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Daniel Sportiello | Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Though my parents raised me in the orthodox way, I never found it easy to understand the Roman Catholic devotion to saints. It was not that I did not see them as moral exemplars: for the lives of integrity and compassion that they led I had an honest respect. But the veneration that many showed them went a good deal beyond this: Saints, for them, were objects not just of admiration but of devotion, a devotion that seemed often to border on the obsessive. Saints were great men and women, no doubt, but they were nonetheless men and women: Why were they accorded a place in our lives that was supposed to be reserved for the transcendent?

I achieved an insight into the answer to this question when I began to consider more seriously my attitude toward classic rock. In raising me in the orthodox way, my parents taught me their appreciation for the popular music of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – and, whether through the poverty of contemporary culture or through some freak failure of teenage rebellion, I came to listen to the same music as they did. But it was not long before my love for their music outstripped anything that they had taught me: it was not long before my love for classic rock became a veneration, a devotion that bordered on the obsessive.

But it was only recently that I began to realize how strange this attitude is – and how much it is, in certain respects, like the veneration toward saints that had always baffled me. At least part of my attitude, I suppose, derives from an enthusiasm for these artists as, well, moral exemplars – for their belief that they, or at any rate rock and roll, could change the world. And while the changes for which they struggled often bordered on the absurd, the integrity and compassion that they often showed in so struggling is inspiring indeed.

But there is more to my devotion than that, far more: These artists were not only moral exemplars but also visionaries, geniuses who struggled to express, in their music, that which cannot be expressed in the words of ordinary men. Like saints, they caught a glimpse of a transcendent reality beyond our own. And like saints, they tried with desperation to show the rest of us just how much we are missing.

Wittgenstein held that whatever can be said at all can be said clearly – and that which cannot be said must be passed over in silence. No doubt – and yet both saints and artists spend so much of their lives attempting to speak the unspeakable, to grasp that which lies forever beyond us, indeed beyond space and time and the very categories of our cognition. Do they grasp at mere phantasms? Or does the abyss, when they stare with Nietzsche into it, stare back?

The whole of classic rock, I think, is a tribute to what lies beyond the bounds of language. It stands as memorial to the knowledge of beasts foregone – to knowledge of things without concepts, to knowledge of things in their full particularity. It is a tribute to the time, if ever there were such a time, before we were caught with Mitchell in the devil’s bargain, burdened with the awful knowledge of good and evil. It is a tribute to the time when we could still find it within ourselves to stop doing philosophy and simply be.

Quine held that to be is to be the value of a bound variable. No doubt – but the irony is that we will ever strain against these bonds, strain against the cold chains of logic, even though we forged them ourselves. For we are no more content with the knowledge of men than we were with the knowledge of beasts. Man is a rope, Nietzsche held, a rope between beast and overman – and what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end. If this is so – if the knowledge of men, the knowledge of good and evil, is but a means to our final end – then classic rock is a tribute not just to what has come before but also to what will come after.

Those worthy of love, Nietzsche held, are those who cross over. I hope with all of my heart that, somehow, we may live to see that day – the day when we transcend the knowledge of men, when we pass beyond concepts and the chains of logic fall away. May we come at last, like the saints and artists before us, face to face with the transcendent. May love, as Townsend prayed, reign over all of us before the end.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his

second year of the Ph.D. program in philosophy. Listen to his radio show every Sunday at 3 p.m. He can be

contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.