Why does life mean anything? Our lives have meaning because we experience them – we are aware, each of us. That is where morality, ethics and all our values begin. Our ideas about right and wrong, good and evil, what we want and what we do not want, all begin with valuers – with us.
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
[Robert Frost, “The Pasture” (1915).]
A popular wedding song asks a brilliant and essential question: “If loving is the answer, then who’s the giving for?” The best answer is that it is for each and all of us. Where, then, does that begin? Obviously, it begins within. Now, what does that mean? I will start at what we could call the beginning.
We rise to greet the day. We breathe the air and feel our bodies returning to wakefulness. We take in the sights, sounds and smells of our day: the sunshine, snow or rain, the quiet or clamor of our surroundings, the fresh or musty smells of our place of awakening, perhaps coffee or oatmeal. We begin again in these moments of awakening to live our relationships with others and with the world around us. We begin our day’s work and play, contemplation and activity, giving and taking. We will eat, breathe, work, rest, imagine, hope and dream in this day.
What is the value of a life? It is all these experiences and more. It is our self-awareness, and our awareness of the world around us, through our sensations, thoughts, emotions and actions. It is happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain, contentment and want, longing and fulfillment, health and illness, the knowledge of life and death. It is loving, giving and sharing with others. It is the experience of living, in which, without exception, we must abide to Know what matters.
You are reading the first page of the body of a compendium about ethical and spiritual living. It contains many words and ideas, asks many questions and suggests some answers. These are valuable tools but language is only a medium. Albert Einstein, who was speech delayed as a toddler, understood this well. As an adult, he observed that this delay helped him become a better scientist because it allowed him to experience the world on its own terms without having to fit it into the arbitrary categories imposed by language. This is true for everything in life. Words convey thoughts, feelings, emotions, injunctions and the like, but their nature flattens everything they touch.
Do not be confused. The Truth resides not in mere words but in the experience we call life. The capitalized word “Truth” refers to the inner Truth of Being, as opposed to objective, material, scientific or historical truth, which I do not capitalize. Truth speaks to sacred life in Being, as opposed to truth, which speaks to the mundane.
You Know this Truth and have always Known it but sometimes we forget. A book can help you understand it better, but your Knowing does not come from reading a book. No one can know the value or meaning of life merely from reading. Life contains its own wordless questions and answers. Walt Whitman put it like this:
Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.
(Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so,
Only what nobody denies is so.)
[Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book III, #30.]
On this site I will provide a poor summary of the human narrative. Mainly I will rely on the works of others, because the human narrative is so vast that I can only scratch the surface of its telling, even in my selection of stories to tell and reference. It is a vast narrative, which includes our science, our art, our literature and our lives. I will attempt to tell it in a way that best suits each subject, recognizing that merely telling is not living. Read, then, but read mindfully. Never forget who is reading.
What is the value of a life? The life undisturbed by words does not ask such questions. It Knows the answers. It has always Known them, and it always will, even if the living one does not know how to ask the questions.
There is no moral judging in this conception of human worth. I will not presume to define what “being human” means. There is no need. You already know. The point is simply that the life experience is what we value. A look at the music, art and poetry I have selected for this day should give you the idea. Honor, then, and cherish the life experience in others and in yourself. This is our story.
Technical and Analytical Readings
The foundations of our humanity are encoded in our genes. All the instructions for our thought, emotion, action and sensation are contained there. Our genetic code is not the story of our experience, but it is the story of its foundations. An excellent source of literature is Human Genome Project - A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide to Internet References by Health Publica Icon Health Publications (ICON Health Publications, 2004). Online resources include the Human Genome Project home and project, its National Institutes of Health site and a genome map.
Before the human genome project was begun, several researchers were at work tracing the geographical path of intra-human genetic evolution. A massive tome by L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi and Alberto Pizza entitled The History and Geography of Human Genes (Princeton University Press, 1994) tells the story and relates the findings of this work, which traces our genetic path from our origins in Africa into Europe, across Asia and into the Pacific, across the Bering Strait into North America, and then into South America. This genetic pathway further confirms the reality of our evolutionary history.
