Wednesday, December 31, 2008

F Buttons, "Bright Tomorrow" (#5)

"Bright Tomorrow"
(Andrew Hung/Benjamin John Power)
F Buttons
Street Horrrsing

This band from Bristol with a terrible (and unpronounceable, at least on this blog that potential employers might see) name nevertheless creates some of the most oddly beautiful music I've ever heard. Their debut LP, Street Horrrsing, probably doesn't contain more than three chords (and quite possibly fewer!), and each individual element is by itself either boring or harsh.

But you put them together and you get sublimity itself, something akin to Philip Glass joining a punk band. "Bright Tomorrow" is the best example. It's nearly eight minutes long and repeats the same three notes over and over again, with only three instruments: an organ, a kick drum, a heavily flanged guitar, and a louder, more distorted guitar that doesn't kick in for quite some time.

And yet it's hypnotic, and it contains a sense of motion that goes far beyond what you'd expect from my description. By the time the vocals kick in (screamed and unintelligible, but put far enough in the mix where they feel more textured than abrasive), you don't need them to. You could listen to those same three notes forever.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Nana Grizol, "Circles 'Round the Moon"

"Circles 'Round the Moon"
(Theo Hilton)
Nana Grizol
Love It Love It

Athens is a weird place when it comes to the night sky. (It's weird in a lot of other ways, too, but bear with me.) I live in an apartment complex on the East side of the city--far, far away from the usually drunk undergraduates who pepper the neighborhoods nearer to campus--and while I'm sometimes blinded by light pollution from gas stations and fast-food restaurants, the sky is occasionally as clear as I've ever seen it. Sometimes I'm trapped by civilization. Sometimes it lets me by.

Fellow Athenians Nana Grizol seem to know what I mean, as they take their obvious shots at Atlanta ("City lights feel so awful / It should be unlawful to live where you can't see the stars") in favor of something rural enough for the Pleiades but urban enough for indie rock. But the song's about more than that--it's about growing up but not quite, losing your friends but not quite, wasting your time but not quite. It's about liminality, the type I thrived on when I was twenty or so.

I'm not a huge fan of the rest of Love It Love It, incidentally--Theo Hilton succumbs way too often to Kimya Dawson-style cutesy vocals. But here's manic here, a bit, perhaps, like Will Sheff or Conor Oberst but more optimistic. He's not drowning, as Sheff was on "Lost Coastlines"--he's lying on his back on the life raft, looking at the sky and realizing the ultimate possibilities of rescue.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Land of Talk, "Some Are Lakes" (#7)

"Some Are Lakes"
(Elizabeth Powell)
Land of Talk
Some Are Lakes

Here's a great newish band (from Montreal, of course, like every newish band of the past five years) with a fantastic, pretense-free pop song. It's the best of early R.E.M. filtered through the best of their '90s and '00s imitators--jangly but propulsive, cheerily melodic but dark somehow beneath the surface.

I'll confess that I generally don't like bands with female singers. I'd like to think it's less misogyny than the fact that I can't sing along with them. (This may also explain why I count Johnny Cash lower than most of his outlaw peers.) But I couldn't sing along with these lyrics anyway. It's fun to watch message boards try to collective figure out what on earth Liz Powell is singing here.

So she's stealing Michael Stipe's act (circa 1983) from him. And you know what? It works, and "Some Are Lakes" is way, way better than anything on R.E.M.'s 2008 Accelerate and maybe--and I'll risk the scorn of rock historians and Athenians alike here--better than anything on Murmur. Powell is hypnotic in the way Stipe was in his salad days, and sexy to boot. The only lyric I can make out is "I'll love you like I love you--then I'll die." I'm not sure what that means, but I wouldn't mind hearing Powell sing it to me on my deathbed.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Interlude: A Brief Meditation on "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

1940's Fantasia is a high-water mark in animation history--Disney has rarely topped it, and no full-length animated film from any other studio has even come close. Nearly every moment of the film (at least the animated portions, all of them wordless or nearly wordless) is sublime, and the concept--introducing children (and the rest of us) to classical music via animation--is brilliant.

All of the segments are gorgeous, but none is more beloved than "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," set to the Dukas classic and starring Disney's flagship character, Mickey Mouse. It is unusual in Mickey's canon in that he is something of a troublemaker and a screw-up; these traits were common in early shorts like "Plane Crazy" and especially "The Galloping Gaucho" (in which our hero gets drunk and starts a bar-fight!), but the 1930s found Mickey becoming increasingly bland, an everyman for obedient children.

Mickey is here the everyman for all of us, particularly those of us in the West with a vested interest in science. Perhaps no man believed in progress more than Walt Disney, a subject I've written about more-or-less extensively elsewhere. But progress has its dark side. One day I will complete my dream project about Walt's conflicted attitude toward technological progress, but for now I'll advise you to take a look at the much-maligned but well-beloved (in my family, anyway) Carousel of Progress, in which the more things change, the more they stay the same--the technology keeps breaking down, and the show ends with a Smart Oven nearly burning down the house.

And so we come to 1940, one year after J. Robert Oppenheimer began his Manhattan Project, the research opportunity that would eventually level two Japanese cities and burn their citizens' shadows into the sidewalks. I am not sure about the public awareness of the embryonic atom bomb in the early 1940s, but nuclear awareness was on the rise, with the American military frightened about a possible Nazi bomb.

That growing public awareness of the split atom shows up in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," perhaps the darkest short Disney has ever released. (My fiancee is deathly afraid of it.) It's anarchic in a way that Disney is rarely anarchic, frightening in a way matched only by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' wicked queen (who, let us not forget, wants Snow White to be "BURIED ALIVE!!!") and Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent, one of film history's greatest villains.

But the revolution is that the villain in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is Mickey Mouse himself, the blandest and best of all everymen--perhaps foolish but ethically above reproach. (Walt Disney noted that Mickey wishes to share the spotlight with his friends, introducing and then playing second fiddle to Donald Duck and Goofy.) In this short, however, he commits Satan's cardinal sin, the absolute worst thing a mouse or a man can do--he plays God. He puts on the hat reserved for the Sorcerer, and he climbs the mountain and controls the seas. He splits the atom. He introduces an incredible evil into the world, an evil that cannot be stopped or controlled, an evil that multiplies indefinitely until only God or the Sorcerer can halt its march.

And so with the nuclear age. The tragic realism of the atom bomb (I'll not take a stand on whether Truman should have ordered its use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) gave way to the nuclear hysteria of the 1950s and '60s. It created a world of horrible possibility, a world that, as many a historian has noted, we could destroy for the first time ever. And maybe the Sorcerer will save us with minimal punishment (he just swats Mickey on his behind, almost lovingly)--or maybe he'll let us drown.

Fantasia seems to anticipate this terrible progression. And so I must again suspect that Walt Disney was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation--perhaps even a prophet of sorts, envisioning not only the great interstellar flight of mankind but our capacity (and maybe desire) for self-destruction.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Glen Campbell, "All I Want Is You" (#8)

"All I Want Is You"
(Adam Clayton/David Evans/Larry Mullen Jr./Paul Hewson)
Glen Campbell
Meet Glen Campbell

Best I can tell, the success of the stripped-down covers comeback record depends largely upon the amount of credibility the artist had in his salad days. Thus, Johnny Cash's American Recordings series will probably go down as his best albums ever, and Kris Kristofferson's This Old Road ended up as a worthy addition to his catalogue--whereas Neil Diamond's 12 Songs was overwrought and top-heavy. (The less said about Pat Boone's mid-'90s comeback, No More Mister Nice Guy, the better.)

And so take a moment and think about how bad Meet Glen Campbell could have been. My generation, after all, chiefly knows Glen Campbell from his ridiculous 1975 smash "Rhinestone Cowboy," the title of which is both setup and punchline. And after Campbell's arrest for drunk driving a few years ago, I was pretty sure we'd heard the last of him.

And "All I Want Is You" should have been the worst of the bunch. It's a nice enough song, but (a) the U2 original encourages Bono-ian caterwauling and posing; and (b) its inclusion on Campbell's record is bound to draw comparison to Cash's amazing cover of "One," from American Recordings III. Campbell was going to wear a suit made of mirrors, wink, and sing, and we were all going to want our four minutes back.

