Tag Archives: ontogeny

Excerpt: a chorus of the living, an orchestra of echoes

A brief excerpt taken from Book III of Volume I of The Constellation of Man. These metaphors, like others I use in the book, introduce realism concerning the novelty of our personal appearance on preconstructed stages of history and human culture, atop mind and neuroanatomy, all much older and more extensive than ourselves alone. They remind us of our limited capacity for spontaneous reinvention, how originality relies on legacy, and how much the living unknowingly repeat.

No matter our modern wishfulness for reinvention at will, and the age’s typical convictions that we become New and Different—teenage egocentrism uncorrected by youth advertising, the optimism of self-help, democratic-age political rhetoric like revolution, ignorance of the comparable past and lives of others, New Age spirituality, religious rebirths, et cetera—our mere wishes and naive convictions do not make it so. —CPB


Culture lingers like many echoes after making the first sound. A small innovation propagates in a medium until it dissipates, like a sound wave no longer audible. Across time, people sustain the note by picking it up, far more than they innovate.

Suppose culture were music. We hear its echoes in the air. We might listen intently, but listen in passing a thousandfold. When we make sounds, we add notes in harmony, follow the timing or the rhythm, or pick up the motif, naturally and without discretion.

An echo plays in memory. It plays back from transient personal experience of hearing, changed by its time between the ears but repeated, imitated, echoed. In this way, passed from source to contemporary ears, heard and made a sound again, echoes can persist beyond lifetimes.

We join a chorus of the living. We do not begin to sing a song by ourselves. We learned what we know of melody and harmony since the cradle; we learned to imitate pitch; we sang along with lyrics and verses, wanting to be heard. And if we should learn with great difficulty to step away and sing alone, we sing as soloists and not as though we have never heard the chorus before. It is doubtful whether we can sing our very own song, like the creation of a new music, a new language, or hearing with ears that have never heard the old songs.

There is so little silence to hear. Notes hang in the air long enough to be picked up: cues from the living to the living; cues from the dead to the living.

We play along in orchestras that began their symphonies long before we were born, and did not cease as one composer, conductor, or musician died after another. It might seem, to one who could listen across time, that we are each instruments reproduced to play ancient and antique sounds, not that we are born to compose ourselves. Over time, the dead play out through the living, in an orchestra of echoes.

Musical Alchemy: The Soloist, Alberto Montacchini, 1934