Still, what makes us uniquely human? No doubt our large brain does, with our highly developed cerebral cortex. Once we understand the genetic history of our species, and have the technological means to track brain activity and correlate it to experience, we can begin to understand the biological origins of ethics, morality, religion and spirituality. In this sense, these disciplines are just beginning to uncover who we are. Less than a generation old, this is an emerging topic in the cognitive neurosciences. The following works are among the most accessible. Strictly speaking, they are not narratives but I know of no better way to tell the story of what makes us human, or provide insight into the nascient field that will provide us with new ways of looking at ourselves.
- V.S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).
- Walter Glannon, ed., Defining Right and Wrong in Brain Science: Essential Readings in Neuroethics (Dana Press, 2007).
- Walter Glannon, Bioethics and the Brain (Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald, Pictures of the Mind: What the New Neuroscience Tells Us About Who We Are (FT Press, 2010).
- Kevin S. Seybold, Explorations in Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion (Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007).
- Neil Levy, Neuroethics: Challenges for the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
- Judy Illes, Neuroethics: Defining the Issues in Theory, Practice, and Policy (Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Philip Lieberman, Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought and Selfless Behavior (Harvard University Press, 1991).
- Chip Walter, Thumbs, Toes and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human (Walker & Company, 2006).
- Andrew Brook and Kathleen Akins, eds., Cognition and the Brain: The Philosophy and Neuroscience Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
- Peter Carruthers, The Architecture of the Mind (Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Peter Carruthers, The Nature of the Mind: An Introduction (Routledge, 2003).
- Peter Carruthers, Phenomenal Consciousness: A naturalistic theory (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
- Peter Carruthers, Consciousness: Essays from a Higher-Order Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Simeon Locke, Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, and the Science of Being Human (Praeger, 2007).
- William G. Lycan, Consciousness and Experience (The MIT Press, 1996).
- Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (Basic Books, 1981).
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Understanding Our Mind (Parallax Press, 2006).
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment (Parallax Press, 2007).
Our eyes opened to ourselves tens of thousands of years ago when humans first became self-aware. Now, our eyes are opening more widely, as we begin to gain a fuller awareness of what being human means.
An ant is an action machine. It has a tiny evolutionary precursor to a brain, no sense of self, no apparent emotional life, and no capacity for what we call thought. It is genetically programmed to perform its tasks, reproduce and die.
A lobster will react to painful stimuli, but whether it experiences sensation as we do is a matter of contention. It has no sense of self, no emotional life that we know of, and no known capacity for thought.
Farther along the evolutionary chain, a mouse experiences pain and pleasure. Its emotional life is comparatively simple, and it has only a rudimentary capacity for thought. By contrast, elephants appear to mourn the death of herd and family members, and can be trained to perform tasks that require skills far beyond those of a mouse.
The human being is a remarkable creature. In fact, it is probably the only creature capable of assessing itself to be remarkable. (Cats only seem arrogant.) We have a wealth of technical literature on human being.
The cognitive neurosciences are among the most promising and rapidly expanding fields in science. The psychology of a century ago was largely a collection of observations and essays. Today, scientific research in cellular and molecular biology, brain imaging and other fields has moved the disciplines of human understanding into the realm of hard science. The Society for Neuroscience, which has approximately 36,000 members worldwide, is approximately forty years old. For the first time, we are uncovering the biochemical foundations of thought and behavior at a rapid pace. This will make possible new treatments for diseases and disorders of the brain and mind.
Perhaps the most comprehensive single treatise in this field is Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Cognitive Neurosciences: The Biology of the Mind (The MIT Press, 2009). The text cites numerous references in the field, and many more have emerged since the publication date. (See, for example, The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, The European Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Consciousness Studies and Consciousness and Cognition.) A few of us will spend a lifetime in this important discipline. For the rest of us, the story of how we came to understand ourselves will become an increasingly important part of our human narrative. Below are some of the leading books in the field:
- Terry E. Goldberg and Daniel R. Weinberger, eds., The Genetics of Cognitive Neuroscience (The MIT Press, 2009).
- John H. Byrne and James L. Roberts, eds., From Molecules to Networks: An Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience (Academic Press, 2009).