What a surprise then that Campbell turns in one of the best vocal performances of his career. Campbell, it's true, always has his chest puffed out a bit--he's a good singer, but he comes from an era where "good" to some extent meant bombastic and coke-fueled. But it totally works for him here. His vocals are actually more subdued and nuanced than Bono's, and the country-pop arrangement suits the song better than I expected it to. And thank the Lord, it's more "Wichita Lineman" (still a great song, no matter how much people make fun of it) than "Rhinestone Cowboy."

The important thing is that for whatever reason, Campbell's past, both personal and professional, gives him the credence to sing these lines and make them sound genuine: "All the promises we make / From the cradle to the grave / When all I want is you." Maybe we want you, too.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lackthereof, "Last November" (#9)

"Last November"
(Danny Seim)
Your Anchor

Lackthereof was never a pop band. I have a few of their records, and at the best they're mildly catchy--but more often they're awash in reverb and tremelo, as though Danny Seim's home studio were at the bottom of some lake. I'm not sure if it's the influence of Seim's other band, Menomena (themselves a long way from Big Star, let alone Britney Spears), but he has a melodic breakthrough all throughout Your Anchor, and it's most visible on "Last November."

The verses sound like prototypical Lackthereof--the droning organ, the crisp drums, and the double-tracked, mumbling vocals. But then the chorus kicks in, and for once it's a chorus you can sing along with: "Going going going going going." Sure, it doesn't say anything concrete, but it's clear and open and backed by U2 guitars. I like it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dr. Dog, "Hang On" (#10)

"Hang On"
(Toby Leaman/Scott McMicken)
Dr. Dog

So we enter the top 10 with Dr. Dog's "Hang On," the type of song Paul McCartney would write if he still wrote good songs--oh, and if he were obsessed with death and gospel music.

"Hang On," best I can figure, is about people needing people and not needing to need those people or at least not wanting to need to need those people. These relationships are formed in crisis--and most of life, I suppose, is composed of crises--but they grow mossy and stale once "the drowning stops."

But the real story is the singer (I got my copy of this album from emusic and don't know who sings or plays which instrument) and his plaintive wail. I'm a sucker for theatricality, I guess, and when he holds out the note, I'm hooked: "I don't neeeeeeeeeeed no doctor to tear me aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall apart." McCartney couldn't have said it or sang it any better.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ponytail, "Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel" (#11)

"Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came from an Angel)"
(Jeremy Hyman/Ken Seeno/Molly Siegel/Dustin Wong)
Ice Cream Spiritual

Victoria always says there are two types of people--lyrics people and music people. I used to be a lyrics person, but as time goes by (and as this list attests in multiple places) I find myself caring much less about what a song attempts to "say" and more and more about how it feels

And so we come to number eleven, Ponytail's "Celebrate the Body Electric," a seven-minute blast of pink noise and energy with absolutely nothing of value to say. The music says it all, between Molly Siegel's (surely artificially architectured) Camille vocals and the sheer volume and speed of the guitars. The resulting noise is somewhere in between bluegrass, heavy metal, and surf, with a good dose of noise rock thrown in.

It's almost more than I can bear, seven minutes of it, and the band--obviously either knowing that civilians can't handle this kind of energy or not being able to keep up the speed themselves--have thoughtfully provided us with brief breaks in intensity, in which the drums all but drop out and the guitars play gentle arpeggios. But those sections only make the noise more obvious, more glorious--you're ready for them to be over when they are.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Morning Jacket, "I'm Amazed" (#12)

"I'm Amazed"
(Jim James)
My Morning Jacket
Evil Urges

My Morning Jacket were always far more informed by 1970s commercial rock than the vast majority of their indie rock peers, but they reach new heights in that influence in "I'm Amazed," which begins with big drums and guitar noodling before Jim James bursts in with a Southern rock scream: "I'm amaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaazed at the quiet ocean."

It's a political song, I guess, as James finds himself amazed "by the divided nation" and "the lack of evolution." But its message, as is true of so many songs this year, comes second to the sound of the song. It bobs and weaves, anchored by heavy bass and what sounds like a clavichord (although it could just be a distorted guitar) but buoyed at nearly all times by James' vocals.

And given the '70s influence on the song, you shouldn't be surprised (or amazed) by James' rock scream at the end of the second verse or by the Skynyrd guitar solo throughout. This song sounds like the best musical moments from my childhood; it doesn't sound anything like Dobie Gray's version of "Drift Away," but that's what it feels like to me: hearing Gray plead for the beat in the front seat of my father's company car as we were on the way to some trout farm or another.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Okkervil River, "Lost Coastlines" (#13)

"Lost Coastlines"
(Will Sheff)
Okkervil River
The Stand Ins

I finally got on the bandwagon and discovered Okkervil River this year. It's really a shame that "Plus Ones" from 2007's The Stage Names didn't come out this year--I listened to it probably a hundred times, and it would almost certainly be my favorite of 2008.

"Lost Coastlines" isn't quite as good, but it's got the same appealing sadness, masked by Will Sheff's witticisms and frantic pace. Listen to that jaunty bassline, and then listen to the melancholic strings that layer over it in the final minute and a half of the song, and you'll know everything you need to know about the ability of "Lost Coastlines" to mix the manic and the depressive.

Meanwhile, we're also given the contrast between the hyperactive, obsessive, paranoid yelp of Will Sheff and the cool, collected, sarcastic croon of Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg. They mix together and somehow end up saying something deeper and more meaningful than either of them could have managed on his own.

Sheff never lets up on his frantic rhymes, but it'll feel like the intensity decreases when Meiburg's vocals kick in. It doesn't. Sheff is the wave, Meiburg the undertow. Both of them drag you further and further away from the shore.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Lie Down Here and Be My Girl" (#14)

"Lie Down Here and Be My Girl"
(Nick Cave)
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!

It's not surprising that the sick mind that brought us "Red Right Hand" and "The Mercy Seat" would write "Lie Down Here and Be My Girl," which is less a romantic come-on than a threat of necrophilia. It's not a murder ballad exactly, but Cave's unleashed sexuality has a definite edge of danger in it, from the screeching guitars to his mumbled/screamed vocals.

"You're as brittle as the wishbone of a bird," he sneers at her. "We've been scribbled in the margins of a story that is patently absurd." He's turned himself into Albert Camus here--that most famous of absurdists who once said that without God there'd be nothing for man to do but fornicate and read the newspaper. But Cave doesn't have a newspaper, and his fornication is something closer to murder than lovemaking.

He's Hazel Motes' "New Christ," the blood pouring from his side as he clutches at flesh and tries to rebuild a broken world the only way he knows how. But he's not so much standing on the hood of his car as lying in the back seat of it. The message is clear: The world doesn't make sense, no matter how much you try to make it, so all that's left is sex and murder. And they're the same thing.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Decemberists, "Valerie Plame" (#15)

"Valerie Plame"
(Colin Meloy/Jenny Conlee/Chris Funk/John Moen/Nate Query)
The Decemberists
Always the Bridesmaid: Volume I

If nothing else, we owe a debt of gratitude to Colin Meloy for his valiant attempt to reintroduce the clause "if that really is your name" back into the national lexicon.

In its way, "Valerie Plame" is not that different from a few of the songs on the Decemberists' breakthrough record, 2005's Picaresque. It's a tale of intrigue and espionage gone terribly wrong, and in this it's a logical sequel to "The Bagman's Gambit." But it also follows the lead of the superb "16 Military Wives" in attaching Meloy's melodramatic and antiquated language to current events. Pitchfork calls it "unbearably smug." Sure, but what Decemberists song isn't?

You'd be foolish to attempt to determine Meloy's genuine feelings toward Plame from the song--they're not in there. Instead, he creates a character, no more or less real than the Ancient Mariner or the Engine Driver or any of his other characters, and writes a five-minute eulogy for her. It's the saddest carnival you've ever heard, and by the time it breaks into full Paul McCartney mode at the end, it's stuck in your head forever.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Duffy, "Warwick Avenue" (#16)

"Warwick Avenue"
(Aimee Ann Duffy/Jimmy Hogarth/Eg White)

Duffy is another in the recent flush of heirs to Dusty Springfield's blue-eyed crown, but she lacks the self-destructive tendencies of Amy Winehouse, and she's more restrained (okay, and prettier) than Joss Stone. It amazes me how all these British gals manage to make themselves sound as though they grew up in West Memphis.

"Warwick Avenue" is three minutes and 47 seconds of pure pop delight; it manages to sound held back and raw at the same time. And it somehow aches like the best soul (brown- or blue-eyed) while never feeling dangerous. My mother would love this song. And if that sounds like an indictment, you've bought into the Winehouse myth way too strongly.

