Without Pause, by Mark Nepo

They say the legendary hitter Ted Williams could see the seams of the ball as it came out of the pitcher’s hand. …

Manuscript of Finale of Beethoven's Opus 131

They say the legendary hitter Ted Williams could see the seams of the ball as it came out of the pitcher’s hand. All of his practice, swinging the bat for hundreds of hours, enabled him to discern in half a second that the pitch coming was a curve and not a fastball. This shows us the true relationship between practice and living. All practice is preparation for the integrated act of unrehearsed living. All practice yearns for a chance to apply itself in real time. Here are two indispensable teachings about the integrated practice of living. They come from the life and work of the gifted Irish writer Oscar Wilde and the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven.

Our Alchemy of Spirit

In 1894, Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) wrote a prose poem called “The Artist” in which a sculptor is moved to create The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment in bronze. But there is no bronze left in the world, except in the image of The Sorrow that endureth for Ever which he himself created and set on the tomb of someone he loved.

Finally, the artist

took the image he had fashioned,
and set it in a great furnace and gave it
to the fire.
And out of the bronze image of
The Sorrow that endureth for Ever he
fashioned an image of The Pleasure
that abideth for a Moment.

Three years later, Wilde, who was openly gay, was put in prison for “gross indecency with other men.” We can only look back at such hostile prejudice the way we must face the horrific stories of slavery. He was prosecuted along with Alfred Taylor. I speak of Oscar Wilde’s journey because we can’t talk about The Sorrow that endureth for Ever or The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment without bearing witness to the life behind the story.

At his first trial, Wilde spoke his truth:

Prosecutor Charles Gill: What is “the love that dare not speak its name”?

Oscar Wilde: “The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect…. There is nothing unnatural about it…. [But] the world does not understand. The world mocks it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

Oscar Wilde, 1882The jury of the first trial couldn’t reach a verdict. But when the second jury returned its verdict of guilty, the presiding High Court Judge, Sir Alfred Willis, a well-known mountaineer and president of the Alpine Club, made this statement:

Justice Wills: Oscar Wilde and Alfred Taylor, the crime of which you have been convicted is so bad that one has to put stern restraint upon one’s self to prevent one’s self from describing, in language that I would rather not use, the sentiments which must rise in the breast of every man of honor who has heard the details of these two horrible trials…. It is no use for me to address you. People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them. It is the worst case I have ever tried…. I shall, under the circumstances, be expected to pass the severest sentence that the law allows…. The sentence of the Court is that each of you be imprisoned and kept to hard labor for two years.

Oscar Wilde: And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?

The court adjourned without giving him any say and Oscar Wilde was sent to prison where he suffered greatly. During his term, he wrote a fifty-thousand-word letter to his love, Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945). In this letter, called De Profundis (in Latin, The Depths), Wilde writes:

When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realizing what I am that I have found com­fort of any kind…. To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own develop­ment. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.

Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde
Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde

Wilde was not allowed to send his letter, but permitted to take it with him upon his release. He spent the last three years of his life ill and in poverty, dying in Paris on November 30, 1900.

With his small prose poem “The Artist,” written before his trial and time in prison, this gifted and persecuted spirit leaves a hidden jewel for us, not as well known as his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, or his masterful play The Importance of Being Earnest. But quietly before his triumphs and tribulations unfolded, he affirmed a timeless truth that helps us turn sorrow into joy. Not by minimizing our sorrows, not by denying the pains of our journey or the gross indecency of injustice, but by putting our sorrow and the pain of our journey into the heart’s fire, to melt The Sorrow that endureth for Ever down to the essential element. By meeting life and not running from it, we can mold and recast what we’ve been through into The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment.

Oscar Wilde surely knew both The Sor­row that endureth for Ever and The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment. Whether or not we can succeed in this alchemy of spirit, each of us is an artist looking for more bronze in the world, only to discover that our experience is the bronze.

Ludwig van Beethoven composing his Sixth Symphony, 1834
Ludwig van Beethoven composing his Sixth Symphony, 1834

Glimpsing Eternity

Being deaf, Beethoven could hear the music of the Universe, unheard by the rest of us. The String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 131, played without pause, seems to gather the slow and steady rise of the sun, mixing it with the unyielding turn of the Earth around the fire in its center. He somehow weaves the discord of all the roots on Earth gripping further into the ground with the harmony of the winds that swirl through the mountains and over the oceans. Within this is the slight pump of all the hearts stunned to be here. Listening to a performance of this quartet, Franz Schubert, a contemporary of Beethoven, remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?”

Completed in 1826, Opus 131 was considered groundbreaking, offering seven movements instead of the traditional four. Beethoven’s compositions for string quartet rush players into dynamic and intimate relationship, the way we can know the wisdom of experience only through actual relationship, learning how to play the music of life together.

This is the inspiring lesson of Beethoven’s Opus 131: it mirrors the non-stop demand of life to have us make music of what we’re given, not knowing what will happen next. Inevitably, having to play seven movements without pause, the instruments will go out of tune. With no time to re-tune their strings, musicians have to adjust and improvise within the structure of the music. In this place, Beethoven insists on allowing both the harmony and discord of life to be present. He challenges musicians to see the movements through, even out of tune.

Likewise, we are challenged every day to say yes to the movements of life, to see it all through, without pause, staying in relationship to the music of life and each other, adjusting as we go, not knowing what will happen next. Yet even out of tune, this messy and magnificent practice, so essentially human, will let us hear—briefly—the music of the Universe being the Universe. To hear this larger music while grinding out the small music of our lives is what sages of all traditions have called glimpsing eternity.

So, though there are times to rest and times to rehearse, the blessings and resources of life rush into the flawed and raw openings that come when we keep playing without pause, reaching for ways to find the unknown harmonies between us. For all his brilliance of composition, Beethoven’s strength of heart confirms that a moment of meeting life completely is more rewarding than an ounce of per­fection. It’s inspiring and helpful to realize that saying yes when we feel depleted and out of time wakes the sleeping genie of our soul who smiles to say, when looking at our trouble, “I’ve been waiting for this. You have everything you need.”

Gabriele Münter (February 19, 1877 - May 19, 1962), Breakfast of the Birds.
Gabriele Münter (February 19, 1877 – May 19, 1962), Breakfast of the Birds.

Just how do we do this? How do we wander so honestly and tenderly in the pilgrimage of the heart? How do we uncover a personal practice by which to restore our trust in living as the original art? How do we take the sorrow that endures forever—because every one of us will have our share of it—and find the courage, support, love, and skills by which to melt it in the furnace of our heart, so from the everlasting bronze we can shape the pleasure and peace that abides in a moment?

And how do we tune as we go, without pause, making amends for our clumsy missteps and making music with what we have?

I don’t know how to do this, but by God, I’m devoted to try. I’m devoted to learn. I’m devoted to journey with you and others to discover how. Because this is why we were put on Earth—to hold our turmoil in the fire of transformation until it emerges as peace. Who would have imagined? It’s through our humaneness that we glimpse eternity and work our alchemy of spirit, never knowing what happens next. ♦

—Mark Nepo, “Without Pause,” Beethoven and Oscar Wilde offer lessons for life from our Winter 2014-2015 issue: “Goodness.”

This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.

By Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo is the author of twenty books including the #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening.