Ich Bin der Welt

I died in the throng of the world
and rest in a quiet area.
I live in me and my sky,
in my love, in my song.

Friedrich Ruckert

I love words. Precisely assembling the right combination of words to capture the full meaning of an experience liberates the imagination offering the reader/listener a deeply satisfying resonance. How rich it is to read a well-crafted sentence! Even better, a paragraph, a chapter, a book! Yet it is not words themselves that possess this unique, almost magical capacity to transport us. Rather, it exists somewhere in the interplay between a writer’s ideas manifested as well-constructed word groupings and the condition of a reader’s soul where these words resonate. It is extraordinary what happens between writer and reader when the words are assembled just so. Presto! A relationship of a unique but very real sort has been born! Reader and writer are united. When the right words meet the right reader, it is at least a notable if not almost mystical encounter. Consider what factors are in play in the buildup to such an encounter. The writer and the world of their subjective experience; the reader and the world of their subjective experience; and the words that become a bridge between writer and reader revealing their connection to one another. It is no different in the other arts.

What animates paint on canvass, words on paper, a musical score is when what the artist has created becomes appropriated or claimed by an audience as its own. The artist, writer, composer creates, then dares to surrender their creation to the custody of the observer, reader, listener. It is both a bold and intimate exchange. What the artist creates no longer belongs to them but to their audience. The business of interpretation, the attribution of meaning, the experience of pleasure or displeasure it evokes, all belong to the audience. The artist will create but the audience will assign meaning, value, and render judgements of all sorts. It is along this line that the potential for battle emerges.  

“What does the audience know? Their commentary is merely a subjective judgement, an opinion, and not objective by any measure.” I agree. But then I might also suggest that nothing is objective except the medium employed by the artist- words, paint, notes on a page. The artists organization of her chosen medium and the audience’s judgement are all subjective. There is nothing objective about it. There may be prevailing opinions, but these are little more than a compilation of subjective judgements which does nothing to establish them as objectively so. As creator we are Gods giving life to ideas via words, music, performance and as audience we are God’s assigning meaning and value to that which is created.

Words and more words. I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate and went on after that to study philosophical theology. Lynda rolled her eyes after I shared with her these first few paragraphs commenting it sounded like the ruminations of a philosophy student. I know. Discussions like the above were common among my fellow philosophy students. The truth is it used to drive me crazy. Building an argument to persuade another of an objective truth was always at the heart of the philosopher’s rhetoric and reasoning.  So, great thinkers went to extremes to try to demonstrate the objective reality of what one might intuitively know to be impossible all because of how much more we prize the objective over the subjective. Establishing objective realities in aesthetic, theological, and ethical philosophy occupied volumes and left one’s head spinning. In the end it seemed to me that such efforts yielded little more than confusion generated by some kind of mind-bending word game. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, as a comedy team performed a skit years ago that captures precisely what I mean. Do take a look.

Scholars have for centuries argued that the existence of God can be established as an objective reality. The teleological argument, the cosmological, the ontological arguments!

Thomas Aquinas, who advanced his own set of arguments for the existence of God in the end concluded, “it is all straw”. And I too came to believe the task of attempting to formulate such arguments to be silly just as I came to believe that the distinction between objective and subjective was essentially irrelevant.

It’s all subjective. So, what!? What could be more important than my subjective experience of the world? While we are taught to value objective views of the world does this diminish the subjective as ‘just an opinion’ and therefore, without value? All experience, by its very nature is subjective. And, as I stated earlier, even if a lot of people’s experience suggests the same conclusion, that doesn’t make it objective. Experience is not mathematics.

We often learn this in a particularly powerful fashion when it comes to music. We discover a piece of music. The composers score resonates with our affections and beliefs. We are perhaps moved to tears, to laughter, maybe even to dance. We love the piece of music and are evangelical about sharing it with others wishing them to experience what we have. We desperately seek to promote our discovery. We finally persuade someone to sit and listen and the expression on their face speaks volumes. They don’t get it, we think. We have mistakenly believed the piece to be objectively moving. But they are unmoved and now we are annoyed. Maybe they are too. The spark it generated in us fails to ignite our listener’s interest. The relationship we have formed with the composer’s creation is uniquely our own. Ughh. It happens all the time, leaving us deflated and isolated. The intimacy of sharing our soaring emotions evoked by the composition have fallen flat. The piece is simply subjectively moving even though we have loved it as if it deserved to be loved universally. It is beautiful, we think. And then add, It is objectively self-evident.

