Singing and the soul

I sung at karaoke last night (the small room kind, not the one where you stand in front of a hall of people). And both then and now, I’m reminded of some excellent words that I came across via Longform.org in a GQ essay (seriously, go check it out – it’s a good read):

What is singing? Voice coaches often try to demystify it, call it a mere vibration of vocal cords due to a movement of air. But that is a lie. Singing is nakedness. And it is a far more fathomless form of nakedness than that achieved by the removal of clothes…

[Quoting from Deborah Lapidus, a teacher at Julliard] “Your Steinway sounds like your Steinway regardless of whether you’re sad or happy, or whether or not you stayed up all night smoking. But when you are your own instrument, it gets very emotional. There’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. That’s why the things [Idol panelist Simon Cowell] says seem so violating. He’s not telling these kids they’re poor musicians or that they selected a bad song. He’s saying, ‘You are ugly. Your soul is ugly.'” And then she added something truly provocative: “To do singing right, you have to get in touch with something deeply personal about yourself. It is almost impossible… to lie when you sing.”

I don’t know that I’d go that far – but then, I rarely sing in public, and a karaoke bar with people I know reasonably well who’ve had a few (or several) drinks is not that critical an audience.

But I was interested that several other people there – whom I’d normally assess as being much more extroverted than myself – didn’t sing, or at least not until they had a few more drinks in them. Vulnerability is a strange thing, and I’m still learning more. But it’s interesting to questions of vulnerability in not just what we reveal, but how we do it.

Writing while the world watches

I’m in the middle of a good article on Game of Thrones – it captures a lot of what I like about the books.

But I’m intrigued by a line in the middle of the article: 

The books tell this story …

And I’m struck because I think it’s easy to forget, given how big the series has become, that there’s still just one man, sitting at a desk, writing away. I wouldn’t want that pressure, to be honest (although I am also one of the fans wanting him to get back to the books – forget all this other stuff – before he dies). 

I can’t imagine what it must be like, knowing that you’re going to make up (perhaps he’s already made it up, and just has to tell people?) the ending to a story that millions of people are waiting to hear. 

We talk about the books as though they’re canon, something settled and finished, but … it’s just one man, telling a story.

Fantasies about real life

I love Neil Gaiman. I’ve enjoyed basically everything I’ve read by him. So of course I liked Neverwhere, which I downloaded a day or two ago. But I got to the end and I had this slightly dissatisfied feeling, as though there was something important that I’d missed.

The book itself is great. It’s the kind of book you want to take on a plane, because it’s both easy to read but also genuinely fun, with points that’ll make you laugh out loud, and characters that are very easy to like, loathe, or feel conflicted about (depending on the point Gaiman is aiming for).

But I got to the end, and I felt as though … as though I were seeing one of the things I don’t like about some fantasy novels, even when they’re well written. Which is that it feels as though the writer’s turning their back on the world – refusing to engage with it.

One point that springs to mind is the way homeless people are treated in the novel. Ostensibly, it’s a story about the underworld, the people who’ve fallen through the cracks, who are invisible to the Londoners going about their business. But in the novel’s world, all the characters that fit into that range have dramatic, interesting roles – they live on rooftops, they talk to birds, they do magic. They fit right into the broader fantasy world that essentially serves as an other for Richard Mayhew, who’s quiet, boring, and not very brave (at least on the outside).

Which brings me to the other thing I found … confusing, here, I suppose. Richard is an everyman (warning – TVtropes.com is a massive time sink), and he serves as the pivot point between the two worlds that Gaiman creates. There’s the rich, mysterious, dangerous fantasy world that exists underneath London, and there’s the boring, everyday world where Richard works as a securities analyst.

Richard himself does very little throughout the novel, apart from following very explicit instructions (even in his moment of apotheosis he’s following instructions). There are perhaps two significant choices that he makes at different points in the novel, and those are only choices about where to go – simply to attempt to reach a destination, which invariably is ready and waiting for him.

And I think that shallowness in creating Richard’s character, and in the simple dichotomy of boring/fantasy worlds, really misses something important. Much as the trek across the marsh scenes was long and excruciatingly slow in Lord of the Rings, it mattered – it showed us Bilbo striving, struggling really hard, in a difficult situation. And it captured the monotony, too, the fact that boring isn’t a permeating factor of just one universe, it’s something we all encounter at different points – and how we deal with it, reflects something in our characters. Perseverance isn’t a montage, it’s a character trait.

One of the reasons I like the Song of Ice and Fire series is because although there are a lot of flashy fantasy things going, the universe the books inhabit is a real universe. People suffer, have boring, tedious jobs, and are selfish, dull and petty.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that a part of me thinks all the problems that Richard has in the real world, that he escapes from to go to the fantasy world, will eventually find him. You can’t depend on things simply happening to you – environment matters, but so do the choices you make, how you choose to interact. And it’d be nice, occasionally, to see that depth of struggle, both in the fantasy world but even more in the real world – novels about how tough it is being a good parent, or how sometimes just getting through the day is a struggle.

