One Art: Epigraphs And A Sketch of Loss

Let one ponder this and then think on a little further; certainly no-one will then speak of a ‘drive to knowledge in and for itself’! —Why then does man prefer the true to the untrue….For in the realm of thought, power and fame are hard to maintain if erected on the basis of error or lies: the feeling that such a building could at some time or other fall down is humiliating to the self-conceit of its architect; he is ashamed of the fragility of his material and, because he takes himself more seriously than he does the rest of the world, wants to do nothing that is not more enduring than the rest of the world….It is his immeasurable pride which wants to employ only the finest, hardest stones for its work, that is to say truths or what it takes for truths.
Friedrich Nietzsche, from Human, All Too Human (II, 26)

All fixed, fast-frozen relations are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
–Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

What did you say?
That you only meant well?
Well, of course you did
What did you say?
That it’s all for the best?
Of course it is

–Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek”

Well I sold the dirt to feed the band….
Well I sold the dirt, and bought the road
-
Freedy Johnston, “Trying To Tell You I Don’t Know”

***

Imogen Heap scored a minor success with “Hide and Seek” — the song became a hit, and she got to tour internationally (including a stop at the Coachella Music Festival) — and, all things considered, she may have a career on her hands if her next album’s good. Heap is not in the front ranks of contemporary female artists, though: I’d have to nominate Regina Spektor, or Joanna Newsom, or Neko Case, all of whom make more challenging and consistent music. In fact, despite all the interest in “Hide and Seek” (which also happened to have a beautiful, intriguing video), I haven’t heard Heap mentioned for a year now, and my best guess is that she will be quickly forgotten.

She had a career in music long before “Hide and Seek” as an angry folk-rocker with a small following (lots of crossover with Ani Difranco; I learned about her through a girlfriend named Jocelyn). Convinced that her music needed a makeover, but unable to get an advance from her record company, Heap actually mortgaged her home to buy keyboards and production tools. She coated all of her new songs with a very expensive electronic sheen: specifically, “Hide and Seek” features a bizarre and instantly recognizable blur of overdubbed, processed vocals, and no other instruments.

The song and the story reminds me of Freedy Johnston giving his band a kick start by selling part of his family’s farm to rent a van, buy guitars, and pay for meals on the road. He actually wrote a song about it, a very good and gritty American rock song called “Trying To Tell You I Don’t Know.” I don’t blame Freedy for what happened next: he recorded a series of increasingly lifeless, adult-contemporary albums that pushed him to the very edge of his niche market. I don’t know, at this point, whether he’s still hanging on to that edge, or whether he now has a day job.

I blush to present this to you in such a straightforward mythic form: the real, hardscrabble material stuff (Johnston’s farm, Heap’s house) being sold off to buy a tour bus or even just a new sound via the new layer of electro polish. Still, I think the gambit is redeemed by the middle section of Heap’s one big hit, where her many overlapping voices quote somebody else’s words. That somebody else, probably a lover, is telling her that everyone did the best they could, and things worked out for the best, and that it was “just what [they] need[ed].” Heap can’t bring herself to agree: she keeps asking him to repeat himself, and there is a note of disenchantment in the way she keeps answering “of course.” She keeps hitting a wall, in trying to agree that it was all for the best, and finally, when he tells her it was just what they needed, she replies that he was the one who “decided this.”

I say the song is redeemed by this simple dialogue because the dialogue is about moments, including the experience of fifteen minutes of fame. If it comes and goes so quickly, is it worth it? Has everyone done the best they could?

***

A lot of my posts on this blog, this one included, deal with pop culture, and I’ve been thinking about my methodology when it comes to analyzing pop culture. I’ve been thinking how that methodology derives partly from the curious fact that most people won’t connect the guy in The Devil Wears Prada to Britney’s video for “Crazy.” The film Coyote Ugly has basically dropped off the face of the earth.

I’ve been thinking about the first period of my life when I really started blowing my allowance on new pop records, which was my junior year of high school. It happens that during that year, two of my friends died in car crashes. This is something that happens in Northern California: there are a lot of twisty, dangerous roads, the weather can get nasty, and you have to drive twenty minutes or more just to see friends. As far as I can tell, most teenagers go through a phase where they buy what other people deem “cool,” so that’s nothing unusual. But it happens that I went through this phase at a moment when I felt particularly scared and isolated by those deaths, and culture seemed to offer itself up as a universal and legitimate source of contact with other people.

