Nature and Artifice in Structure

[This is a continuation of the last post ‘Experiencing Function’. I do welcome comments and responses on what I’ve written, especially since many of those who usually read what I write actually study music or are practitioners.]

In the last post, I suggested that the experience of function in music is the experience of live possibilities as governed by a set of rules, the rules of harmony. I promised to discuss two further related questions, namely: (1) How do these rules make the possibilities salient to us? and (2) What is the status of these rules: are they merely formal constructs or are they somehow natural or innate? I then try to extend some of these findings to two other areas: logic and narrativity.

Convention in Structure

Strictly speaking, the rules of the harmony are but a set of rules, a formal structure: they dictate to us the function of the various notes and chords. How does a formal structure enliven certain possibilities for us? There is a fairly straightforward way in which this is possible — this is by actually learning the structure deliberately or by some kind of social pressure. Consider the rules of chess. Each of the pieces can only move in certain ways, the knight moves in an L-shape, the bishop moves diagonally and so on. If I observe a game of chess before I learn the rules the game would make no sense to me. Without understanding the legitimate moves, I would not understand why the pawn may not simply go off and knock the king off his rocker. It is only as I learn the rules of the game, deliberately or gradually by observing others, that I observe the game as a series of live possibilities. Only certain moves are legitimate, are ‘live’. A game would be played beautifully by a player only if he manages to artfully navigate his pieces according to the formal rules.

Using chess as an example would seem to suggest that in some sense the rules of harmony are conventional. I think this is true to some extent. Consider another larger scale formal structure in music that is somewhat based on the rules of harmony, the fabled sonata form. The sonata form governs not micro chord progressions but the various parts of certain pieces of music — it is somewhat based on the rules of harmony, however, specifically on the primacy of the tonic. (Very roughly, a sonata form always begins and ends in the initial key, throughout the music passes through other keys and passes through an stormy section known as the development where both harmony and melody are developed and extended in various ways, with the harmony tensely anticipating the return of the initial key. Think of it as some kind of musical home-coming story) The sonata form must be learnt in order to be appreciated — without it, the sonata would barely make any cohesive sense, or would be enjoyed as simply discrete sections of music. In fact, the very genius of many composers lies not in their adherence but in their transcendence of the sonata form — presupposing it but subverting it in various ways to electrifying psychological effect. This effect, however, is only felt by the discerning listener, one who has been led by convention to expect certain possibilities and is pleasantly surprised to find them subverted. This conventionality is more evident in the larger formal structure than in the rules of harmony itself, though I believe it is also present there to some degree.

[I digress here and have to add: here is wherein I believe the very definition of art music and pop music lie. Art music always has a form, but the genius of composers lie in their both presupposing and transcending the form at the same time. To simply re-use the form would be lazy, creating some pastiche as most of popular music does. To cast off form completely would result in mere noise: like one who plays chess and then decides that the pawn can move like a queen or that the game can continue when the king is dead. Some contemporary music falls into this category, some others do something more interesting: they contrive a new formal structure and play around in it, I discuss this possibility in a bit.]

The Experience of Natural Structures

Nonetheless, this cannot be the entire picture. There is a sense in which the formal structure is not merely learned but in some sense discovered. The rules of harmony are not laid down completely arbitrarily as say the rules of chess or checkers are. Instead, they purport to describe something we naturally or instinctively experience. Presumably, even before the rules of harmony were formalised, people already had a natural sense of harmony, they felt that certain notes in certain contexts tended to go well together resulting in the formalisation of various modes and scales. Furthermore, the specific kind of experience generated in the experience of function is a lot more rich than that of one who anticipates a myriad of possibilities of chess moves, they are imbued, to borrow a visual metaphor, with a number of colours. It is not merely that the dominant chord anticipates the tonic, but that this movement or anticipation generates a specific phenomenological experience, one that feels like a kind of closure — ditto for the various other kinds of progressions. Therefore, while it is true to say that there is some element of conventionality in music, at bottom there is a certain sense in which the rules of harmony are formalised subsequent to their being experienced as such.

Talk of the naturalness of the rules of harmony, especially as formulated by the old white men of the western classical tradition is sometimes met with accusations of western hegemony. There may be some truth to this suggestion — I concede that that there is some conventionality in play here. Yet I think it would be fantastic to suggest that the entire system is an artifice. Even in other musical traditions (of which I have only a passing acquaintance), the interplay between the tonic and dominant notes in a mode is still a prominent feature. An fruitful consideration here would be to examine formal musical structures that are really invented artifices. One finds such a trend in much of modern music: Schoenberg is such a case. He turns his back on the normal harmonic structure of the classical tradition, but interestingly he does not cast structure off completely; instead, he contrives a new one — what is called the 12-tone technique or serialism. I don’t pretend to understand or appreciate the system fully, but in each iteration of the system there are certain rules that govern the music. Have a listen to one such example below:

What strikes the untrained listener is probably how confusing it all sounds. One does not know what to expect and the notes that come out seem random. They are not in fact random but are the product of following a different set of rules from the ones which we are used to. This suggests that the expectations are in some sense unnatural — they are not the ones we are naturally led to expect.

