Going through Beethoven’s piano sonatas one by one as part of my summer practice routine, I find a piece like Opus 7. It is of no special historical importance, bears no broader poetical or metaphorical weight in the myth of Beethoven. It’s just a pearl of a piece, and you’d never find it if you were looking as a music historian, and quite possibly not if you’re looking as a music theorist; only if you’re looking as a musician. The piece asks that I deal with Beethoven not on the level of myth, but on the level of music.
I won’t say much, because I’m trying to finish the book fast enough to get it back to the library on time, but David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a really excellent read with a lot of provocative economic and political ideas. Big ideas about history. Say, suggesting that what we now call the “major world religions” all had their origins contemporaneously with the invention of coinage. And suggesting that their ideals are tied to market logic, often as its natural inversion. “Pure greed and pure generosity are complementary concepts; neither could really be imagined without the other; both could only arise in institutional contexts that insisted on such pure and single-minded behavior; and both seem to have appeared together wherever impersonal, physical, cash money also appeared on the scene.” (249)
Evidently sometime in ancient China there was a popular outburst of religious devotion and a fad for bodily mortification that culminated in a rash of self-immolations. In 2014, writing on being an artist in the shadow of climate change, I briefly (cautiously) touched up against the ethics of suicide. I found that I had to reject any simplistic logic of human life wherein one’s existence could only be calculated in terms of negative impacts. In his discussion of these horrifying self-sacrifices in the Liang and Tang dynasties, Graeber offers a broader perspective on the kind of logic I was rejecting. He muses on this notion of selfless giving taken to its extreme: “This is the door that necessarily opens as soon as one develops a notion of ‘profit’ and then tries to conceive its opposite.” (262)
The alternative is not so clear, because ideas like profit and sacrifice, greed and generosity, are so much part of how we look at the world that we can’t see through or across or around them. But maybe there's a third way. I keep coming back to his phrasing: “pure and single-minded behavior.” Because, when we really scrutinize our own decisions, are our motives ever so simple? Were we ever capable of unmottled action to begin with? Maybe accepting that complexity is a way to start. Graeber quotes Ursula K. Le Guin: "Free your mind of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think."
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts