Here’s a piece I wrote explaining the mathematics behind the peculiar phenomenon of acoustic ‘beats’.
It’s a bit maths-y. But for those that don’t love maths quite as much as I do, it also has some interesting graphics and a few rather strange sound clips.
Bondi Junction, August 2016
I am re-committing to memory my old piano repertoire which, 25 years ago, comprised somewhat over an hour of music.
Playing complex piano pieces from memory amazes me. Any form of memorised material is impressive, but piano seems weirdest because one doesn’t have to just memorise a melody, but all the chords and counterpointal parts as well. There are usually three to eight notes being played at once, so superficially it sounds as though one has to memorise three to eight separate parts and play them simultaneously. It’s not really that hard (unless it’s a five-part fugue by JS Bach, and I haven’t memorised any fugues yet) because while there may be three notes in an A major triad in second inversion, they are not just any old three notes. They are three notes that nearly always go together. So one can just remember that there’s a triad there, rather than remembering three separate notes.
But still, there’s an awful lot of stuff to remember. I think concert pianists and Shakespearean actors are the most impressive to me in terms of memory feats.
I find it astounding to what extent the fingers – after a fair bit of effort at memorising – just know which notes to play. If you asked me what the next chord was, I could play it, but I couldn’t tell you beforehand what it was. I might even need a run-up to play it, because it seems that playing the chords leading up to it set the context that enables my fingers to ‘know’ what comes next. I know this because if I get lost and have to get re-started, there are only certain points in the piece from which I can start cold.
I have read that it’s really the Cerebellum that ‘remembers’ what to play, not the fingers. But it feels like it’s the fingers.
One can commit a piece to memory either consciously, so that one can say out loud what comes next – what chord it is, which notes and perhaps which of passages A, B, C or D it is in a Rondo structure – or unconsciously, by just playing it over and over from sheet music until it gets programmed into one’s subconscious.
I think it is safest to learn both ways.
Committing the piece to conscious memory is a safeguard against a crisis of faith or a sudden disorientation. Playing unconsciously relies on context to know what comes next and it needs faith so that one trusts one’s fingers to do the right thing. As soon as one loses context or faith – easy to do when under pressure in a performance – one can lose the ability to let one’s fingers do the work.
It is like the art of flying in the fourth HitchHiker book (‘So long and thanks for all the fish‘) or a Roadrunner cartoon where Wile E Coyote accidentally runs over a cliff but only falls when he looks down and realises where he is. You only lose the ability to fly when you remember that it is impossible. Then you suddenly plummet.
There is a very long trill in a Chopin Nocturne that mixes me up because it covers three notes and is more complex than an ordinary trill. I can play it fine, and very fast, as long as I don’t think about it. But because it’s long, I usually end up inadvertently thinking about what my fingers are doing about halfway through and then getting muddled. The last few times I have succeeded in playing it right through without mistake by looking around the room as I play it, focusing on things I see – keeping my mind occupied by anything except what my fingers are doing.
My fingers playing music are like me doing maths. They are very good at it as long as nobody is watching. But as soon as somebody is watching it turns to mud. Young children enjoy tormenting me by sidling up to me and asking me something embarrassingly easy like ‘differentiate x squared!‘ and then staring at me intently so that my brain won’t work (like a watched pot).
But if one also knows consciously what comes next, one can silently tell oneself to play an E flat diminished chord in the second inversion, or to reprise theme B, one octave higher. One knows how to do that, so one does it – no faith required. The conscious brain acts as scab labour to supplant the striking union of the unconscious fingers.
Although both conscious and unconscious memory always have a role to play, I feel that this time I am learning a lot more unconsciously than I did 25 years ago. I can see how much conscious involvement there was in 1991 because some of the scores still have the pencilled notes I wrote on them to help me categorise and memorise the thematic and harmonic structure of each piece. It’s more enjoyable learning subconsciously. But it’s higher risk to do only that, if one has to perform.
I have been finding that, once one has committed a piece thoroughly to memory, it is quite peaceful and meditative to play without thinking about the notes one is playing. One thinks about the music, because one puts the feeling into the piece by variations in loudness and pace, but not about the microstructure of the notes. That is beyond one’s gaze, being taken care of by the fingers/cerebellum.
It is important to keep one’s mind on the music though, otherwise the relentless, angst-ridden chatter of the modern monkey mind comes in to disturb the peace. I can remember occasions of playing pieces in the past, whether from sheet music or from memory, with my mind completely oblivious to the music and instead working philistinically though every grievance, anxiety and obsession it could find, re-running past conversations and projecting future ones at a rate that would make a Boddhisattva wince and that could generate material for at least three psychology PhD theses.
I wonder what concert performers do – whether they do both, or just one and if so which one? Or does it vary between performers?