The little reggae beat on the verse is nice enough, but the kicker, of course, is the chorus hook: "You think you're lovely, but you don't love me." It's straight out of your seventh-grade notebook, but Duffy sings it with utter sincerity and complete calm. She doesn't need the vocal histrionics of U.S. pretenders to the R&B throne--Mariah Carey or even Beyonce would slaughter this song--and it's her self-control that makes such a pedestrian moment perfect.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Frightened Rabbit, "Head Rolls Off" (#17)

"Head Rolls Off"
(Grant Hutchinson/Scott Hutchinson/Billy Kennedy/Andy Monaghan)
Frightened Rabbit
The Midnight Organ Fight

The Scottish, never known for their sunny, optimistic outlook, seem to produce the dourest of dour bands. There's Belle and Sebastian, memorably described in High Fidelity as "sad bastard music." There's Arab Strap, named after a bondage device and reveling in the depravity of sexual man. And there's Mogwai, who thunder apocalyptically and usually wordlessly.

Add Frightened Rabbit to the list. Here we have the flip side of U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Bono and company sang about the doubts that surrounded a life of faith. But "Head Rolls Off" is about the certainty that surrounds atheism. It's a last-minute report from the guillotine by a man about to lose his life for blasphemy. He doesn't recant, of course, and what he gives us is an elaborate apology for humanism.

To anyone who reads this blog regularly, it will go without saying that I don't share Scott Hutchinson's religious beliefs. But something moves me in the way he sings it with such conviction--far more than Bono ever did. His humanist manifesto horrifies me at the same time it sucks me in. How can a band sound dour and anthemic at the same time?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

David Byrne and Brian Eno, "Everything That Happens" (#18)

"Everything That Happens"
(David Byrne/Brian Eno)
David Byrne and Brian Eno
Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

David Byrne's first collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, happened nearly two decades ago and was a bizarre New Wave masterpiece of African polyrhythms and ambient electronic music. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today doesn't sound much like that record, however. The restless experimentation is gone, subsumed under the wave of adult life. Nor does it particularly sound like the Talking Heads' masterwork, 1980's Remain in Light (produced by Eno). It's not jerky the way that album is jerky. Byrne doesn't sound paranoid, at least not in the same way. Again, he sounds more sedate, more comfortable.

The title track, for example, features no percussion but instead floats on a cloud of synthesizer noise and treated guitar. It's Byrne's dream of the oddly simulated suburban neighborhood featured on the cover. He's no longer amazed, as he was in "Once in a Lifetime," the Talking Heads song to which the lyrics most obviously point; this is his beautiful house, and inside is his beautiful wife, and he's grown accustomed to it. He drives to work on a "perfect freeway," and even if he watches a car bomb blow his neighbor's automobile to bits, he's all right, and he wants to make sure you are, too.

It's not happy, exactly. Byrne is never all that happy, however upbeat and minor-key his music gets. But he's making his peace with a society he used to think was out to get him. It's not out to get him here. It's just silent, and if it's ominous, it's not sinister. Don't worry about the government. Same as it ever was.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Passion Pit, "Better Things" (#19)

"Better Things"
(Michael Angelakos)
Passion Pit
Chunk of Change

Plenty of skinny white indie kids have tried to do soul music in the last ten years or so, and big news: Most of them fail. For the most part they come off too arch, too removed. You can't sing soul and stand back; you have to let go of your self-consciousness, your "cool."

It may be the origins of Chunk of Change that allows Michael Angelakos' Passion Pit to escape this curse. He recorded the six-song EP as a Valentine's Day present for his girlfriend, with--we're told--little to no intention of the rest of us hearing it. But you can't keep secrets in an electronic age, and the disc passed from person to person until it finally landed at Frenchkiss records, who sent it out to the rest of us.

So "Better Things" ends up sounding personal (Angelakos is fully committed here) but also corporate--you could easily hear Prince covering this song twenty years ago and making it into a smash hit. The music is the glorious mess of Around the World in a Day, while the vocals sound like the helium-high "Camille" sections of Sign 'o' the Times.

All in all it's an ode to pure joy, one of the few indie funk songs I'd be happy sticking next to the best the '70s and '80s have to offer.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jenny Lewis, "Carpetbaggers" (#20)

(Johnathan Rice)
Jenny Lewis
Acid Tongue

Jenny Lewis' "Rise Up with Fists" was my favorite song of 2006, but nothing from her latest, Acid Tongue has hit me anywhere near that hard. I'm particularly baffled by "The Next Messiah," a nine-minute tuneless monstrosity that everyone else seems to like.

And "Carpetbaggers" isn't a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. It's a catchy little country-rock number reportedly written by Lewis' boyfriend, Johnathan Rice, during the Rabbit Fur Coat tour in an attempt to incorporate something upbeat in the tour repertoire. The melody, at least in the verses, is a blatant copping of Tom Petty's "Apartment Song" (though it simply must be stated that Rice's lyrics are far better than Petty's).

But the song itself doesn't matter. "Carpetbaggers" is driven into transcendence on the strength of its vocal performances. Lewis sounds as effortlessly sexy as she always does, half earnest and half sarcastic, half Midwestern, half Californian. I could listen to her sing a list of foreign cheeses, and it would probably make me want to cry.

And then Elvis Costello takes over the second verse as only Elvis Costello can. His sneering whine completely changes the tone of the song, and what was at first a sexy little tune about groupies becomes something more akin to "Alison" or "Pump It Up." I've always felt like Costello hates women--both his personal life and his lyrics back my theory up--and so it makes sense that Lewis and Rice would give him the lyric about his friend who wants to kill himself after getting married.

But no matter. The point is the way their voices mix together, these two great if unconventional singers who can wax postmodern and howl a new-blues howl at the same time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Goodbye, MP3s

I got the dreaded takedown notice from Blogger today, so there'll be no more MP3s on here. I'll continue posting the essays on my top 25 songs of the year, but you'll have to go elsewhere to find MP3s of them. I recommend the Hype Machine.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Gaslight Anthem, "The '59 Sound" (#21)

"The '59 Sound"
(Brian Fallon/Benny Horowitz/Alex Levine/Alex Rosamilla)
The Gaslight Anthem
The '59 Sound

Mostly I'm just angry this song didn't exist back when I needed it in the summer of 2002. I had it bad for this girl I was never going to get (and didn't really want in the grand scheme of things), and I was working the night shift at a hotel in Commerce, Georgia, a job from which I would drive back, 45 minutes, at 3 a.m. I've felt more alone than those nights only once, and that time it wasn't romantic or wistful, only scary. But that summer was a beautiful loneliness, a loneliness made of a strange sort of possibility.

I had just started listening to Bruce Springsteen, even if the only record I had was 1998's Greatest Hits, a strange compilation of hits and also-rans that I nevertheless must have listened to 800 times on those back roads, and I'm sure that I thought of that girl every single time I sang "Thunder Road" at the top of my lungs just to stay awake, chain-smoking Turkish Golds and mainlining coffee. Then I'd sit up for three or four hours in my dump of an apartment, unable to sleep for the heat.

"The '59 Sound" has absolutely nothing in common with the actual music coming out of 1959 except that it, like the songs of the era and like Springsteen between the two, is the music of pure possibility, of loneliness so deeply felt and so deeply romanticized that you know it's only a temporary loneliness and so you can drink it deeply and allow it to live inside of you as you live inside of it. I feel nineteen again when I hear this song, and nineteen for me was, believe me, as thirteen was for the rest of you.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

TV on the Radio, "Lover's Day" (#22)

"Lover's Day"
(Kyp Malone)
TV on the Radio
Dear Science

"Lover's Day," like many other TV on the Radio songs, is a masterful example of controlled chaos. For eight seconds, you think it might be a more-or-less typical indie rock soul song, what with the tambourine and the thumping bass and Tunde Adebimpe's rich vocals. But then, just as Adebimpe sings "the longing is terrible," the blast of horns (synthesized, I think) slaps you in the face like the longing itself, and the guitar (real, as far as I can tell) starts up. That guitar maintains itself pretty much through the entire song, and it's the most interesting part of the production, to me, anyway. They probably recorded it a lot louder than we hear it--it's an atonal wave of noise that they've pulled down in the mix so that it sounds as though it's behind glass. It's a sublimation of pain and longing, the type of pain and longing that "will melt our faces off."

