The Growlery

"Sit down, my dear," said Mr. Jarndyce. "This, you must know, is the Growlery.
When I am out of humour, I come and growl here."

Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter VIII

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Ghosts and Grad school

I rarely buy new CDs, generally sticking to my dear old favorites, which more often then not are classical, which limits somewhat the selection of new CDs that are relevant (how many interpretations of Bach do you actually need?). However, I have a new favorite CD! It’s is Ghosts and Spirits, by Phil Woodward, available for purchase here, or to see the lyrics or hear the music, see the CD site, here. It’s inspired by C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, and so each song corresponds to a different scene, sentiment or character in the book. For example:

  • The man who refuses “bleeding charity” because he wants his good works to count for something.
  • The woman who is consumed with love for her dead son, and is thus unable to accept divine love.
  • The man constantly fighting the lizard on his back, who, finally surrendering the battle to another, finds the monster transformed.
  • The artist who has forgotten his first love—why he began painting—and wants to paint heaven.
  • The saint who, unrecognized for her simple acts on earth, is enthroned as a glorious queen in heaven.
But summarizing these more direct correspondences to book doesn’t do justice to the originality
of the lyrics. These characters, whether ghosts or spirits, merely provide the inspiration for the songs, but then are developed further and differently than in the book. Woodward ties in other Lewis references or ideas, such as one character who says about the grey town “I know it’s not good but it’s safe”, turning Lewis’s description of Aslan on its head (“Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”).

The song that most causes me to exclaim “How true, how like life!” (to quote E. Nesbit) is one that that is only loosely inspired by the book. I don’t have any evidence for this, but I suspect this song was influenced more by The Abolition of Man, Lewis’ comment on the state of education. It’s a recitative in positively Screwtapesque tones called Thirst for Water, Inquiry for Truth. You really have to hear the intonation to really appreciate it, but here are the lyrics:

Thank God (in an abstract sense) that we’ve
Mustered up the courage to leave
The battered ranks of the naïve.
Remember that angst, that earnestness,
That intellectual distress,
That accompanied our youthfulness?
My friends, ’tis clearly a priori
That cultures espouse a meta-story
A veritable intellectual quarry
From which they draw their sense of shame,
Their paradigmatic value claims,
And their institutes of praise and blame.
But we, the academic heroes, rise
Above their existential cries
For we need no answers to be wise:
For wisdom lies neither in value nor fact,
But in modesty, honesty, courage, and tact
And in confessing what our academies have lacked,
Their myopic, close-minded approach to thought,
All the unnecessary battles they’ve fought,
And their delightfully one-sided concept of God.
So, tirelessly toil we, on their behalf
And rejoice in the day when they give even half
Of the heart we so nobly put into our craft.
And together we’ll stand, amidst a whole host
Of trivial drivel, and raise high a toast
To the death of the things that matter the most.

I reproduce the text here because it is scarily close to the attitude that I've found to be prevalent in grad school. I don’t mean to single out any of my colleagues, but I think it’s a hazard that we in history of psychology are particularly prone to. Not only can we cast ourselves as “the academic heroes” in terms of the misguided Whig history of yesteryear, but we can also do so by comparing ourselves to modern empirical psychology, which we see as still in thrall to the positivist myth.

But while presentism (dismissing the past as ignorant and regarding modern views as the correct standard for judging the past) has been at least been recognized as a hazard in history, what most worries me about this view is its relativism. For all their faults, at least historians of the past were searching for an objective truth, valued fact and had a purpose for their inquiry. I think most of my professors would argue that truth, value and morality are all constructed, products of our meta-story, the metanarrative of our culture, or perhaps our particular sub-culture (Christianity, for me, of course). What we are to do as historians is uncover the metanarratives of the past, the meaning which people constructed for their lives; we cannot judge the past by modern standards, we are not looking for any sort of objective, universal truth. I could not disagree with this view more. While I acknowledge some of the insights of postmodernism and I agree that what sense people in the past made of their lives is essential for understanding their history, I am convinced that we must be able to make judgments about the truth and falsity of their views. Just because they believed something (that the four humors controlled health, for example) does not make it “true for them”, a category above criticism. Obviously this calls for a post in its own right, and perhaps I’ll do that sometime in the future. But meanwhile check out Ghosts and Spirits and enjoy some great music!

P.S. The first image in the post is the CD cover, but the others are Great Divorce-themed images that I found on the web. The second image is from this blog where someone posted photos they took of an art show and there are several other Great Divorce-themed works there. The third is from Flicker, and is the work of an artist who has many other really nice pieces, some of them of Narnia. Both are really worth a look!

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Blogger Joel A. Shaver said...

Yes, telling morality with a calendar. Thanks to your family for our copy of the cd, by the way!

1:01 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

Thanks for the kind review :). The album hasn't gotten much publicity yet, so I'm curious how you found out about. How did you first hear about the album?

Actually, I'm noticing now that this was posted way back in March, but I just saw it today for the first time, since it just showed up Google search.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Miss Elissa said...

I heard about it from my sister Krista, who is going to grad school with Phil Woodward. What's your connection to the CD?

As far as it only showing up recently, you are quite right. I've had a version of this post in a draft since March, but just now found time to finish and post it. It was a busy spring/summer!

7:54 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

I played lead guitar on the album, did the string arrangements on "Thirst for Water, Inquiry for Truth" and "Vetoing Heaven", and built the website.

I added you to our press page. Thanks for helping to get the word out about the album!

9:12 AM  
Blogger Miss Elissa said...

Impressive! Nice work, on all counts! The website looks great, and the music, of course, is wonderful.

Glad to be able to help with a worthy cause!

4:11 PM  

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