For what ails you
First of all, thanks to Juniper June, Matt, Joy, and Brandon for their comments on my last post. I’ll write a comment in response after this, and fix the broken link to Juniper June’s livejournal site.
Dublin is a great old city. Sacramento is a mediocre dump; it’s a terrible excuse for a state capital. The population on the buses is especially blighted. I’ve lived in those two places for about two years total, counting only the times when I was fully a person, and not an original four years I spent getting around by tricycle and playing He-Man. The two things Sacramento and Dublin have in common are the English language and Goths. Sacramento, by a recent count, has more Goths than pigeons. I visited Sacramento over the summers, when I was in college; more importantly, I lived in Sacramento (and in Dublin for two months) after graduating.
This means that I only really encountered Goth culture after I was done growing up; nonetheless, I immediately understood why you’d want to live that way. What’s most striking about Goths is that, without offending anybody, they manage to be completely apart, in their own permanent, wintry midnight. Haven’t you noticed this? You can be sitting right next to them, and still feel like calling them would be long-distance. This goes double if you are at a bus stop, next to a Goth couple. Goth kids in couples sort of lean into each other like exhausted sea lions. Or maybe like statues of exhausted sea lions.
Their inward-looking remoteness and immobility is a shield against the battering imperatives of everyday life. In fact, they hardly notice what is happening, which is why they can survive for years on jobs serving popcorn or selling trinkets. I lived in Dublin in the middle of the Celtic Tiger economic phenomenon; if you haven’t heard of this, this was when Ireland discovered the Internet and the strange free money that flows through its Tron-like veins. Public transportation, taxis, and private cars would be rushing through the squares, around the irregular edges of the old grand buildings. Unlike Bloom, who moves through an impoverished, colonized Dublin of unsold advertisements and nationalist ferment, I found myself walking through a city on the make. Dublin was hustling. (Perhaps this is a different sort of colonization.) In the middle of this, in groups of two or five, very pale Irish kids would shamble and haunt the stonework. I got my hot chicken paninis near the wide stone patio of the Bank building, downtown. On a busy day, maybe twenty teenage undertakers would circle up there, looking as rain-black as leaves in a gutter. They fit; they made sense amidst the flat and defiant stone. The rest of the crowd, moving so quickly and obliviously, were like matches carelessly struck.
You can try to reason with Goths. You can try to break the ice, and start up the familiar engine of banter. Here’s what happened to Chuck Klosterman, when he tried to do that:
I am seated next to…a cute goth teenager! I strike up some winning banter while we wait for the train car to commence rolling.
“So, I begin, “are you enjoying your day at Disneyland?”
I try again, this time from a different angle. “So, do you think Marilyn Manson will survive the departure of Twiggy Ramirez? Because I thought that ‘Disposable Teens’ song was tremendous.”
More silence. I am running out of material.
“So,” I ask, “do you think Harrison Ford is goth?”
“Why do you keep talking to me?” she finally says.
Which brings us to the utter unratability of albums by The Cure and Tool. Interestingly, as with Goths themselves, nobody seems to really hate either band, though many people find them amusing. Nonetheless, their albums (particularly now that “Just Like Heaven” is years behind us) sell to a niche market. It’s an enormous niche, but still. Quite predictably, every time Robert Smith or Maynard releases something new, the critics are widely divided.
The reason is the length of the songs, and the unusual, formless song structure. Critics tend to assume that Maynard writes 13 minute songs because he’s “ambitious” and borrowing from “prog-rock,” both of which are true, but miss the hopelessness of the Goth existence. There’s really nowhere to go if you’re a member of army noir, except the grave, so there’s nothing particularly to write music about either, and no reason to listen to music. Time yawns. Time becomes narcotic. Out of these enormous spaces, out of this infinite resignation, emerges the absurdly layered, protracted, oceanic music of Lateralus or Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. The latter should be a terrible album. On LP, it required two records. Smith’s vocals are echoey to the point of incoherence. Normal, God-fearing guitars have to put up with sitar and flute. But the more you listen to it, the more sense it makes. You have to be patient with it, which means having nowhere to go.
This started with the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol. They were the first to realize that time could be excess. As a result, “Sister Ray” mumbles and drools and fuzzes along for practically half an hour. I won’t even go into the film Andy titled Empire State.
All of this lowering of the metabolism serves a purpose. It founded a re-discovery of art as the celebration of the thinking, feeling, contemplative self. It is art at its most subjective: breaking away from the guileless “entertainer,” it goes back to Robert Johnson and Billie Holiday, and before that to the excesses of Mahler and Schumann.
A parallel phenomenon exists in literature. Consider the dark spaces and shadows of Poe, or Baudelaire, or Dostoevsky; the voluptuousness of Salammbo. Without these authors and books our modern notion of consciousness could hardly exist. Compare the briskly known, unthought dwelling-space in Bleak House with the attics and open windows of the Brontë sisters. To know the mind, and to cherish the queasy appearance of the world through our senses, is to stumble over sandworms, heffalumps, and the masques of the Red Death. The Gothic is a wishing world — that’s why goths flock to Disneyland, there to be unsuccessfully interviewed by Klosterman.
Academia is popularly imagined to be a sunlit, old-gold place (as it is in A Beautiful Mind when we catch our first glimpses of Princeton), and rock and roll is a myth constructed around the explosive moment of performance. But what about the stillness of the academic life, and the unaccountable energy of performer and audience? Where do they come from, being (as they are) such exceptions to the normal run of existence? What does one make of Nabokov’s endless rows of butterflies, or of Jerry Lee Lewis with his hair in his eyes?
Somehow, they come from the perception of extremity; one re-discovers oneself. Nietzsche writes, “With his sublime gestures, [Apollo] shows us how necessary is the entire world of suffering, that by means of it the individual may be impelled to realize the redeeming vision, and then, sunk in contemplation of it, sit quietly in his tossing bark, amid the waves.” The artist — even the art critic — can never pledge allegience to the useful world; the faster, more competently she describes this or that work, the more successfully she follows the laws of form, the more arid her speech and thought becomes. If it is a contradiction that the anarchic energy of performance, and the social conscience of “The Masque of the Red Death,” and the strongest bonds of community, come out of despairing patience, and imaginary cycles of death and resurrection* — let it be a contradiction. Efficacy begins in play and ruin: “For it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.”
Klosterman again: “It wasn’t just that goth kids weren’t considered violent; prior to [Columbine], goth kids weren’t even considered scary. They were just the kids who listened during English class.”
Because why not listen to Mr. Whomever read Keats? What else is there? For much of my life, and, on a smaller scale, this whole week where my life hasn’t given me enough material even for a blog, I’ve been thinking: I might as well read.
* Anyone see Kill Bill 2? It’s Poe, or Our Mutual Friend, all over.