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Indigestion’s a pain.

I found myself in the midst of an especially bad bout last night, tossing and turning in bed, struggling to fall back asleep. In such instances, I occasionally find myself achieving a heightened level of awareness and concentration: as if hyper-awareness of one’s natural (or unnatural, as the case might be) biological functions carried with it an increased sensitivity to other surrounding circumstances.

In this instance, I found myself dwelling upon a recent essay in-progress, which seems to be going nowhere slow. The subject of my reluctant essay is the suburban experience (more specifically: American films that have explored suburban themes in a Mythical vein). It’s one of those frustrating instances where the writer knows what he wants to convey—even how he wants to convey it—but once all the pieces are lined up together, they no longer convey what was meant to be conveyed.

I’m reminded now of a startling incident that occurred earlier in my workday, as I was driving a client back to her residence—which was located in a somewhat run-down suburban neighborhood. As we drove past some smartly structured houses, I offered some casual observations to break the silence of the drive—small talk about some of the more striking residences, many of which featured alarmingly pointed rooftops. It was then that my client interjected a most unexpected anecdote: “Yeah… A lady shot her two kids in the head last night, over there by that school. I guess she had told the cops the world was a terrible place, and she didn’t want them living in it anymore.”

Understandably, I found myself at a loss to form a suitable response. I’m certain I said something nominal and insufficient, something along the lines of “that’s horrific,” or “how terrible.” It was a jolting reminder of just how fleeting and cruel this life can be. It also underscored the inadequacy of my writings on suburbia, which paled in comparison to this shocking anecdote—having failed to represent the surreal perversity of the suburban experience, in its full scope. A recently released Sun Kil Moon record came to mind, as well. In the opening track, “God Bless Ohio” (a follow-up, of sorts, to the preceding “Carry Me Ohio”), songwriter Mark Kozelek pays tribute to the Northern gothic elements of Midwestern living, touching upon a range of suburban issues: alcoholism; A.A. meetings; the loneliness of being a child; nursing homes; psychotherapy; human trafficking; mass killings.

Maybe I should just scrap my essay and let Kozelek’s song speak for me, instead.


Sleeplessness has been a recurring motif of 2017 for me. During the day, I frequently find myself struggling to concentrate on basic tasks—easily distracted by the latest development in the investigation of our president’s relationship with Russian oligarchs and government operatives, as well as the on-going toll of devastation mounted by a conscience-free Congress and an administrative agenda fueled by corporate greed, short-term private gain, and a stiff middle finger to the vast majority of our country’s population. I was struck by a recent episode of Bill Maher’s show on HBO, in which Dr. Cornel West and David Frum were guest panelists. In an exchange that was (admittedly) cringe-worthy at times, Maher and West sparred on the subject of the 2016 election: West, who was outspokenly opposed to another Clinton presidency, stood by his idealistic decision to not vote for either of the primary candidates; Maher challenged his decision with an itemization of some notable areas in which the two primary candidates differed from one another, with an emphasis on the compounded harm being inflicted upon minority groups by 45.

Hearing Cornel West’s voice rarely fails to bring me joy: his combination of humor, zeal, and intellect is unsurpassed by his few peers, and his perspective is fiery but reasonable. Watching him spar with Maher on this issue brought to light the deeply personal nature of his investment in politics, and I found myself torn between two equally impassioned points of view. As I think back on the debate, I’m struck by the awkward correlation between religion and politics in this country. Apart from the obvious investment of religious power in American politics, it strikes me that politicians in this country are frequently placed on a similar plane to religious leaders: they are often evaluated as much on abstract moral principles (or lack thereof), as they are on competencies and qualifications. West makes it clear during the debate that his opposition to Hillary Clinton was of a moral nature—a perceived “lack of integrity,” as he defined it. On the flip-side of the argument, we find the pragmatism of the vehemently atheistic Maher, who is able and willing to look past the character flaws of a given politician in order to hone in on the practical, real-life outcomes of their stances and actions.

Setting aside my love of Dr. West (and that tremendous laughter of his), I cannot help but feel a sense of exasperation at our country’s obsession with bringing religion into all facets of life. I’m reminded of an observation shared by a philosophy professor I had in college, who attended multiple symposiums at home and abroad, only to find that European nations have little (if any) of the political hang-ups our country has developed in this regard. Theories of evolution and creationism coexist peaceably; women, atheists, and non-Christian theists are allowed to hold public office without controversy; and outside the Vatican (a unique religious outlier, if ever there was one), it’s unanimously agreed that religion ought not to be a deciding factor in economic and social policy. I think of David Fincher’s American film masterpiece, Se7en, in which the seven deadly sins of Christian folklore provide the foundation for a rigorously coherent series of horrific murders. I think also of real-life horrors committed by the Ku Klux Klan (a white Christian organization); the so-called “conversion therapies” imposed upon gay people in Christian communities; the persecution of victims of rape, in an assortment of forms, under the alarming guise that their assaults may have been “God’s will;” the historical genocide of Native American people, performed in the name of a Christian God and country.

“God bless Ohio
God bless every man
Woman and child
God bless every bag of bones, six feet under the snow
God bless O
God bless O
God bless Ohio”

I think of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, which stole the lives of 22 unsuspecting concertgoers and injured 120 others. (I will refrain from making mention here of the terrorists responsible for the attack, or the religion of which their organization is a perverse offshoot, seeing as how they have gathered sufficient negative publicity over the years—and it doesn’t seem to be helping any. Perhaps it is best to remove the plank from one’s own eye, first.) I think of all the different religions in the world that provide a foundation for the most appalling crimes against humanity, and I think of the unscrupulous support lent to our current administration by millions of American Christians. I think of that genius of early American cinema, Ernst Lubitsch—having just watched Trouble in Paradise for the first time the night prior. I think of the excruciating cleverness of Lubitsch’s characters; the hilariously amoral, yet totally functional relationships they foster and maintain with one another. I think of Jorge Luis Borges’s beautiful and unassuming essays, compiling assorted theories of eternity and ontology: the power of the human mind to overcome the self-inflicted impositions of religion—and the seeming refusal of the human spirit to embrace the assets of pragmatism. I think of Morrissey’s early song for The Smiths (“Suffer Little Children”) about two highly pragmatic, non-religious sociopaths from a separate, but equally dark chapter in Manchester’s history (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley). I think of the silence on the moors where their innocent victims were slaughtered; I think of the screams and explosions that jolted Manchester Arena on this god-forsaken Monday night. I think also of the solace offered during a non-religious vigil held in Manchester on Tuesday, to mourn lost lives and lost innocence; and the open gestures of solidarity extended by individuals and cities around the world—none of which required the pretense of religion to achieve their intended message.

Oh, human (t)error:
So much to answer for.


I’ve thought a lot (and continue to think) about the ways in which the jolt of last year’s election outcome sent shockwaves pulsing through every facet of the American experience—many of which we have yet to fully appreciate (or, in some cases, even to recognize). I’ve noticed tiny paradigm-shifts taking place in areas of everyday life, some of which are so minute they might be disputed as misperceptions. For instance, there’s the weekly program CBS Sunday Morning, formerly hosted by Charles Osgood and currently represented by Jane Pauley: previous segments on ecology and environmental issues have accentuated the well-documented, factual impact of climate change upon different parts of the planet (many of which provide source material for the show’s closing “moment of nature”). In the most recently aired episode, Jane visits the city of Amsterdam, where she is forced (as commentator) to acknowledge certain obvious changes in the landscape—including a visible rise in the sea level, and subsequent changes in irrigation. A phrase she uses in this segment has been stuck in my mind all week: “whatever the cause.” As in, “whatever the cause of these changes…” As if the matter were still up for debate.

I think of the shifts in media coverage that have historically accompanied drastic regime changes in different countries throughout the world. I wonder to myself how long it might have taken for Mussolini’s state-operated propaganda machine to fully infiltrate popular Italian knowledge, or for Lenin to convince his minions of the evils of Western living.

I imagine this essay reading like a poor man’s attempt at a Mark Kozelek ramble. I’m reminded, again, of my meandering essay on the suburban experience—and how truly difficult it can be to write about something when you actually have some pre-existing knowledge of it (in contrast to the old adage). In a way, such a task is even more difficult than writing about the unfamiliar: at least then, one can quite easily acknowledge and convey the limitations of one’s lived experience. But in the case of a subject that lies close to home, the writer is expected to have some sort of preternatural grasp on the topic—a near-omniscient, no-stone-left-unturned level of understanding. Maybe this is why so many Americans are turned off when a politician fails to publicly answer a question with utmost knowledge and understanding of their personal interests: instead, they’re expected to be godlike magicians, sauntering into town on the campaign trail and telling everyone exactly what they need (or, more commonly, want) to hear. God forbid a politician should ever be heard saying those three dreaded words: “I don’t know.” Far better to hear someone say: “I am your voice… I alone can fix it.

* * *

I think of the recent return of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s much-beloved television series, Twin Peaks. I think of what a tremendous joy it was, watching those first two hours of this new 18-part series—momentarily forgetting about issues of popularized ignorance and man-made atrocity (of both the religious and the non-religious variety). I’m grateful for creators—true creators—like Lynch and Frost, who seemingly have made it their lot in life to build upon and restore popularity to Myth (the only human creation that continues to transcend pure reason and pure religion). It makes me feel lucky to be alive, to witness the brilliant and awe-inspiring fruits of their efforts. I hope these efforts—and the efforts of other keepers of the flame—are ample enough to keep the Myth alive, for all the atrocities that are coming down the pipeline.

And I continue trying to shake my hyper-awareness of how terrible things have gotten. I continue trying to just live life, for what it’s worth, and not let it bring me down. But damn: indigestion’s a pain.

As the world continues to spiral into greater levels of global chaos, I find myself contemplating all of the common responses to the state of current affairs. In my previous essay, 45, Medea’s rage, and the sinking ship of American culture, I confronted the more nonchalant of these responses—that “nothing has really changed; it’s just business as usual.” This time around, I’d like to confront another common response that I’ve heard from several on-the-political-fence individuals—a contingent I often seek perspective and independent analysis from, taking into account the proposed neutrality of their socio-political stances. The response I’m referring to can be paraphrased as follows: “At the end of the day, we all want the same basic things for ourselves and for our loved ones. It’ll all work itself out.”

The first time I heard this response, I nodded in silent agreement, and thought to myself: you know? You’re right. What are we fighting for, if we all want the same basic things? But later, as I walked away from the individual providing this kernel of proposed wisdom, the flaw in their line of reasoning expanded—to the point where I could outline an entire chasm separating this pat observation from our observable reality. By the time I had thought it through from a variety of angles, the allegation seemed outright ludicrous. After all: is not the crux of political discourse that we don’t all agree on what we want for ourselves and our loved ones? Isn’t that why we (used to) teach civics in school, and have debate teams, and engage in reasoned dialogue surrounding the unanswerable but imperative question: How are we going to share in the direction of our society?

