Tag Archives: Bertrand Russell

Useful Boredom

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Conventional wisdom has it that boredom is of two main types. The first occurs when stimuli or circumstances are too simple, as when the gifted child finds herself in a remedial classroom. The second is when sensory input is so complex as to lull the mind into a quasi-vegetative state. This accounts for the general avoidance of subjects like philosophy and math. Musically, these species of boredom are embodied in the overly simplistic pop song on the one hand, and the overly orchestrated concert work on the other. The former is boring because it poses no challenges and offers no surprises. The latter is boring because its multitude of interacting tones and timbres require more concentration than most are willing to dedicate. In this binary view, the culprits reside at the poles: underload and overload.

On the surface, this analysis might seem uncontestable. But there is a sense in which it derives from and supports an elitist view of music appreciation. Pop music is labeled as such because its style, structure and conventions appeal to the general public. Whether a selection is fairly or unfairly painted as “simple” has little impact on the audience’s acceptance of it. In fact, its obviousness can be gratifying, as it satisfies a primal desire for predictability. In contrast, it is not always the case that education or exposure causes one to derive pleasure from a drawn-out classical piece. There are many classically trained musicians who find it difficult to sit through a symphony performance (myself included)—a reality that dispels the assumption that understanding eliminates boredom. The typical abundance of valleys and paucity of peaks make for a tedious experience, regardless of the subtleties and layers aficionados detect and convince themselves to enjoy.

It is fair to blame symphonic fatigue on the music itself and not the listener. If we do so, we can begin to see the value this sort of boredom holds. As Bertrand Russell reminded us in The Conquest of Happiness (1930), the rhythm of nature is slow. The human body has evolved and adapted according to the leisurely pace of the seasons. The ultra-fast speed of modernity and the quest for convenience have numbed our patience and obscured the virtue of stagnancy. The boringness in classical music can help us to retrieve our long-forgotten tolerance for life’s unexciting moments, and discover in those moments opportunities for fruitful contemplation.

Russell made this point with the following illustration. Imagine a modern publisher receiving the Hebrew Bible as a new and never-before seen manuscript. It is not difficult to imagine the response: “My dear sir, this chapter [in Genesis] lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little. You have begun your story, I will admit, in fine style, and at first I was very favorably impressed, but you have altogether too much wish to tell it all. Pick out the high lights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length.”

In a similar way, classical music exposes the difficulty most of us have engaging in “superfluous matter.” But instead of taking the common path of frustration or the snobbish  approach of elevating musical lulls into something more than they are, we should accept boring passages as boring, and embrace the stillness they can invite within us. After all, if everything were exciting or immediately appealing, nothing would be.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Reflecting on Experience

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Experience alone does not teach. Our lives are comprised of a constant succession of experiences, some dull, some profound and most somewhere in between. If ridden through without reflection, these occurrences might leave a subconscious imprint, but they do not necessarily make us wiser or more informed. In the 1970s, educational theorists David Kolb and Ron Fry proposed a model outlining the stages by which experience becomes learning. Referred to as Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning (or the Kolb cycle), it is a repeatable spiral consisting of four elements: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. The experience itself—whether it is a day at the office or a stroll through the park—is only the beginning. Personal growth occurs through examination, abstraction and future application.

For most people some of the time (and some people most of the time), this is a natural process. There is a sense in which we are all born philosophers, or homo philosophicus. On occasion, we find ourselves asking deep questions, contemplating our purpose and pondering the things we have observed. Aristotle addressed this inclination in the opening line of Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.” Yet knowing from experience is not as simple as experiencing an experience. It requires a few additional steps, not to mention a motivating sense of curiosity.

Of course, some things in life are riper for exploration than others. For instance, we might readily progress through the Kolb cycle when the concrete experience is mowing a lawn, but are less inclined to do so when the activity is listening to music. This is partly because of the relative abstractness of the musical experience. Being moved by a piece or selecting a track for a playlist are processes more impulsive than cognitive, and thus hard to penetrate with intellectual methods. It is also the case that musical affinities are a matter of taste: a sensitive part of the human makeup, and one particularly resistant to critique.

