The Death of People-Watching

“The Death of People-Watching”

by Sam Buntz

If you live in a big city and take the train in the morning, commuting on Chicago’s el (as I do) or venturing through the congested innards of New York’s subway system, you have doubtless noticed something about your fellow passengers. They are hunched over in attitudes that initially seem reminiscent of prayer. The glowing screens cradled in their hands possess the aura of sacred texts. You pop your head up for a moment, look around you, and think, “My God – I am the one remaining conscious person in the world! I alone am free from the spell of this malign hypnosis.” Then, your head bobs back down, immersed in the same ritual devotions, the same Instagram-Twitter black mass as your fellow riders…

Complaining about this state of affairs is futile. If you rail against social media and smartphones, despite their universally acknowledged negatives, you rapidly morph into the archetypal curmudgeon. After shaking your fist at the clouds, you return to muttering about how you don’t understand this whole Cardi B phenomenon, let alone these kids with their damn fidget spinners and Pokemon Go. You become lost in the labyrinth of your own dark and dated murmurings. Nonetheless, and with these risks acknowledged, it is worth our while to consider one effect of our pervasive screen addiction. It has nearly destroyed people watching.

People watching was – and, to some extent, still is – the definitive pleasure of life in a major metropolis. In France, the dedicated people watcher, the connoisseur of the streets, even received a title, flaneur (also referred to as a boulevardier; the female equivalent is the flaneuse). The word flaneur ultimately derives from the Old Norse verb “flana,” which means to “wander without a purpose.” The classic 19th Century flaneur ambled about the boulevards of Paris, absorbing the pulse and flavor of the life around him. Apparently an aimless man of leisure, the flaneur secretly recorded the modulations in the river of humanity flowing by him. He noted the poetry etched on people’s faces. He saw the scars, the half-hidden joys, youth in flower and withering age.

The poet Charles Baudelaire described the flaneur in his definitive essay on the subject, “The Painter of Modern Life:” “the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

This refined, artistic, yet remarkably inexpensive pleasure was not restricted to 19th Century Paris, of course. In fact, if we go back to Elizabethan England, we find that Shakespeare and other notable playwrights of the time made it a habit to sit in public and people-watch. According to John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, “Ben Johnson and [Shakespeare] did gather Humours of men dayly where ever they came.” In other words, they would scan the faces of passersby, looking for hints of personality, trying to deduce the tendencies of their characters. In fact, the other undisputed titan of literature, Leo Tolstoy, was also an avid people watcher. He would sit in the town square and write. He said the faces of the townsfolk inspired him. (Unexpectedly, this is referenced on an episode of Seinfeld).

This manner of apprehending reality connects to the Christian notion of epiphany, a term used to mark the day when the three wise men beheld the infant Christ. The miraculous appears in the midst of the drab and ordinary, just as the Christ child manifests in an obscure barnyard on the fringes of the Roman Empire. The incarnational view of reality has always insisted that any object in Creation is subject to sudden transformation, testifying and pointing towards its Creator. The true flaneur recognizes this: the anonymous faces in a crowd suddenly bloom into reality. They shine with the Imago Dei.

In the Buddhist tradition, we find the related concept of kensho, which means “seeing nature,” as in seeing the true nature of oneself or of any being. Just as Christianity (at its best) seeks to apprehend the face of God in the faces of human beings, Zen Buddhism reveals the “Buddha nature” of all things. Great haikus by Japanese poets such as Basho and Issa testify to the truth of this project. Here’s Issa: “It is a world of dew / A world of dew, indeed / And yet, and yet…”

The flaneur kenshos the crowd. Haunted by epiphany, he seeks the moment where the ordinary is transfigured into the extraordinary merely by being what it is. The fullness of reality manifests in what once seemed to be emptiness. The apparent idling of the veteran people-watcher becomes, in fact, a state of uncommon alertness. It is a meditative state of mind, hyper-aware of the stream of human life coursing by.

But the faces on the train today are harder to read. Each one, locked to its screen, looks somewhat intent but also somewhat vacant. It is as though life is dribbling, droplet by droplet, out of the eyes and into the waiting electronic vessel. This state of affairs deals a double blow to people watching. It makes it harder for us to see – enslaved to the magnetism of the glowing, vibrating, voodoo talisman nestled in our sweaty palms – and it makes it harder for us to beseen. You are less interesting to look at when you are gazing blankly into your phone. As Saint Paul said, we are truly looking “through a glass darkly” – our modes of knowing and being known both lost in confusion. The image of God is there, alright… But it grows blurrier by the minute.

Don DeLillo wrote one of the most depressing sentences of all time: “The future belongs to crowds.” The technological developments of the last twenty years have helped make that prediction disturbingly accurate. Social media is a crucible that melts down personalities and reduces them to their angriest and least coherent notions. Then, like molten metal, they are poured into a common pool. Our devices tend to connect us to crowds but not to each other. They associate us with group identities but forbid us from looking one another plainly in the eye. Crowds always seem to be distinctly less than their members. Apparently the whole is not always greater than the sum of its parts.

By contrast, the flaneur helps tease the individual souls out of the crowd. In liberating them from the mob, he actually brings them out of isolation and into a state of pure relation with his own consciousness. He locates character in what would otherwise be a faceless, teeming mass. He sets the sparks blazing out in the darkness. Without the elevated perspective of an artist or a poet to redeem it, a crowd is comprised not of people, but of digits adding up to different sums.

For example, say that a crowd contains 1,000 heterosexuals, 100 gay people, about 50 bisexuals, and a few pansexuals. We read these statistics and yet we know nothing. The souls contained by these statistics have not been made real for us. We just see a lifeless mass of colorless identities, of spare labels. The flaneur helps rescue the personal and private life from the world of mass movements and mass ideologies. He turns the digits back into human beings… And the tool the flaneur uses for this purpose is people-watching.

Stanislavsky said, “Generality is the enemy of all art.” If crowds are generalities, then individual human beings are particularities. Only the particular, the telling detail, can render life lively. The flaneur performs this service too, saving the the particular from the general, restoring a sense of our eccentricity and thereby a sense of our humanity.

Yet, today, aimless clicking replaces the free and easy wandering of the flaneur. The texts engraved in faces are obscured by distraction. The cover is closed.

The revolt of art against this state of affairs will not be political. It will be personal and insist on taking the world personally. It will be passionately, even violently subjective. Only through such a revolt – a personal revolt against the facelessness of the crowd – can we awaken to the company of the people around us. To engage in people-watching is a revolutionary act, the first salvo not in a political battle but in a spiritual battle. An inner revolution. After all, that is the true meaning of “repentance,” metanoia – to change one’s mental orientation, to learn how to apprehend in a new manner.

We merely need to lift up our heads and look.


