The “G-Word”

Robin Wallace

I already used it in the title of my last post. But I promised last month that I would try to get something up about the difficulty of using the “G-word” in academia. That implies, of course, talking about why I think it’s worth the trouble.

First things first. The question of whether I believe in God is a side issue. People are free to believe or not believe in air, but they keep breathing. That’s the way God is for me; if I stop breathing, I hurt.

There’s been a great deal written about the hostility of today’s academic world to God talk, and I’m not going to rehash those arguments here. How do I propose, though, to get people to see that they’re breathing the same air as I am? That’s where the difficulty lies.

The reason I think it’s important to do this is that I believe classical music could, and perhaps must, play a defining role in the 21st century’s spiritual life. It’s precisely the consideration of this possibility that I find lacking in so much of what used to be called the New Musicology. Music is analyzed as a reflection of culture, which it certainly is. We are made to see how our musical tastes reflect our own preferences and biases. And reflect them they certainly do.
But I know I’m not alone in believing there’s more to music than that. It doesn’t just tell, or even just query, the stories of the dominant culture; it offers real alternatives.
One of these has to do with the widely discussed cultural habit of narcissism. Properly understood, this is not just “me-firstism.” It is a cultural demon (whoops!—religious terminology alert) that comes out in both external and internal forms. Externally, it leads to the pursuit of power and status as ends in themselves. Internally, it leads to depression, despair and self-doubt. Either way, it’s something that needs to be exorcised in the name all around happiness and well-being.
Can music do that? Strangely enough, I maintain that it can. My basis for saying this is my own spiritual life. Music has allowed me to breathe (Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma) more deeply. In my published work I’ve offered some examples of what I mean by this. (See, for example, “Myth, Gender and Musical Meaning: The Magic Flute, Beethoven and 19th-century Sonata Form Revisited” in v. 19 of the Journal of Musicological Research.)
To give a very brief summary: I suggest that Beethoven’s life was the classic example of what Alice Miller has called, in her book of the same title, “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” Beethoven overcame his personal and cultural narcissism by exploring musically those emotional experiences that he was forced to suppress in his own childhood. In so doing, he set a pattern that later composers have widely imitated, with varying degrees of success. The music of Beethoven, far from representing an outdated cultural paradigm (Burnham et al.), is thus more profoundly relevant than ever. It literally provides the key to resolving our most profound cultural deadlock by opening up the spiritual floodgates.
OK, so I’m overstating the case (a bit). What I find disconcerting, though, is that while I have been saying this for years, it seems to have gone largely unnoticed. When my work gets cited, it’s for other reasons. I feel a bit like the proverbial elephant being pawed over by blind men.
I can only conclude that this is because what I have to say is a non-starter in the generic postmodern academic paradigm. The prevailing wisdom is that all points of view are welcome, as long as they don’t lay claim to universal relevance. Such claims were a part of the old paradigm, and they’re not supposed to be made any more. There’s not supposed to be a God.
So it doesn’t really matter how you say it. Meaningful talk about the spiritual content of music too often falls on barren cultural ground. Nevertheless, I keep trying, and this post is the latest example. I’m hoping it will sprout a little shrub of (bemused? baffled?) comments, and perhaps send down some roots.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to The “G-Word”

  1. Nolan Smock says:

    I can completely agree with what you’ve said here and, yes, “the prevailing wisdom is that all points of view are welcome, as long as they don’t lay claim to universal relevance.”
    I feel this happens in every form of art these days. I’m a photographer and the themes in my art are inspired (and I feel directed) by G-d. However, in my statements, this approach leaves me in a strange sort of limbo in that community.
    However, I think what is written from the spirit will continue to speak to the spirit, and while discussions of these matters may end up in a no-mans-land, it will be the art that speaks for itself. Maybe? Ideally? Hopefully.
    Who knows what will follow the post-modernism, the narcissism, etc etc, but perhaps we can just hope that the expression of truth will lead someone else to follow that example and maybe in the end, change the over-arching paradigm.
    But Babylon will always make and hear music made for Babylon, right?

  2. Lyle Sanford says:

    Leading the proverbial horse to water? – Only when post-modernists get thirsty for something more sustaining than narrative will the notion arise they may have been missing some of the deeper rewards of culture, which the language they’re currently developing might well help us better understand and appreciate – As for now, out here in the peanut gallery, your post very refreshing – And as a music therapist, would like to hear more about music “opening up the spiritual floodgates” – No doubt it can happen, but how it happens seems mysterious.

  3. God and musicology

    Robin Wallace, FMCS 2008 Program Committee member from Baylor Univ., has been busy posting on God and musicology at Dial M, the musicology blog run (mainly) by Phil Ford and Jonathan Bellman. Good on ya Robin, for getting it out there. No point in talk

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