Writing Harmony

Last night, when I was earnestly wishing I was fast asleep, a thought came to me that I thought (it being very late or very early) was quite profound. It went something like this, though of course all the profound illumination of the insight has faded with the light of day:

The soul delights in harmony. On the other hand, the senses delight in particular perceptions. As a result, there is a perpetual potential conflict between the senses and the soul. If the senses take in too much too fast, the soul can become disturbed. Therefore, the role of the mind is to bring order to what the senses perceive.

You can see this fairly easily in the natural sciences, where the mind orders physical reality under universal laws without which the physical world makes little sense. You can also see the impulse in the moral sciences, though it is quite a bit more difficult to achieve the desired harmony. Ethics, for example, seeks principles that govern human behavior while politics seeks principles that govern human society, each seeking a harmony of soul and community.

What struck me in the night, or maybe it was in the morning, is that this delight the soul dervies from harmony is another argument for long sentences. Let me explain. There’s a delight in simple harmony, but the soul likes even more if the harmony can be extended. In fact, ultimately what the soul wants is for everything to be harmonized. It cannot be content until it reaches that point.

So it’s a bit jarring to read, “I haven’t got no fishing pole,” and it’s more pleasant to read, “I don’t have a fishing pole.” It doesn’t disturb our inner sanctum as much. The objection that for some people the former is customary and thus more pleasant misses the point. It’s more pleasant because it is customary, therefore it harmonizes with their experiences and expectations. But the pleasure would be increased even more if their experiences could be harmonized with the logical forms of thought. This more extended harmony would give more pleasure to the soul.

Back to my fishing pole, it would be even more pleasurable if I read, “I don’t have a fishing pole, having left it on the bottom of the sea, in the gullet of a great fish that grabbed the bait and pulled the pole out of my hand.”

The pleasure that I am speaking of is strictly formal and is the delight the soul takes in a somewhat extended harmony. The pleasure of the narrative, or the distaste for it, is peripheral to the specific pleasure I’m talking about, though if the sentence is well-crafted it will harmonize with the narrative, thus extending the harmony even further.

If, on the other hand, I had read, “Leaving the dock, the fishing pole flew out of my hands, so I don’t got one now,” in and of itself, the multiple disharmonies in this sentence would disturb the inner harmony of the soul and seek clarity and correction.

A long sentence that maintains harmony and keeps due proportion is a great pleasure for the soul, and it is a pleasure we ought not to derive our students or ourselves of. Another way to say that is that the soul takes great pleasure in a well-ordered sentence that either remains harmonious throughout or comes to a resolution at the end. Yet another way to say it is that the soul likes sentences that sing.

If we lose the sensitivity for verbal harmonies, we undercut our intellectual development.

Our era is philosophically opposed to the possibility of a metaphysical harmony, having rejected the logos in all its variations (cf. RV Young, At War With The Word), and I believe that despair (for that is precisely what despair is) is the root of our emphasis on brute sentences, the short macho sentences that Ernest Hemingway made into an art form but that almost nobody else can.

So with our endless assault of short sentences we both undercut our intellectual development and deprive the soul of a great pleausre. I’m prepared to argue that we also undercut our moral and spiritual development.

Read this poem by John Donne and tell me that its form doesn’t give you pleasure.

The Indifferent

I can love both fair and brown,
Her whom abundance melts, and her whom want betrays,
Her who loves loneness best, and her who masks and plays,
Her whome the country form’d, and whom the town,
Her who believes, and her who tries,
Her who still weeps with spongy eyes,
And her who is dry cork, and never cries;
I can love her, and her, and you and you,
I can love any, so she be not true.

Of course, the content can be very disturbing to the reader, but let me just point out that it is John Donne writing and if you judge the content by a first read, and that of only part of the poem, you are judging o’er hastily.

But once again, that only underscores my point. You want a harmony within the poem, and you want the harmony to extend beyond the poem to blend happily with your experiences and beliefs.

The most healthy soul is the one that, like the princess in the fairy tale, can feel the pea 17 mattresses down, and is disturbed by it.

So consider the poem for its own sake, its formal beauties, and let the form give you the pleasure it intends, thus honoring the poem for its virtues. Notice that the section copied above is all one extended harmonious sentence – and if you want to see how it turns out, look it up!

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2 Responses

  1. […] 22, September, 2008 by besidethequeue My dad on harmony, form, and literature, over at Quiddity.. […]

  2. I like your analogy of the princess and the pea. I never thought of it that way. Well done!

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