Now, it might be suggested that the reason why it sounds in this manner despite there being a structure could be due to the fact that unlike the classical rules of harmony, Schoenberg’s system has not yet achieved the privilege of having hegemonic status. If one is sufficiently familiar with its rules and after it has been more widely adopted, perhaps we would come to experience its possibilities as live in the same manner we do the usual rules of harmony. Perhaps, according to the possibly apocryphal quote of Schoenberg, “milkmen would whistle his tunes”.

Let me suggest three responses to this. Firstly, I think there is some truth to the fact that more acquaintance with Schoenberg’s system would allow one to better experience his music. I have been in concerts with more careful listeners who are able to discern the structure and intentions of such esoteric composers. Perhaps the learned and discerning listener experiencing this is like one who experiences live possibilities in a game of chess after having mastered the rules — the moves are now live to him because they have been learned. Secondly, despite this, I do think that there is a manifest difference in the experience of the live possibilities as a result of learning purely formal rules and the corresponding experience when the possibilities are given naturally. The natural possibilities, in the first place, do not have to be learnt — and they carry with them distinct phenomenological qualities, the closure, anticipation etc. that I have been gesturing at. The experience or pleasure that one derives from experiencing the learned possibilities might feel more ‘intellectual’, for lack of a better word. This might suggest why Schoenberg’s prediction about the milkmen have yet to come true.

Thirdly, while I do think that there is a natural innate set of possibilities, I do not think that they necessarily have been completely represented in our current systems of harmony, not least those expressed in the western tradition. There might be new harmonic possibilities that are naturally coherent to us but that we have yet to formulate and composers may be able to grasp these somewhat intuitively. Indeed in Schoenberg’s music, one sometimes catches a whisk of such moments when the music seems to convey something — perhaps it is him as a composer intuitively mapping out some natural harmonic possibility while studiously avoiding some of the hackneyed ones. This is purely speculative of course, but the diversity of harmonic systems in various cultures ought give us some humility into thinking that the set of harmonic rules formulated in the West represent the only natural set.

Dependence and Transcendence

Let me step outside this seemingly neutral analysis of the issue here and make a normative suggestion that I have hinted at already. I believe that the task of the artist is to work within the natural set of possibilities and to transcend them at the same time. This calls for some humility — to step completely outside the natural set of possibilities would result in utter cacophony, mere sound. Nonetheless, while we should not too quickly cast off the ancient harmonic forms, it calls for boldness in that we must not assume that all the harmonic possibilities have been discovered or that artists should simply parrot the music of old. And I mention this again, but art must both presuppose and transcend its form, it must be intelligible and fresh, it must be ancient and new. Thus, there must be room for some sort of artifice in art — and yet the artifice must be in some ways rooted in nature. The sonata form for example, is somewhat based on the harmonic system; it is possible that the larger forms created by other composers may be rooted in natural possibilities as well, grasped somewhat intuitively. A lot more can be said here, and indeed many more qualifications need to be made, but I hope the general direction is sufficiently clear.

There is therefore an interesting interplay between nature and artifice in creating art. And in some ways the very task reflects our ontological status before God: as a created being, we are dependent on him and the natural possibilities he offers us — they are rich and wonderful, to step outside them is a kind of hubris. And yet as image bearers of God, we mimic in a dependent way his creative acts: as he creates new things, so do we out of the materials that he has offered us — such is our task, we must not shirk it or be lazy. We must sing to God ancient truths in a new song. (Psalm 33, 96 et. al.)

Some Extensions: Logic and Narrativity

In this last section I very briefly sketch two areas in which similar phenomenon seem to occur and in which a similar analysis might be extended. My familiarity with these topics is even more sketchy and so I dare not say much.

Firstly, the experience of logical inferences appear to be similar to music. There is a canon of logical rules in the West, the fountainhead of which is Aristotle’s syllogisms, that appear to some today as nothing but a bunch of formal rules and mere convention. And then there is a proliferation of new formal systems of para-consistent logics from the contemporary era, and some from non-western traditions. Certainly the task of logic is not the same as that of art, (on my naive view, its main task should be but aiming at the truth), but I wonder if one can, by reflecting on one’s experience of the various rules of inference, distinguish the natural rules from the merely conventional ones. When I encounter the usual logical rules and move from one proposition to another by logical inference, there is a certain phenomenological experience that I have, when I try to do the same with the non-standard logics, a more jarring experience occurs. I dare not say more.

A second area in which a fruitful connection might be made is with the area of narrativity. Let me consider this first in relation to the field of historical writing, with which I am somewhat more familiar. Historiographers such as Hayden White have noted that in writing history, historians are compelled to adopt one of various generic plot structures such as romance, comedy, tragedy, epic etc. And he notes that this structure seems to float above the facts of history, in the sense that historians can agree about the facts of the case but that they still disagree about how specifically to ‘emplot’ the case. For example, the French revolution has been variously narrated as a story of progress, of tragic decline and of comedy. The decision to make of which facts are relevant and which areas of history to focus on are all governed by the narrative structure, but the structure itself seems to be independent of the facts. Most importantly, the narrative structure provides coherence to the events, attempts to evade it by simply dictating all that has happened result in one feeling as though the historical events have not been explained.