- Olaf Sporns, Networks of the Brain (The MIT Press, 2010).
- Roberto Cabeza and Alan Kingstone, eds., Handbook of Functional Neuroimaging of Cognition (The MIT Press, 2006).
- György Buszáki, Rhythms of the Brain (Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Dan H. Sanes, Thomas A. Reh and William A Harris, Development of the Nervous System (Academic Press, 2005).
- Gerald M. Edelman and Guilio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (Basic Books, 2000).
- Gerald M. Edelman, Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (Yale University Press, 2004).
- Michael Tye, Ten Problems of Consciousness: A Representational Theory of the Phenomenal Mind (The MIT Press, 1995).
- Rocco J. Gennaro, eds., Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness: An Anthology (John Benjamins Publishing Co., 2004).
- Uriah Kriegel and Kenneth Williford, eds., Self-Representational Approaches to Consciousness (The MIT Press, 2006).
- Christopher S. Hill, Consciousness (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
- Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Little, Brown & Co., 1991).
- Daniel C. Dennett, Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness (Basic Books, 1997).
- Chrisof Koch, The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (Roberts & Company Publishers, 2004).
- Zoltan Torey, The Crucible of Consciousness: An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain (MIT Press, 2009).
- Michael Tye, Consciousness, Color, and Content (MIT Press, 2000).
- Michael Tye, Consciousness Revisited: Materialism Without Phenomenal Concepts (MIT Press, 2009).
- Max Velmans, Understanding Consciousness (Routledge, 2nd Edition, 2009).
- Francis Crick, Of Molecules and Men(University of Washington Press, 1966).
- Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (Scribner Book Company, 1994).
- Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness (Oxford University Press, 1994).
- Nicholas Humphrey, Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness (Princeton University Press, 2011).
- Eric Schwitzgebel, Perplexities of Consciousness (MIT Press, 2011): “The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, in ‘Perplexities of Consciousness,’ contends that our minds, rather than being open-access, are largely hidden territory.”
- Adrian Owen, Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death (Scribner, 2017): “But when Jeff was put into a scanner — an fMRI machine (for functional magnetic resonance imaging) — and shown a short Alfred Hitchcock film, ‘Bang! You’re Dead, parts of his brain lit up. ‘In response to sounds, Jeff’s auditory cortex sprung to life,’ Owen recounts. ‘When the camera angle changed or the young boy ran across the screen, Jeff’s visual cortex activated.’”
Human worth as the inter-subjective underpinning of ethics:
- Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life (Doubleday, 2022): “. . . all four women believed that morality had some kind of reality outside of individual feelings and choices and that this reality existed somewhere beyond, behind or beneath the observable facts of the physical universe. This conviction put them at odds with the prevailing trend of philosophy at Oxford, a trend pioneered by A. J. Ayer, a logical positivist who insisted that statements that cannot be verified by logic or measurement are statements of value and therefore essentially meaningless — or 'nonsense!' . . .”
Our narrative begins with the Big Bang and the ten billion years before life emerged on Earth.
- Simon Singh, Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (Harper, 2005).
- Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (New Press, 2007).
- Eric J. Chaisson, Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos (Columbia University Press, 2005).
- Armand H. Delsemme, Our Cosmic Origins: From the Big Bang to the Emergence of Life and Intelligence (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Slices of life, as it is:
- Douglas Rogers, The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe (Harmony, 2009): a travel writer’s account of ordinary life under a dictatorship
- Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020 (Scribner, 2021): a gallery of souls
This entire work is about humanity. Virtually every narrative here is a narrative about humanity. No narrative can encompass our entire story but among the best efforts are those of Will and Ariel Durant in their superb eleven-volume Story of Civilization (1935-75), and H. G. Wells in his Outline of History (1920). These works tell our historical story in broad strokes.
- Edward L. Ayers, The Thin Light of Freedom: Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (W.W. Norton, 2018) “ . . . we are introduced to remarkably common emotions felt by the people of blue and gray states . . . . ground-level history, recounting the lives of ordinary men and women.”
On the basics of consciousness:
- Michio Kaku, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind (Doubleday, 2014): “Kaku claims the mysteries of the mind will soon be mysteries no more. It’s an audacious assertion backed up, he says, by a flood of new neuroscience technologies.
