THE PHYSICS OF TIME AND HEAT – AND OUR SURVIVAL AS A SPECIES

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The Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli tells us in his international bestseller, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, that “there is a detectable difference between the past and the future only when there is the flow of heat.” The flow of time, he writes, is a matter of thermodynamics, subject to the vagaries of probability. Building on Einstein’s amply verified theory of relativity, Rovelli says that just as there is no definitive “here” in relation to other points of reference, neither is there an objective “present” in terms of time. Our sense of passing time, he explains, arises from “microscopic interactions within the world” that are part of “systems” such as human consciousness and memory. That about wraps it up, I guess, if you’re a physicist.

Time remains a mystery, Rovelli admits, but he does a formidable job reducing it to a blur of subatomic particles perceived within the limitations of human consciousness, including the finest of scientific calculations. Given the limitations of my non-physicist consciousness, I think he’s on to something beyond physics when he identifies heat as the sole detectable factor separating our past from our future.

Put in more human terms, is heat rather akin to attention? If we put our attention on someone, are we not transmitting an immeasurable but sometimes detectable impulse of energy towards them—such as when we sense someone looking at us? Keeping things strictly materialistic, our brains consume energy, so can we not consider mental impulses that require the brain’s energy as some version of heat? Looking at it another way, isn’t attention what enables us to distinguish what has happened from what is happening?

What, though, about things that have taken place in the past but linger in our minds so that they remain alive in the present, events and people we still care about, puzzle over, continue to study, imitate? Lingering objects of attention give force to Faulkner’s famous line, perhaps alluding to the South’s role in the Civil War, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The parts of the past that do not die are those that draw enough of our attention for them to stick in our memory. The elasticity of human reactions allows for widely differing perspectives on past events. The pioneers’ brave expansion and settlement of the American West looks very different from the standpoint of Native Americans, whose tribal lands were overtaken, treaties broken, burial grounds desecrated, and so on.

We give certain experiences more attention than others because they elicit some form of psychological heat – curiosity, fear, admiration, humor, regret, love, resentment, hope, etc. From what I’ve read about how the human brain works, items that stay in our memory are glued to or associated with emotions of some kind. Otherwise they are not retained, at least in that person’s memory.

Think of what an enormous effusion of, shall we say, attention quanta, human beings (not to mention other beings) emit daily. From the homeliest impulse to get up in the morning, to numberless types of effort put forth by multitudes throughout their day’s labor—to serve others, to deal with all manner and size of interpersonal conflicts, to keep informed about what’s happening around us. Within this huge output of attention impulses are, say, quarks of different types of attention—from the keenest concentration required for original work of any kind, to the tedious forms of labor done solely for a paycheck, to routine tasks of personal hygiene, transportation, shopping, housekeeping and so on.

Good luck trying to fathom the myriad attention units devoted to sexual desire, romantic love, and the equally vital efforts of friendship.

Attention quanta may also differ in terms of age and stages of consciousness. The very young survive by focusing on those who take care for them, because their lives depend on whether they receive nurturing attention. Children soon face the demands of schooling, and meet various degrees of success fitting into so-called peer groups, developing their personal identities by trial and error.  Hopes and dreams for making a difference in the world extend far beyond youth, of course.  Many of us do not fulfill our desires and others’ expectations, and must learn to be thankful for whatever we have.  As they age, many find it necessary to calculate the energy we will need to give our full attention to the tasks before (another strange quark of attention) and what to put aside when running on fumes.

For any age, let’s not leave out the unfathomable attention quanta humankind expends on—to paraphrase Zora Neale Thurston—licking the pots in sorrow’s kitchen. Enduring physical pain, illness, disability, abuse, loneliness, trauma, shame and grief are as demanding in terms of attention as they are unavoidable to those afflicted. Oddly, those who suffer through such things are not precluded from moments of happiness as fine as any experienced outside sorrow’s kitchen.

The philosopher and mystic Simone Weil considered attention to be the purest form of prayer. She believed that “attention is the only faculty that gives us access to God.” Whether or not one believes in God, the power of attention is something undeniable in human experience and seems essential to any manifestation of love. There would be no works or art, scientific discoveries, technology, perseverance through hardships, heroism, civilization or survival of our species without it.

Science has not gone beyond the Big Bang theory of how our universe began 13.7 billion years ago, when there was a great burst of heat, light, energy and eventually matter. Only recently we’ve learned that visible matter, including us, is about 3.5 percent of the universe, whereas invisible or “dark” matter and energy constitutes all the rest. What are these unseen constituents?  We have no clue. All we know is that dark energy propels the universe to expand, while dark matter provides the gravity that keeps the stars, gas and dust in all the galaxies from flying apart.

Rovelli the physicist directs our attention to an amazing thought, that the flow of heat makes possible our experience of the passage of time. An attending metaphysician might extend this idea further: that the heat of which he speaks includes immeasurable quanta of attention. The energy source of this attention possibly connects us to that which brought our universe into existence and keeps it from dispersing into chaos.

How we experience time—and how we try to affect what is happening in present time—may determine whether our species will experience a future.

Rovelli’s book closes with a scientifically valid, hard-nosed assertion that our human species will probably not survive the damage we have already done to our environment. He hardly needs to exemplify this prediction with reference to global warming, widespread pollution, loss of habitat and mass extinction of other species due to our overuse of natural resources, and the extinction of earlier human species and civilizations.

It begs the question, in the most total way a species can beg:

Why can’t we apply more of our heat to the flow of time? Can we put enough attention into saving the biosphere so as not to destroy human civilization? Are we not capable of exerting more, stimulating more, innovating more, doing more of whatever it takes to save our future on this beautiful blue sphere on the outskirts of one galaxy among billions? What better goal would humankind have, exactly now?

 

 

 

RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE

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RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE—RELEARNING PATIENCE AS A VIRTUE

For years I walked by the closed lid of my piano, stifling pangs of regret and longing to be back in the weeds making music. I had solid excuses: courses to prepare and teach, stacks of homework and papers to mark up. It was heartfelt work that kept me up long into the night and delivered a shot of adrenaline each time I entered the classroom, followed by the joy of learning from my students. Years flew by. I would dust the piano and tell myself, Someday….

Then, in an impersonal flip of academic politics, I found myself “retired.” Hiding momentarily behind the bewilderment, however, was the gift of time for me to write more…and return to the piano!

Lifting the lid on that untouched keyboard was like trying to make amends with a long forsaken lover. I now had creaky, arthritic fingers and a thumb that stabbed with pain when asked to play notes forte or louder. Not only did I need larger reading glasses so I could look up at the music and down at the keyboard, but my vision was erratic. My eyes skipped ahead or landed too far up or down on the staff, and had to be reined in like puppies on a leash.

It proved necessary to acquire a half-deaf forgiveness for the sounds I produced. Especially the ruination of promising-sounding passages that came to rude, aborted ends, given my unpredictable but ever lurking tendency to botch things I hadn’t previously messed up.

You see, I may have been treating my piano like a piece of furniture, but I hadn’t stopped going to concerts and hearing great artists at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. The contrast between their mastery and my bungling was all too real. How to avoid the sinkhole of exasperation and disgust?

Ages ago, a concert artist and revered teacher, Alice Shapiro, told me to first learn a piece by playing it very slowly. Her advice resonated with that of my inspiring present teacher, Michael Blum, who says, “Play something so slowly and softly that it’s like doing tai chi. Don’t try for any kind of expression at first. Just let the notes quietly tell you about themselves.” By this he means listening for their harmonic structure, their phrasing, and how those elements support the mood and feelings the piece might express. It struck me as a form of meditation, or perhaps a reflection on great literature, where one dives into real or imaginary worlds from the safe distance of an observer.

Similar to meditating, I found it ever so easy to lose patience with the process. As soon as I try playing something faster than I can do justice to the notes, I stumble upon why patience is a virtue. It’s hard to get comfortable with the reality of attention being a discipline, requiring humility and time. I’ve wasted precious time repeating botched passages at full speed before, duh, I think to play them slowly, accounting for each note, after which they seem to fix themselves.