Once again, the status of these narrative structures come into question — are they purely artificial? Were they the result of simply taking the familiar plot forms of the old myths and tales and re-using them for other purposes? Yet from where did the writers and tellers of those tales pluck out these forms in the first place? Surely, the narrative forms must firstly have been experienced before they were formalised. The way we experience history and past events, or perhaps the way we understanding them in the first place is through these structures which are somehow inherent in the way we experience the world. Furthermore the inescapability of these narrative structures parallels the fact that to step outside the natural rules of harmony in music is to lead to incomprehensibility. These are somehow natural structures that we come to experience before they are formalised. There have been narratives before there were narrativists.

Simply because a certain structure is not merely formal but natural in some sense does not yet fully answer the question about how a narrative structure is related to truth. Still, some kind of objectivity may be purchased because if we concede that the natural forms are to be privileged, it provides a heavy constraint on historical writing. Given that there are indeed a set of natural structures, we cannot simply formulate any kind of structure we want with which to explain historical events. These structures have constraints of their own, although there is some leeway on how one might emplot an event: not everything can be a tragedy or comedy, at least not in the same way. However, to answer the question about the relation of historical narrative to truth or historical reality is a far more difficult task.

Here is my intuition of a Christian response to the problem: given that God stands as the ontological ground of the world and that God is personal, it is possible that he understands historical events in a narrative fashion as well. A narrative is true or objective insofar as it corresponds to the narrative that God experiences or fashions in the world. The variety of possible emplotments is no barrier to this formulation: there is no reason why God should not experience or fashion events such that they could be understood under various narrative frameworks. The history of salvation (or if you like, Heilsgeschichte) in fact is understood under various narrative forms in Scripture, it has been described variously as a romance (the pursuit of God’s people), epic (the victory of the serpent-crusher, the coming of the kingdom of God) and perhaps even comedy (John Frame mentions this in connection to Psalm 2:4, I’m half convinced).

I’m sure more connections can be made with narrativity as it is found in literary texts, though I am less familiar with this. The proliferation of new narrative forms in literature mirrors the proliferation of new harmonic forms in music: both the result of a studious avoidance of the ancient forms. Some of these new forms may in fact reflect natural experiences that the ancient systems may have yet formalised: the streams-of-consciousness style of writing may fall into this category. Yet others who are far more experimental or who try to cast off narrative structure completely again fall into incomprehensibility. Once again there is a similar interplay between nature and artifice.

Experiencing Function

[This was initially conceived as a fun post for me to write down my amateurish quasi-psychological/phenomenological musings. Somehow my thoughts became more serious as I continued write to the extent that it seems best to extend my thinking into two posts. Note that some of what is written may require some musical background. Also, I often post my entire writing on Facebook for people who find clicking on links a tiresome task (like myself) — I am not doing that this time because there are pictures and embedded audio which won’t appear on Facebook.]

What I wish to do in this post and the next is to put down some of my thoughts on the experience of music — it’s really an effort to put down some reflections that I have had for quite a while. Much of what I mention may appear painfully obvious to anyone who has had some musical training. Yet I think a closer introspection into our experience of music will prove fruitful in elucidating an interesting aspect of such experience. Specifically, I want to examine how we experience function in music and suggest that the phenomena of function is not in fact a sound. In other words we do not strictly speaking ‘hear’ function. Following this, I want to make some speculative suggestions on how the experience of function might be explained and, I hope, fruitfully extend it to other analogous areas of experience.

Isolating the Experience

To understand what I mean by function, let me try to describe and isolate the specific phenomenology that I am thinking of. By doing so, I hope to show that the experience of function is not a auditory experience, in other words, experiencing function in music is not hearing something. What does it mean to hear something? According to prevailing scientific opinion, the experience of sound is the result of sound waves entering the ear. Depending on the wave, its frequency, amplitude, and form (I think this is the word), what we hear varies — frequency determines the pitch of the sound (whether it is high or low), amplitude its volume (whether it is loud or soft) and form its timbre (e.g. a middle C played on a piano sounds different from a middle C played on a violin). There is a parallel here with visual experience — what we see is dependent on the light waves that enter our eye. Depending on the frequency of the wave, we see variations in colours, depending on its amplitude, we see variations in intensity — a combination of the two gives us the notion of various hues of colours.

Notice, however, that in the experience of music we also experience what musicians call harmony, which is the result of a progression of a cluster of notes (a chord). There are certain rules guiding this progression, some of which are tastefully transgressed at times but often still presupposed. These are the rules of musical harmony. In this framework, each piece of music revolves around a primary note, known as the tonic (or pitch-centre) and will be governed by a certain mode (thus we say that a piece is in A major, C minor and so on) — every note and chord will have a specific function once the tonic and mode are determined (i.e. its key). Note that the function of each note is not a product of its corresponding sound wave (a C still sounds like a C in whatever context) but is determined by its context, namely the key.

So far, this sounds like simply restating in a complex manner what everyone has learnt in Grade 5 theory. Yet I think this experience is actually fairly mysterious. One notices the strangeness when one reflects on the context-dependence on this phenomenon. In other words, the fact that the harmony or function that we experience of the same notes change when its harmonic context changes. Now, that certain experiences are context-dependent is nothing particularly novel. Our visual experience is also commonly susceptible to context dependence — take the famous checker shadow illusion as seen below. The two squares, A and B, are in fact of the same shade of grey, but the context has altered our perception of the shade such that one appears lighter than the other. (google ‘wiki checker shadow’ to see proof that they are indeed the same shade) However, consider what exactly the context alters in our experience of the two squares: it is the very hue or shade of the colour itself i.e. the visual experience, the very sight of the squares. However, the alteration of our experience of the same note or chord in a different context is emphatically not an alteration of the auditory experience — we still experience the exact same pitch, timbre, volume (assuming the latter two are kept constant) — something else, something that isn’t a sound, changes.


