The Place Beyond Knowing
Beethoven suffered hearing loss from the age of 44. Hence, he wrote his last and greatest 9th symphony, while totally deaf. This includes the unforgettable Ode to Joy, a tune that almost every person on the planet can summon on command. Where did Beethoven pluck his music from? How could he hear it in his mind after his ears had failed him? It’s like the famous Leonard Cohen quote “If I knew the place where good songs were kept, I’d visit there more often.” Ways of knowing are a mystery to the best of us.
Plato held something in common with this notion. It’s worth visiting his inquiry, “Meno’s Paradox” which probes the problem of knowing, sometimes paraphrased as: If you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is unnecessary. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible. Plato premised the idea that you could only teach what someone already knew. Your role as teacher was to remind the student of knowledge that seemed to evade time and place but yet existed out there somewhere. Knowledge is a funny thing. There’s knowing in the head and then there’s the more mysterious kind that artists and musicians sometimes get for free. Beethoven got the “for free” kind. He could somehow hear that music from another place.
I speak of this because I’m trying to retread some songs I knew a long time ago but forgot. It’s a terrible thing to admit that you can actually get worse over time. It’s called aging. Your brain and your fingers forget the music that you worked hard at early on. But there is with this particular struggle, a mysterious comfort that comes from that place beyond knowing.
I was going over some Bruce Cockburn instrumentals that were early showpieces in my repertoire. Bruce Cockburn is a musician’s musician. Jackson Browne once commented that anyone listening to him might assume there were three guitars going at once, carrying rhythm, high notes and melody, only to discover it was all one guy. How Bruce Cockburn manages this is beyond most good players. How he originally wrote that music is another thing altogether. I count myself lucky to have dabbled in a few pieces, but the fact is most of his playing is beyond me.
Trying to consciously bring something to mind, is a challenge. I find myself like Plato, trying to catch hold of what is ineffable. How to summon the teacher from that mysterious place beyond knowing? When I can’t remember, I close my eyes and numb my mind. I stop thinking about it and bit by bit the music comes back. There is no reason this should make sense. I simply relate it like it is: when I stop trying to consciously focus, the music somehow focuses itself. It seems to come from that mysterious place beyond knowing.
Aging is tough. I could fight it, but contemplating the “beyond knowing” part gives me a better hope. The mystery is beyond me, and of that I am glad. It means I’m not responsible for the good that visits from some other place, where benevolence and wholeness live and breathe all day long without effort.
There is a Christian classic from the 14th century entitled “The Cloud of Unknowing”. It’s an anonymous spiritual guide on contemplative prayer that suggests you should surrender your mind to that mysterious realm of “unknowing”, in order to catch a glimpse of God. It’s obviously not a new idea, that you can at times think too much, and sometimes you can actually know more without thinking at all. I am happy to share just one small piece of that reality in my vocation as an artist.
I cannot explain how one knows, but I am happy nonetheless that on some level it just IS. For those fortunate enough to be occasionally visited by the muse it is undeniable. For now I’ll be satisfied to see through a glass darkly, anticipating as promised by God through Christ that there will be a day when we shall see and know as we are known, face to face, where we will hear the notes without the need of music, and all that will be perfectly in order.