But as the song progresses, the rest of the song follows that guitar--and while the genuine noise never makes it out of the back of the right channel, everything else in the track picks up the slack, rising to something glorious and transcendent, not so much a wall of sound as a mountain of it--unscalable, unexplainable, but absolutely beautiful.

And then in the final minute and a half, a New Orleans symphony of brass and woodwind kicks in, not so much eliminating the pink noise of the rest of the track as channeling it into something you can understand but still can't quite name.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Giant Sand, "Increment of Love" (#24)

"Increment of Love"
(Howe Gelb)
Giant Sand

Howe Gelb is a master of mixing the creepy with the funny, as evidenced on his excellent solo album Sno Angel Like You. Here he slows down Dick Dale and throws him into a minor key--"surfing on the waves of a lava head" about sums it up--and crawls into your veins to check out the scenery. Then he pulls cells out of your lips and stores them, against their will, in a Mason jar.

The lead guitar parts accomplish what I was always trying to get at in songs like "I Am Bound to Her," which is to say that they sound restrained but they're really going off the rails, the sound of a stress headache or obsession or oblivion. Truth is, I'm overwrought in my song, but Gelb is the model of restraint; you barely notice his electric squawking, hidden as it is behind his Tom Waits whisper and the horns filling out the mix.

It's a mood song more than anything else--there's no melody, and the lyrics don't, as far as I can tell, have any real meaning. But what a mood. The song is perfect for hanging out in someone's bushes at 2 a.m.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Islands, "The Arm" ( #25)

It's that time of year again--or actually, for the first time, since this is the first December I've had this blog. Each year, I pick 25 songs (it used to be 20, but it's too hard to cut them out) as my favorites from the past 12 months. For the purposes of this list, 2008 started last Thanksgiving and ended the day before this Thanksgiving.

A word: My list, especially this year, is what people have taken to calling "rockist," meaning that it's composed mostly of rock music performed by greasy white kids. I'm ashamed, I suppose, but I find the older I get the less I care for rap music, and while there were some good radio-pop songs this year, I didn't happen to buy or download any of them. It's an admitted oversight.

So here we go:

"The Arm"
(Nick Thorburn)
The Islands
Arm's Way

The Canadian invasion continues with this Montreal-based (imagine that!) band and their second LP. On this quasi-title track, they hide an incredible amount of venom behind the strings and propulsive guitar of neo-psychedelica. But that's the Arm of fate or a vengeful God reaching down to break your neck, to cover your "lifeless carcass" with a body bag after a "bad-ass car crash."

I guess I've always been a sucker for songs that punch you in the mouth while they're smiling at you, which is to say songs with upbeat and cheerily layered music and lyrics about death and alcoholism. The pinnacle of the genre, as far as I'm concerned is The Minus 5's Let the War Against Music Begin, but The Islands make a pretty nice addition here--even if they warn you not to go to sleep at the end. No, the point is to go to sleep, to let the chipper music lull you into an altered state so that the lyrics can creep inside your head and show you how stuff really is.

That's the argument I used to hear at Bible camp about the purpose for Christian rock. The music gets their toes a-tappin', and then Jesus can sneak into their brains via the lyrics. I guess you never really get past that worldview, even when you're talking about Canadian indie-rock bands who sing songs about bloody corpses.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Freedom and Responsibility

Christian existentialism has no particular affinity with Calvinism or the Reformed Tradition. Of the eight major Christian existentialists (Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Marcel, Jaspers, Barth, Tillich, and the Niebuhr brothers), only Barth comes from a Reformed background. (Kierkegaard and Tillich were Lutherans; Dostoevsky was Russian Orthodox; Marcel and Jaspers were Catholic; and the Niebuhrs were members of the no-longer extant German Evangelical Synod.) It's not that hard to see why, I suppose: Existentialism involves the ultimate freedom of man, and Calvinism is famously caricatured as "that predestination denomination"--which it is, at least to some extent.

But I'm an existentialist for the same reason I'm a Presbyterian, which is that Karl Barth was and I agree with him on just about all of the major issues. (And I did before I'd ever read him, thanks to the popularization of his theology in Frederick Buechner's books.) And so there must be a synthesis (a bad word for Barth, of course) here; there must be a way to believe in predestination and the ultimate freedom of man.

I found it on my third reading of Church Dogmatics: A Selection. (I still have neither the money nor the guts to read the Dogmatics in their entirety, which I suppose makes me disingenuous when I say that I agree with Barth on just about all of the major issues.) Mankind, as a creature, has a special type of freedom, a freedom which God the Creator does not have: the freedom of alienation. This alienation manifests itself, at least when I talk about it, in three ways: alienation from oneself, alienation from one's fellow-creatures, and alienation from God. God cannot, by His very nature, be alienated:
it is a mark of created being as distinct from divine that in it conflict with God and therefore mortal conflict with itself is not ruled out, but is a definite possibility even if it is only the impossible possibility, the possibility of self-annulment and therefore its own destruction.
This "impossible possible," this possibility for alienation and indeed annihilation, is what our freedom would look like if we held it up to the light. But this freedom is indeed ours, and we are able (and most of the time, willing and ready) to exercise it.

But Barth is not Heidegger. A mere exercise of our freedom is not sufficient to end alienation--indeed, most if not all expressions of human freedom lead only to further alienation. (For a great example, head over to John Updike's Rabbit, Run, which the author has said he fashioned as an object lesson from Barth and Kierkegaard.) We have the ability to choose, but because we are (as Plato says) fundamentally stupid and (as Calvin says) fundamentally perverse, we will choose a Tower of Babel over the Living God every single time. Our freedom leads not to Being but to Nothingness.

The solution, then, is to recognize that our freedom is real but still illusory--that is, we are free but it's not actually a good thing to act on that freedom. (In this sense, our freedom is that of Adam in the Garden; we can choose to eat from the tree or not to eat from it.) Our freedom is an attempt to be like God, and indeed, "From the very first man as such has continual illusions about himself. He wants to be more than a creature." The problem is that he isn't more than a creature.

And so it is that the Christian must relinquish his freedom. The Christian, according to Barth, is defined by his acceptance of his own contingency: "Of all creatures the Christian is the one which not merely is a creature, but actually says yes to being a creature." He submits himself to God's sovereignty (which Barth, good Calvinist that he is, believes will take precedence in the end anyway) and recognizes that this is the dignified and proper place for him, that "it is the glory of the creature to be lowly in relation to God."

Now, I recognize that this in no way solves the age-old problem of the connection between man's free will and God's sovereignty, but it does explain how the Christian existentialist can believe in ultimate freedom and ultimate sovereignty. You just can't put them on the same level. You end up like the canaries at the top of this post. You're able to leave the cage, but you don't--because you recognize that the cage is not a place of imprisonment but the place you belong.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Civil War in Four Minutes

I'm too busy writing and grading papers to come up with any substantive on here, but here's the coolest video I've seen in a long time.

Gilmour-mandated warning: While the video itself contains absolutely no offensive content, apparently the site is NSFW because of other videos it carries. Consider yourself warned.

I'll post a real post soon, I promise.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nothing More Than the Traveling Hands of Time

V. and I went on Friday night to see the UGA Theater production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a play I loved in high school but have not really looked at since I read it for my master's comps in 2005. It's an odd play, in that you remember it as Main Street U.S.A. when it's actually The Sound and the Fury. I remembered it as sweet and a little corny--a traditional play if there ever was one--but that's a great disservice. It was as Modernist as anything Eliot or Faulkner or Joyce ever wrote, what with the whole "Stage Manager" conceit breaking the fourth wall and stopping the play every 15 seconds to trot out another "expert." (Those experts, I suppose, are a bit like Eliot's footnotes to The Waste Land, obfuscating rather than elucidating the thing in itself.)

If you read my post on Meet the Robinsons, you probably picked up on my recent interest in time. The party line--repeated nearly ad nauseum in the brutal third act of Our Town--is that we should live in the moment, appreciate each second for what it is, let go of the past, and not fixate on the future, which is of course imaginary. This clashes with the Southern Agrarians I've been reading this semester. Andrew Lytle specifically condemns the Wilder system, calling the human results of it "momentary man":
that man who no longer has location, who is forever on his way, speeding from one inn to another, to the same bed that is not the same bed, to poor cuisines served in the same false ornament of supposedly foreign architecture.
Lytle demands allegiance to the past, and in fact, out of the twelve I'll Take My Stand guys, he's the only one who could have a reasonable claim of actually living in the past, living on a farm and whatnot.

