Monday, November 12, 2007

Harmony and its absence

I often tend to drop the term "harmony" into my everyday conversation, to explain my choice of behavior, or my preference for a particular approach or solution to such and such a problem. Whenever I do so, I'm aware that I'm cheating, that I'm acting—as they say in French—"in bad faith", because the musical metaphor of harmony is so fuzzy, when transposed into non-musical domains, that it's akin to declaring that one is guided, like Joan of Arc, by mysterious voices from afar.

The context is a tiny bit clearer when I speak of the absence of harmony, because most of us can detect the presence of discord, dissonance, cacophony and clamor. But, even at that level, I'm still cheating when I decry disharmony in a superficial fashion, because I was profoundly attached for years to the celebrated musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer [1910-1995]. Indeed, my brilliant mentor would be perfectly justified in zapping me instantly into oblivion with a terrible electronic crescendo from the heavens—like the voice of the Castafiore shattering a crystal glass—if ever he were to hear through the divine grapevine that his old disciple Skyvington had been advocating, even for an instant, the blessings of harmony!

Normally I don't appreciate complicated and pretentious ways of saying simple things. For example, the expression "mind-set" [meaning a certain way of looking at things] horrifies me, because it represents what the French designate, colorfully, as trying to emit gas from a level above that of your anus. Likewise, using the expression "sea-change" [meaning a major change of address] is ridiculous unless you really happen to be diving into the upside-down world of Shakespeare's Tempest. When I hear a suburban housewife in Australia explaining that "My husband's mind-set imposed a sea-change"—meaning that the family had decided, for multifarious reasons, to move to another town—I end up wondering whether there's any hope for the English linguistic culture.

Having said this, I must admit that there's a silly trendy formula that I love, which I would have been proud to invent: cognitive dissonance. If you look up this delightful expression in Wikipedia [display], you'll find references to a book, half a century old, entitled When Prophecy Fails. The author, Leon Festinger, apparently tackled the case of a flying-saucers cult that believed the end of the world at hand. It might be imagined normally that crazy folk, observing that their crazy predictions don't materialize, would revise their crazy beliefs, and turn to less-crazy expectations. According to Festinger's cognitive dissonance thesis, this is not the case. In a nutshell (pun intended: nut shell), crazy folk often tend to solve their cognitive problems [a euphemism for crass ignorance: an incapacity to get around to understanding what's happening in the world] by deciding consciously to plunge even more deeply into the abysms of stupidity. They make plans to stage the Olympic Games of Ignorance.

I've detected traces of cognitive dissonance in my contacts with the Australian lady who owns an unsigned/unfinished ceramic plaque with a portrait of Queen Victoria [display]. Sheridan has remained convinced that a female ancestor was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Victoria, and that the portrait in question was one of a series of gifts from the queen. I've gone to extraordinary lengths in revealing that Sheridan's Heath ancestors were no doubt related to the great London dynasty of Heath artists [engravers, miniature portraitists and experimenters] who worked in the shadow of British royalty, and that the bridesmaids legend is rubbish. Family beliefs, however, are stronger than research. In the face of cognitive dissonance, little can be done. When humans decide to adopt false beliefs, all contrary evidence can be construed to suggest that black is white, that two and two add up to five, or anything other than four!

Humanity is a fascinating case study. We're not basically scientists, but rather swindlers! Opposed to facts, fantasy is infinitely more exciting. In the cognitive domain, listeners know that dissonance can be Mozart!

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