Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Apparition in the Woods

I have more or less come to terms with the fact that I will die. That used to be a problem for me, literally keeping me up at nights. But I've made peace with it. I'm hoping it won't be for another sixty or seventy years yet, but I am okay with the overall concept.

What still makes me profoundly uncomfortable is the concept of extinction. Serious contemplation of the sun's burning out or the universe snapping back in on itself like an over-stretched elastic can, and will, send me into spiraling bouts of depression. They do not always last for long, but they are moments when I contend with what experience shows me to be the blackest night of the soul. I can end, and that's alright, but there must be something to continue. There must be life.

* * * * *

I recently finished rereading Alex Ross' survey of 20th Century music, The Rest Is Noise. It is a wonderful book, impeccably researched, and written in such a way that you can feel Ross' love and passion for the music radiate off the page. The majority of the chapters chronicle a period and a specific group of composers. It begins with a chapter on Mahler and Strauss, and proceeds, more or less, chronologically. Ross has a gift for writing about music, and here he manages to illuminate the works of the century's great composers with the cultural and personal context in which they were written.

For my money, the best chapters in The Rest Is Noise are those that concern themselves with a single composer. The chapter "Apparition in the Woods," about Jean Sibelius, is far and away my favourite. Sibelius had much success in his life; he was a living National Treasure of Finland, he was well-known throughout the world, and his works continue to be performed by orchestras everywhere. Despite all this, he had the misfortune of coming to prominence during a time when a large group of composers were willfully and blindly rejecting tonality in the name of creating The New. He never received the respect of his piers, certainly not during his lifetime, and he was rarely truly happy.

The most famous piece in Sibelius' canon is likely his fifth symphony, a work of both profound beauty, and quiet innovation. The final movement is astonishing, the last three minutes a breathtaking struggle as the orchestra tries to break free from whatever is holding it back. When the players finally reach the summit, there is nothing else like it in music. Nothing else like it in this world, for that matter. When you listen to Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 after having read "Apparition in the Woods," it is a great boon to the spirit that someone who was so unhappy in life could create something of such everlasting beauty.

* * * * *

Currently, I am reading Dave Eggers' The Wild Things, the novelization of his cinematic adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Max, the protagonist, is about the same age I was when I first asked my mom what death is. Last night, just before going to sleep, I read a chapter in which Max's science teacher mentions that humans will eventually be extinct, through some means or another. To Max, this is a revelation. The world makes little sense to him as it is, and this doesn't help. Eggers makes getting into Max's mind look effortless, and handles all of this with clean, simple, effective prose.

As I read, I could feel the depression creeping up. It always starts in my stomach, and spreads from there. It makes it hard to breathe, and harder still to think about anything but the end of the world. Of course I know that one day the sun will burn out, and when it does, it will likely scald the Earth. And I know that human beings will have gone extinct well before then, likely through our own fault. But I live, day to day, without those thoughts in my head, because I wouldn't get anything done otherwise. There is an interpretation of Atheism which I rather like, that this life is all you've got, so you best do everything you can. I prefer that idea to this being a 75-year SAT exam for admittance to Heaven. But I still don't want to live with it on my mind, every day. I am an Agnostic because I do not have the courage to be an Atheist.

I finished the chapter, and reached for my headphones. I turned off the light, put on the final movement of Sibelius' fifth, and listened. In those final moments, as the orchestra attempts to build, pulled back again and again by the darkness, finally emerging triumphant, it was telling me that as long as there is beauty like this in the world, it is worth existing.

You are here, it says. That's all that matters now.

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