I haven’t written anything for the blog lately.  I’m on summer break from teaching, and will be devoting myself to other things.  I’ll try to post occasionally, though. 

In my most recent post I wrote about the movie “The Soloist.”  One of the main protagonists, Nathaniel Ayers, is a classically trained musician who is also homeless and schizophrenic.  I wrote this about him:

“It’s not surprising that Nathaniel’s guiding spirit is Beethoven; what other composer would be so likely to bless enduring a life of misery in order to achieve occasional moments of transcendent joy from music?  The “soloist” of the title can be taken as a reference to Nathaniel’s isolation; I take it to be a reference to his singular devotion.”

I want to follow up on that comment by talking a little about the Romantic notion of joy.  My main source for this is Darrin McMahon’s excellent Happiness: A History, which I’ve referred to a couple times previously. 

To the Romantic, joy is not the same thing as happiness.  Abstracting the concept from Coleridge’s poem “Dejection: An Ode,” McMahon characterizes joy as follows: “Joy is light ,joy is glory, joy is reserved for the pure of heart.  An when its sweet music wafts through the soul, it transforms us, as it transforms the world, making a new heaven and a new earth, wedding Nature to the self.” (p. 285)  Unlike happiness, then, which I can experience in isolation and largely by my own initiative, joy is a force that comes upon me from without (or wells up from some spring deep within); I can’t achieve it, I can only hope to be worthy of it.  When it comes, it unites me with a larger force, be it Nature, Spirit, Being, or the Infinite.

This transforming force seems to be what Nathaniel is after.  He surrounds himself with the sounds of the street, as if they were the voice of some organismic force of nature.  The sounds flow through him, and, inspired, his hands move, so that the sounds of the street and the sounds of the cello join seamlessly in music.  His surrender to an indwelling spirit is his joy.

And what of Nathaniel’s schizophrenia?  He rejects the diagnosis, though it seems that he does recognize that he is atypical in some way.  Though most of us view hallucinations, delusions, and loose associations as undesirable, it’s not clear that Nathaniel does.  I recently read an article in Newsweek about Icarus, a group that advocates viewing psychiatric conditions as gifts rather than impairments.  The author of the article describes the organization this way:   “The group, which now has a membership of 8,000 people across the U.S., argues that mental-health conditions can be made into ‘something beautiful.’ They mean that one can transform what are often considered simply horrible diseases into an ecstatic, creative, productive or broadly ‘spiritual’ condition.”   Perhaps the real-life Nathaniel Ayers holds to the oddities of his mental functioning as necessary for him to be possessed by the spirit of music.  And who is to say that isn’t so?