Thoughts on Hildegard

February 5, 2011 Comments Off on Thoughts on Hildegard

Hildegard von Bingen first appeared on my radar a few years ago, when more or less simultaneously I was singing “I Cannot Dance, O Lord,” with lyrics written by her, and reading The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, which had multiple quotes from her. This was what I knew about her:

“I cannot dance, O Lord, unless you lead me. If you wish me to leap joyfully, let me hear you dance and sing. Then I will leap into love and from love into knowledge and from knowledge into the harvest, that sweetest fruit, beyond human sense. There will I stay with you, whirling.”

“I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every living spark and I have breathed out nothing that can die. . . . I flame above the beauty of the fields; I shine in the waters, in the sun, the moon and the stars. I burn. And by means of the airy wind, I stir everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all. . . . I, the fiery power, lie hidden in these things and they blaze from me.”

Which is awesome. And the little I heard about her intrigued me, but she is devilish hard to track down on the Internet. Probably there is a hagiography library somewhere with hundreds of volumes about her, but I don’t know where that is yet. And now Rachael is reading about her (she must have found out where the hagiography library is), and we went together to see Vision, the German-made movie about her. It was pretty good, actually, and it turned out to be one of those movies that makes ideas and feelings boil in me, and I feel hectic and scalded by my thoughts. I’m trying to keep track of some of them, hence this post.

She was a composer. There was a lot of singing in the movie, and I wonder how much of it was actually hers. But it made me realize…it can be okay or even wonderful to use older forms. The music of the time was plainchant, but it was dramatic and modern in its intentions. I have such trouble with piano parts, but maybe I should just write plainchant. I don’t think it would work exclusively, but opening that style to myself might be useful. And that’s a style where the pedal tones that I’m addicted to fit in perfectly. Just like in writing styles, I have to make myself realize that there are still conventions, and it is acceptable—more acceptable than it’s ever been, maybe—to ignore them. The world is always broader than you think.

She was also a doctor. There were a couple scenes where she was teaching herbal lore, and some of it was good and some of it sounded like old wives’ tales. And it started me thinking about placebos and medical research. It struck me that you have a choice to make in the world today, about many things, but medicine in particular. There is always something that will work better than what there is, and to find it someone needs to decide that what there is is worthless and go experiment. But once you’ve decided that something doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work; even if it was more than just a placebo it might be less effective because of an anti-placebo effect. So you can choose to be ignorant and accept what people tell you will work, or you can be empirical and gamble your placebos on the chance of finding something that works better. Furthermore, once you have chosen empiricism, you cannot go back. Once you’ve read that most studies have shown that echinacea does nothing for colds, it is hard to convince yourself that it works after all. But the current environment of Empiricism Above All Else means that “rational” people are out to ruin your idyllic placebo paradise by sticking study results in the news and in ads and in things that you read, unsuspecting. You should be able to choose whether to embrace Knowledge, and instead insidious pedants are force-feeding you the apple. It’s kind of a small thing, but I have a feeling this applies to more than just medicine, I’m just not sure what yet. But it hit me like it was a major breakthrough, and I wanted to write it down so I can remember it later, maybe when I figure it out.


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