Up like a Rocket – Down with a Stick


This is the sad and salutary story of the 17th century composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was born in Florence in 1632. He was a gifted and go-ahead youngster who became highly skilled at playing the guitar and violin, and impressively adept at dancing; so much so that he attracted the attention of a son of the Duke of Guise, who took him to Paris as an Italian language tutor for his niece.

Lully felt so much at home, he became a French citizen. His connection with an aristocrat brought him to the notice of the heir to the French throne, and led to his dancing alongside him in the Royal Ballet. After the Dauphin became Louis XIV, Lully, now a composer as well as an instrumentalist and dancer, was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Music.

Louis XIV, presiding over an ostentatiously wealthy court, was known as the Sun-King. Lully was dazzled, and sought a share in the riches. Having engineered monopoly control as director of the Royal Academy of Music, his wealth grew, augmented by a profitable side-line in real-estate speculation. He had indeed gone up like a rocket, but then came the ‘stick’. 

The ancient Greeks warned of the dangers of ‘hubris’ – overweening pride and self-absorption. They told the story of  Phaeton, who sought to drive the sun-chariot across the skies. All went well, until he lost control of the horses, and fell to his death. There was also Icarus who, his wings fixed on with wax, flew so well that he kept venturing higher, until he came too near the Sun. The wax melted … 

And so with the unfortunate Lully. Ironically enough, he was conducting a Te Deum he’d written to celebrate the king’s recovery from surgery! He beat time by banging the floor with a long conducting stick. At the height of his exuberant gymnastics, the plunging stick stabbed his foot. It became gangrenous, but he refused an amputation that would put an end to his dancing. The gangrene spread, and put an end to his life.

The Buddha warned us about ‘attachment’ to the things of this world – material ‘things’, like wealth and property, and immaterial ‘things’ like status and power. We can lose these at any moment to our great distress, especially if they’ve ‘meant the world’ to us. We need to practise ‘non-attachment’. This troubles some, who think it means, literally, ‘giving up’ everything we have, even those dear to us. Not so …

There was a young man with a glorious head of hair which was his pride and joy. He attended the lectures of a Zen master, seeking ‘enlightenment’. The master knew about his hair infatuation. He told him he’d accept him as a student, but only if he allowed him to cut short his hair. The young man, (like another challenged young man in the Christian Gospels), “went sorrowfully away”. But a few weeks later, after much inner wrestling, he returned and said he was ready to have his hair cut short. The master, however, told him this no longer mattered because, although his hair was still ‘attached’ to his head, he was now no longer ‘attached’ to it. 

Non-attachment is not so much about ‘giving things up’, as about ceasing to invest them with a permanence, and a life-and-death importance, they cannot and do not possess.

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