Documentary and Educational Films
Robert Frost's poem, "The Pasture Spring," so perfectly captures the spirit of Being that I chose to begin the day, the year and our journey with it. Here are some other poems, also brilliant and marvelous, that address Being.
- A longer, deeper breath sustains / The eloquence of right, since knowing / And being are one: the right to know / And the right to be are one. We come / To knowledge when we come to life. [Wallace Stevens, from "The Sail of Ulysses".]
- The pride of the peacock is the glory of God. / The lust of the goat is the bounty of God. / The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God. / The nakedness of woman is the work of God. [William Blake, "Proverbs of Hell".]
- I exist as I am, that is enough, / If no other in the world be aware I sit content, / And if each and all be aware I sit content. [Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book III, # 20.]
- Robert Frost, “The Secret Sits”
- Pablo Neruda, “Bird”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Elijah Browning”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Indignation Jones”
- Wallace Stevens, “Six Significant Landscapes”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “The Hill”
- Robert Frost, “A Cliff Dwelling”
- William Wordsworth, “Prelude” to the volume entitled “Poems Chiefly of Early and Late Years”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Davis Matlock”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Spoon River Anthology: Epilogue”
- Walt Whitman, “A Clear Midnight”
- Walt Whitman, “We Two, How Long We Were Fooled”
Books of poems:
- Wanda Coleman, Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems (Black Sparrow, 2020): “These poems are wildly fun and inventive, in the manner of Lewis Carroll or César Vallejo, and frequently hilarious; they seem to cover every human experience and emotion (often anger or just annoyance), as well as states that blur the line between experience and emotion, like pregnancy (‘i’m 99% body’), horniness, the freedom of driving a car, perseverance . . .”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- John Lennon's “Imagine” expresses an ideal vision of human life, reduced to its essence.
- Nawang Khechog, “Finding It Within”
- Michelangelo Buonarroti's "The Creation of Adam" (c. 1510) captures the symbolic essence of humanity's emergence in a painting, in which we see an image of the Judeo-Christian God touching its first man, index finger to index finger in the primordial touch of life. The man is fully formed and apparently aware, thereby representing a human being, as opposed to an organism in any other species. He is also naked, symbolizing that the touch of human-ness is for him the beginning, the most direct communication with human origins. Paradoxically, the painting thus invokes not merely the touch of life, but also the touch of the forbidden fruits of knowledge and self-awareness. Much of our great art comes out of a monotheistic tradition, which should be no surprise considering that most of our great artists grew up and lived amid such traditions. I am inclined to see the gods of monotheism as our self-image writ large on the universe. Perhaps nothing expresses this better than Michelangelo's famous fresco, which still adorns the ceiling in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.See:
- Andrew Graham-Dixon, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008).
- Benjamin Bloch and Roy Doliner, The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican (HarperOne, 2008).
- Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (Penguin, 2003).
- Bart McDowell, Inside the Vatican (National Geographic, 2005).
- Kasemir Malevich, Morning in the Village After Snowstorm (1912)
- Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning (1950)
- René Magritte, Portrait (1935)
- Edvard Munch, Morning (1884)
- Camille Corot, Morning by the Water (1870)
- Karl Bryullov, Italian Morning (1823)
- Antoine Pesne, Portrait of a Man ()
- Adriaen van Ostade, An Old Woman By Window (ca. 1640)
- Adriaen van Ostade, A Man in the Window
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1812) (approx. 39-44'), sounds like a dance of life and a Humanist Creation story. “Among the most high-spirited of Beethoven’s works, the symphony is particularly notable for the prominent role that rhythm plays throughout: characteristic rhythmic motifs pervade each movement.” Of this symphony Richard Wagner wrote: “All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone.” It expresses the dance of life. Like life, “music is wonderful when music just is.” Here are links to great performances conducted by Toscanini in 1936, Davis in 1961, Karajan in 1962, Carlos Kleiber in 1974 ***, Bernstein in 1990, Gardiner in 1994, Abbado in 1999, Vänskä in 2008, Harnoncourt in 2008, Chailly in 2012, Honeck in 2014 and Savall in 2021.