In case anyone is interested, here are the pieces from the 1991 repertoire, showing which ones have so far been re-learned:
- Beethoven Pathetique Sonata, all three movements (2nd and 3rd re-learned so far)
- Mozart C major sonata, all three movements
- Beethoven Moonlight Sonata First movement (the famous one)
- Beethoven Fur Elise (re-learned)
- Debussy First Arabesque (re-learned)
- Debussy Clair de Lune
- Chopin Nocturne in E flat major (re-learned)
Mr Beebe would say ‘Too much Beethoven‘.
But I will never be able to competently play the fiendishly difficult Opus 111 sonata whose crashing rendition by the troubled Miss Honeychurch prompted those immortal words.
I have vague aspirations to extend the list if I manage to re-learn all of it. I have in mind to do one of Faure’s three lovely impromptus. Given my comment above, I am tempted to also take up the challenge of attempting to memorise a Bach fugue. I probably shall. Sadly, nobody in my circle of friends and family seems to really like Bach fugues. Perhaps he really wrote them for the enjoyment of the performer rather than for the listener.
Bondi Junction, July 2016
Although this third movement is less “pathetic” than the preceding ones, the player alone will be to blame should the Pathetic Sonata end apathetically.
Thus writes the author of Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics, at the foot of the first page of the score of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique (That’s ‘Pathetic’ as in pathos, ie emotionally moving, not as in contemptible, in case you were wondering). The bold font emphasis was added by me, by the way – it’s not in the original.
Many were the admonitions of this type that one used to encounter in learning, performing and reading about music. I don’t know if such admonitions still abound, but I used to take them very much to heart.
Here’s another gem from the last page of the same movement:
In proportion to the greater or lesser degree of passion put forth by the player before the calando, this latter is to be conceived as a diminuendo and ritardando. Excess in either direction is, of course, reprehensible.
A piano teacher once told me that, while Mozart piano sonatas seemed easy to play, especially the slow movements, they were actually especially difficult because their smooth lightness and sustained notes would ‘expose’ the inadequacy of any player whose touch upon the keys was not delicate and even. I interpreted this as meaning that only an impostor would attempt to play a Mozart Sonata without first obtaining the very highest degree of musical performance qualification possible. Their crime of trying to hide their lack of skill behind the apparent simplicity of the score would be exposed by the very first unplanned variation in pressure ( a ‘plonk’ in lay terms) leading to their justly deserved shame and humiliation and, it is to be hoped, excommunication from any future association with decent, honest, genuine music lovers.
Although I did take this sort of sermon to heart, I nevertheless dared to play sonatas by Mozart. I enjoyed it. But I just had to secretly hope that no true music connoisseurs would ever hear me, perhaps as they walked past the open window of the room in which I was playing, and be goaded into a rage by my lack of finesse – not to mention the unmitigated temerity of presuming to play Mozart. I imagined they would feel it were as though I had reanimated the corpse of Wolfgang Amadeus himself, just so I could slap him in the face and jeer at him.
I don’t think that any more. In fact, I may have swung so far to the opposite extreme that I have to remind myself not to be too intolerant of those poor souls that do happen to be internationally renowned piano virtuosi.
In short, I love amateur music. There is a point at which it may become difficult to listen to, as with a tone deaf singer or the tuneless screeching of a child unwillingly doing their ten minutes a day practice on the clarinet or violin. But short of that (and even that isn’t too bad, but that’s another essay) I find that musical flaws enhance rather than detract from the performance, as long as the player’s heart is in it. Sincerity and enthusiasm is all that’s needed to make a performance truly marvellous.
My youngest daughter will graduate this year from high school, after which I will no longer have a socially acceptable reason to attend performances of school musical ensembles, whose enthusiasm is often in inverse proportion to their skill. What a pity! Like a Persian carpet, where (it is said) the maker always includes a deliberate flaw because only Allah is allowed to be perfect, the flaws in an amateur musical performance are an essential ingredient, without which the performance would lack – I don’t know, maybe ‘soul’?
For ensembles of young children, the many mistakes, constantly varying level of pitch accuracy and plodding pace are, of course, adorable. But my liking for amateur music is not limited to a sentimental fondness for kitsch cuteness. I feel just as warmly about performances by tall, spotty adolescents in rock bands – as long as they have not been stage managed by Simon Cowell and do not have PR agents in tow. What is important is sincerity and enthusiasm. The occasional (or frequent) mistake emphasises the humanity of the performer.
And in any case, a liking of cuteness could not explain my recently acquired toleration of my own mistakes since, if I recall correctly, some biologist or other (was it Richard Dawkins? Or perhaps Francis Collins? I get them mixed up. Goodness knows they have so much in common) has proven conclusively that it is impossible for any individual member of any mammalian species to find itself cute. I’m not talking about pretending to be cute. All humans seem to do that at a certain age. But pretending to be cute is not the same as finding oneself cute. Indeed, it requires a healthy dose of cynicism to pretend to be naively clumsy and inarticulate just to manipulate the emotions of those around you. It must be done with a cold, clear, calculating mind and a total awareness of what one is doing, and leaves no possibility open for being taken in by one’s own deception. Or so I imagine. It is many years since I discarded any hope of garnering positive attention by feigning sweet ingenuity.
