TCS Daily


'If Nothing Else Remains of Humanity, Then Let This Be Our Monument...'

By Lee Harris - January 27, 2006 12:00 AM

One night a group of highly advanced scientists from another galaxy abduct me in their space craft. They tell me that they have good news and bad news. The good news is that they have been so impressed by my TCS articles that they had chosen me to make an important decision that will affect the way other intelligent life forms in the universe remember the human race. The bad news is that they are going to destroy the planet earth, me included, because they have come to despair of our ever becoming sufficiently rational to be members in good standing of their intergalactic utopian community.

Yet, back to the good news, or what is left of it; the aliens want me, and me alone, to decide what human monument will be spared from the otherwise universal destruction awaiting our species and all the cultural objects that we have created in our brief tenure on this obscure planet. For example, the aliens offer me the choice of saving the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower, the Sistine Chapel, or the Washington Monument, the Empire State Building, or the Taj Mahal. But whatever item I select, it alone will continue to survive, and it alone will remain as evidence of the best that such a bad lot as us could do, despite our bestial failings.

What monument of humanity so I choose?

Without a moment's hesitation, I respond, "Why, obviously, the opera, The Marriage of Figaro, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart."

This is not the answer the aliens were expecting, and I notice that, after an awkward silence, they are fascinated. "Where do we find this opera of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? In which of your so-called nations does this great monument exist?"

"Oh, it is everywhere. It is in China, in Australia, in France, in Morocco, in Sweden. It is in Alaska, in Peru, in Tahiti, in Kenya. No doubt, it is even in Antarctica."

"But how can a monument be in so many places at once? And what can such a strange monument be made of?"

"Oh, it is only made of sound waves."

"Sound waves?" They exclaim.

"Yes, but a very interesting pattern of sound waves." I explain.

"So that is the best legacy your world has to offer -- an interesting pattern of sound waves? Nothing made of granite or of stone? Nothing made of steel or yryxa? [Don't look it up. The word was new to me too.] Surely, reconsider our offer. We are willing to transport the entire Great Wall of China to our Museum of Extinct Intergalactic Curiosities, if only you give the word. Of what permanent value can sound waves be? You make a noise, and then it almost immediately disappears."

"Yes, that is true of most noise. But, you see, some of what you call noise does not disappear. People hear it once, and then they want to hear it over again. And, in certain cases, over and over and over again."

"So that is what your music is? Noise that you humans wish to hear over and over again?"

"Well, that is one way of putting it."

"But why, if you have once heard the noise, do you wish to have it repeated? Where we come from, noise is of value only if it is a means of exchanging scientific information. For example, if my friend 6758-B tells me that the circumference of your pathetic planet is roughly 25,000 of your pathetic miles, can you possibly think that I wish to hear this statement repeated even once, let alone over and over and over again? Are you humans that forgetful?"

"No, oddly enough, we wish to hear music over and over again not because we have forgotten it, but precisely because we remember it. Indeed, it is the music we remember the best that we want to listen to again and again."

"A baffling species!" The group of aliens murmurs. "Why would you wish to hear again what you already know? What is the point in it? If you have absorbed the information the first time, what is the point in wishing to hear it again? When you have learned that two plus two equals four -- as we assume you have -- then why go on repeating it ad infinitum? We are most profoundly puzzled."

"Ah, that is where you are wrong. Music is not information."

"Then what is it?"

Looking around at the interior of their spaceship, I ask, "What is this machine of yours for?"

"To take us to other worlds."

"That is what our music does. It takes us to other worlds. Only without the need of such a clumsy contraption." I tell them, with a quiet sense of superiority.

"So you are claiming that this music of yours is a superior technology to ours?"

"Oh, vastly." I respond. "For it takes us to worlds that none of your space ships, however advanced, can ever hope to reach."

Whereupon one of the aliens says, with a sneer, "Let the earthling prove that this music of theirs takes them to another world."

"Easily. Put me in front of my stereo, and watch me as I listen to Mozart's opera, The Marriage of Figaro. Then you will see if I speak truly or not."

We land and the aliens observe me putting the first CD of Mozart's opera on my stereo. No sooner does the sparkling overture begin than they commence to whisper to each other. "Look at the earthling. His hands are swaying and his feet are tapping. And see how he is smiling rapturously. He appears to be in a kind of trance. Truly, it seems that he is in another world. And now, listen to him, he is singing along with the humans in the opera. He laughs with them, he cries with them. One moment he is dancing, another he is marching."

At the end of the opera, the aliens see that I have returned to the earth, and they ask. "Tell us about this world of Figaro you have been visiting?"

"It is, strange to say, very much like our human world. It is a world where men are jealous of women for no reason. Where adolescent boys throb with passions they cannot comprehend. It is a world where the strong try to take advantage of their positions of power, and their inferiors fight back with their cunning and wits. It is a world where good and virtuous women sigh because their husbands have inexplicably fallen out of love with them. It is a world where the noble-hearted ultimately forgive the errors of the lesser mortals with whom they are compelled to live. It is a reflection of our own humanity at its best and at its worst -- sordid, silly, sublime. That's why I have chosen it. If nothing else remains of humanity, then let this be our monument -- for it will tell your fellow extraterrestrials that here on earth we may have squabbled and bickered, unlike you, but that, unlike you, we had a magic that permitted us to turn all our petty human drama into the most glorious music imaginable -- a music that lifted us far above ourselves, and above all mortal and passing things."

When I finish my little speech, I notice that the chief alien is sitting very quietly. He looks up at me, and says, with a bit of embarrassment, "That tune Figaro sings at the end of the first act. La-da-da, La-da-da, La-da-duh-duh," he begins tentatively. "You remember it?"

"It's called Non più andrai. And you hummed it rather well."

"Would it be possible," he asks me rather awkwardly, "if only for scientific purposes, of course -- would it be possible to hear it again? Just once?"

"And that other tune -- the one where the little boy Cherubino sings where he talks about love," another of aliens chimes in.

"Yes, and how about that Sextet in the Third Act? Would it be possible for us to hear that again, too. Just for scientific purposes."

We listen to the opera all once more, and a few times after that.

"How foolish of us to have felt that we were your superior," one of the aliens says toward morning.

"Here, while we were wandering from one boringly rational planet to another, you humans had already created a heaven on earth for yourselves. No wonder all human beings love the music of Mozart so much," the chief alien says as he is about to get back on board the ship, my copy of Erich Kleiber's recording of Marriage of Figaro under his flipper-like right appendage. Then with a glance at the death-ray mounted at the front of the sleek craft, he gives me a questioning look. "Is it true that all humans love Mozart, is it not? Because we can deal with those who don't -- quite easy. Indeed, a mere flick of a switch and they could be vaporized."

I ponder for a moment, then I assure him, "Yes, of course...all human beings love him. You don't think anyone could fail to love Mozart, do you?"

"It seems hardly possible," the chief alien agrees, and humming Figaro's Non più andrai, he and the other alien march happily into their space craft, and disappear into the fading stars.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies. Mozart was born 250 years ago today.

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