'2001: A Class Odyssey'/

Address to the 1997 Freshman Convocation/

Illinois Wesleyan University/ Saturday, August 23, 1997/

by Robert Bray/ R. Forrest Colwell Professor of English

One of the earliest recordings of the great reggae master, Bob Marley, was called 'Who Feels It, Knows It.' I suspect many of us would be quick to agree with this formula for knowledge. But let's think about it: we certainly felt something as the music of Richard Strauss was played on the organ just now; how does it follow, though, that we know anything?

Perhaps your whole body vibrating 'told' you that that was a pedal low-C on the organ; and your ears 'knew' that the key was C-Major, that the bom­ban­bon triad was C­G­C, that the timpani-sounding notes were G-C, G-C, G-C, etc., and that the huge chord at the end had a whole bunch of notes and was very loud. Yet even if, like me, you love music but have a limited ability to connect sounds in the air with notes in a score, I suspect that you were also stirred by the music and 'knew' that what you 'felt' during that mighty final chord was that Strauss's music expressed something noble and puissant­ 'triumph' perhaps­which is one of the qualities of C-Major that affects us even when we don't consciously recognize the sequence of notes as harmonized in a particular key. Much of music's wonderful effect is emotional, even visceral, and therefore hard to explain. We often have 'intuitions' about what we feel; we believe that somehow we 'just know.' Like Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse we may achieve enlightenment in an epiphany: as the narrative puts it, 'She knew without having learnt.' When this happens to you too, well and good. But for me­and I believe I speak for the liberal arts­it's not quite good enough. We must attempt to know how we know so that we may 'know that we know.' And this is long, hard work.

If you could see all the quotation marks I've put around certain words in the text I've just read, you'd realize that I'm far from certain what it is to know how I feel­let alone knowing how you feel, despite such commonplaces of communication such as 'I've been there,' 'know what you mean,' or 'I hear you' and the by-now-humorous 'I feel your pain.' For to get knowledge out of being emotionally moved is one of the hardest things we require our minds to do; but it is precisely this task that the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, undertake, and I long ago determined not to give up the possibility of 'knowing' without a lifelong fight.

Can cultural context help us understand the effect of the music? By 'context' I mean moving from what we believe we know to what is known, from self to society. By 'culture' I mean. . . well, pretty much everything outside the self. Let's try to build a cultural context for the music we've heard through a series of increasingly specific questions:

­Had some of you heard this music before?

­In a movie? Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, where it was popularly known as the 'Dawn of Man' theme?

­Do you recall that the proper name of the piece is Also Sprach Zarathustra? or in English'Thus Spake Zarathustra'?

­That this was the title of a book by Friederich Nietzsche that inspired Richard Strauss?

­That Nitezsche and Strauss, fellow Germans, were both enamored of the concept of the 'Superman'­that 'higher entity' man would become after ceasing being a beast?

­That Nietzsche took for his prophetic spokesman the ancient, half-mythical religious figure of Zarathustra, or Zoroaster.

Now please don't think I'm trying to show off: this is just some of the stuff­and there could be lots more­we pick up osmotically as part of 'cultural literacy,' or for which we deliberately dig, hoping to fill in some of the spaces of the puzzle at hand: how and why are we moved? I contend that everything noted above helps us, along with much more we could research and then subject to critical thinking­both of these activities being 'athletic training for the mind' and basic to a liberal arts education. Research mines the ore; critical thinking assays it (in the sense of weighing ore to see how much gold it contains). This is good 'science,' not alchemy; rare results, we hope, but no miracles. So what I'm asking us to do together is a little mind exercise: consider how what we have learned contextually advances our understanding of the musical force of 'Thus Spake Zarathustra.'

Before we look at two clips from 2001 , let me toss out another huge name and concept: Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution by natural selection; and let me read you a passage from the 'Prologue' of Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra:

I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man? All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man? What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing- stock, a thing of shame. Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes.

[first clip]

A few things to note here: first, the ape's 'thinking' and consequent 'discovery' of tools comes right after the mysterious, extra-terrestrial 'monolith' appears in his clan's desert den, which gives us a pretty clear sense of how the movie wants to portray human evolution. Second, before the ape conceptualizes the femur as a tool/weapon, he (yes, he!) is a grubber for insects; afterward, he is a hunter and a carnivore. Behold the Dawn of Man.

