Lewis Thomas, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

This was the third collection, published in 1983, of Lewis Thomas’s elegant, mostly short, essays, following The Lives of a Cell (which I blogged about last week) and The Medusa and the Snail. I read (or reread, I’m not sure) this volume over the past week.

The title essay isn’t about Mahler per se; it’s about how the author hears the final, melancholy, elegiac movement of this symphony, traditionally heard as an accepting, almost consoling acknowledgement of death, completely differently in this age – he’s writing in the early 1980s – of imminent nuclear doom. That’s the theme that pervades the book, in at least four essays. The opening essay, “The Unforgettable Fire”, is a review (in very relaxed sense) of two books documenting the horrors of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Thomas’s flabbergasted outrage at the military planners currently anticipating the worst, as they busily maintain the latest nuclear arsenals. Another essay addresses how the medical community – the nation’s hospitals – will be of absolutely no use in such a conflict; the hospitals, in the major cities, will be gone first, and in any event the casualties will be so enormous there will be no possibility of helping any immediate survivors.

This was the early 1980s, and this sense of imminent doom, of a worldwide catastrophe to end them all, possibly the near-extinction of the human race, was still very much in the air. (A book-length consideration of the subject was Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth in 1982, which meditated at great length and in highly mannered prose how we got to that point and how awful awful it would be for the nuclear conflagration to happen.) I say ‘was’ in the air, since it isn’t so much now, compared to relatively localized incidents of terrorism, even though the potential threat is nearly as great, isn’t it? Don’t both the US and Russia (no longer Soviet Union) have nuclear arsenals? And several other countries? And if some terrorist organization manages to hijack even one bomb, couldn’t that trigger the end just as surely as a Soviet/US battle in the 1980s?

Here’s a taste of Thomas in the essay about hospitals (p119.5):

How is it possible for so many people with the outward appearance of steadiness and authority, intelligent and convincing enough to have reached the highest positions in the governments of the world, to have lost so completely their sense of responsibility for the human beings to whom they are accountable? Their obsession with stockpiling nuclear armaments and their urgency in laying out detailed plans for using them have, at the core, aspects of what we would be calling craziness in other people, under other circumstances. Just before they let fly everything at their disposal, and this uniquely intelligent species begins to go down, it would be a small comfort to understand how it happened to happen. Our descendants, if there are any, will surely want to know.

But the whole book is not like that, fortunately. As with two previous volumes of essays, most items here are short, as few as three pages, and address striking insights about the complexities of biology, the relationship of science and the humanities, and the urgencies of current issues concerning science and society. A few random notes and quotes:

  • p20b: “As we learn more about the fundamental processes of living things in general we will learn more about ourselves, including perhaps the ways in which our brains, unmatched by any other neural structures on the planet, achieve the earth’s awareness of itself.”
  • p26.7: “The age of science did not really begin three hundred years ago. That was simply the time when it was realized that human curiosity about the world represented a deep wish, perhaps embedded somewhere in the chromosomes of human beings, to learn more about nature by experiment and the confirmation of experiment. The doing of science on a scale appropriate to the problems at hand was launched only in the twentieth century and has been moving into high gear only within the last fifty years. … It is not as easy a time for us as it used to be: we are raised through childhood in skepticism and disbelief; we feel the need of proofs all around, even for matters as deep as the working of our own consciousness, where there is as yet no clear prospect of proof about anything. Uncertainty, disillusion, and despair are prices to be paid for living in an age of scence.”
  • p27b: “Instead of coping, or trying to cope, with the wants of four billion people, we will very soon be facing the needs, probably desperate, of double that number and, soon thereafter, double again.” (cf my Kolbert summary)
  • He’s asked to imagine seven wonders of the modern world, and suggests 1) the bacteria that exist in hot ocean vents; 2) a certain kind of beetle; 3) the scrapies virus; 4) olfactory cells, brains cells on the lining of your nose; 5) termites, how individuals are useless but mass aggregates form an amazingly complex social structure; 6) a human child, for which childhood is about the learning of language; and 7) and the Earth, “a living system, an immense organism, still developing, regulating itself, making its own oxygen, maintaining its own temperature, keeping all its infinite living parts connected and interdependent, including us.”
  • He discusses the side-effects of amazing drugs for treating schizophrenia: that the mental hospitals closed down, leaving victims on the streets, and advocates restoring them.
  • Addresses altruism, and the then current sociobiological explanation, then goes on to propose that *all species* have a kind of social obligation to each other, and wonders if some new word might do better at describing this. P107: “But at least we should acknowledge the family ties and, with them, the obligations. If we do it wrong, scattering pollutants, clouding the atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide, extinguishing the thin carapace of ozone, burning up the forests, dropping the bombs, rampaging at large through nature as though we owned the place, there will be a lot of paying back to do and, at the end, nothing to pay back with.”
  • An essay, “Falsity and Failure”, p108, about incidents of scientific fraud, and how villains can never get away with it; the system works. Another issue in the news today that really isn’t news; this kind of thing has always happened, and the system works.
  • A relatively long (13 pages!) essay on “Humanities and Science”, recalling Lord Kelvin’s insistence that nothing matters unless it can be quantified, and how, at the end of the 19th century, he declared that physics was about done. Similar attitudes persist… p150: “Science, especially twentieth-century science, has provided us with a glimpse of something we never really knew before, the revelation of human ignorance…”
  • And an essay on the “two cultures”, in which he suggests a shared bewilderment, considers various things we don’t understand, including music: “The professional musicologists, tremendous scholars all, for whom I have the greatest respect, haven’t the ghost of an idea about what music is, or why we make it and cannot be human without it… It is a mystery, and thank goodness for that. The Brandenburgs and the late quartets are not there to give us assurances that we have arrived; they carry the news that there are deep centers in our minds that we know nothing about except that they are there.”

A nice note to close on.

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