While I readily concede there are some basic human necessities we all share (food, water, shelter, and oxygen), I find it worth noting that even these universally accepted basics—the founding level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—are being called into question in our current state of affairs. Consider climate change—the most severe and defining issue of our time: the volume of individuals denying statistical evidence that our climate is changing, and that human beings are one of the biggest contributing factors (evidence that has now officially been removed from the EPA’s government website), indicates a disregard for the requirement of food and oxygen in the future. Likewise, passing legislation that would encourage and enable the contamination of our water supply (such as the decision to reverse policies preventing coal companies from dumping waste in our rivers) flies in the face of our shared need for potable water. At the end of the day, if we cannot agree that we need to conserve the planet, and preserve the natural resources that are essential to human sustenance (instead of flying off to Mars in one of Elon Musk’s space shuttles—where we may or may not find water); if we cannot agree on this, can we truly reach an agreement on anything? (And since when did the upkeep of planet Earth cease to be a non-negotiable for U.S. voters?)

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Thousands of protesters marched on April 22nd in support of evidenced-based reality; this is a snapshot of the rally held in Portland, OR. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy, courtesy of CNN and the Associated Press.

To build upon the foundation laid down in my previous essay (surrounding the two definitions of the word “myth,” which I will continue to differentiate as upper-case Myth vs. lower-case myth), it seems to me we are living through an era defined by myths. First, there is the myth that climate change (despite the overwhelming abundance of facts supporting its reality—let alone the observable reality of rising temperatures and increasingly erratic weather patterns) is a conspiracy developed by the Chinese, or by the liberal elite (the jury is still out as to which was the primary perpetrator, as I understand it). Second, the myth that we “all want the same basic things”—which once could have been categorized as an upper-case Myth, but as we can see from recent polls of public opinion, is no longer eligible for widespread consensus. Third, we have the dual myths surrounding issues of civil rights: on the Right, there is the myth that institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia (among other common discriminatory pretenses) do not actually exist; on the Left, the myth that prejudice can be wiped out by policing language and forcing the acceptance of cultural diversity through mainstreaming. In my own analysis, these are two of the most significant and detrimental of our current myths, so I’m going to devote another paragraph to defining them more clearly. In order to accomplish this, I find it is necessary to frame these myths in the context of the broader Myth they belie; by this, I’m referring to the Myth of freedom.

Like all (lower-case) myths, every Myth carries with it a note of unreality. The key difference between the two categories (M vs. m) lies in how the unreality is addressed. In the case of myths, the unreality inevitably provides a foundation for stupidity. Example given: a man believes in the myth that all young African-American males (especially those wearing hoodies) are up to no good—that they present a threat to the integrity of the community, and that this threat needs to be eliminated. This false belief leads to the callous and stupid act of murdering innocent young black men, under the horrific pretext of “standing one’s ground.” On the flip-side, Myths address the unreality by acknowledging the distance between reality and the Myth. For example: the Myth of freedom, as espoused by the founding fathers, indicates that it comes at a cost—that wars (civil and otherwise) are sometimes fought to preserve this abstract ideal, and to continually close the distance between the American reality and the American Myth. There is nobility in the Myth, even when it is of a purely quixotic variety, and even when it is pursued by erroneous means; there can never be nobility in myths, since they are fundamentally, intrinsically wrong.

Which brings us to the final, most devastating myth we are currently faced with: the myth (still held tight by many) that 45 is going to “Make America Great Again.” This myth can easily and readily be held up against the proven, objective reality that 45 cares for no one’s interests outside of his own, and that his own interests (which are profit- and ratings-driven) do not reflect the stated interests of his adoring minions. But just as with George Zimmerman and the late Treyvon Martin, the myth of the “great white hope” has provided the foundation for stupidity of a caliber we have not seen here in decades. And likewise, the liberal myth that mainstreaming diversity is not just a means to an end, but an end in and of itself, has proven fertile soil for many a stupid action and response on the Left. Ultimately, all of these myths present grossly miscalculated efforts to arrive at the Myth of freedom—without any of the legwork that history has proven crucial to its pursuit. They are wild goose chases disguised as shortcuts, and while at times the intentions of their travelers are entirely malevolent (as can be seen with 45’s “basket of deplorables”—the racists, misogynists, and ideological lunatics who congregate around the comparably ordinary and delusional Republicans at his rallies), one occasionally spots a kernel of good intent in a person wandering down one of these deceptive detours.

For instance, it appears to me that the current myth, “we all want the same basic things for ourselves,” is a desperate but worthy attempt—by concerned, confused citizens—to consolidate and process the disorienting array of recent events. It’s the nautical equivalent of clinging to a buoy in the middle of a raging hurricane, hoping it will provide a safe harbor; a beacon of stability until the storm blows over. At best, it’s an expression of solidarity: at worst, a cop-out. Ultimately, I suppose the very fact that so many people are turning to this same beacon for solace proves there is some legitimacy to its proposition. But seeing as how we can no longer really point to our basic necessities as positive criteria for our shared interest(s), we are left instead to interpret this expression of shared interest as merely a negative criterion—providing the outline for some vague, positive criteria which now require (re)defining. It is almost as if we were all trying to speak this shared interest into existence, but not recognizing that every person is speaking a different language and—in some case—speaking of different things altogether. In trying to reach a renewed consensus on our core priorities, a pragmatist (such as myself) may conjure something along the lines of a national town hall meeting—a symposium where every voting citizen gathers under one roof, to unilaterally vote upon what our shared interests are going to be, moving forward. “Do we want to have clean drinking water? Yay or nay? What about clean energy vs. coal energy? Or the planet itself: do we want the planet to remain habitable, or is that up for debate? What say you?”

Obviously, such a forum would be logistically unfeasible (to say nothing of the ideological lines drawn in the sand from the outset). But the idea of such a gathering—absurd though it seems—paints a clear picture of just how absurd our situation has become. I noted, in my previous entry, that ignorance was not always seen to be an admirable trait in dominant American culture: that citizens used to want its leaders to be smart, competent individuals—and that people used to seek out smarter folks than themselves, in order to learn from the experts and to advance in their cognitive growth (alas, such a pursuit is muddled these days by the dozens of self-proclaimed “experts,” seeking job security in professions for which they have no real conviction or proper qualification).

