Music From Earth

The sounds of the earth recorded by NASA and featured in the video I posted might sound a bit like cacophonous noise to you, or perhaps like a noisy summer pond where crickets, birds, and frogs are competing for attention. This is because there is no single composer or conductor for this music, and the earth is not making any attempt to be coherent or cohesive.

Image result for sheet music

We might experience the same confusing blend of voices when reading a collection of literature from around the world. Often, literature anthologies are designed as a collection of the “best of the best” without thought to thematic connections. You get a little bit of everything, which is good, but it can lead to a case of literary indigestion. You cover a lot of ground, but just by sampling a lot of different things, but to what end?

When we listen to music, most of us at least want it to make sense. We crave the structure of melody, verses, and choruses. We want something clear we can hold on to and anticipate when we hit repeat and listen again. We also generally want a clear message that matches the emotion of the song. Sad lyrics for a slow song in a minor key, for example. Or a triumphant tone celebrating success in a loud, foot-stomping stadium anthem. We want a song to match our mood, and we expect not a single note to be out of tune. We also need to be able to categorize music into genre (rock, rap, country) so that we can know which radio stations to seek out and how to build a coherent playlist.

Image result for radio dialBut what if you played five radio stations at once? Would anything make sense? The lyrics would contradict themselves, the sounds would clash, and would be unlikely to be a pleasant experience. This five-headed monster would not be delivering to you what you want in music: a particular experience, rooted in some particular emotion, that serves you for the moment. Nevertheless, I think, without a doubt, that these five songs played together, while maybe not terribly pleasing, actually do make sense, and might actually be singing the very same song, seen from a certain perspective. All five vocalists are singing to express themselves, some particular emotion or situation. They all likely use notes that fit within a relatively narrow range. The songs (if played on the radio) will probably all be about three minutes long. And, when the emotion of the song becomes particularly intense, the pitch will increase and the tempo pick up. If nothing else, much like birds, crickets, and frogs, who are crying out in the pond from their shared sense of animalness, in the need to reproduce, intimate, or be afraid (or, in the case of some birds, just for the fun of it), these singers are singing the same song, borne out of the need communicate important, maybe urgent and intense, human emotion in a fairly limited (at least for radio songs) format that commonly follows a verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse chorus format. You’ll also find that most popular songs are either about falling in love, breaking up, or going out to the club. Five different songs, but clear, if general patterns in terms of form and content. All this, and there will still be innumerable differences.

The Earth’s Song, the sounds of the earth recorded by NASA, is just the result of random radio emissions. But, the literature of earthlings might be the best record of earth’s actual song, an attempt to express what it means to live on planet Earth. We don’t need to read five different works of literature at once to try this out. Instead, all we really have to do is survey works of literature from around the world and from across time, and then look for patterns that emerge. Just as songs on the radio will have enough differences to be able to separate them and place in different genres and stations, yet enough similarities allowing us to set our watch every three minutes, important works of literature from around the world and across time tend to repeat certain patterns of both form content. It will be our work in this course to learn those patterns and to connect many great works of literature, without ignoring the countless differences, which is, after all, what makes literature, and life on earth, great. Image result for earth

We must start then by orienting ourselves to a wider perspective based on the scope of human history, and the planet itself. If we want to get a sense of what literature is (more on the definition of the word literature in a bit) then we must not limit ourselves to what might be counted as literature today, or to texts that are commonly adopted as the literary canon for high school and college classes.


Once we take this more global/historical view, we encounter at least three different question areas or problems:

  1. The very definition of literature is called into question. The Latin origin of “letters” is too restrictive once we’ve gone back far enough to see the origins of literature in orality and the sacred rituals more commonly ascribed to mythology (itself studied as a sometimes quarantined branch of literature).
  2. Just as Africa is not a country, the world is not one thing, and world literatures will be fighting amongst themselves even about basic existential questions (see #1). Literary indigestion follows.  Here John Keats’ concept of Negative Capability is helpful, from his 1817 letter to his brother:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

So, while literature typically doesn’t set out to provide answers, or to present itself as a definitive text on how to live (that might more be the role of theology, scripture, or philosophy) it does often hit on the big ideas, and while one goal of reading world literature might be to make connections and look for agreements across culture, the world is big enough to hold a range of competing (and contradictory) perspectives.

3. At the same time, while it it is necessary to avoid placing one culture as the victor when reading world literature, patterns do emerge. Is it possible to find something common to humanity in world literature without cancelling the differences, over-simplifying the matter, or imposing an unconscious (or conscious for that matter) Western cultural hegemony? Such an exercise is only possible if we avoid squaring the circle or thinking we can solve some riddle.

Let’s look at two examples from the study of religion that might serve as examples.

Aldous Huxley (most widely known as the author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception, wrote a book in 1945 called the Perennial Philosophy. In it, he attempted to draw parallels between the major world religions at the most abstract level:

The Perennial Philosophy is an attempt to present this Highest Common Factor of all theologies by assembling passages from the writings of those saints and prophets who have approached a direct spiritual knowledge of the Divine”

Differences were not terminated or ignored; instead Huxley constructed a collective framework highlighting the shared assumptions and pursuits, like a lattice work providing a uniform space different plants could ascend. His lattice had four levels:

First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness–the world of things and animals and men and even gods–is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent.

Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.

Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.

Fourth: man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.”

Additionally, religious scholar Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, created a chart that attempts something similar to Huxley, an argument of sorts that all world religions are structured in the same manner, even though the terminology is different:

Image result for huston smith chart

In reading world literature and considering its competing themes, we don’t need to go as far as Huxley or Smith. So, I should say we are ultimately making patterns out of some of the real highlights of world literature, and works that deal with abstract, high level themes: Love, Death, Transcendence, War, Human Failings, Individualism, Society, etc. Perhaps the strategy is something like this:

  1. Look across history and the world for commonalities in the techniques and content of literature.
  2. Avoid deciding which culture or literature is right or wrong.
  3. Yet, still look for larger patterns that emerge and broad themes that might be considered timeless or universal, understanding that such a pursuit is fraught with complications.

Ultimately, we do this to make a map of sorts out of which we can navigate through world literature, but we must keep in mind the old saying, “The map is not the territory.” We must also remember that maps are created sometimes to distort reality, and that even basic decisions (such which way is up) have no objective answer. Framed Upside Down Map of the World Print


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