I digress. Refocussing: I think perhaps it is the humanity revealed through their imperfections that make amateur performances so valuable. We have had flawless performances available ever since the piano roll was invented. No doubt it is now possible for a computer to produce a virtuoso performance of a piece of music direct from the written score. I’m not knocking that. Even when that is done, we still have the human element provided by the composer. I doubt the day will ever come when a computer can write something like Beethoven’s fifth symphony. And if it does, I may find myself believing that the computer has attained consciousness.
But music is an activity for participation, not passive observation. Even apparently passive listening often involves participation of some sort. If one taps one’s foot, sways a little to the rhythm, or hums along, maybe out loud or maybe silently inside one’s head, one is participating. If that mild level of participation is enjoyable and life-affirming, how much more so when one is fully involved in producing the music? Churches seem to have understood this for a long time, with hymns that all the congregation participates in singing. I also think of the wonderful chants that some African villagers do, and of Australian Aboriginal corroborrees. As I understand it, these are social activities, in which all tribe members participate, rather than demonstrations of skill.
When one is learning to play an instrument or, having learned the instrument, trying to master a difficult new piece on the instrument, it can be disheartening to think that, however much effort one might put in, one will never be able to perform the piece as well as a computer program programmed by a mildly competent computer nerd, regardless of whether they have any musical ability. It is a little sad to think that the role of musical performance could be supplanted by instruments played by computers. My response to such negative thoughts is to remind myself that a critical part of any performance is the personal experience of the performer. It will be many centuries before they can program a computer to not only perform Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’, but to enjoy playing it as well.
That experience of playing multiplies when one is part of an ensemble. It is especially so in a choir, when one can feel the harmonies with the other singers resonating throughout one’s body.
I think the knowledge that there is an important experience of the performer is part of the experience of the listener too. If we reflect on it, we can feel that the performer is feeling the music and, in a way, communicating to us through the music. It would be different, a less complete experience, if the music were being performed by a (non-sentient) computer and we knew that to be the case.
And that’s why I think international piano competitions are bad! Does that opinion follow smoothly enough from the previous paragraph? No? Well, never mind, that’s how I feel. Like many of my opinions, that particular one (which is only a minor aspect of my overall preference for amateur music) was planted in my head by another. It was a talk given by an Australian that was an internationally renowned concert pianist – I forget their name – about how damaging the world of international piano competitions is to musical appreciation, as well as to the lives that compete in them. Most of the contestants are virtuosos, whose difference in skill can only be discerned by the most experienced of connoisseurs. Yet one person will win and be declared ‘better’ than the others. What nonsense. Perhaps the problem is that there are too many virtuoso pianists and not enough paid jobs for them.
The Berlin Philharmonic is an amazing orchestra and tremendous to listen to. But I wonder whether my daughter’s high school orchestra sounds more like the orchestras that premiered works by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or Schubert, than the Berlin Phil. From what I have read, the musicians of late eighteenth century Vienna were poorly paid, possibly ill and malnourished and distracted by the worldly cares that beset the financially insecure. They frequently had insufficient opportunity to learn and practice a new piece – sometimes with score changes occurring mid-rehearsal – and the halls in which they performed were irregularly heated, which would have driven constant variations in tuning. My brother and sister-in-law married in a small, freezing stone church in the midst of a dark Oxford winter. I remember the sounds of the string quartet drifting in and out of tune as they played ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’. The pitch went up when an eddy blew warm air from the bar heater towards them, and down when the warmth moved away. When I think about it, I realise that that is probably the way the piece was meant to be played. From what we know of JS Bach, the Leipzig churches in which his pieces were performed were probably even colder and draftier than the one in Oxford. There were no electric bar heaters in 1725.
And yet, even though the premier performances of those works may have been riddled with faults, the audiences still responded with adulation and rapturous applause. They could see past the occasional wrong note, loss of synchronisation and variation in pitch, to the underlying genius and emotional power of the composition, and the sincerity of the performers.
I don’t want to sound critical of virtuoso performers and ensembles. They are valuable too and have a key role to play in the world of music. I have no reason to doubt their dedication and sincerity or their enjoyment of the music they play. It is marvellous to hear every now and then a highly skilled performance of some challenging orchestral work. There are some, like Mahler’s second symphony (‘Resurrection’), that are so gargantuan – in both length and number of musicians and different instruments required – that it’s just not feasible to perform it with anything other than a top-level, fully professional orchestra. But they are not what music is about, just as teams like the All Blacks or Manchester United are not what sport is about. Attending an FA Cup Final or a Super Bowl would be a great experience but, given a choice between never being able to watch professional sport again and never being able to watch my children play sport, or play sport myself, I would give up watching professional sport in an instant. And it’s the same with music.
