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June 18, 2018

Scott Samuelson's Playlist for His Book "Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering"

Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Scott Samuelson's readable and poignant Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering tackles undeserved suffering from a philosophical angle.

Times Higher Education wrote of the book:

"Excellent. . . . The challenge that Samuelson locates in the philosophical tradition, and which he passes on to the reader, is to reflect deeply on what it means to live with pointless suffering while resisting the temptation to transmute it into meaningful pain, which is something else entirely. . . One of the many virtues of Samuelson's book is that the reader often feels as though she were his student. His wry, self-deprecating and confessional style is both serious and playful--and seriously playful. The exposition of different philosophers and traditions is careful and scholarly without being pedantic. . . . Another great merit of Samuelson's insightful, informative and deeply humane book is that it is a genuine pleasure to read. Herein lies a final challenge to the reader: after luxuriating in his reflections, we must close the book and return to daily life with renewed determination and courage to apply its lessons."

In his own words, here is Scott Samuelson's Book Notes music playlist for his book Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering: What Philosophy Can Tell Us about the Hardest Mystery of All:

Philosophy—the kind I love and aspire to—dreams of becoming music. Realizing that music insinuates itself into our souls and surreptitiously instructs us, Plato spent big chunks of his dialogues on rhythm and harmony. Confucius, the Alan Lomax of his day, traveled around China to collect its folk tunes, because they sound "the tones given off by the heart." Nietzsche looked to opera as the source of spiritual renewal, claiming that Bizet's Carmen turns you into a masterpiece.

As I was working on Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering, I found myself ordering my thoughts with music rooted in the blues. The main point of the book—itself a mixtape of philosophies—is that to be fully human involves embodying a paradox. We must simultaneously embrace and oppose suffering. Even when we find a meaningful relationship to this mean old world, there's still a lot of suffering that blows our minds. As I was working out these ideas, I kept feeling like the paradox of suffering is expressed better by blues musicians than philosophers. So, I devoted my last chapter to the jazz master Sidney Bechet and tried to unpack the philosophical implications of an art that becomes more alive the closer it gets to misery, an art that doesn't redeem the legacy of slavery or the agonies of the heart but somehow redeems the humanity who inflicts and suffers them.

The following is a playlist of the blues that my philosophy aspires to become.

"Don't Play That Song" by Aretha Franklin (Spirit in the Dark)

There's a scene in Homer where Odysseus washes up on an island and is taken to its king, who feeds and entertains the hero before he asks him his name. A bard starts in on his recent crowd-pleaser, the song of the Trojan War. Hearing about the suffering of his friends hits too close to home for Odysseus, and he begins to weep. The king rebukes his unfamiliar guest: "Don't you know that the gods send us our misfortunes so that we might have something to sing about?" What I love about the scene is that it contains the king's justification of suffering as well as the hero's recognition that the suffering at the story's core is too much to bear. That whole Homeric scene is contained in Aretha's voice, which mixes gospel hope, blues anguish, and soul power: "Don't play that song for me/ ‘Cause it brings back memories."

"It Serves You Right to Suffer" by John Lee Hooker (It Serves You Right to Suffer)

We can never quite reconcile justice and suffering. Sometimes we try by saying that it serves us right to suffer. I don't know what doctor advised Prince to "try to have fun no matter what you do," but it was probably the same one who put John Lee Hooker on a diet of "milk, cream, and alcohol."

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by Richie Havens (Live at the Cellar Door and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium)

In my chapter on Bechet I coin the idea of "blues-understanding." Something like compassion, it's the art of seeing into humanity beyond the categories of perpetrator and victim, without losing the ability to condemn injustice—as when Richie Havens, in his cover of The Band's classic, inhabits the persona of a white Southerner trying to cope with the downfall of the Confederacy.

"Alabama" by John Coltrane (Live at Birdland)

On Sunday, September 15th, 1963, members of the KKK set off dynamite in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, injuring many parishioners and killing four girls between the ages of eleven and fourteen. What possibly can respond to terrorism against children? Dealing with the tragic death of his favorite student, Confucius offers no solace; he just cries out, "Heaven has abandoned us!" Trane's song, composed in response to the white-supremacist terrorism, transports us to cries and silences of blues-understanding where we're not sure if heaven has abandoned us or found us.