And then there's Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury posits three systems. Quentin Compson, the world's most famous suicidal neurotic, can live only in the past, both personal (watching his sister get her underpants dirty) and corporate (the antebellum chivalric system he can't let go); his brother Jason lives in the future, and is a monster for it. Only Benjy Compson lives in the present--and he's an idiot man-child, certainly no role model.

Faulkner's solution is to present us with Dilsey, the Compsons' black servant. Dilsey receives the final section of the novel, and her chapter is marked by its third-person narrator and its more or less coherent voice. There's no wild shifting back and forth between present-day and thirty years previous in Dilsey's section--we see things as God must see them, from above them. And so Dilsey comes off stable, happy, dependable--three words no one would ever use to describe Quentin, Jason, or Benjy.

And so I submit that Faulkner wants us to follow Dilsey's lead. In a book about the way the past, present, and future conspire to destroy your mind, only Dilsey escapes. I'm sure you could blame that on Faulkner's racism if you wanted to--perhaps Dilsey escapes because she lacks the mental capabilities to analyze time. But I don't think so. He has a real and obvious affection for her, and he gives her section the weight of the novel's structure (it closes the whole ugly story) and its themes (she receives Easter Sunday and the resurrection that day implies).

And Dilsey's secret is that she's too busy to think about time at all. She works non-stop taking care of Benjy, Jason, and Miss Quentin Compson--not to mention her own children and grandchildren--and has no time for the type of poisonous self-reflection that wrecks the Compson family. She's no idiot, but she's no intellectual, which is to say that she lives neither and simultaneously in the past, present, and future.

Wilder might agree, whatever Emily Webb screams from her grave at the end of Our Town. After all, his play--whatever else it does--collapses and twists time. First it invents an era that may never have really existed (at least the way he portrays it); further, he does so in a blatantly nostalgic move, writing the play on the cusp of World War II and setting it before World War I. But then he destroys that era. Death is all around his characters, and the Stage Manager alerts us to the eventual deaths of the people we meet nearly as soon as we meet them. So past and future have been collapsed into an amorphous blob.

And as far as the present goes, Wilder subverts himself. If the important thing is for us to live in the present, then why present a nostalgized past? And why bother talking about material progress (which is going to make us look ahead, even when the progress takes place in the past--that's what the Carousel of Progress is all about)? No, the present is not as simple as Emily Webb wants it to be, and Wilder is well aware of it. The present is important but not distinct--Our Town makes the audience into Dilsey; it collapses and combines past, present, and future and hands it to us in a ball.

Do whatever you can with it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Hoax That Ate Itself

When T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was first published in the October 1922 issue of The Criterion, it appeared without one of its most distinctive features: the author’s footnotes, which complicate and obfuscate--but only occasionally elucidate--the poem. Two months later, the poem was published in book form in the United States, this time with the footnotes attached. Eliot himself took a sly attitude toward the notes, saying famously in “The Frontiers of Criticism” that “I am, on one conspicuous occasion, not guiltless of having led critics into temptation”--a statement that suggests that the addendum to his most famous work is a type of scam or hoax.

Eliot's footnote scam was not without precedent. Edmund Spenser’s 1587 Shepheardes Calender features, amended to the main text, a series of introductions and footnotes by one “E.K.,” often considered to be a pseudonym for Spenser himself. E.K.’s gloss is inconsistent--sometimes it is insightful, sometimes ironic--but, as Theodore L. Steinberg points out, “the reader of the Calender can--and should--regard E.K.’s introductions and glosses as an integral part of the Calender, helping Spenser to develop his themes.”

As Steinberg points out, E.K. draws ironic attention toward Spenser’s ideas; when, for example, he disclaims the influence of John Skelton upon the name Colin Clout--an influence which Steinberg claims as “obvious"--the reader recognizes how far off the glosser must be and clings all the more strongly to Skeltonic influence. F.O. Matthiessen notes an additional motivation for the existence of E.K., Spenser’s “desire to have his poems rival the works of classical antiquity even to their appearance in a volume with annotations” by a third party, even if he had to invent that third party himself. The gloss on The Shepheardes Calender, therefore, ends up being ironic and fraudulent but still in the service of an important task.

Eliot was, of course, intimately acquainted with Spenser, as he appeared to be intimately acquainted with nearly every English poet. In his essay “What Is a Classic?” for example, he refers to “the genius of Spenser,” even if that genius seems to consist chiefly in preparing a way for John Milton. More to the point, Eliot quotes Spenser’s Prothalamion in line 176 of The Waste Land (“Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song”).

This awareness does not, of course, prove that Eliot was thinking specifically of the E.K. gloss when he was composing his notes for The Waste Land, but, in composing a semi-ironic commentary on his own text, The Shepheardes Calender must have at least crossed his mind. But that is not to say that he modeled his own footnotes on Spenser’s. Indeed, Matthiessen says that, since Eliot’s notes appear under his own name, they cannot be a cultivation of antiquity. Rather, Eliot’s notes “are simply a consequence of his desire to strip the form of his poem to its barest essentials in order to secure his concentrated effect.” In other words, the footnotes are an earnest attempt to nail down meaning, to direct readers to the sources for Eliot’s quotations and paraphrases.

Matthiessen’s explanation, however, ignores both Eliot’s wry sense of humor and the circumstances surrounding the creation of the notes. As Russell Elliott Murphy describes it, the monograph of The Waste Land would have had to include sixteen blank pages, due to the peculiarities of printing processes. So “Eliot was prevailed upon to provide some additional poetry to complete the volume. He opted, however, to provide the notes instead.” He thus--to some extent, anyway--included the notes under duress.

However, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser suggests that this story is at best only partially true (and perhaps a complete fiction), that in fact “Eliot had the notes in mind before he began serious negotiations with his eventual publisher . . . and that he had finished composing them several months before the poem first appeared in The Dial.” If Kaiser is correct, then the footnotes move from the earnest interpretation aid suggested by Matthiessen into a joke or hoax that “deflect[s] the cultural crisis represented in the poem onto the act of reading, suggesting that the disorder seemingly so evident in the poem is in fact the fault of the reader.” The notes, then, are meant to suggest a concrete meaning--or at least a structural order--that does not, strictly speaking, exist in the poem.

At any rate, the footnotes have to some extent benefited readers over the years, beginning with the Modernist critical powerhouse Edmund Wilson, who had access to the notes before their printing. Kaiser reports that “Before reading the notes . . . Wilson found the structurally fragmented poem representative of the ‘chaotic, irregular, fragmentary’ experiences that Eliot . . . had used to describe the ‘disassociated’ modern mind.”

But in a September 1922 letter to John Peale Bishop, Wilson says,
I am much excited about Eliot’s The Waste Land, which I have just read . . . it is certainly his masterpiece so far. He supplements it with a set of notes almost as long as the poem itself, explaining the literary, historic, anthropological, metaphysical, and religious significances to be found in it; but the poem, as it appears to me from two or three cursory readings, is nothing more or less than a most distressingly moving account of Eliot’s own agonized state of mind during the years which preceded his nervous breakdown.
The footnotes to the poem thus allow Edmund Wilson--and the thousands of readers who followed in his wake once the notes were published with the monograph--to transform something disturbing and chaotic into something understandable, something with structure and meaning. Further, the notes--contra, perhaps, to Matthiessen--make the poem something historical, as opposed to the modernist whirlwind, unconnected with history—that “dissociated” sensibility Wilson initially detected in the poem.

All of this sounds very fine and good, as though the notes do exactly what Eliot intended for them to--that is, they make sense of a poem that is at times nonsensical. But Eliot himself disdained and dismissed the notes in his “The Frontiers of Criticism,” calling them a “remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship.” Eliot is penitent in this essay. “My notes stimulated the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources,” he says. “I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail.”

