DECONSTRUCTING POPEYE

As a boy growing up in the 1950’s, Popeye the Sailorman was a major cultural influence. He willingly ate spinach, something my friends and I would do only if forced, and he was stubbornly self-assured. His slogan:

“I am who I am and that’s all that I am.”

In an era when everyone was dedicated to forming you according to their ideas of what a pre-pubescent boy should be like, someone with the courage to say, “No, I am me, I know who I am and I will be who I am, not what you want me to be,” was an instant hero and role model.

A decade later, I began to read the Existentialists, especially Sartre and Camus, and found they offered a very different idea of identity:

“I am not what I am, but I am what I am not.”

“I am the being whose existence precedes his essence.”

“I know who I am, and I know that I can be whoever I want to be.”

So, who’s right, Popeye or Sartre? And does it make any difference?

Well, turns out, it makes all difference in the world; and for my money at least, Popeye gets the short end of the stick.

Question: how did Popeye come to be who he is? If he chose that identity, then he could just as easily unchoose it. But if he is who he is and that’s all that he is, then he does not have the power to change and therefore he did not choose who he is in the first place.

If I am what I am and that’s all that I am, then I am basically an automaton. I am a product of my nature and my nurture. I do not get to create myself. I am what someone or something else created.

Ironically, Popeye, who masqueraded as our liberator, was just our parents in nautical garb. In the end, Popeye wanted us to be just exactly the same people our parents wanted us to be.

No wonder our generation was obsessed with the question, “Who am I?” We were convinced by Popeye (and many other cultural influences) that each of us had some hidden, as yet undiscovered, identity. We relentlessly peeled off the layers of our onion in hopes of finding a gem inside.

There was no end to the things we tried: sex, drugs and rock and roll, of course. Not to mention meditation and political action. In the end, we found exactly what should all along have expected to find: nothing! There is no secret identity. There is only the freedom to choose our identity and then to forge it.

Yet again, I ask, “So what?” Well, if I am what I am and that’s all that I am, then I’m not really responsible for my actions, am I? If I commit a crime, it was my nature to do so (a modern version of “the devil made me do it”). If my politics are racist, they are merely the product of the racist culture I grew up in. The very idea that identity could bound to nationality or race is vintage Popeye-ism (through there’s no reason to suppose that Popeye was a racist).

The stratification of society into classes (lie quiet Marx) is reinforced by the idea that I am destined to follow in my father’s footsteps when it comes to work (my relationship to the means of production).

Disparities in education trace to the tyranny of standardized testing (especially the all determining IQ). By the age of 13, many children in the North Atlantic community have already been assigned to “tracks” that in turn determine what they will have the opportunity to learn and what work they will be expected to do as adults.

So, in the true spirit of deconstruction (Jacques Derrida et al.), we see that Popeye only masqueraded as a liberator. When he said, “No!” he was really saying, “Yes,” because his No secretly presupposed the culture of conformism that he nominally opposed. In reality, he merely projected the ethos of 1950’s culture (conformism, keeping up with the Joneses, etc.) onto his adoring fans – and all the more brutally and effectively because he did it in disguise.

THE GREAT COMMANDMENT

The ‘Great Commandment’ appears in all three synoptic Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark & Luke) but it originates in the Old Testament Torah:

“…A scholar of the law (scribe) tested him (Jesus) by asking, ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He (Jesus) said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt. 22: 35-40)

In answering the scribe, Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus:

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and your whole being, and with your whole strength.” (Dt. 6: 4-5)

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lv. 19: 18b)

Scholars believe that these two Old Testament verses were already theologically linked prior to the time of Jesus. The Torah (‘law’) consists of 613 precepts; these two precepts are thought to summarize the other 611. Therefore, it was quite reasonable for Jesus to say, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

But is the Great Commandment two commandments…or one?

The scribe did not ask Jesus to name the greatest commandments (plural), but rather the greatest commandment (singular). Nor did he object to Jesus’ answer. Unlike some modern day media personalities, he did not say, “Rabbi, with due respect, you didn’t answer my question.”

