Independence? Day

by Libby Bishop

DressageHappy Fourth of July. This is the United States holiday that celebrates the American colonies throwing off the shackles of undemocratic rule by a controlling European power and purports to honour freedom. I am an American, living in the now-less-United Kingdom, where, on the 23rd of June, 37% of the electorate voted to free itself from the European Union, or so it believes. It is impossible to say that the result was about a single issue, be it immigration, xenophobia, European Union bureaucracy, or anti-elitism. But there is no doubt that the Leave campaign promised freedom. The campaign fanned fears that Britain was being controlled by Brussels, and voting Leave would free Great Britain to be Great again. Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the Leave movement, even called the 23rd of June Britain's Independence Day. In the referendum, the issues were framed in simplistic and binary terms: in or out, controlled or free.

This idea of sovereign freedom is a potent elixir. Its synonyms connote positive associations such as liberty and emancipation, whereas most words that describe limitations on freedom are negative: restriction, dependence, weakness, subjection, suppression, slavery, and as in the referendum, controlled. I have come to question this bipolar perspective of free versus controlled. Indeed, rather than being opposites, I claim that freedom and control co-exist, indeed, that authentic freedom can exist only in finely honed tension with control.

In my experience, freedom with control occurs across widely diverse disciplines and practices: horseback riding, music and political economy. I have ridden horses for over fifty years, starting as a horse-crazy girl, riding in jumping competitions in my teens, and as an adult, practicing dressage. Dressage, the French word for “training”, is a method of training a horse in obedience and precision of movement. It is about evoking a particular way of moving—forward, energetic, but always balanced, calm, and responsive. Yet as is so often the case, translation cannot convey the full meaning of the original word. Training implies basic fitness and obedience to commands, but dressage is concerned with training to higher levels of ability, akin to training a dog to be a guide for a blind person. Henry Wynmalen says, “…dressage is the art of improving one's horse beyond the stage of plain usefulness” (p. 4).*

The casual observer could be forgiven for getting the wrong impression of dressage. At the highest levels of international competition, the image is indeed one of restraint and apparent total control by the rider: extremely short reins, the horse's neck very curved, and its forehead vertical. The entire picture evokes constrained power, holding back, the very antithesis of freedom. And this sense of control is even stronger when contrasted with some other riding disciplines, such as racing, where unchecked speed is all.

But seeing dressage as only being about control and restraint is incomplete, and worse, a deep misunderstanding of the practice. Yes, the final picture looks controlled, but none of that is possible unless there is energy surging below, or more precisely, from behind. A horse is, the saying goes, a rear-drive creature. The vertical head, the graceful curve in the neck, the ability to lift the front legs easily in the passage (a slow, elevated trot) or piaffe (trotting in place), none of this is possible without surging, hindquarters-driven power. And that power has to be free to move, stretch, extend. It is a tenet of every basic dressage text – that lovely head position cannot be achieved only with control, by pulling by the head into position (though shortcuts such as rolkur—or hyperflexion—persist despite being banned in many competitions). It only happens as a result of what Wynmalen calls “free-going” energy, impulsion that surges from behind, and only then is gently channelled and controlled.

Sceptics might challenge this interpretation by saying this is not the unity of freedom and control, it is the rider controlling the horse's freedom. This fundamentally misconstrues and undervalues the partnership between horse and rider, but, to address the argument, we can turn to another endeavour with a single actor, by looking at musical composition and performance. The artist as an autonomous, independent, and creative soul would seem to embody this idealised freedom. For such a free spirit, a genius, surely their creative freedom is absolute.

Johann Sebastian Bach has as strong a claim as any artist to the title of genius. And it is certainly the case that freedom is an essential element of that genius. He needed freedom from conventions of his day to explore new forms of harmony and original instrumentations. Yet, as John Eliot Gardiner** relates, this astonishing flow of creativity happened only under conditions of both composition and performance that were anything but free. To take just one example, Bach composed hundreds of cantatas during his first three years in Leipzig as the cantor at Thomaskirche. The nearly miraculous creative outpouring happened under numerous constraints. First, it had to meet the approval of the church hierarchy, for whom the function of church music was to be sufficiently emotive to impress visitors to Leipzig's trade fairs, but without being too impassioned for a Lutheran church service. Bach also had to contend with chorus singers of highly variable quality. There was competition among the local churches for talent, and Bach's church was not the most prestigious. Moreover, for reasons of church politics, Bach was obliged to accept singers of mediocre musical ability, seriously lowering the overall quality of his choirs. Not least was the simple, unrelenting pressure of the church calendar. Cantatas were required every Sunday, and more often for feast days and additional religious holidays. For many of Bach's cantatas composition, transcription, rehearsal and performance were compressed into a single week.

