Joy

November 14, 2008

I am unable to listen to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" without, perhaps ironically, arriving at a moment of profound sorrow. 

I used to hold this against Beethoven.  I'd accuse him of getting it all wrong, "What's wrong with you Ludwig?" I'd ask dramatically, "what's up with that damn song?"  But as I've grown older I've come to realize that it wasn't Beethoven who had it wrong – it was me.

I listen to the "Ode to Joy" often – usually when I'm driving alone, at night.  I lower my windows and blast the volume and let the sound obliterate me.  I speed and slow with the surging of the orchestra, I drift in and out of consciousness, barely aware of the world around me… until finally, in that moment when the piece reaches its climax – the moment when the orchestra screams its cataclysm of tone and theme and sound and note, I weep.

I absolutely crumble, and I weep.

"Tears of joy," most would argue. 

And perhaps they're right.  Maybe in that moment I cry because a human being is only capable of containing so much… so much joy.  Perhaps the quintessential beauty of a piece of art like Beethoven's 9th simply overloads the senses – scrambles the brain – triggers the chemical alarms.  Eyes well with tears.  Lips curl.  The chin trembles.  The heart smolders… all with the throbs and stabs of the orchestra, the choir, the conductor as he waves his arms frantically like a sorcerer, desperate to hold his spell together, lest it combust… lest it tear the world in two.

But still – amid all of that passion and the joy… I end with sorrow.  My tears which run so hot on my face at the beginning, turn frigid and regretful… and in the end I am not crying because of Beethoven.  I am crying because of my mother.  Because my father has gone gray.  Because I've lost friends to time and space.  Because I'm growing older.  Because I was unable to contain those moments of profound beauty in my life as they occurred – and can only know them fully once they've gone.

Because joy is transient – it's slippery like a fish.  I can't hold onto it – it's too big for my hands, too loud for my ears… it is simply too much.  Too much for any one person to comprehend.  To much for any moment to hold.  It fills and empties me like a bellows, leaving as suddenly as came. 

I can only truly know joy when it leaves me.  Relativity, I guess.

So was Beethoven wrong?  Is the "Ode to Joy" an ode to sorrow?

No.  Not even remotely.

Because the 9th Symphony, through its swell and din, is the personification of that experience.  It introduces itself the way one falls in love – with a crash.  A sudden glance… a hand on your cheek, brushing stray hairs from your open mouth.  A meaningless yet resonant phrase. 

It's perplexing – it comes out of nowhere.  It grabs you by the face and hurls you into the wall and screams, "I have remade the very world in which you live…"  And then it leaves.  It falls silent.  It's just a song.  It's just girl. 

And then it starts to grow.

Themes evolve – the orchestra's voices whisper lines to one another like little children.  It broadens and unfurls… engulfing the whole of the moment in which it is played with a powerful, terrifying simplicity.  And moments later – be they minutes or months – it is everywhere.  It is inside you – beyond you.  You are Beethoven's 9th – just as you are that love.

It engulfs more and more of you.  It devours your sanity.  You can barely control yourself.  Your head rocks to the notes and the sway… your skin glimmers with the explosions of neurons into little arcs of imperceptible light.  It grows louder – it drowns out the world – smothers your judgment.  Your foot falls heavy on the gas – your car lurches from lane to lane, you are totally out of control.  And then it happens.

The climax.

You cannot comprehend your experience… you can barely experience your comprehension.  The whole of your control falls to bits… and you weep.  Because your body doesn't know what else to do.  The piece – the love – it just is.

And then it isn't.  It's gone.  Time is up.  And it leaves you ruined and shaken, pawing tears from your eyes with salty hands. 

That love – any love – is too big to know in its moment.  It can only be understood fully when it leaves you. 

I could have never loved my mother as I do while she was alive.  I could not contain it.  It is only in its absence – in the sorrow that I feel that I could ever know that Joy.

I could never cherish the chestnut of my father's hair while it was.  Only now that it slips to silver do I see how boldly it burned.

I could have never loved my loves while I loved them.  I can only love them when they're lost.

It is only through my sorrow that I can know my Joy.

Beethoven had it right all along.

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