As I see it, we are at a tipping point in our nation’s history, and it is still unclear which way the full tilt will swing. Although the election of 45 is one of the most singularly idiotic and irresponsible actions our country has committed in recent history, the outpouring of public concern provides evidence to support the theory that folks might start to remember why intelligence and competency used to be given expectations in leadership. Considering how little is likely to be done, in the way of dismantling this administration anytime soon (since Republicans—well-known for prioritizing autonomy and authoritarianship over public concern—hold a Congressional majority in both the House and the Senate), we have at least two years of revered ignorance to survive, as a species, before our next given opportunity to redefine the tilt of our nation’s conscience. Put simply: we have two years (maybe less) to decide whether we want to be a country defined by a Myth, or a country defined by myths. One path leads to regeneration; the other to self-destruction.

* * *

Official music video for the title track of Father John Misty’s latest opus, released shortly after the inauguration of 45.

I want to shift gears at this point and spend some time talking about Father John Misty—formerly known as Josh Tillman, one-time drummer for the acclaimed indie folk/rock band, Fleet Foxes. Over the course of three immaculately produced albums (his most recent outing, Pure Comedy, was released this past month), Tillman/FJM has consistently and intelligently explored some of our country’s foremost concerns in the new millennium. On his first album, the practically flawless Fear Fun, Tillman embarked upon this quest with the apocalyptic sigh of “Funtimes in Babylon:” “Before they put me to work in a government camp,” he pleaded. “Before they do my face up like a corpse and say ‘get up and dance.’

Five years on from then, and I see no reason to believe he’ll be rounded up for government duty anytime soon. Case in point, Father John Misty appears to have finally arrived (on his own terms) to “the masses”—flown in on the wings of a typically impassioned performance on the resurgent Saturday Night Live, and heralded by the appropriation of a crucified Kurt Cobain impersonator in his most recent music video (to further drive home his renowned meta- factor, the Cobain stand-in is played by that lamented-yet-celebrated former child star, Macaulay Culkin). Interviews and radio features in support of the release have highlighted the polarizing dynamic of this latest offering, while taking care to note (and rightly so) that this is nothing new for Tillman. But while a few glowing reviews have emerged, and Paste Magazine has boldly named it the #1 album of 2017 (to date), the overall reception has appeared more lukewarm than that granted its satirical predecessor (I Love You, Honeybear). Of course, such things are subject to change at the flip of a coin, and I believe it both possible and likely that Pure Comedy will find its audience by year’s end.

Admittedly, the record is far from perfect. But flaws included, FJM Vol. 3 is a captivating and brilliantly executed double album—complete with odd little detours and a fascinatingly structured song sequence (the more full-blooded numbers are stacked towards the front; by the end of side 2, the energy has sunk into mellow contemplation—not unlike many a ’70s genre film/concept album. This appears, to me, in keeping with the original Misty spirit and aesthetic, which has always had one foot firmly planted in ’70s nostalgia). A glance at the obsessive liner notes (which unassumingly begin with a scripture from the book of Ecclesiastes) will inform the reader that Pure Comedy is to be heard from the mindset of a person slowly falling out of space, heading towards an extra-terrestrial planet occupied by a conjectured, half-formed species. This species, as one may expect from Tillman’s outspoken views on the state of the human race, is a doppelganger for homo sapiens. As with many a fable and experimental film, FJM has here removed the subject of his analysis from its natural context, and placed it in a stylized substitute context. The motives behind this literary strategy have been scrutinized by many a cultural scholar over the years, from an assortment of angles; one of the more common interpretations highlights the general understanding that by transposing a subject to a foreign environment, the subject is brought into greater relief for the spectator, and the Mythical truth of the subject’s existence is made clear. And if there’s one thing Father John Misty has been keen on from the outset, it’s the American Myth.

lonely

Kirk Douglas embodies the Myth of the last great frontiersman in David Miller’s 1962 feature, Lonely Are the Brave © 1962, Universal Pictures

From name-dropping Joseph Campbell in the closing track of Fear Fun, to tackling the Myth of the Western lothario in “Only Son of a Ladies’ Man,” to dismantling the American Myth itself in I Love You Honeybear‘s “Bored in the U.S.A.,” Tillman has consistently emphasized the Mythical component in his work. At his most brilliant and incisive, Tillman’s alter ego comes across as the “last great frontiersman,” attempting to salvage something of the American Myth for future generations, while simultaneously pointing to the futility of Myth in the context of our present American landscape. Taken as a whole, his work calls to mind an early Randy Newman composition, “Cowboy,” best known as recorded by Harry Nilsson (whose vocal stylings are frequently echoed in Tillman’s own recordings); “Cowboy,” in turn, was inspired by the Kirk Douglas picture, Lonely Are the Brave—a filmed fable, depicting the Myth of the last great frontiersman. But whereas both Newman and Douglas embodied entirely different characters from one project to the next, Tillman has (for now, at least) made the bold decision to tether himself to this creatively engineered persona. One wonders whether his ideological commitment will prove the best use of his natural talents moving forward; one also marvels at the chutzpa required to make such a commitment in the first place. As far as his most recent outing is concerned, both appraisals seem valid. Let’s begin from a skeptic’s perspective.

One of the challenges that Pure Comedy presents for its creator is the Godardian effect—which Rainer Werner Fassbinder defined brilliantly by observing that his films “never get to the right audience” (as quoted in a 1969 interview with Joachim von Mengershausen). For as brilliant as Misty’s songs (and Godard’s films) truly are, it seems unlikely that everyday, disillusioned and misinformed Americans will connect with and/or relate to his deliberated, academic approach (just as the ramblings of Yours Truly are unlikely to ever reach this same, sought-out audience). That said, if ever there was an opportunity for Father John Misty to become a household name, that opportunity is now: the fact that he will be performing (and is already selling out) in proper theater venues across the world—as opposed to the smaller haunts of tours past—means he will be conveying his Mythical ideology to the broadest canvas of spectators yet available to him. Conversely, the rather downbeat quality of his latest offering (in comparison to album #1 and at least 2/3 of album #2) may present a challenge for those with a short attention span. Still, one hopes that at least a handful of dejected bigots will wander into one of these theaters and come out, in some small way, transformed.