I believe that it is not despite, but rather because of these demands and constraints, that the music Bach created is so profoundly moving. Some of the essence of its beauty lies in the deep, inherent tensions that we can still feel as listeners to these works. Gardiner is sympathetic to this view, perhaps going back to one of his early instructors who said, “freedom to express yourself in music, whether as a composer, conductor or performer, demanded obedience to certain laws and the possession of unassailable technical skills” (p. 20). And the creativity engendered by this constant tension between freedom and control exists not only in composition, but in the performance as well. As a conductor, Gardiner observes: “You have to hold the emotion as you play or listen, channelling it, controlling it and letting it loose in the same second.” Controlling and loose “in the same second”. This is exactly what dressage riding feels like. You signal the horse to go forward, he responds, you channel the energy between your hands and “retard the motion”, and the horse's mouth softens. When this works, beauty happens.

What if we turn to examples not of individuals, human or equine, but look instead to institutions. Perhaps there we can find a realisation of unfettered freedom. The domain that comes to mind is economics, where “free markets” have long been a defining concept in neoclassical economics. The concept, defended by Friedrich Hayek and later by Milton Freidman, in its pure form argues that unregulated free markets are the essential condition to liberate entrepreneurial creativity and maximise productive outputs. Apart from the minimal interventions of protecting property rights and ensuring free trade, government should do nothing to hinder or regulate, free markets. Their total freedom (laissez-faire) is the very key to their power– no information beyond market prices is needed to achieve this blessedly optimal equilibrium.

There have always been strong critics of this view, such as John Maynard Keynes and Karl Polanyi. Keynes' view is clear from his essay: The End of Laissez-Faire (notably published in 1926 three years before the Great Depression). Polanyi challenged the claim that free markets could exist at all. In The Great Transformation (1944), he argued that markets are inevitably historically constructed and have developed in conjunction with the nation-state. Markets can exist only in a context of institutions and norms, including but not limited to regimes of property rights and contract law. Whether or not markets can deliver optimal, or even beneficial outcomes is quite another matter, far larger than I can take on here. But my point is that neoclassical free markets simply do not, cannot, exist. They are just another myth of freedom, like unencumbered musical genius and uncontrolled equestrianism.

At a rational level, it seems straightforward: pure freedom is a myth and the outcomes we desire, from graceful horseback riding, to sublime music, or even stable economies, come about from bringing freedom into creative tension with control. So far, so rational. But the visceral, emotional appeal of absolute freedom persists. Why? I usually avoid turning to individual psychology for answers; my preference is for explanations that give more weight to social and structural factors. But I have come to believe there is a powerful psychological element to both the appeal of freedom, and our fear of control, or more precisely, of being controlled.

The ultimate, irreversible loss of control is death. What many people fear about growing older is the loss of independence, the loss of control, the loss of their autonomy, that is, no longer being free. Perhaps our battles against control while we are alive are substitutes for this final confrontation, which we will lose. If this is so, understanding based solely on rationality will not go very far. In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande writes with extraordinary knowledge and sensitively about ageing, later life, and death. He says we must face the inevitable need to redefine autonomy in later life. Dependence is inseparable from ageing, thus, for the old, a definition of autonomy as independence, and the absence of physical limitations, is simply no longer relevant. Nonetheless, a realm of autonomy, of freedom, can still exist, even subject to growing physical limitations and external controls. The projects of housing for the elderly that Gawande finds most inspiring share a principle: needing help should not mean sacrificing all of one's autonomy. Even in a condition of dependence, we can retain a capacity to be “writers of our own story”.

I share Kazuo Ishiguro's recent expression of anger about the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union. I too am angry at those who voted for racism, angry at elites for whom politics is a game (because the worst consequences will befall others) and angry that an institution (despite its flaws) that stands against the threat of war may now be mortally wounded. Doubtless some of my anger is also very personal fear, fear of my own loss of control. Will I lose my job as recession bites? Will the National Health Service on which my family depends survive? Will I be permitted to stay in the United Kingdom? Where else would I go? And I, too, may be using these fears, frightening as they are, to avoid facing one even more terrifying. But, I remind myself, my beliefs about the scope of my freedom were probably were exaggerated. I have always been less free than I thought. This may be true, but I am not yet finding much comfort in these realisations. Yet, like the horses I ride, I strive to find a way—both free and controlled—to still be the author of my life. Happy Independence Day.

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* Wynmalen was born in Holland in 1889, was an aviator, and became a horseman in the army. He later helped to establish equestrian events in the Olympics. He is best known for this book: Dressage: A Study of the Finer Points of Riding. 1953. London: Pitman Publishing.

** Gardiner, John Eliot. (2014) Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. London: Penguin.

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