Humanitas

Mindfulness and Counterpoint: Reflections

Amid our current infatuation with mindfulness, we must guard against becoming too comfortable among the clouds.

By Edward Mendelowitz, PhD

On Joseph Roth

Caught a train from Alexandria
Just a broken man in flight
Running scared with his devils
Saying prayers all through the night
Oh, but mercy can't find him
Not in the shadows where he calls
Forsaking all his better angels
That's how every empire falls

— R. B. Morris, "That's How Every Empire Falls"

Shortly following the recent passing of Philip Roth, I received a note from a German friend, a psychiatrist-turned-philosopher and one of the few genuine scholars I know. My friend inquired about my thoughts about Roth as a Jewish-American writer and the personal meaning for me of his life and death. I replied that I, too, noted the news with sadness, sharing thoughts about my interest in Roth since his early novels and stories. I wrote also of my subsequent discovery of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth, better known in Europe than here in the States. Somewhere along the line, I told my friend, this long-dead European misfit (whose work obeisantly mourns the gradual disappearance of one world while uneasily documenting the advent of the new) had become "my Roth." I have encountered few writers who even in translation write with poignancy and awareness anywhere near approaching what Roth regularly achieved. He saw with uncanny perspicacity the menacing sequence of events, possessing an eye for tragedy no less than grace.                              

In What I Saw, a collection of feuilletons about pre-war Berlin, Roth sets down with irony and wit stunning observations of urban modernity such as this of the proliferating skyscrapers that increasingly populate the city skyline:

The skyscraper stands at the summit of technical development. It has already overthrown the cold sobriety of "construction" and has begun to approach the romance of nature. The cloud, that remote, wonderful puzzle of creation, God's blessing and curse, two-handed mystery bringing life and destruction, prayers to and dreaded by our ancestors, is now to be made habitable, even cozy. We will make ourselves comfortable among the clouds.

And this upon an ominously commercial twilight:

Evening comes, an overhead light goes on. Its illumination is oily and greasy, it burns in a haze like a star in a sea of fog. We ride past lit-up advertisements, past a world without burdens, commercial hymns to laundry soaps, cigars, shoe polish and bootlaces suddenly shine forth again the darkened sky.

In a collection of feuilletons entitled The Wandering Jews, Roth renders with astonishing economy and circumspection the following rumination upon diaspora and return and what the several Abrahamic religions regard as their Promised Land:

The Jew has a right to Palestine, not because he once came from there but because no other country will have him. The Arab's fear of his freedom is just as easy to understand as the Jew's genuine intention to play fair by his neighbor. And despite all that, the immigration of young Jews into Palestine increasingly suggests a kind of Jewish Crusade, because, unfortunately, they also shoot.

In the immortalized words of John Lennon, "I read the news today, oh boy."

Such poetic, indeed visionary, observances are typified by wonder and foreboding — mindfulness that does not easily find its way into our more fashionable accounts. It should not surprise us to learn that this same writer apperceived Hitler's disquieting rise to power long before others, mentioning him by name in his very first novel, The Spider's Web, published in 1923. It was the first time Hitler would find his way into a fictional work. Once the highest paid journalist for the prominent Frankfurt newspaper by which he was employed, Roth eventually fled Germany as National Socialism crept into power and everyday consciousness. He spent his final years in his adopted city of Paris, where he reveled for a time in the majesty of Catholic ritual and pageantry before succumbing at last to alcohol and despair. Roth died destitute in a derelict Parisian hotel in 1939 at the age of 45. Mindfulness of this sort is not especially easy to live with, nor does it generally come cheap.

On John Coltrane

The bells ring out on Sunday morning
Like echoes from another time
All our innocence and yearning
and sense of wonder left behind
Oh, gentle hearts remember
What was that story? Is it lost?
For when religion loses vision
That's how every empire falls

—R. B. Morris, "That's How Every Empire Falls"

John Coltrane's spiritual proclivities were evident from an early point. Miles Davis' pianist Red Garland had called him, as early as the mid-fifties, "the new Messiah." An interview from this period reveals a skeptical and curious seeker who is already rummaging about the world's major religions in search of understanding and bona fide spiritual truth. The musician is bemused by traditions that espouse absolute tenets to the exclusion of others. "They can't all be right," he ponders thoughtfully. As Coltrane's quest broadens and evolves, Eastern and mystical perspectives are emphasized. There are trips to Africa and India where the musician hears tones between tones and talk of gods beyond God and where fixed meter and melody yield to polyrhythm, arcane harmonics and multiphonics.