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The Where’s Waldo?-meets-Bruegel album artwork for Pure Comedy, produced by renowned New Yorker cartoonist, Edward Steed © 2017, SubPop Records

The other, rather more apparent fly in the album’s ointment, lies is the complicated relationship between Tillman, his alter ego, his audience, and the press. Put simply, it is nigh impossible for any dedicated listener to appreciate the album (and its songs) on merits alone. Just as Warren Zevon’s and Harry Nilsson’s troubled lives often interfered with the audience’s ability to appreciate the pure craftsmanship and beauty of their songs (which they cranked out prolifically during their respectively chaotic careers), Misty’s flamboyant persona and his intentionally pompous approach to interviews—rather than illuminating the purity of his pursuit—often present barriers to the critical appraisal of his work. In part, his strategy appears to be rooted in shining a light on the self-obsessed, numbers-driven, and (frequently) clueless work ethic of present-day critics. But in order to effectively convey his critique, and to avoid the pitfalls of superiority-complex-guided sermonizing, Tillman has been forced to incriminate himself in these attacks. Ultimately, one could argue that his relentless entanglement with media journalists has diluted the clarity of the work itself (especially when he becomes overly self-conscious about how his persona is going to be perceived by the public). One wonders what he might be able to communicate if, like Randy Newman or Nina Simone, he were to throw off the shackles of self-incrimination and popular attention, and devote his energies to fully inhabiting the disparate characters in his songs—abandoning his ironic mission to convert the ignorant masses, and shifting back to the more purely narrative direction of Fear Fun. Sometimes, it seems that by dedicating himself to the perspective of an omniscient narrator, he’s actually taking the easy way out of the artist’s dilemma.

After all: if Tillman has an Achilles’ Heel, it would have to be his obsession with swallowing every cultural phenomenon in his vicinity and insisting on having the final say. To his credit, the focus of Pure Comedy on a conceptual journey (from outer space to a fictitious planet) provides the ideal framework to highlight his own frailty as a creator. It’s the sonic equivalent of a journey down the road to Compostela—or Damascus, or Canterbury: there are no great revelations at the end; no astonishing solutions. There is only the endless mystery of existence and the enigmatic process of self-discovery (epitomized in the gorgeous, 13-minute odyssey of “Leaving L.A.”). While it is difficult to imagine a more perfect album closer than Fear Fun’s “Every Man Needs a Companion,” “In Twenty Years Or So” provides a perfectly adept coda to the meta narrative of Pure Comedy—setting the finale in some unspecified piano bar, with the Talking Heads’ seminal “This Must Be the Place” playing somewhere in the background. As painstakingly developed as the album is, its finest moments seem to reveal themselves (as they do in this finale) when Tillman lets his guard and his pretense down. And at the end of the day, this vulnerability points to the most convincing message underlying his hyperbolic work: our artificial construction of “better-than-ness” (as defined in his self-penned liner notes) does nothing but interfere with our ability to be functional, decent, useful living creatures. And it is this pretentiousness—whether of artistic, political, or moral/religious superiority—that most explicitly interferes with our pursuit of Mythical freedom. This revelation is the album’s ultimate saving grace.

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Monica Vitti confronts the paradox of modern living in Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso © 1965, Rizzoli Films

These days, as Tillman has repeatedly observed, it is far more common for people to be seeking freedom from Myth, rather than running towards it. In the second (and stand-out) track from his latest album, FJM serenades the listener with the prospect of a civilization with “No gods to rule us/No drugs to soothe us/No Myths to prove stuff/No love to confuse us.” For an instant, it almost sounds enticing. And then we remember: this is the place we’re heading to. When listening to the record, I’m sometimes reminded of the quartet of divisive, ennui-fueled films (L’AvventuraLa NotteL’Eclisse, and Il Deserto Rosso) made by Michelangelo Antonioni during the early-to-mid ’60s. In these films, Antonioni (or Antoni-ennui, as one less-than-convinced reviewer christened him) explored the emerging struggle of modern man and woman in the latter half of the 20th century: namely, how will we adapt to a modern technological reality that renders many of our pre-existing human traits (close-knit friendships; emotional sensitivity; human kindness) seemingly unnecessary? Seen today, these films have a chilling, yet faintly comical quality to them: although many of his predictions appear startlingly prescient and somewhat profound, there is something undeniably absurd in the mannered movements and designs of his dystopic visions—which also call to mind the films of Jacques Tati; Playtime and Trafic in particular. Not unlike Pure Comedy, and the outrageous album artwork designed by Edward Steed (best-known for his regular contributions to The New Yorker), these mid-century filmmakers shared a common thread in their outlook: mankind is on the brink of a civilization with no need for civility.

It’s an assessment that puts us, as listeners and observers, in a curious position. While difficult to argue with, the finality of this assessment—which is essentially at the opposite end of the more cautiously optimistic: “we all want the same things”—precludes the possibility of a tenable paradigm shift. In “Ballad of the Dying Man” (and elsewhere on the record), Father John Misty directly confronts the dilemma of the modern-day progressive: he defines this dilemma in terms of our easy access to every hateful and ignorant remark perpetrated by ill-intentioned “trolls” (on the internet and in the press), and the apparent impossibility of doing anything about this without first becoming a contestant in their reality show (to further expand the meta- factor of the song’s narrative, its protagonist clearly calls to mind Misty’s own complicated relationship with millennial culture and clueless music writers). Put another way, the struggle of the contemporary conscientious objector can be defined by our having to acknowledge the existence of all these insignificant myths, in order to properly tear them apart and offer an alternative. And considering the pace of information technology and the seemingly incessant distribution of falsehoods, it is a hopeless and thankless task. It’s only fitting that Tillman should wind this song down with the following verse:

Eventually the dying man takes his final breath
But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss
And it occurs to him a little late in the game
We leave as clueless as we came
From rented heavens to the shadows in the cave
We’ll all be wrong someday.

