Saturday, May 4, 2013

What then must we do?

My title is a quote from the movie The Year of Living Dangerously. It is spoken by the character Billy Kwan who is himself quoting Leo Tolstoy. The phrase is the title of a non-fiction book by Tolstoy on the social conditions in Russia. It also echoes a phrase from the Bible: Luke 3:10. I am reminded of this phrase after running across a fascinating video compilation from Russian in-car dash cameras. I can't seem to figure out how to embed the video, but click on the link below:

This is so different from the usual collection of barbaric behaviour on the road. People taking a moment for an act of kindness. Very heart-warming. It reminds me that when I was particularly involved in studying moral philosophy I promised myself that I would try to find something kind to do every day. Of course, as time went on, it slipped my mind completely! We spend a great deal of energy every day in hypocritically justifying doing what we want to do. It would not be so difficult to divert a tiny amount of that energy to an act of kindness.

Going back to the movie. It is a very interesting movie, as so many are by Australian director Peter Weir. It is morally interesting because it is morally complex. The character Billy Kwan, who quotes Tolstoy, is killed when he makes a very public protest of his moral outrage at the way Sukarno is treating the people of Indonesia (the film takes place in 1965). What happens to the leading character, Australian journalist Guy Hamilton, is more interesting. He tries to pursue a story and gets partially blinded for his efforts. His lover, British diplomat Jill Bryant, is flying out and invited him to accompany her. Finally, he decides to do so and rushes to the airport. The passport and customs delays threaten to make him miss the flight. He has a moment of revelation and simply walks away from the customs desk where they are meticulously searching his bulky tape recorder, symbol of his profession. He gets out on the tarmac and starts to run towards the plane just as they are wheeling away the portable staircase. Then the revelation kicks in again and he stops running and just keeps walking. They wheel the staircase back and he boards the plane.

What is this revelation? It obviously relates to the "message" of the film. There is only one bit of dialogue that is repeated in the whole film. This is, again, a quote from Billy Kwan, but this time from the Bhagavad Gita: "All is clouded by desire: as fire by smoke, as a mirror by dust." In Guy Hamilton's delirium when he is lying down, recovering from being beaten by an Indonesian soldier, he hears the quote again. It is this, I believe, that sparks his revelation. Sometimes wisdom requires that we simply walk away: from what we see as our professional duties and even from our deepest desires as both of these can, in certain circumstances, become traps. It is a subtle moral observation that sometimes doing what seems to be the most moral thing--protesting Sukarno--leads only to a pointless death. At other times laying aside our professional duties and detaching ourselves from emotional engagement may be the path of wisdom. It would have done no good for Guy Hamilton to have been trapped in Indonesia during the impending coup.

Now however am I going to connect this to music? I have a couple of compositions that have gotten bogged down lately. Most days I don't even get to them at all! So what I am going to promise myself is to find a few minutes to work on them every day. I notice from reading about writers that many of them work on a daily schedule; they spend so much time every day working on whatever the current project is. I still tend to approach composition as I have most of my life: I work when the inspiration hits, otherwise not. But working a bit everyday will undoubtedly have better results.

And while I'm at that, I really can't think of a reason NOT to try and take a moment for an act of kindness every day, if the opportunity arises. Can you?

Let's end with a piece of music. Here is a song I wrote a few years ago. I managed to write a large set of twelve songs, largely because I had weekly meetings with a singer in which we were able to try them out. Keeping at something you want to accomplish on a regular basis is usually pretty good advice.

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