I don’t know what other people experience when they open up one of those dusty black CD binders, and the plastic pages flop open to The Cranberries. For me, the sensation is very odd and melancholy. When I bought The Cranberries’s debut album, I thought that was it. I thought, in some important sense, that we’d always be able to gather together and mutually appreciate “Dreams.” I thought the same thing about ska bands and swing bands: I would shell out for albums by the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Reel Big Fish with some notion that these albums would remain relevant to everybody.

When I’m flipping pages, and the edge of a CD by Reel Big Fish catches my eye, I can’t help but think of the two-part scene from The Talented Mr. Ripley (from the script, including the note about Ripley’s reaction):

DICKIE: I’m thinking of giving up the sax, what do you think about drums?

RIPLEY: What?

DICKIE: So cool.

(He mimes a high-hat and snare. Ripley can’t quite credit this — it’s superficiality.)

And then, later, Ripley explodes:

RIPLEY: I’m bewildered, forgive me…you’re lying to Marge and then getting married to her, you’re knocking up Silvana, you’ve got to play sax, you’ve got to play drums, which is it, Dickie, what do you really play?

It’s a fair question, because the only way for Dickie to actually be in the moment, in his appreciation of drumming, is for him to be outside the moment. Drums are cool, and he wants to learn them and to be identified with them: at least superficially, drums are something he wants to “get into” over time. That’s what Heidegger and Sartre meant when they argued that human beings are ek-static, that they have projects — the human being who is “in the moment” is actually projecting herself into the future.

So, the necessary condition for making peace with the past is the forgetting of the past, and that forgetting takes the form of turning the past into a story that combines fondness with resignation. The moment when Dickie takes up the drums, he necessarily has to forget having had the same moment before with the saxophone. I was learning about this at the same moment as my school, which was organized around Wiccan and pagan beliefs, was putting together pagan ceremonies where we would learn to say farewell to the dead students by addressing prayers North, South, East, and West. We did this out on a beach, where the directions were marked out with fresh green boughs.

My ideal relation to the past has nothing to do with making peace.

***

As much as I’m concerned with celebrating and re-considering pop culture, that project only makes sense in terms of its opposite: I am interested in talking about good pop culture because my impulse is to reject it entirely, on the grounds that it recycles itself so quickly that A Devil Wears Prada can re-tread a not-very-good film like Coyote Ugly and hardly one head turns. As a test case, the planned obsolescence of pop culture fetishes is a remarkable example of sentimentality at its most revealed. Sentimentality is the mode of thought that hides from itself and from reason: in the moment, to Dickie, drums are a fascinating novelty, and yet afterwards he is bound to resent Ripley asking him what he really plays, or who he really loves. He enjoyed playing saxophone, and then he enjoyed playing the drums, and now he’s moved on: why get all worked up about it?

Garden State is a far from perfect film, but one of its perfect moments is the horrendous version of Lionel Richie’s “Three Times A Lady” that Aunt Sylvia sings at the funeral. Let’s take a walk down memory lane:

Thanks for the times
That you’ve given me
The memories are all in my mind
And now that we’ve come
To the end of our rainbow
There’s something
I must say out loud
You’re once, twice
Three times a lady

Sylvia is singing this at a funeral — there is an intentional overlap between romantic sentimentality, and the substitution of fondness for grief. Most of my friends know that the weekend after I graduated college, I was holed up in a ratty motel in Palo Alto (with some sort of ratty Veronica Mars name like the “Seaside Inn”), watching very depressing movies (I was, and am, an idiot) and spending my savings (total $300) at a rate of $100 per day. I was watching movies because the only sort of available entertainment was a VCR, and a TV with a faux-wood chassis. I was waiting to see what was going to happen to my relationship: my girlfriend Jocelyn had been ordered by her parents to break it off, because I wasn’t a practicing Jew.

The wait, and the occasional meetings where she’d bring me cherries and bagels, weren’t successful. In fact, the one time Jocelyn tried to stay with me at the motel, she had to flee out the door because her parents had tracked her by calling *69. So we spent a couple of weeks apart. We got back together at an Ani Difranco concert. Nothing had been resolved with her parents, so we started making plans to get away from them by moving temporarily to Dublin. In Ireland, she could get started on a career directing plays.

I couldn’t get work in Dublin; I wasn’t going to be there long enough, and I didn’t actually need work, since I’d been saving for it for a year. Still, there were problems. Because of continuing pressure from her parents, Jocelyn was staying at the Dublin Jewish Girl’s House, which was a nice place with no boys allowed. As a result, I couldn’t stay there much during the days, and so I would sit in Temple Bar, drinking too much coffee and playing Yahoo! Hearts. I also couldn’t always stay there at night. At one point, I was hiding amongst her dresses and jackets, while a rabbi — who had no idea about the boy lodger — was yelling about having discovered a pepperoni pizza in the freezer. At another point, I was sleeping among a sea of teddy bears in the room of an eight-year old, trying to read The Plumed Serpent without feeling ridiculous.

