Notes toward a revelation, Part I

17 10 2007

I’ve begun listening to these lectures from The Teaching Company, on Kierkegaard and existentialism, which drastically lower the monotony quotient of 45 biking minutes. They even manage to lend the cardio eternity a certain joy, less from their distraction value than from a sense of time cannily reclaimed through judicious multitasking, some minor, even nominal mental self-improvement smuggled into that mirrored arena of physical preening, with the nonstop industry of its weights and pulleys (the gym might do well to evolve toward some synthesis with that other roomful of machines, the arcade: somehow maximizing pleasure and distraction without loss in fitness benefit). Time feels better spent on learning than on the disposable music with which I tend to pack the mp3 folder marked Exercise, since while sweating and grunting I can give only half a soul to songs I like, and thus avoid them (I’d rather travel with music than have it be a greenscreen of pretended travels behind me). I’m happy to sop up whatever philosophy I can, while conveniently filling in potentially embarrassing gaps in an autodidact’s education (or the series of prejudices, misconceptions, and surmises masquerading thereas)—y’know, dots connected out of order or numbered shapes mismatched to colors.

But I heard a factoid that in Mozart’s time, most people only heard a piece of music, perhaps even their favorite piece of music, five or six times in their lives (and always live, of course—hopefully not being slaughtered by a busker, but from a proper orchestra). Of all my favorite songs (meaning ones with words), I don’t think there’s any that would sustain me for a lifetime on six listens, but is that really because they don’t make them like they used to? Benjamin seems to imply as much in his typically equivocating “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, but hasn’t mechanical reproduction been around long enough now that the popular aesthetic, if not the entire taste of mankind, has shifted its attention to the ephemeral? Isn’t this part of pop? Art as event and experience instead of the classical wager on immortality—as though ruins (and not the original inspiring, arrogant, or defiant aspiration) were the only moral we took from the story of the statue a la Shelley’s Ozymandias: once indomitable, now eroded, once mighty, now mutilated. Under the influence of Eastern religions as well, we’re urged to seize, enjoy, and appreciate the moment, living in it and letting it be enough, elevating the temporary—and its memory—to emphasis. Fleeting pleasures, and not the firm foundation, more moments than the gilded monuments. If they don’t make them like they used to, that might be OK, but only because life isn’t what it used to be either. Even mechanical reproduction has evolved into digital eternity, or the working illusion thereof (as long as there are servers). If art has cheapened, thanks to reproducibility, its shelf life has commensurately increased. So what if six listens wouldn’t nourish a soul? Who said anything about a six-listen limit? Thanks to the internet, and a pandemic cultural nostalgia that keeps media companies unearthing past hits as well as past obscurities, there’s no need to ever lose anything you loved ever again: you, cultural archeologist, can track it down, dig it up, dust it off, and display a perfectly intact replica any actual archeologist would envy. Who cares, even, if it doesn’t bring you the same pleasure it once did, if the bloom isn’t as fresh in its cheek or its fragrance quite as heady? What if it’s but the body of a thing whose soul once moved us, a carcass that doesn’t fertilize forward dreaming but only backward mourning? As the final scene of Shaun of the Dead admitted, we can even keep our zombies around, chained in the shed, for a few nostalgic adolescent kicks. The glory of disposability coupled with the infinity of replicability: a sort of cheap heaven, a knockoff of eternity.

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