I step into the great vaulted space, and very soon I am greeted by a voice, which lifts and penetrates me all at once. It issues from a tiny figure at the far end of the candled building—Vietnamese, I suspect, of indeterminate age, and singing in a language I can barely follow. She is dressed in a gown the color of dusk, and sometimes she slowly waves her arm above her head—a date-palm flapping in a lazy wind—to invite us all to join her. The sound is so pure that it might be coming down from the heavens as much as rising up to them. The stained-glass windows around Notre Dame convey light, the possibility of even the foggiest surface being illuminated; the candles convey mystery, all we cannot and will never see fully; the statues on every side place the human figure within the celestial drama.
But it is the music that makes me feel there is a light and resonance within us all—a higher harmony—and not just outside.
I’m often asked, as a writer, if the book is dead; what hopes does the novel have, people ask, in the face of the multi-media distractions of the moment? That is very much the wrong question: the real one should be, “How can contemporary fiction convey soul, struggle, the possibility of something more—submission–if it refuses to believe in something beyond us that might be within us?
I turn on the radio and I hear Bono exhorting a crowd of 53,000 to “Turn this song into a prayer.” Then putting Psalm 40 to music. Bruce Springsteen is offering praise for the light that comes to us from something eternal, even as he chafes against the suffering and struggle that seem the human lot. Handel, Bach and Mozart are carrying us to a music of the spheres that declines to believe only in human limitation; gospel music, delivered by the likes of the Reverend Al Green, is not even shy about proclaiming its message in its Virgin Records category heading.
But literature, more and more in the last 150 years, is afraid of wearing its soul on its sleeve, and so leaves us stuck inside the kitchen, the dirty dishes piling up, and no way out. We turn, occasionally, to Marilynne Robinson, to Annie Dillard, even to the ones who rage against religion—from Dostoevksy to James Wood—and are made aware of a grander dimension in life, forces we can’t anticipate or bribe; we listen to Leonard Cohen, singing about “The Nameless and the Name” and declaring, “If It Be Your Will,” and begin to understand why something in us is so parched that Rumi, the 13th century Islamic singer of divinity and the Beloved, has become the best-selling poet in America. But still writing comes up against an older and more stubborn truth: words are the stuff of men, and have to do with division, distinction, discrimination. Music, like silence, is the language of dissolving.
I go even to the most secular concert because it offers the traditional consolations of church: a large crowd singing as one, a language that the mind can’t argue away; transmission, transport and transcendence; and a reminder that we and our small lives are not the be-all and the end-all, alpha and omega.
Once, high up in the nosebleed seats of Osaka Castle Hall in Japan, I closed my eyes and heard Eric Clapton take off on long silvery riffs on his guitar. He stood alone, completely motionless at the back of the stage. His head lifted up, his eyes clearly shut. The music was playing him, more than the other way round. In fact it seemed to be streaming through him—he and his instrument just vessels—and enveloping us all in something beyond the reach of explanations. I didn’t have the words for it—I was embarrassed to hear myself saying it—but I didn’t care what his religion was or wasn’t (or mine, either): this was what the world sounded like when it was unbroken.
So often, listening to music, we close our eyes and shake our heads. Our fingers, legs start to move in spite of us; we speak in the language that begins when words run out. It could be ghazal or raga or hymn; it’s only the sound of a soul giving itself up and over to something changeless and illuminated.
The man at the front of Notre Dame offers a few words, his hands outstretched. Tourists cluck along the aisles, trying to capture mystery with their point-and-shoots. A tour-guide recites facts, figures and dates. Then the tiny woman at the front lifts her head and sings again, and we are in the company of angels once more.
Turn the song into a prayer. Turn the prayer into a song.