an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

The Musics, Literatures, and Evils of Our Ages

It is noted amongst people who listen to, and reflect upon their experience of, classical music, that they at different times in their lives, enjoy, love, and perhaps even need, different kinds and pieces of music. Stages and ages of life, experience, insight, maturity, suffering,…all these often alter what music someone “loves”, feels, enjoys. It is not a new idea to suggest that Beethoven could not have written his “final string quartets” but at the end of his life; that Mozart wrote his “Requiem” as he was dying was the popularized theme of a movie touching this idea. In another field of life, on January 10, 1825, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who, as his assistant Eckermann recorded for that day “had a great interest for the English”, held a conversation in his home in Weimar with a visiting English engineer: “Mr. H[utton]”.

He [Goethe] asked what Mr. H read in German literature. “I have read Egmont”, he replied, “and found so much pleasure in the perusal that I returned to it three times. Torquato Tasso, too, has afforded me much enjoyment. Now, I am reading Faust, but I find it is somewhat difficult”.

Goethe laughed at these words. “Really”, said he, “I would not have advised you to undertake Faust. It is mad stuff, and goes quite beyond all ordinary feeling. But since you have done it of your own accord, without asking my advice, you will see how you get through. Faust is so strange an individual, that only few can sympathize with his internal condition. Then the character of Mephistopheles is, on account of his irony, and also because he is a living result of an extensive acquaintance with the world, also very difficult. But you will see what lights open upon you. Tasso, on the other hand, lies far nearer the common feelings of mankind, and the detail of its form is favorable to easy comprehension.”

The music and literature that most people attend to tends to leave them in some sort of unchallenged rest and repose. In nineteenth-century America Thoreau wrote in his social critique Walden: Most men are satisfied if they read or hear, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. In the USA there are today the telling expressions, regarding music: “easy listening”, “soft rock”, even “elevator music”, “wall-paper music”, and for reading: “beach trash” (sort of unserious, but entertaining, paperback novels that one can casually read even on a beach, and it matters little if they get sandy or wet). Pop music and book bestsellers are revelations of the psychology and dispositions of the populace, and however widespread in the USA becomes the mistaken notion that all, including “culture”, and all aspects of culture, are “equal” in value, depth, meaning, greatness, etc, – there is a mysterious hierarchy of music, as there is of books, souls and minds.


With ideas it is the same. A very sweet and lively young Russian student of English I know is quite enamored of John Lennon and his song “Imagine”. It lyrics (below), read attentively, show the ideas and views of the world it rejects and accepts, for their “cosmology”, “anthropology” and philosophy of life. One can see in a quick perusal of the first “part”, a turning aside, even a rejection, of the spiritual, so-called “three-tiered cosmos” (heaven, earth, hell) common to most “major” religious traditions. In the last two lines of this first portion one also finds a modern-day hippie carpe diem – a this-worldly, versus an other-worldly, view of life. The second “section” of the lyrics suggests, simplistically, that nationalism and religions are the crucial cause of what Burns called “man’s inhumanity to man”, and that peace would replace these “unimagined” human constructs. The third section suggests an ideal communal world: with no private possessions, possessiveness and privation would – if his song is to be imagined as serious – seemingly be eliminated, a perfect communist state would result. Did Lennon really know and feel the depths and breadths, and lessons, of human history when he wrote this utopian song of carpe diem, harmony, brotherhood, and human unity? I doubt it.

John Lennon
John Lennon

Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today...

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace...

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.

If this is a song, to quote the lyrics, for “dreamers”, then perhaps most youth must wish for fanciful, if sweet, dreams – for, as silly in some ways as it seems to me to be to say, “Imagine” is a sort of simplistic, unrealistic, 1960’s-hippie substitute, for the modern young at heart, mind and experience, for the world-views and utopian world-visions of such as Thomas More, Marx, even Dionysius the Areopagite. One could contrast Lennon’s blithe world ideal in “Imagine” to say, Albert Camus hopeless, earnest vision in The Myth of Sisyphus, or his The Rebel, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

What I have wished with all this above is to preface here the idea that people – as nations, groups, and individuals – face, experience and know the world differently according to their age, educations, personalities, nationalities, beliefs, etc., and that of the entire range of programs on the BBC, many of which I have listened to over the past five years, the relatively recent half-hour program entitled “Agenda” (begun January 1999), hosted by one Christopher Gunness, is one of the most serious, interesting, substantial and thoughtful. (Other people might be drawn to the often merely chatty exchange of passing political and social passions and positions called “Talking Point”, which I find as little more than global popular opinion- and passion-mongering.)

Tutu on Evil

Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu

The program “Agenda” has interesting topics with titles like: The Meaning of Life, Elitism, What’s Left of the Left?, What is Knowledge?, The Anatomy of the Idea, Colonialism, Literature and Politics, Fundamentalism, Racism in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Christmas Shopping. One broadcast, on 24 December 2000, an interview with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, had some content which I especially noted, and find worth mention here in American Reflections, the contents of which stand in serious contrast to the “Imagine” of John Lennon. Desmond Tutu was asked by Christopher Gunness – considering his experiences during many years of Apartheid, and after serving on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee – about “evil in man”. Tutu responded simply and unambiguously: man – all men and women – have the capacity both for evil and for good; no one should imagine that they are exempt from this possibility; culture and education have great influence here, but the human being can be, and do, both. It is not that this is shocking or surprising “news”, or that it is some rare insight solely of Archbishop Tutu. (And he held, with his Christian beliefs, that good would in the end triumph over evil, as exemplified in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.) But it is not so often in our time that even an experienced individual speaks such clear ideas out about the nature and condition of man. Often the problem of human evil, in “the human condition”, is skirted around, avoided, euphemistically addressed, or explained away in some way or other. “Evil” is often excused as being the result of some social conditions external to man, or due to some aberrant, not inherent, psychic potential. But Tutu, reflecting on South African Apartheid and the Nazis, stated clearly that evil, as well as good, are inherent to man – “fallen” as he is in Desmond Tutu’s Catholic anthropology, cosmology and theology. The murdered Lennon’s view of “evil”, man, life and world in “Imagine” is young and weak; Goethe and Tutu’s are deeper, maturer truths of mankind.

The BBC has programs designed for many points of view, interests, even ages. And while the teenage program “The Edge” (broadcast mid-day on Saturdays) will surely appeal to youth around the world, I can generally recommend “Agenda” (Sundays) as a program for people of a different age, experience, and knowledge.

First published in the magazine English, #17, 2001, p. 14.