Music is like a relationship. The more attention you pay, the deeper you go. And, whether gradually or in bursts of affection, playing the piano rewards attention—with relief from arthritis, and the feeling of earned participation in works of genius.

EVIL TONGUE OR PATH TO REFLECTION AND HEALING?

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Cynthia Ozick was given front page real estate in the New York Times Book Review, with a devilishly catchy title, “The Novel’s Evil Tongue” (12/20/2015). Her essay refers to the Book of Genesis, where Eve listens to the serpent and is persuaded to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as is Adam, her companion. God has threatened that they will die (by which He could have meant lose their immortality), if they eat this fruit. The crafty serpent seems correct when he says they won’t die for eating it (in the sense that they won’t drop dead on the spot).

So our two primordial ancesters are ejected from Eden, suddenly aware of their nakedness and need to be clothed. They are also unequally cursed, as feminist interpreters have noted. Eve and women after her will be afflicted with pain in childbirth, but will desire their husbands. Adam and men after him will have to sweat in hard labor for a living, with no mention of desiring their wives. It is one of two incompatible creation stories that the ancient compilers of far more ancient Hebrew oral traditions placed at the beginning of the Bible. Christians refer to it as The Fall, the beginning of evil among humankind, putting us in need of redemption in the form of a Savior. Others have read it as a parable of human choice to obey God or not, and the consequences.  Interpretations abound.

Ozicks’s unusual perspective sees the first humans’ eating the forbidden fruit as marking  not only humankind’s fall into sin and gossip, but also the beginning of all storytelling and, she implies, sexual desire.  If Eve hadn’t listened, “Eden would still be…a serene and tedious nullity, a place where nothing happens: two naked beings yawning in their idleness, innocent of what mutual nakedness might bring forth.” Ozick and many others assume that Adam and Eve did not make love before they realized they were naked.

One of the Ten Commandments forbids us to bear false witness, and elsewhere Scripture tells us not to be “going up and down as a talebearer among your people.” Without Eve’s original listening, Ozick opines, there’d have been no Cain and Abel, crime novels, Hitchcock thrillers, no great writers like Chaucer, Boccaccio, Austen, and Henry James. It’s a fascinating premise, but rather disturbing in regard to what the ancient Hebrews meant by bearing false witness and tale-bearing.

In early Hebrew culture and law, false witnessing referred specifically to lying in a legal matter—such as claiming that X stole ten of your sheep so that you could take ten of his, when in truth your sheep were killed by wolves and you’re falsely testifying in order to replace them with ten of X’s sheep. Likewise, tale-bearing in such an early context almost certainly meant slanderous rumor-mongering rather than entertaining others with fanciful but harmless stories. Some of the first tales, about heroes and their bravery, were clearly meant to inspire.

I believe this piece of nitpicking is important. Storytelling, minus the motives that boil down to malice, should be defended for its potential, in fiction and nonfiction, to open doors that no benevolent Creator would want closed. The chance to learn of, and be inspired by, the acts and feelings of other beings, real or imaginary.

Of course we are all swayed by the immediacy of a personal truth. Who can surpass Augustine’s confession that he begged God to free him from sexual sin, just not right away? But what if we are obsessed with unrequited passion for the spouse of a close friend? Would we not do better to assume the cover of fiction, removing our story to a different setting and changing everyone’s identity? The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote of literature as an art form that permits people to explore all kinds of experience, including terror and evil, from a safe distance. It was her belief that fiction could explore life’s nuances and complexity better than philosophy, thus the duality of her career.  She was not alone in this view.

I’m tempted to agree when Ozick writes, “Not unlike the philosophers, the gossiper strives to fathom the difference between appearance and reality, and to expose the gap between the false and the genuine.” But not quite. Gossipers with malevolent intent do not strive to clarify true from false. They use craft to make the false convincing, as do all con artists, in order to steal from them their right to make an accurate choice.  Storytellers who seek to inspire or draw people’s attention to troubling aspects of existence are trying to bring about healing and growth.  Very big difference.