Owen Meany at 30

by Sam Buntz

March 28th, 2019 officially marked the 30th anniversary of John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. In our time, when splenetic tweets attract more attention than novels, it is worth reflecting on the unique value of an inspired tome. There are no longer novels that “everyone needs to read.” Our culture is compartmentalized, diffuse. More adults apparently read “young adult fiction” than grown-up-adult fiction. Yet, while “likes” on Instagram and Facebook induce waves of dopamine in the brain, the satisfactions of a great novel run somewhat… deeper.

Reflecting on Owen Meany is both an occasion for joy – joy at its beautifully rendered vision – and melancholy regarding so much of what is rapidly evaporating in our culture. It is worth taking some time to celebrate what we love about a book in careful detail, preserving it and helping gather a saving remnant of fellow appreciators. Owen Meany is Irving’s most popular book, out-selling his other novels, and it also happens to be his best. Majority opinion is not always a valuable guide to what is lasting and true, but in this case the casual reader has recognized merit that has eluded the tangled minds of certain esteemed critics. (Alfred Kazin wrote a particularly ridiculous review of Owen Meany when it first came out…)

While some critics spurned the novel’s lack of a precious literary style, the kindly disposed and sensitive reader has appreciated the book for what it is: a miraculous feat of world-building and mythic construction. The non-critics’ opinion has validated the worth of Irving’s novel over the course of three decades. Anyone who can appreciate the fully realized worlds common to our screen culture (as in Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones), should be able to drift away into Irving’s richly detailed mini-cosmos of Gravesend, New Hampshire, and find real, abiding value in the experience. They will hopefully encounter other values that cannot be obtained from television…

A Prayer for Owen Meany helps restore a sense of three things that are currently scarce in our culture. First, it restores a sense of the uncanny and miraculous, which is sorely missing among us, jaded and phone-addicted as we are. Second, it makes us acutely aware of the particularity and detail of our world, letting magic emerge from the minimal elements of everyday life. Finally, it lets us partake in the strange suspicion that life has an underlying plot or myth.

The uncanny and the miraculous are represented by the main character, Owen Meany. Owen is apparently a dwarf (or maybe the world’s shortest non-dwarf), and he speaks in a high-pitched voice, represented in all caps.  Devoutly religious, he believes himself to be an instrument in the hands of God – which he, in fact, is. His best friend, John Wheelwright (note the shared first name with Irving), also comes to share this opinion. In addition to other adventures and misadventures, Owen inadvertently kills John’s mother with a foul ball at a Little League game, helps John identify his real father, and aids him in evading service in the Vietnam War. And, in the end, he performs a miracle that folds together all of these plot elements.

In a sense, Owen represents that part of ourselves which connects with eternity. He is the portion of our being that sees life as ultimately plotted and meaningful, rather than just as a collection of random, haphazard events. In that sense, Owen is akin to the writer’s own imagination. By contrast, John Wheelwright is the writer as he exists in time, as opposed to eternity. He represents the less-exalted, more mundane side of the writer – his non-writing side. That, in my view, is why John bears his creator’s first name. Owen is a creature convinced of the rightness of his own story, its providential nature. John receives that knowledge from Owen, acting as his faithful squire. He loves Owen, but both benefits and suffers from his friendship (Exhibit A. in the suffering file being his dead mom). At one point, he compares himself to Joseph watching over Jesus in the manger. He is an important figure, but one decidedly cast in a supporting role, as Owen takes center stage.

John sees Owen as virtually supernatural, describing him in unforgettable terms,“with the sun from the attic skylight shining through his protrusive ears, which were a glowing pink – the sunlight so bright that the tiny veins and blood vessels in his ears appeared to be illuminated from within. The powerful morning sun struck Owen’s head from above, and from a little behind him, so that the light itself seemed to be presenting him. […A]nd in that blaze of sunlight, he looked like a gnome plucked fresh from the fire with his ears still aflame. […] I would frequently consider the issue of exactly how human Owen Meany was; there is no doubt that, in the dazzling configurations of the sun that poured through the attic skylight, he looked like a descending angel – a tiny but fiery god sent to adjudicate the errors of our ways.”

Based on this description, Owen Meany is what the Ancient Greeks and Romans would have called John Irving’s daemon or genius. He is the inspired power of his own imagination. John Wheelwright is the everyday person, the man who lets that genius work through him. Irving gives the narrator his own first name for a reason: as a writer, he is essentially a servant. He is the servant of his own imagination and whatever power inspires it. Owen, on the other hand, is John Irving’s inspired consciousness. He is an actual representation of that supernatural, daemonic power that operates of its own volition in every great writer’s head. It is a power that shapes a meaningful narrative out of the squalid materials of everyday life.   

The most important symbol in Owen Meany is armlessness. After Owen accidentally kills John’s mother, he takes a stuffed armadillo he and John used to play with as small children and cuts its arms off. Owen then gives this as a gift to John. As John’s stepfather interprets it, this symbolizes the fact that Owen feels armless because he is just an instrument in the hands of God. His arms are not his own. He is helpless in sorrow, but unable to follow any path other than that which Providence has set for him. He is both maimed by his fate and made miraculous by it.

This image of armlessness recurs throughout the book – though to write more about it would give too much away. It is one symbol by which the novel helps re-awaken our sense of higher forces, influencing us and guiding our actions. By reading Owen Meany, the reader comes to partake in this sense of a higher creative intelligence, weaving the varied strands of the story together into a synchronous whole. The character of Owen reminds us of the transcendent, and creative dimension of our own personalities, which we could access if we wanted to. Unfortunately, our addiction to our smartphone screens frequently leaves us utterly numb to this uncanny element of our own being.

As for the second gift granted by Owen Meany, it helps us see the luminous quality of everyday life through its extensive worldbuilding. The small New Hampshire town in which this story takes place, Gravesend, is clearly modeled on Irving’s own hometown, Exeter. Even minor characters are given much detail and development. To provide an example, John’s neighbor, Mr. Fish, owns a dog named Sagamore. We end up learning curious facts about this dog and witness Sagamore’s demise due to a collision with a diaper truck. After death, the dog’s corpse is given to John’s grandmother, who is an avid rose gardener. Apparently, nothing is better for fertilizing roses than a dog’s corpse… It is little details like this that make up the world of the book and make it a success.  Politics, while definitely evident in the book, particularly in the grown-up John Wheelwright’s rants about America’s interventions in Latin America in the 1980s, are in my opinion secondary to these moments of vision.

Regarding the third element offered by this book, Owen Meany has an insanely satisfying plot arc. Irving weaves plot threads together in a way that is uniquely astonishing. Sub-plots involving the aforementioned stuffed armadillo, the missing baseball that killed John’s mother, an odd program of basketball-related exercise, and a dressmaker’s dummy all resolve themselves into unity.

Consider the first sentence of the book. It provides a prime example of Irving’s artistry: ”I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” This sentence is the entire book in miniature. Yet, it is full of mystery, hinting at secrets that are gradually teased out through the course of the novel. It exemplifies Irving’s expertise in foreshadowing and plot construction.  

