evokes sadness, almost as if this is the default response to Western harmony (ie harmony full stop).

How music of all sorts achieves its magical effect of evoking mood  seems mysterious indeed.  Most music makes no attempt to "note paint", to draw pictures in sound; and thus creates no external reference.  Other sounds - notably the calls of birds, and above all the human voice, have also this ability to evoke; yet again, in both cases, the way they achieve this purpose seems hard to understand; nor is it easy to see music as simply imitating these others.  

One thing, however, that is notable about music is that in general it is an experience that does not exhaust our enjoyment.  One can indeed listen to the same work throughout one's life and never finally tire of it.  Of course, one can over-listen to something; but that does not at all preclude returning to it, in the way that one can re-read Pride and Prejudice over and over again too.  As such, these works give us a glimpse of heaven, which otherwise might seem to be a terrifyingly dull place.  

Because our enjoyment of such works lasts and matures a whole lifetime, our returning to them acts as a bond that ties the disparate ages of our life together, and thus fuel aspects of nostalgia: the pain of longing for home.  Hearing such a work reminds us of other times and places, yet, like the work itself, the experience of repetition of the work is also sad, so a double movement can occur in such a way.  Our aesthetic and thus emotive experiences may be one important way in which we experience ourselves as persisting subject; and its content is doubly shadowed by sadness.

Aesthetic experience binds our lives together; history binds our culture together, and is often also sad.  Writers through the ages have returned again to the past again and again as a source of renewal or inspiration: even the modernists with their anomie, so well captured by Eliot, eventually ended up doing so.  Art unites us to ourselves; and history to our dead: and both threads are ones of sadness mingled with joy. Any attempt to understand religion or even science must surely be done from such an understanding.

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