For many years—indeed, for the better part of my life—I have (oftentimes and for years, successfully; other times less so) attempted to ascribe truth and meaning and reasons to live to art, to poetry, to story, to song, to music; each attempt (some, as I said, lasting years) heartfelt but in the end, in the unforgiving light of truth, proven contrived and false, leaving me with the sense that on some deeper level I have just wasted even more time.
For deeply at heart I have always, in the end, recognized these attempts as a self-trickery I refused to acknowledge as such, instead glossing over the disturbing feeling that in truth there was nothing there but pretty clothes for the Emperor, a clever camouflage.
Today, to me, it rises as true that neither music nor literature ultimately matters; song does not matter, story does not matter. Relatively, yes; but ultimately, no. The only thing that matters is clear seeing. Everything else, no matter how beautiful, is simply running interference with the clear view, the view we must maintain, steadily and true, in order to solve the puzzle that we find ourselves part of.
Ultimately—admittedly as ultimately as things go—the arts, these spiritual purposes and pleasures, are simply jail decorations: the nice and cheerful coats of paint on these cell walls are simply camouflage.
This, mind you, from someone who most of his life has subscribed to Friedrich Nietzsche’s view that “without music, life would be a mistake.”
From someone who most of his life has revered classical music, feeling that listening to it, and understanding it, was a holy act which brought me closer to God. Most of my life I have seen the classical composers, and especially Bach and Beethoven (and also Handel, though he was more of a commercial wonder, and Haydn), as Gods personified: Bach with his glorious mathematics, Beethoven with his many continents of amazement.
But when we arrived at the end of the day, all that really matters is seeing things clearly, and that takes looking. And when it comes to looking, art—like sex and drugs and good food—for all its professed and actual wonders, does get in the way.
For in the stillness of clear seeing there is no art, no music, no stories: there is only the clear seeing.
It is true that a sweeping symphony gifts you with spiritual wings, the better to fly, and that heartfelt poetry, like that of Joni Mitchell’s, takes you by the hand and opens many a door. Still, you have to do the flying, the walking, and this is best done in silence, unencumbered by beauty.
It is also true that some current music (Imogen Heap would be a good example) is so wonderful and so amazing and uplifting that one cannot but wonder at the incredible vision and creativity of the spirit. So wonderful that one can easily contemplate living a life with this alone as sustenance.
But, ultimately, as everything else, even this wonder is fleeting and eventually fades. The wonder of it evaporates and one is left with the need, the desire to find new and more to again stir and lift.
It is this desire, this need (as much as anything else) that gets in the way of seeing things clearly.
For what is music but pleasant sounds; what is art but pleasant sights; what is story but pleasant thoughts conveyed in a captivating voice or by inky letters?
Still, I cannot deny that I have often sought the hidden message, the shrouded truth in these wall paintings, these transports. But then I’d find that the looking for the message was the message, and that this message always said there was no other message there.
Have they then, in my view, no purpose? Art? Music? Story?
Yes, they do. On one very relevant level they do. Two purposes: To stir. To steer.
These cave paintings (cell decorations) can, if created with correct and ethical intention, serve to stir the sleeper, to shake him or her slightly, gently, prodding eyes open. And I say with correct and ethical intention, for the vaster than vast majority of art (and music and literature) today does not delightfully instruct (which was once the purpose, and definition, of good literature); rather it degrades and spins in an out-of-control effort to make and grab as much money as possible.
However, given correct and ethical intention art, song, and story can indeed stir awake, prod sleepy eyes open. Gender a seeker.
Where then the second purpose comes into play: to steer this seeker. To steer this seeker in the only direction that will raise the one true sun for him or her: in the direction of self-discovery.
For me, this direction, this path, is what helps you best to clearly see. For me this path is Buddhist (Zazen) meditation. For others, I don’t know. That path is whatever will keep your eyes open: searching and seeing.
And to back this up, this perhaps strange, and definitely unconventional and hard to accept take on the arts, I look at phenomena like The Beatles, to true artists like Joni Mitchell, to composers like Bach and Haydn, and I draw the inevitable conclusion that for all the beauty poured forth by Joni Mitchell, for all the world-wide appeal of The Beatles, the world is actually not a better place.
Ephemerally, internal worlds of those who listen become a better place, but only ephemerally, once the song is over, once the poem is read, and once the outside world with its demands and hungers reconquer that internal territory, beauty is forgotten and need again rules the world.
The arts offer a reprieve, that is all. And if that reprieve grows too long, if it lasts, say, an entire lifetime, well, then no looking will have been done, no opportunity of clearly seeing will have been seized. That is a life wasted.
If this life is a prison of sorts, which I don’t think is too wide off the mark, then the key to the prison lock is clear seeing; seeing things as they really are beneath all that glitter, beneath all that suffering, beneath all that camouflage. The key is seeing beyond the apparent, seeing through the beauty, seeing the underlying and ultimate truth.