Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/24/2011

J. S. Bach, Edward Said, Cats, and My Cultural Worldview

An Egyptian God

An Egyptian God

On his 329th birthday (March 21), I began writing a piece about Johann Sebastian Bach, but found no way (as we instruct our students) to limit the subject. How is it possible to limit an infinite subject? Instead I read a couple of articles about Bach (one by Edward Said, about whose musical criticism I serendipitously had a conversation with a friend last week) and went to bed. 

As I fell asleep last night, I was thinking about my cats (two of them frolicking on my bed), and I decided to write about them. This morning’s writing was going to begin, “Cats are preternaturally stupid but loveable creatures.” I looked up “preternatural” to be sure and discovered it means “outside of nature.” What I meant to say was, “Cats are naturally stupid but loveable creatures.” So I was stumped because the words singing themselves in my mind simply didn’t fit together. I had been researching cats and remembered an article from a database search that didn’t seem to mention cats although “cats” was one of my search terms. 

Determined to write about my cats, I searched that article first for “cat” (nothing) and then for “pet.” 

An even more effective approach is to convince individuals who are different to dispose of central aspects of their individualized version of the cultural worldview (depending on the individual, this might be religion, political party, taste in wine, music, spouse, car, pet, or favorite sports team) and adopt those of the majority (1). 

So my cats are a central aspect of my individualized version of the cultural worldview? I thought I simply liked to have them around, that they are good company, cuddly fur balls that make me feel good. I agree with researchers such as Froma Walsh who have found that “animal-human interactions reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness as they enhance social support and general well-being” (2). Mine fail to fulfill those roles only when they pee on the floor.My cultural worldview

I would have thought that the music of J. S. Bach might be considered part of my individualized version of [my] cultural worldview. Perhaps I have too grandiose an idea of my cultural worldview. But music and cats are compatible. I read once about the cats roaming backstage of the former Cairo Opera House because cats are so revered in Egypt (since the time of the Pharaohs) no one would shoo them away (3). And, of course, there is the musical Cats, which has played a part in my cultural development by confirming my elitism, that is, I can’t imagine sitting through two hours of the derivative and repetitive music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. 

So cats are not simply cuddly companions; they are, for me, important icons in my cultural worldview. They reached that status because, when I was in fifth grade, I brought home a kitten from school in my coat pocket and my parents (surprisingly) let me keep it. That cat became my solace during the worst two years (until I became a falling-down drunk) of my life. 

I have to remind myself, however, that naming my cats as cultural icons is more than a stretch. They do not maintain that status even among the small circle of my friends. That’s because in order to attain the status of cultural worldview, an idea must serve the function of “preserving psychological equanimity,” for the majority and that 

requires that the worldview be accepted by its adherents as absolutely and unequivocally true; and this most arduous task of converting “social fiction” into absolute “truth” is more easily accomplished when there is a broad social consensus in support of a specific worldview (4). 

My sitting on the back step as a fifth-grader and holding my cat close for solace and comfort hardly makes cats part of the cultural worldview. The cultural worldview requires “broad social consensus.” Egypt, apparently, has such a consensus (I understand the empire ruins of Rome are also overrun with cats no one wants to destroy), but America doesn’t. 

We all buy in to a cultural worldview from the time we’re even younger than fifth grade—and, for the most part, we hold that worldview all of our lives. For example, for most of us our worldview would include being “shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the bombing in Jerusalem today that took at least one life and injured innocent civilians” and agreeing that “terrorism and the targeting of civilians are never justified” (5). 

Our shock when confronted with the targeting of civilians arises from our 

. . . explicit and unsettling awareness that death is inevitable, compounded by the concurrent realization that one is perpetually vulnerable to permanent obliteration for reasons that can never be adequately anticipated or controlled (6). 

The problem is, of course, that we “. . . share the intense desire for continued existence with all living things but [are] smart enough to recognize the ultimate futility of this most basic biological imperative” (7). Terrorism and the targeting of civilians implicate us in the perpetual vulnerability to “permanent obliteration.” In our fear of obliteration (our wish to deny the reality of death), we cling to what we have learned will (perhaps) keep us safe. Even keep us from permanent obliteration. We rush to grasp for dear life the habits of thought, action, and belief that have kept us safe so far, that cultural worldview that keeps us “grounded.” We hope to avoid disaster and death 

. . . by connecting to familiar ideas or conceptual models of how the world is/should be, and who one is within it. Taking refuge in the habitual is a way of Longing for Ground within the emotional maelstrom of existential suffering by using cognitive means, seeing the world through familiar eyes and relating to it as if nothing has changed (8). 

We know how the “world is/should be.” We are “shocked and deeply saddened to learn of” a bombing that takes “one life and injure[s] innocent civilians.” Such an event shakes our cultural worldview. We are good Americans, good citizens of the world. 

Taking refuge in the “habitual way” of seeing the world, however, helps us in “converting ‘social fiction’ into absolute ‘truth’.” For example, “terrorism and the targeting of civilians are never justified.” Never, the Secretary of State said. 

March 21, 2011. HEBRON (Ma’an) —Two Palestinians were shot Monday afternoon when a settler disembarked from his car on the Jerusalem-Hebron road and opened fire on a funeral procession heading to the Beit Ummar cemetery (9). 

Edward Said, a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, a world-renowned scholar of comparative literature at Columbia University, president of the Modern Language Association—I’ve provided a hyperlink above—wrote music criticism, including of performances of organ music by J.S. Bach—certainly part of Said’s cultural worldview and mine (10). Of cultural worldviews he wrote: 

We need to step back from the imaginary thresholds that supposedly separate people from each other into supposedly clashing civilizations and reexamine the labels, reconsider the limited resources available, and decide somehow to share our fates with one another as in fact cultures mostly have done, despite the bellicose cries and creeds (11). 

Said and Barenboim - step back from the imaginary thresholds

Said and Barenboim - step back from the imaginary thresholds

Imaginary thresholds, it seems to me are worldviews “accepted by [their] adherents as absolutely and unequivocally true.” I’m looking for a worldview that “enhance[s] social support and general well-being.”
(1) Solomon, Sheldon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. “Tales from the crypt: On the role of death in life.” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 33.1 (1998): 9-43.
(2) Walsh, Froma. “Human-Animal Bonds I: The Relational Significance of Companion Animals.” Family Process 48.4 (2009): 462–480.
(3) Bauer, M. “The Cats of Cairo: Did Pharaonic Divinities Bring about the Demise of Egypt’s Premier Opera-House?” Opera News 53.16 (05/01/1989): 38.
(4) Solomon et al. Ibid.
(5) Office of the Spokesman. “Secretary Clinton on Bombing in Jerusalem.” U.S. Department of State. March 23, 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.
(6) Solomon et al. Ibid.
(7) Idem.
(8) Bruce, Anne, Rita Schreiber, Olga Petrovskaya, and Patricia Boston. “Longing for ground in a ground(less) world: a qualitative inquiry of existential suffering.” BMC Nursing 10:2 (2011).
(9) “Settler opens fire on funeral procession.” Ma’an News. March 21, 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2011.
(10) Said, Edward W. Bach for the Masses. Nation 267.7 (9/7/1998). (11) Said, Edward. From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.


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