“The matters you have just now spoken to, young man, the extraordinary story you have told, the auspicious departure you are planning, the specious-sounding organization you are intending to join, these all cause me to consider the nature of the human conscience. To have a conscience means to realize one’s own shortcomings, but not necessarily to act upon this knowledge. It means, more often than not, not to act. And even though the having of a conscience is rooted in a system of morality, the having itself is not a moral state. Do you agree?”
“I guess so,” said Frank.
“I am certain you do! Now, bearing the aforementioned in mind, the real question is whether failure to either act or not act upon one’s conscience constitutes an immoral state. If so, are we then claiming that the owner of a conscience can do no better in life than to achieve, through constant unblemished perseverance, through endless intentional instances of action or non-action, the bare minimum that is morally expected of that man, by the man himself? A person could never expect to live a ‘good’ life under such circumstances, but could only avoid, to the best of his ability, a ‘bad’ one. And a life without such constant vigilance, a life of mute contemplation or willful repose, is a moral crime for which a person is, in fact, guilty. Now what do you think of that?”
“I don’t know,” Frank answered honestly. “I think,” he thought about it, “that you should try to be a good person, of course . . . And actually I think most people think of themselves as good . . . or as trying to be . . . But if you ask me what it means to be a good person . . .”
“I agree!” cried Brian, when Frank had taken too long. “For myself, I have often thought of the human conscience as essentially a musicalconstruction, a notion that you, being a musician, will perhaps take to heart. Musical because groundless, you see, the way musical scales only make sense, only make music, when one grounds them in a particular key. Take, as example, the series of intervals commonly referred to as the ‘major scale,’ but which you and I know to be the mode Ionian: it is a series of intervals and nothing else, a structure or system holding the potential for a particular harmonic energy but offering no actual sound until one chooses an instrument and a note to start from. In short, the Ionian mode is an idea awaiting an action, or rather, an actionless system of restraints. And this is also a person’s conscience, which as a system of restraints is utterly inoperative until one picks a moral starting point, a tonic if you will, or more often has one picked for one, or, more often still, simply accepts the one one was born to without considering other options or even recognizing that ‘option’ is an option at all. You agree?”
“It’s an interesting way to think about it.”
“Yes it is! Now, much like the intervals that make up a musical mode, a human conscience tends always to proceed by the same pattern and in the same fashion, that of its established quality, but with results varying upon which moral tonic it starts from, and which pattern it proceeds through, the spectrum of moral and temperamental possibilities varying considerably, from highly conventional to utterly non-. One might adopt a ‘Western’ conscience, as the vast majority readily do, comfortably settling themselves within a standard seven tones—or, for the audacious, expanding to twelve. Those of a more Eastern disposition might squeeze into a five-tone conscience, embrace the clarifying hug of pentatonics, or, at the Southern extreme, diffuse their souls into microtones, where all the hippies went wrong. There is even a thing called ‘just’ intonation, built upon intervals that are theoretically ‘natural’ but that in practice fall miserably short. Wishes not being horses, the seeking soul moves on. The point, however, is that there are important choices to be made, and great discernment to be demonstrated, not simply because various consciences ‘play’ varyingly, but because the song of one’s self can only be sung in the scale of one’s self, and will sound wretchedly ‘off’ in any other . . . ”
“What I don’t get,” Frank offered unprompted, seemingly implying that he’d understood everything else Brian had said so far, “is how the conscience being like a musical scale or mode relates back to what you were saying earlier, about how a person who acts or doesn’t act upon his conscience is or isn’t able to gauge whether he’s . . .”
“Perhaps it does not!” redounded Brian. “Perhaps it does not relate back, as you say, but only relates forward—which, you will surely agree, is a far more interesting direction for a conversation to go. One moves forward in faith that as long as the ideas one speaks are truly and honestly intended, they will accrue, however haphazardly, into something honest and true. Consider, for example, James Joyce . . .”
“. . . a man of noted musical leanings. Of the countless quotables in his most highly annotated opus, one line appears more often than all others, more than twice, more than thrice—and yet it was not his, not Joyce’s, this line. He stole it from Robert Burns. You know the work?”
“Scottish poet. There is a statue of him in this very park. If we had walked a different way, we would have passed it . . .”
He paused on “passed it” with a meditative sigh, as if imagining in that moment an entire alternative history that might have been lived but wasn’t, and how different everything might have been had they only walked that other way, and how much better.
“Eighteenth century and the particular line in question was addressed to a louse, not a louse-ridden man or woman, mind you, but an actual verminous grub. The entire poem is to the louse, in fact, yet ends, following poetic custom of the time, with a punchy metaphysical couplet: ‘O wad some Power the giftiegie us,’ then: ‘to see oursels as ithers see us!’ To see ourselves as others see us! No ‘Bronze by gold heard the hoofironssteelyringing,’ but it pulls its weight, it pulls its weight! Passed from a louse to a Scottish poet, from a Scottish poet to Mr. James Joyce, from Mr. Joyce to all of posterity, and here we are enjoying it together, one of literature’s most excellent instances of a singular soul recognizing, in the textually rendered experience of another, a shared plight! You see where we are headed? Empathy!” He threw up his hands, causing a light grassy shower to drift down upon him. “For while it is true that each must strive to establish his specific harmonics of self, yet this quest is but the first of several a unique soul must undertake, for unless he venture forth and strive still further, a great and abiding loneliness awaits . . .”
For a moment, Brian broke his gaze upon Frank to stare off across the field, that bustling sunny scene, pondering the great abiding loneliness.
“What is empathy, after all?” Brian was back. “To see in another some aspect of ourselves. It is the inverse of self-knowledge, in this sense, and yet, in another, not at all. For the desire to see ourselves as others see us is nothing other than the desire to see ourselves clearly, as we truly are, without which essential knowledge our personal perspectives on our own persons is faulty, erring, and incomplete. And if we do not manage to see ourselves rightly and completely—that is, if we only manage to see ourselves in the manner that we ourselves see ourselves—but nonetheless proceed— with what arrogance!—to see ourselves in others, then what do you suppose we would be seeing? That is, what sort of empathy am I offering my brother if, in thrusting the image of myself upon him, the image I thrust is of my egocentric, self-illusioned self, my ignorant, overly idealized self, rather than myself as others see me? A left-handed empathy to say the least! Nor is this problem lessened for the distinctly harmonized individual, whose very uniqueness makes the likelihood of a true empathetic connection terrifyingly slim. Indeed, such individuals, whom for sake of expediency I shall simply refer to as ‘we’—we individuals of distinct conscience must first learn to see ourselves in ourselves before we can ever hope to see ourselves in others. And the others must at the same time succeed in seeing themselves in themselves, in order to see themselves in us. For only under such specialized circumstances will we be able to empathize truly with someone who is in fact being himself, rather than empathizing inaccurately with someone who is himself, or accurately with someone who is not himself, who at the same time may be trying to empathize accurately or inaccurately with us, as we are being or not being ourselves!” He breathed. “Thus the horrible truth: that beyond the harrowing group-mind that currently passes for human understanding, true empathy is practically impossible in this world. Yet we go through it, we try to . . . For no life should be empty of empathy. Every soul deserves to empathize and to be empathized with in turn.” And landed here, a soft landing.