Thursday, September 27, 2012

Three Degrees of Separation from Truth

Many graduate courses in music research require students to purchase a certain reference text that lists all the reference texts in musicology. Using this book, the student can’t look up any ideas or information about music. In the sections concerning bibliographies, the student can’t even look up where to find ideas or information about music; here he’s finding works in which he can find works in which to find ideas and information about music. I don’t begrudge the book its value. But requiring its purchase projects what I see as a misguided approach to research. Somewhere along the line, scholarship changed from being a pursuit of truth to being a pursuit of organization.

I had several classes like this in grad school. In the History of Music Theory, for instance, I learned what many theorists thought about music and, in some cases, what they thought about other music theorists. But never did we discuss whether these theorists from the past were right. Academic musicians never agreed on why minor keys came about or work for us, so we quit talking about it. Now the study of the subject consists merely in an exercise of learning what Rameau said when.

But music theory isn’t the only academic subject suffering the malady. I’ve been trying to remember where I read it for several days now, but I just can’t: somewhere in the last month I read the observation that the study of philosophy has become the study of philosophers. The passage stuck in my mind, if not its author, because it so strongly resonated with my experience. In one of the constant coincidences that attend my reading, when I started The Place of the Lion a few days ago, its author, Charles Williams, introduced me to the character Damaris Tighe, a philosophy student fascinated by philosophers and writing a dissertation called “Pythagorean Influences on Abelard.” Damaris has also written papers on “Platonic Tradition at the Court of Charlemagne” and on the parallels between Plato’s Ideas and the angels of Dionysius. She estimates that her dissertation will need no fewer than five appendices, including a three-dimensional map tracing connections to a hundred other ancient and medieval philosophers. She knows exactly who thought what about extramaterial universals, but she remains completely unconcerned about whether universals exist or how they affect her life. Her friend Anthony Durrant divides thinkers into people like himself, who like their philosophy “living and intelligent,” and people like Damaris, for whom it is “dying and scholarly.” But both of them are about to discover that not only philosophy but the ideal universals themselves are living and intelligent.

I could say that the story of their discovery symbolizes an encounter with God or perhaps represents a moment on their respective paths to God. But Charles Williams isn’t exactly an allegorist for all his rich symbolism. Although he doesn’t spell it out explicitly, I believe that Williams – Lewis and Tolkien’s fellow Inkling – would have said that the embrace of philosophy, as opposed to a commitment to scholarship in philosophy, is the reconciliation with God. God is Love, living and intelligent Love, and Christ is living and intelligent Wisdom. So philo-sophy, the love of wisdom, must literally, ultimately mean a life baptized in Christ.

Charles Williams is not for the faint of heart. Although his novels are relatively slim, they’re not quick reads. If you read one, for one reason or another you will read passages twice. But they are always worth the repetition. Reading Williams’s novels is like plunging your face into a running fountain of hearty stew; a lot of it, maybe most of it, will run down your face unassimilated, but what gets into your mouth will enrich and satisfy. I took in a lot more of Place of the Lion this time around than I did thirty years ago. The first time I plunged into this stream, I had never read Plato or Dionysius and had no way to understand half of the book. This time around, I’ve read things by most of the writers Damaris studies, and I know a bit of who said what when. But Williams reminds me why they said it and brings me face to living face.

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