Let me say a bit more to isolate this experience for you. This part will require some acquaintance with music. Think about the C Major chord (the notes C, E, G played simultaneously). In the key of C major, this chord is the tonic chord, whereas in the key of F major, it is the dominant chord. The chord sounds the same in both situations, and yet is experienced differently: the appearance of the C major chord in the C major key is experienced (especially at the end of a perfect cadence) with some kind of closure to it or perhaps stability (one struggles to describe such things in words), in the F major key however, the chord is experienced as causing some tension or as generating anticipation. However, especially if you have perfect pitch, you will be able to tell that they are the same old notes.

Consider a different example: the experience of melodic intervals. (This relates more to the context dependence in the experience of specific notes rather than chords). In the key of B major, the notes B and D# are described as in the interval of a major third, whereas in the key of C minor, the same notes, B and Eb (enharmonic of D#, i.e. the same note on the keyboard or whatever) are described as in the interval of a diminished 4th. Few actually know that the change in the description of the intervals are really to mark a change in function. The interval in the context of B major will sound pleasant, whereas the very same interval in the context of C minor will sound gaping and jarring. If you don’t believe me, try it out yourself: play a B major scale (five sharps in case you forgot) and then play B followed by D# and then play a C minor scale (three flats) followed by the same notes. (cf. Beethoven’s last sonata, first movement, where I got the example from). [Alternatively, play the example below. The relevant notes are the last two notes of each phrase, the rest help to set the context, B major first and then C minor] Notice that the two notes sound the same, you should be able to recognise this if you follow the example, but at the same time they are experienced very differently.


Function as the Experience of Live Possibilities

Hopefully I have helped you to locate what exactly I mean by the experience of function and have convinced you that it is not heard (it does not correspond to auditory experience, since the notes or chords are heard as having the same pitch etc.) but somehow experienced. What then is this experience? Here is my suggestion as to what that experience is: the experience of function is in some sense the experience of a set of live possibilities.

What do I mean by live possibilities here? Let me take a step back and talk about live possibilities in general. [The thought here is drawn from McCulloch’s Using Sartre pp. 35-36 though with some modification.] What does it mean to say that some x is possible? There are many senses of possibility at play. Of the broadest scope is perhaps logical possibility, where some x is logically possible as long as it is not a contradiction. And so consider the scenario where I will soon be suddenly transported to the moon and find that there is a nice summer resort there — the scenario is fantastic, but there is nothing logically inconsistent with this scenario, it is logically possible. There is also epistemic possibility, where some scenario x is epistemically possible if it is consistent with what I currently know — the above scenario would be epistemically impossible in this case. But neither of these are relevant here, what we want is live possibility. But what is it for some possibility x to be a live possibility? It is hard to describe, but that possibility x must be a salient possibility for me. This is not the same as epistemic possibility — there could be a range of possibilities that are consistent with what I know but only a number of them could be salient to me. For example, say I wake up one day and find that my parents are not in their room. It may well be consistent with what I know, after considering all the evidence I have, that they may have been kidnaped, but this is not a possibility salient to me. What is salient is the possibility that they left early and are already out etc. This is a live possibility for me.

What determines what the live possibilities are? Perhaps desire or expectation or something else, whatever makes those possibilities salient. What about our musical case? Here I suggest that the salient possibilities are in fact determined by its musical context, namely its pitch-centre and mode, i.e. its key. Each key has a formal structure (the rules of harmony) that mark out the permissible moves that are available after each note or chord, the harmony can only resolve in certain ways and only certain notes are made available. Of course, this formal structure is often subverted, but even in its subversion the very structure is still presupposed. My proposal is thus that what one experiences when one experiences function is in some sense the spectre of live possibilities as governed by the rules of harmony.

Our exploration might still feel somewhat incomplete at the stage. Given that the experience of function is the experience of live possibilities as governed by a set of rules, the rules of harmony, further questions arise. How do these rules make the possibilities salient to us? What exactly are these rules: are they merely formal constructs or are they somehow natural or innate? I think these two questions are related, in a subsequent post, I provide some speculation regarding these questions and try to extend it to other areas of thought.

Thoughts on ‘The Color Purple’; God and Sexual Violence

Being in New York over the fall break and the weekend, I decided to go watch a couple of musicals. And so, just a couple of days ago I had the privilege of watching ‘The Color Purple’. I wanted to watch a more ‘serious’ musical as the other musical that I watched, Cirque du Soliel’s ‘Paramour’, was decidedly frivolous, though I too had a good time with that. I had expected the musical to be artsy, thought provoking and proper, something along the lines of Les Mis and indeed it was no less than that — that cast was superb and the singing was both virtuosic and moving, though instead of the usual classical virtuosity, we were treated to the rhythmic and more improvisatory tunes of the characteristically black style. Yet the story both disturbed and deeply affected me, and the following are my thoughts following the show.