Have you ever been in a meeting or other group activity that was just dragging along, keeping you teetering interminably on the edge of profound boredom? It happens to me quite often.
When children are caught in this sort of situation – such as in church or on a long car journey – they can relieve their feelings by complaining to their responsible adult ‘I’M BORED’ or ‘Are we there yet?‘
But we poor adults do not have that excellent outlet available to us. Partly because we have no responsible adult to complain to, and partly because people would judge us if we were to blurt out such phrases.
So I thought it was time that somebody came to the rescue of the wretched responsible adults that have to endure these situations. To that end, I am starting a series devoted to equipping adults with the tools to amuse themselves and stave off boredom, when caught in unexciting, unavoidable group activities.
I don’t know how long the series will be – perhaps not long at all. It is, after all, so much harder for adults to amuse themselves than it is for children, to whom everything is new and exciting (until they reach adolescence, when suddenly everything becomes old and beneath contempt).
Here, then, is my first piece of Useful Advice For Bored Adults.
Stand on one leg!
Start by lifting one foot just a little off the floor, and see how long you can keep it off. If you only lift it a tiny bit, nobody will notice, and it may not affect your balance much. You may find you can do it for ages.
Once you’ve mastered that, which might be straightaway, or might take a little while, start increasing the height to which you raise the foot. The higher it goes, the higher one’s centre of gravity is and the easier it is to overbalance.
Don’t overdo it with the high foot. If you raise your foot above your waist, people might start to look at you funny. But kudos to you if you can do that and remain balanced though. I couldn’t do it to save my life.
I recommend that, once you can sustain the foot at near knee level, you move to the next phase, which I think of as the Aboriginal pose. I think that name springs up in my mind because when I was a wee lad, for some reason the pictures we were shown of traditionally-living Australian Aborigines in the outback often showed them standing like this. I am a little nervous of calling it that in a public blog, lest anybody think it disrespectful. That is certainly not my intent. And, since the ability to sustain the pose is an admirable skill, I am hoping that it is not considered disrespectful. It certainly seems no worse, and probably much better, than saying that somebody gave a ‘Gallic shrug’, which seems a fairly accepted (if somewhat dated) turn of phrase that is by no means complementary to our French cousins.
Here’s what that pose consists of: you lift one leg and bring the foot of that leg to rest with the sole against the side of the knee of the other leg. More advanced practitioners may even rest the foot on the thigh above the knee. Rookies may content themselves with resting the foot against the upper part of the calf.
I can do this pose a bit. I find that I can rest motionless for a while like that – maybe up to twenty seconds – then I start having to make lots of little adjustments with my planted foot to try to remain in balance. These adjustments increase in frequency and amplitude until either I overbalance and have to put the foot down, or – magical relief – I re-attain a stable body position. The latter doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s like winning gold at the Olympics! One looks around in triumph, just a little puzzled as to why the others in the group activity haven’t broken out in rapturous applause.
While engaged in this entertainment, I often overhear myself telling myself that not only am I staving off boredom, but I am burning calories, toning my leg muscles, getting closer to nature (really?) and building a much-needed sense of balance. This is based on a total number of scientific studies that was, at last count, approximately none. But I still feel good about it.
Plus, you get to feel like a four-year old for a while.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned for the next instalment – ‘drawing stars’.
By the way, could it be that the reason for standing on one foot in the outback is to minimise the amount of heat soaked in from the hot sand? If so, that sounds like a very sensible arrangement. But whatever the reason, I remember always thinking that traditionally-living aborigines must have a much better sense of balance than we clumsy Europeans.
Oh, and one last thing. Remember to switch feet from time to time. Otherwise you’ll end up getting all asymmetric, like Arnold Schwarzenegger on one side of your body and Woody Allen on the other.
Which would make it hard to find clothes that fit.
Bondi Junction, April 2016
Last night I dreamed of Voldemort.
There’s nothing so strange about that – he’s a memorable character. What makes this worthy of comment is that I realised this morning, for the first time, that I regularly have dreams about Voldemort. But until recently, I have always forgotten them. This is the first time I realised that they are a recurring phenomenon.
They are fairly dramatic dreams. It’s a classic tale of the good (presumably that’s me, and my companions if I have any) trying to find the courage to face up to evil, to confront it, struggle against it – and the fear it evokes – and, one hopes, to vanquish it. Or at least to banish it until the next time it shows up.
Details are sketchy, and would be boring to relate. But the recurring scenario seems to be that, like Harry Potter, I need to venture into Voldemort’s lair (like Frodo going into Mordor) in order to try to bring his plans undone.