I know a man who lost a well-earned promotion because his rival had planted rumors about his physical frailty. The gossiper won the promotion. The one who deserved it, who’d been in good health until he learned of this betrayal, declined toward a premature death. The gossiper does harm by distorting the truth. Altogether different from the craft of a writer-thinker who ponders the meaning of life and tries to differentiate good from evil. In the case of the stolen promotion, both men had records of achievement, but one of them lied about his rival in order to tip the scales.  We acknowledge his cleverness, but sense the evil of it.

Going back to the person who wants to protect his/her identity as tormented by desire for a close friend’s mate. If you fictionalize the story, you redirect your attention into a different space, a lifeworld that frees you a precious bit from the hard reality of personal anguish. It puts your powers of imagination and attention into creating characters similar but not identical to yourself and those close to you. It even increases your compassion for those imaginary characters, and allows you as a storyteller to think beyond your circumstances. In this way fiction lets us express pain and anguish in ways of healing rather than harm.

The problem with Ozick’s compelling take on Eve’s listening as the symbolic origin of people’s capacity to be moved by storytelling is her—probably unintentional—compression of entirely valid biblical warnings against lying and gossip that do harm, with the liberating and healing uses of attention and imagination.

Perhaps the myth of Adam and Eve made it into the Book of Genesis as a creation story because it speaks of the immediate and longterm consequences of having to choose how we listen and act. Evil, for all its surface appeal, can be identified for the harm it does—sometimes not readily apparent. Goodness, however, always exudes an ineffable sense of joy in life, be it through increased understanding, compassion, friendship with real or imaginary characters, or a shared laugh at the ridiculous. Who was it who said the devil hates to be mocked? A wise storyteller.

“How do you like to go up in a swing?”

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 “Up in the air so blue…”  Robert Louis Stevenson put it so well, in a verse many of us older children grew up with.  As a child I absolutely loved going up in a swing, so much so that I wanted to go even higher.  In a moment of great exhilaration and trust that the forces of nature would fulfill my desire, I let go of the ropes, spread my arms and took off.  Miraculously I landed on my stomach, no bones broken, just the skin under my chin split open on impact.  Two small scars hidden from view are the only proof that I was once so filled with joy that I’d catapulted into the sky.

As I got older I noticed that most swings in playgrounds are too low to the ground to accommodate taller kids or adults.   Some parks even have signs telling grownups not to use the swings.  So heartless.  But to return to the subject: attention.

Swings being magical to me, I had a rude shock a few evenings ago walking past a set of swings in a park.  A young boy was being pushed by—given the family resemblance—his father.  Instead of looking up at the gorgeous sunsetting sky, awash with the joy of swinging, the boy’s face was turned up and back, joyless and tentative.  He was clearly waiting for the fun to happen, and if anything he seemed posed on the brink of sorrow.

As I passed in front of them, I noticed that the man was pushing his son on the swing with one hand, while reading his smartphone in the other!!  His real attention was directed at what he was reading, with a fraction vaguely reserved for giving his boy a shove.

What is more, this guy had a martyred set to his jaw.  A grim scenario popped onto the screen of my imagination.  He was a busy important professional who resented sacrificing time he would have otherwise reserved for himself—if only the child’s mother hadn’t nagged him to take his son out to the playground before the last scrap of daylight had faded.  There were no other children on the swings at that hour.  But, dammit, he’d salvage his personal plans at least partially—thanks to his trusty handheld source of news updates, transmitter of memos that can’t wait.

The scene put a whole new twist on attention for me.  Going up in a swing, that simple and great joy of childhood, now threatened by technology!  Or, shall we say, susceptible to technology’s means of dividing our attention from those who need to feel it fully–our children, who sometimes die, literally and figuratively, without it?  [See Introduction post.]

My heart went out to that little boy.  Unless his dad wised up and put his whole self into pushing that swing, the kid might want to jump out of it for a reason far different than mine.

