Ever listened to a voicemail or other recording and recoiled at the sound of the person speaking only to discover you’re hearing your own voice? That happened to me today. If the adults in a Peanuts cartoon started forming real words instead of mwah-mwahing, they’d sound like me. Or I’d sound like them. I’m honestly not sure how people can stand to hear me talk.
In his essay on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Lewis Thomas writes that when he was sixteen “[t]he years stretched away forever ahead, forever.” Thomas’ family Bible carried the signature of his father just as it had that of his great-great grandfather and each of the greats and grands and fathers in between. At age sixteen Thomas kept literary company with Wallace Stevens, who wrote, “The soul … is composed / Of the external world” and “”The dress of a woman of Lhassa, / In its place, / Is an invisible element of that place / Made visible.”
I first read Lewis Thomas when I was seventeen years old. He made me wish I was a better student of both philosophy and science.
But times change. Sixteen changes, becomes seventeen, way past the teens, much older, the forever ahead retracting as if you’re meeting in the middle. “If I were sixteen or seventeen years old and had to listen to [stories about the possibility of nuclear war],” Thomas writes, “I would want to give up listening and reading. I would begin thinking up new kinds of sounds, different from any music heard before, and I would be twisting and turning to rid myself of human language.”
I’m less worried than Thomas about nuclear war, but I nonetheless have the urge to think up new sounds. Replacement sounds. Sounds to periodically rid myself of human language. The words I hear people say, the words I read, they often haunt me.
I think about the trains that passed behind my beloved Denver loft. So many, they would come and go throughout the day, long into the darkest hours of the night. I especially liked to listen at night, the rumble on the tracks, the squealing breaks, the insistent horn, the “here I am” brazen pronouncement of it, the harmonia est discordia concors of it.
They’re glorious things, trains. I hope I always think so.
Read “Late Night Thoughts on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony” here.