Twitter is awash with complaints about how hard it is to keep up with lenten abstinence campaigns, to which I say, yes, it is isn’t it? It is interesting to see Lent’s continued relevance on Twitter – a medium usually derided as vacuous and lacking in all moral substance. Personally, I find that criticism of Twitter usually comes from those who have not been willing to put the effort into its use that it demands. Frankly, if you put nothing worthwhile into it, you get nothing worthwhile back. Never mind, I’m not here to defend the site. Lent though, is on my mind. It’s interesting to see how it continues. When Christianity came to the Celtic regions of Europe the dominant visual expression of spirituality there was the standing stone. Christianity has always founded its success on an ability to adapt and subsume motifs from the cultures it encounters, and rather than take the stones down and replace them with crucifixes, the proselytising powers that were chose to adapt the Celtic standing stones into Christian crucifixes. The earliest of those are typified by being crudely-modified monoliths, the horizontal arms of the cross shape mere suggestions chopped into the stone. As Christianity prevailed over the western fringes of Europe, the art of the Celtic high cross developed and adapted into the elaborately-decorated wheeled crucifix, emblazoned with carved knotwork and now famous from the covers of pretty much every ‘Celtic Moods’ album of soft-focus twiddly-dee muzak. The point I am making is that Christianity chose to adapt an existing symbol to its own ends, rather than raze it out of society altogther. Lent is the same thing.
Lent, Mardi Gras, Easter. They all have their biblical precedent, but they all come from something deeper and older. Mardi Gras, translated as ‘Fat Tuesday’, is the big feast before the hard fasting of lent. Easter, whose name is a corruption of ‘oestre’, (root form of ‘oestrogen’ and referring to ‘egg’) provides Easter with its dominant symbol. If one remembers the fact that the Christian Easter symbol should really be the cross, and its myth is the death/rebirth trope that crops up in practically every human oral tradition, then it is not so difficult to assume that there are older forces levering the egg into its position as the symbol of the festival (older even than chocolate manufacturers). In northern Europe an Easter ritual is to roll eggs down a steep hill – an unbroken egg at the bottom brings a year of good luck. If there is a clearer symbol of Easter as the vestiges of a fertility celebration, I have yet to see it. Again, Christianity adapting the existing ritual infrastructure to its own ends. Similarly, Christmas is placed at the winter solstice (or thereabouts), taking advantage of existing light festivals of northern Europe. Most of us know that the census of Herod referred to in the bible happened in July, and that, to be accurate, Christmas should be in the summer.
Lent then, in the Christian tradition of Europe, falls in this dour period of late winter/early spring. What farmers referred to in the years before air-crated Kenyan asparagus, as ‘the hungry gap’. Convenient. Whether you call it Yom Kippur, Ramadan or Lent, the dominant religions of the world agree on the concept that a time of straitened calorie-intake is conducive to spiritual enlightenment. If you’re going to fast and take on a spiritual retreat, as well to do it at a time when there’s damn-all to eat anyway.
So why is Lent still popular amongst a population who, otherwise, spend very little of their mental and spiritual budget on the pursuit of enlightenment? Well, it does fall close on the heels of yuletide excess, and is a convenient excuse for detox. It also makes sense to tack on a dogmatic motivation to the panicky realisation that summer will be upon us in a while and that there are a lot of flabby bits to be dealt with on the old body. But there are deeper motivations too. Not rational ones. We’re not really that rational when it comes to it. Otherwise why would we all have given money to Haiti? Why would we use our indicators when we turn on deserted country roads or pay for fruit at honesty-stalls? The human spirit has a yearning for sustenance and deep-down knows, that sustenance does not come from the instant-gratification culture of all-you-can-eat and buy-now-pay-later. Nor does it come from being the type of ‘spiritual slut’ that follows the most palatable rituals of various faiths – but eschews the more challenging, and thus, ultimately, more rewarding – demands of any one in particular. Deeper minds than mine have written about this more coherently than I can, but one of the reasons why Lent, Ramadan and Yom Kippur continue to be respected by the otherwise-lapsed, is because, Pavlov-like, they make us feel so good. The positive feedback on the soul from pulling out of the consumerist rat-race for a few weeks, of making a bit of effort to be pensive, charitable, spiritual, are measured in units that are more satisfying than inches lost off thighs. Nothing beats a really justified sense of righteous smuggery!
What the hell does any of this have to do with music? Well, the obvious tactic on my part would be to assert that you’ll feel better about yourself if you make sure that all your music comes from legitimate sources and is not illegally downloaded. Well, you will, but I’m not going to be obvious here, and I suspect that if you’re reading this, or if you’re a regular reader of my bloggings, you aren’t really the type to have a hard-drive filled with fileshared material anyway. Probably more on-message would be to say that we should all calm down a little, take a bit more time to appreciate less music and art more fully; than more music and art, more shallowly. Make sense? It’s part of my harkening back to the time when an album was something you bought, for a large chunk of your month’s pocket-money, and that you took home and listened to over and over again. There was no question of bad albums back then. Every album was good by default, because by making the effort to go and buy it, you were already a fan and you had invested so much of your discretionary income that you were going to bloody-well listen until you loved it. Well, the music industry were cynical and nasty about that, and put out a lot of bad albums because they knew they’d get away with it. But there are large portions of my musical taste that were informed by weird instrumental album tracks that would never survive the iTunes pick ‘n’ mix approach to musical consumerism that is now the dominant legitimate music platform. So if we want to extend the lenten metaphor to music, how about we all choose to listen only to a decided amount of music every day, say an hour’s worth? Instead of just having it there as a passive background to our activities, turn it into something we ration and control. Just until Easter. I don’t imagine any of us will be willing to do this, but I reckon that if we did, we’d come out of it with a massively enriched attitude to the only artform we consume so randomly and unconsciously.