But is that really all there is? One wonders. And the beauty of this album lies in its willingness to let us. Although replete with elements of finality, Pure Comedy is most easily distinguishable from its predecessors as a more contemplative and open-ended exercise in narrative songwriting. Tillman’s humbling concession at the end of “Ballad…” seems to stress this shift in tone, and it certainly makes one curious as to what his—and our—next move will be.

* * *

There is a song on the 1982 studio album by Bauhaus, titled “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.” The lyrical counterpoint to this titular statement is: “All we ever got was cold.” As it stands, it seems that we Americans have gotten both outcomes over the course of this past century. While we remain one of the most wealthy and possession-obsessed countries on the planet, our voracious consumption habits and our extinction of humanity from popular culture have led to an expanding chill across the land. Some political commentators and historians have identified this as the chill of fascism; and while their assessment is far from groundless, the word doesn’t quite do justice to the magnitude of our socio-cultural problems. It seems more appropriate, in my view, to define this phenomenon as the chill of emptiness (which, oddly enough, has been amplified by the religious sector in the United States: a population that spent decades harping on about the spiritual dearth of their country, but ultimately committed the most spiritually vacant act of all by giving into the emptiness of 45). It’s enough to make any reasonable person question, with utmost sincerity: What exactly is it that we want?

At the close of this seemingly interminable nightfall on our nation’s conscience, maybe this will be the line of collective questioning that leads to the restoration of the American Myth—and the beginning of a new age. For if we cannot bring ourselves to dream of a better future, and to bring this future into the present, of what use are we?

“It’s getting dark/too dark to see.”
– Bob Dylan

It pains me to admit, but I continue finding myself caught in the whirlwind of current cultural affairs: forever flabbergasted by the institutionalized American virtue of ignorance; never willing to shake off my disappointment at how it’s all gone so wrong. As someone who has consistently relied upon (and benefited from) the once common cultural values of intellect, empathy, innovation, and reflection, I am growing increasingly disturbed by the environment I am existing in. I am mortified by the recent revelation that gay men are, as I live and breathe, being systemically rounded up in Chechnya: electrocuted, beaten, outed to their families, and—on several reported occasions—made the victims of horrific “honor” killings. My mortification is multiplied by the apparent refusal of our country’s leaders (that perspiring Senator from Florida notwithstanding) to even acknowledge these crimes against humanity—though I find it unlikely that any significant action will be taken in the immediate future, considering the convoluted relationship between this administration and the Russian government. Though not a pessimist by trade, finding shreds of optimism is difficult in a climate where the very notion of a shared human experience—one in which the assaults leveled against our fellow men and women are recognized, on some fundamental level, to be assaults against ourselves, as a people—is no longer certain. I think of those photos, proudly released during the campaign trail, of our current president’s sons posing with the bloodied carcasses of endangered animals. These images read to me as a microcosm of this diseased mindset, one in which living creatures are of no essential value outside their commodification as a trophy, a social hindrance, or an economic obligation.

There is nothing natural in nature.

While completing my undergrad degree in the field of social work, I invested much of my inquiry in the specialized field of research studies, and the hybridization of qualitative and quantitative analyses for (what I believed to be) under-reported contemporary social issues. When handed the assignment of developing an original research study proposal, I decided to focus on the representation of hate crimes by major media outlets—with an emphasis on internet and television sources. I recall my teacher raising her eyebrows when I initially informed her of my topic; it dawned on me, after our conversation, that she had feared I was speculating that such crimes were being exaggerated (in truth, my predictions were invested in the opposite direction). At the time, we were nearing the end of the first term in Obama’s two-term presidency, and a wave of social awareness was gradually washing over the nation: the idea of legalizing gay marriage was being discussed in concrete, achievable terms; the shootings of unarmed young black men were stirring a hushed but discernible dialogue about institutionalized racism; mass shootings in schools (among other public places) forced a superficial examination of the American obsession with guns, and shone a light on our society’s failure to incorporate mental health awareness in that elusive social construct known as the “American mindset.”

As I examined my personal bias, in an attempt to minimize its impact on my written proposal, I realized that I found this mindset to be most clearly defined by three basic criteria: an established focus on action (as opposed to underlying motive); the stubborn retention of hardened beliefs (as opposed to the recognition of fluctuating predispositions and disparate value systems); and an emphasis on the triumph of the individual (as opposed to the potential of the collective). I privately hypothesized at the time that this apparent wave of heightened—or, at least, heightening—social consciousness would eventually prove to be a mirage; that it would dissipate just as quickly as it seemed to arise, and that the bottom line of free-market capitalism, unbound by universal ethics or common-sense restrictions (e.g. keeping certain areas off-bounds: healthcare, the military-industrial complex, and the school/prison systems—seemingly intertwined), would triumph above this trend of recreational interest in the improvement of our society as a whole.

