I was thinking today of something I read about Charles Darwin. It was in an article about Darwin by my former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp Jr.
Early in the course of our sessions, I told Dr. Colp that I was interested in writing. “I’ve done some writing myself,” he said.
“Some writing.” Indeed. His output was prodigious. I have recently been rereading some of his articles. They are all superb — superbly researched, crafted, and written. These include articles of his such as “Bitter Christmas: A Biographical Inquiry into the Life of Bartolomeo Vanzetti” and “Sacco’s Struggle for Sanity,” both published in The Nation. Also, “Trotsky’s Dream of Lenin” and “Why Stalin Couldn’t Stop Laughing,” published, respectively, in the journals Clio’s Psyche and The Psychohistory Review.
And, a plethora of articles on Charles Darwin, such as “ ‘Confessing a Murder’: Darwin’s First Revelations About Transmutation,” “Charles Darwin’s Dream of His Double Execution,” “Charles Darwin’s Insufferable Grief” (about the death of Darwin’s ten year old daughter Annie), and many others.
In an article of Dr. Colp’s, “Notes on Charles Darwin’s ‘Autobiography’ ,” published in the Journal of the History of Biology (1985), he writes about various aspects of Darwin’s upbringing and personal life, including his experience with and tastes in literature and music. He states:
He stated that he had lost his taste for music, but then admitted that music stimulated him to “think too energetically” about what he was working on. He was enthusiastic about certain musical compositions, and some songs.
This was a perceptive insight, I thought, both on the part of Darwin, and, vicariously, by Dr. Colp — it struck me and I retained it fixed in memory. This is something I have observed myself.
The other day, while doing some writing, I listened to the fourth movement of Brahms’s first symphony. It is a piece I have loved, especially the fourth movement, ever since high school.
I thought it would psych me up. I wasn’t paying that much attention, but suddenly I felt, this music is getting on my nerves.
Annoying? Brahms? How could that be?
One has to be in the right frame of mind for any mental activity: conversation, contemplation, study, a lecture or museum exhibit, reading, listening to music. (I realize that I’m stating the obvious.)
This is very true of music. Sometimes I will put on a beloved classical piece and find that I’m not in the right mood for it. But another piece works. And so on. Often, music is just what the doctor ordered: soothing or, conversely (if this is what’s needed), stimulating, a tonic. At other times, music gets in the way of mental processes. In that case, you have to choose either to listen to it with complete focus and no other mental processes going on, or to turn it off and focus on whatever it might be you’re engaged in that requires your attention.
Would you not agree?
— Roger W. Smith
September 7, 2017