God and Sexual Violence?

The musical is set in the American South during the post-civil war era and begins with a seemingly pastoral scene. Two black teen girls singing a nursery rhyme and playing a game. It is not long, however, before we find out that one of them, the lead Celie, is pregnant with her step-father’s child. This is already her second one by him and he gives them away as soon as they are born. Following this, she is sold of by her step father to marry a man who desires her sister instead — being persuaded when her step-father offers to give him their old cow along with her. Her new husbands finds her downright ugly and despises and practically enslaves her. Along the way, she meets and forms a romantic friendship with her husband’s mistress, the singer Shug Avery, who loves and sees her inner beauty and who teaches her to stand up to the abusive men in her life. The story thus traces Celie’s transformation from an abused and domesticated woman to independence and self-confidence.

God echoes throughout the entire musical as an imperceptible interlocutor. Celie’s water breaks in the midst of a Sunday service and superimposed onto her delivery is the rest of the congregation singing, in the style of black gospel music, a song titled ‘God works in mysterious ways’. Celie prays often in the beginning of the film, asking for deliverance from her conditions, and turns to hate and blame toward God after believing her sister dead. The sexual violence and brokenness in the film disturbed me, and I found myself uncomfortable with the accusations Celie raised against God — is our God really compatible with the suffering of this world? The sorrow of death I have seen, but can I even fathom the pain of being raped by one’s stepfather or to be abused and enslaved by one’s own spouse?

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar

But whenever I start to have doubts about God when I see something in this world, it is probably because I have discreetly stuffed in my own ideas and fantasies, my own unbiblical presuppositions into thinking about God. As I consider again the biblical story, I find not dissonance with what I saw on the musical but a sense of familiarity. One need look further than the book of Genesis to realise that the patriarchs, the very fathers of Israel, had a bunch of totally [sexually] screwed up families. Consider the mess of Jacob’s family, he had two wives, one of whom he considered downright ugly and married after being duped by his father-in-law. This woman, Leah, would afterward give birth to Judah, from whose descendants the very Christ would come. And yet disturbingly again, his line is perpetuated after his daughter-in-law is widowed, sexually abused by Judah’s other sons (who are struck down soon by God in judgment) and then she tricks Judah into thinking she is a prostitute so that she might bear his children. What a mess! And from thus was the line in which Jesus Christ was to be born! In case anyone thinks this is some mistake, Matthew deliberately includes the names of five women in his selective genealogy of Jesus, of them, three are women of disrepute: one is Tamar, mentioned above, another is a prostitute and the last is an adulterer. God is not far from the brokenness of the world, he is in the midst of it.

Where then does this dissonance come from? I ask this not from Celie’s perspective from my own and on behalf of many comfortable men and women like me who are quick to point the finger at God. Have we been insidiously forming our own ideas of God instead of seeing him as he reveals himself in his Word? Often I see fellow christians quoting Lamentations 3:22-23; “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The verse usually serves as the caption of a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Yet Lamentations mainly recounts the brutal suffering of Israel, and just two chapters later at the close of the book, Jeremiah would write:

Women are raped in Zion,
young women in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind at the mill,
and boys stagger under loads of wood.
The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
(Lamentations 5:11-15 ESV)

Jeremiah wrote that very verse in the midst of violence and pain. Is my idea of God big enough to contain this? Have I closed one eye to the immense suffering recorded in the bible? The pain and shame that marks it and indeed is at the heart of the entire religion itself — the cross? If suffering is at the heart of the religion, why am I so surprised when I encounter it? I say this feeling the rebuke myself.

The Color Purple

Now the musical is hardly Christian, there are elements of lesbianism, and secular self-help seems to be at the heart of the story. I make no comment on those here, yet the gospel and grace rings also throughout the musical. Shug speaks to Celie after she learns of her sister’s death and berates her for blaming God for all her misfortune. She lists a number of ordinary graces in the world and reminds Celie of them: a blade of corn, a honeybee, a waterfall. And she mentions a remark from which the title of the musical is derived:

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

The world is awash with the evidence of the grace of God even in the midst of its pain and futility. Why don’t we have eyes to see it?

It never ceases to amaze me that it is the norm in many places for Christians to form the less privileged class of society. I have seen it firsthand in Myanmar, where it is not the main Burma tribe but the smaller minority tribes who are majority Christian. Something similar is true when one thinks of the Dalits in India. Many of the blacks who were freed after the civil war were deeply religious — I was moved when I read recently in an autobiography of Booker T. Washington, a black leader, that many of the older generation resolved to learn to read, that they might be able to read the bible before they die. This puts to shame my at times sloppy attitude toward bible reading. Why do such simple arguments from the grace of nature move them, arguments which we sophisticates would scoff as simplistic and uninformed? Perhaps in their pain they see something which we fail to. I recall in my previous study of the book of Exodus how the commentator would mention that the freed blacks found an especial resonance with this book, having understood the pain of long slavery themselves. Open our eyes, O Lord.

