By the white straits of Soléa
and the bowed red branches
that bent their blossoms over
her bowed head, heavy
with sorrow for the lost lover.
by the red branch and the white branch
and the sorrow unceasing
do I swear, Serriadh,
son of my mother and of Morred
to remember the wrong done
Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Wizard of Earthsea"
In a post on my "Cassandra's" blog I discussed about the need of closing the gap between sciences and humanities. I said that they are the same thing and we should stop this silly quarrel. That generated a comment by David Collins about the loss of some old habits, such as singing together. That, in turn, brought back to my mind an episode in Ursula's Le Guin's trilogy "The Wizard of Earthsea" (1968). It takes place in the third book, the one titled "The Farthest Shore", where the protagonists, the mage Sparrowhawk and the young warrior Arren, embark in a quest to seek to restore magic to a land that has lost it. And they discover that not only magic has been lost, music has been lost as well. This is how Le Guin tells the story.
They were still: the bitter faces and the shrewd, the hard-worked hands and bodies. They sat still in the warm rainy Southern dusk, and heard that song like the cry of the grey swan of the cold seas of Ea, yearning, bereft. For a while after the song was over they kept still.
"That's a queer music," said one, uncertainly.
Another, reassured as to the absolute centrality of the isle of Lorbanery in all time and space, said, "Foreign music's always queer and gloomy."
"Give us some of yours," said Sparrowhawk. "I'd like to hear a cheery stave myself. The lad will always sing of old dead heroes."
"I'll do that," said the last speaker, and hemmed a bit, and started out to sing about a lusty, trusty barrel of wine and a hey, ho, and about we go! But nobody joined him in the chorus, and he went flat on the hey, ho.
"There is no more proper singing," he said angrily. "It's the young people's fault, always chopping and changing the way things are done, and not learning the old songs."
"It is not that," said the skinny man, "there's no more proper anything. Nothing goes right anymore."
And this is how David Collins describes something similar taking place in the real world, in our times.
And here we are: people don't sing together anymore. In a way, we have lost our songs and, in other ways, we have lost our magic - we are a civilization looking for a lost soul. Ursula Le Guin saw this happening with the exquisite sensitivity of a poet and she described it in her "The Wizard of Earthsea" already half a century ago. We took our path toward the "Dry Land" described the novel, patterned after the "Kur" of the ancient Sumerians, where the dead lie down like birds at dusk, eating mud and drinking dust. And it is there that we are marching to, pushed by our fears of losing what we have thus making sure that we will lose it.