As spiritual imagination takes flight, a man becomes focused and progressively illumined. The other members of the now legendary quartet are, in various ways, similarly tuned in and turned on. McCoy Tyner, Coltrane's young, brilliant pianist, was a devout practitioner of Islam. The mesmerizing drummer Elvin Jones, master of African polyrhythm, shared with Coltrane an early immersion in the Christian churches of our own nation — an original set of musical teeth serving as baseline and springboard rather than proscription or constraint. Bassist Jimmy Garrison seemed to perform as if in some sort of trance. Little was said among band members about God or religion or perhaps more intriguingly, even about music itself.

On Coltrane's 1963 recording Live at Birdland, we find the hauntingly beautiful and dirge-like "Alabama," a song said to be composed in anguished response to the murder of four black girls during the bombing of a Birmingham church. (It was, sadly, another holocaust in a nation beset with its own daemons and terrorists.) It seems, however, that Coltrane never really said just what the song was about, feeling as he did, that music ought to speak for itself. Elvin Jones later recalled the recording session that day. He remembered Coltrane handing out the sheet music yet saying nothing at all about what it meant. All four musicians, Elvin would later recall, had tears in their eyes as they played. A congregation had been assembled and communion achieved, all this without rules or intermediaries, platitudes or creeds. A single listening (something, it seems to me, every bit as important as a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Mecca or wherever) should convince the initiate that all players were in perfect attunement that day, delicately poised upon on similarly elevated and chastened planes.

On Bob Dylan

Padlock the door and board the windows
Put the people in the street
"It's just my job," he says "I'm sorry"
And draws a check, goes home to eat
But at night he tells his woman
"I know I hide behind the laws"
She says, "You're only taking orders"
That's how every empire falls

—R. B. Morris, "That's How Every Empire Falls"

Dylan's World Gone Wrong is a passionate rendition of traditional blues and folk songs upon which he grew up and which he has always admired, no less than the troubadours who had written and originally sung them. The poet's stance toward these simple and heartfelt songs and their wandering minstrel creators is, at times, worshipful as he relinquishes earlier attempts at pinning down God, mind and theology. Commenting on his exquisite rendition of "Lone Pilgrim," the meditative final selection, Dylan writes:

LONE PILGRIM is from an old Doc Watson record. what attracts me to the song is how the lunacy of trying to fool the self is set aside at some given point. salvation & the needs of mankind are prominent & hegemony takes a breathing spell. "my soul flew to mansions on high" what's essentially true is virtual reality. technology to wipe out truth is now available.  not everybody can afford it but it's available. when the cost comes down look out!  there wont be songs like these anymore. factually there arent any now.

Dylan's Kerouac-immersed eloquence and Blakian imagery (unconstrained by grammatical precision or punctuated nicety) may seem vaguely discomfiting when measured against our own publication guidelines and codes, but the results are compelling nonetheless. Here in a few words, the poet says more than bookshelves of professional dissertations, journals and books, inaugurals and sermons — all of which too often constitute the very falsity of which Dylan admonishes and sings. Can we easily imagine anything more mindful than this?

On John Prine

A bitter wind blows through the country
A hard rain falls on the sea
If terror comes without a warning
There must be something we don't see
What fire begets this fire?
Like torches thrown into the straw
If no one asks, then no one answers
That's how every empire falls

—R. B. Morris, "That's How Every Empire Falls"

Sometime in the early '70s, Dylan showed up at a small out-of-the-way Chicago bar called the Fifth Peg accompanied by Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson wanted to introduce Dylan to Prine, the mailman-turned-singer/songwriter who had been hired for weekend gigs after playing a few songs at an open mic. Dylan had heard Prine's not-yet-released debut album and having apparently committed the songs to memory, got on stage and sang along. He was a fan ever since. "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism," he observes, "— midwestern mind trips to the nth degree." In those early days, Prine would seem to go through six-packs of beer while on stage, chain smoking between songs sung to a transfixed audience. I used to see him wherever and whenever I could — the Village, San Francisco, Sanders Theater, you name it — until professional activities and domestic life gradually took over and I lost touch, a series of acts of mindless vagrancy for which there can be no excuse.

During these missing years, Prine has survived a life-threatening tumor in his neck and subsequent lung cancer to become an American treasure. His body transfigured by illness, time and abuse, Prine still sings of beauty and loss, humor and heartache, loneliness and love. He continues to impress as one of America's most penetrating seers and lovable souls — a poet who when he sets his mind to it, is able to create images and spin tales that seem to issue from some other sphere. At seventy-one, rightly worshipped by a whole generation of country and folk artists just now coming up, John Prine has become an icon.

In concert, Prine is given to performing mostly his own songs, but his cover of J. B. Morris's "That's How Every Empire Falls," is chilling in its attendance to the things that matter and how easily we — no less than our friends, lovers, leaders and clergy — too easily betray them. Mindfulness at its most profound and very best.

Amid our current infatuation with mindfulness, we must guard against becoming too comfortable among the clouds ...