… Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brain works.
This if from a talk ‘Lewis Thomas, Montaigne, and Human Happiness’ given by Howard Nemerov. The first paragraph explains the circumstances of this piece:
None of you is likely to mistake what follows for the Third Annual Thomas Hall lecture in Biology; nor, unhappily, is the title “On Nature’s Mistakes” any longer applicable, unless one of them is being exhibited before you at this very moment. Nevertheless, my thanks to Tom Hall and the Department of Biology for letting me fill in by saying a few things about Lewis Thomas, who has been prevented by illness from addressing us this morning.
… I came pretty close to not reading The Lives of a Cell in the first place, just because, being a snob, I thought it might be a touch too popular. But curiosity won out, and I started reading, and was hooked. After the first, the title essay, I warned myself to take the book easy: one essay a night, I told myself, would be the only way to do fairly by such a work; so of course during the first night I read through the whole damn thing, about thirty brief essays; and the second night I did the same, and the third night the same again.
By that time even I knew I was beginning to be interested in Dr. Thomas, and as soon as The Lives of the Cell appeared in paperback I ordered it for my class, as I expect to do with The Medusa and the Snail as well, when that gets into paperback. What the class was doing playing hookey from Great Literature and reading a work described as “Notes of a Biology Watcher” is an interesting question chiefly because I can’t answer it. But many years ago a student did a tutorial with me in which we read not whole books but a few sentences; our thoughts about the few sentences made up the tutorial hour; whereupon the student gave me this enlightened definition of reading, “I see what reading is,” she said. “It’s putting together what you’ve got with what it says.”
… Music is one of the big and constant analogies for our author. The other two are bugs and words.
Now I suppose that if I started out to give you a lecture on termites and suddenly began talking about language, you would charitably conclude that my senility was showing, or that I had merely confounded entomology with etymology. And you’d probably be right; it’s one of the unforeseen disabilities of teaching as a profession that when senility sets in it happens in public. But when Dr. Thomas does it, somehow, he makes the resemblance work strikingly to illumination:
… but if you think about the construction of the Hill by a colony of a million ants, each one working ceaselessly and compulsively to add perfection to his region of the structure without having the faintest notion of what is being constructed elsewhere, living out his brief life in a social enterprise that extends back into what is for him the deepest antiquity (ants die at the rate of 3-5 percent per day; in a month or so an entire generation vanishes, while the Hill can go on for sixty years or, given good years, forever), performing his work with infallible, undistracted skill in the midst of a confusion of others, all tumbling over each other to get the twigs and bits of earth aligned in precisely the right configurations for the warmth and ventilation of the eggs and larvae, but totally incapacitated by isolation, there is only one human activity that is like this, and it is language.
We have been working at it for what seems eternity, generation after articulate generation, and still we have no notion how it is done, nor what it will be like when finished, if it is ever to be finished. It is the most compulsively collective, genetically programmed, species-specific, and autonomic of all the things we do, and we are infallible at it. It comes naturally. We have DNA for grammar, neurons for syntax. We can never let up, we scramble our way through one civilization after another, metamorphosing, sprouting tools and cities everywhere, and all the time new words keep tumbling out.
If one had to pick a single motto for the procedures of this kind of analogical, several-leveled and four-voiced kind of thought, it might be Dr. Thomas’s saying — about every relation in the universe — “I suggest … we turn it around.” Instead of trying to have thoughts about music, start with music as the model for thought. Ants and termites are not miniaturized human beings, but human societies have remarkable resemblances to insect societies. We make language in rather the way termites build their mounds. And so on:
Counterpoint is but one aspect of the process of combination, separation, recall, and recombination. Dance is only one aspect of the movement. The darting forward to meet new pairs of notions, built into new aggregates, the orbiting and occasional soaring of massive aggregates out of orbit and off into other spaces, most of all the continual switching of solitary particles of thought from one orbit into the next, like electrons, up and down depending on the charges around and the masses involved, accomplished as though by accident but always adhering to laws — all these have the look of music. There is no other human experience they can remind one of.
I suggest, then, that we turn it around. Instead of using what we can guess at about the nature of thought to explain the nature of music, start over again. Begin with music and see what this can tell us about the sensation of thinking. Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brain works. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind. The Art of the Fugue is not a special pattern of thinking, it is not thinking about any particular thing. The spelling out of Bach’s name in the great, unfinished layers of fugue at the end is no more than a transient notion, something flashed across the mind. The whole piece is not about thinking about something; it is about thinking. If you want, as an experiment, to hear the whole mind working, all at once, put on The St. Matthew Passion and turn the volume up all the way. That is the sound of the whole central nervous system of human beings, all at once.