In fact, in Mark’s version of the story (Mk. 12: 28 – 34), the scribe replies to Jesus, “Well said, teacher, you are right…”

There was no misunderstanding here: both Jesus and his questioners understood that these two mandates constituted a single commandment.

Plus, Jesus says, “the second is like it”. Jesus does not say that second is almost as important as the first or that it logically follows from the first; he says it is “like” the first. How should we understand this ‘like’?

  • That love of God and love of neighbor are co-equal aspects of a single law?
  • That there is one ‘Great Commandment’ but it can be stated in two different ways…and applied in two different contexts?
  • That one cannot truly love God without loving one’s neighbor and one cannot truly love one’s neighbor without loving God?
  • That loving God is loving neighbor and loving neighbor is loving God?

All of the above! It is together that these two precepts form “the greatest and first commandment”.

Either verse, without the other, may be valid and binding, but it is not the Great Commandment. “The whole law and the prophets” do not depend on either one of these precepts alone, or even on both precepts separately, but on both together.

This structure might have been challenging for some of Jesus’ contemporaries, but it should not be challenging for us today. We know, for example, that ‘quanta’ cannot be explained as either particles or as waves; their behavior can only be explained if we understand that they are both particles and waves.

We call this relationship complementarity and clearly the two verses of the Great Commandment need to be understood this way.

We also understand the notion of synergy. Together, as a single commandment, these two precepts mean something more than the two of them would mean by themselves. That ‘something more’ is what makes this commandment “the greatest” and why we are still writing about it more than 2,000 years later.

Yet, the revolutionary nature of the Great Commandment is easy to miss. Love God and love your neighbor: ho hum, Sunday school 101. But that is NOT what’s happening here!

Back to the text! “The second is like it…” Really? The second is like it? Like it? At first glance, this seems ridiculous. The two verses don’t look alike at all. One concerns our relationship with God, the almighty, the creator of heaven and earth; the other concerns our relationship with the schmuck down the street who doesn’t mow his lawn and plays his music loud on Saturday nights.

By saying, “The second is like it,” Jesus is effectively saying that love of God and love of neighbor are one and the same thing. That is what’s revolutionary!

But that’s still not all. Jesus quotes Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not like yourself (above) but as yourself! This is so revolutionary that it’s almost impossible to grasp. Love my neighbor as myself? As myself? Do you really mean to say that my neighbor is me and that I am my neighbor? Preposterous!

Of course, in certain respects I am not my neighbor. We have different genetic make-ups, different experiences and memories, different opinions on many, if not all, topics.

Yet, ontologically speaking, I most certainly am my neighbor! In the language of existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, I have the exact same essence (‘freedom’) and the exact same mis-en-scene with respect to the world (‘facticity’). In every important way, I am my neighbor, no matter how unalike we may be.

In the language of structuralism, identity is not a characteristic of subjects but of relations; my neighbor and I share the same fundamental relationship with the world around us. That is our shared ‘identity’.

In the language of Medieval Philosophy, my neighbor and I have different ‘accidents’ but the same ‘substance’.

For the most part, Jesus’ audience understood and accepted the need to love God; but they struggled with the bit about ‘neighbor’. In the Gospel of Luke, the scribe follows up on Jesus’ exposition of the Great Commandment with a question: “And who is my neighbor?” – one of the most piercing questions of all time and a question we are still debating hotly today. Jesus responds with the famous story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 – 29).

In our era, the problem is reversed. It has become quite fashionable to love one’s neighbor – or at least to profess love for one’s neighbor. Humanism, Globalism, Environmentalism, New Age Philosophy, Social Democracy, even Communism all proclaim concern for ‘neighbor’.

On the other hand, dear readers, you may well be asking yourselves, “Why do we need to love God in order to love our neighbors? Do we even need to believe in God? In fact, why do we need God at all? Isn’t love of neighbor enough?”

