When The Past Is Too Big. How To Rise Above It. Reflecting on Mahler’s 2nd Symphony.

Notes on the ANZAC Day address by Dr Francis Macnab, Sunday 24 April 2016.
By John Abbate.

Mahler’s 2nd Symphony

It is not revolutions and upheavals

That clear the road to new and better days,

But revelations, lavishness and torments

Of someone’s soul, inspired and ablaze.

Boris Pasternak, After the Storm

Dr Macnab admits to a measure of audacity in quoting Pasternak and honoring Mahler at the time of year when we solemnly remember the great tragedy of Australian lives lost in war. As we ritually embrace a mythology about the nation-making role of war in the country’s history, is it churlish to remind people that wars define borders, rather than nations or people?

At least, for Dr Macnab, our remembrance is made even more meaningful when we balance it with a view to the future, to our potential transcendence of the traumas of the past.

“Even as we go through our remembrance of our wars and our hate and our prejudices, we pause for a moment at this time and say, Is it possible to rise above them, and create a different way to live? And then to celebrate those possibilities. That’s transcendence.

Dr Macnab alerts us to three major sources of trauma:

  1. The upheavals of war and natural disasters
  2. The social and personal struggle to survive, to achieve, to be somebody
  3. The inevitable pain, suffering and conflict inherent to human life

In response we can either succumb, survive, or try to transcend our traumas. What is most needed is a “psychology of transcendence”. But what does it mean? To transcend means to tap into “the word, the meaning, the belief, the energy and the celebration” to rise above. “Transcendence looks to the mature resources of adaptation,” said Dr Macnab.

Mahler’s music is not for everyone. But in its vastness, beauty, and great heights of emotion—in its “sustained inspiration”—Dr Macnab believes it offers something to all of us. “Man lies in deepest need,” run the words that Mahler chose for his Resurrection Symphony, as it is known, “…rise again.”

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