Madness and Music


Once, when trying to pin down the difference between poets and logicians, a wise man by the name of G.K. Chesterton remarked that “the poet only asks to get his head into the heavens; it is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head.” Chesterton, who would probably have characterized himself among both groups with a little bit of a leaning toward the poets, qualified this distinction with a warning: “it is his [the logician’s] head that splits.”

Now, this statement is no insult to logicians, mathematicians, scientists, accountants, or any people or students of the sort. Rather, what Chesterton is setting up is a critique of those who are simply logicians, mathematicians, scientists, accountants, or students of the sort. He speaks here, not necessarily of logic or math, but of a certain kind of mindset that can be found within those fields. What he is saying is that when we stress too much on always having concrete, comprehensive answers in life, we will inevitably go mad. We cannot know everything, and, if we try, we deserve a medal and a straight-jacket to pin it on.

This warning particularly applies to universities and might be particularly apt as we approach mid-terms this semester. Whatever your major, to heap studying atop studying without end both adds stress and decreases aptitude. The word “study”, after all, comes from the Latin verb “studere,” which means “to direct one’s zeal towards”, or “to be eager for.” The word carries a connotation of pursuit which is not necessarily remembered in our contemporary sense. This older sense of the word reminds us of the level of exertion it can be, and of the tendency towards the demand for concrete, comprehensive answers it can bring with it.

Speaking from personal experience, the level of stress, both physical and mental, that school can levy can be difficult to deal with. It can be hard to be anything but a logician, even in creative writing class. It can be hard to be anything but a mathematician, even in music class. Spring semester of last year, for me, was one of the most stressful semesters I have ever had. I became so bogged down in theory, books, and essays that, one evening, I did something rash; something that actually helped me keep my sanity and finish the semester. I bought a tin whistle.

Tin whistles were just something I had caught glimpses of on the internet. They are durable, sweet-sounding fipple-flutes that are easier to play than a recorder, but are generally nicer. I had little experience with recorders back in middle school, and I wanted something I could play. Quality tin whistles are cheap—under $20 with shipping on most sites. When I got mine, I found that I could play most songs I knew by ear, and that the whistle sounded good as well. Moreover, there was a certain calming quality to learning how to play. One of the things I notice even now about playing it is that I cannot concentrate and play well at the same time. When I concentrate on what I am playing, I tend to overthink the whole thing and mess up. It’s the same thing with keeping time. I can’t concentrate on keeping time—I overthink it and then mess up. Playing the tin whistle is something that you just have to do—overthinking is not allowed.

In a way, this simple, indeterminate nature of the tin whistle is what saved my sanity. It was and still is a way for me to, instead of getting the heavens into my head, to get my head into the heavens. Music and instruments: they forever deny us mastery over them and, instead, present us with something that is incomplete, sometimes ugly, and yet still inviting. While I can claim to know a song or two on my whistle, I am still learning, and I still make mistakes. My playing is in-concrete, still un-comprehensive—the exact opposite of an exact science. But in this way, it is a lot more reflective of life.

In that spirit, I don’t know if we’ll ever parse out the difference between poets and logicians. I’d like to think that they are all forced to trade places now and then. In fact, I’d encourage it. My advice to the general public is to find some kind of music—whether it is actual music, or poetry, art, religion, etc.—that will help us to avoid splitting our heads.

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