Eliot’s disavowal and repudiation of the notes thus makes any definitive remark on them difficult if not impossible, particularly since he propagates the old story that they were included because the poem was too short, which Kaiser disproves. But we can, perhaps, suggest that the notes were intended more or less as a hoax, but that they were received earnestly. And even after Eliot’s disavowal of them--even after the hoax was revealed as a hoax--the vast majority of readers (Kaiser and a few others excepted) continued to read them as an earnest and helpful addition to the poem. Eliot’s hoax on his readers, by the end of his lifetime, had been turned around and warped until it was a hoax on the poet himself, who is now destined to be (in his opinion) misread, his readers conducting “bogus scholarship” based on “the wrong kind of interest.” In the end, the footnotes to The Waste Land may be at their best a cautionary tale to authors who wish to pull a fast one on their readers.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

E.D. Hirsch and the Death of the Reader

In his seminal essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes radically redefines the traditional concepts of writing and reading. As the title suggests, Barthes takes all interpretive power away from the Author, opening the text up for all interpretation and granting the Reader a kind of authority heretofore unseen in literary theory. Once the author has been killed off--or at least reduced to a mere “scriptor” who “no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions”--the text becomes free of fixed meaning, and the reader becomes “the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost”--the locus of interpretation shifts from the Author, past the text, and onto the Reader. In short, Barthes proposes an act of reading that borders on secular religion--the Author sacrifices him or herself in order to allow the Reader salvation, or in this case, ultimate sway over the text. Or, as the scriptor himself puts it, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

Obviously, Barthes’ system is radical in its redistribution of power, and while it perhaps rescues the reader from many years of comparative impotence in interpretation, Barthes is, I feel, guilty of clustering power in a new source--in his destruction of the hegemony of the Author, he creates a new hegemony of the Reader, and the Author’s death leads in the end to not much at all.

A better system comes from E.D. Hirsch’s 1960 essay “Objectivity in Interpretation.” Writing in the brief space between the two biggest academic movements of the 20th-century--the New Criticism that ruled universities from the 1920s through the late ‘50s, and the Poststructuralism that would take hold in 1968, thanks in no small part to Barthes’ essay--Hirsch suggests a division of labor of sorts, between interpretation and criticism.

The former he defines as “the construction of textual meaning as such; it explicates . . . those meanings, and only those meanings, which the text explicitly or implicitly represents.” With his emphasis on the text here, he sounds like a New Critic, but he is not; contrary to the “text-only” approach, he says that “This permanent meaning is, and can be, nothing other than the author’s intention." Hirsch thus moves the locus of authority in interpretation away from the text and the reader and gives it back to the author, in a move that sounds quite old-fashioned to the post-1968 Academy.

The role of the interpreter, in this schema, is to “distinguish those meanings which belong to that verbal intention [of the author] from those which do not . . . the interpreter has to distinguish what a text implies from what it does not imply.” However, interpretation is not as constricting a task as it may sound; Hirsch acknowledges that, while there may be a strict meaning as determined by the author’s intentions, we will never really have access to it--and so interpretion ends up being open in its way, at least to the extent that we never know for sure if our interpretation is correct or not. After the act of interpretation is complete, the interpreter is free to become the critic. Criticism, according to Hirsch, is an act of application. It takes the interpretation of a text and views it “as a component within a larger context.” This act has essentially limitless possibilities and operates on a far more subjective basis; and Hirsch does not spend very much space in the essay discussing criticism, perhaps because he has far less to define.

In a way, “Objective Interpretation” opens the door wide for “The Death of the Author.” Barthes’ essay promotes what Hirsch calls criticism, but it does so by first ignoring or destroying what Hirsch calls interpretation. Further, Barthes takes delight in an idea that horrifies Hirsch: namely, that “As soon as the reader’s outlook is permitted to determine what a text means, we have not simply a changing meaning but quite possibly as many meanings as readers.” Barthes, far less concerned (if concerned at all) with upholding traditional concepts of meaning, is happy to “refus[e] to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text . . . to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases--reason, science, law.”

The death of the Author results in a chaos and an anarchy that exhilarates Barthes as much as it unsettles Hirsch. The concept of a “correct interpretation” is in the end tantamount to the Greek concept of logos, a “guiding idea” that holds the world together. Judgment is not possible without it, objectivity is not possible without it, and ultimately, literary study is not possible without it, since “No one would bother seriously to discuss such a protean object” as the meaningless text. (Indeed, a common complaint about the modern English department is that, freed from its responsibility to pass on Western culture--a task which is more or less dependent upon objective meaning--it has lost its function in the world and become obsolete.) Further, Hirsch, in his criticism of reader- and text-centered criticism, suggests that those theories “really [mask] the idea that the reader construes his own, new meaning instead of that represented by the text.” When a critic puts the locus of authority on him or herself, in other words, it is first and foremost an act of egotism.

And this indictment of Barthesian egotism points to the chief advantage of Hirsch’s system, as I see it: the humility it requires from the reader/interpreter/critic. (Interestingly, in requiring humility, Hirsch separates the reader from the interpreter and the interpreter from the critic, whereas in “The Death of the Author,” these roles are implicitly combined.) If the objective meaning of a text is bound up in an author’s intentions, then the interpreter, in order to discover that meaning, “must familiarize himself with the typical meanings of the author’s mental and experiential world.” He must, in other words, bend himself to the will of the author, as expressed through the text--the personality of the interpreter, does not matter nearly as much as it does for Barthes (who, after all, in The Pleasure of the Text, suggests a similarity between interpretation and masturbation). In fact, the interpreter must leave himself behind completely and try to recreate, as best he can, the mindset and viewpoint of the author.

In addition to humility before the author, Hirsch simultaneously requires humility before the other interpreters. He sensibly recognizes that we cannot reasonably expect to put ourselves in the position of the author; and because “the meaning represented by a text is that of another, the interpreter can never be certain that his reading is correct.” So, while there is an objective meaning to a text, the interpreter must take pains to remind him or herself that his or her interpretation is not coterminous with it.

I believe that this viewpoint paradoxically elevates the individual interpretation. If there is no such thing as an objective meaning to a text, then we have little reason to listen to and seriously consider another person’s interpretation. But if there is an objective meaning--if my interpretation of a text can be wrong in a real way--then it is my duty to pay attention to what other people say, to allow their interpretations to critique and correct my own. Hirsch’s system, built on a single meaning from a single mind, actually leads in the end to a communal effort at interpretation--and that community is a major advantage of his system.

That kind of community is, of course, on display in seminar classes (at least when the members of the class are talking with each other instead of at each other--which has, thankfully, been my experience for the most part); student or teacher will suggest a possible reading for a text, and the remaining members of the class will run that reading through the machine of interpretation or criticism. The operant question, however, is whether seminars operate on criticism or on interpretation.

Because of the nature of immediate discussion--as opposed to dialogue that takes place in print, which can take months and years--I would like to suggest that most classrooms operate in the realm of criticism. That is, students discuss associations rather than meaning; they connect assigned texts to unassigned texts, to philosophy and politics and other disciplines. This is not to say that interpretation never takes place in a classroom--obviously, we occasionally talk about what an author had in mind with a particular poem. But because of the necessity of research and specific knowledge in interpretation (Hirsch says that “The probability that I am right in the way I educe implications depends upon my familiarity with the type of meaning I consider”), I suspect that interpretation begins as a solitary act and becomes communal only once the individual interpreter has had time to formulate his or her impressions more or less fully--and I suspect that that formulation happens primarily in writing.

That classroom work primarily consists of criticism rather than interpretation brings up a weakness of Hirsch’s system: If interpretation takes place before criticism, and if interpretation requires enough research and knowledge as to be primarily private (at least, again, in its early stages), then what is the role of the literature class? How can we have a classroom discussion that consists primarily of application/criticism come before the research that characterizes interpretation? The undergraduate classroom--which usually contains more lectures by the professor than does the graduate seminar--fits rather nicely into Hirsch’s schema, but the graduate classroom does not, unless students are willing to immerse themselves into the life and times of the subject of that week’s readings (probably a tall order for most students).

The graduate literature class, then, must either radically change the way it operates or else face the “facts” that, according to Hirsch, it is putting the cart before the horse in conducting criticism without interpretation. I suspect the former will not happen, and while it is a weakness of Hirsch’s system that the graduate seminar almost necessarily breaks the rules, our awareness of our transgression may in the end be another way of approaching the text with Hirschian humility.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Results

You've read a thousand of these already, but I'll just say that the candidate I voted for won and that I cried when I realized that all of African-American history had been groaning for this moment.

I'll also say that I was nothing but impressed with John Mark Reynolds' post on the election over at Scriptorium Daily. I disagree with Reynolds on most political matters, but I could only hope to be so gracious and optimistic if McCain had won.