I wonder, as I write this, if anyone has been hurt by sexual violence and reading this. I pretend not to understand the pain or the shame or pretend that I have any easy, one-trick answers to these things. If such answers were available the book of Job would not be 42 chapters long and so darn difficult to understand. I have nothing. I have written this for my own benefit and for those like me who have been clouded by the comfort of their lives and so fail to grasp and understand the sublime sovereignty of the God who was broken for our sins. And yet, I know one who does understand, who has dwelled among a broken humanity and dwells among them still. So I wonder if we might consider together, as Shug asked Celie in the titular song,

“The colour purple, where do it come from?”

“I am Reaching, but I Fall”

Earlier last week, I attended a performance of Les Misérables at the Esplanade — it was really enjoyable. I love the story and the music is great. But since this was probably the third or so time I watched the musical, I had the chance to take a step back to undergo deeper reflection on the structure and themes of the musical. I am no musical or literary expert (haven’t read the book, apologies to the purists), but I noticed a single running thread across the musical during this re-watching that I wish to reflect on in this post. It is difficult to provide a succinct summary of this theme, but provisionally let’s call it the tension between idealism and realism (both used in the ordinary, non-philosophical sense).

I noticed this thread as I watched the last scene where we see both Eponine and Fantine as they lead Valjean to heaven. It puzzled me to see Eponine there along with Fantine, since, well Valjean barely knew her. But as I reflected on the entire musical, I discerned some kind of structural parallel between Fantine and Eponine at the beginning and the ending of the first act. Both of their main songs as well as their stories reflect a similar theme — one of the stark contrast between the intensity and tenderness of their idealistic hopes and dreams, almost to the point of delusion, as well as the indifferent and uncaring realism expressed in their circumstances.

Fantine expresses her longing and hope for the bygone days as well as the darkness of her present situation in her song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ before she sells herself into prostitution, loses her innocence to a random man and is violently beaten:

“I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving …

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now, from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed”

Eponine expresses a similar sentiment in her song, “On my own”, as she describes her impossible longings for Marius’ affections and her own pathetic comfort in pretending that he is with her. Soon after, she will die in Marius’ arms trying to protect him, her feelings ultimately unrequited;

“On my own, Pretending he’s beside me
All alone, I walk with him ’til morning
Without him, I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes
And he has found me …

I love him, But every day I’m learning
All my life, I’ve only been pretending
Without me, His world will go on turning
A world that’s full of happiness
That I have never known”

This theme surfaces elsewhere in the musical — consider the revolutionaries, their high idealism as they hope to throw off the monarchy and establish a fair republic, and yet the unmitigated brutality of their eventual deaths. Valjean’s life expresses this as well, his hope at a better life and yet the crushing circumstances he ultimately finds himself in; even Javert’s life, to a lesser extent, demonstrates the dissonance between a man’s idea of the world and yet the world’s painfully subverting reality. A pivotal line that they both sing poignantly highlights this theme; Valjean sings it in the beginning of the musical as he wrestles with his wretchedness and the grace shown to him and Javert at the end as he too wrestles with the mercy shown to him by Valjean:

“I am reaching, but I fall.”

Realism and Idealism

There is something about this tension that resonated deep within me; it had an uncanny ring of truth. Art succeeds when it transcends reality in order to truly represent and communicate it, and these two themes are as true in our day as ever.

Let’s take the unrelenting realism represented in the film first. Surely our world is not much different from that depicted in the musical. Reports of terrorist killings fill the papers nowadays on a daily basis and I’m sure that closer to ourselves, we know of the random, perplexing, and sometimes absurd tragedies that befall those around us. A desperately broken family, a friend lost in his youth and an old man having to amputate his leg because of a car accident. The world resists formulation into neat, nice categories; it is inscrutable and indifferent to our hopes and dreams, to our conceptions of justice (think Javert) and indeed to the very demands of justice.  J.I. Packer, in his classic ‘Knowing God’, speaks of the ‘wisdom’ of the Book of Ecclesiastes in this manner:

“Look (says the preacher) at the sort of world we live in … You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature. You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control. You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to whether it is deserved. Humans die like beasts, good ones like bad, wise ones like fools… Seeing all this, you realise that God’s ordering of events in inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so.”

What of the similarly unrelenting idealism the musical expresses? That too speaks deeply to the human soul. I have written elsewhere of the strange glory in the strivings of man and indeed there is nothing more human than to hope. Despite the bleakness of the lyrics and their context, there is something utterly beautiful about the two songs ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘On my Own’ — a kind of tender and heartbreaking sublimity is expressed in them.

One response to this tension might be to moderate our expectations. Perhaps we should simply think that the world is a little less decent and cosy as we might have thought and at the same time be a bit less optimistic in our dreams. Such a response would be mistaken — we would be falsely portraying the bleak nature of the world and at the same time be betraying our dreams. No, the world is not a little less cosy than we think, it is full of sorrow and brokenness, and we shall not budge one inch from our hopes. Our pessimism must be as black as night and our optimism as bright as the sun. Chesterton expresses this artfully:

“It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective … what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralise each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”

A Christian Pessimism and Optimism

How are we to live with this, this heartbreaking dichotomy between our deepest longings and the harsh realities that the world presents us? This Christian worldview holds the key as to the reason for both our hopes and our broken world. It tells us that this world feels broken because it is. It truly is not as it is meant to be. The naturalistic atheist can tell you that the world is unfriendly to our transcendent longings, and yet he cannot say that the world is not as it should be, for to him the world simply is. But that is false, the world is in a state in which it ought not be; it has fallen since the dawn of man, since our ancestors cast scorn on God’s love and decided to trust in themselves. This world has been cursed and it now frustrates us. Yet more, it is not merely the world but ourselves in our inward being we have fallen; we have all turned aside from God and his love and all our desperate attempts at finding meaning elsewhere is painful and disappointing. To stare in the face of this is to no doubt call for a bleak pessimism about the world and the human condition.

