Monday, September 03, 2007
The Modernist Disease: Cogito Ego Sum
COGITO ERGO EGO SUM (I think therefore I am my ego) could be the motto for the 20th century. I thought of this today when I heard John Cage say in an interview on WNYC that the traffic noise outside his apartment on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan was "more beautiful than any music I've ever heard."
Think about that: the non-stop cacophony of angry drivers honking their horns, the screech of taxi brakes, and the sound of trucks and buses constantly accelerating and braking is more beautiful than Mozart's Requiem, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a folk tune or any Beatles song. It makes you understand how far Modernism and the ego took us from beauty, and how much it valued every little thought that occurs to our brains.
Traditionally, artists understood beauty as bringing some aspect of the divine to earth and the material. It is a long way from that to Cage's love of traffic noise, which is typical of the egotism and materialism of 20th century art, especially from 1980 on. Every art school, and every art magazine emphasized the importance of theory. Glorifying intellectualism and the the ego, they gravely weakened the connection to the transcendent.
On its own, the ego has no common sense. It is limited by its experiences, knowledge, fears and insecurities, and easily makes nonsensical judgments. Connected to the divine and the transcendent, it knows as much as its fears will allow, and can potentially make perfect judgments. The ego in touch with the higher self and the divine would never think traffic noise is more beautiful than Mozart's Jupiter Symphony.
Some other ego works:
And some other quotes from Cage:
"I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry / as I needed it"
"There is no noise, only sound. I haven't heard any sounds that I consider something I don't want to hear again, with the exception of sounds that frighten us or make us aware of pain. I don't like meaningful sound. If sound is meaningless, I'm all for it."
"I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, 'You'll come to a wall you won't be able to get through.' So I said, 'I'll beat my head against that wall.'"
"I do what I feel it is necessary to do. My necessity comes from my sense of invention, and I try not to repeat the things I already know about."
"I myself enjoy things as long as they remain mysterious to me. When I'm able to understand them, to my satisfaction, that is to say thoroughly, then I'm through with them. I would like to leave things alive and mysterious, if I can."
"The whole idea of value judgment is a mistake and if you insist on having dessert all the time instead of eating your vegetables, then you can listen to just the sounds that please you. I like to listen to all sounds."
"For myself and my own experience now, I don't really need any music. I have enough to listen to with just the sounds of the environment. I listen to the sounds of 6th avenue."
Cage was a Buddhist who seemed to understand the meaninglessness of Modernism better than the meaninglessness of Buddhism. After the jump, a quote I found when I Googled "buddhism meaningless."Egonomics: Materialism & the Ego in the Twentieth Century
Cogito Ego Sum II
Once Buddha told a story about a man who was wounded by an arrow. Instead of allowing his relatives to find a doctor to pull out the arrow, the man insisted on first finding out who hit him, the color of his skin, where he came from, what material the arrow was made of, who made the arrow, and so on. Buddha said the man would die long before he could find those answers.
One who studies but does not practice is like a person who can recite the contents of a huge cookbook but never goes into the kitchen to prepare food. He can never relieve his hunger. Practice is therefore a prerequisite to enlightenment. In some sects of Buddhism, for instance, Zen practices such as meditation are even put ahead of knowledge.
Further, intellect, whether in the field of religion, philosophy, science, or art, is a function of the human mind, The human mind is like a computer that operates on the basis of the information stored within. The mind receives its information mainly from the sense organs. Unfortunately, our sense organs are so inferior that they perceive only very limited information, and our picture of the universe is therefore distorted.
In two previous talks, "The Five Eyes" and "A Glimpse of Buddhism," I used an electromagnetic spectrum chart to illustrate the fact that our physical eyes can see only a very small segment of the universe, and a sound reception chart to demonstrate the limitations of our unaided ears. Because the information we perceive through these organs is far from complete, the impressions we obtain, the interpretations we formulate, and the conclusions we draw could be very wrong in any given instance.
Furthermore, the unenlightened human mind is basically a linear operator; it is finite and exclusive; it is "either-or"; it is dualistic. On the other hand, the enlightened mind is all-inclusive, completely spontaneous, nondiscriminating, and all-encompassing. The scope of the ordinary human mind is similar to the view one gets peering through a pipe: one is unable to see the whole horizon. Similarly, one cannot reach enlightenment by the intellect alone.
Therefore, what we can learn on the intellectual level is to accept the challenge of the vastness of the Buddhist teaching, but to avoid being buried by it. The voluminousness of Buddhist literature can itself be a burden and becomes a serious obstacle if one clings to it. One must free oneself from all attachments before one can attain enlightenment. Buddha used the raft as an analogy. A raft is used to cross a river. Buddha asked his disciples, "Would you say that a man is wise if, after crossing a river and seeing that there is a long way to walk on land, he puts the raft on his back and carries it rather than getting rid of it?"
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So we must EITHER reject "either/or" thinking, OR realize that we're deluded about the reality of our surroundings. Brilliant.
Posted by: Reid Davis at Sep 4, 2007 4:33:17 PM
Can't see how that's what I said, Reid. For one thing, it goes against common sense.
Care to elaborate?
Posted by: john at Sep 5, 2007 9:14:41 AM