In constructing the book’s intricate plot arc, Irving makes full use of his own literary background, alluding to all of his most important forebears. According to Irving, Owen Meany’s initials echo those of Oskar Matzerath, the protagonist of Gunter Grass’s classic German novel, The Tin Drum. Further, the fatal baseball that kills the narrator’s mother owes much to the snowball that precipitates the action in Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business. (Being an adopted Torontonian, like John Wheelwright in the book, Irving gave the eulogy at the Canadian novelist’s funeral). The Scarlet Letter is clearly referenced, as, I believe, is Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, a religious novel with a similar attitude towards miracles. Finally, Dickens – Irving’s biggest inspiration – is conspicuously echoed in key plot points related to Owen Meany’s mother.

Irving mashes all of his favorite books into his best book, which helps generate a remarkable crystallization of meaning. He uses his full talent for creating characters and imagery, all while freely and joyfully raiding his literary ancestors for bits and pieces of his plot. His own love for literature is evident in these meticulous interconnections and references.

Irving’s exquisitely crafted story proves an important point. You don’t need to have an avant-garde style to be a major author. This is why certain esteemed critics insist that, while Irving may have high literary aspirations, he’s really more of a… popular… novelist. In other words, Irving doesn’t perform a lot of modernist and post-modernist gimmicks and hi-jinks. He doesn’t try to write novels without using the letter “e” or compose every other page in backwards text that needs to be read in a mirror. He is a consummate craftsman, hewing words and arranging them artfully and appropriately in place.

For an author to endure, the author does not require “style” in this exclusive and inaccessible sense. What an author needs to survive is a vital mythology, a collection of images charged with meaningful movement, an intensity of vision. Irving is well known for his recurring images and characters: dwarves, bears, prostitutes, and adult characters with either very limited or no sexual experience. (To explicate these recurring motifs would require an essay of its own.) A Prayer for Owen Meany makes especially intriguing use of the first and last of these motifs, integrating them into its underlying mythology.

Of course, if you can write with an extremely high degree of personal style, that’s all to the good. My point is merely that, on its own, style is no guarantee of literary merit or survival. Character endures, and so does myth. Style cannot create character or myth, but it can help realize them more fully. And Irving’s style is often lyrical and evocative, more than adequate to this task.

Yet the term “style” itself never sits easily with me. It always leaves one a little queasy. The word has a connotation of superficiality. Consequently, I prefer to speak of an author’s music rather than style. This literary music constitutes a way of artfully arranging words so that they add up to an ultimate pattern of meaning. Style is on the surface. Music is summoned up from the depths. And John Irving definitely has music.  

Myth and music are missing in the modern world. I am referring to the music we can find within us, not to the music we hear on the radio. We require an internal harmony, one we can partly access by engaging with great literature. A Prayer for Owen Meany rekindles that music. It makes us identify with a deep imaginative pattern, one involving miracle and a world in which all events are caused by an underlying Providence.

As Irving’s own spiritual commitment wavered, his next book –  A Son of the Circus – seemed to drift away from this idea of an ultimate meaning, a pattern where everything connects. (However, Irving’s most recent comments in an interview indicate a basically positive attitude towards the essence of Christianity). A Son of the Circus is a rewarding read, but, to my mind, Owen Meany’s spiritual meaning and immensely well-crafted structure make it one of the essential texts of our time.  

Irving’s novel rescues all that is strange, particular, and eccentric about human beings from oblivion. According to the political theorist, Patrick Deneen, we are currently living in a “homogenous anti-culture,” which tends to eliminate or ignore human particularity. He is absolutely correct. But great books like Owen Meany break through that homogeneity. A small boy with a wrecked voice accidentally kills his best friend’s mother with a foul ball. A dead dog fertilizes roses… Owen Meany reminds us that our life stories far transcend what Twitter and Instagram have to offer. Wonderful and terrible eccentricities abound.

One of the epigraphs to A Prayer for Owen Meany is a quotation from the French Catholic writer, Leon Bloy: “A Christian is either a hero or a pig.” Bloy, of course, means that a Christian is either struggling to lead a Christian life or is spiritually free-loading, hoping that God picks up the tab when the party is over. The quote encapsulates the value of Irving’s book. By learning to recognize the transcendent element in life, the richness of detail present in Creation, and the mythic patterns that inform existence, one can take a few steps – or more – in the direction of heroism.  

Vampire Weekend’s Harmony Hall: Escaping the Echo Chamber

“Vampire Weekend’s ‘Harmony Hall:’ Escaping the Echo Chamber”

by Sam Buntz

Great art always means more than one thing. Try to peg a work of genuine artistic merit, and you soon find yourself attempting to balance between two unsteady stools. As a friend of mine pointed out recently, with a nod to Walt Whitman, the best works of art “contain multitudes.” The new Vampire Weekend single, “Harmony Hall,” is a prime demonstration of this truth. It is a multi-splendored, many-sided gem, reflecting light from different angles and defying one single interpretation.

That being said, it definitely is addressing contemporary outrage culture and its perpetual state of emotional frenzy. “Harmony Hall” illustrates our tendency to ensconce ourselves in echo chambers and only hear what we want to hear. At the same time, it reveals something even deeper about the sources of this tendency – namely, human vulnerability and insecurity. This is all presented with a beautifully light and summery touch. There is a gentleness to the song’s approach. It is not confrontational. Rather, it sees the space, the shape, the context of stupid behavior and helps bring it into the light. Also, it passes the acid test for first-rate lyrics: you can read them out loud in a normal voice without feeling silly.

“Harmony Hall” is the first of six singles to be released in advance of Vampire Weekend’s fourth album, Father of the Bride. The band’s singer, guitarist, and chief songwriter, Ezra Koenig, has clearly emerged as the peer of the greatest lyricists of all time. He is rubbing elbows with Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell. This has been true since Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album, which was released in 2008, but became especially evident in the wake of their second album and third album, 2010’s Contra and 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City. Throughout the course of these albums, Vampire Weekend has gone on a journey from youthful dreams of preppy romance and aestheticism to deeper personal, ethical, and religious concerns. They proceed knowingly from the humorous vanities of youth to the sterner obligations imposed by age. (Of course, the band members are all in their early-mid thirties.)

The first album felt like it was occasionally riffing on Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, “The first duty in life is to strike a pose. No one has yet discovered what the second one is.” It depicted the romantic self-conception of a young, cosmopolitan prepster, stoked on Rudyard Kipling and Evelyn Waugh. However, the later albums focus on the second duty of life, the one Wilde ironically pretended to deny – the ethical, indeed, the spiritual. Modern Vampires of the City, in particular, is one of the outstanding examples of a sustained, agonized engagement with spirituality in our postmodern hellscape. These albums stand out for their willingness to wrestle with existentially serious topics, while still retaining a certain levity and an oddly joyous quality.