 

The Grandmaster – Master Class in Attention

Right away, most people who see “The Grandmaster” will be bowled over by its visual virtuosity.  The movie’s fight scenes zing by with balletic grace and the rhythmic flourish of great music.  The plot begins to bubble when a secretly trained female kung fu expert from the North appears to challenge the main character, who’s been chosen as best of the Southern Chinese masters.

The pair’s eye-popping altercation entices us into a haunting near-Platonic love story.  That element, alas, is invented.  In a way the film pays tribute not only to a legendary teacher of Bruce Lee.  It also draws attention to the unknown women who managed to master forms of the martial arts despite the entrenched tradition of denying this knowledge to females.

The movie presents two kung fu artists at the pinnacle of their powers: Ip Man, the real-life southern Chinese master played by megastar Tony Leung; and the daughter of a fictional great northern Chinese master, Gong Er, played by the beautiful Ziyi Zhang.  [The movie’s original title was “The Grandmasters.”]

The Sino-Japanese War, the invasion and occupation of China that led up to the Asian theatre of WW2, rears its ugly historical head.  Viewers are informed that during his time Ip lost two daughters to starvation.  (The real Ip was survived by two sons…were his sons fed better during the hard times—a long and ignominious tradition in more than one society—or were they born later?)  I’ve read that the Chinese language version of the film is 30 minutes longer because gruesome facts of the Japanese invasion are shown in more detail.

Despite the historical gravitas, visual thrills, and emotional pull of all these factors, to this attending metaphysician, they remain surface attention-grabbers.

Below these layers, I was intrigued by the amazingly non-hostile look in Leung’s eyes as he takes on a raft of arrogant martial artists in challenge matches throughout the film.  Especially in his duel with Gong Er, his expression is humble and alert rather than macho and patronizing.

In all Ip/Leung’s battles, of course, he is fighting for his life, or at least his honor, should he be spared by an opponent.  But what an outlook!   You have to see the set of his face, the quiet, non-hostile readiness for each attacker, to appreciate how wonderfully this actor portrays his character’s confidence—visible in the quality of his attention.  Why does he look so consistently, um, friendly?  It’s disconcertingly unwarriorlike.  But convincingly, uh…masterful.

Perhaps part of it stems from the fact that Tony Leung trained for three years before the cameras rolled on his portrayal of Ip Man.  Some very well known kung fu masters participate in this film, several of them having helped train Leung.  Is that why he looks at his opponents with something akin to respectful fondness?  Or does he somehow exude a feeling like that of Wilfred Owen, the WW1 British poet-soldier who wrote of his adversary as “My enemy, my friend”?

Ziyi Zhang has a background in dance, but she also trained rigorously in kung fu before being filmed.  She looks demure rather than friendly, and intent on defending her father’s reputation. Their convincing performances, even with occasional use of body doubles, is steeped in painstaking prior attention to training and fitness.

Perhaps the highest moment of artistry—and depth—comes in a snow-flecked nighttime showdown on a train platform in Hong Kong.  Gong Er has caught up with her nemesis.  This man, an orphan her father trained to succeed him, betrayed her family’s honor by collaborating with the Japanese, and expelled her from her family home.  By the time they meet we know that their form of kung fu is lethal, this guy has no conscience, and it’ll be a fight to the finish.  A terrible moment comes when she is pinned, her head inches away from the wheels of a passing train.  One more shove and she’d be decapitated.  Somehow she escapes his clutches and renders him unable to rise from the platform.  When he tries to appear noble in surrendering his position, she replies, “Let’s be clear,” and states firmly to his followers that he has done so only because she’s defeated him.

Uh-oh.  Didn’t the Chinese originate the concept of saving face?  And isn’t that expression crucial to the quality of attention one might expect to receive from others?  What Gong has done is vindicate herself, whom this traitor threw out of her home with a sneering put-down that she was ‘only a woman.’  But she has also humiliated a man desperate to retain the admiration of his followers…a man who’d used all his skill to try to kill her.

We watch her leave the scene in apparent serenity, only to observe how, in the privacy of her home, she coughs up blood.  Afterward, she stops practicing medicine and becomes addicted to opium.  One has to assume that this is no idle indulgence, but a last resort to endure mortal pain.

