Friday, February 16, 2018

Varieties VIII-X: Variations on conversion

In our James' Varieties course today we grappled with the confused and confounding lectures on "The divided self and the process of its unification" and "Conversion." Each of us, for different reasons, felt we'd lost the thread. What did James mean by "conversion" anyway, and what did he think its fruits? Why did he mention "gradual" conversions if he was only going to talk about the "instantaneous" ones, and why did his quotations from others' lives seem to be getting longer and longer? How powerful was "suggestion" in shaping, or even triggering, conversion? Was converts' experience truly unified or still tense with the contradictions of life, like or unlike healthy-minded happiness? And did James think conversion a possibility for all people or not?


The very enterprise of understanding conversion in general is a conflicted one, for reasons we were clearer about after two hours of vigorous interrogation. The second birth of conversion seems a consummation devoutly to be wished for every sick soul, but James doesn't speak as a convert, and takes pains to suggest that people can convert to all sorts of things, including things of which people in his audience would surely disapprove. The testimonies he reads tell of a few people surprised by conversion but many more who find it - are found by it - only at the end of exhausting processes of seeking. In all cases something flows into conscious experience from our subconscious life, into the center of our experience from the margins, but Neither an outside observer nor the Subject who undergoes the process can explain fully... (196) Yet can anyone be as dispassionate as James tries to be about so momentous a subject, as diffident as his suggestion that though not many of us can imitate Tolstoy .. most of us may at least feel as if it might be better for us if we could (186).

As we wrapped up for the week I wondered if conversion was something anyone could describe except in retrospect, shaping what was a shape-defying experience into a narrative of finding and being found. The Subject is in control of a narrative about a transformative experience of not being in control, of what James calls "surrender," and often notes how incredulous the pre-conversion Subject would have been to know that she might in short order be doing and saying what she's now doing and saying. To the unconverted, conversion may be a general possibility but a personal hope beyond hope. There are elements of the paradoxes of "ineffability" which James will stumble over in the lectures to come on mysticism, in the convert's self-narration, not to mention the refined, rationalized accounts the sympathetic outsider then seeks to synthesize into his science of religion. The convert is, and is not, the same person who was converted. How can that tale be told?

I returned to my office and, inspired by I know not what agency, decided I wanted to listen to some music, perhaps, why not, Rachmaninov's Variations on a Theme of Paganini. I've no idea why this particular piece demanded to be heard; I haven't listened to it in a long time. So, as one does, I typed it into YouTube. A BBC proms performance from 2013 seemed promising so I clicked. The broadcast started with a brief analysis of the piece by the piano soloist Stephen Hough, from which I learned that the ravishingly romantic theme in the famous 18th variation is the result of a common trick: Rachmaninov

takes the Paganini theme, turns it upside down,
puts it in the major, puts it in D-flat major, slows it down,
and suddenly it becomes this exquisite, beautiful melody.


The performance was lovely, and when the inverted slowed-down theme comes on (at 20:22, but don't jump right to it) I felt like I knew something more, somehow, about why it was so moving. It's just the piano at first, but then (at 21:04) the orchestra swoops in and carries the theme away, the piano stammering out chords of enraptured support, freed from the need to play the melody itself as the whole room sings it, the chords multiplying in exaltation before the theme returns to the piano, trembling quietly with its pure simplicity. Is it more than testimony to the power of suggestion that this seemed to me precisely what conversion experiences seek to describe, the theme flipped into major but still the same, afloat in a newly embracing world?

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