What is it about writing that can so strike a chord in us? Be so instantaneously meaningful? Move us in ways that are so mysterious as to evoke a kind of momentary transcendence?
And isn’t it wonderful when we come across such writing?
I subscribe to The New Yorker. In New Zealand. I pay a lot more than the US$5.99 per issue to have the magazine shipped halfway across the world 47 times a year to my mailbox in Christchurch. With every new issue, I first skip the essays, reportage, commentary, criticism and go straight to the fiction. (Imagine my surprise when I opened one issue to find a short story by a college friend!) Then I read through the rest of the magazine.
Earlier this month I went on a three day hike on New Zealand’s remote Stewart Island. I took the latest copy of The New Yorker with me. It was light and easily fit into my backpack. Bundled in a sleeping bag, laying in a bunk overlooking Paterson Inlet (pictured above), in a hut about six hours’ walking to the island’s only town, I read Jeremy Eichler’s profile, String Theorist, about German violinist Christian Tetzlaff. One passage so surprised me, so moved me, so startled me by its unexpected truth that I read it aloud to my hiking companion. Then I read it to myself again and again:
Tetzlaff is not a religious man, but he describes his art in frankly spiritual terms. Performing music, he says, “is the job that has the most to do with the belief in the existence of a soul. I deal in Berg’s soul, in Brahms’s soul—that’s my job. And, you can challenge me, but I find that music is humans’ most advanced achievement, more so than painting and writing, because it’s more mysterious, more magical, and it acts in such a direct way. Trying to turn lead into gold is nothing compared to taking something mechanical like an instrument—a string and a bow—and using it to evoke a human soul, preserved through the centuries.” (The New Yorker, August 27 2012)
Evoking “a human soul, preserved through the centuries.” I’ve never heard music described in such a way before. How very beautiful.
I love playing the piano. Singing. Strumming a guitar. I cannot imagine a life without creating music, without experiencing that momentary transcendence that playing a certain passage of Moonlight Sonata can bring or singing Handel’s Amen chorus alongside a choir and full orchestra in a stone cathedral. There aren’t really words to describe that feeling, quite an admission from someone who so loves the written word and writing. The idea of “evoking a [composer’s] human soul” is such a beautiful one. And it startled me because it is true. How have I never realized this before?
We may challenge Tetzlaff, as he invites us to do, that music is “humans’ most advanced achievement.” Why not the written word also? If music evokes the soul of the composer than so too must the written word evoke the soul of the author. When we read Socrates or the Bible or Ray Bradbury, there must be glimmers of the creator in the words. And all we have to do is read, no physic medium or Ouija board required.
If it is true, if our compositions—music or otherwise—are our soul manifest, what shape would we want that imprint to take? What uplifting, enveloping, love, peace, space, bewilderment would we leave as our legacy? Our soul legacy.