“We worship flowers to enlighten one.”

“The Inextinguishable.”  That’s how Det Uudslukkelige Carl Nielsen’s subtitle for his 4th Symphony is usually translated.  I felt Nielsen’s “elemental will to live” yesterday afternoon while listening to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra playing and again tonight while sitting next to a fresh cut vase of irises and daffodils.

First the flowers.  At the Princeton Insight Meditation session tonight, I happened to be sitting next to the table with the Buddha and the vase of flowers.  I’m still working on concentrating on my breath. My breath brought me the delicious, sweet smell of these flowers.  Through paying attention to how pleasing I found these scents, how sometimes  they were strong, sometimes weak, and sometimes not there at all, how the chemical molecules emitted by the flowers interacted with the smell receptors in my nostrils, I focused more and more on how each breath traveled deeper and deeper into my lungs.  I forgot about the flowers and just breathed.

After sitting for half an hour, we do walking meditation.  I spent this time thinking about what I had just experienced, and then I remembered what had happened this afternoon.  A new monk from Sri Lanka joined his fellow monk whom I’ve been teaching for the past few months.  We were practicing words that begin with “f” which seem to give them trouble.  The new student had to write a sentence using the word “flowers.”  He wrote, “We worship flowers to enlighten one.”  This afternoon I helped him correct his English to get at what I thought he wanted to say.  “We use flowers to worship the Enlightened One.”  This evening, however, I realized that I had experienced the truth of what he wrote the first time.

Now the music.  Nielsen explains his subtitle Det Uudslukkelige:

… music is life whereas the other arts only depict life.  Life is unquenchable and inextinguishable;  yesterday, today, and tomorrow, life was, is, and will be in struggle, conflict, procreation and destruction;  Music is life, and as such, inextinguishable.

Music expresses life where the other arts “construct models and symbolize.”  Nielsen sounds very close to Schopenhauer, whom Laura paraphrased in her paper on “Clarin’s Musical Ideal.”

Music … is the melody to which the world is text. Language has only the most tenuous claim on the articulation of this text.

Ironically, Schopenhauer is widely regarded as a pessimist, while the program notes for yesterday’s concert describe Nielsen’s “musical output [as] unabashedly optimistic.”  His 4th Symphony certainly did express the “struggle, conflict, procreation and destruction” that is life.  In this he and Schopenhauer may fit Peter Ustinov’s distinction between an optimist and a pessimist.

I am an optimist, unrepentant and militant. After all, in order not to be a fool, an optimist must know what a sad place the world can be. It is only the pessimist who finds this out anew every day.

In this regard I think that translating Nielsen’s subtitle as “The Inextinguishable” does the work a disservice.  It lacks punch.  Words like “unquenchable” and “insatiable” convey his music and the “elemental will to live” much better.  Of course, our unquenchable thirst and insatiable appetites are what lead to the “struggle, conflict, procreation and destruction” that is life.


  1. And I love the words from Peter Ustinov — I am holding onto being an optimist these days. Thank you, Ken!

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