Thursday, August 01, 2013

Closer to the truth


Last week I was telling at table how I discovered classical music -- me who grew up on Hank Willliams and Teresa Brewer. Just after graduation, I married my college sweetheart. We moved to Los Angeles where I worked for Hughes Aircraft and studied at UCLA. Our local supermarket started a special promotion: a classical long-playing record each week and a binder to keep them in. Seemed interesting. We bought a cheap record player and started a family collection.

The first selection was Beethoven's Third Symphony, The Eroica. It was the first classical music I had listened to with serious attention. I was blown away. Transported to a new level of consciousness.

Tom, to whom I was relating the story, asked if I had seen the BBC-produced Eroica: The Movie. Nope, never heard of it. "You should watch it," he said. "It’s on YouTube."

Well, I watched it, and you should too.

Which brings me to one of the hottest intellectual issues being debated today: Are the Good, the Beautiful and the True subjective or objective? That is, do they reside as culturally or genetically-determined electrochemical states of the human brain, or do they exist independently in the external world to be perceived by human awareness. It’s an age-old question, of course, but given new urgency by neurological research. The debate is mainly between neurologists and philosophers.

A worthwhile glance at the current state of the stand-off is philosopher Colin McGinn's review of neurologist Jean-Pierre Changeux's The Good, the Beautiful, and the True: A Neuronal Approach in the July 11 New York Review of Books. McGinn writes: "Art, for Changeux, comes down to what your brain does when you see, hear, and experience emotion -- cellular commotions, basically." To this McGinn opposes the philosophical view: "The artwork is the object of the mental act in which it is apprehended. So we cannot claim to study beauty-in-objects by studying the human psychological response to beauty."

Was my 22-year-old response to the Eroica a somewhat arbitrary electrochemical commotion stimulated by a particular configuration of sound, or did I discover the Good, the Beautiful and the True in the same way, say, that Einstein discovered general relativity?

Did Beethoven compose music that disturbed and perhaps modified the neuron substrate of his listeners, or did he give expression to Platonic eternals?

It is a difficult question.

In the BBC Eroica, Beethoven's patron Prince Lobkowitz opines that the music is "difficult." That is the most lavish praise that can be given to an artist, the composer replies. "Difficult is good. Difficult is beautiful. Difficult is closer to the truth."

More tomorrow.