The Only Woman Composer

Above the traffic of the street below, pocking the low periwinkle sky with polka-dots of errant lighting, colour, Maryam was twiddling her thumbs.  Outside the wall-wide window, the vehicles in this, one of Beirut’s most uppity zones, made honking sounds like tweezers or like thick blobs of sound on the air, with the odd swift and rinsing tinkling of rickety breaks, with the loud, brash, desperate yelp of a beggar or two, with music, western and oriental, breaking out now and then from a car-radio, the windows down, a few bars of hackneyed melancholy, hackneyed longing; and now a wolf-whistle, heard in blindness from within her plush third-floor flat, heard, that is, without knowing its object – a stray casting of the net for a woman, perhaps, though that was unlikely; more likely to be a signal from one end or side of the street to another, between buddies with skins so wizened and brown they were grey – indicating, say, a sundry direction to go, or something happenstance of the sort.  This was, after all, the staple music of life, in all its deadpan, humdrum drudgery – and Maryam was presently at a loss.

For what she knew of music, in the very cut and timber of her bones, she would never let-on.  Music was everything to her.  It was for her, in a manner of speaking, the meaning of life.  Oh, of course she was a cultivated, literate woman, and had read of great poets whose primal concern had nothing to do with the represented content of their words, but rather with an incipient musical inkling or mood, to be filled-out and fortified to boot, in the moving architecture of their poems.  But that wasn’t the most signal memory that occurred to her now.  It was, rather, of a small passage of speech which a philosophy professor, whose lecture she’d happened to attend, had elocuted in a moment of deep and sincere enervation.

The tall, slim man from Texas, who held his cowboy hat plum against his paunch, as though there were a belly to hide or smother, had been dragged by questions from the audience for close-on half-an-hour.  You could see his nerves were on edge, as the amateurish audience tried to pick-apart his views and his explanations of such.  So, as the moderator silenced the barking crowd, the tall, slim professor from Texas presently calmed himself.  He took a gulp of water, looked down briefly as though to gather one final push of strength, and said:

‘Ladies and gentlemen.  I am now close to the end of my career as a professional thinker.  And I would like, only, to impart to you one final, simple lesson that is the upshot of decades of tussling with philosophical problems.  And it is this: music, rhythm, but a dynamic, moving rhythm – these are the catchwords of a successful, in the integral sense of flourishing, human life.  To petrify your movements in the world, mental or more dispositional, to get stuck, fixed in any one stance, however extreme or un-extreme it might be, that is the error I hope you may come to elide.  In short, music is the metaphor of reality, lived well – whether you want to call that a realism for yourselves, agents in the world, God, or the way things are, ontologically, or indeed just being at-one with yourself and the world in which that self is housed, an integral part.  In ethics, for example, the libertine and the ascetic or saint are the same person, for all intents and purposes; the one makes pleasure his religion, the other takes utmost pleasure of a sort at least in his religion.  No; the answer, or better, the solution, to enact a truly balanced life, is to be neither too pure, nor too sullied.  A bit of idealism here; a bit of selfishness, if not cynicism, there.  And this mixture, this texture, this weave, in constant, live oscillation.  This way, as we are creatures of and in time, with all the unfortunate paradoxes and aporias that entails for us, we might, just might grow to out-shimmy the prison of reality, making it our bower….’

Maryam couldn’t say what she was wearing that day, or what she’d eaten for lunch, or even whom she was with at the time, if she was with anyone, but this small speech had stayed with her, riveting her still – even if to be “riveted” was the life-error upon which the older man had so incisively dilated.  She’d had many relationships in her own life, after all, which had failed because of being so fixed and steeped – life-errors, she now thought, indeed.

There was Karim, for instance.  She’d stayed socketed in his wake for nearly three years after they’d broken up.  Whether she was being altruistic or selfish, though, was a touched, tough question.  Yes, she thought she felt she still loved him, and that was a generous, giving sentiment; or no, she was wallowing in self-pity, hitched to a bygone eon, in a way that gave her some small, secret, escapist pleasure, denying with relish the passage of time and her life.  But either way, she certainly had not “out-shimmied” reality then.  And there were others, too, on whom she’d stayed equally fixated.

That was the problem with being a woman.  She, woman, that is, might love to dance, to make merry in the music, but when it came to matters of the heart, for all her, woman’s that is, ability to carry outlandish burdens and to survive, adapt, and to help others survive terrors, even terrors – when it came to matters of the most personal heart, she was like a frozen number.  Sure, she, like many women, might dither, shimmy at the start of any loving-affair, setting traps and tests, trying-out her potential partner in all sorts of scenarios and situations, to see him in all the lights and shades, to see him in as round a way as possible – but all this was simply to make-sure.  Then, once in, she was in – irretrievably so.  And this could be problematic, aporetic as the philosopher would say, because men were like time, a kind of prison.

The paintings on the walls of her flat were in the main abstract.  Life of course, and life for a woman especially, wasn’t.  But what was music?  You could read a musical score, say, if that was in your line.  You could trace the elegant calligraphy of it.  And to listen to music, good music, music that stirred, and took you somewhere, somewhere new, different, but still and at the same time ratifying all the best parts in or at the home of your-self, your self-awareness – well, that was neither a picture you could see and recognise, nor was it wholly separated from the fabric of daily life.  It was hard to decide, even as a dilettante.  Words like “chromaticism”, “melody”, “tonality”, even “atonality”, echoed in her mind, and she wished she might be, become, a more knowing, telling part of that mysterious, miraculous world.

She’d decided what she must do

By Dr. Omar Sabbagh

About Dr. Omar Sabbagh

Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic. His first collection and his latest, fourth collection, are, respectively: My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and To The Middle of Love (Cinnamon Press, 2010/17). His Beirut novella, Via Negativa: A Parable of Exile, was published with Liquorice Fish Books in March 2016; and a new, riveting collection of short fictions, Dye and Other Stories, was released in September 2017. He has published or will have published scholarly essays on George Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Browning, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Joseph Conrad, Lytton Strachey, T.S. Eliot, Basil Bunting, Hilaire Belloc, Henry James, George Steiner, and others; as well as on many contemporary poets. He holds a BA in PPE from Oxford; three MA’s, all from the University of London, in English Literature, Creative Writing and Philosophy; and a PhD in English Literature from KCL.

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One Response to The Only Woman Composer

  1. Halime August 16, 2018 at 10:35 am #

    Great piece Dr. Sabbagh.

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