Listening without getting “wounded”

Barack Obama tells us it’s important that we “talk to each other in a way that heals rather than a way that wounds” (applause).

Well, I agree that it is important we do not use threats, and threats are usually verbal. But talking “in a way that heals” is hardly talking at all. This a call for disguising differences rather than tolerating them; for keeping things hidden rather than putting them on the table; for avoiding anything that can be misinterpreted rather than running the risk of being misunderstood. It is a call to avoid playfulness lest it “offend”.

Since openness is the lifeblood of family life, and disagreement is the lifeblood of science and philosophy, and playfulness is the lifeblood of art, I have to regard Obama’s speech as anti-family, anti-science, anti-philosophy, and anti-art.

Language has both “efferent” and “afferent” aspects. We can focus on the effect our words have on the world (usually the emotions of other people), or we can focus on the effect the world has on our words.

To focus on the first is to be concerned primarily with social interaction. To focus on the second is to be concerned primarily with truth. The world shapes the words we use to describe it, and if we are careful and lucky, those words can describe it truthfully.

It seems to me that for one reason or another, the language we use in public life — in politics, on campus, etc. — has become obsessively and morbidly focused on the efferent, “social interaction” aspects of language, to the detriment of its afferent, truth-reporting aspects. I’m not sure why that is, but I think it might be because there are far more women in public life nowadays than before. On the whole that is a very good thing, and I often say that one of the glories of Western civilization is the de-segregation of the sexes in almost all areas of life. But if we’re honest, men and women do tend to use language slightly differently. Women tend to be more concerned than men with the effects words can have on other people. No doubt that is a good thing in some areas of social interaction. But if it degrades truth, it is a bad thing.

We can focus on the afferent, truth-reporting aspects of language without neglecting “feelings” and social interaction. But instead of being careful to talk in a way that does not “wound”, let us listen in such a way that talk does not wound us.

Found: lost chords

Some academics tell us that “romantic love was invented in the Middle Ages”. That is a fine example of ideology overruling common sense.

Philosophers call romantic love “erotic love” to distinguish it from parental love, patriotic love, the love of oneself, or the love of money. As its name suggests, erotic love is supposedly “guided by the god Eros”, so sex is definitely involved, but nothing especially pornographic is meant by the term. I will use the term ‘erotic love’ rather than ‘romance’ here because it avoids the suggestion that this sort of love has any special connection with Romance languages or the Romantic movement. Nor does it have much to do with Medieval troubadours, who are sometimes credited with its “invention”.

Far from being “invented in the Middle Ages”, erotic love exists in many bird species and some mammals, and something like it can even be found in some other kinds of animal. It is found in all human societies, throughout history, and it serves a clear biological purpose: it keeps parents together long enough for offspring to reach viable maturity. This is only of use to species whose offspring normally require the support and attentions of both parents. The mothers of many species (and of course all mammals) invest a great deal in their offspring, so there’s nothing particularly unusual about “female parental investment”. Parental love is quite common. However, genuine erotic love only exists among species whose males also invest a comparable amount, in other words they exhibit high male parental investment. This “investment” is only possible where there is a pair-bond between the parents, one strong enough to overcome male suspicions about paternity.

Biology being what it is – it has rather “bad aim” because life is not literally designed by an intelligent designer – erotic love can exist between individuals who never become parents, or between individuals who cannot become parents, such as homosexuals. It might even be prolonged by deliberately avoiding parenthood.

Plato wrote about erotic love in one of his best dialogues, the Symposium. A “symposium” is a drinking-party, and the dialogue describes a discussion between participants who take turns to make speeches in praise of erotic love as they get drunk together. The first few speeches are rather stilted and misguided. (For example, it is proposed that erotic love is good between homosexual men because that makes them more loyal soldiers.) But as the evening wears on, and the empty bottles pile up, the speeches simultaneously get deeper and more frivolous. Aristophanes, the celebrated comedic playwright, makes a funny, touching speech in which he describes an earlier state of Man. At one time human beings had two heads, four arms and four legs, and they would cartwheel around joyously. But the gods grew jealous of their self-satisfied glee and so cut them in half down the middle, drawing the wound closed and sewing it up as a cobbler makes a shoe. We still bear the scar of that operation on our navels, as Freud might have observed. Following this painful separation, humans were destined to wander through life looking for their “other half”, often never finding it. Homosexuals are the product of bisecting one of the original beings of a single sex. Heterosexuals are the product of bisecting a hermaphrodite.

Plato’s own ideas about erotic love are revealed when Socrates’ turn finally comes to give his speech. It seems that love is a series of upward steps on a difficult path to understanding the true nature of The Good. (I’ll leave it as an exercise what “The Good” is, and why I have used title case letters for it.) A modern biologist might update this rather mystical idea. Without erotic love, members of a species are not capable of compassion, nor are they willing to accommodate differences such as those that necessarily exist between the sexes. In the case of humans, our intelligence and all its products – art, science, philosophy – are only possible because of our unusual brain, which in turn is only possible because of the long human childhood and (normally) the attentions of both parents, which in turn are only possible because of erotic love.

The structure of Plato’ dialogue itself reflects the pattern of this path of discovery, as each speaker inspires the next to go deeper to express more profound truths, as well as to see the funny side of this often painful human condition.

Leonard Bernstein composed music for the Symposium. His Serenade is one of his less accessible pieces, although it does reward repeated listening. At the same time as he was writing music explicitly inspired by Plato’s dialogue, he was writing some more accessible music for the movie On the Waterfront. The two pieces have the same intellectual “theme”, as the movie tells a story that perfectly illustrates Plato’s idea of love as expressed by Socrates in the Symposium. (This connection is probably what led Bernstein to study the Symposium in the first place.) A young man’s life is directionless. But then he discovers erotic love, and as he does, he begins to understand the nature of “The Good”, and the difficult, unpopular things he must do to promote it. The music itself is among Bernstein’s very best. The love theme has a clear “dialogue” form, between two string “voices”, with each lifting the other up to its own level, then inspiring it to something even higher.

A while ago, I downloaded a medley of music from the original soundtrack of On the Waterfront from a rather obscure (Spanish) source. Amid the familiar bits of music I had heard so often before while watching the movie, I was surprised to hear a passage that I had never heard before. I think it must be from a scene that never made it into the final version of the movie. I don’t question director Elia Kazan’s artistic judgment in removing this scene, as the movie is a masterpiece without it. But it is very interesting to hear what sounds to me to be the long-lost music to Aristophanes’ frivolous and profound speech from the Symposium.