Yet this, in a paradoxical manner, calls us also to hope. As Chesterton (again) discovered, that the Christian worldview …

“entirely reversed the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made it felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket. I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the WRONG place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.”

Do not avert your gaze from the horrors of this world, but neither grow desensitised to the extent where you no longer grieve at them. Instead let its darkness draw you to despair of both the world and of yourself, and then look to that familiar silhouette of a man on the cross. We bear our crosses to follow him in this world, and with him both forsaking the world and yet loving and giving ourselves for it. Jesus is our hope for forgiveness and glory, and it is through him that we shall one day have the privilege to see

“a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

Man in the Museum

A couple of days ago I visited the National Museum of Singapore. I actually meant to visit the National Gallery but was confused by the two… nonetheless a highlight there was the ‘Treasures of the World’ exhibit featuring artefacts from the British Museum. Relics were present from places spanning the entire globe, from Europe, Asia to Africa and so on. There was something about looking at millennia old artefacts that is arresting. Many of these artefacts were from cultures far removed from my own, but it seemed as if I was looking at the culture of my own forefathers; I was looking at the culture of Man.

There were certain commonalities in the objects on display; some where household items, a number were religious artefacts, there was even pornography and of course a large number of royal regalia. All reflected a still recognisable facet of man today. Why might the mere passage of time result in this universalisation of particular, otherwise ordinary, objects? I have no answer. Perhaps the everyday objects of every particular culture have always reflected the universal heritage of man, but it is only when they have been defamiliarised by the distance of a thousand years that we see them as they are.


What do these artefacts as a whole speak about Man? What first came to mind was our futility. This was evident especially as I observed many of the Royal Regalia. They were to be symbols of power, often divine or supernatural power, meant to inspire awe and terror. The objects are left limp in the museum, while their bearers themselves are gone. Man strives to leave a legacy, but their very legacy is but a testament to our vanity. Shelly notes in his famous poem about one such artefact:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Solomon himself claims:

“I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts … man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20)


And yet this cannot be all, for the very artefacts too are a testimony to the glory of Man. Many of the artefacts were beautiful — they were awash with colour and made with intricacy. There was a beautiful Chinese screen divider which depicted the four seasons and the sun and moon and a number of ritual masks that were as detailed and complex as they were terrifying. What sort of creature is this? The terror and subtlety of the artefacts surely reflect the strangeness and the glory of Man.

And I am then reminded of Lewis’ by now cliche remark:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

The artefacts in the museum are astounding and amazing, yet they testify not to themselves but to another more wondrous creature. Lewis calls us from Man and Culture as considered in the abstract to the people around us, and so should the artefacts in the museum lead us to see their makers afresh. The glory of civilisation is indeed the glory of man; the people around us whom we live with and hate and love — they are the more appropriate and deserving objects of our wonder than any object in the museum.

And so we are left with this odd paradox, Man the wretched accumulation of dust and Man the being of utter glory. What shall we make of this combination of our futility and yet our beauty? The bible says that we were made to reflect the very glory of God himself, and yet by choosing to turn away from the source of all life, our very existences became futile and transient. Our lives now express this duality — there is yet glory and goodness left in all of us but in the end all our strivings will be  in vain.

Behold, the Man

Another image in the Museum caught my attention — it was a painting of another kind of exhibition. A man wearing a robe and a crown of thorns was thrust before a large crowd to be put on display before them. The robe and the crown indicated that he was some sort a glorious king and yet they were clearly meant to mock him at this show trial. I lingered over this painting for a few moments before passing on. In reflection, I realise that this man represented us all — our glory and our shame mingled in a beautiful and wretched sight.

Jesus was the source of our glory, and yet he took upon himself our shame and futility that we might from thenceforth be free of it. What shall we say in response? There is no need to innovate,

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
(Psalm 8:3-8)

The New True Meaning of Christmas

[This isn’t really a post about philosophy, but since its the Christmas period I feel obliged to write something related. What I plan to do here is to analyse our culture’s worldview by looking at my favourite non-Christian Christmas song (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’). Unfortunately, my training in philosophy compels me to write a short summary in the introduction to the biblical framework of idolatry that I use for completeness sake — its largely just the understanding of idolatry from the reformed tradition. I have been much helped in my understanding of this by reading “For Their Rock is not as Our Rock” by Daniel Strange. (Which is really an update and summary of the thoughts of many earlier thinkers.)]

Christmas is a time of celebration, and as a Christian what I celebrate is the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into our broken world to identify with sinners and ultimately to die for their sin. But everyone celebrates during Christmas, and clearly not everyone is a Christian, so it begs the question: what exactly are they celebrating? Some Christians may immediately shoot back: “Materialism!” (i.e. the insatiable consumption of goods. Not to be confused with the metaphysical hypothesis of the same name.) Perhaps some really do see Christmas as an opportunity to satisfy their endless desire for consumer products, but when we see other non-Christians decrying the same materialistic strain during Christmas, we know that this cannot be the root of their celebration.

