Archive for July 26th, 2010

Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all are the same.

(Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping page 194)

Some broad agreement exists that the right hemisphere is more in tune with sadness, and less with anger, than the left hemisphere. . . . It seems to me a possibility that those emotions which are related to bonding and empathy . . . are preferentially treated by the right hemisphere, as one would expect; . . .

(Iain Mc Gilchrist: The Master & his Emissary pages 62-63)

Given that the right hemisphere is strongly linked to all forms of creativity, it is not a huge leap of logic to suggest that much great art, including poetry and song, will inevitably be tinged with sadness and be rooted in empathy for the sufferings of all humanity.

Virgil wrote:

Sunt lacrimae rerum and mentem mortalia tangunt.

(“These are tears for events and mortal things (sufferings) touch the soul.”

Shelley expressed thoughts along the same lines:

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Dylan was not immune to the same idea:

Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.

The pain of loss, as poets know so well, lies behind much of this.

Maybe I’m just trying to rationalise my love of both song and poetry but for me there is a link between poetry and both pain and joy. Moreover, pain, joy and empathy are linked, in my experience at least. We cry when we are happy and we cry when we are hurt and when I watch someone in tears for either reason I can feel my own eyes stinging in sympathy.

The idea of poetry and song both stemming from and leading to empathy seems to hold some sort of key for me and is hopefully not just an attempt to justify my preferences. Anything that strengthens empathy is not to be lightly dismissed and can lead to important changes for the better. The words of the Báb capture this aspect well:

The path to guidance is one of love and compassion, not of force and coercion.

Of course this does not work in the linear logical purely verbal way of the left hemisphere, which, as McGilchrist indicated in the quote I used, also hosts our tendencies to anger. This creative experiential process works on the heart and at an implicit level that is very hard to convey in words. Its best forms of expression are in art and in action.

One song that illustrates this power well and that moves me greatly is not all that well known. It’s given a beautiful rendering by Kate Rusby and shows how pain, empathy, beauty, loss and a sense of the transcendent can merge and emerge from even the most distressing of situations. After this song I have nothing more to say for the moment.


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