Alas, the price of revenge is steep.  Gong accepts it, diverting her attention away from disappointment and towards readying herself to die.  Was her father right all along?  Now she is too injured to carry on her father’s teaching, and too weak to heal others.

Meanwhile, Ip locates her after the war in Hong Kong, and she accepts his invitation to tea.  He does not know the price she has paid to avenge herself and her father, and hopes she will look upon him as more than a rival she narrowly defeated years ago.

Alas again.  She admits she has cared about him, even uses the word love, but says this will be their last meeting.  Only the viewers know why she is so discouraging to him, and are allowed to taste the bitterness and honor of her confession.

Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but no sex scene in any movie I’ve ever seen can match this quiet conversation over tea between two incredibly attractive characters who do not so much as touch hands.

Ip, so innocent in his optimism, urges Gong to continue her father’s teaching.  As if most of her has already died, she answers that it is part of life that great forms of knowledge have been lost or forgotten.  She says she has already forgot the “64 hands” for which her father was legendary.  As though passing a mystical baton, she expresses hope that Ip will continue to teach and expand his own knowledge.  From what we know, he surely did.

The most memorable adage from The Grandmaster comes from Gong Er’s father, via his daughter.  She tells Ip that there are three essential things in life: being, knowing, and doing.  In a flashback we also see that he told his unfaithful but ambitious disciple never to think himself the best: “There is always someone better.”  True mastery implies humility.

Leaving open the possibility that someone can always do it better, even if one has mastered something, is a wonderful insight into the finest quality of attention—ever willing to respect and admire others.

What a movie.  What a master class.

Attention Lurking in the News, #2: On Grieving and Consoling

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Doubtless I am one of many readers surprised and moved by a guest commentator who appeared in Maureen Dowd’s Op-Ed column the day after Christmas in the New York Times.  Dowd introduced Father Kevin O’Neil as a family friend and priest with a rare gift: the ability to “lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them.”  Given the devastating recent killings of innocent children, benevolent teachers and first-responders, it was an inspired decision by Dowd to pass the editorial baton to someone who could offer a “meditation” on what she refers to as our “tear-soaked Christmas.”

Father Kevin’s meditation is no lofty homily on why evil exists or why bad things happen to good people.  He claims to have nothing useful to say to the bereaved and the dying, nothing that would convince them of God’s all-encompassing power and wisdom when they are faced with senseless violence and death.

But he does have something useful to say.  Just not on those matters.

Though he cannot answer “Why?” let alone “Why, God?” he admits to staying with the dying and the bereaved, praying with them for hours to let them know they are not alone in their suffering and grief.  Sometimes he talks with them, sometimes he just shares their miserable silence.

Undignified as it seems, I dare to whisper: You can also bet he does not steal a few minutes to check his tweets, e-mails, or text messages.  What does that boil down to?

The highest quality attention, that’s all.  Just sitting with someone in pain.  No distractions.  Nothing much to say.  No brilliant insights.  No philosophical, theological, sociological, or psychological explanations.  Why is that so great?

Imagine you are a quantum of so-called “dark energy,” that invisible force that comprises most of the universe, far more than the physical matter (a mere 4%) in it.  Just being there for someone who’s grieving or otherwise suffering has the power to get them through a most difficult time.

Think back to those unclaimed babies in the far corner of the maternity ward, missing the one thing they needed to live.  (See Introduction/Welcome.)   We don’t have to be a gifted priest, let alone a religious person, to do the simple thing that sustains another.  All this priest did was to be fully present, without answers but with willingness to show up…suppressing any compulsion to multitask.

With or without belief in God, we might agree on a more basic truth, that attention is necessary for survival.  On the most essential level it is simply being there, giving someone our attention, no answers required.

And if quantum physics has any validity, we can be there for someone at a distance.

Thoughts on “Searching for Sugar Man”

On the Film Documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” (about singer Sixto Rodriguez of Detroit)

If you haven’t yet seen “Searching for Sugar Man” this post may not be for you, if you’re on spoiler alert.  So-called spoilers never bothered me, so here goes:

This is about the comeback of a great folk singer who wrote his own beautiful, haunting songs that bombed in his native country.  After 40 years of obscurity he gets the fame he deserves (which is still growing) because of a devoted independent record dealer, multitudes of curious South African fans, and an enterprising Swedish filmmaker.

