Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Saturday, April 27, 2019


All my life I have been writing, talking, marching, donating for politics, but the truth is that I do not really enjoy it.  I am not a happy warrior, and these days, I am in a more or less constant state of agitation, anger, outrage, frustration, and disappointment.  All of this was brought home to me unexpectedly a day or so ago when I was driving home with Susie after running a series of errands.  I turned on the car radio, which is tuned to a local classical music station, just as the announcer introduced an early baroque concerto for lute and flute.  Quite unbidden, a feeling of peace descended on me as the music began, and for a few precious moments the agita that is my constant companion evaporated.

Afterward, I reflected that during my entire life, there have been two things, and only two, that can bless me with genuine inner peace.  The first is early music.  The second is laying out, in my mind, a complex, powerful, beautiful idea that I have managed to master until I can explain it so simply that my imaginary audience can see its power and beauty.  Often when I am walking in the morning I will imagine myself addressing a group of students or a university audience about Kant, or Marx, or Game Theory, setting forth an argument transparently and quietly.  I feel at peace.

I remember once seeing YoYo Ma at Tanglewood, playing a Bach Suite for unaccompanied cello.  His eyes were shut, and he was leaning back away from the instrument as though he was not so much playing it as listening to it, having long since mastered the technique of playing and settled on an interpretation of that immortal music.  I do not think I was wrong to think that he was at peace.


Dean said...

Just two days I, too, recognized the important contributions of music and poetry to my sanity and peace. Not being an accomplished musician, I have tastes running this way and that, but early music is certainly among the genres I have long admired. In high school and college I'd do homework to recordings of Josquin or Tallis. Two particular examples of recent acquisitions: The Binchois Consort's The Lily & the Rose, including performances of sacred vocal music by Cooke, Frye, Dunstaple, and others; and a box of 26 CDs, all devoted to recorder music by Van Eyck, Vivaldi, Sammartini, Mancini (not *that* one), and others. Both are simply radiant. The Binchois Consort is, in particular, peace-bringing, even to this non-religious soul. I imagine a mind like yours, having the bandwidth and patience to engage complexity to the point of pleasure, has greater access to the structure and texture of the music than my own, but I take your point wholeheartedly.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

They sound glorious. I shall look for The Lily and the Rose. Thank you.

Dean said...

You're welcome, of course. Yo-Yo Ma's latest (and final, so he claims) traversal of the 'cello suites is also a wonder. The Binchois Consort recording, and others by the ensemble, can be had here:

s. wallerstein said...

I don't enjoy politics either, although when I was younger, I did. I used to get off on my indignation, but indignation no longer thrills me.

I too listen to music, although I prefer Beethoven, especially the piano sonatas and the chamber music, to Bach and to the baroque in general.

And then there's silence. Silence is wonderful (I live in a noisy city). I imagine that during your early morning walks, you must experience the magic of silence yourself.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

The oldest musical instrument discovered is a bone flute from 35-40,000 BCE in a cave in Germany. Anthropologists who study this field speculate that it was likely the musicians who wandered deep into caves for the effects on sound - reverberation, echo etc. - that occurred in a confined space. the visual artists followed. I was fortunate to see YoYo Ma as well in a solo performance in a church in Oakland, CA. Despite being seated in the last row of the choir loft, the sound was full, clear, and absolutely engrossing.

Speaking for myself, the pleasure that comes from the effort and accomplishment learning Brubeck matches that of mastering cutting edge work in any other field of knowledge. I have become convinced that the learning music at an early age prepares the mind in obvious and subtle ways to master complex ideas and analysis. But nothing beats the pleasure of listening to, learning, playing and performing music. It doesn't matter if it's Bach, Brubeck, or B.B King.

These days I give thanks for the ability of music to totally take over my mind and completely drive out the insanity of the day.

Anonymous said...

To this day musicians wander into cavernous spaces to experiment with echo. Trombone player Stuart Dempster famously recorded works in a 2M gallon, 186' diameter cistern NW of Seattle. The ensemble included multiple trombones, conchs, and a didjeridu. It's pretty spectacular:

Dean said...

^'twas me @12:33 PM

Anonymous said...

Thatz nice for yooz guyz who have never known precarious jobs. (-:

Anonymous said...

To be fair, I should apologize for my lame comment above. I should know that once I see signs of literary-style endeavour that you are about to write something which will not seem to me to be aesthetically pleasing. So, I should, at that point, simply stop reading.
My fault.

However, it may be a disadvantage of scholarship that one is capable of appreciating poetry without being able to write it.

And it may also be that it is, as many have said, most difficult to speak about one's emotions. The bare repetition of the word 'peace' is problematic.

If it were easy to write about this stuff, well, it would be another world, wouldn't it?

But by comparison, I offer the following: I know of a psychologist who once wrote a nice book intermingling literary citation and analysis with psychological theory. He also tried his hand at writing novels, and actually won an award for one. I've only read one of his novels, but his prose has no music. And the novel I managed to read was burdened with sophomoric remarks about philosophy, and other embarrassingly naive elements. The personal elements were too crafty, too much as if pre-planned, while with the great writers, the personality occurs as if without choice. (Of course, Proust, who I was thinking of, wrote and re-wrote, but I speak of my experience now as a reader. His personality is so much omnipresent that by comparison the psychologist of whom I've been speaking seems to be hiding himself with revelations as much as revealing himself.) The
psychologist's scholarly writings, as pieces of writing, are, by comparison, of the highest level--in that genre. They are less dead and wooden than others.

It is, of course, merely a fact about me that I cannot enjoy music on account of my current situation. And that in no way should lead me to diminish any pleasure you've managed to snatch in your busy life.

Sonic said...

It's really great to hear about the happiness lecturing brings you, Professor Wolff. You are VERY good at it. I've hunted down as many lectures as I can find on Youtube, and I'd do almost anything to hear more. You take a long time to tell stories and explain things. It really helps a lot, and I don't know anyone who does it quite as well as you. I'd like to think that I try to do something similar with the things you've taught me, when I explain them again to my reactionary friends.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

To follow up on Sonic's comment:
I had the pleasure of being a T.A. one semester for Dr. Wolff's Intro to Political and Social Theory class. He asked me to lecture on Marx's understanding of human nature. Rather nervously, I thoroughly covered the topic, but I was apparently, make that actually, kind of, make that really, boring. Dr. Wolff told me afterwards to work some jokes/stories in that could first, illustrate the points made and second, give the students a chance to see the point reframed at the same time suppling a little relief from the seriousness and time to scribble a some notes.

The semester's highlight in this regard was Dr. Wolff's story of a primitive culture, famous in anthropological circles, known as "The Rabbit Society." The members of this society had a rabbit economy, sustaining themselves from hunting rabbits, eating rabbit meat, making needles from rabbit bones and clothes from the fur. Plus, they worshipped a 6' white wabbit named Harvey. I'm sure that when Harvey spoke to the rabbit society priests, he sounded much like James Stewart. In the course of the story, he introduced many basic concepts of social theory like division of labor (the bush beaters and the rabbit whompers), class structure (rabbit whompers appropriated more than their fair share of dead rabbits), and more.

Dr. Wolff, if that story is not included in the on-line lectures, it needs to be! The future of comedy in pedagogy depends on it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, I am not sure I have ever recorded that story for posterity, but perhaps I should, since it nicely illustrates the base superstructure division as well as the ideological rationalization of capitalism [and the true functon of philosophy :) ]

Brian M said...

The last paragraph here is beautiful. It reminds me of Yeats...

There on that scaffolding reclines

Michael Angelo.

With no more sound than the mice make

His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-leggedfly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.