Bolotin portrait bw

The Best Human Life: a Conversation with David Bolotin

For the majority of us, the life we lead and the life we most admire are not the same. The first time we run headlong into this realization, and are able to greet it with acceptance, may be the first time we embrace our adulthood. In most cases we blame circumstance for the discrepancy, even as it reoccurs throughout our lives. We have bills to pay, children to take care of, friends to support, projects to start and to finish. Rarely do we see our own agency in departing from our imaginary, perfect lives.

David Bolotin plays the piano beautifully. He could be said to have a rare talent, one that he neglected for thirty-five years and that has now reemerged at the center of his life. But, as a student of philosophy, Bolotin sits uneasily with this transformation, maybe for the very fact that the change originated in himself and he has no one else to blame.

“It started eight years ago. At first I felt that I was letting myself down and not being true to my aspirations, and I resisted it some. But it didn’t work. I just found that every morning I was getting up earlier and playing the piano. It just was a very strong passion. To some extent for maybe up to a year I told myself, it’ll pass, and that I would make an effort to help it pass.

“My wife, Susu Knight, and I went to Germany for a year and I made an effort – I told myself that I was going to study more there and I made an effort but it didn’t amount to much. And the passion for music just grew stronger and stronger and I discovered chamber music and I loved it more and more and I finally decided: this is me.”

For many of us the realization that at heart we are artists, and the fire of our talent cannot be contained, would be gratifying to say the least. The thought, I am a concert musician, does not cause us undue concern. But for Bolotin this realization was a departure, and his judgment of himself might be a little jarring:

“I think that the life of the mind − even in the way I lived it which was very, very far from the peak − was a higher thing than the life of even a composer let alone of a performing musician. But I think there’s nothing written in the stars that says that I, at age 68, have to be capable of the best human life.”

Before we condemn him for an undemocratic assertion – first, that there even is a ‘best human life,’ and moreover that the life of a talented musician ranks below the best – let’s grant Bolotin the benefit of being a thoughtful and feeling man. If we listen to what he has to say as we might listen to him play music, with an open heart and a discerning mind, we might discover that he is not being ungenerous to musicians or to the rest of us. If there is a best way to live, there must be a truth about our human situation to which this way frames the best response. His account is far from unconsidered:

“I think ordinary, non-philosophic life, whether it knows it or not, lives in a perspective that has an infinite future and that doesn’t imagine that those that one loves will die and that one will die. That it’s all very impermanent. And ordinary life is life lived in hope for the continuation of the joys that we have now. I don’t think that that hope is well founded. And lots of people suspect that that hope isn’t well founded and they come to terms with it in various ways: some people find solace in religious belief, and others get cynical and think that we don’t need those hopes.

“Music − I think, it deepens the attachment to non-philosophic or ordinary life, it celebrates the joyous passions, it assuages our anxieties through rhythm and things like that, and it consoles us for our griefs by beautifying them, and therefore it allows us to celebrate the joys of ordinary life and to endure its troubles.

“In that way it actually stands in the way of philosophy or what Socrates calls the ‘turning around of the soul.’ And I live a divided life now because in my own life, and in the lives of the people I play for, I nourish an attachment that I don’t think is ultimately the best thing for us. But I don’t think it’s the worst thing for us, and I think an attachment to ordinary life that keeps in mind its hopes is better than what we see around us, which is largely cynicism.”

Death confronts us always. Every one of us will die (and could at any moment) and everything that we know and love will disappear; not even our ashes will remain for long to speak of our joys, longings and tragedies. Philosophy, Bolotin’s ‘life of the mind,’ does not shy from perceiving its own impermanence. And the truth of our own existence − that we are impermanent − is more truly witnessed in philosophy than in any other pursuit. Philosophy is much more honest than music in witnessing our situation. Or at least this is true for Bolotin.

In its own way, though, music does witness our situation – perhaps not as authentically as philosophy, but every piece of music does end. A central part of music is its transience, and all of the emotion and experience of a piece of music will stop as soon as the musician stops playing. But there’s a difference: music ends in resolution. Life may not. As Bolotin says,

“In music we may want to use the imperfect analogy of a Greek telos rather than a cutting off. A piece of modern, Western music with its cadences and its harmonic structure is a complete and satisfying whole and it gives a sense that we’re part of some larger complete and satisfying whole.