Forgotten in Detroit, it turns out that in South Africa Rodriguez was an icon more popular than Elvis, his lyrics having inspired young people in the anti-Apartheid movement.  Some went so far as to tattoo his shadowy album cover image on their chests and arms.  Unbeknownst to the artist, his two albums had first been widely bootlegged in South Africa, then re-issued there by arrangement with A&M Records, selling over half a million copies.  Not a penny of royalties, however, made it back to singer Rodriguez, nor a word of his faraway success.  So he continued to live in poverty, supporting himself and three children with backbreaking work renovating abandoned houses.

That’s nice, you say, but what’s it got to do with the metaphysics of attention?  It’s too obvious that Rodriguez got the attention of those folks in South Africa but didn’t in the States, and that’s the breaks.  On an equally cynical vein, you could say it’s touching that he’s finally getting some recognition, at age 70, but imagine how many talented people never do.

Cynics, nevertheless, have to pull up short when reminded of certain precedents.  We recall that the poems of Emily Dickinson were discovered in a drawer after her death, and now she resides in the pantheon of American’s greatest poets.  Dickinson made one or two very shy attempts to find an audience in her lifetime, but failed.  (See next post.) At least with Rodriguez, the era of bootlegging and music sharing kept his songs alive to be resurrected in his lifetime. Where would we be without those crucial people who pay serious attention, and act on it?

Consider the first line from Roger Ebert’s film review: “Do some stories exist only because we need for them to?”

In the documentary about Rodriguez, a Capetown record seller named Stephen Segerman, in Ebert’s words, “emerges as one of those figures independent music depends on—always there in his store, supporting and listening to music he believes in, spreading the gospel.”  Then we have those who listened to the artist, connecting his lyrics with their struggle to end Apartheid.  Ebert adds, “In the case of Rodriguez, the gospel had already spread through South Africa on its own, propelled by the power of the songs.”

Attention in the guise of curiosity eventually enters the picture.  Segerman wanted to know whatever happened to the artist whose albums had sold so well.  It was rumored that he’d committed suicide on stage, shooting himself or setting himself on fire.  Enter the Internet Age, when Segerman could set up a website asking for information about this mystery man.  And who should answer it but Rodriguez’s eldest daughter?!  Enter a Swedish film director, Malik Bendjelloul, who thinks the search for this artist would make a great documentary, and voilà.

…Talk about the play of attention, and its potential power!!

Skipping ahead to Ebert’s last few lines: “The information…eventually dislodge[d] about Rodriguez suggests a secular saint, a deeply good man, whose music is the expression of a blessed inner being.  I hope you’re able to see this film.  You deserve to.  And yes, it exists because we need for it to.”

Wow.  Think about it.  Could attention be the dark (invisible) energy of our world?  The source of life?

In the film, when Rodriguez makes his first triumphal sold-out concert tour in South Africa, he thanks the audience for keeping him alive.  The huge arena sings along with him, knowing all his lyrics by heart.  When I watched the film, members of the audience were in tears, laughing with incredulous joy.  It was ecstatic, wonderful.  So full of what Dickinson calls “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul” – hope.

We were witnessing a miraculous fable that happened to be real.  It was enough to make me agree with Ebert, that the film exists because we need it to.  Does attention exist because we need it to?

It was telling that during all his years of obscurity and hard labor, Rodriguez kept alive his love of music, playing his guitar and singing.  He kept attending to his craft, his art.  So when the miracle of recognition knocked on his door, he was able to step out onto the stage with voice and chops intact.

A curious detail: Somewhere in his working life, when he’d made enough to go to college, Rodriguez majored in philosophy.  He made a point of telling 60 Minutes that there was no shame in hard work, and no shame in being poor.  Sounds like he’s quite an attending metaphysician.

Here’s the link to Ebert’s review: