The boy I’m assigned to in the special-education center is calmest when walking, perhaps the only quirk we share. For the last six weeks he’s been subject to spontaneous fits of agitation and shrieking, and movement has proven a fairly reliable antidote. We walk the halls and cafeteria (rain keeps us indoors), observing life in a suburban American high school.
Wednesday morning as we neared the music wing, I heard the riffs, runs and scales of someone noodling on a violin. As we rounded the corner the musical hodgepodge turned briefly recognizable: Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D major. Ubiquity has dulled its piercing wonder but I remember the first time I heard it, late in the summer of 1976. I was living with friends and their 5-year-old daughter in Cleveland, and on a beautiful sunny morning we decided to clean the house. While we swept and dusted with windows open and curtains billowing, my friend put a chamber orchestra recording of the Canon on the turntable. For the first time in my life I felt like dancing. The sound was stately and ethereal. The closest literary analog I can think of is Pope, perhaps Essay on Man, and less for the sense than the sound and tone:
“Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death, and God adore.
What future bliss He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be, blest.
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”
The violinist in the hall was a Chinese-American kid who stopped when he saw us. “Please,” I said, “keep playing. The Canon,” and he did. Self-consciousness compromised technique but grace was present. Our private concert lasted perhaps 32 bars before the musician bowed and rushed back to his practice room. My student had remained still throughout the performance, swaying almost imperceptibly, whether from the music or medication I can’t say. This is a nonverbal teenage boy virtually without focus who leaps among sensory perceptions like a singed rabbit. For him to give 35 or 40 seconds to a solo violin was an unexpected gift for all of us. The poem I thought of is very un-Popean but lovely in its own way – the late Carl Rakosi’s “Instructions to the Player” (from The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi):
easy on that bow.
Not too much weeping.
Remember that the soul
is easily agitated
and has a terror of shapelessness.
It will venture out
but only to a doe's eye.
Let the sound out
but from a distance
like the forest at night.
And do not forget
the pause between.
That is the sweetest
and has the nature of infinity.”
My charge’s soul is easily agitated, and like many autistics he “has a terror of shapelessness.” He is, in this sense, a formalist, and is equipped to perceive sweetness and “the nature of infinity.”