I am not starry-eyed enough to buy the myth of Obama as America's personal Lord and Savior, and I am by no means a dyed-in-the-wool democrat. (Indeed, I might have even voted for McCain if he'd picked a better running mate--and I'd probably have voted for him, Palin and all, over someone like John Edwards.) But I do believe he will be a change for the better and I, like Reynolds, will be praying that he make wise, brave, and prudent decisions during his time in office.

And here's hoping--against all hope, perhaps, that we'll lay aside our partisan differences and treat our political parties as being-with-one-another rather than being-against-one-another.

How's that for existential politics?

Dobson Underestimates Constituency

I'm glad to see that James Dobson's fear-mongering "Letter from 2012" (you know, the one that said Obama would molest our kindergartners, etc., etc.) didn't fly. Progressive Revival reports the reaction, some of it quite negative, by his supporters.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Burning Burning Burning Burning

When I introduced myself to my students my first semester of teaching, I mentioned that one of my academic interests was Christian existentialism. Most of them looked back at me like groupers in tank (as freshmen are wont to do), but I had one student follow me out of the classroom. "Christian existentialism?" he said. "I thought that was an oxymoron."

It's a common opinion, I suppose, and an understandable one, given existentialism's close association with the atheists Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and Nietzsche. But it's (to say the least) a limited opinion, if not historically blind. Gabriel Marcel, a Catholic, gave the philosophical movement its name, and the philosophy itself is based heavily on the nonfiction of Soren Kierkegaard (a Lutheran) and the fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky (an Orthodox Christian).

But existentialism, as Walter Kaufmann suggests in his introduction to the anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, really stretches back to St. Augustine. I suppose this fact shouldn't be too surprising; existentialism developed out of theology, and there's no theological movement (at least in the Christian West) that hasn't been influenced by Augustine to some degree or another. But the prefiguring of the existentialists (Sartre in particular, but you hear Pascal, Heidegger, and Karl Barth, too) in Augustine is too frequent and too strong to ignore.

And so it is that Christian existentialism begins literally when the Confessions does, with Augustine's avowal of an emotional salvation. Here's the famous statement: "You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (I.i.1). That's the popular concept of the "God-shaped hole" in its infancy. Humanity, the theory says, has an inborn religious impulse, but Adam's breach of the covenant between himself and Jehovah messed it up. (Barth deals with this quite extensively.)

The end result of that sin is a three-fold alienation: from oneself ("my heart had become gross . . . and I had no clear vision even of my own self” [VII.i.2]); from others (“I therefore polluted the spring water of friendship with the filth of concupiscence” [III.i.1]); and ultimately from one's Creator, which is why that God-shaped hole exists at all.

Because of this alienation, we live in a world marked by what Heidegger will later call being-against-one-another and curiosity (a word that Augustine himself frequently uses, and I'm curious as to whether Heidegger took it from him). In other words, we're at odds with one another (and, Augustine would add, with ourselves and with God), and we fear stability--we hate and fear the very thing we need for salvation.

Another interesting aspect of Confessions is Augustine's theory of sin. His famous rejection of Manichaeism (which states that good and evil are equal and opposed forces in eternal combat) results in a theory of evil in which "evil has no existence except as a privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being" (III.vii.12). That sounds like a Christianized version of the Sartrean concept of being and nothingness, although of course it's more accurate to say that Sartre's philosophy is a de-Christianized version of Augustine's theology, at least on this point. Evil, strictly speaking, does not exist--it's a gaping hole of negation, something that threatens to suck us all into a black hole of nonexistence. Such are the pernicious effects of original sin and the alienation that follows it.

Augustine, however, offers us what Sartre, Heidegger, and even Kierkegaard do not: a solution to the problem of alienation, of angst, of the being-against-one-another. Filling that God-shaped hole--legitimately filling it, which is to say, with God and not with a Barthian Tower of Babel--heals us. Obviously, it allows for a renewed relationship with God, but it also allows genuine self-reflection (the kind it takes to write the world's first autobiography, for example), and it even allows for renewed relationships among human beings: "true friendship . . . is not possible unless you bond together those who cleave to one another by the love which is ‘poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us’ (Rom. 5:5)” (IV.iv.7).

There are many other prefigurings of existentialism in the Confessions (and I'm sure they're also present in Augustine's vast catalogue, none of which I've read)--his personalized hermeneutic, for example, or his rejection of the science of Genesis 1. But I think his treatment of the three kinds of alienation makes the strongest case for his status as the grandfather of existentialism. It's wild to think that one man essentially created philosophies as diverse as Catholicism, existentialism, and Calvinism. I suppose it helps to be a genius.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Emerson's Active Resignation

As the year slows down and gradually dies, I usually suffer periodic dips and falls in my mood. (Granted, these dips are less severe now that I live in a place where the sun stays up later than 5 p.m.--but they're still there.) And this year promises to be even sadder, even bleaker, what with the economy slowing down too--although hopefully not dying.

I'm revising a paper for publication today. The paper reads T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday through the lens of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays. I won't post the whole thing here, but my analysis of Emerson seems apropros today--perhaps it gives us a model of how to approach this increasingly bleak year.


Ralph Waldo Emerson was a sometimes uncomfortable combination of poet and philosopher; Emerson, not to put too fine a point on it, was a Buddhist/Christian mystic who was nevertheless one of the greatest intellectual minds in the history of American thought. Indeed, John Dewey claims him “as the one citizen of the New World fit to have his name uttered in the same breath with that of Plato"--and he gives as his reason that both Plato and Emerson “set poet and philosopher over against one another."

Emerson does not lay his philosophy out in a systematic fashion, and he oftentimes makes what seem like contradictory statements, but he nevertheless sets forth a more-or-less cohesive philosophy. Like other philosophers (and I am thinking specifically of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche here, although there are many other examples), his work must be taken as a whole to be comprehended; the reader cannot examine one isolated essay--as so many American literature survey courses do--and proclaim even its own meaning, let alone the meaning of Emerson’s thought as a whole.

Emerson reads like one of Bach’s concertos: He states his theme outright, and the volume and frequency of its repetitions can sometimes make it difficult to hear the countermelodies behind it. Emerson’s main theme is indeed self-reliance, but it is a peculiar kind of self-reliance. Because he believes in an Oversoul, because he believes that all beings consist of essentially the same thing, it is not as easy as saying “trust yourself.” Trusting oneself ultimately means submitting oneself to spiritual laws and to fate, and even self-expression ultimately expresses every self in the entire universe; Emerson refers to our failure to express ourselves as our being “ashamed of that divine idea which each one of us represents." Ultimately, no contradiction exists for Emerson between following one’s best light and resigning oneself to fate and to the laws of the universe. To trust oneself is the same thing as to believe in fate.

Authors often use fate as a negative trope, but Emerson approaches this system of trust and resignation joyfully. In “Circles,” for example, he declares that every improvement, every assertion we make stands in need of another one. He paraphrases Milton here: “Me miserably!” says Satan in Paradise Lost,
Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n. (4.73-78)
Compare this, however, with Emerson’s paraphrase: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” He does not sound like Milton’s Satan here; he has no fear of divine retribution, and he certainly does not view life as a hell. His use of the “lower deep” ultimately affirms life; if the ground opens up, he seems to say, it is cut from the same cloth as the sunrise, just something new to experience.

Fate decrees that no accomplishment is ever enough, but Emerson does not seem melancholy about this state of affairs; nothing lasts forever, but when he loses a friend, he says, “he gains a better.” The universe ultimately acts justly, and he trusts that he will receive what he deserves and that each day will be followed by another, for better or for worse.

Or perhaps not. The world is constantly in flux, according to “Circles,” and Emerson’s mood changes with the fluxes. At times, this changefulness becomes almost unbearable:
To-day I am full of thoughts, and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.
If Emerson sounds upbeat when he describes the world’s constant replacing of itself in “Circles,” it is because he writes when he feels like “God in nature”; for the flip side of the equation, for Emerson as “a weed by the wall,” we must turn to “Experience.”

“Experience” finds Emerson in despair over existence itself, which has clearly become a chore for him—a curse, really, since “It is very unhappy . . . the discovery we have made, that we exist.” Life may not be meaningless, but its meaning is certainly unknowable, and Emerson says that “All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that ‘tis wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue.” Human relationships become impossible, “oblique and casual,” and even the Divine, usually present in all things, seem distant:
God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future. We would look about us, but with grand politeness he draws down before us an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky. “You will not remember,” he seems to say, “and you will not expect.”
Much of the tone of “Experience” depends on Emerson’s attitude toward God here; does he bitterly say that “God delights to isolate us,” or is the passage a sincere acknowledgement of the necessity of submitting to the divine? If the former, then Emerson has become Beethoven (or Melville’s Pierre), deaf but still screaming at heaven’ if the latter, then he more closely resembles Kierkegaard’s Abraham, a knight of faith who trusts that God has a reason for our lack of knowledge of the future (and indeed, for our alienation).