[second clip] Here, in quick succession, are homicide and war invented. Astonishment succeeds horror, however, with the stunning transition from bone to spaceship, pre-history to modernity, 'homo' to 'sapiens.' Just for fun, let's allow that those really rather ridiculous Hollywood apes are a fair representation of the beginnings of the anthropoid genus homo a couple of million years ago. So how did we as a species­homo sapiens­come from that? Kubrick's answer is simple, if mysterious: some other agency, transhuman and interstellar, planted the monolith and thereby started us evolving. Science retorts, can the mystification, guys: what we are we are from biological evolution. And science has largely prevailed in the intellectual debate, though Kubrick and all sorts of other religionists tend to hold on to our hearts. Yet there is something lacking in both views. The former­it came from outer space, god from a machine­is complete but unverifiable; the latter­at least in its strict Darwinian form­is incomplete, because it cannot account for the acceleration of human development over the past 20 millennia­change that is far, far greater than can be explained in biological evolutionary terms. This is where cultural evolution comes in, the study of which­and I mean no disrespect to anthropology­is a history, a necessarily narrative account, and therefore part of the humanities.

Cultural evolution is the objectification of knowledge: what one human learns or makes, all­or at least some large subset­of humans learn or make. And the most spectacularly successful forms of cultural evolution in the West have been science and technology, which have exponentially increased knowledge from the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago to the telecommunications revolution of our late 20th century. For students, the draw of science can be profound: one wishes to 'do science' because science gets somewhere: your work rests on the shoulders of another's past labor, as some future scientist will stand on yours: a human tower reaching for the stars: Ad Astra per Aspera, as the Latin motto of my home-state of Kansas puts it: 'To the Stars through Difficulty.'

Hence science's admirable vertical integration of knowledge, while the humanities seem to go around in circles. So they do: but that's just the point! The humanist's task is to show the truth of the French proverb, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same.' Science and technology power change, they remake the earth and transform nature, but they do not provide an understanding of what such tremendous change means: and they are not normative, which is to say they do not tell us anything about right and wrong, good or bad, ought or oughtn't. When Henry David Thoreau was asked by some engineers whether he admired their new railroad, he told them the truth: 'You could have done worse.' I think it was the novelist Milan Kundera who said that it was the job of art to speak truth to power; if this is so, then it is the humanistic disciplines that keep track of such truth-sayings.

Lest this sound like science vs. humanism in an elemental, eternal conflict of darkness against light­good old Zoroaster again­I hasten to deny the opposition: for both science and humanism use the same fundamental tool, though on different materials: the tool of reason. Whenever I'm jealous of science for 'getting somewhere,' I have to remind myself that untidy as my thinking may be, I'm trying to reason through to the essentials of humanity; and that in doing so I may be helping to close the circle long ago opened by those tool-making apes­or some other such creation story. What complicates things is that my subjects, being human, felt, and I likewise am feeling even as I study them. This is another way of saying that because the subject won't stand still, and the photographer has shaky hands, it's darned difficult to get a good picture. All the more reason then to reason: to objectify even the most recalcitrant subject, the human being in cultural action.

I'm not speaking of absolutes, or of certainties; rather of the closest, most likely approximation to truth we can make, given imperfect information arising from irreducible error in even the finest observations. Truth, scientific or humanistic, within a 'circle of tolerance:' be it a physical description of nature, or an account of human morality, there is no 'God's-eye-view' of knowledge. I suspect the difference between science and humanism is one of degree: the humanist's 'circle of tolerance must have a wider circumference because our observations have wider variation. Watch and listen to the great historian of science, Jacob Bronowski, as he stands in the muck of the concentration camp at Auschwitz:

[show clip from 'Knowledge or Certainty?'] To learn to recognize the truth when we find it: this is what the liberally educated human can do. You have already begun, else you wouldn't be here; the institution exists to train you to find and recognize better. Whoever contrived the motto of Illinois Wesleyan University, Scientia et Sapientia, in English 'Knowledge and Wisdom,' realized that these two were not the same thing. Logically, their relation is that knowledge­or at any rate information­is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for wisdom. Wisdom is something that does not exist in nature, nor in the transformation of nature we call technology, nor in all our information about the physical and cultural worlds. To the extent that our species' appellation takes the 'sapiens' part of homo sapiens for granted, it is a misnomer. Wisdom is the 'hard-learned' human quality of understanding what cultural evolution does to us and how we may guide it for the good. We alone make wisdom­or don't. Yours is the choice, and because yours is the true millennial class (for I agree with Kubrick that the 3rd Christian Millennium begins on Jan. 1, 2001), I'm afraid you'll always carry a special burden for the rest of us. My advice, as a sad and greying resident of the century that invented world war and widely practiced genocide, is not to 'watch and wait' for apocalypse but to 'see and act' on the ground you tread. Watching the skies for the advent of the Star-Child-Superman is bound to be a bore, and probably futile anyway. Listen to Strauss and watch A Space Odyssey instead; live and learn in the everyday world; make wisdom out of knowledge. And, remember, when you've extracted the gold from the mined mountain of ore, put the tailings back into the earth and plant a commemorative grove of trees. For this would be a millennially wise thing to do.