I saw Jocelyn for only a couple of hours each day, aside from a brief and wonderful vacation to the far north of Ireland, because she was working two theater jobs. She was an usher at the Abbey Theater, which was a great source of professional contacts, and she was also an unpaid assistant director on plays touring around the country. So, what had been originally planned as a sort of romantic Great Escape turned into a big wait. I kept myself occupied, sometimes by reading good books, more often by frittering time, while she prepared for a career in the arts, the very idea of which excited us both.

It was a phantom. Towards the end of our stay in Dublin, it became clear that Jocelyn needed to extend her visa if she wanted to make good on her tentative first steps. She would stay in Ireland, and potentially earn the right to be sole director for a one-act play; in short, she could try to be discovered. The idea of it horrified her parents. She hung on the phone with them for hours at a time, and the only hours she had were the ones left over from the two jobs. I didn’t know how to protest all this, since it seemed important for her to make progress professionally, and equally important for her to reconcile her parents to that plan. In the end, she went back home, and gave up on the theater entirely. She took her LSATs and entered law school, eventually specializing in intellectual property law. When I realized that nothing was going to come of all of our sacrifices for “the theater,” we broke up.

***

One of the responses to my post on Buffy was a link simply entitled “Fuck you, how dare you call this a symptomatic reading?” I wrote an email to the blogger, asking him about his odd question, and his response included (among other things) this line:

As a side-effect, [your] interpretation tends to posit nihilism where there’s actually a rather complex dynamic of conflict between nihilism and, well, various other stuff that aren’t nihilism….

I keep bumping into this “rather complex dynamic of conflict” everywhere; let’s go back, for a second, to the relationship between Willow (who turns out to be a lesbian) and Oz (who turns out to be most attracted to other werewolves). The rather complex dynamic of conflict is between these natures, which emerge dominant, and the conscious, even highly self-conscious selves they bring out in each other while their doomed relationship lasts. Of course I understand that these two characters have to learn, over time, the extent of their incompatibility, and that when it strikes them, the sundering is very painful. But if the signs of that break were visible from the very first, via infidelities, and awkwardness, and over-elaborate cuteness, and simple subtle indifference? What then?

Both personally and professionally, this is a momentous time for me, and I’m excited about it. I’m not the person I was when I was listening to The Cranberries all the time, and I’m not the person I was in Dublin. I’ve got new plans, and from the standpoint of the present, the past appears as a fairly amusing learning experience with lots of pleasures tucked along the way. But that view redounds on the present, obscuring its deep uncertainty, and the essential elements of venture and risk. So the only way to really see the stakes of the present, is to recapture that person from the past; if I had known the trip to Dublin was going to end as it did, I would have stayed in California. That loss cannot be recuperated in the Panglossian terms of doing the best one can, or by appealing to things “turning out all right.” Trying to recuperate that wasted time sells out the project with which it began.

One has to listen for the past. It makes a banshee sound.

Ripley was right: if Dickie is going to take Marge’s hand in marriage, even if he is going to do something so simple as devote part of his life to music, he has to do it fully, as a gamble undertaken at the furthest limit of knowledge, and not as a sweet piece of enthusiastic, willful ignorance. It is not nihilistic to point out the seeds of failure in the relationship between Willow and Oz, just as it is not nihilistic to be dismissive of disposable culture: rather, in such cases knowledge lays the groundwork for passions of actual worth and endurance. One also travels right to the edge of a void; that is the memorable place Zach Braff ends up after he starts running from Aunt Sylvia, and the funeral, and the rest of what he knows.

The enmity between knowledge and passion can only be resolved by a gamble; to do what one knows will fail or fade means taking no risks at all, even if that knowledge is successfully repressed in order to make way for more talk. Dickie Greenleaf is irreducibly superficial, and thus also sentimental by nature. He is the child of a culture of forgetting. It makes perfect sense that Johnston and Heap should have had their breaks on the basis of songs that were enabled by mortgages, and that spoke directly to the issue of passionate commitment. Who knows what else they might have risked in order to write more than those few, abiding pieces.

A good night to you.

***

I see it now. I haven’t done so enough before—and now I’m old; too old at any rate for what I see. Oh I do see, at least; and more that you’d believe or I can express. It’s too late. And it’s as if the train had fairly waited at the station for me without my having had the gumption to know it was there. Now I hear its faint receding whistle miles and miles down the line. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that….But that doesn’t affect the point that the right time is now yours. The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have.

-Henry James, The Ambassadors

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