There are sounds that torture our animal souls beyond endurance, as is discovered by children the first time they scratch a blackboard. The car alarm, untended, in the city night makes the surrounding apartment dwellers dream of firearms and blasting not only the car, but the owner. Then there is the classic crying and screaming of the baby or toddler on the plane flight. It is an amazing fact of natural history that the lungs and vocal chords, otherwise so undeveloped, could raise such mature decibels of sound, and for so long! I once shared a trans-atlantic flight with a two year old girl, six or seven row back, who was evidently sick, in some kind of pain, and able to scream ceaselessly for about two hours. Her parents couldn’t calm her. I would put that girl, at that moment, up against the lead singer of Metallica for sheer volume any time. Yet, being a parent myself, I had no appreciation for the guy in back of us who kept suggesting that she should be stuffed in the bathroom – I dreamed of stuffing him in the bathroom, dousing his head in that weird aluminum vortex of a Boeing toilet, flushing him into the ocean.
However, our animal nature’s are as keenly attuned – or at least I find mine is, and I don’t think this is special with me – with a perhaps evolutionarily attuned sense for another variety of sound, one that gives us a rare and complex pleasure…
A story: every week day, around 5:10 p.m., I walk the three blocks to the Y pre-school where we keep Adam. I always leave in a bit of a disgruntled state, since I suddenly realize, around 4:30, that I have a ton of things to do that I now don’t have time to do. But as I approach the school, I always have this moment – not the best moment of the day, not every day, but always in my top five – which comes about simply because I stroll past the wall of the outside playground that abuts the sidewalk. I can always hear inside that wall the sounds of the children, who I know are strewn about the slides, the plastic car, the plastic castle, the swings, the area in front of the small basketball hoop, and in circles around the teachers, and who are chirupping, screaming, talking, shrieking with joy (their running in the wobble of the voice), laughing and weeping over some crisis. The whole din always seems to touch some spring within me: I feel an affective state we do not have a noun for. It is something like hope without an object.
Kant, of course, is the great without-an-object man. For Kant, beauty was disinterested. Art of any type is fundamentally purposive but without a purpose, a use. We have lost our way if we are thinking of what use we can put beauty too – how we can photoshop it, for instance, to sell a product. We have lost our way to what the aesthetic is about. Well, we can dicker with Kant here – in fact, all of our culture dickers with Kant here – but the feeling of hope I am describing is something like this purposiveness without a purpose. I hope, but I don’t hope for the future. There’s no moral conclusion to my hope, like hope that we will all someday hold hands and sing. It is a feeling of great expectation without thinking that anything much is going to happen. I know that I’ll pick up Adam, get his stuff, the empties from lunch, go to the store with him, go home. The end, as Adam says, turning the last page of a picture book. These things do overlap, perhaps, my feeling – if I Venn diagramed it out, there’d be the minor expectation of the routine with Adam overlapping the hope without an object, surely.
But that unoverlapped part, it seems to me that the hope is just this: that we exist.
Goddamn it. We exist.