In this way our generation has turned the scribes of Jesus’ time on their heads. They might have asked Jesus, “Why do we need to love our neighbor in order to love God…isn’t love of God enough?”

To our generation, the notion that love of God is essential to love of neighbor is just as perplexing as the idea that love of neighbor is essential to love of God was to Jesus’ contemporaries. That is what makes the Great Commandment so profoundly revolutionary…and forever relevant. It is always counter-cultural.

As we saw earlier, love of neighbor is rooted in the recognition that our neighbor shares our ontological status (freedom & facticity). My neighbor is not just my equal; in some strange sense my neighbor is myself.

If this were not so, and if we didn’t instinctively sense that it is so, would anyone ever be able to “lay down his life for a friend?”

When I look at an inanimate object, I see a potential tool or obstacle or, perhaps, a thing of beauty. I do not see myself. But when I look at you, really look, something amazing happens: I see another me looking back. I see myself…in you, as you.

Seeing myself in you enables me to recognize who I am in relationship to the world. Without a ‘you’, could I see myself as anything but an object among objects? Would I be anything but an object among objects? Would I know myself at all?

Legend has it that human children raised by members of a non-human animal species, in isolation from other humans, come to regard themselves as members of that species.

Although I am of the world and in the world, I transcend the world; but I only discover that transcendence though you. You are my gateway to myself.

But what if you were not there? What if I were alone in a world of inanimate objects? Would I really be just another object among them?

According to Psalm 135 (Section IV), the answer could be yes: “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but do not speak; they have ears but do not hear; nor is there breath in their mouths. Their makers, and anyone who trusts in them, will become like them.”

But not necessarily! “…Our Lord is greater than all gods (idols).” (Ps. 135 v. 5) As we shall see shortly, God is the universal you, the uber-you. Because God exists, ‘you’ permeates all of creation.

So, is a linear, flat, deterministic world made up of strictly inanimate objects (as posited by Laplace) even possible? If a tree falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it make a sound? If a universe exists but no one experiences it, does that universe really exist?

Look to science. Quantum Mechanics has shown us that experience (e.g. measurement) is an integral part of what makes ‘reality’ real. Experience is a fundamental aspect of reality as we know it. No experience, no reality; no neighbor, no self!

In any event, Laplace’s world is not the world we live in! In the real world, there is reflection, there is experience, there is agency, there is freedom. But where did this come from? Even famous atheists agree that it could not have evolved naturally out of a pre-existent, inanimate world.

Nietzsche writes, “…there exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…but nothing exists apart from the whole.”

A.J. Ayer agrees, “There are no such things as objective moral values.”

But apparently Nietzsche and Ayer are wrong. I do judge, measure, compare and condemn all the time; and when I do, I refer to objective (i.e. transcendent) standards. Now I may misconstrue or misapply those standards but that doesn’t make them any less objective…or normative.

So, there is an element in the world that stands apart from the world, that transcends the world, that judges the world and that element could not have evolved naturally out of a purely inanimate world. It must co-exist with the world as a fundamental structure of Being, from Big Bang to Heat Death.  That universal but transcendent element is what we call God.

Essentially, God is Beauty, Truth, Justice, et al. These are God’ values and, according to both Sartre and Aquinas (strange bedfellows), these values are God. But as pointed out above, existentially, God is the uber-neighbor, the universal you. Because God exists, the world existed even before creatures evolved the capacity to love their neighbors; because God exists, I exist even before I have truly encountered a human other.

Otherness, you-ness, neighbor-ness is fundamental to the structure of our world. And therefore, God is fundamental to the structure of our world. Therefore, you cannot truly love your neighbor without loving God any more than you can truly love God without loving your neighbor. The Great Commandment!

THE MEANING OF MUSIC

(This essay is dedicated to Gary Crispell who taught me everything I know about music.)

