The Buddhist Hands Interpretation
of The Adagio Cantabile
Having spent a significant portion of my adult life involved with academic concerns, I have read my fair share of academic literature. I learned to read texts in their original languages, and to see texts through the lenses of various types of literary theory. I was eager to assimilate Steiner's book like any other academic work. My first instinct in my first reading of Steiner's book about twenty years ago was to compare his perspective with all the other academic perspectives that I had been exposed to on the interpretation of literature and see how he fit in.
Instead, I found that a relatively non-academic type of response came forth. I wondered how my life would have been different if I paid more direct attention to the arts. Why did I manage to ignore my instinct to write that novel? I have always wanted to learn to compose and play the piano, what happened? Did I fully listen to that music? Did I really read that text? How would my life have been different if I gave a higher quality of first-hand attentiveness to every aspect of my living? How hospitable have I been to the real presence of all these others that Steiner's thesis spoke of? What can I do to better myself and my capacity to experience art and life? These are questions of the nature of my own attentiveness and the expression of my own being in the presence of art.
The ideas found in Steiner's text and the questions that arose from my reading affected my view of my work and life. One of the results was that, over the years, I did not just read and reread the words in Real Presences. I opened myself up to the text and afforded it the courtesy of allowing it to walk with me in my living. My response to this book has not been just a set of words in this essay designed to apply to a previous set of words. My response has been a living experimentation with the ideas I found in Real Presences that has lasted for more than twenty years. My response is a reading of a text, and a living out of ideas, that required I do more than immerse myself in secondary talk. This is a style of relationship that I have had with a fair number of books.
In this style of examining texts, I am describing an art of 'participatory philology' where the text and reader share a common space. Textual examination and self examination join in a dance of becoming to create something new. This is a process that takes time. Nietzsche wrote that philology teaches us to read slowly. I have discovered that the value of taking time to read and reread is extraordinarily useful. Sean Gurd, in his introduction to Philology and Its Histories, wrote on the great luxury of philology.
"the essential characteristic of this time is the luxury to read a book unhurriedly, which means to read it more than once, to bring the experience of different days to its pages, and even to decide to read against its bound sequence, unbinding and resorting, if only in the mind" (Gurd, p.12 - see link above for publication info)
For more than 20 years, I allowed 'the experience of different days' to impact my experience of Steiner's writing. This is the extreme opposite of much of the more cursory reading I must do in life. Personally, I can tell you that I got my money's worth out of my paperback copy of Real Presences. What a difference reading slowly makes! However, in this experience I shared a common space with the text in a way that abandons philology proper. While relating philology to philosophy, Gurd wrote on the same page as the quote above that
"Every philology must involve rigorous thought as well as textual practice; but thought, in taking leave of texts, leaves philology behind as well. Where and how philology should accommodate itself to thought is a constant concern in its history."
In any text that communicates ideas, thought must take precedence at some point. An idea laden text will point us away from itself even as we seek to understand the text, such is the habit of words in the semantics of natural language. In participatory philology, there is also the philology of ideas. Participatory philology takes a book and transforms it into an existential text that is more than the printed word. This is to create a critical edition of living experience. The critical apparatus for such philology is not founded upon a collection of manuscripts that are presented to us through the transmission history of a text, but is a collection of personal experiences that serves us through our personal testing and living out of the ideas we encounter in a text.
My Rachmaninoff experience is an example of participatory philology. While reading the text of Real Presences, I came into contact with the idea that my academic habits alone were insufficient to experience art for all it is worth. One of my interpretive responses was to immerse myself in artistic experience in order to live out this idea as I interpreted George Steiner's text. In this act of the participatory philology of ideas, I also had to read my own being as a living text. I had to read Steiner, several musical texts, and my own experiencing artistic and philosophical heart just to start to chew, once again, on the ideas in the book. My best ideas in this effort occurred not as I endlessly circumambulated in the secondary city of endless academic reference and abstracted theory. My best ideas came to me as my poetically and musically expressive soul rose to new heights of ecstasy in the throes of creating music. I broke new ground in reading a text not through the juxtaposition of scholarly views, but through an extraordinarily vivid and persistent artistic engagement that was an expression of my own living experience. This has been an act that is much more than reading a text. It is an act of living out and interpreting the ideas I encountered in the text through my own participation in expressing those ideas.