The 2016 U.S. election at once validated and provided a challenge to my hypothesis. Validated, insofar as the outcome of the election appeared (to me, at least) a testament to this country’s internalized indifference to issues of social justice and civil rights; challenged, insofar as the backlash to the election result—the rallies, the protests, the donations pouring into the coffers of civil rights organizations—hinted that the horse being flogged wasn’t quite dead yet. But three months into this new administration (which more closely resembles a New World Order with every passing news cycle), I find myself pondering a far more fundamental dilemma than the mapping of social progress. I find myself wondering: at what point is this ship—the ship known as American culture—going to become so dilapidated, so diseased, so leaky, that it will have no choice but to sink beneath the waters of its own fallacy? Put another way: is it possible we may, eventually, reach a point where there is little left on this ship that could be deemed worthy of salvaging?

* * *

To avoid having this read like a cynic’s exaggerated assessment of a totally workable problem (a consistent pet peeve of mine), I want to make clear the underlying concern in this line of questioning. First off, I am not particularly concerned about the ability of this country to swing its pendulum of political rhetoric back in the direction of popular liberalism—a direction that I find myself indisputably drawn towards, when forced to choose between the two extremes (and bearing in mind the unfortunate reality that, as a nation of people, we appear to be incapable of functioning outside of extremes). I also don’t doubt the ability of individuals to stoke the embers of “liberal” issues in their respective communities, preparing them to be brought to the forefront again once the pendulum makes its inevitable swing in the other political direction. What I am starting to question, though, is the efficacy—the integrity of this nation of people, which once (upon a time) provided a beacon of decency, altruism, and innovation to folks at home and abroad. And while I have yet to throw in the towel, I find myself grasping for a credible answer to this rather large and cumbersome question.

Much has been written about the (seemingly hypocritical, but arguably predictable) commitment of evangelical Christians to this totally secular, greed-driven, and unprincipled administration they helped to elect. Even more continues being written about the concerning involvement of the Russian government in our election, forcing one to question how the fabric of our democratic process can remain intact amid the shifting atmospheres of our digital age (taking into account the role that social media played in the distribution of propaganda and intolerance throughout the months leading up to voting season). Many of us have found ourselves posing the never-ending “why?” to this insane state of affairs, and the more information is disclosed to support an answer, the more insane it all seems. Personally, I find myself perpetually befuddled by the con job aspect of this global, political, and socio-cultural catastrophe. It goes without saying that, depending on one’s political leanings and selected information sources, the disclosed involvement of Russian trolls in the distribution of social media propaganda may (or may not) have been cause for concern in the voting booth. But one would be remiss in considering the possibility that any voters were not privy to the documented truth that our current president is both an incompetent businessman and a terrible person (or, to paraphrase an observation shared by David Sedaris at a book talk last night: “regardless of how someone voted, I assumed the fact that he was a deplorable human being to be a given”). Though white-washed by the vacuous talking heads at Fox News, the con jobs committed by our now-president were well-documented and well-publicized by most every other major news outlet. The disregard that was openly displayed towards these offenses by his ardent supporters surely transcended their hatred of Mrs. Clinton. It pointed to the underlying and unfortunate truth, which no one seemed comfortable admitting at the time: the appalling disconnect between his most zealous supporters, and any form of objective reality.

And this is where the road forks to the right of any historical precedent. Whereas every U.S. President elected (at least, in my lifetime) was voted into office under a quasi-Mythical pretense—using Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of Myth: a “story … that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people”—we are forced to accept that, at best, 45 was elected under the pretense of Webster’s secondary definition: “an unfounded or false notion.” Looking back, one finds that Barack Obama was elected under the pretense of his voters’ belief in the Myth that minorities will restore balance, integrity, and rejuvenation to a nation desecrated—time and again—by stupid white men. Or that W. Bush was elected under the Mythical pretense of restoring traditional family values to an office desecrated by the lustiness of his predecessor. Or that his predecessor embodied the Myth of the underdog, in the undeniably thrilling election of 1992 (documented memorably in the Pennebaker documentary, The War Room). One could also carry the underdog Myth over into the campaign of Mrs. Clinton, who represented (and to some, still represents) the Myth of the feminine as a source of social healing. (For all the naysayers’ protestations to her perceived arrogance and cronyism, those of us who had been around long enough to chart her career trajectory could appreciate her perseverance and her commitment to humane issues in the dirty field of politics, seemingly—and finally—against all odds). But no comparable Myth holds up to scrutiny in the campaign of 45, as his electorate fail to represent a coherent world view, or any coherent set of values. We have no recourse but to view the myth (def. #2) of white male supremacy as the most logical explanation for their choice of this otherwise totally unremarkable person to lead the country. And even this explanation remains tenuous, in my eyes—seeing as how much of their enthusiasm appears to be little more than a convictionless response to the perceived provocation of a diversified mainstream culture.

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George Stephanopoulos and James Carville remain living scions (for some, at least) to the Myth of the underdog in politics. Still taken from the D.A. Pennebaker documentary film, The War Room © 1993, October Films

The other possible explanation, which chills me to the bone and leaves me at a loss for words: a substantial portion of his voting base have renounced their commitment to any coherent system of values, and they are now collectively steering this country with a worldview that can be defined as maniacal—verging on sociopathic. The statistical fact that over 80% of self-professed Christians voted for—and most of them continue to support—this election outcome, indicates that things have taken a turn for the different (in contradiction to the voices who insist this administration is just “business as usual”). Whereas all the available evidence in the religious right’s nomination of Reagan and Bush (Sr. and Jr.) served to validate their conviction that these men might capably represent a “traditional” system of values, the plethora of evidence available for evaluating their selected candidate in the 2016 election indicates an almost by-the-book contradiction of every purported principle this voting block once represented. Interviews with these voters, and journalistic pieces published by a wide range of sources (from NPR, to USA Today, to the Washington Post), serve to corroborate the general understanding that many Christians are seeking to reclaim a cultural narrative, and their aim is not above supporting someone who practically embodies the Myth of the antichrist. Whether by hastening the apocalypse they so anxiously await, or by securing a super-conservative judge for the Supreme Court, or by simply not having elected Hillary Clinton, these voters—by and large—report that their decision has yielded a satisfactory outcome.

