Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Music is a supportive background presence in my life, felt as an auditory backdrop to foreground activities.  Like air I seem to require it, though also like air I mostly don't notice this unless I am without it.  To borrow a distinction from Daniel Stern's The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life (2004), I may be deeply experiencing music but not always deeply understanding it.

If air can be a simile for this supportive background presence, a better one may be water.  As water of a certain temperature and calmness holds and envelops me, so too does music.  At such times, I float in a medium with indistinct boundaries, merging with my surround while not overly aware of that surround, floating in it, not swimming through or against it.

Now sometimes while thusly afloat, a mysterious thing happens ... I have a spontaneous thought.  One moment I'm simply floating, "spread out" casually in sound, the next moment I am mentally concentrated.  A peculiar shift of gravity has occurred.  That which had been background has become foreground: no longer serenely floating in music, I find I am thinking about it.  A space has opened between me and it.  And equally mysterious is the sense that while my thought feels spontaneous, having just "come" to me, it nonetheless must have been called out by the music.  While drifting inattentively in a medium, I was simultaneously sparked by that medium.

Inattention is sometimes a germinating pre-attention then, and this speaks to the very nature of indistinct boundaries between self and a specific kind of background medium.  For me, the world of the arts provides such mediums, as when I am "lost" in a painting, song, or poem.  And immersion in these mediums can sometimes quietly incubate thought.

Implicit in this shift of gravity is the idea of separation.  A gap opens between myself and the song, between subject and object, and I am now more attentional.  This gap-space can often be lively, as when a song unexpectedly evokes memories, feelings, associations.  A feeling of spontaneous generativity obtains, and I am enlivened by the snap-crackle-pop of mind as it plays. (This is presumably one of the pleasures of oldies music.)

But these generative processes are not always enlivening.  At times what is unexpectedly evoked is painful or at least sober –– on the side of nostalgia more than reminiscence.  Sober need not be unpleasant, however, and my desire is typically to "stay awake" at these times, not crawl back into my music bed.  Because even in these flatter moments, there is a subtle sense of being more pulled together.  When a song element gives or adds form –– say, to a remembered loss –– well there is no snap-crackle-pop but somehow I am more shaped up.  A memory of my father acquires more texture and body through its newly evoked linkages with song elements.

Many theories speak to experiential states that are quiescent, supportive, containing, that in addition have indistinct subject-object boundaries, and that are thought to be the ground for spontaneous creativity.  These theories reside in texts on infancy and child development, art and creativity, meditation and mindfulness, religion, therapeutic regression, and so on.  For my purposes, two authors worth citing are D.W. Winnicott and Michael Balint.

D.W. Winnicott
Donald Winnicott (1896-1971), an English pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, wrote chiefly in the decades prior to now commonplace notions of authenticity of being and self-expression.  His world was more circumscribed and circumspect than today's world of lifestyle multiplicities and instant electronic transmissions of self; and he thought that routine contacts with reality tended to be deadening, promoting compliance, conformity, and what he called a "false self."  Think here of a big chunk of the middle of the 20th century.  Think of the usual tyranny of the clock, dress requirements, social roles, poses, and then imagine it having been more pronounced in the 1950s.  It was in this context that Winnicott stressed the need to feel spontaneous, creative, real, and playfully alive.

How?  Winnicott (1951)* thought that people could find creative respite from "the task of reality-acceptance" through certain "transitional" states between subjective and objective reality –– an "intermediate area of experience" such as might be found in the arts and religion. Huh?  Put simply, I listen to a song (objective reality), perhaps floating serenely in its medium (commingling of subjective and objective reality).  The hard edges between myself and song are softened, and I am not strenuously attending to it.  Then maybe the mystery of creativity happens, a quickening of thinking both spontaneous and evoked.  Memories, feelings, associations play freely in my mind, and although the song is external to me I make it my own, invest it with meanings and resonances, feel that snap-crackle-pop of spontaneous association.  *(See "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena," in Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis [1958].)

Note the freedom accompanying these spontaneous moments.  It is the opposite of what one feels when compelled by societal authority or convention toward "the task of reality-acceptance."  An example of that would be the difficulty one might have feeling "lost" in a song if one's listening were taking place in a music humanities exam in college.  Similarly, it might be hard, though not impossible, to be "carried away" associatively by "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a ballgame, where there is conventional pressure to simply stand and dutifully listen.

(I realize this is becoming a long post.  Many of you who came to hear about seaweeds may be wanting your time back.  So I will now turn to Michael Balint and seaweeds.)

Michael Balint
As did Winnicott, Michael Balint (1896-1970) wrote about the importance of a primary state of quiescent containment, which he called a "harmonious interpenetrating mix-up" (1968)*.  Say What?  For Balint, this was the initial intrauterine environment in which a pre-self floated easily and permeably in a world of yielding matter.  (In his 1959 book, Thrills and Regressions, Balint observed that the root meaning of matter is the Latin mater for mother.)  He used metaphors of a fish in water and a person's use of air to try to capture this sense of harmonious material mix-up.  Birth brought a jarring end to this mix-up and it signified a loss of paradise, the genesis of self occasioning the exodus from dual unity.  *(See Chapter 12, "Primary Love," in The Basic Fault: Therapeutic Aspects of Regression.)

After birth and throughout life, people unconsciously yearned for relationships that would restore that dual unity, that would be tailored just for them.  Balint felt that vestiges of this "harmonious interpenetrating mix-up" survived in a person's casual relationships with "primary substances" (water, earth, air, fire) –– these substances being the natural constituents of mother earth, so to speak, the original matter supporting human life.  They were routinely taken for granted, just expected to be there.  In fact their essential requirements were that they were always there, that they were indestructible.

Josephine Klein (1987)* described this "harmonious interpenetrating mix-up" as "a state of mind in which self and other merge and drift apart like seaweeds in the sea ... .”   A perfect metaphor, it feels true to to the primary intrauterine environment.  The quiescent drifting, the fluid rhythm of fusion and apartness, the sense of containment, the feeling of being held and not falling –– these inhere in this image of lazily drifting seaweeds.  *(See Our Need for Others and Its Roots in Infancy, p. 114.)

This metaphor feels true to my experience with music, to the rhythm of being embedded in sound, then attentionally apart, then embedded, and so on. Music is one of my primary background substances, and it matters a great deal.

1 comment :

Tom K. said...

This discussion about music as background, then becoming foreground as a jumping off point, and then back, reminds me of the wonderful new HBO series Treme. The music of New Orleans is deeply embedded in the series; both as atmosphere -- it appears that the marvelously Louisiana-centric radio station WWOZ is on in the background almost everywhere -- and as a jumping off point for the storytelling. One of my favorite little moments so far is when a daughter has just brought her proud, stubborn father and his salvaged belongings back to his home in the Gentilly neighborhood, against her better judgment. She's immensely sad about the devastated state of her childhood home and the City she obviously loves too, and both worried for her father's safety and mental state and angry that (as usual) he won't listen to her pleas to come back and settle with her in Baton Rouge. She calls her brother to enlist his help, and gets little cooperation or encouragement. In the background on the radio as she's on the phone is a lovely version of "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?" When she hangs up, angry and frustrated on many levels, she says to herself "I hate that f*cking song!" and turns the radio off.

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