July/August 2012

Part 2 Catherine Cunningham - Song Writer / Singer

Written by Catherine Cunningham

“Socrates” “Aristotle”, “Pythagoras”, “Philosophers” - words I remember jotting into my history notebook in secondary school. Somehow, without having ever really thought about it, I had assumed they had all died uneventfully in Ancient Greece. So two days into college, I was delighted to discover that they were alive and well - sort of. I was particularly delighted because I was simultaneously discovering that I had no interest whatsoever in the “Business Studies” course on which I was enrolled.

One easy downgrade later (yes, that was how it was perceived!), and there I was grappling with metaphysical questions I had never known existed. I was an excellent student! Within a few months, I had renounced a lifetime of catholicism, embraced a fundamentalist, materialist doctrine and identified as a “compassionate atheist”. “Compassionate” because I couldn’t expect those who hadn’t had the benefit of philosophy 101, 102, and 103 to understand the logical implications of living in a deterministic universe whose component parts behaved like and in accordance with the same laws as billiard balls.

Somewhere towards the end of my second year, a friend gave me a copy of “the Dancing Wu Li Masters”, a “popular science” book on quantum physics. I was completely drawn into a version of reality utterly different from the one my science teachers (and my philosophy lecturers) had shared with me. What is disturbing in retrospect is that not only was the chemistry I had learned inadequate, but I had never really considered that what I was studying was relevant to my world! It was as dead to me as the ancient philosophers.

It’s probably a good thing I wasn’t “taught” about quantum physics (or evolution) at school. If I had learned about the subatomic world like I learned chemistry and ancient Greece, i.e., without the context, the drama, the personalities, the bafflement and the excitement, it would most likely have been lost to me.

By the time I got my degree, I had come full circle and then some. I had grappled with questions I hadn’t known existed, taken positions on them, and then discovered that the basis for these positions was faulty. I had lost my faith in language, in logic and in the reasoning process as ways of knowing the world. I wasn’t even sure I knew what that meant or if it was possible - and I was in good company. Einstein likened the scientific endeavour to a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. “He may form a picture of the mechanism which is responsible but he can never know if his picture is the true explanation. He can never compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.”

As I argued in my “Meditations . ..”, you can go anywhere with a philosophy degree, and because it doesn’t train you for anything in particular, well you don’t feel particularly inclined to do anything in particular!

I went to America and worked at various jobs - none of which required a philosophy degree. I travelled around for a couple of years, supporting myself through fruit picking, work exchanges and busking. I had been writing songs since college, but gradually during this period, I came to recognize that song-writing and performing were what I wanted to do, career-wise, with my life. It turns out, being a songwriter is rather like being a philosopher in that you rarely make much money but you always feel like you’re working on the most important thing in the world!

I imagine there are lots of unpaid scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, etc. as well as artists of all types all working away obsessively at their “art”. Some make breakthroughs, get recognition and carve out a career for themselves, while the vast majority of us do it simply because that is what we are drawn to and what we feel we must do.

I returned to Ireland in 2,000, did an MA in Community Music, and worked in that area for a couple of years. I also got very interested in ecology and may even have been a pagan for a while! Around 2004, I developed a “chronic-fatigue” type condition, from which I’ve been slowly recovering. I now live in the countryside and grow much of my own food, most of which is eaten by caterpillars and slugs. I teach guitar and play the occasional gig, and I live a country which has been destroyed by bankers and developers - and people with “Business Studies” degrees!

My philosophizing days are pretty much ancient history, though latterly that part of my mind and some philosophical type issues are finding expression in my songs. I don’t really believe in beliefs, belief systems or dogma, but if you have a tendency to preach, then songs are great Trojan horses for telling people what they might not otherwise want to hear. It’s particularly gratifying when you have a captive audience and control of the microphone!

I’ve uploaded a song onto “Soundcloud.com” that might be of interest to some of you.

It’s called “the Square Root of Two” and the story behind the title is that Pythagoras (remember Pythagoras?) ran a school of mathematics in Ancient Greece. Only the brightest students could attend as he was intent on divining the nature of the world/ the mind of God using mathematics (the language of God) and its tools, reason and logic. Hippasus, a young student working on the newly emerging concept of “square roots” suggested that √2 was “irrational”. For his troubles, Pythagoras had him drowned in a nearby river. Why? Why did Hippasus’ suggestion so threaten Pythagoras, and why did Pythagoras, the champion of reason and logic, resort to violence and not a mathematical proof to argue his conviction? And why were we told none of this in school? And how does the fear of punishment for uncovering unpalatable truths impact on our ability to see them? For an exploration of these questions and for an introduction to my “special theory of nudity”, check out the song on sound cloud. You can hear more of my songs at: www.catherinecunninghammusic.com

© Catherine Cunningham 2012