Once again we are visited by our good friend David Goza who lights our way regularly from the dark pits of YouTube
Anatomically modern humans have lived on this planet for at least 200,000 years. During that time, our ancestors – or people whom our ancestors knew – have eaten, drunk, smoked, snorted, or otherwise ingested (use your rich imagination) absolutely everything on the surface of this planet. You know that’s true – hell, they’re still doing it! Now, some of those things caused the ingestees to die horribly. Those particular people were not our ancestors. Our ancestors no doubt learned from their unfortunate example, however, and the observations they passed along have become the received wisdom of later generations: don’t drink that, don’t stick that up your tookus….
But some of those things caused our ancestors to see the world in ways they might otherwise never have discovered, and to interact with it in ways that could not have been foreseen. Here’s an example: about 23,000 years ago, at the height of the last of the Pleistocene glaciations, there were modern humans living along the Atlantic seacoast in southern Europe – I’m talking about the Solutrean culture. If there’s ice year-round only a few hundred miles north of you, that means you’re living in a climate that’s similar to what present-day denizens of Wasilla, Alaska enjoy. People could live on the coast during the summer – and we have ample evidence that they did, and that one of their main sources of protein was fish. But it’s too cold to live there during the winter, so you go inland and upland and take advantage of the karst features. In nearby regions in what are now France and Spain, people weathered over in the limestone caves, taking with them whatever they could hoard over the course of the summer: dried fish, fruits, nuts, berries, tubers… and of course they supplemented their diet with whatever grows in the perpetual darkness of caves, in that growth medium so generously provided by roosting bats.
We all know what that is, right? Et voilà! – art is born! You know the art I’m talking about: art so extraordinary that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; the splendid cave paintings associated with such place names as Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira. Do you imagine for a moment that there’s no connection between magic mushrooms and the birth of art? And can you think of any better event to fix as the watershed between being merely anatomically modern and being behaviorally modern, than the birth of art in a particular culture? The birth of art and the birth of truly modern humanity are two names for the same thing. I suspect that Mother Nature’s natural pharmacy has had much to do with the blossoming of human creativity. Please understand that I’m not fixing the birth of modern humanity at the birth of art in any one particular place: it happened at many different times and in many different places, and is in some sense an ongoing process. There’s a reason that the most fantastic symphonies – and I mean that literally – were written during the Nineteenth Century, when virtually every major European artist was coked to the gills on opium (which was perfectly legal and not overly expensive).
Continue reading “Seeing God at the Bottom of a Water Bong”
Each semester, I begin my World Music classes with a brief, general orientation that includes basic concepts and strategies for understanding the unfamiliar-sounding music my students are going to be hearing for the ensuing four months. One of the things I introduce right away is a taxonomic scheme for thinking critically about any artwork in any of the arts (the arts being our most-nearly infallible guide to the worldviews of all cultures – including, of course, our own). For music, the most important categories within that scheme are formalism, expressionism, and instrumentality. Other critiques are of course possible: much art invites and yields very well to a realistic critique for instance, or a feminist critique, or a Marxist one, etc. But for purposes of most of the music one is likely to hear, my proffered three-item taxonomy is sufficient to make headway.
Continue reading “What Art Might Tell Us, If Only We’d Listen”
In this essay I will continue to mine a vein that I have exposed over the past couple of installments in this blog: that of “species memory,” which might also be thought of as “cultural memory.” I believe there are echoes of watershed events in the human saga preserved in ancient texts such as the Bible, often reworked so extensively that it takes some “reading between the lines” to tease them out. It seems to me that in the Genesis myths alone we hear several such echoes. I think it might be useful at this point to spill a little metaphorical ink over the question of how the Bible came to be in the first place, before continuing with the story of the wrathful confusion of languages.
Around 1000 BCE, a bunch of quarreling Palestinian tribes were welded into a bona fide, if short-lived, kingdom by a warlord named David, who had clawed his way to power by toppling another chieftain named Saul. In order to accomplish this political coup and guarantee his hegemony, David used the time-honored means of treachery, brute force and propaganda. The propaganda took the form of stories that were crafted by the priests who supported the Davidic monarchy and profited from their loyalty.
Those priests were members of a tribe known as “Levites,” who had invented quite a few elaborate ceremonies guaranteed to strike awe into the hearts of onlookers and cow them into submission. Priests whose stories told of a miraculous deliverance from Egyptian bondage – an exodus led by a Levite who escorted God’s chosen people to the Promised Land, receiving God’s laws along the way. (It’s no accident that those priests were rewarded handsomely for their efforts: witness the lavish “inheritance” they wrote for themselves into God’s law, as outlined in the books of Numbers and Joshua. Even during hard times, the Levites ate well.) Those stories were filled with dire warnings and cautionary tales. They recounted the conquest of uncooperative Palestinian tribes by the victorious “armies of God,” led by such genocidal luminaries as Joshua. They included tales of David’s own rise to power. Those stories – pure fictions, all – were intended to cobble together previously fractious tribes into a band of brothers presided over by a single monarch. Serendipitously, they also came to form the core of what Christians revere as the Bible: all else is later encrustation.
The priests who concocted these accounts drew on a number of extant legends from the region; they also added a lot of tales from their own (mostly invented) experience. The stories of the Fall, the Flood and the Tower of Babel are all borrowed stories, reworked to fit the narrative that the Levites wished for the tribes of Palestine, thereafter to be known as “David’s kingdom,” to adopt as their sacred history.
Continue reading “Reading the Myths Aright, Part III: On the Wrathful Dispersion of People and Tongues”