- 1. Poco sostenuto – Vivace opens like a ray of sunshine, and soon the flowers and trees adorn the Earth. But something more is about to happen. Consciousness emerges and the dance of sentient life begins. This is playful, joyful and triumphant music. There is virtually no doubt or anxiety anywhere, only an occasional pause to rest (8:36). The remainder of the first movement celebrates these ideas.
- 2. Allegretto. The second movement opens in the lower strings with what sounds like a funeral march. The somber tone continues in the cellos, still funereally but a bit faster. the brass join this somber chorus but then the clarinets seem to ask whether so much gloom is necessary, to which the strings reply that perhaps it is not. The funeral theme remains but now the violins are playing beneath it. Somber as it may be, this is the dance of life, in which every voice joins and it's not so bad after all. We will not live it quietly.
- 3. Presto Assai, meno presto.The third movement is a playful romp. Beethoven pauses only to remind us how wonderful life is but soon he is stating the point emphatically, and then returns us to the romp. Little more need be said about this happy music: like life, it is here to enjoy. “Other symphonies exist as works of art. The Seventh simply is.” [Source unknown.]
- 4. Allegro con brio. And if you thought that was somethin', the fourth movement scarcely has time for a breath. This final movement, following on the previous one, is as though Beethoven has served us two chocolate desserts. He seems to tell us that life is a world of possibilities. I can think of no better music for the first day of a year, a day on which we traditionally remind ourselves of the course we wish to take in the year that has newly arrived.
Gustav Mahler, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) (1905) (approx. 47-51’), is a collection of songs drawn from old German folk poems, presenting slices of life. “When someone shares with you an affinity for Gustav Mahler's music, it's never halfhearted. No one just ‘likes’ Mahler. His music really means something to people.” “Mahler himself reckoned he had written ‘ten new songs’, for he always felt that the piano versions and their orchestration were separate compositional processes. He described them as ‘humoresques for voice, with orchestral accompaniment’, a term intended to cover such disparate works as the two soldiers’ songs, Der Schildwache Nachtlied and Trost im Unglück, two other songs that fall under the heading of dance songs or satirical songs, Verlorne Müh’! and Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?!, and the subtle allegory, Das himmlische Leben.” Baker & Evans in 1966, Schwarzkopf & Fischer-Dieskau in 1968, Ludwig & Berry in 1969, von Otter & Quasthoff in 1999, Connolly & Henschel in 2005, and Kozená & Gerhaher in 2010 gave top performances.
Samuel Barber’s songs are evocations of being human. Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24 (1947) (approx. 14-16’), is an extended song about an ordinary evening. In 1915, “a 5-year-old boy spread a quilt and lay with his parents on the grass of the backyard of their house in Knoxville, Tenn. On this summer night, he listened to the music of the evening — the murmur of neighbors talking on porches, the clop-clop of horses on the street, the hissing of hoses watering lawns, the rasping of locusts and crickets, and the flopping of a few frogs in the dewy grass. He watched the last fireflies flicker out and wondered who he was.” The “first words of James Agee’s prose poem ‘Knoxville: Summer of 1915,’ introduce the reader to a world of his youth – rural Tennessee in the early part of the century” Agee later described the poem as “a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder, and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.” “It is that magical time just after dinner, when all the children have been released to enjoy the day’s last light, amid the locusts, fireflies, and frogs, and the men emerge to water their lawns, the women rocking quietly on their front porches.” Barber’s other songs are brief, and have inspired an album by Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson, “The Songs”. Top performances of “Knoxville” are by Eleanor Steber in 1950, Dawn Upshaw in 1989 ***, Sylvia McNair in 1991, Kathleen Battle in 1994, Barbara Hendricks in 1995, and Renée Fleming in 2016.
