Necessary Distance

Frank J. Oteri’s very entertaining recent account of attending his high school reunion made me think of Michael Apted’s acclaimed “7-Up” series of documentaries, in which Apted interviews a group of seven-year-olds at regular seven-year intervals all the way up through age 49 and counting. It’s precisely the absence of those seven intervening years that makes the documentary series so richly engrossing, and I suspect that the comparable absence preceding Frank’s reunion is likewise what contributed to the experience being so poignant.

When we deal with people from day to day we come to know them in one sense, but sometimes there is a deeper knowing that comes from absence and the “necessary distance” for which it allows. I just met with a friend from high school that I only talk to once a year, and we are so unaware of each other’s routine existence that I feel like our relationship is more substantive because of it. In my marriage as well (where I am either sitting at home unshaven and composing, or away for weeks on some trip) I have felt that distance—while by no means an ideal permanent state—does allow the relationship to move forward where it otherwise tends to stagnate in close, constant company. And for all humans, the ability to keep enough distance from the world in order to interpret, re-imagine, and manipulate it is what differentiates us from other animals.

I was recently converting some old scores into PDF files for archiving when I came across the first large-scale piece that I haven’t disowned. I hadn’t thought about the piece for some time, and with the intervention of time the distance I’d traversed in about seven years became apparent. I’m always hopping from piece to piece more or less sequentially, and the incremental changes and forgotten battles of the day can often obscure the larger patterns of change. It is good for us to be put back in touch with past moments, even and especially those moments of which we are least proud.

So in response Frank’s observation that “the single scariest thing about creating anything” is the resulting works fixity in time, I might offer a quote from Proust (Within a Budding Grove, quoting Elstir; emphasis added):

“There is no one, however wise he may be, who has not at some time in his youth said things, or for that matter done things, which he hates to remember and would wish to have erased. But he ought not to regret them absolutely for he could not be certain of having become wise (in the degree to which that can happen at all), unless he had gone through all the foolish or hateful forms that had led up to that last of forms. I know that there are young men, the sons and grandsons of remarkable men, whose tutors have instructed them since their schooldays in nobility of spirit and moral refinement. Perhaps they have nothing in their lives they need wish away, they might publish and sign everything they ever said, but they are pathetic persons, characterless children of pedants, whose wisdom is a nothingness and without issue.

“Wisdom is not had as a gift, one has to find it for oneself after a journey that no one can take for us nor spare us, for it is a point of view about experience. The lives you admire, the attitudes you find noble, were not arranged by parent or preceptor, they come from beginnings altogether different, being influences by whatever fashion of wickedness or stupidity reigned around them… I can see that the portrait of what we were in earlier days is no longer recognizable to us, and would in any event be unpleasant to look at. But it ought not to be denied, for it is a witness that we have really lived, that out of the common elements of life, we have composed something that goes beyond them.”

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