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How the Transcendent Power of Music Allays the Loneliness of Being and the Ache of Regret

Michael Pollan on Bach and the cosmos of belonging.

The Marginalian

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Illustration by Margaret Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. (Available as a print)

Some of humanity’s greatest writers have extolled the singular enchantment of music. Walt Whitman considered it the profoundest expression of nature. Maurice Sendak found in its fusion of fantasy and feeling the key to great storytelling. “Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed with his characteristic drama of finality. Music can save a life, allay the shock of death, and permeate the living flesh of memory. “After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote in contemplating the transcendent power of music two decades before he swung open the doors to transcendence in a different way, as charioteer in the first wave of the psychedelic revolution. Huxley discovered in psychedelics a kindred portal into the inexpressible — or what William James identified as the first of his four features of transcendent experiences: ineffability — that peculiar state of surrender — in which regions of consciousness unconquerable by thought, inaccessible by its arsenal of language, begin to emerge and to expand our understanding of reality through what Whitman celebrated as “dainty abandon.”

A century and a half after Whitman and a turn of the cultural cycle after Huxley, Michael Pollan revisits the transcendent, ineffable common ground between music and psychedelics in (public library) — a rigorously researched and sensitively reasoned inquiry into the neurophysiology, phenomenology, and inner poetry of transcendence.

During his first experience with psilocybin, Pollan asked his facilitator to put on a Bach cello suite in D minor, performed — reanimated, rather — by Yo-Yo Ma. He had heard the spare, melancholy suite many times before, usually at funerals, but had “never truly listened to it” — until that moment. With a poet’s access to the language of inner quickening, the language of the ineffable beyond the ripening of thought and feeling in ordinary consciousness, where the deepest and most mysterious substance of being lies, Pollan recounts the experience:

I lost whatever ability I still had to distinguish subject from object, tell apart what remained of me and what was Bach’s music. Instead of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, egoless and one with all it beheld, I became a transparent ear, indistinguishable from the stream of sound that flooded my consciousness until there was nothing else in it, not even a dry tiny corner in which to plant an I and observe. Opened to the music, I became first the strings, could feel on my skin the exquisite friction of the horsehair rubbing over me, and then the breeze of sound flowing past as it crossed the lips of the instrument and went out to meet the world, beginning its lonely transit of the universe. Then I passed down into the resonant black well of space inside the cello, the vibrating envelope of air formed by the curves of its spruce roof and maple walls. The instrument’s wooden interior formed a mouth capable of unparalleled eloquence — indeed, of articulating everything a human could conceive. But the cello’s interior also formed a room to write in and a skull in which to think and I was now it, with no remainder.

So I became the cello and mourned with it for the twenty or so minutes it took for that piece to, well, change everything. Or so it seemed; now, its vibrations subsiding, I’m less certain. But for the duration of those exquisite moments, Bach’s cello suite had had the unmistakable effect of reconciling me to death… Having let go of the rope of self and slipped into the warm waters of this worldly beauty — Bach’s sublime music, I mean, and Yo-Yo Ma’s bow caressing those four strings suspended over that envelope of air — I felt as though I’d passed beyond the reach of suffering and regret.

Complement this fragment of How to Change Your Mind — a symphonic read in its totality, and one of the most timeless books of its year — with Regina Spektor’s enchanting reading of poet Mark Strand’s “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” and German philosopher Joseph Pieper, writing in Huxley’s age and with uncommonly lyrical lucidity, on how Bach will save your soul.

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This post originally appeared on The Marginalian and was published January 27, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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