Edward Rothstein,

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March 7 1998 12:30 AM

Edward Rothstein,

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       In the last chapter of my book plugged in my bio note above (and available for purchase at your local Internet bookstore), I use an epigram from Plato: "All of this is a prelude to the song itself which must be learned."
       The song itself, for Plato, was a subtle type of education. He described it in a famous metaphor. We are like prisoners in a cave gazing at our flickering shadows on the wall, until we are gradually "turned" to the light and realize that what we took for real was just an image of the real, that what we thought were immutable laws were really just descriptions of the movements of shadows of puppets held in front of flames.
       Each time we think we have figured out what is real and what is not, each time it seems that we have finally discovered the truth, we are led to see something more; we become disoriented and find that we have only been looking at imitations. We keep being led from one stage to the next, until we emerge from the cave into the light of the sun. And it is in that light that we begin to attend to Plato's "song"--a song that reveals how we come to know anything at all--until we descend into darkness again to lead other prisoners upward.
       I thought of all this yesterday, because during an hour and a half telephone conversation, I was asked about it--accompanied by questions about ethnomusicology, metaphor, postmodernism, beauty, elitism, mathematics, democracy, and the sublime. I was in a teleconference with a group of honors students at Oregon State University, who had themselves been led through a miniature Platonic education by Michael Coolen, a professor of music and ethnomusicology. The course was called "The Pattern Which Connects" and focused on connections between music and mathematics. Over the course of the semester, the students heard lectures on Gregory Bateson and Pythagoras; they examined the nature of pattern, the appearance of the Golden Mean in Bartok's music, and Helmholtz's analysis of acoustical sound. And for the last two months, my book, Emblems of Mind, was being used as a guide.
       This is an author's dream. Six students, along with a resident mathematician, had, by living with the book's arguments, replicated part of the experience I had in writing the book, trying to discern the hidden song latent in music and mathematics. During our conversation, I was speaking to disembodied voices, but they sounded familiar, as if we had already been engaged in silent conversation before the connection was made.
       The questions also echoed those I asked myself in the course of writing. Mr. Coolen asked how I could justify using Western music as a kind of archetypal model for musical meaning. A microbiology student asked whether the kinds of metaphors I was finding at the heart of both music and mathematics were innate or culturally determined. A graphic artist inquired about the nature of truth and beauty. A business major asked about whether any music being written today aspired to become sublime. A chemical-engineering student wondered whether math was really as Platonic and reliable as I made out, when he often had to work with problems for which it was simply inadequate.
       The cave was full of sparks. I was supposedly the guide, but I also enjoyed following my questioners as, coming from different disciplines and backgrounds, they found, like Plato's prisoners, that the objects of their pursuit were images of grander, shared forms. ("We have not learned mathematics and music," pointed out one student, "but a way to learn about them.")
       I started to hear some fragments of the song myself. "As I finished Emblems of Mind," a psychology major wrote in a note, "I was struck with a twinge of sadness." She was sorry its story had come to an end but was looking forward to its continuation in other aspects of her life. The flattery moved me. But the twinge also seemed perfectly appropriate for the kind of endless education in error and insight that Plato had in mind, and to which, following our conversation, we all returned.

Edward Rothstein is cultural critic at large for the New York Times and writes the paper's "Connections" column on technology (archived here). He is the author of Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics.

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