For the first half of the essay, Emerson seems made of despair and anger, alienated from the nature that used to offer so much comfort, from the men who were manifestations of God, and from the God who manifested Himself in all these things. But shortly after this ambiguous outburst heavenward, his tone changes, however slightly:
Man lives by pulses; our organic movements are such; and the chemical and ethereal agents are undulatory and alternate; and the mind goes antagonizing on, and never prospers but by fits. We thrive by casualties. Our chief experiences have been casual.
Emerson plays with the double meaning of “casualty” here--on the one hand, individuals prosper only by chance, chance which by its very nature happens only occasionally. On the other hand, humankind propers through casualties--deaths, disasters--that somehow make us stronger. And indeed, Emerson seems to prosper through the writing of “Experience.” He finds a way to reconcile the unspeakable darkness of the world with his pan(en)theistic theological and anthropological vision. But he cannot name the agent of reconciliation:
I am not the novice I was when I was fourteen, nor yet seven years ago. Let who will ask, where is the fruit? I find a private fruit sufficient This is a fruit,—that I should not ask for a rash effect from meditations, counsels, and the hiving of truths. I should feel it pitiful to demand a result on this town and country, an overt effect on the instant month and year. The effect is deep and secular [far-reaching] as the cause. It works on periods in which mortal lifetime is lost.
Emerson’s “private fruit” nearly has to be unsatisfying for the reader; we rely on Emerson for intellectual answers, among other things, but none come here. Instead, he gives us a mystical solution, an individualistic acceptance of Fate that can be described but never named.

Emerson fleshes this concept out further in one of his final essays, “Fate,” from The Conduct of Life. Early in the essay, he posits mankind as the fool of nature, subject to “strokes . . . not to be parried by us.” Chief among these strokes is the fact that we are who we are and that we can do little to change that fact. His theme in “Fate” has striking echoes with “Experience”--humankind is isolated and helpless, and life is hard—but he adopts a more scientific language, as he tosses out references to biology and phrenology. Fate somehow seems harder, more set in stone, in the later essay, but it is still not all-powerful; it always serves something, and it always accompanies free will:
To hazard the contradiction,—freedom is necessary. If you please to plant yourself on the side of Fate, and say, Fate is all; then we say, a part of Fate is the freedom of man. Forever wells up the impulse of choosing and acting in the soul. Intellect annuls Fate. So far as a man thinks, he is free.
Fate, then, is not altogether a bad thing; like the casualties in “Experience,” humankind can prosper from it. Fate hedges about us but it hems us in only “to bring up our conduct to the loftiness of nature. Rude and invincible except by themselves are the elements. So let man be. Let him empty his breast of his windy conceits, and show his lordship by manners and deeds on the scale of nature.” Fate, rightly used, simultaneously humbles and aggrandizes individuals--it shows people their correct place in the universe, neither weed by the wall or God in nature but both, “for a little while lower than the angels,” as Hebrews 2:9 puts it (NAS).

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Here's a link to an article on James Dobson's latest inane newsletter.

It's funny. Years ago, when I was at a religious college, Focus on the Family seemed like a legitimate and mainstream organization, but the further I get away from the conservative evangelical mindset myself, the more outlandish and dangerous Dobson and company seem.

Just a few of my favorites from the dozens of ridiculous doomsday scenarios that Dobson proposes will come to pass under an Obama presidency:

- First-graders get “compulsory training in varieties of gender identity,” and parents can no longer opt out of school-based sex ed for their kids.
- The FCC nullifies all restrictions on obscene speech or visual portrayals on TV, and it’s now a 24-hour non-stop diet of explicit porn.
- A single-payer national health care system has banned hospital admissions for anyone over 80. (Interestingly enough, Obama has not, best I can tell, suggested a single-payer national health care system. He's suggested using government subsidies to prop up our current system.)
- Home-schoolers are forced to use state-approved curricula, and rather than do so, many emigrate to New Zealand or Australia where they may teach without restrictions.

I wonder if Dobson actually believes any of this stuff, or if he's just trying to market his new '50s-style Creature Feature, It Crawled from Cook County.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


After my post about Pixar's WALL-E, my friend Josh Altmanshofer suggest I go to 2007's Meet the Robinsons as an example of a Disney-created 3-D animated film that wasn't bad. After a TiVO accident that left me having seen half of it six weeks ago, I've finally finished the movie, and I think Josh is partially right.

The movie is definitely not bad, particularly in its first half hour, although it certainly lacks the spark that makes the best Disney movies (Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast, if you're asking me) great. But for all its bright and spectacular visions of a rosy future, it feels sinister somehow, as if it's asking us to deny an integral part of our humanity.

Walt Disney was always a forward-thinker, and for the most part his company has kept up that part of his legacy. He was a political conservative (and yes, a union-buster), but he believed in the great liberal value of the forward thrust of mankind. You see this in the restless innovation of Disney animation, starting with the early "Alice" shorts (which mixed live action with animation in a truly disturbing way) and moving through the Technicolor splendor of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia and the early computer effects of the Disney Renaissance into, of course, the company's faith in and annexation of Pixar.

And then there's the theme parks. The second park of the Walt Disney World complex is the EPCOT--or Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow--Center. Disney himself cooked up this idea shortly before his death, and the original plan was not for a straight theme park but for a miniature city of sorts, a place for all-American families to live, work, and play. It was to be a community of innovation and invention, of boundary-pushing not just in the arts but in the sciences. That didn't end up happening, of course, and instead, we got the slab of edutainment with the giant silver golf ball, although the park still focuses on scientific progress.

And of course there's Tomorrowland, one of the most hallowed of all the "countries" in the Disneyland/Walt Disney World theme park family. Tomorrowland is a perfect 1950s vision of the future, with talking garbage cans and pointy silver buildings that house attractions themed to a u/dystopian outer space.

I bring all this up because Meet the Robinsons falls squarely into the Disney tradition of an optimistic and rosy future, one in which mankind has been--if not saved--heavily advanced by technology. The future is a beautiful place in this movie, and in fact it resembles nothing so much as Tomorrowland. That in itself is fine. We may doubt the ability of mankind to achieve such a gorgeous future--particularly in the forty years allotted by the movie for this change to take place--but I suspect most of us, deep down somewhere, want something like it to take place and believe (in the same place we believe in Tinkerbell) that it could happen.

But I must take issue with the message of the movie, one that is outright stated: "Keep moving forward." Maybe even that would be okay except that the movie all but explicitly tells us that the past is something not worth examining. The main character, Lewis, is an orphan who for much of the movie wants nothing more than to find out who his birth-mother is. But when he's given the chance to do so, twenty minutes from the tearful finale, he turns around and walks away. After all, why bother examining where you come from when all that matters is where you're going?

It's a distinctly American idea, an idea that could only come from a Protestant country that was formed by violently breaking ties with a traditional society. And each successive generation of Americans, my own included, shows less and less interest in connecting or even knowing their past. I'm indicting myself here, too, but I think part of the problem is that all culture has become pop culture--and pop culture has a short shelf life. (My students hadn't even seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an act of heresy to a Disney nerd like me.)

Perhaps I would not be so disturbed by this movie if I hadn't been immersed lately in the Southern Agrarians, a traditionalist move if there ever was one--but I think Donald Davidson has a major point when he says that abandoning of tradition is abandoning of form. (With Davidson's equation in mind, it is difficult not to connect the message of Meet the Robinsons with its medium--could a traditional 2D animated feature make a statement like "Keep moving forward"?) And I'm not against formal or technological innovation, but if abandoning of tradition is abandoning of form, we have to remember that eventually we will innovate ourselves right out of existence--the form and foundation will eventually disappear.

That being said, I think Disney usually has a better grasp on the balance between the past and the future--think of the way the idealized pasts in Adventureland and Frontierland balance the utopian future of Tomorrowland. And remember that the company has reinstituted its 2D animation department and plans to release a movie set in 1920s New Orleans. I just think Meet the Robinsons could have stood to have tweaked its message a bit. Do we really want to live in a world when the future is all that matters and the past is not worth examining?

I do not.