There is no absolute need for me to fight Voldemort – no duel with wands at twelve paces or anything like that. But I need to sneak into his headquarters like a secret agent, perhaps to steal some plans or sabotage some special evil-doing equipment he has constructed. I can’t remember the reasons why I need to go into his headquarters, but I do remember that the mission is essential if evil is not to triumph, and that I am very afraid that he will detect my presence and leap out of a wardrobe or somesuch and fling the full weight of his malevolent powers at me. And he does – every time. No matter how quietly I creep about, Voldemort always detects my presence and suddenly leaps out of a wardrobe to attack me with a splendid and terrifying roar.
What happens next I cannot remember. But something extended happens, because he doesn’t win instantly, killing me stone dead on the spot. Maybe some sort of supernatural scuffle and or flight/pursuit ensues and sooner or later I wake up out of that on account of all the excitement.
I don’t want to get too Freudian, but I can’t help feeling that these dreams tell me something. The idea of confronting one’s fears and deliberately going into danger, because it is the right thing to do, may have a strong emotional pull on me. I am, at heart, a romantic, notwithstanding my obsession with mathematics and the correct use of grammar.
A rather more surprising aspect is that the dream involves imagining a character that is supposed to be pure evil. It surprised me because I believe the idea of ‘pure evil’ is dangerous, hyperbolic nonsense. I don’t believe anybody is purely evili. We all do some good things and some bad things. Some people – serial killers, dictators, rednecked talkback radio hosts – do lots of extremely bad things, but I expect even they are not purely evil. I expect they are sometimes kind – to family, to friends, even to strangers that manage to excite their interest or compassion – in those occasional lulls of peace between slaughtering hitchhikers, invading neutral countries and stoking up hatred in resentful white heterosexuals for Muslims, gays or environmental activists.
I don’t believe that evil can be personified – that people like Sauron, Satan, Voldemort or The Penguin are possible. Although I then ask myself ‘Are we really supposed to see the mythological figure of Satan as pure evil?‘. Satan is actually a very interesting fictional character. Some of his complexity may stem from the delightfully baroque Roman Catholic teaching on evil – first cooked up by St Augustine in the fourth century. It says that evil is not a ‘thing’, ie it is not a substance or spirit or anything like that. It is just an absence of another thing that is a thing, which is the ‘good‘. It’s an interesting position, and quite appeals to me, up until the bit where it suggests that the ‘good‘ is a thing. That’s a bit too ectoplasmic for me – the idea that there’s some sort of invisible, nonphysical substance called ‘good’ that floats about and goes here but not there (one wonders, can it be hoovered up by those ectoplasm suction guns that the Ghostbusters use?). It’s needlessly multiplying entities, I reckon. Much easier to just say that people sometimes do kind things and sometimes do mean things, and some people do more of one than the other. William of Ockham would not approve of ‘goodness as a thing‘ (although, being RC, maybe he pretended to, in order to avoid being burnt).
Back to Satan, then: the interesting thing about him is that he isn’t portrayed even in orthodox Christian texts as being pure evil. His story is just that of an angel that didn’t want to serve as an angel any more and so – in what appears to me to be an admirable display of honesty and integrity – resigned. Some bits of the Bible such as the book of Job portray Satan as pretty nasty (but then Yahweh doesn’t come out of Job looking very nice either) but there seems room to view him as a complex, conflicted, multi-faceted figure. Certainly not the sort of person you’d want your daughter to marry, or that you’d trust to do your tax accounts, but not bad enough to deserve exile to an eternity of torment either. I haven’t read Paradise Lost but, by eavesdropping on more literate people that have, I have gained the impression that maybe what Milton was trying to do there was investigate that complexity: Satan as exile, as rebel, as lonely iconoclast.
I digress. Sorry about that. Yes, well I don’t believe in evil as freestanding substance, and I certainly don’t believe in entities that personify evil. So it’s interesting that I dream regularly about battling a character who was created to represent pure evil. Does it mean that my disbelief in evil is purely intellectual, and that deep down I am as credulous and fearful of evil spirits as a Neolithic cave-dweller? Perhaps. Who knows?
Or perhaps even Voldemort is not pure evil. After all, JK Rowling does give him an unhappy childhood, to hint at the idea that maybe he was not always that way – that he was as much a product of his environment as anybody else.
But then I can’t be 100% sure that the terrifying Dark Lord in my dream is always Voldemort. All I know for sure is that in the most recent dream it was Voldemort, and that the dream series in general is about a stupendously powerful being (much more powerful than me) that wishes harm to all sentient beings in the universe. Perhaps other dreams are about Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, or John Le Carré’s Soviet spymaster Karlaii.
Thank goodness my dream self has enough courage to go through with the daring mission each time. It would be mortifying if the last scene of the dream, instead of a big fight-or-flight with a terrifying Dark Lord, saw me skulking about at home in shame and humiliation, having realised that I was too scared to go on the mission that was the free world’s last chance.