Indian classical ragas are sparsely documented, at least in the West. Usually, they express a mood or feeling. Many of them have a backstory, usually mythical. Ragas have no set or approximate playing time: performance time depends on how fully the musicians develop the raga. Raga Yaman is a slice-of-life raga, apropos of the subject of human worth. Raga Yaman “(also known as Alyaan, Iman, Aiman, Eman, Kalyani in Carnatic classical music) is a heptatonic (Sampurna) Indian classical raga of Kalyan Thaat. Yaman emerged from the parent musical scale of Kalyan. Considered to be one of the most fundamental and basic ragas in Hindustani tradition, it is thus often one of the first ragas taught to students. . . . This raga is rendered at the time when lights are put on.” “This popular composition in Raag Yaman is a drut khayal. In it, the singer celebrates the joy she finds in her lover's gaze - magical and filled with love. It has stolen her heart and her peace of mind as well.” Linked performances are by Bimsen Joshi in 1965, Vilayat Khan in 1968, Imrat Khan in 1974, Bimsen Joshi in 1981, Rashid Khan in 1988, L. Subramaniam & Bismillah Khan in 1988 (Part 1, Part 2), Zia Mohiuddin Dagar in 1990, V.G. Jog & L. Subramaniam in 1992, Rashid Khan in 1994, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt in 2000, Homayun Sakhi in 2006, Shahid Parvez in 2012, Rashid Khan in 2017, Sultan Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Amir Khan, and Gangubai Hangal.
Ernest John Moeran’s folksongs offer bites of life (66’ on Adrian Thompson’s album):
- Six Folksongs from Norfolk (1924) - lyrics
- Six Suffolk Folksongs (1932) - lyrics
- Songs from County Kerry (1950) - lyrics
- Miscellaneous folksongs
- Hans Werner Henze, Undine (1957) (approx. 100-105’): In this modern ballet, a mermaid wishes to become human. The story line is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid.”
- Bruce Wolosoff, Songs Without Words, 18 Divertimenti for String Quartet (2008) (approx. 56’), evoking life itself
- Gustav Holst, Invocation No. 2 for Cello & Orchestra, Op. 19, H. 75 (1911) (approx. 10’) this brief work conveys images replete with sound, color and feeling, underlain by the solo cello.
- Enrique Granados, piano pieces (Becerra’s album consumes 61’)
- Alfred Hill, “Life” Quintet in E-flat Major for piano and strings, with eight voices in the finale (1912) (approx. 39’)
- Kurt Magnus Atterberg, Symphony No. 9 in B Minor, “Sinfonia visionara”, for soloists (mezzo-soprano & baritone), chorus & orchestra, Op. 54 (1956) (approx. 40’), is about roots and struggles. “Atterberg set sections of the Icelandic Poetic Edda, emphasizing those parts relating to Ragnarök, the Scandinavian pagan story of the end of the world.”
- Arnold Bax, The Bard of the Dimbovitza (Strettel and Sylva), for mezzo-soprano (1914, rev. 1946) (approx. 37’) – drawn from peasant life in Roumania
- Richard Wilson, The Ballad of Longwood Glen (1975) (approx. 15’), “is a setting” of Vladimir Nabokov’s narrative poem of the same title (1957), about a fanciful day in the countryside.
- Hans Gefors, Lydia’s sånger (Lydia’s Songs) (1996) (approx. 33-35’)
- Henrik Skram, Emerge (2018) (approx. 16’). The composer explains: “I have this idea that gravity and tonality are relatable states; that musical objects too will fall into their ‘natural’ place when set in motion. I imagine a space with slow gravity, and in this space there are massive objects, slowly pushed and pulled, naturally falling into different arrangements.”
- Similarly in the moment as Beethoven’s Seventh is a jazz album by Stephen Crump’s Rosetta Trio, entitled “Thwirl” (2012) (51’). “Comprised of two guitarists-one electric and one acoustic-plus Crump's own resonant acoustic bass, the Rosetta Trio straddles the worlds of jazz, avant garde, and modern folk music with consummate ease and some seriously deep virtuosity.”
- Tyshawn Sorey, That/Not triple album (2007) (189’). Sorey explains: “My objective with this music is to question who and why we are, to question the very nature of what it means to perceive something. The music here is our life and soul expressed in sound.”
- Miles Davis, “Dingo” (1990) (50’): the album is the soundtrack for a film about a jazz artist who travels to Australia, and plays his music to the amazement of the locals.
