Tag Archives: western culture

Where Has All the Culture Gone?

As one of my many tangents, I have decided to comment on some old news. It’s old because it happened over a month ago, but it’s an important statement made by some brilliant journalists and one musical prodigy.

For the sake of getting to the point, I will summarize the astounding article, Pearls Before Breakfast written by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post. It starts off as a cultural experiment devised by the Post, but not long into the experiment the  internationally-known violinist Joshua Bell begins to experience unlikely side effects.

The experiment: To have one of the world’s best violinists play in L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. Who will notice? Will he draw a crowd? Or will people ignore him on their way to work?

There is beauty in watching a musician give his life to you through music

The man: According to his website, Joshua Bell has loved music since the beginning. His rise to fame began when he was 14, and he performed with Riccardo Muti at the Philadelphia Orchestra. It is no secret that he is a talented, multifaceted performer. He is known as the poet of the violin and “classical music superstar”. So as you would imagine, an acclaimed violinist playing in public would be quite the experience or so Bell thought.

As I continued to read through the article, the Post interviewed music directors, bystanders, and Bell himself. He was excited to do the experiment as it is a far cry from hundreds of people seated in an auditorium. What the Post found to me was appalling and intriguing. I expected no one to really pay attention. With my limited experience of subways, I can’t say for sure whether I would join the masses in ignoring street performers. My affinity to music is something I cherish so I imagine if there was anyone attempting to entertain with music, I would pay attention.

When I visited Boston for the first time, I rode the subway in a state of awe at the new experience. If I hadn’t been rushed by the others in my group, I know I would have stayed to listen to the guy playing his guitar. Why? Because the passion it takes for an entertainer to stand in the subway all day to make a few bucks humbles me. While I’m going to school I don’t really step back and take a look at people who spend their entire lives devoted to music.

Now in Bell’s case, he was used to being paid $1000 for a minute of performance. He performed a little under an hour and the results of the experiment were astounding. Out of 1,097 people, only a handful paid attention. Fewer actually stayed more than a couple seconds. One person had actually recognized him giving the $20  of the $32 that made up his earnings for the day.

It may seem conceited for me to say, but I don’t care. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY! In the article, there is a comparison made to the reaction of people in other countries. In Europe, there would be hundreds stopping to listen to him instead of the ignorance experienced in D.C. Even one of the shoe shiners (Yes, they still have those, folks) admitted that normally she doesn’t like the street performers, but in her native country (Brazil) there would be throngs of people surrounding him. Maybe it’s me, but this is a problem on a cultural level.

Not only did people not stop to notice one of the most talented classical musicians of our time, but the most appalling aspect comes next. Although there were only a handful of people that stopped, there was one group that would not stop paying attention to this magnificent music being made. Children being shuffled off to school were so enlightened by the violinist that they stopped dead in their tracks to watch him. It reminded me a bit of the Pied Piper because the children seemed entranced by the music. Each child was forced away by their parents in a rush to get to their destination, but that didn’t stop the kids from turning back and locking onto the classical prodigy.

These darlings are the future beauty seekers of the world

How is it that children who probably won’t know what classical music is for years, can understand the value of its beauty more than the adults? I know that children are magical in a way. They perceive so many things that we older humans forget over time. To most, something as simple as a musician playing in a subway shouldn’t make us turn our heads and stop. But to children and lovers of music would demand we pay attention. Music tells of the history of the world. It represents a beauty that can’t be put into words.

For those who recognize it, they know how important it is. For the ones who don’t recognize it,  I feel bad because I think they’re living half of a life. Music is the cultural glue that binds us all. In other countries it is the centerpiece of daily life, celebrated throughout the land. It is important for us to remember what music means in our lives because without it the world would be an ugly, silent place.

The truly amazing part of the experiment is the effect it had on Bell. After hundreds of performance in front of thousands of people, something changed inside him. It tells so much about the life of an artist when they are privileged to have people recognize the beauty in music. Bell was for the first time, nervous. He said he had butterflies because he didn’t know if his performance was enjoyed. When people pay to see you perform, the musician already knows the audience appreciates his work. In this setting, anxiety and awkwardness replaced the joy of playing for a loving audience. There is something heart-wrenching in all of us when we’re ignored.