I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I have one of the bravest dream selves in the observable universe. Now there’s a boast to conjure with! Who else can claim as much?
Bondi Junction, March 2016
i And No, Tim Minchin, – much as I love most of your work and, like you, detest the power structures and many of the teachings of the RC church – not even George Pell.
ii Or perhaps the Daleks of course. We mustn’t forget about them!
When I first read Les Misérables, I was miffed to find that the first one hundred or so pages were taken up with a character that does not even appear in the musical – Monseigneur Myriel, the saintly bishop of Digne (saintly as in incredibly kind, not as in pious). That hundred pages is basically devoted to painting a picture of just how saintly Mgr Myriel is.
When you know you have 1800 pages ahead of you and are impatient for Jean Valjean (the hero) or Javert (his primary antagonist) to appear, you don’t have much patience for detailed portraits of peripheral characters, however saintly. Mgr Myriel’s sole role in the story is to be the first person that shows the cold, starving, exhausted Jean Valjean some compassion, as Jean makes his way on foot from the prison galleys in Toulon, where he was finally released after nineteen years’ penal servitude, to Pontarlier in Central Eastern France, which is several hundred kilometres to the north. Valjean’s attempts to buy food or shelter along his way are rejected by innkeepers, peasants and even local jail-keepers who distrust and fear him because they know he is a former convict. Valjean seems destined to starve or freeze to death until the bishop takes him in and treats him like an honoured guest. Despite that, Valjean sneaks out of the bishop’s house in the middle of the night, stealing away most of the bishop’s silverware with him – the bishop’s only possessions of any value. When the police arrest Valjean next morning and bring him to the bishop, expecting the bishop to accuse him and thus complete an easy arrest for them, the bishop instead says ‘No, I gave all that to M. Valjean, and also, you silly sausage, you forgot to take these that I gave you as well’ (and hands over to the astonished Valjean the few remaining pieces of silverware). This act of unfathomable kindness stuns Valjean, gives him much to think about, and changes his life (but not instantly: he still manages to steal a shilling off a small kid later that day before he finally ‘sees the light’ – a baroque flourish that is omitted from the musical).
There you have it – one hundred and fifty pages summarised in a paragraph!
Victor Hugo is given to these long diversions. Later in the book there is a very long, technical diversion about the topography of the field in which the battle Waterloo was fought – apparently just to show what a villainous knave the innkeeper Thénardier is (‘Master of the ‘ouse’). And another later on, almost one hundred pages long, describing the construction and layout of the sewers of Paris – just because Valjean will escape the police by going through these, carrying the half-dead body of Marius, his daughter’s boyfriend.
In most cases these interpolations are irritating. They subtract momentum from one’s reading and cause one to lose interest. That’s how I felt on my first reading of Les Mis. There was no momentum to lose, because Mgr Myriel is introduced on page 1, but one is beset by impatience to meet Jean Valjean and come to grips with the famous story. ‘Why are we wasting time on this bloody bishop?’ the impatient reader (me) asks themselves, and ‘We get it already, he’s a very kind person, can we move on now?’
But on the second reading it was different. I already knew the story. I knew when JvJ would enter, and why, and I knew what role the bishop would play. So, the impatience having been neutralised, I was alert for little details, items of colour and feeling, that were not essential to the plot, but instead artistic features of what is better considered as a vast tapestry.
And on that second occasion, I found myself entranced and inspired by Mgr Myriel. Unlike cardboard cut-out goodies like Dickens’s Little Nell or Little Dorrit (with Dickens, you always know you’re in for some insufferable Victorian sentimentality when somebody appears with the word Little prefixed to their name), Mgr Myriel seems real. One can imagine that there really are such people – rare, yes, but not extinct. I heard the retired heretical bishop Richard Holloway interviewed on ABC radio a couple of years ago and he sounded a little like what one imagined Mgr Myriel might be like.
How was it Inspirational? Basically, it just made me want to be like Mgr Myriel. I am sadly aware that my troubled, deeply flawed character is a million miles away from that of Mgr Myriel – a ridiculous seething mass of passionate good intentions with very little in the way of good actions to match. But just observing first hand the operation of Mgr Myriel’s apparently bottomless well of compassion made me want to be more like him – even if it meant travelling only a few small steps along the way between where I am and where he is. And in addition, Hugo managed to make it seem possible, that one could be at least a little bit like that.
It’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Hugo’s presentation of Myriel so inspirational and believable and so different from the goody two-shoes vaunted by other Victorian-era authors. Being honest, I have to concede it’s possible that it’s just a consequence of the frame of mind one has when one reads about them. Maybe if I’d read about Little Nell in the right time and place she would be my inspiration. I doubt it, but one must always remain open to the possibility of being mistaken.