All of which is more a reflection on the genre, than this book. Neverwhere is excellent, and if you like Neil Gaiman, you’ll love it. But it’s a fantasy novel, and I think it fits into some of the tropes and standards of the genre.

Learning about logic

I’ve just finished up reading The Philosopher’s Toolkit. It’s not a bad introduction, but it’s really more of a reference point than anything you’d read through (which was my mistake). Probably good for a high school library.

The thing that drove me crazy, though, was the author’s unwillingness to take a stand on a single point. Probably appropriate in a catalogue like that, but … it strikes me as implausible that a professional philosopher has no opinions on this stuff.

UPDATE: Although, I should say that there was one passage I absolutely loved. After describing how Einsteinian relativity is abused in other contexts, Baggini and Fosl write:

Philosopher of mathematics Kurt Godel’s (1906–78) incompleteness theorem suffers from a similar fate. The reality is that, unless you’ve studied mathematics at a very high level, you probably don’t understand what Godel’s theorem means, let alone what its implications are for other areas of philosophy…

It is tempting to draw all sorts of implications from Gödel’s theorem to philosophy in general, but often rash and difficult to do so.

I like that. As someone who struggled through Godel’s Proof at university, I still have no idea what the theorem means. Maybe one day.

Fictitious authors of fictitious books

I’ve been reading Excerpts from non-existent books. It’s a great concept. You should probably go and check out the blog.

As I’m reading though, I realised that this author is into something very different than I am. I’m tantalised by the universes he peeks into, the ideas he opens. And perhaps that’s part of it for him. But reading through the kindle version of his book, I’m realising that he’s also fascinated by the authors – their biographies and the editors’ comments sometimes more filled out than the paragraph he’s quoting. It seems a little fitting that it’s written by a librarian.

Trust your author

I’m in the middle of both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Rhetoric of Fiction at the moment. Something rings … rings strange to me about the former, and I think it’s explained by the latter.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin flits back and forth between different voices. She sometimes contrasts their views, shows how one misunderstands the other.

… and when I thought myself most blunt and frank with him he may have found me most subtle and unclear.

But it feels a little neat? A little too tidy?

The Rhetoric of Fiction is all about the voices authors use, the way they talk to their audience. One of the things Le Guin is doing is creating a picture of people misunderstanding, talking past each other – but the way she does that depends on the viewpoint of an author who is omniscient, knows everything, sees their foolish misunderstandings. Which, in a way, feels as though it undermines her point. If human beings are so bad at communicating, fumbling their way towards mutual understanding – why should the narrator be any different? Why are they privileged?

I haven’t read much of Le Guine’s writing, and I want to read more. I know there are other great books she’s written. But there’s a note in this piece that rang a little hollow for me.

Strangers in strange lands

As someone who’s lived in a few countries at various points, and quite often felt like an outsider, I’m fascinated by Ta-Nehsi Coates’ recent journey to Europe (France and Switzerland). 

At 8:45 I will board a ship. It will punch through the sky. At some point, God willing, that ship will emerge over airspace far from the beloved West Baltimore of my youth.

From an earlier piece

I am feeling the need to, again, express to you how precisely afraid I am. My passport arrived last Friday and I was — all at once — excited and horrified…I don’t know. I don’t know anything. This is truly frightening — and exhilarating — part of language study. It’s total submission. All around you will be people who know much more than you about everything. And the only way to learn is to accept this. You can’t know what’s coming next. You can’t think about false goals like fluency. You just have to accept your own horribleness, your own ignorance and believe–almost on faith–that someday you will be less horrible and less ignorant. 

I think when I arrived in Mongolia, earlier in the year, I went through many of the same reactions. It’s strange to see them and recognise them in someone who’s so honest and open about them (mine are buried away in a journal on a different computer that I can’t access at this very moment). And to remember them, too – even in being here for only nine months I’ve found a strange new kind of normal. The kind where you don’t belong (because you never will), but you understand a little about some of the rules that apply to you, the foreigner, in a strange place. And it’s easy to forget that strangeness, and the good things that come with it .

Because as TNC goes on to say in a later piece

The loneliness was intense. I knew at a least few people in Paris. But this train winding through high and gorgeous country, leaving behind small Hallmark towns, was truly taking me into foreign depths… I have spent almost as much time away from my family in the past year as I’ve spent with them. Is this how it’s supposed to be? Is learning forever winding through these strange and foreign places?  Is study the opposite of home?

I think going to strange places is learning – in a way. Part of it is how you carry yourself, how you walk through a new setting. TNC, undoubtedly, will reflect and process and learn and grow. I try to do the same things, to make the things that I am experiencing food for my thinking, to reflect and use things as an opportunity to grow. It’s easy to do the reverse – to cling to what you know all the tighter, and it’s a habit I fall into often enough.

But at the moment (sometimes my opinions change) I think that part of learning is coming back into the comfort zone, to places you have been before, and seeing how you interact differently. Having been overseas for a while I’m ready to be back. I think I’ll see old places differently, old situations in a new way, and … that’ll be a good thing. 

Perhaps it’s that overused word, liminality. Being in a strange place we see new things, but we also see simple things with fresh eyes. And coming back, too, we see the old with new eyes, and that changes things for us.