November 27, 2019

“Walking Without a Map, Expecting Turbulence and Surprise”

By Stuart Mitchner

To screen out the screeching of the train wheels, I’d pull out my CD player and plug in earphones, to listen to the only music that I could tolerate during these years: Beethoven’s late quartets.
—Elaine Pagels, from Why Religion?

For all the time I spend consulting, exploring, exploiting the oracles of the internet, as often as not I find what I’m looking for, in material form, among the oracles shelved at the Princeton Public Library.

Sometimes the oracle offers more than I counted on, as happened recently when I opened a copy of Why Religion? A Personal Story (Ecco 2018) to the passage where Elaine Pagels recalls the aftermath of her six-year-old son’s death, a time “when professions of faith in God sounded only like unintelligible noise, heard from the bottom of the sea.” Looking through the window of the train bound from Penn Station to Princeton, where she had accepted a teaching position at the University, she sees “lots dense with weeds and paper, cans, tricycles left in the rain, plastic wading pools,” and “swing sets, some with ropes dangling loosely, the seats down.” The imagery of backyards haunted by the playthings of absent children frames the questions that follow: “Why did this happen? Why to this child? Why to any child, any person?”

It’s at this point that the author looks to Beethoven’s late quartets, her preferred remedy for discord in “body and mind … separate islands of feeling, sharp with pain, interspersed with patches where feeling had numbed, wholly blocked. … Since my arteries felt tangled and separate, in danger of disintegrating, I felt that only the strands of that music could help weave them together again, perhaps could bring, for moments, a semblance of integration and order.”

Standing book in hand on the library’s second floor study area, reading and rereading that raw, visceral account of the healing power of music, I decided to take the book home, already sensing the theme it was leading me to, as if the title had changed from Why Religion? to Why Beethoven? or, more to the point, Why Music? The oracle had given me an answer I needed but didn’t know I was looking for. Isn’t this what books and libraries are all about?

Westminster Looming

Surely it’s only a coincidence that we happened to be living around the corner from the Choir College the year the household gods of rock gave way to the classics and I found myself at the Record Exchange, home of the oracles of sound, trading LPs by the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane for elegant Deutsche Grammophon packagings of Schubert, Mozart, Vivaldi, and Beethoven. Now that I think of it, the first album I borrowed from the library’s collection contained choral works by Schubert, including Standchen, the serenade for female voices that marked my hushed, late-night entry into the Shubertian universe.

No getting around it, some enchanted virus carried by way of Walnut Lane to Hickory Court from the Westminster campus had invaded my immune system. The facts are there — the forest I couldn’t see for the trees, the elephant of melody in room, the orchestral quid pro quo, the infinitely musical loop I was in without even knowing it — facts scribbled on the pages of the Flying Eagle journal (Made in China) I kept between 1979 and 1980 — which was around the time, give or take a year or two, that a New Jersey Transit train brought Elaine Pagels to Princeton with the oracle Beethoven’s late quartets weaving her spirit into a semblance of “integration and order.”

For a start there’s the cloudy/sunny day in early October when I’m walking across the grounds of the Choir College on my way to pick up our three-year-old son at University League Nursery School. From there I push him all the way downtown in a recently-repaired still rattling jingle-jangle stroller, look for an anniversary present, stop by the Record Exchange, then the epic journey to the Shopping Center, “like pushing a mule team over the Andes,” Ben snoozing in the stroller, until we get to our place under the cherry tree at the Center, warm enough by then for a picnic snack on the grass, then homeward, the last stretch across the Westminster campus and the sound of singing, always, always, as if the singing never stopped. After dinner, the music of Beethoven fills the family room with the record I bought for our anniversary, Symphony No. 9 — “Ode to Joy.”

The fall to winter entries could all be headed “Schubert plays on,” or Mozart, or Beethoven. In early March we celebrate Vivaldi’s birthday (known affectionately as Baldy in our house), an excuse to buy the works for mandolin; in late March, Hayden’s birthday it’s the piano trios; by then, as the journal notes, “Every day since January 31, 1980, has been a variation on Schubert’s birthday,” which was celebrated with a little cake from the Village Bakery in Lawrenceville, inscribed in Gothic letters of chocolate icing, “Happy Birthday Franz Schubert,” above a yellow songbird in  yellow icing, I imagined to be the handiwork of the unseen Vienna-born genius baker.

Fire and Fury

According to a journal entry from March 1980, I bolted my dinner and rushed into the night to see the Guarneri Quartet perform Schubert’s Death and the Maiden at Alexander. I had no ticket. It was pure spur-of-the-minute frenzy. I got in free thanks to a Princeton professor who gave me an orchestra ticket because his wife couldn’t make it. The highlight of the night proved to be the group dynamics inspired by the Bartok quartet. It seemed that the four men were at once comrades and combatants slashing away, all fire and fury, practially surging out of their seats with the force of their playing, knees and elbows practically touching, as if they were playing through, into one another, the bows dueling, flashing in the light like swords. This was chamber music?

Further Offerings

In her introduction to Why Religion?, Elaine Pagels says she never imagined she’d be able to write about what happened “when the death of our young child, followed soon after by the shocking death of my husband, shattered my life.” Twenty-five years later, to write the book is “to look into that darkness” with the realization “that no one escapes terrible loss.” She reinforces this understanding, one of the memoir’s defining sentiments, by referring to the “experiences that precipitate us into new relationships with ourselves and with others. For that, and for you, I offer this writing.”

Opening the book at random that day at the library, the first thing that caught my eye, even before the Beethoven passage, was  printed in italics: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” The passage is from the Gospel of Thomas, one of the early Christian texts Pagels had access to as a divinity student at Harvard and eventually wrote about in her landmark work, The Gnostic Gospels. “What I love about souces like the Gospel of Thomas,” she writes, “is that they open up far more than a single path …. While urging us to seek a deep connection with reality, they encourage us to walk without a map, expecting turbulence and surprise.” She ends that chapter with another offering from the same source: “Recognize what is before your eyes and the mysteries will be revealed to you.”