One key difference is that Hugo doesn’t content himself with telling us how kind Mgr Myriel is, or with quoting dialogue in which Myriel says pleasant, amiable things. Talk, after all, is cheap. No, what we see beyond his gentle, friendly speech is a long string of tremendously kind actions. Myriel, piece by piece, gives away almost everything he has to those less fortunate than him. Since he is a bishop, and bishops in those days were very wealthy, with palaces, coaches, large incomes and expense allowances, there is an awful lot to give. Having given away almost everything he has, he then researches what other allowances and claims he can make from the church in virtue of his office, does the paperwork to claim whichever ones he can, and then gives those away too.
But never does Myriel congratulate himself. He seems to subscribe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ adage. When asked why he gave this or that thing away, he replies to the effect that he was never entitled to possess it in the first place. But Myriel is no anarchist. His comments are not generalised philosophical points about the nature of private property, but about the specific treatment by society of the people to whom he gives these things. They have been dispossessed, by the operation of law, of privilege, of capitalism, of raw temporal power. As his employer’s policy manual says ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Bishop Myriel does his humble best to redress the imbalance created by the church and state by returning some of the world’s good things – those that he has in his power – to those from whom they have been taken (whether directly or indirectly).
Hugo writes Myriel’s dialogue in such a way that one can imagine doing and saying such things. His lines are not ethereal or sanctimonious, but practical and down-to-Earth. After giving the last remaining silver to Valjean, as well as saving him from a return to penal servitude (this time for life), he professes relief, telling his sister and housekeeper that he was embarrassed to be dining off silver when others in the village had no utensils at all, and that he feels much more relaxed eating his soup out of a wooden bowl.
Here’s a sample. Mgr Myriel is talking to the director of the small, overcrowded church hospital that is attached to his large, luxurious bishop’s palace, and has learned that they have too many people crammed in, in unbearably uncomfortable conditions. After a series of probing questions about conditions in the hospital, Myriel comes out with:
‘Look, Mister Hospital Director, this is what I reckon. There’s obviously been a mistake. You have twenty-six people in five or six little rooms. We have only three people in here [in the palace], where there is room for sixty. It’s a mistake I tell you. You have my lodgings and I’ll have yours. Give me my house [meaning the little hospital]. This one here is your house.’
No moralising, no sermons, no verbal niceties, just ‘Look – this is what we need to do‘.
He even has a sense of humour – a quality nearly always lacking in nineteenth century heroes. When the housekeeper discovers that Valjean has disappeared overnight and so has the silverware, the following dialogue ensues:
Housekeeper: Your excellency, your excellency, do you know where the basket of silverware is?
HK: Jesus-God be praised! I didn’t know what had become of it.
Bish: [Picks up and presents to the housekeeper the empty basket that he had spotted lying under a hedge, where Valjean had jettisoned it last night] Here it is!
HK: What!? There’s nothing in it! Where’s the silverware?
Bish: Ah, so it’s the silverware you were worried about. I don’t know where that is.
One might be tempted to think that Myriel is a Marxist in disguise – a fifth-columnist usurping the rich, corrupt church from the inside by giving away whatever of its wealth he can lay his hands on. But that is not the case. For instance he does not give away the (very valuable) robes and ornaments of the cathedral – presumably because he feels that they belong to his congregation, who enjoy seeing them as part of their religious rituals every week. He even believes in a good God – quite an achievement given the corruption and cruelty of those around him who claim to represent that God. He holds fast to a humble, optimistic spiritualism in which God is identified with Love – the value that guides his life in every waking moment.
But he has no time for theology. He has no interest in doctrinal favourites like the trinity, the resurrection, sexual purity, salvation by faith or grace, or the damnation of sinners and unbelievers. When his ecclesiastical colleagues discuss such things he does not criticise them for wasting their time on meaningless arcana. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘They must be terribly clever to understand such things, but it’s much too complicated for a simple man like me‘. If he has a theological position, it is something like that everybody is worthy of salvation, and will ultimately be saved. He never quite articulates this though. If he did, he’d be at risk of punishment as a heretic. But all his actions seem to me to suggest such a belief. He expresses no theological opinions except for the primacy of love. He judges nobody, and is happy to admit his ignorance and uncertainty on all ‘ultimate questions’.
In general I am not a fan of clergy. But I make an exception for Monseigneur Myriel, even if he is fictional. He is an inspiration. I could never be anything like him. But if reading those 150 pages again, without the impatience this time, has motivated me to move even a little bit more from where I am towards where he is on the spectrum of compassion, it will have been worth it.
Bondi Junction, February 2016
I am astonished at how many different sorts of thing there are in the world. It’s lucky that they all evolved naturally without my having to invent them, because if it had been reliant on my imaginative powers, I don’t think there would be more than about six.
