Monday, July 21, 2014

Body and Spirit: A Story of Fathers and Sons

David Hays and I talked of many things, not all of them intellectually serious. But intellectual seriousness was at the heart of conversations between us. Discussing intellectual matters with Dave had been a part of my weekly routine since graduate school. I want to share with you an almost-idea I had wanted to discuss with Dave at about the time he went into surgery, the surgery from which he never recovered.

This idea originated in introspection, as did many of the ideas we discussed. I had wanted to discuss it with Dave, first on general principle, but second because it seemed to have some relevance to a question he had pondered for a decade or more:
How is it that seeing ballet well-performed can have such a favorable effect on a person?
One could, of course, abstract from this question a more general one about the psychological effects of aesthetic experience. It would not be unfair to say that it is this more general question that “really” interested us. However, neither of us could see any way of getting to that more general question without analyzing particular kinds of aesthetic experience. Dave was drawn to the ballet while I was more drawn to literature and music.

The line I wanted to take up with Dave was prompted by the experience I had in writing a piece called “Fore Play: A Lesson in Jivometric Drumology” (and republished at New Savanna) The piece was in the style of, say, John Barth meets Richard Pryor, or Jorge Borges meets Lord Buckley, and purported to be about how golf was created by the ancient Egyptians. It started out as a satire of then current Afrocentric scholarship demonstrating that the ancient Egyptians were black in skin and culture, that the ancient Greeks were heavily indebted to those Egyptians, and therefore that Civilization originated in Africa. I don't command the scholarly literature on this issue and don't much care about it one way or the other. But the thinkers advancing the case for a black Egypt have something more at stake than simply correcting the historical record.

And my response to that “something more at stake” was to create a historical fantasy in which black Egyptians are the creators of golf, a notion which is far afield from anything which is, so far as I know, being argued seriously. In this fantasy golf is the creation of one Pharaoh Ramses Golfotep MCXLVII of the `N Baa Dynasty. He was inspired in this endeavor by a trumpeter named Daniel Louis Satchotep II, also known as King Toot. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to ponder the implications of some autobiographical facts: my father was an excellent golfer; I never took up the game; but I’m a pretty good trumpet player.

Writing this piece on the Egyptian origins of golf had a very strong effect on me. It is a short piece which went through a series of revisions over the course of about a week. During that week I was often convulsed in laughter, even awakening in the middle of the night to think about this absurd story and to laugh.

That is not all.

During this period my trumpet playing became more expressive, more graceful and relaxed, more affecting. And my physical technique improved as well. I could execute difficult passages more easily and skillfully. The degree of technical improvement was more than I have been accustomed to achieving simply through practice.

It is not too difficult to understand, at least in a general way, how the psychological work associated with the story writing could affect the expressive qualities of my playing. We can think of the “strong effect” of writing about Egyptian golf as having something to do with cleaning things up a bit in the Freudian unconscious. The Freudian unconscious is replete with blocked and confused emotions. If writing about Egyptian golf was my way of dealing with some of those emotions then a general gain in emotional freedom might well show up in my trumpet playing.

But how can emotional elasticity affect physical skill? I'm thinking in particular about the double-tonguing technique required for, say, the “Scherzo in D Minor” written by Rafael Mendez, a piece I have been practicing for over three decades? During that period, and for several weeks after, I was able to play the most difficult passages of that piece, not perfectly, but certainly better than I had ever played them. How can emotional elasticity have an effect comparable to, shall we say, six months of technical practice?

I don't really have an answer for this question. But that is the question I had wanted to discuss with Dave. I didn't expect him to have an answer either, nor did I even expect that we would arrive at a mutually satisfactory answer through a series of conversations. Perhaps we would have, more likely not, for the question seems a bit premature. Yet it was the type of question we discussed often, the type of question which drove our intellectual enterprise, the type of question which drove us to issues we could handle more capably.

Make no mistake, I did want to know how an episode of psychological “working through” could affect my trumpet technique. At the same time it seemed to me that this phenomenon was the reverse of getting psychological benefit from watching the ballet. Dave believed, and so do I, that one understands the ballet by empathetically “playing” the movements of the dancers on one's own body. Through identifying with the dancer's skilled movements one brings harmony to one's own psyche. And that is a little like the reverse gaining physical skill through emotional release and reorganization.

To get a little closer to this matter we need to consider Paul MacLean's notion of the triune brain. The idea is simple: the mammalian brain has a reptile's brain at its core. This “brain” is at the center of our emotional life. An old mammalian brain is wrapped about that reptilian core and a new mammalian brain is wrapped about the old mammalian brain. That yields three brains nested in the fashion of those wooden Russian dolls, with the outermost “brain” being the most rational and, at the same time, distant from the emotional core.

Now imagine that each of these “brains” has its own ability to direct to the muscle system. That is, each can send commands to the muscles independently of the others. Think of unconscious conflict as being about conflict between these three brains – a notion Dave had advanced in his paper on “The Evolution of Expressive Culture.” One manifestation of this conflict would be conflicting signals going to the muscles – think about what goes one when you a gripped by a strong emotion and want to suppress all expression of that emotion. When Wilhelm Reich talked about body armoring he was, I think, talking about the muscular effect of conflict between the components of the triune brain. In this case, the conflict may well be almost constant, a long-term posture of the psyche, one that has physical manifestations. If the normal state of one’s musculature is one of conflict, then it stands to reason that something which mitigates that conflict may make some kinds of physical action easier. And that, I think, is what has made for a moderate, but noticeable improvement in my trumpet technique that was unconnected with practice.

The muscular coordination required to play the trumpet is complex. You have to coordinate breath control, which resides in the trunk muscles, with tongue action, and both of those with finger manipulation of the trumpet's three valves. You probably want to distribute control as widely as possible through the muscle system so that the burden on any one control center is minimized. You may want to coordinate these various activities by using a “brain” which is more diffuse and works on a larger scale than the “brain” doing detailed control of tongue and fingers. That is, you are going to use a deeper, more primitive, more emotional, system to coordinate fine control widely distributed over various part of the body. A reorganization which lessens conflict between reptilian, old-mammalian, and new mammalian systems will make it easier to get appropriate distributed and integrated control of the neuromuscular resources underlying trumpet technique. So, my psyche gets a measure of ease, my muscles are freed, and trumpet technique gets better. Just like that, with no practice needed to secure that particular increment of improvement.

Now, I submit that ballet works its way on the psyche from the other end. The really good performers operate in a mode where their muscle system is relatively unburned by unconscious conflict – this unburdening may well be specific to performance mode. People in the audience pick up on this and it helps them free up the conflict in their muscle system. Result: when the performance is over, they walk more freely.

I do not, of course, know what Dave would have said in response to this, much less can I imagine my response to his response, etc. Quite often, before discussing something with Dave, I would hold an imaginary conversation with him about the matter at hand. The response he made in reality was always more interesting and challenging than the one I imagined on his behalf. In this case, the issue is both deep and obscure enough to have generated many more conversations. We cannot know what ideas those conversations would have generated.

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