On being a spectator (and not being a spectator)

Concerning his brother’s slow demise into death, I recall Peter Hitchens mentioned how in trying to share important final moments to stick to safe subjects that will not arouse disagreement. This has stuck with me as over the past year I recall how one person that I knew who had died was distinctly peaceful and quiet when I met him in his later moments. It is this thought that inspires my post.
One aspect that I’ve been trying to cultivate over the past few years is learning to be a good spectator as opposed to an actor or someone who drives things to happen. I was attempting to be an actor to a fault, and it almost seems I am doing the opposite now these days! It’s not that I’ve become agnostic politically or in some other polemical issue, perhaps more interested to hear a broad spectrum of opinions and witholding judgment (moral, epistemic etc) as a principle of reason. I used to call such a person an ‘auxillary’ character, such as a background or supporting character in a novel, where the protagonist had a much more domineering and indispensible role. This was my view of social relations and life in general, until I learned to be a better spectator.

I had to feel that I was involved in committees, I had to have my say in intellectual discussions, I had to share my ‘nuanced and sophisticated’ insight that characteristically tries to confer a profoundly difficult thought in as crude a manner as possible. I prefer not being a part of that in a way, because it is liberating. There are so many dispositions and kneejerk responses that I could have, and in a sense I feel enslaved by them. How odd it might seem to be enslaved by your own opinions and feelings? Well I would say that having such a strong commitment to these things such as your beliefs and your feelings may limit your perspective from how others see things, and limit a genuine appraisal of the world. To even admit of a separation from ‘what i see’ to ‘what is there’ provokes the moderation of a platonic third man that stands between you and the truth of the matter. This can be worrying, but I see it as a quiet delight.

Often our kneejerk reactions are short sighted, often our beliefs have bases which are often non epistemic. Sometimes our commitment to ideas and theories and ideologies and creeds are more tribal than about the veritude of these ideas themselves. It is this sense of elevation from one’s own beliefs that Nietzsche calls such a pursuit of truth a lonely one. To think of issues outside of your comfortable frame of what you believe and understand means you lose the comfort and security of having a tribe that agrees with you, or an identification with it.

Being a spectator has this epistemic aspect, I find it also has an aspect of magnanimity in terms of moral character. There are many positives to being a witness rather than an actor. Over the years when I have been present at my brother’s live performances he has always appreciated this gesture of support. Attending parties with friends even when one has not much to say can make me feel awkward but I have been told that just being there among familiars has allowed for an enhanced experience.

Lately I’ve been involved with a local community group. I seem to be getting more involved than I expected to be. I feel like I am going against my credo of being a spectator. I’ve also been preparing for the past couple of months a programme of pieces to perform (as a solo pianist) at my cousin’s wedding. I will be taking on that mantle of performer and actor again in a most literal way.

In preparing my piano repetoire, I express a personality through my pieces. I like Scott Joplin ragtimes, I have a love for the early 20thC and the history and culture of the period, I suppose I feel a very strong affinity in that my piano teacher was born in the 1910s and saw so many grand world events through the streets of South London and during the war, in the Shetland Isles. I have an appreciation for the Romantic period which is a very big indulgence for me. I have written in my philosopher guise that I hate romanticism and that sentimentality and other such schmaltzy and cheesy things are morally bad, but my pianistic tendencies are towards the Rachmaninov, Chopin and Brahms way of things.

In rediscovering my piano repetoire I feel like there is a ‘factory setting’ version of me. I’m a massive Romantic afficionado, I love chords thick, rich, discordant and technical challenging fingerings are a form of vivid self expression. I have a sense of humour in my music performance that I try to communicate in a relevant way to the audience. I have lots of favourite songs kept far away, I tend not to listen to my favourite songs because if I listen to it a lot I will end up getting tired of it, but rediscovering it makes me fall in love with it all the time. A hallmark of a song that I truly love immerses me in a period of time in the past and I get to experience so much of those memories. I remember when I lived in Clifton, Bristol and there was an overcharged corner shop near the union but nothing else would be open on a sunday that was nearby so I bought some 2 week old cakes, or going out to the suspension bridge in my oversized jacket. I remember these things through this song. I return to an emotional atarvarism and with some songs I add to it.

Its a common saying not to dwell too much on the past as to forget the present. I do think this is true, and I have a habit of being too atarvaristic about things like favourite songs or piano repetoire, and they represent for me the times when I was not a spectator but an actor. For this reason I find it a form of liberation not to be defined by those things all the time. I am walking a symbolic crossroads again, like I did when I was along the Clifton Suspension Bridge. On the one hand I could spectate and be free of my individuality and tendencies over the cityscape full of indistinct others. Or I could be in the other side of that bridge in the Avon wilderness, returning to my nature.

I would like to walk a path between those things. I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do these days. I used to be too much of a do-er to the effect of not listening to other people or not taking up feedback, these days I’m a little bit too much of a spectator, who needs to call bullshit when its needed, make a funny joke, or perform that cadenza in a parodical chopin style. Recent events have given me an oppurtunity to be a bit of both. I do enjoy the alienation of being a spectator, the alienation of things not having to be about what I’m thinking or observing all the time, but someone else’s narrative. I think that’s what it means to have shared life experiences. Being silent and observing is one of my learned dispositions.  I find it a calming form of distance from oneself.

On the other hand, when I perform at my cousin’s wedding. I will enjoy being back in front of a grand piano as a soloist, I’m going make a rendition of Barry Manilow’s ‘Could it be magic’ that involves TWO Chopin c-minor preludes, a Bach piece or two, my old Brahms number with stanzas of ragtime pieces as page turning interludes between them. I think I might try doing some blues improvisation too. A mix of humour and audacity, with a staunch respect and commitment to classicism and romanticism in music because that’s the person I am.


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