On Reading Benjamin Franklin

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, I find that on the whole my life has been “felicitous” enough to suggest that I would, if given the opportunity, live it again exactly as it has been to again reach its current point – assuming that although perhaps desired, an author’s prerogative of certain rewrites in a second edition would likely be denied. Admittedly, one usually only says that sort of thing if the point at which they are currently arrived is agreeable to them. In my case, that is relatively accurate – although there are parts of my present life that I would like to change, on the whole my life is a good one. Its faults are entirely my own, and mine to correct or put up with. Besides, “agreeable” is such a subjective word. What is agreeable to one person is anathema to another. What you might find absolutely intolerable, I enjoy if not for its comfort, then for its familiarity – and ultimately, we each seek out what makes us comfortable, in the end, regardless of any desire, obligation, or imagined destiny to push beyond our perceived and respective envelopes. We each have our own personally defined “veneers of responsibility”, those public-facing masks we wear so others, as quick or quicker to judge than ourselves, can “understand” who we are without all that much effort. If, as Julian Jaynes suggested, the definition of civilization is any group of people gathered in large enough numbers than no one knows every other on a first name basis, then it follows that the premise of society is a subset of that civilized people who are comfortable enough with each other’s masks that they need not invest too much energy in finding out the details of their neighbors’ lives.

Once again, it’s tempting to succumb to no small degree of vanity. If I am so important, it’s only natural that my neighbors and in fact almost anyone falling inside my circle of influence would be infinitely interested in not only the agreeable, but admittedly and egregiously disagreeable segments of a lifeline starting at my birth and ending at the right here and right now. Again I think of Franklin, who suggested that vanity might be a gift from Providence worth nurturing.

So if it is to be utopian fiction, at least let it stop some distance short of hagiography. An “honest” appraisal by a devil is always more entertaining, at least, than an overly generous gloss by a saint – again, two terms far too subjective in their definition to be of much meaning, anyway.

This is then a semi-autobiographical work of utopian fiction. It is not, as Stanislavsky titled his biography, “My Life in Art”. My own experience is more like a “life around art” wherein the primary milestones perhaps appear musical or artistic, but those really make up a kind of “musical busyness” that surrounds and often obfuscates the point that the life creating that music is supposed to be making: the evolution or constant evolving of the person, and how to whatever extent the making of music enables that evolution, that both the musical creation and the life that surrounds can be deemed a success. And where that is not the case, both the life and music are less than extraordinary – at least in my subjective opinion.

But where does the music begin? At birth? Or somewhere later down the line when conscious thought becomes one of the primary motivators for action? My maternal grandmother swore that my first word, at six months, was “elephant.” No one believed her – including me, when I was later told the story, although I must admit a romantic notion of some spiritual connection to India persists in me to this day. My family was always “musical” in a sense. Our house in Michigan had a “music room” which housed a baby grand piano and the various other instruments I discovered later, in other houses, but must have been present at that early date as well. I don’t remember playing the piano at that time (we left Michigan when I was seven) but I do remember being awed by its size, its intricate construction – I often crawled underneath and looked up at it from between the giant pillar legs, and what seemed to me to be a gigantic amount of sound it produced, particularly when the lid was fully opened.

I also don’t remember music or the radio being played. Of course, there were likely television programs, Saturday morning cartoons and movies of the week, but most of my free time was spent outside playing or inside reading books.

It seems to me that any story describing a lifelong battle between art and commerce must inevitably be either a tragedy or comedy, both in the ancient Greek sense, with the comedy not necessarily funny or humorous in a happy way, but more abstractly sharp to a degree up to but not quite serendipitous. Like life in general, I suppose, the amount of sorrow or joy depends entirely upon the participant – because what may seem a precipitously jagged set of manic to depressive interludes to one person may seem of little consequence to another. It is not just beauty, but the absence of it as well, that lies in the eye of the beholder.

It may be in the way we’re made up – that we focus on the negative or positive throughout our lives, and remember best those episodes we believe are the formative forces in becoming who we are at present. That focus may in fact be our undoing, the reason why at some point or another almost everyone seems to lose their balance, perspective, “moral compass” or rudder, and for at least a short time float or drift aimlessly – until we “find ourselves.” We inherit the courage and timidity of our parents to a large degree. After all, their prejudices, fears, confidences, talents, and weaknesses are the stuff of the gods to our infant perceptions. They are our Zeus and Hera, and their relations, our Poseidon, Hades, etc. Any older siblings or relations, until we better understand and are able to exploit their human frailties to our own advantage, serve as our Athena, Diana, Ares, and even Aphrodite.[iii] Like all myths, our initial worldview serves not as an explanation of things, but more as an introduction to the explanation, a framework or morphology within which our instinctively curious selves, particularly if encouraged to do so, seek out and create a working definition of reality that both encompasses and steps outside the mythos of our infancy.


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