“Harmony Hall” follows in the same tradition as the earlier work. It depicts a character who hopes that people will be able to make a “great surrender” sometime soon. Yet they prove too enraptured in anger to make this spiritually-fulfilling submission to a higher purpose. Koenig sings, “Anger wants a voice / And voices want to sing / And singers harmonize / ‘Til they can’t hear anything.” There is intense irony embedded in those lines. Anger doesn’t seem musical, yet its expression parodies harmony and melodic development. Whether we’re dealing with Twitter mobs, Neo-Nazi potlucks, or what have you, it is clear that the participants in these choruses of rage are seduced by the apparent harmony of belonging. There is a pattern and a meaning to anger that infernally mimics the pattern and meaning of a heavenly choir.

This is something Dante depicted in his Divine Comedy: hell is a parody of heaven, the inversion of divine order into demonic order. Another way of putting this is to say that hell (metaphorically speaking) is the inversion of an order based on selfless love into an order based on power. It is, so to speak, a photonegative. It doesn’t seem harmonious. In fact, it is utterly discordant. Yet even this discord reflects, in a decidedly broken manner, the concord of heaven. The ironic effect of this angry “harmony” is that it obliterates your own ability to pay attention and renders you numb and senseless to that which is truly harmonious and musical. Yet, for all its immense confusion, it remains a fractured image of human yearning for a divine harmony or unity. This higher harmony is expressed by the beauty of Vampire Weekend’s music itself, which stands as a joyful counterpoint to the rage it is cheekily describing.

The song’s chorus states, “And the stone walls of Harmony Hall bear witness / Anybody with a worried mind could never forgive the sight / Of wicked snakes inside a place you thought was dignified / I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.” These are enticingly enigmatic lyrics, but they are still susceptible to interpretation. (The last line is rather interestingly recycled from a track on Modern Vampires of the City, “Finger Back,” which dealt with the Israel-Palestine issue and with broader instances of communal discord).

As some commentators have already noted,”the stone walls of Harmony Hall” appear to be an echo chamber for the anger already discussed in the song. The attitudes of the people expressing this anger amount to a kind of defensive egotism. In order to remain secure, preserved from the snakes hissing throughout the place they thought was dignified (Facebook? Twitter?), they need to huddle together and reinforce one another’s rage. It might be unpleasant to live this way, but it helps you avoid death.

However, the death you are avoiding in this case is not literal death, but the death of your old, ignorant self, which does not want to engage in the difficult work of understanding other people. As the Eastern Orthodox mystic, Theophane the Recluse, put it, the ego is like a wood shaving that has curled in on itself. Rather than recognizing the emptiness at its center and seeing how that emptiness is really the same as the emptiness outside of itself, it twists defensively. It needs to “die” in order transcend its own limited curl, and embrace the whole of reality. A similar metaphor is frequently used in Buddhism as well, which often depicts the ego as being like a clay vase that prevents us from understanding that the space inside of it is the same as the space outside of it. Enlightenment shatters the vase. This is a mystical realization to which Vampire Weekend’s music occasionally points. (Koenig is a student of Buddhism).

The notion of social harmony – both in its negative and positive aspects – is also reflected in the musical style of “Harmony Hall.” “Harmony Hall” draws heavily on the influence of The Grateful Dead and other jam bands, a strain of influence that a reviewer in The Atlantic dubbed “thrilling uncoolness.” In the music criticism community, jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic are generally considered to be uncool, indeed vulgar. As the critic Nathan Rabin has observed, this appears to be because of a social prejudice against the fans of such music (they’re seen as dirty hippies).

In contemporary music criticism, critics still operate semi-consciously on an ethos that prefers the grittiness and “edge” of punk to the chillaxed grooves of neo-hippies. But this prejudice has become axiomatic, engrained. It is a trend of thought mindlessly repeated, like the stoning at the end of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” It is the kind of negative “harmony” the song is attacking, in other words. It is the defensive social banding of an in-group against the new, the strange, the critically outcast. At the same time, the concerts of jam bands are about a purer social harmony centered around music. They are supposed to be open and accepting affairs, free of these uptight critical judgments. As the guitar solo in “Harmony Hall” emanates the good vibes of Jerry Garcia, the listener starts to vibe with it too…

The mythologist Joseph Campbell, who was a pretty straight-laced cat, found himself surprisingly moved by a Grateful Dead concert. He called it “the antidote to the atomic bomb.” Maybe that sounds naive or like something your aging boomer uncle might try to tell you. But what’s wrong with being united by music? Perhaps, in our fragmentary world, in which we are all hyper-conscious of divisions, the concert experience is still a source of momentary unity? Vampire Weekend, with their poetic lyrics and unexpectedly crunchy influences, might be onto something.

I recognize that the argument this article is making for the unifying power of music is easily mocked. You could swiftly deride it as goofball Woodstock nostalgia. While recognizing the problems inherent in a global economy based on the ethos of Woodstock, I would beg you to reconsider. Perhaps the impulse to mock is too easy. Perhaps the kind of love for music that leads us on a long, digressive search for lyrical clues is, in fact, an antidote for hate. After all, the contrary position leaves you with nothing but the insolent echoes of your own criticisms as they vibrate between stone walls. It leaves you deaf to the Music of the Spheres.

“The Enlightenment Was Fine… But Give Radical Protestants Some Credit for Fighting Slavery and Preserving Liberty”

by Sam Buntz

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin slyly noted the advantages of being reasonable. He wrote, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

This quote is particularly relevant to the ongoing and intense debate about the Enlightenment, which was kick-started by Jamelle Bouie’s piece in Slate. Bouie argued that, while the Enlightenment gave birth to admirable concepts like human rights and the balance of powers in government, important Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant and John Locke also held reprehensible racial views. They endorsed systems of racial classification that, by abusing Enlightenment notions of science and reason, placed white people at top of a racial hierarchy and black people on the bottom.

Fortunately, there was another force at work in the world in the 18th Century, in addition to the Enlightenment’s scientific rationalism. This force was distinctly Christian, and it helped add human feeling to the Enlightenment’s powerful but occasionally cold set of ideas.  But before we get to that, we need to discuss the Enlightenment’s strengths and weaknesses.

Bouie is basically accurate in his assessment of how these forms of racial classification developed, just as his opponents are correct in crediting the Enlightenment for generating ideas used to fight racism and in disputing the notion that the Enlightenment “invented” racism. We need look no farther than “all men are created equal.”

But consider Ben Franklin’s quote again. Depending on the hidden assumptions of Enlightenment thinkers, on the motives they entertained in their innermost hearts, they could use reason to reach any desired goal. That goal could be the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of human beings… Or, it could be a crudely racist hierarchy…

These conflicting attitudes could exist in the same person, paradoxically. Just think about Thomas Jefferson: he attacked the slave trade in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence (which other founding fathers cut from the draft), and also proposed plans to gradually abolish slavery. At the same time, of course, he owned slaves, and we are all familiar with the fact that he almost certainly was the father of his slave Sally Hemings’ children. He expressed noxious views still used by racist proponents of eugenics today, arguing that black people were innately worse than white people at reading, writing, and mathematics (but, Jefferson said, better at music).

When he was challenged by Benjamin Banneker, a free black astronomer and author of almanacs, Jefferson wrote back, “no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America…”  Jefferson then sent a copy of Banneker’s almanac to a French abolitionist, the Marquis de Condorcet, citing it as an example that he hoped would prove the equality of all races.

Clearly, Jefferson, like many of the rationalists involved in the Enlightenment, sensed that the full equality of all human beings was the right principle. But major blindnesses prevented him from actually affirming that principle in its full meaning. This was left to later generations. Nevertheless, we find in Jefferson, as a figure who embodied Enlightenment, an expression of both its best qualities and its flaws and hypocrisies. He was unable to reconcile the conflict between his ideals and his prejudices, which dueled within his own being.

We see, then, that reason is usually the servant of the heart. It is like the “sorcerer’s apprentice” in the Disney classic, Fantasia. When left to its own devices, without enlightened human feeling to guide it, it starts flooding the basement with a hoard of marching broomsticks. As Franklin observed, it can serve any motive. It needs higher values to supervise it, values that have been cultivated inside the heart. Otherwise, it becomes destructive or lends its support to injustice. It morphs into an amoral bureaucrat of sorts, mindlessly serving power and human selfishness.

We can see this in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Under the pretense of creating a rational society, its leaders authorized the “Reign of Terror.” Their real motives were not actually “rational” but were driven by dark instincts, lusts, and resentment. They should have been more suspicious of themselves.

All this goes to show that Bouie makes some legitimate points. Enlightenment thinkers often used reason for selfish ends and to justify their own positions of power and privilege. That is all undeniably true. But it leaves open a question of enormous import: how did some members of the Enlightenment manage to cultivate their hearts so that reason was able to act as a benevolent servant instead of as a power-serving bureaucrat?

After all, the Enlightenment is full of examples of true-blue abolitionists, from Thomas Paine to the Marquis de Lafayette to John Adams. They clearly were doing more than playing a mere power game. Paine, for instance, took a stand against executing Louis XVI, even though Paine had supported the French Revolution. If he had been motivated solely by power, he should have personally volunteered to operate the guillotine. Evidently, he was motivated by forces other than power-grasping and vengeance.    

An answer to this question is evident if we look at how the first abolitionists in the American colonies and Great Britain began to attack slavery as an institution. While living during the Enlightenment and imbibing its influence, these early abolitionists had one thing in common: they were often highly religious. In fact, they were Quakers. Later, other Christians would follow the Quakers’ lead in opposing slavery, but Quakerism was nevertheless the major groundspring of the abolitionist cause.

For thousands of years, people in the West had typically thought that slaves were born and not made. Aristotle argued that particular people were meant to be used as property, as a part of Nature’s law. They could not help being slaves. Later Christian thinkers qualified this idea and chiseled away it, but it did not face a stiff challenge until after the English Civil War. (This argument applies to the Protestant-majority part of the world. Slavery ended in the Catholic world for another set of reasons, fascinating in themselves, but beyond the scope of this article).  

Unlike many of the radical Protestant groups that arose during that time, the Quakers managed to keep their heads on their shoulders. While other sects dissolved into debauchery in the wreckage of their Utopian dreams, the Quakers maintained two critical principles: they believed that human beings had a direct connection to the Holy Spirit, who could speak to or influence anyone, while also believing that the tendency to commit sin was always present.

The Quakers did not think humans were utterly evil, nor did they state that they could easily become totally perfect. They worked diligently towards improving themselves, while questioning their sinful tendencies and keeping them in check. In the past, many societies had largely emphasized the sinfulness of human beings at the expense of their direct connection to the Holy Spirit, which made it easier to tolerate something like slavery. In a sinful world, you could only be so good; your standards were lowered accordingly. But the Quakers maintained a humble yet firm commitment to strive towards the Ideal.

Initially, the Quakers became tangled up in slavery. As they colonized Pennsylvania and other parts of America, they purchased and owned slaves. They fell into the habitual practices of their times. But they were not comfortable with this state of affairs. Unlike numerous other slave-owning societies, a large number of Quaker communities felt tension between their behavior in the world and their guiding ideals. Many Quakers came to realize that holding slaves was not part of Nature’s law – it was something they were choosing to do.

As they saw it, they were guided to this intuition by opening themselves to the Holy Spirit. Instead of blindly continuing to follow convention, they looked inside, analyzed their motives, and reformed their hearts. Quaker denunciations of slavery quickly became widespread.  

As David Brion Davis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning study The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture shows, this was a critical development. Christian opposition spread rapidly to other denominations. Even a staunch Anglican monarchist, the great literary critic Samuel Johnson, was able to express his hatred of slavery, allegedly toasting success to the next slave revolt in the Caribbean. From William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist who successfully led the crusade to abolish slavery in the British Empire, to John Brown, who made the Civil War virtually inevitable, the Christian factor in defeating slavery and fighting racism cannot be underrated. It is of the first importance, and would continue to manifest itself throughout American history, particularly in figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth.  

From all of this information, it should be clear that the “Age of Reason” was about more than just reason. It was also about the heart, and, as Blaise Pascal wrote, “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” The goal of the most enlightened figures of the Enlightenment – like Thomas Paine, who came from a Quaker background – was to harmonize the heart and the head, to make thought and feeling work together. They sought to make our most spiritually-illuminated feelings, as opposed to our violent passions, the guide to our use of reason.

Instead of using reason to justify wielding power over others, these thinkers often attempted to reform society under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Dissident Protestant artists like William Blake and Josiah Wedgwood (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) used their art to appeal directly to the feeling of brotherly love, in order to support abolition.

Other Enlightenment figures, like Jefferson, demonstrate what David Brion Davis calls, “the ambivalence of rationalism.” They recognized that slavery was a grotesque insult to humanity and an utterly irrational institution, but they could not extend their hearts beyond what they erroneously imagined to be the limits of reason and advocate immediate abolition. The Marquis de Condorcet, to whom Jefferson sent Banneker’s almanac, expressed disappointment with this ambivalence. He wrote, “Only a few ‘philosophes’ have from time to time dared to raise a cry in favor of humanity, a cry which the Establishment has not heeded, and which a superficial society has soon forgotten.”

Condorcet, a fearless champion of the equality of all races and of the sexes, who epitomized the true spirit of the Enlightenment, was later imprisoned and murdered during the Reign of Terror. There are revolutionaries with hearts… and revolutionaries without hearts.

We should learn from this example, balancing the “Age of Reason” with the outpouring of spiritual feeling and imagination exemplified by the Quakers, William Blake, Condorcet, Josiah Wedgwood, and many more. While Jamelle Bouie is right to note that Enlightenment ideas were sometimes used to justify wielding power over others, it lends proportion to his perspective to consider major historical figures who were not motivated by power. The word for what motivated them – which we have avoided mentioning until this point – is love.

Everyone who ascribes to academic, postmodern philosophies, which claim that all of history is just a power-based contest in which competing identities try to exert their wills against each other, should take this to heart. True, there is a spirit that seeks to create order purely in order to serve its own craving for power. This spirit seems to be dominant throughout much of history. In fact, the Bible calls it “the Prince of this World.” But there is another spirit at work, exemplified by these Quaker abolitionists and by heroic figures of the Enlightenment like Condorcet.

This spirit creates order through love.  

All is Vanity: Reflections on Religion and Identity Politics

by Sam Buntz

I wonder why identity politics prove so appealing to the Far Left and the Far Right…  To those of us who are immune to the appeal, there is something odd in celebrating the least that can be said about oneself.  Sure, you might be a proud pansexual Ukrainian-American, and that’s great. But so are two hundred other people.  What makes you you, as an individual?  What distinguishes you from the general “type”?  The question might sound like copy for a self-help seminar, but it should resonate loudly in the ear of every American. People should walk up to you, grab you by the lapels, and demand an answer.

It’s strange to see forms of collectivism—especially collectivism based on race, which is the lowest variety—gaining a degree of attention and credence in a country that has always seen itself as the harbor of individualism. Admittedly, individualism can go off the rails and become a cult of self-aggrandizement. (I definitely don’t need to provide any examples.  Just look up for a moment or two and you should be able to find blatantly obvious evidence somewhere nearby.) But the individualism of ethically engaged Americans like Emerson and Thoreau still seems to me to be the fundament, even if it’s currently buried under super-sized heapings of squalid nonsense.

The problem of identity looms larger as people scream about it more and more on Twitter. Veins bulge. Hemorrhages bloom. After a few semesters of campus indoctrination, people start prefacing statements with “As a proud [fill in the blank], I must question the administration’s decision not to mandate trigger-warnings on Moby Dick…”  

Why have people begun to cling to the most basic, least compelling descriptions of themselves?  Why prefer the broadest possible sketch of the self? 

The answer involves fending off a felt sense of modern absurdity.  In a world where nothing appears to makes sense—where atoms and neutrinos wander aimlessly in a cosmic void—taking hold of a simple, blatant fact about yourself (like your race and gender) and becoming an intense partisan of that fact, starts to make a limited degree of sense.  If there is no spiritual order, if the materialistic conception of the cosmos is it, then becoming a race-cheerleader seems slightly reasonable.  It offers the consolations and comforts of belonging with minimal effort.  You don’t have to investigate who you really are. You just bask in rays of self-affirmation, cheaply earned.

It’s often assumed that Christianity is losing strength in the West because of a widespread sense of this modern futility and absurdity.  People no longer see the sun and moon as mysterious creations of the Divine.  They see a ball of hot gas and a rock. The disenchantment of reality, initiated by thinkers like Freud and Marx, is reaching its final phase. According to Marx, reality boils down to economic conflict. According to Freud, reality boils down to fundamental sexual conflicts in the psyche.  Rather than liberating people from the supposedly benighted ignorance of the religious worldview, these sages have left the world a bleaker, more joyless place—a prison of absurdity. Paraphrasing Algernon Charles Swinburne, the world has grown gray with their breath.

While it’s true that religion has grown weaker because of this felt sense of absurdity, it would be equally accurate to say that religion is waning in the West because it lacks the stomach for wrestling with these modern dilemmas and confronting this felt sense of absurdity head on.  After all, the world’s major religions don’t argue that life in our world is not absurd.  They typically argue that it is

Let’s consider Christianity and Judaism for starters.  They posit that the first humans were in a situation that initially made sense: Paradise, Eden.  They were in tune with God, and existed in a state-of-being that gently conformed to their own properly managed desires.  Then, by grasping after forbidden knowledge, they fell into a state of absurd suffering.  “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God tells Adam, after The Fall. “Through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food, until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”   

A life of meaningless toil.  Followed by death.  Absurd, no?  

The book of Ecclesiastes famously repeats the refrain, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!”  This is sometimes translated, less euphoniously but with some measure of accuracy, as “Meaninglessness, meaninglessness, all is meaninglessness!”  This is the condition the primordial humans fell into: an existential void.  In Hebrew, the word translated as “vanity” and “meaninglessness” is actually hebel, which refers to mist, breath, or vapor.  It suggests that existence is like fog, impermanent and insubstantial.  

So, the Judeo-Christian tradition fully recognized this felt sense of absurdity millennia ago. 

Furthermore, in Christianity, it is by entering into this absurd condition, subjecting Himself to it, becoming human, and dying an apparently senseless death, that God opens a pathway for liberation to humanity. The cross becomes a symbol for the ultimate absurdity (crucifixion as punishment for sedition) transfigured into the ultimate meaning (eternal life).  The early Church Father, Tertullian once cried out, “I believe because it is absurd!”  If he meant that he believed in Christianity because it was ridiculous, his claim would be laughable.  But if he meant that he believed it because it was in tune with the existential absurdity through which we suffer, embracing it yet transcending it, his point becomes very profound indeed. 

With the Eastern Religions, the sense of absurdity is also nothing new.  The Buddha observed that life is characterized by impermanence (like the aforementioned Hebrew hebel-fog), which leads to suffering.  Hindu philosophy sees the universe as Maya – a cognitive delusion, a dirty trick of the mind – compared in a classic analogy to a rope we momentarily mistake for a snake.  Yet, again, both religions insist on the universe’s meaninglessness in order to transcend it.  Both the Buddhist monk and the Hindu yogi seek liberation via meditation, escaping from absurd suffering, from Maya, into the eternal and timeless.  

So, it’s not as though we are short on ammunition – on ideas – to combat the destructive simple-mindedness of identity politics.  They’ve been there forever, yet we’re allowing them to rust unused in storage.  Many clerics are conveying a message of existential import to their congregations – but, broadly speaking, how many people are actually aware of these spiritual ideas, which can literally save one’s life?  Even though these ideas have been getting the job done for centuries, they seem to be getting short shrift.  Nevertheless, for those who are willing to search for them, they can renew a sense of hope, transfigure modern absurdity, and help us to follow the theologian Paul Tillich’s advice: “Keep yourselves open for the creative moment which may appear in the midst of what seemed to be waste.”         

