When I was in college, my music theory teacher once told me that she and the Chair of the English Department would get together from time to time to listen to music. Their purpose was not merely pleasure. Instead, armed with pens and paper, they would separately jot down the images, feelings, and thoughts the music produced in them as they listened to it. Then they compared notes. She said it was remarkable how frequently their descriptions were quite similar.
I don’t think the similarities of description that my teacher noted are necessarily as noteworthy as she would have liked me to believe. After all, she and her companion were well-educated in the liberal arts. They were already familiar with much of the music to which they listened. And anyone with some knowledge of geography might well know that “Moldau,” the German name for the Vltava, is both a river and the title of a composition by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. Her main point, though, that similar sounds produce similar feelings in different people, is an intriguing one.
Not long ago, I read an E. B. White essay that presents an interesting take on a related idea, one concerning what a person sees rather than what they hear. White’s “Homecoming,” written in 1955, touches on several topics. One of them is his response to an article by the American teacher, historian, and author Bernard DeVoto (1897-1955). DeVoto had written about a recent trip he had made to Maine, where White lived. According to White, DeVoto:
…gave the Maine coast a brisk going over in his Harper’s column, using some four-letter words that raised the hackles of the inhabitants. Mr. DeVoto used the word “slum” and the word “neon.” He said that the highway into Maine was a sorry mess all the way to Bucksport, and that the whole strip was overpopulated and full of drive-ins, diners, souvenir stands, purulent amusement parks, and cheap-Jack restaurants.White, E. B.. Essays of E. B. White (p. 9). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.
Well! I’d say that’s pretty brisk. DeVoto died about a month before White penned his essay. Even so, White uses the opportunity of responding to DeVoto to make what is, to me at least, an astute psychological observation. DeVoto was traveling U.S. 1 along the coast of Maine en route to “professional commitments.” White, on the other hand, while going the same way, was headed to his home in Maine from his job in New York. White writes:
Steering a car toward home is a very different experience from steering a car toward a rostrum, and if our findings differ, it is not that we differed greatly in powers of observation but that we were headed in different emotional directions.White, E. B.. Essays of E. B. White (pp. 10-11). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.
Though they traveled the same road, because they were headed in “different emotional directions,” they didn’t see the same things or see them in the same way. Near the end of this section of White’s essay, he writes the following beautiful passage. It tells us something of his emotional direction:
Familiarity is the thing—the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness. A farmer pauses in the doorway of his barn and he is wearing the right boots. A sheep stands under an apple tree and it wears the right look, and the tree is hung with puckered frozen fruit of the right color. The spruce boughs that bank the foundations of the homes keep out the only true winter wind, and the light that leaves the sky at four o’clock automatically turns on the yellow lamps within, revealing to the soft-minded motorist interiors of perfect security, kitchens full of a just and lasting peace. (Or so it seems to the homing traveler.)White, E. B.. Essays of E. B. White (p. 11). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.
There is a story in the biblical book of Exodus that illustrates White’s point as well. The Israelites had recently escaped from slavery in Egypt and are on their way to Canaan. Moses decides to send twelve men as spies into Canaan. In Chapter 13, he gives the men their marching orders.
“Go up this way through the Negeb, and you shall go up into the high country. And you shall see the land, what is it like, and the people that dwells in it, are they strong or slack, are they few or many. And what is the land in which they dwell, is it good or bad, and what are the towns in which they dwell, are they in open settlements or in fortresses. And what is the land, is it fat or lean, are there trees in it or not. And you shall muster strength and take of the fruit of the land.”Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
The men perform their mission and return to Moses with their report. They all agree that the land is highly desirable, that it is, indeed, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, they disagree concerning the nature of the people who inhabit Canaan and the strength of their fortifications. The majority concludes that the Israelites cannot take the land, will not be able to defeat the inhabitants. They tell Moses that compared to the inhabitants, the Israelites are like grasshoppers. Two of the spies disagrees with the majority report. They are confident that the Israelites can prevail over the Canaanites and take hold of the land.
The men had all seen the country and its inhabitants; they saw the same places and people. But the majority and the minority were headed in different emotional directions. The majority of spies believed that to enter the land was to come to a place of death and defeat. The minority thought that to enter Canaan was to enter a place of hope and promise. For the minority, fear was not part of their emotional landscape.
All the best,