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet)

Shakespeare doesn’t give us a lot of details about that philosophy, but we may infer from the context that Horatio was a naïve realist. His motto: “What you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG). His world view: heavily influenced, if not fully formed, by the vocabulary and syntax of the late Indo-European language he spoke. The content of this thoughts: objects, actions and qualities (nouns, verbs and adjectives).

400 years later, James Joyce (Ulysses) reprised Horatio in the character of Buck Mulligan who was a foil for Dedalus in the same way that Horatio was for the Prince of Denmark.

Ok, but what does any of this have to do with “the meaning of music”? Broadly stated, music is a window on just exactly those things that are not dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy – things that are not easily expressed by nouns, verbs and adjectives.

But what do we ‘mean’ by ‘meaning’ anyway? Meaning is the relationship between a set of ‘signifiers’ (A) and a set of ‘signifieds’ (B). We say, “A (signifier) means B (signified).”

A and B cannot intersect; they cannot have any common members. Each must utterly transcend the other. Of course, the same item may be a signifier in one context and a signified in another, but it cannot properly be both in the same context.

Therefore, nothing can ‘be its own meaning’ (or ‘mean itself’). That would be a misuse of the word ‘meaning’. ‘To Mean’, by definition, refers to something beyond. Otherwise, it is not ‘meaning’ but ‘being’.

A set of signifiers ‘means’ a set of signifieds to the extent that it resonates with and elucidates those signifieds. Language is a set of signifiers. Language is often used to define and describe patterns in the so-called ‘real world’. We say that such language is meaningful to the extent that it elucidates ‘real world’ patterns in a way that ‘resonates’ with us as true.

(What do we mean when we talk about ‘the real world’? That’s the subject of another essay, or book, or library. We will not approach it here. In this essay we will assume that there is an ‘external world’ (Bertrand Russell) and that we have at least a passing familiarity with that world.)

Le degree zero of meaning is the denotation of words strung together in well formed formulae known as sentences. Sadly, for most of us, this is all we ‘mean’ when we talk about ‘meaning’. Outrageously, some early 20th century philosophers (logical positivists and ordinary language philosophers) actually encouraged us to accept this narrow thought horizon.

Fortunately, however, such spare communication is the exception rather than the rule, at least outside the realm of science and engineering. In ordinary speech, the connotation of words is often as important as their denotation; but even that only scratches the surface of how words can convey meaning.

Metaphor is meaning, for example, and mythology is metaphor writ large.

In the hands of creative writers, especially poets, the sounds of words and the images they conjure up may be more meaningful than either their denotations or their connotations.

When combined with gesture in drama or with tone in song, words can be vehicles for meanings far beyond the scope of ordinary language.

But why stop here? Words are not the only ‘signifiers’; what about the visual image in a painting, for example? What about music?

Any pattern that resonates with and elucidates another pattern is a signifier. Therefore, I can say that ‘le livre’ (French) means ‘the book’ (English). In this case, depending on the context, either term may be the signifier, either term the signified; but French and English, for the most part at least, remain distinct.

We are immersed in a sea of signifiers and signifieds. You could make a case for the proposition that such immersion is what constitutes human life, or at least, human culture. Yet, one set of potential signifieds claims special status in our thinking, so special that we call this set ‘the real world’.

More than anything else these days, we want our signifiers to teach us about the world we live in and about our place in it.

Superficially, this looks easy. Our native language (whatever it may be) provides a ready-made grid (Derrida’s logos) for dividing up the welter of sensations, perceptions and experiences into manageable units. In the case of late Indo-European languages, we are mainly talking about objects, actions and qualities.

In our time, we even have the Scientific Method to help us verify that our language maps accurately conform to patterns in the real world. We look to language to help us decode our surroundings and function successfully within those surroundings; and for the most part, it does a pretty good job.

Yet, many of us are not satisfied. Like Hamlet, we feel that there is more to reality than ordinary language and scientific method can reveal. We sense deeper, more complex patterns, below the level of perception, but perhaps not always below the level of intuition or feeling.

Those of us who find ourselves in this dilemma look to satisfy our hunger outside the limits of ordinary language, in poetry for example. Literature, poetry, drama, song, all strive to overcome language’s inherently linear structure to express non-linear realities.

But we also need to look outside the confines of language. Polyphonic music, for example, is inherently non-linear; it is ideally suited to the exploration and expression of those aspects of reality that, like the Nile in springtime, necessarily overflow the banks of language.

Of course, from pop tunes to operas, music often incorporates language and further extends the expressive power of that language. But I am concerned here with music that does not intersect with language, i.e. non-choral, instrumental music, and especially with that music we Westerners are used to calling “classical”.

Like language, music has a kind of vocabulary (tones) and a sort of syntax (keys). But most, and certainly the best, classical music does not use those tones to represent any object, action or quality in the ‘real world’. In music, non-choral music at least, there is no denotation at all. So then how can there be meaning?

When I say that a sentence has meaning, I mean that it refers to some state of affairs in the pre-verbal (‘real’) world and expresses that state of affairs as a pattern that in some way elucidates it and resonates with us as true.

This is exactly what music does! Music consists of patterns of sounds (melodies, harmonies, rhythms) and a musical composition is an uber-pattern of such patterns. Music reflects on the ‘real world’ (but usually not on the phenomenal world) and models that world using sound. Earlier, we spoke of ‘language maps’; here we might speak of ‘tonal maps’.

Music, for the most part, is not about scientific theories, perceptions, experiences, and narratives. Rather, it is about the structure of Being that lies below what can be perceived with the senses.

As mentioned above, elements of this ‘deep structure’, not accessible to sense perception, may yet be accessible to intuition, to feeling. Some elements, however, may lie even more deeply buried. These elements can only be addressed through faith, hope and love.

Music may be compared to mythology (see above). Every major score attempts to tell the story of Being…but each tells it from a different perspective. Like a mythological system, every major musical work attempts to provide us with the musical equivalent of a TOE (a “theory of everything”).

Then why so many scores? When we approach Being, we are like blind monks approaching an elephant. Each of us touches a different part of the elephant (ear, trunk, leg, tail, etc.) and each of us comes away with a different image of the elephant – all correct…but all incomplete. There is always something new to be discovered about an elephant and, likewise, there is always something new to be discovered about Being.

We cannot translate music into philosophy, into words.  The best music utterly transcends the expressive power of language. Yet I feel I must give some hint as to what I mean when I talk about patterns in the real world that music may elucidate. One such pattern might be the nature of identity and difference; another, the process of change.

When and how does one melodic theme become another, one rhythmic pattern another? How far can one pattern be stretched before it become something else? Music is the medium best suited to explore these questions. Music penetrates beneath the phenomenal surface into the realm of the pre-verbal. Here we may approach, dare I say it, the mind of God.

Just exactly how do I dare say it? Earlier we said that meaning takes place when a set of signifiers resonates with and elucidates a set of signifieds. When does that happen? It happens when, and to the extent that, the signifier is beautiful (resonant) and true (elucidatory) with respect to the signified.

Now beauty and truth (along with justice) are the primary values of God in most Western theologies; and God’s values, i.e. his essence, constitutes what is often called “the mind of God”. Recall that self-proclaimed atheist, Jean-Paul Sartre, said, insightfully, that God is the being whose essence precedes his existence. In other words, God is his essence; God is beauty, truth and justice.

We pray the Psalms, for instance, in order to conform our minds, our values, our will to God’s. Remember, God is his essence; we, on the other hand, are left to freely choose ours (Sartre).

Music elucidates the pre-verbal, non-phenomenal structures of the real world. Its ‘meaning’ is not subject to logical analysis, scientific verification or mathematical proof. The only test of music’s validity is its beauty. As Keats famously wrote, “Beauty is truth and truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

When we listen to a gorgeous composition, we are not just entertained; we have a ‘meaning-full’ experience. And when the beauty of a particular performance or a particular score utterly overwhelms, it is not too much to hope that we are drawing near the mind of God.