“Donald Trump is My Id”

by Sam Buntz

In my dreams, I behave much like Donald Trump. For starters, there is little continuity between what I may be saying or doing and the last thing I said or did.  As in a classic Trump press conference, nothing bears any clear cause-and-effect relationship to anything else. One moment, he’s praising a stack of Trump Steaks, and the next he’s threatening to throw CNN’s cameraman out the door. Then he’s talking about Marco Rubio’s propensity for flop sweats, while shaking drops of spray from a water bottle to illustrate his point.  Similarly, in a typical dream, I will be back in high school Spanish class, taking an incomprehensible test in the nude, before suddenly smashing the front window of a K-Mart with a brick and getting arrested by a police officer with a falcon’s head.

The anti-logic of dreams governs Trump’s actual existence: he senses no sequential relationship between anything that happens in his life, whether he’s giving a speech or tweeting or eating breakfast—he can’t quite remember the last thing he did, and he’s only wildly, flutteringly conscious of what he’s doing now.  He’s running on pure impulse.  My dream-self can relate.

No. Scratch that.

I can relate.

My Freudian Id surfaces in dreams, and acts out. Primal sensations of aggression, terror, buffoonery, lust, and humiliation (often self-induced) explode out of my subconscious and play before me in lurid and disturbing splendor. When I see Trump defending his dick-size during a debate or claiming that Ted Cruz’s dad killed JFK or that “second amendment people” might want to assassinate Hillary, it strikes me that he is my Id.  He is my dream-self brought into the wide-awake world.

When I watch Trump stoke an arena full of boy scouts, raving at them about a housing developer’s sex life as Rick Perry and a uniformed scout master stand behind him with frozen smiles, I feel like I am watching a video that was somehow taken inside my head at 4 a.m.  A Tibetan Buddhist phrase, “the dreamlike nature of existence,” comes to mind and seems particularly pertinent.

This is why I have a hard time feeling emotions of hatred or even genuine dislike for Donald Trump.  Oh, I strongly disapprove of him.  Intellectually, I recognize that he represents modern decadence in its quintessential form.  Yet, he’s too much a part of myself to viscerally despise.  Instead, I have only bizarre, confusing empathy – like the empathy you might feel for a feral child who was raised by lemurs in an isolated jungle and knows no human language.  The same incoherence exists within my own being.  I can’t deny my dream-self, even if I usually manage to suppress it to a fair degree.  Like Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I need to say, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

I would argue that my attitude towards Trump does not betoken my own instability and impending mental collapse.  To the contrary, it is essentially healthy, sound, and in line with the theory and practice of Jungian psychology.

According to Carl Jung, each of us has a “shadow,” part of the personality we refuse to recognize as our own.  The shadow represents things we don’t like about ourselves and which we consequently bury within our unconscious mind.  However, according to Jung, this process of repression allows the shadow to gain control over us.  Since, we refuse to allow ourselves to know the shadow, we remain oblivious to its designs and its capacity for exercising influence over us.  The shadow becomes “blacker and denser” the more we deny its reality.

However, if we acknowledge the shadow, and bring it into the light of consciousness, it stops dominating us.  We don’t need to take arms against the shadow or struggle against it with our willpower—we just need to see it.  The more clearly we observe it, the less its influence can harm us. In a societal dimension, this would mean recognizing the problems or blind spots in the establishment’s way of thinking, which made the rise of a Trumpian candidate inevitable.  It would mean recognizing one’s callous indifference towards so-called “flyover country” and confronting one’s corporate-oriented conception of social good.

Yet, it’s incredibly hard for people who do feel authentic hatred for Trump and for his supporters to acknowledge their own inner Trump.  I mean, I understand the difficulty – but when you go on Twitter or Facebook, you see the consequences: many of Trump’s most vocal opponents are as deranged and terminally unreasonable as he is. Their blanket accusations are made in the same intolerant and un-empathetic spirit, hectoring and bullying without any self-reflection.  Again, refusing to acknowledge the shadow gives the shadow power over you.  You become what you despise.

Because Jungian analysts are hard to come by these days, a simple solution geared towards cultivating a rich sense of compassion for one’s enemies would help. If you can feel compassion towards Trump, you can feel compassion towards your own shadow self.  Hell, if you can attain that lofty goal, you can feel compassion towards anybody.

A professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, Robert Thurman (father to Uma), has a solution based on a form of Tibetan meditation.  During the Bush Administration, an interviewer for The New York Times asked Thurman what kind of meditation he practices.  Thurman replied, “Usually, some form of trying to excavate any kind of negative thing cycling in the mind and turn it toward the positive. For example, when I am annoyed with Dick Cheney, I meditate on how Dick Cheney was my mother in a previous life and nursed me at his breast.”  The interviewer responded, “You mean you fantasize about being breast-fed by Dick Cheney?” to which Thurman rejoined, “It’s a fantasy of releasing fear and developing affection. It’s a way of coming back to feeling grateful toward him and seeing his positive side, finding the mother in Dick Cheney.”

The form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation Thurman alluded to is based on the idea that we have all been reincarnating for so long that each individual has been both child and mother to every other individual in one lifetime or another. By meditating on this relation, one learns to feel compassion.  One could imagine being suckled by Dick Cheney or, alternatively, one could imagine suckling him, in order to provoke this feeling.  Quite naturally, the same goes for Donald Trump.

William Blake once said, “We become what we behold.” If we insist on holding a raving maniac within our mind’s eyes for a prolonged period of time, we are going to take on the qualities of that raving maniac. They will seep into us the same way a marinade gradually permeates a block of tofu. But if we acknowledge the maniac within ourselves, we can see that he is just a manifestation of a greater, non-maniacal self. As Thurman recommends, we can find the mother or baby within that maniac.

There’s still time.  Dive within.  See your shadow.  Confront your inner nature and fully integrate it…

Breastfeeding baby Trump is your only chance.

Sufi Elvis: How Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Made Islamic Music Global

by Sam Buntz

If one man can lay claim to being the Elvis of Pakistani Music, that man is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. August 16th marked the 20th anniversary of his death, provoking tributes in the Indian and Pakistani press but little to no reaction in Europe and America. Yet Khan’s impact on Western music is significant. He was the crucial influence on Jeff Buckley, whose album Grace is one of the milestones of ’90s alternative rock. Nusrat collaborated with Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder, while Massive Attack remixed his songs and The Red Hot Chili Peppers sampled them. When Thom Yorke sings “My fake pla-a-stic love!” on “Fake Plastic Trees” from Radiohead’s The Bends, Nusrat is fully present within that italicized “a.”

Buckley paid one of the highest possible tributes to Nusrat’s group, writing, “I’ve seen Nusrat and his party repeatedly melt New Yorkers into human beings… These men do not play music, they are music itself.” Not only have Nusrat’s wildly liberated yet somehow perfectly controlled vocals left their mark on American and European rock and pop, they still bear revolutionary and subversive potential in Nusrat’s home country, Pakistan. In recent years, singers in Nusrat’s tradition—Sufism, the mystical side of Islam—have been assassinated and shrines to Sufi saints have been bombed. Spiritual love songs apparently seem threatening to the purveyors of rigid dogma.

Nusrat was a Qawwali performer, the unchallenged master in an incredibly popular genre of South Asian music. His albums are still a perfect discovery for the solitary, collegiate music geek, to be encountered during late night Apple Music perusals or filed under a bent “World Music” card in a used record store.   (This was my experience). When listening to music in other languages, you often sense a cognitive gap. While you intuitively grasp certain dimensions of it, your lack of immediate lyrical comprehension blocks your ability to fully investigate its inner texture. While that gap still exists, Nusrat’s music gives you the illusion that it does not. Qawwali has a direct, driving, and thunderous emotional force, the capacity to convey extremities of joy that are simultaneously stormy and gentle. It’s a feeling distinct from and superior to mere happiness.   The songs are effectively hymns: they whirl the listener out of a set sense of individuality and into a state of being called wajd, or mystical ecstasy. Through this transformation, the goal of Qawwali is ultimately to unite the soul with God.

The Khan family has a six hundred year history in Qawwali. Young Nusrat’s father, Fateh Khan, did not want him to follow in his footsteps—he wanted him to become a doctor.   Fortunately, he gradually loosened up after realizing Nusrat’s potential. After the elder Khan’s death, his son had a dream: his father appeared and touched him on the throat. Nusrat began singing, struck with divine inspiration, and then awoke singing. In the afterlife, Khan senior had changed his mind about his son’s career choices.

It did prove to be a lucrative career choice. Within the next thirty years, Khan and his Qawwali party traveled the globe, from the United States to France to Japan, where the rotund Nusrat became known as “Singing Buddha.” He worked with Buckley (who wrote an essay on Khan and also interviewed him) and became a visiting professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Yet cultural exchange was not always a smooth process. When Nusrat’s music featured during a jail riot sequence in Oliver Stone’s ultra-violent Natural Born Killers, Khan registered his displeasure: “When someone uses something religious in that way, it reflects badly on my reputation.” (The incident is but a paragraph in the annals of the West’s insensitive treatment of the cultural traditions of others.) Notably overweight, Khan died of a heart attack in 1997. His nephew, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, carries on the Khan family legacy and continues performing throughout the world.

The reader may find all of this confusing: if you listen to news reports about Islam, you often hear the generalization, “Islam is against music.” After all, Cat Stevens stopped performing once he converted (though in recent years, he’s been willing to pick up the guitar and play “Peace Train” again). The authority making this statement can range from a conservative American pundit to an ultra-orthodox imam. Regardless of who says it, it is not actually true. There are Islamic musical traditions, often associated with Sufism, throughout the world, from West Africa to Central Asia. Qawwali is the South Asian version, invented 700 years ago by the great Indian poet and musician, Amir Khusro. (Certain Indian sources state that Khusro based Qawwali on inner melodies heard during mystical communion with God). Typically using tabla and harmonium (an addition brought by Christian missionaries), Qawwali singers perform songs that praise God, Muhammad, and other saintly figures, like the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali.

Strictly speaking, a “qawal” is a saying of the Prophet, but the songs can take forms other than the lyrical recitation of such sayings, often cloaking mystical yearning for God in the form of romantic love (as on certain George Harrison tracks). In a religious culture where alcohol is strictly forbidden, the lyrics of many qawals at first seem to be about debauchery: odes to drunkenness and hashish smoking. But, in the context of Sufi poetry, the vocabulary of these songs actually refers to transcendent, divine intoxication—being drunk on love, in other words. The Qawwali attitude towards religious orthodoxy was best expressed by the 18th Century Sufi, Bulleh Shah, who wrote these lyrics, still sung in Pakistan and India today: “Burn the mosque, burn the temple, but do not burn the human heart, for there God is residing.”

The music is paradoxical, both deeply traditional (using the verses of Shah, Khusro, and other poetic giants) and extremely improvisatory. Adherence to poetic discipline unexpectedly sets the soul free.   Nusrat’s “Tumhen Dil Lagi Bhool” (included on the greatest hits collection, Rapture) is a prime example, both full of longing and apocalyptic. We feel a sense of love reaching consummation and of revelatory destruction, the rending of the veil. Buckley’s description is accurate: “I heard the clarion call of harmoniums dancing the antique melody around like giant, singing wooden spiders… Then came the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Part Buddha, part demon, part mad angel… his voice is velvet fire, simply incomparable.” When Nusrat sings solo at the climactic point of the song, he sounds utterly possessed, transported beyond the human world. He generates moments of musical splendor and sacred fear without needing to think about them first—they delight in their own happening.  At such moments, Buckley’s observation that Nusrat has become music is indisputable.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, Sufism and its musical traditions are under attack. An assassin murdered one of Nusrat’s contemporaries, Amjad Sabri of The Sabri Brothers (after Nusrat’s, probably the most famous Qawwali group in Pakistan). The historic Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine, site of numerous Sufi musical gatherings, was also bombed, killing over 100 people. To feel threatened by music—especially music that is wholly religious—seems bizarre. But Sufism, in many of its forms, destabilizes intolerance.

When listeners are swept into wajd, that state of ecstasy, their gender doesn’t matter: women, caught up in the spirit, will dance publicly at Qawwali performances. The Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine featured Lal Peri, a club-wielding female individualist who made her home on the premises. With its basis in a direct experience of God, Sufism threatens the rule-oriented imams, who are more concerned with the proper length of one’s trousers (ideally, they should imitate the length of Muhammad’s trousers) than with actually getting to know God. A gathering where both the musicians and the audience attain transcendence—without the permission of the imams—renders legalistic orthodoxy superfluous.

At the same time, the legacy of Sufism is so deep in Pakistan that it can’t be destroyed. Even today, one of the most popular TV programs in the country is Coke Studio, which showcases Sufi music (and, yes, it’s produced by Coca Cola—cultural imperialism has a sunny side, it seems). Also, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead recently performed with a Qawwali group in India, led by the Israeli-Sufi Shye Ben Tzur. The experience was captured by Paul Thomas Anderson’s documentary Junoon. Despite the tremendous indifference of the secular and Christian West, these traditions soldier on as best they can and still gain some degree of acknowledgment.

Of course, the United States hasn’t helped bring tranquility and human-heartedness to this state of affairs. Support for the Pakistani authoritarian, General Zia ul-Haq, during the Cold War did not leave the most beautiful legacy. Zia adopted stoning as the punishment for adultery and shored up fundamentalism, even if he did contribute to defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. The drone policy hasn’t done much to tamp down the lure of extremism either: flying death robots tend not to evoke the most cuddly feelings.   Someone like Nusrat, representing the “better angels” of Pakistani culture, actually does demonstrate a more enlightened way. A path of ecstasy and divine love, Sufism is, in the words of Rumi, “no caravan of despair.” Despite violence and persecution, the Qawwali performers who succeeded Nusrat still continue to offer free passage on their caravan of hope.