The first time I ever noticed variety was back in 1990, when I was in the process of buying my first car. Prior to that, I had never been interested in cars at all. If a friend picked me up in a car and we were driving somewhere and they asked me ‘what sort of car is this‘ I would have murmured something like ‘I can’t remember. Um, is it blue?‘
But buying a car brought a whole new dimension to my relationship with cars. It was, at the time, by far the biggest purchase I had ever made, so I thought I had better take it seriously. I set out to learn about the different sorts of cars. Within a few weeks, I could identify all the different hatchbacks by shape alone: the Toyota Corolla, Mitsubishi Colt, Holden Barina, Nissan Pulsar, Ford Laser, Mazda 323 and Honda Civic. The Korean brands had not yet appeared in the Australian market at that time, and I don’t think the European brands had started mass-marketing small cars in Australia at that time (not that I would have been interested in that price range).
I was quite pleased with myself at being able to identify seven different brands of car, all of a similar size and configuration, just by subtleties of shape. The approximate shapes were all the same. The differences were just slight variations in the curvature along this or that edge, or the rear hatch window being a little deeper. For the first time in my life, I marvelled at how small variations can arise in machines that are all designed to perform exactly the same task, and that those variations can be recognised by enthusiastic observers. My male friends, who unlike me had been interested in cars all along, had always mystified me at their ability to tell from a distance what sort of car something was. Now I too had acquired that seemingly magical ability.
Once I had bought my car – a humble second-hand Ford Laser – I lost interest in this taxonomical feat. That loss of interest, together with the designers enthusiastically changing the curves and slopes every year, led me to soon revert to my previous state of ‘is it blue?’ ignorance.
But this revelation of the wonder of variety was a seed that had been planted in me by the exercise. It took root, grew, and has never left me. It spread to encompass everything in my experience.
- How do there come to be so many different colours?
- How do clothes designers constantly come up with new shapes?
- How many different possible human faces are there, and how is it that I can distinguish between the faces of many hundreds of people that I know when, if I tried to draw or describe them, they’d all look or sound the same?
- Why are there so many chemical elements?
- Why are there so many different branches of mathematics?
- Why are there so many topics about which I feel moved to write essays?
This morning at work I responded to a request from the IT people who are preparing a new document management system for implementation. They wanted us to give them lists of topics that could be used as subject tags for documents to help the search and retrieval process. I typed away for about fifteen minutes and sent it off without thinking. A little later I looked back at the list and was amazed. The list of went for more than two pages and was almost shocking in its intricacy. ‘Do I really know about all those different things?’ I wondered. ‘Is my work really so delightfully varied that it can involve so many different activities?‘
If I had had to invent a world from scratch and write a list of the things that people do in it, I feel there’s no way I could ever invent so many different things. Yet the small, narrow world of my workplace has managed to evolve such a rich variety, and I have, over twelve years, learned about all the nooks and crannies of all those varieties, without even noticing it was happening.
I’m not boasting. I think that, in all of our lives, however mundane they may seem, we are surrounded by, and have detailed knowledge of, seemingly endless variety.
Take Jupiter for example. I wonder about Jupiter sometimes. They say the patterns on it constantly change, because it is all gas, after all. Yet in the middle of all that change, the big eye remains, albeit varying somewhat in shape and size. Incredible windstorms swirl the coloured gases around, always into new shapes and patterns. Wouldn’t you think that there would be just two or three states and the Jupiterian atmosphere would cycle regularly between those states? But no, there’s always something new.
Or consider the average day around an average house. How many different activities does one have to do – some highly skilled (like tying shoelaces) and some not so much (like rolling over in bed)? There’s getting up, opening and closing one’s eyes, reading, watching telly, opening and closing books, turning the telly on and off, talking, listening, doing sit-ups, opening doors, putting toilet seats back down (out of respect for the women in the house, take note Keita!), scratching itches, taking off socks, singing, writing essays, shaving, thinking, trying not to think, taking out the rubbish, washing up, sleeping, etc etc etc – and that’s all before one has even left the house. How could anybody ever manage to invent so many different things to do?
Then there’s languages. I currently have a passion for languages. I can finally read fluent French (although I can barely understand a single spoken word) and am just starting on German. Ideally, being an Indianophile, I’d like to learn Hindi or Bengali but I was put off when I discovered that they seem to have about fifteen different varieties of the English sound ‘Ah’, and I doubted my ability to ever learn to distinguish between them. Stymied by too much variety! I spent a while trying to memorise the Hindi alphabet. But how did they ever invent so many characters? Variety again!
And then how on Earth did we manage to end up with so many different languages? Wouldn’t two or three have sufficed? How did people find time to make them all up, and how did they manage to end up being similar enough to still all be considered languages, yet different enough to not just be dialects of one another, and for the speaker of one to have no idea what the speaker of another was saying?
Then there’s tunes, stories, games, occupations and textile patterns. And, you know, other stuff as well.
Bondi Junction, January 2016