I once heard an hour of talk radio on the subject of two composers. Between the host and the guest scholars and all of the callers who had very specific and wonderful memories of this music, it was a great hour.
And while each scholar favored one composer over the other, and while some callers claimed the same, and while even the host at times played the game and acted like it was a competition, there was no real, objective way to say who was the better composer: and even if there was, it was beside the point.
The reason an hour of the day was being devoted to them, after all, was because of the experience of their music, not for an intellectual game, not for making a sports bracket and declaring a champion.
It’s like a musician I know. He talks with utter certainty about what is, or is not, a song. This band writes songs, he says, but this one does not. And, of course, he writes proper songs, too.
He talks with certainty, and may even mean it, but his reflections are not final, just as mine are not, just as nobody’s are. They are simply an idiosyncratic and personal way for him to organize himself, a way to make his art. They are a convenient gesture, and we all have them, ways of finishing what we’ve started and making sense of it and moving on, when in fact neither the finishing nor the sense is actual: “There are basically no words for the way, but we use words to illustrate the way.”[i] I am reminded of this anytime I pick up a new biography of someone who has already had their life story told a dozen times already: if it’s lucky, the newest one will be replaced in a generation or two.
And this, essentially, is what all art is, what all religion is, what all attempts to talk about history are: they are convenient gestures, they are ways of getting on with things; or they are illustrations which we end up getting stuck on, as it is said: “It is the ordinary condition of human beings that few are able to be free from delusion. Usually they are enshrouded by their beliefs, obstructed by their doubts, slighted by their contempt, drowned by their likes.”[ii]
The only reason a religious or political or social document, a movie, poem, speech, or work of art—the only reason any of these have a beginning and an end is for the sake of convenience. They are just ways into talking about meaningful things. No sense of total understanding should be taken from any of them.
And anyway, it’s only after coming down from the heights of an experience—such as of music or poetry or religion—that we decide to explain it and categorize it and judge it; and that impulse towards explanation, while not useless, is unnecessary. It’s the experience that comes first, and it’s the experience that matters most—and it’s that most important part of the experience, the meaning, that cannot be proven or used to put down other experiences, other meaning, even (especially) when they are contradictory.
Think of the range of intolerance and arrogance that’s come from so many situations like that hour of radio, from two bickering religions to those who argue endlessly over authors, directors, bands, politicians, and movies.
Why do we take the depth of an experience, and take the meaning derived from it, as an excuse simply to make arguments, to be a critic, or to form opinions we can only hold if we believe they are unassailable?
There is no end, no final knowledge, no final way of seeing or knowing or categorizing anything. There is no end point of certainty or arrogance to arrive at.
Fortunate words point to the wordless, fortunate images point to the imageless, and all of them point to the silence that experience and meaning can fill us with, if we let it.
But since, nowadays, we are more taken with the idea of analysis and criticism than with experience, and as we are so dominated and informed by statistics and data that suggest mere convenience and expediency and practicality are the only goals, religion especially has become not a mystery requiring faith, but a math problem requiring the simplest possible equation and answer.
And so, how marvelous to realize that the most meaningful experiences I’ve had with religious scripture, poetry, art, the natural world, and other human beings—how wonderful to realize that these experiences, too, are convenient gestures.
They are not final. They are provisional, conditional, subjective—and yet they are what support me. Things do not lack or lose meaning because they are provisional and conditional and subjective—they are meaningful because they are provisional and conditional and subjective. As I say below, the most important things are so important not for their strength, but for being extremely weak, for being just as close to meaning as its opposite, the choice being ours.
How wonderful, to realize there is actually very little to argue about, and yet so much to believe and experience.
[i] Quoted quoted in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 2, tr. Thomas Cleary, 144.
[ii] Jiantang, quoted in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 123.