When it comes to music, most of us adhere to the unreflective phrase, “I know what I like and I like what I know.” This principle of subjective preference helps to protect our musical opinions. We need not justify (or even understand) our like or dislike for a particular selection. We simply know our position. This has its advantages, as musical penchants do not usually hold up well under analysis. Critical evaluation and experimentation have little regard for those individualistic factors that shape our musical beliefs: exposure, upbringing, peer influence, cultural biases, inherited assumptions, generational trends, etc. None of this leads to an objective conclusion. The further and more honestly we pursue the steps of observation, conceptualization and experimentation, the shakier our convictions become.

In the end, there may be no scientific or otherwise satisfactory rationale for musical taste. However, the philosopher in us should not view this as an impediment, but as an invitation. The questions that arise from musical self-inventory are themselves invaluable teachers. Bertrand Russell made this point in The Problems of Philosophy. His eloquent words are applicable to all areas of thought—whether musical or existential: “Philosophy is to be studied not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation . . .”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Everyone’s a Critic

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The second half of the Book of Exodus concerns itself mostly with the construction of the Tabernacle: the portable sanctuary the Israelites reportedly used during their journey from Egypt to Canaan. As the Bible tells it, the structure was built according to meticulous specifications revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. “Exactly as I show you,” God commands Moses, “the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishing—so shall you make it” (Exod. 25:9). An array of artistic skills are needed for fashioning the extensive and minute details of the glorious tent, from architecture to embroidery to interior design. We read excruciating particulars about different woods, fabrics, dyes, precious metals and lustrous stones. There are instructions regarding materials needed for the Ark (ch. 25), partitions (ch. 26), copper altar (ch. 27), priestly vestments (ch. 28), anointing oils (ch. 30) and on and on. Adding to the ploddingness, there is enormous repetition throughout these punctilious verses, which amount to the largest and most exhausted single subject in the entire Pentateuch.

Contrast this with the Bible’s crudeness and over-simplicity when addressing the ways of nature. Biblical apologists usually paint these childlike passages as reflective of the intellectual and technological development of people at the time, not the knowledge of the heavenly creator. Stories of the origins of life, the positioning of celestial bodies, the mechanisms of earthquakes and the like are presented in imagery and terminology the Israelites could understand. Thus, palpability of information was an act of divine wisdom and compassion rather than an indication of naiveté.

Underlying this comparison is a still-pervasive reality: we are open and critical when discussing art, yet we freely concede ignorance when science becomes too complex. Works of art, like the Tabernacle, are designed to have a visceral and instant impact upon us. That is why sacred spaces from ancient days to the present are regularly adorned with eye-catching features. Scientific explanations, like those absent from the Bible, often exceed the average person’s ability to comprehend. That is why scientific inquiry is the domain of a highly intelligent, highly trained and highly specialized few. While art is for immediate human consumption, science seeks the best explanations for complicated phenomena, however unapproachable the methods or outcomes might be.

One result is that we fancy ourselves qualified to judge artistic creations, and do so impulsively. The reason the Tabernacle had to be made a certain way is the same reason we like art to look or sound a certain way: aesthetic preference. Our natural response to scientific work is essentially the opposite. When we come across scientific data, we tend to throw up our hands in a gesture simultaneously signaling ignorance and awe.

Bertrand Russell described these reactions in The Conquest of Happiness. “When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem,” he wrote, “they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient. Consequently Einstein is honored while the best painters are (or at least were) left to starve in garrets, and Einstein is happy while the painters are unhappy.”

Partly because of his awareness of this human tendency and partly because of his professed ignorance of art, Russell, when asked “What is your attitude toward art today?” replied, “I have no view about art today.” He elaborated in another interview: “You ask why I have never written on the subject of painting. The chief reason is that I suffer from an inadequate appreciation of pictures. I get very great delight from music and also from architecture, but for some reason I get much less from painting and sculpture. This inability makes we unable to form any judgment from the reproduction of the picture . . .”

Russell’s responsible remarks are far from the norm. Most of us are quick to voice our opinions on paintings, buildings, sculptures, poems and music, usually blurting out the unsophisticated (and basically meaningless) words “good” and “bad.” As Russell noted, our assessments hinge mainly on whether or not we understand the art work. But when it comes to science, the less comprehensible the theory or concept, the more impressive it is.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.