Man and Worship

The bible’s thesis about humans is that we are all worshippers — all of us have been made to know and to worship God and it is as we come to him that we find our deepest longings and needs met, when men reject God they do not cease to worship but the bible says that they begin to deify and idolise something in creation. Men “claiming to be wise, [have] became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:22-23) Idolatry is not confined simply to physical idols made of wood or stone — idols are whatever our hearts, the core of our beings, find rest, comfort, identity and indeed salvation in; they are whatever we long for and sacrifice and worship.

These idols are counterfeit gods — that they are counterfeit means two things: (1) they reveal something about the sinful hearts of men who created them (2) they reveal something about the God of which they are a counterfeit. To understand what one worships points us to the sin of man, but because we are made for God, even the idols we make resemble God as a cheap imitation. Christopher Wright thus notes:

“The fallen duplicity of man is that he simultaneously seeks after God his Maker and flees from God his Judge. Man’s religions, therefore, simultaneously manifest both these human tendencies.”

A New Christmas Liturgy

What we find in the modern celebration of Christmas is an almost literal exchange of the worship of God for the worship of other things. The best way to understand the new worship is to look at our new liturgy, one manifestation of which is the secular Christmas songs that are heard alongside the old hymns in shopping malls. Some songs are of course, utterly frivolous — ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ don’t really reveal any of the deep longings of humanity. Others, however, do reflect some kind of deep longing, such as ‘White Christmas’ and ’Last Christmas’. The song we will look at is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I confess this is partly because its my favourite non-Christian Christmas song — the tune is excellent and the lyrics are utterly poignant. But more importantly I do believe the song reflects something of the heart of modern Christmas. For those who don’t know the song or do not recognise the title:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
Next year all
Our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
Next year all
Our troubles will be miles away.

Once again as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more.

Someday soon, we all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

(These lyrics are from the original song sung in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”)

‘Once Again as in Olden Days’

The first two stanzas hint that we look to the Christmas holiday as an opportunity to rest, to escape from the myriad “troubles” that we face. The world is broken and messy — we are bogged down and exhausted by turmoil at work and relationships and there is the expectation that we will find rest at some place. I think many of us expect this rest to come during Christmas. Even secular people who bemoan the consumeristic materialism of our age and during Christmas as well seek rest from the spiritual exhaustion of chasing after the next flashy consumer product. But what exactly is the rest that we look forward too?

The heart of the song, I believe, lies in the third and fourth stanzas — here we see what we worship, what we long for during Christmas. There are two interconnected elements (1) a sense of nostalgia and (2) the warmth of family and friends. When we come to Christmas, we are overcome with nostalgia for the innocent times of our childhood, perhaps memories of when as children we looked forward to Christmas as the time when there would be parties with our families and all seemed rosy. If we never experienced this in our childhood, Christmas sells us the idea that we can recreate that experience which we never had. Consider the first line of another song, ‘White Christmas’: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”.

There is something sublime that we look for during Christmas, something intimate and precious. We think that we will have it by revisiting the olden days, by gathering our dear friends and family back again. It is to these that we have turned to seek and find our rest. Yet anyone who has been to any Christmas party since their adolescence knows that the hope of recreating what we thought we experienced is a lie — we are made to long for it, but it never finds its fulfilment as we attempt to recreate our past or gather our loved ones.

C.S. Lewis gives an insightful analysis of this longing:

“Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

The last thing we see in the song is the bleakness of the secular worldview. The possibility of reunion is left to blind fate and until the next Christmas, we drag ourselves through the year. Some versions of the song have edited and changed the line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and replaced it with the utterly facile “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”. The original better reflects the sentiment of Christmas — it is the time we huddle as we peer over the dark precipice of the coming year of bustling emptiness. The final instruction is deeply poignant: “So”, in light of the muddle of our world, “have yourself a merry little Christmas now”. We must create and seek these precious moments now, before they are taken forever by the dead fates.

That Little Town of Bethlehem

No, this hopelessness cannot have the last word. The Israelites of old held in their hearts the promise of a day when those who walk in darkness will see a great light (Isaiah 9:2) but indeed this is the longing of all our hearts. We all long to cast off this sense of emptiness and dread and guilt that we feel and to be reconciled to something. Christmas reignites these longings, but we have been looking for this reconciliation in recreating our childhood, by being surrounded by our loved ones — soon we are alone again and the cave is even darker now that the small candle has gone out.

But the image of that town, that manger, draws me in again. The theological paradox which is the incarnation, God become Man, becomes strangely warm. In the still of that night, Christ was born. He was born into a life of labour and loneliness, ultimately dying forsaken — he would become one that men would shun and reject and spit on. But he holds a strange attraction to all who have known brokenness in some way both within themselves and without. Chesterton rightly said that this is “the place where God was homeless and all men are at home”. Christmas day comes and the same strange longing comes to me again as it does to everyone else, but as I think of Jesus it hits me afresh, ‘Ah! This was what I was celebrating all along.’ And then I sing:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.