Of Ducks, Music, and Cultural Relativism

American Philosopher Robert Nozick, once brilliantly answered relativists who maintain that the truth only depends on your angle of observation. Nozick said that a statement such as “all is relative” can either be “absolute” (in which case it contradicts itself), or “relative”, in which other case it lacks all general validity. I quite agree. Not everything is relative, but among human cultures, values and forms of behavior often are. For instance, it is difficult to understand a person, or a social group, without grasping its experience of history and its worldview. And this may be true as well for the many forms of animal life inhabiting our planet. And, unfortunately, we do not know how the world appears to a horse, a snake, or a fly; and that is something I started to consider a few weeks ago.

I was in Ascona by the lake, sitting on a bench and reading a magazine. I like to do that –  the view is pleasant and I get to see many lovely birds. I like ducks, in particular, they are so different from one another, and each one of them manifests a distinctive personality. Just, one day, I realized that rather than being the observer, I had become the object of observation by one of them.

There was this duck who approached me and stood still a few feet away from my bench, staring at me! Pretty embarrassing. I did not know what to do. I tried to smile – because smiling increases your “face value”. But then, he or she, moved a few steps to left, and then to the right, and again stared at me, as if to get a better view of this funny human being. It felt strange to be the object of such curiosity; and, let me tell you, at that point, I almost had the impression I could hear what the duck was thinking. Something like: “How ugly you are. You poor thing! You have no beak, you have no webbed hands, and you cannot even fly! – What kind of a life is that! You know what, if I were you I would probably simply kill myself."

No doubt, that was the work of my imagination. This train of thoughts, however, did help me understand that – from the point of view of a duck – capable of flying, and orienting itself on a continental scale, a poor thing like myself, who easily gets lost not just in Chicago, but even in the much smaller city of Zurich, is undoubtedly an inferior form of life. I might think I am superior to a duck, because I play the piano. But ducks probably do not consider piano-playing that important at all. Points of view, that’s what they are. But they count, especially in matters of culture and art.

Do you know the story told by musicologist Curt Sachs, of that one Gusle-player from Montenegro who, one day, in Germany, heard Beethoven’s Ninth, and commented the music was not at all disagreeable, but nonetheless “rather naïve”. And Curt Sachs explained how the man was neither incompetent nor an idiot – but simply was judging by the standard of his native culture, where people like additive rhythms of the aksák type, rather than our simple binary or ternary meters. And, of course, that one Gusle-player, so sensitive to the metrical organization of music, could not appreciate Beethoven’s thematic development. And there we are: so much our culture allows us to see things that in other cultures are invisible or irrelevant, and just as much makes it impossible for us to see and appreciate things that others grasp very easily, and for us will remain invisible or irrelevant.

All of this I would have liked to explain to that duck staring at me; to make it clear that, even without a beak, even without webbed hands and feet, and no ability to fly at all, life, nonetheless, can be worth living – even for an inferior animal like myself.