Oh, c’mon, now. Who cares? Share it anyway. Just manage expectations about your companions hoped for reaction. And I say this because I intend to share a piece of music that has become important, if almost numinous for me. And the lengthy prologue regarding the risks of sharing a subjective experience offers some personal protection from those who will invariably not share my enthusiasm.

Almost 30 years ago, while Rector of a parish on Bainbridge Island, Washington, a member of the Church made a cassette tape of an album by Fredericka Von Stade that included Gustav Mahler’s, Songs of a Wayfarer, and a collection of five poems by the poet, Friedrich Ruckert set to music, entitled Ruckert Lieder. Why she gave me this, I am not sure. I came to love the tape but one especially lovely, but haunting song touched me in a way that was unusually powerful. The piece, entitled “Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen” I played again and again never even thinking to look up the translation of the poem’s text. I actually never even thought to research who or what Ruckert Lieder was. It was the music and the words sung in I generally experience the German language as rather harsh, guttural, and not especially attractive. Yet the words which I did not understand as well as the music touched me, because the interplay of music, words, performance all allowed me to imagine what it meant even as I did so in the dark, as it were.

I listened to the piece tirelessly exploring recordings by multiple artists including some female and some male. It was just a few years ago I learned more. While living in North Carolina Lynda and I attended a yoga class that was ‘gentle’ with its participants. This is to say we were all older ladies and gents. I met another member of the class who I often overheard discussing classical music with other members. He was a little man, bald and bespectacled and not especially well, subject to fits of coughing in the middle of class. He was a retired Geneticist from Duke. One day we struck up a conversation and the subject turned to Mahler who he adored. He asked me what I liked. The best I could do was to hum a few bars of the music. He gasped, and exclaimed, “what a beautiful piece of music. Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen.” He quickly observed I understood not a single word of what he just uttered. He translated the title: “I am lost to the world…”

The next yoga class he brought me a book on Mahler because he was so excited by my interest.  He marked the translation of Ruckert’s poem in the book and left it with me.

I am lost to the world,

On which I squandered so much time;

It has for so long known nothing of me,

It may well believe that I am dead!

Not that I am in any way concerned

If it takes me for dead;

Nor can I really deny it,

For truly I am dead to the world.

I am dead to the worlds commotion

And at peace in a still land!

I live alone in my own heaven,

Another translation renders a somewhat different meaning.

I’ve lost the world,
With which I used to waste a lot of time.
She hasn’t heard from me for so long,
she may well think I’ve died.

I don’t care at all if
she thinks I’m dead;
I can’t say anything against it either,
because I’m really dead to the world.

I died in the throng of the world
and rest in a quiet area.
I live in me and my sky,
in my love, in my song.

Many have written about this this specific poem of Ruckert’s and Mahler’s musical interpretation of it. But, of course, what matters most is what the listener experiences in an encounter with it. For me, when I read the translations of the poem, it simply confirmed what the music and singer had already conveyed. For me the piece in its entirety reflects a kind of ecstatic state. It begins in haunting fashion, forlorn and lonely. But it builds to grand climaxes where voice and instrumentation sound as one until they part, and the musical tension resolves just as the poet’s self-understanding seems to resolve as well. He/she understands being “lost to the world” is exactly where they belong as one translation states-

I am dead to the worlds commotion

And at peace in a still land!

I live alone in my own heaven

And the other

I died in the throng of the world
and rest in a quiet area.
I live in me and my sky,
in my love, in my song.

This is not about death but about the sublime contentment of finding oneself precisely where they belong, beyond the commotion, at peace with what they create. Mahler himself said of the piece, “It is me!” And also beautifully described it thusly: “It’s a feeling right up to the lips, but it doesn’t go beyond it.” His interaction with the objective realities of the notes and instruments and singer that he has ordered in such a magnificent manner, for him is purely subjective. All subject and no object…and in his subjectivity is where I discover myself as well.

I hope you’ll listen to this remarkable work. Multiple performances are available on You Tube. I also hope you’ll share your reactions.

A final footnote: My friendship with the gentleman who briefly mentored me on Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder was brief as he died several weeks after giving me the book which I still have and regard as one of life’s mysterious gifts.


1 thought on “Ich Bin der Welt

  1. Proximity is no accident. We should find ways to sit and talk.


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