My Lyre and I
Atlas – Air France n°81 – March 1973
Believe it or not, I was playing the lyre.
I can’t stand the instrument. The only one I can tolerate is the fog horn.
But nonetheless, there I was. Not only playing the lyre, but seated in lotus position on a grocery-store shelf, between two stacks of cheeses: limburgers to the left of me, gorgonzolas to the right of me. Oh, I know you won’t believe me, but the truth is the truth.
At the grocer’s then, seated in lotus position, lyre in hand, I was playing a tune of heartrending banality. This awful tune might have been salvaged by a modulation to D minor (with a C sharp) in the fourteenth measure, but alas, despite my efforts, it was always an F chord which came out. In my attempts to pin down the C sharp, I turned each time to the left, my eyes half-closed, with the impassioned look of a virtuoso. And each time, at the decisive moment, I poked my nose into a limburger. It’s terribly difficult to look impassioned with a limburger in your nose.
Faced with this untenable situation, I took the only reasonable alternative: I woke up.
I woke up, and, thank the Gods, the grocer and the lyre had disappeared. I was in my barrel, with my hands and my spirit unencumbered. And yet — believe it or not — the irritating scritch-scratch of the lyre, and the limburger and gorgonzola, or rather their perfume, were still there. I wondered for an instant if the dream from which I had awakened was not a dream within a dream. But no. A glance at my surroundings clarified the situation for me.
Here, I must apologize to the reader for the exceedingly bad taste of my dream. I am, as everyone knows, a noble-hearted philosopher with an elevated spirit. But my subconscious self does not always attain the same lofty heights. And worse, I have a vulgar superego. In this particular case, I blush to think of it, what my superego had transformed into a stack of cheeses was a human being, installed not far from me on the sidewalk, to the limburger side, scratching on his guitar with a mournful look and obstinately avoiding any modulation to D minor in the fourteenth measure. At the tenth or twelfth repeat, I couldn’t stand it any longer.
— C sharp! I shouted.
He turned toward me and wagged an interrogative beard.
— Whatzat? he asked, still strumming.
I explained to him. Still playing and without getting up, he twisted himself around on the sidewalk to get closer to me.
— Interesting, he conceded. But a C sharp, just what is it?
I reassured him: all that, the sharps, the flats, the modulations, it’s all very simple. Once you know how to strum a little, you can learn the fundamentals very easily with an elementary method book and a few hours of attention.
At these words, he stopped short, put down his instrument, and considered me for a long time with a disheartened look. And I, perplexed, kept silent, wondering what was wrong. Finally he spoke.
— Do you want me to study notes, scales, and all those other castrating and guilt-producing things that our neurotic fathers invented in order to pass on their neuroses to their children? Do you want me to memorize old tricks rather than express my spontaneity? What good would it be to play if I only regurgitated the culture of others?
I reflected before replying. Not even Plato, my clever enemy, had ever posed such a problem.
— Sir, I replied at last, you speak well.
— I express myself, he admitted.
— Just what is it that you express?
— Me, myself.
— I looked at his self. Maybe he was right: useless, the C sharp.
— You express yourself by speaking and, if I dare say so, by playing the guitar.
— But when you speak, isn’t it the language of others? Castrating? Guilt-producing? Something to avoid learning?
— Exactly. I mean the rules, the spelling. It’s alienating, it’s constraining. It kills creativity.
— And the babies, what about their creativity? When they say “gui-gui” and we correct them: “no, not gui-gui, guitar”?
This idea struck him. He appeared to ponder it.
— No doubt about it, he said. They get alienated. Should be liberated, the poor little tikes.
— And what about you? When you play the guitar, when you oblige me to listen to you, it’s your culture, not mine. You alienate me.
— Hey, are you threatening me? Do you want to stifle my self-expression?
We argued. The passers-by formed a circle around us, and began to take sides. The noise increased. From the guitar we went on to the price of butter, then to the marriage of priests. Judging that at this point the situation had sufficiently ripened, I withdrew into my barrel. It was a wonderful discussion. After a dozen paddy-wagons came to collect the wounded, I was able to continue my meditation where I had left off. And I still stick to my opinion: the king of instruments is the fog horn.■