However, when a musician is ignored it can be earth shattering.  Sometimes, we go through life ignoring the little things that can change the world. Ignoring the beauty of music, to me, is ignoring one of the most beneficial cultural attributes ever. Since the beginning of time, music has been the outlet for people to express themselves and come together to bond. It should be recognized even in the most mundane of settings. For Bell, he will be forever changed by this experiment. He learned that people are less likely to notice beauty when it’s not thrust upon them or chosen by them. It is also a change for those who read the article. It is eye opening to think we can ignore such beauty every day. Stop for a minute and take a look at the world around you. When you go to work, don’t ignore the beauty of the drive or the music of a street performer. If you can’t find the beauty in the world around you, then you don’t have room for beauty in your life.

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The Gathering: Week Two

So, to continue my journey through England and Ireland, I have come about 1/3 of the way through The Gathering. I’m spending less time putting notes on the pages and more time actually reading, which is a good change for me. As much as I want to be the diligent student who puts notes all the way through the book, sometimes I drop off and just read. To me, you lose the entire story of the book if you spend the entire time making notes about the little details. I know that I should be commenting on everything to make it easier to write my essay, but somehow it feel right to just read it.

The premise of the story is to show the life of a family after one of its members has committed suicide. Although this a problem almost everyone will have to deal with, people hate talking about death. In the Western culture, there is a stigma to those who focus on death. Yet, the existentialism inside me feels differently. I have a soft spot in my heart for the existential side of philosophy and most people have no clue what it actually means.

Existentialism isn’t some bourgeois hobby for the rich or a struggling artist’s way of life. It is the most applicable form of philosophy. In essence,  it helps you to realize what life could possibly be worth and how to achieve the life you want. I took an existential philosophy class junior year of my undergraduate education. It was paired with psychology, but the subjects were intermingled.

The first day of class, one of the most important subjects of existentialism was addressed. Death? Why do we need it? Should we fear it? And what happens after it? All of these questions are ones that existential philosophy attempts to answer. What does this have to do with The Gathering? EVERYTHING! Although it may not occur to some readers to think about philosophy while reading this book, it stood out immediately to me. For me, as a student of philosophy, how people handle death is one of the most fascinating subjects. It happens in so many different ways that the experience is hard to ignore. So, when I began reading of the family’s reaction to Liam’s death, I began to wonder.

The simplicity of the mother’s  horror, the obligation of his sister’s finances, and lastly the alteration of life after someone has died. Now the idea of death is heightened in this scenario because the death wasn’t timely or of natural causes. Liam killed himself by walking into the sea and drowning himself. Now I’m sure there are more details I will learn later, but this scene reminded me of the existential novel, The Stranger by Albert Camus. It also deals with the Western culture’s view of death.

The main character, Meursault, deals with his mother’s death in an unconventional, but familiar way. The familiar part lies in the fact that he was changed the moment his mother died. While he also had to take care of the funeral arrangements, his mother’s death allowed him to truly begin living. It wasn’t because she was holding him back physically so to speak, but the change in his life spurred a more important inner reflection that changed his life forever. Instead of tearing his life apart like it is doing to Veronica. Both responses are normal for humans to make. However, many cultures including Western will insist that they are abnormal and the behavior must stop after an appropriate amount of time. You get two days off work, if you’re lucky, and the grieving process must end after oh maybe two or three weeks.

But is that realistic to force a person to suppress feelings of grief, depression, or relief after a death? The existentialist would say no. The natural course of grief must be allowed to flow on its own or it will forever bar that person from returning to their equilibrium or becoming something better. For Veronica, her grief has only begun, but it is having drastic effects on her marriage and her family. It is possible she may never recover from the death of her brother. It may change her to the point where she must get divorced and do something completely different.

But what’s wrong with that? To me, death transforms us to a life without that person. Although death is a normal and vital part of reality, it should not be feared. It is something that happens. It needs to be handled with care. Not coddled or babied, but understood. If a person grieving needs weeks, months or years…then they should have it. That’s the way of life. When life ends it affects the living in a way we will never truly understand. You must be able to let that energy go.

For Meursault, he reacted in a way most people say a psychopath would. He was alive again. He responded in the opposite custom of the area and changed his life for the better. It was what he needed to find himself. People frowned upon Meursault for not caring enough about his mother. The existential would say that Meursault understood the nature of death and didn’t feel that he should react negatively. In some cultures death is celebrated with parties around the graves of the recently deceased. It is even ingrained in Western culture, which demands seriousness when referring to death. We gather together, eat food, and discuss the memories of the one past. In a way, all humans know that death is an inevitable end to all of us. To the ones who are conscious of it and celebrate, more power to you!  In the end, the person who realizes that death is coming no matter what, can free themselves from the fear of not living and finally live the way they want.

Check out The Stranger by Albert Camus, it is a terrific read!

The Stranger

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