“I feel that but I don’t believe it.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were never left with an unresolved ending in life? Wouldn’t it be nice if all things ended in their completion, in full telic fashion, resolved like a sonata? But they don’t, at least in so far as we witness them – or not always. In our lives, people die without giving us the chance to say goodbye to them, and we feel alone and isolated in their loss.

Perhaps, then, our solitude is more authentic than even our companionship. We may call ourselves essentially ‘social animals’ or we may call ourselves essentially ‘rational animals.’ Music, with the fullness of cadence and resolution, speaks to our social nature: belonging, security, meaningfulness. We play music for others and with others. “I love playing with other people. I love playing for audiences,” says Bolotin.

“I love sharing my pleasure in music both with the performers I play with and with the people who come to listen. I don’t think I would love music as much as I do if it weren’t for those two things, so music is a very social pleasure.

“Philosophy, of course, has a social side but ultimately it’s solitary, and I don’t think music is.”

In our own lives, we too may face a disparity between our social selves and our solitary minds. It’s left to us to answer which human pursuit holds more value for us, and perhaps we need not pass judgment about which part of our nature, the social or the rational, we choose to nurture. But for Bolotin at least, it’s clear which part is more central:

“I think our rationality is deeper and that our minds are individual, as distinct from our being as a whole, which is more social. So rightly or wrongly I think that the philosophic perspective is superior. I’ve seen a few people who come closer to living it than I do now and I admire them.

“I have certainly felt the pleasure of study and of learning and of knowing. Is it the most intense pleasure? No, not at all. But it seems to me the highest pleasure because it’s the one that’s most consistent with what I think is the truth of our situation…

“It’s beautiful.

“I’m tempted to call it a cleaner beauty than musical beauty.”

But no matter how beautiful the life of the mind, at some point the pleasure of music, its hope and resolution, managed to overcome Bolotin. He was unable to restrain his passion and unwilling to keep trying. I imagine him waking up in a cold, grey morning in Germany and struggling with the intense desire to play music, to lose himself in the piano, in its harmony and the harmony of others, and fighting against that with an idea of what it is to be most fully human: solitude and thought. The piano won.

“I just think something happened and there was a void and it got filled in spades. And I admire my old self more than the new self, but the new self is who I am now, and for the most part I like it very much.”

“In some sense, by the way, my story isn’t radically different from what must be lots of people’s story when they leave St. John’s and they do something that they don’t think is as high as what they were trying to do at St. John’s but, one, they have to do it, and two, they usually find out that they enjoy doing it at least as much as they enjoyed St. John’s.

“You have to come to terms with that. I postponed it a few more decades than many of our alums do.”

In the end, the trash needs taken out and the dishes washed. We must make money and take care of the others around us. Some of us must play music. Perhaps it’s too much to expect us to unite our passions and our minds; perhaps it’s not. But certainly it’s hard to be delighted with our lives while focusing on our own impermanence. “Well,” muses Bolotin, “Prospero said, ‘every third thought shall be my death,’ so you get two out of three. You can also think about other things.”

Or you can play the piano.



Comments are welcome:



4 thoughts on “The Best Human Life: a Conversation with David Bolotin

  1. This is really interesting, with some really great writing. I feel follow-up questions brewing in my head that are not quite formed, but I do think there is something missing here, which is the mind-body connection. There is more to music than pleasure; it holds meaning for the brain (including something really fascinating called the memory bulge) and has been shown to relieve pain in severely ill patients. While that is earth-bound and irrational in some ways, it also feels intrinsic to the very ideas of life and death.

  2. Really enjoyed this, Jackson. Few people probably would stop and think seriously about the issues and tension that Mr. Bolotin describes here (including myself!), but I relished reading about how he has done so. It brought back fond memories of freshman seminar with him. Thank you, Mr. Bolotin, for continuing to instruct us, as much now with your life as with Plato. And thank you, Jackson, for this sensitively written piece.

  3. Jackson,
    Thank you for writing this. Thank you for being connected to the temple at St. John’s and absorbing and sending that energy out to us who are not so close to thoughts like these. I can use a recharge and a reminder. Keep ‘em coming, and I spose that I could be pulling some gold out of my life and sending it to you all.

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