- William Goldstein, “A Life in 3 Notes” (2017) (80’): Goldstein created this poignant album by composing works from their notes, at the suggestion of people he knew.
- Anoushka Shankar, “Ajivatrik” (2021) (53’): Ravi Shankar’s daughter performs music composed by her father for Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, which follows a young boy into adulthood.
From the dark side:
- George Benjamin, Written on Skin (2012) (approx. 205’): the title of this opera is taken from the ancient practice of writing manuscripts on animal skins. It is a story of how a boy’s “Protector” and his wife both use the boy for their own ends. They did not honor, or even respect his intrinsic worth. “Adapted from a 13th-century troubadour’s tale, the story the angels tell centers on a wealthy landowner, the Protector, and his obedient younger wife, Agnès, whom he describes as his ‘property.’ The Protector wants his prosperous family saga documented in a book with colorful illuminations. So he hires a young man, the Boy, skilled in script and drawing, to write it.”
- Dominick Argento, From the Diary of Virginia Wolf Wolf (1974) (approx. 31-36’), is a song cycle (lyrics here) about the difficult life of a brilliant but troubled woman. She struggled to honor her own worth, and eventually committed suicide.
A river rises in Eden to water the garden; beyond there it divides and becomes four branches. [The Bible, Genesis 2:10.]
Thought, emotion, action and sensation are the four branches of the river of life. Perhaps the main reason the Judeo-Christian Bible is the most popular and enduring work in history is that it appeals to people intuitively, expressing Truth in some form, though not as a biblical fundamentalist might think. Below are some fictional narratives illustrating human worth, and humanity.
- David Rakoff, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (Doubleday, 2013): a novel-in-verse, about life
- Tessa Hadley, The London Train (Harper Perennial Press, 2011): an examination of two inner worlds, with an adulterous theme.
- Kimberly Elkins, What Is Visible: A Novel (Twelve, 2014): “ . . . contemplates the bare requisites of being human, more fundamentally than most meditations on haves and have-nots. When Laura is put on display, she wants to be seen as ‘a present to them all from God, to show how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.’ A novel’s extraordinary power is to allow a reader to take possession of the inner life of another.”
- Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016): “The book tells the story of two half sisters unknown to each other and of the six generations that follow, their lineages broken by enslavement and cursed by premonitions that condemned those who were captured, those who were spared and those who sold hostages to the Europeans.”
- W.M. Akers, Westside: A Novel (Harper Voyager, 2019): “ . . . a novel steeped in existentialism while delivering gun molls, drunken wastrels and purebred thugs.”
- Lucy Ellman, Ducks, Newburyport (Biblioasis, 2019): “This book has its face pressed up against the pane of the present; its form mimics the way our minds move now: toggling between tabs, between the needs of small children and aging parents, between news of ecological collapse and school shootings while somehow remembering to pay taxes and fold the laundry.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard has written “a six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel”.
- My Struggle, Book 1 (Archipelago Books, 2012).
- My Struggle, Book 2: A Man in Love (Archipelago Books, 2013).
- My Struggle, Book 3: Boyhood Island (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015).
- My Struggle, Book 4 (Archipelago Books, 2015).
- My Struggle, Book 5: Some Rain Must Fall (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017).
- My Struggle, Book 6 (Archipelago Books, 2018).
Film and Stage
- Terms of Endearment, a quintessential slice-of-life film illustrating that life “always has an unhappy ending, but you can have a lot of fun along the way, and everything doesn’t have to be dripping in deep significance”
- Ex Machina, a science-fiction film about what makes us human, and what we humans are like
- A Taste of Honey: a slice-of-life film that “is less of a formalized narrative than it is a restrained, circuitous manner of presenting moods and moments of living”
- Waking Life: “a bouquet of theories about human consciousness -- some intellectually rigorous, others ludicrous crackpot riffs -- whose cumulative impact suggests a stoned-out Big Bang of human thought”; segments on life and Being, celebrating “a series of articulate, intelligent characters who seek out the meaning of their existence and do not have the answers”
- Sátántangó (Satan’s Tango), about life, intermittently beautiful and grotesque
- Never Cry Wolf
- AI, about the meaning of being human