"Sophisticated Lady" by Charles Mingus (Cornell 1964)

In 1972, Yale University, trying to raise money for a department of African-American music, hosted a group of jazz musicians. Someone called in a bomb threat. Everyone was cleared from the building except the recalcitrant Charles Mingus, who began to play a dreamy Duke Ellington tune. When the police begged him to leave, he replied, "If I'm going to die, I'm ready. But I'm going out playing ‘Sophisticated Lady.'"

"Down to Zero" by Joan Armatrading (Joan Armatrading)

Not only does honestly facing suffering evoke compassion in a normally-constituted heart, it marks time with a groove—for instance, the rhythm of Joan Armatrading's lyricism.

"Out of the Cradle (Endlessly Rocking)" by David Zollo (For Hire)

I listened repeatedly to this song about a failing marriage as I wrote my book about suffering, and my own marriage failed. The husband in the song boasts that "this is my heart of hearts talking," admitting that he's a "fucked-up true believer/ In that perfect moment, nameless, hanging in the ether." His wife snaps back, "Great, you sing another love song./ Tell me, what does that prove?"

"Fool's Blues" by Funny Papa Smith (Complete Recorded Works 1930-31)

Does anyone express what philosophers call "the problem of evil" more succinctly than the great forgotten bluesman Funny Papa Smith? "Some people say/ God takes care of old folks and fools./ Since I've been born,/ He must've changed the rules." The English judge Baron Bowen gives him a run for his money: "The rain it raineth on the just/ And also on the unjust fella;/ But chiefly on the just, because/ The unjust hath the just's umbrella."

"Don't Explain" by Billie Holiday (The Complete Decca Recordings)

Recognizing this song as a classic head-in-the-sand relationship to an abusive situation, I want to put my arm around Billie and say, "Let's get you out of this mess." But Lady Day expands the music into something approaching the Book of Job. After God's magnificent refusal to explain unjust suffering, Job falls silent "in dust and ashes." The way Billie Holiday puts it is, "Hush now, don't explain."

"His Eye Is on the Sparrow" by Mahalia Jackson (In My Home Over There)

When I first heard Mahalia Jackson on the car radio, I had to pull over. I was overwhelmed not just by the power of her singing but by the idea that a voice like hers couldn't be wrong about the divine source of its inspiration. Nobody sings the words "love" or "hunger" like Billie Holiday. Nobody sings the words "free" or "happy" like Mahalia Jackson.

"Someday You'll Be Sorry" by Louis Armstrong (Live at Wintergarden, New York and Blue Note, Chicago)

When I was sixteen, I checked out from the library Louis Armstrong and His All Stars: Live at Wintergarden, New York and Blue Note, Chicago. One moment on the album particularly floored me. As the sorrowful "Someday You'll Be Sorry" eases into its final bar, Armstrong lets loose a life-affirming chuckle. What is this magnanimity that can embody grief and still laugh at itself with abandon? Here, I felt, is something real at last. When later I read Plato's Symposium, in which Socrates argues that the true poet should be able to compose both tragedy and comedy, I immediately thought of Pops's booming "huzzah!"

"Blue Horizon" by Sidney Bechet (The Best of Sidney Bechet)

"Blue Horizon" teaches fundamental lessons about suffering. Thou shalt not admire force. Thou shalt not hate thy enemy. Thou shalt not scorn the unfortunate. Thou shalt face thy suffering with style. There is no refuge from the human condition. In his autobiography, Bechet says, "What it is that takes you out of being just a kid and thinking it's all adventure, and you find there's a lesson underneath all that adventure—that lesson, it's the music. You come into life alone and you go out of it alone, and you're going to be alone a lot of time when you're on this earth—and what tells it all, it's the music. You tell it to the music and the music tells it to you. And then you know about it. You know what it was happened to you."

Scott Samuelson and Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering links:

the author's website

Times Higher Education review

Daily Iowan profile of the author
WKNO interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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