In which I return with more questions than answers
"I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am."
“Well, you’re cured!”
The neurosurgeon fanned his hands out in a little “ta-da” gesture. This was the day before yesterday, and five weeks and a day after a long surgery in which two men rummaged around in my sinus with tiny tools, drilling, burning and patching the hole through which cerebrospinal fluid was leaking into my sphenoid sinus and out my left nostril.
I don’t feel quite cured, but I do feel better. The leak is plugged; the skull is patched; I’m gaining more energy by the day. I’m confounded by what’s taken place: the leak came on all of a sudden, then the surgery was like being swallowed by a massive machine, and the first weeks of recovery were like a trip to another planet, where time contracted to two states (day, night) and pain moved and glowed in graceful, alien waves.
In the weeks immediately following the surgery, it was difficult to register how I was doing. It’s only from this relative distance that I can begin to apprehend what’s transpired.
“Well, you did have brain surgery,” the ENT surgeon explained, helpfully.
Physically, my symptoms are related to nerve damage. My left cheek, nose and upper left palate remain numb, like the continuous aftermath of a root canal. The ENT surgeon told me they had to push some nerves aside, and cut others.
“Nerves don’t like to be pushed around,” he explained. He added, vaguely, “We did a lot of stuff up there.”
I can’t cry out of my left eye. I like to joke that my dry left eye is a kind of superpower: like I have a keen discriminative capacity, now, to know who, and what, is worth my tears.
Psychologically, I’m restless. It’s not the kind of restlessness about spring and being bed-ridden and wanting to get outside. It’s not my usual misanthropic irritation that accompanies springtime in my Brooklyn neighborhood, when a sunny weekend brings out hundreds of people in $400 “chore” jackets looking to eat $26 cheeseburgers in a temporary shack on the street. It’s a more profound restlessness, tugging on essential questions of human existence.
The surgery put me right next to the fragile membrane that separates “fine” from “not fine.” This is how it is, after all: we are both fine and not fine; alive and on the road to an unknown death. My surgery took place in the context of a virus that, in the span of a year, has killed 548,000 other residents of the United States. There’s no “return to normal” for them, nor for those who loved them.
I find myself thinking, “Why was I saved?” I catch myself saying, “There’s no time to waste,” and “We must do better.” I realize I’ve got Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert in my head again, or more rightly, Mr. Cogito1—the character he created to stand in as his alias, an Everyman, witness to living nightmares of the twentieth century.
Born in 1924, Herbert lived through both Nazi and Soviet dictatorships, and he wrote about these experiences with a ruthless eye for irreducible truth, and a darkly ironic distance. Mr. Cogito is a sequence of 40 poems, first published in Polish in 1974.2 It’s the last poem in this collection—a final message—that mirrors the questions in my head these days.3
It’s this plain moral imperative—Be faithful Go—that demands I consider my next steps. Like my ironic left eye suggests, there is no place for wasted tears, hand-wringing, denial, or false pride.
What comes next takes courage; what comes next takes everything we have to offer.
Science alone won’t save us
My ENT surgeon’s office is a block away from the Pfizer headquarters, on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. During Covid, the pharmaceutical company has wrapped the building with billboard-sized slogans—promises on behalf of science. They’re meant to be inspirational, but I find them unsettling.
“Science wants to cure people more than any disease wants to exist.”
“Science is relentless. It never gives up.”
“Science will win.”
The Pfizer building is within sight of the United Nations Headquarters. I think of these two buildings as monuments to a set of irredeemable 20th century promises: that science will save us; that progress and profit would lead to equality for all; that human rights would become a global norm, fundamental, defensible, and inviolable.
To be clear, I’m grateful to science. By this point in my life, medical technologies have kept me alive several times over. I’m grateful for humanitarian norms, too. We need ideals. Ideals shine the light in the direction we wish to go. All the same, the Pfizer display started to gnaw at me for its false promises. I know it could easily been me who lost my job and insurance coverage this year. There’s science, but there’s also luck, privilege, and access. And of course, there’s profit.
To be clear: pharmaceutical companies and their shareholders are making billions from Covid-19. Pfizer sells the Covid-19 vaccine for $39 (for two doses) in the USA. The company expects to sell $15 billion worth of Covid-19 vaccines in 2021. If so, that will make its vaccine the second-highest revenue-generating drug anywhere, of all time.
This October marks the third anniversary of the landmark report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: the one that warned there remained only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C. Any increase beyond that, even an incremental one, would bring calamitous impacts for hundreds of millions of people. It is an existential threat.
This is not a job for science alone: limiting global warming to 1.5°C is a monumental task, requiring rapid, dramatic changes in governments, industries and societies. It demands that we mobilize of all our economic, political and human resources in service of a common cause.
Science will save us if there’s a profit to be made from it.
I started this post as a short update, post-surgery, and now it’s turned into a much longer one, about more things than I had intended to address.
I started this newsletter with a clear intention of working through some of the problems I have with membership in the class of “professional,” “trained” musicians at this juncture in time—a temporal space demarcated, roughly, by the massive traumas of Covid-19; the revocation of the basic terms of a professional musician’s livelihood; a resurgence in racism and xenophobia; a riot on the Capital incited by a President; and an ever-mounting climate emergency.
It’s plain to me is that there is a role for music and musicians in all of this. When we play our best, we are admitted to the company of our ancestors. We defend the kingdom without limit. We have the power to mobilize memory and emotion; to disrupt the atmosphere. And each of us knows what it is to take a task from the realm of the impossible to the possible. It’s what we call “practice,” and we’ve been practicing our whole lives.
But I’m restless with my poetic formulations. I know these things to be true: they are as true as true can be. But I struggle to connect these truths to the physical reality of the world in which I live and work. I’m restless for practical, actionable advice to give to students who are graduating into a professional existential crisis. I’m restless for practical, actionable plans that can mobilize musicians and musical organizations in service of human need—especially at a time where it seems to be ever more clear that musical institutions see musicians as peripheral, and not central, to their existence. (See here, for example.)
And in all of this, I can’t not see the climate emergency.
I tell students to listen carefully to themselves. I tell them to lean into doubt and uncertainty, because that’s where new information can be found. If we can’t find answers in what we already know, they are waiting in the not-knowing.
It’s easier said than done.
I’m taking my doubt, this week, as an invitation to reflect. I’m going into this week asking these questions of myself:
Why won’t I give up on music?
In what kind of a profession do I wish to work, and how? Can I meaningfully address climate change through my current professional channels?
Where can I best offer my skills and capacities? Where should I stop investing them? How can I better train myself to be of better service and greater impact?
What kind of person will I be in this, the last part of my life?
To what am I called to bear witness? What testimony will I give?
I want to take this as an invitation to reflect on the structures, relationships and practices that sustained us through the horrors of the 20th century, and to consider who we—as individual artists, as teams, as neighborhoods and nations of musicians—might be as we face down this defining task of our lives in the 21st century.
Cogito, for Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum. Originally, “je pense, donc je suis” in French, or “I think, therefore I am”, it is sometimes expressed in a longer form: dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. (In English, “Since I doubt, I think; since I think, I exist.” Or, “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”)
It took until 1993—another 19 years—for these poems to be published in an English translation by Bogdana Carpenter and John Carpenter.
In this translation, "Przesłanie Pana Cogito" is translated as “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito” but I prefer an alternate translation: “The Message of Mr. Cogito.”