The philology of ideas demands a real presence. It demands a human presence and a human participation that is more than reading a text. It is a joining of text and living being that serves to test and examine ideas. It is not enough to know that this or that idea belongs in the final critical edition. For to the extent that philology cannot divorce itself from meaning, thought must find its wings to move beyond the text. Like the traditional philologist's habit of mutilating texts, participatory philologists must be prepared to do violence to the ideas they are examining. The participatory philologist treats ideas like the traditional philologist treats texts. The participatory philologist engages in the "unbinding and resorting" of ideas through her own participation in those ideas. Good ideas that have implications for our experience of life must actually be experienced and not just read about because we, dear reader, are also the text. Ultimately, participatory philology is the philology of our own being. Part II will examine the participatory philology of self inherent to the experience of the Socratic method.
My habit of responding to a text this way was not new to me with my reading of Real Presences. I first learned the art of participatory philology, which allows a text to come to life in the course of my own living, from Mohandas K. Gandhi. The title of his autobiography tells it all. The Story of My Experiments with Truth is the a story of a man who invested his actual living into his reading of the texts he encountered in life. He did not just read words and talk about them. He let the words and ideas affect his living. He experimented with and lived the principles and ideas he found in the words of texts. After seeing the movie Gandhi in 1983, I started reading Gandhi's writings. I also started experimenting, in a participatory manner, with what I had encountered in the various texts I read, including the dialogues of Plato. My habits of engaging this kind of experimentation have been profoundly useful for my own self discovery for over thirty years. It turns out that participatory philology, as the philology of self, is the heart of the human experience of the Socratic method.
What follows is another example of 'participatory philology'. This time, my experience playing a beautiful movement from a Beethoven piano sonata impacts my reading of Steiner's views on transcendence as a ground of meaning in the arts and life. An examination of this experience will lead to the articulation of the first principle of all education and of the art of living an examined life.
In the late spring of 2009, I began a musical performance experiment that was designed to test the dynamics of long term attentiveness to a task. As the experiment proceeded, I found out that I would have to take my leave of both the secondary city and Steiner's text. This experiment, which both precedes and continues past my Rachmaninoff experience, involved my own first-hand and long term attentiveness to an object of the arts. My chosen focus for the experiment was Beethoven's Sonata Pathétique (No. 8 Op. 13.). I would learn to play my first piece on the piano, which was the second movement of the sonata more popularly known as the adagio cantabile.
The purpose of this experiment has been to work towards accomplishing a very difficult task and to learn about the things that affected my attentiveness to this task. My experimental protocol demanded that the task be near impossible since the experiment was designed to last for years. I decided that learning to play the piece was not enough. My experimental goal was to make myself able to give the finest performance of Beethoven's adagio cantabile ever played. It does not matter if I cannot ever achieve this, nor does it matter if such an aesthetic valuation is possible. I imagine that Steiner would say that such valuations in musical aesthetics are not possible or at least not verifiable.
In my perspective, the finest performance of the second movement, by definition, can only come when situated between the first and third movements of the sonata. I will never succeed at this because I have only learned to play the second movement. Not being able to reach the theoretical best is no reason to stop trying to do my best in my own circumstance. I just needed a goal for my experiment that would keep me looking up, attentiveness wise, for a long, long time. No matter how good or bad I play Beethoven's adagio cantabile, I found that persistently aspiring to the highest goal has been a powerful benefit to my attentiveness in the performance of this music.
The adagio cantabile is not an impossibly difficult piece for a beginner to learn to play. However, there is an extraordinary difference between learning to press the keys in the right order and learning to give an artistically developed, interpretive performance of the music. I found that learning to reproduce the notes in a decent approximation of what I saw written in the sheet music was modestly difficult but doable. At first, I could not press two keys together at the same time. After considerable practice, I was able to approximate the order of notes in a way that sounded like I was playing it.
Vastly more demanding, and vastly more elusive to my abilities, is to give an interpretive artistic performance of the movement in which I make the cantabile theme sing for all it is worth. After about almost four years of daily practice, I am only now just beginning to practice this piece of music with a deeper view of artistically interpreting the music and not just pressing out notes on a keyboard. I am sure that a period of four years may sound to some people like a horrifyingly long time to spend one's attention on a single piece of music. This experiment has no time limit. If life allows, I will continue to attend to this piece of music for the rest of my life. Making myself able to produce the finest performance of the adagio cantabile ever played is not a task that comes easily to me (if it ever comes to me at all).
 I started learning Clair De Lune at the time of writing this essay. When I play the beginning of this piece I am often reminded of the fact that my ability to press any two keys together at the same time is not guaranteed by the laws of physics.