Some of these voters, as well as many a libertarian, will go so far as to insist that the contradictions are comparable among both parties; that Democrats overlooking the Clintons’ established history with Saudi oligarchs (a carry-over from the Bush and Reagan administrations) is equatable to Republicans overlooking the ludicrous overabundance of red flags surrounding their selected candidate. The term “false equivalency” was bandied about frequently by independent analysts during (and following) the 2016 election: while I have no intention of abusing its usage in this essay, I find this a fitting spot to plug it in. Because, as stated previously, the heinous disregard for any recognizable value system—unless we are to consider the love of ratings a value—which was reinforced at every twist and turn in our president’s campaign… well, that is a spectacle all its own, without any worthy synonym in the lexicon of our country’s history. Not only is this administration proving to be a bottomless mockery of its clearly outlined responsibilities (a fate which could have been predicted by anyone with a learned response system): it is proving to be the apotheosis of a culture in the process of collapsing—about to give way completely under the force of this maximal assault on sense and sensibility.

* * *

To recap: The Apprentice. The Kardashians. The Jenners. The televangelists. The morning talk show hosts. The prime-time reality television spectacles. The millions of self-made YouTube sensations, driven exclusively by the sycophancy of their viewers. All this incessant talking—and not a word of it meaningful. The emerging notion that value lies not within our hearts and minds, or within our capacity for relating to others in a decent and functional fashion (or in our skill level, and our capacity to achieve greatness); but rather, within a person’s conviction that such things are not worthy of one’s time—and ultimately, in the acceptance that this is the only conviction that counts.

Everything is sacred.

Seen in broader context, I should hope that everyone can recognize 45 as the pinnacle of a cultural malaise that has been brewing loudly and swiftly for well over a decade. It is this broader malaise—emboldening both the extremes of racist, sexist, capitalist fascism, and full-blown social anarchy—that provided the platform for this lunatic president to enter our vision’s periphery in the first place. It is ratings and recognition that our president has sought all along. While he presents a tragic miniaturization of the potential for one’s existence on this planet, his is an outlook shared by millions of other Westerners—all leading millions of separated, socio-culturally disintegrated lives. When viewing the internet as a vehicle for narcissism and cultural schizophrenia, a less deterministic individual might argue against throwing the baby out with the bathwater; personally, I find the entire social construct to be perched on a precarious edge, and the direction it’s sliding isn’t sky-bound. I suppose you could say, I still need convincing as to whether—years from now—any of our current cultural phenomena will even be worthy of human recall.

can attest to this, from my 30 years on the planet: being ignorant was not always a point of pride in dominant American culture. Although the troubled relationship with our own country’s history (specifically when it comes to issues such as slavery and genocide) has always been a point of contention for patriotic historians, the simple fact that history was deemed worthy of review pointed to a general recognition that within knowledge lay truth, and within truth lay value. Alas, as indicated by the recent protests in support of science (typing these words feels utterly surreal), knowledge is now culturally frowned upon—and by a growing contingent. The response by our current president to these protests provided a backhanded critique of knowledge, in and of itself:

“We should remember that rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate. This April 22nd, as we observe Earth Day, I hope that our nation can come together to give thanks for the land we all love and call home.”

Though I give points for this being one of the more superficially erudite statements made by the man in his brief political career, I shiver at the sheer volume of inherent hypocrisy—the incongruity; the unearthly detachment of his delivery (for after all, these are not his words: they are a teleprompter’s, which is to be expected from POTUS on occasion. I reckon 45 deserves a boost in ratings for this commendable step up from his previous, more amateurish m.o.). One must view this statement within the context of his first week in office, during which 45: reversed Obama-era protections preventing coal from being dumped in our rivers; wiped all climate change data from the White House website (only to have it restored, on the heels of voluminous protestations); denied (again) the statistically proven reality of climate change; alleged that millions of invisible admirers showed up for his inauguration—whereas the millions of photographically evident protesters did not, in fact, exist. And even before his inauguration, let us remember that 45 proudly proposed drilling for oil in our national parks (not to mention his silence on the newly implemented House rules which would allow the sale of national parks). It’s only fitting that a couple of days after this statement, in an Associated Press interview, the same president should proceed to dwell obsessively upon the significance of his viewership out-numbering the viewership of news coverage during the horrors of September 11th. Just as with the man himself (if one were generous enough to refer to him with the fully developed biological noun), it is a comparison at once repellent, mocking, and atrocious; ultimately, devoid of any value whatsoever. Unlike his invariably more dignified predecessors—who hid their private lives, their hardships, and their neuroses behind closed doors—45 has succeeded in making his neurosis, corruption, and reprehensible character a cause for celebration and worship.

I think, once again, of this sinking ship—once an enviable (and dare-I-say, admirable) nation of people. While there remain millions of decent American citizens, frantically endeavoring to keep the admirable embers of this society (along with its core sense of sanity) aglow, there is also an evident, emerging population of humans who have observably devolved from what once was expected to be our potential for greatness. And while this strain of devolution—which also extends itself to include the pre-emptively intolerant culture of many so-called “liberal” colleges—is taking no prisoners, it does seem to be taking sides. Because statistics (specifically, independent analysis of partisan opinion polls from before and after the inauguration of 45) indicate that it is predominantly Republican voters who have detached themselves from objective reality. Whereas many Democratic voters—when questioned about commonplace issues, such as taxes and foreign policy—have voiced their opinion in terms of observable similarities between Obama’s policies and those of 45, a much larger portion of Republican voters indicated a personal bias that extends the limits of available facts (seemingly to assail or praise the competency of the president in office at each given time). For instance, although U.S. tax rates did not vary between the tax years 2015 and 2016 (with the country still operating under the budget of the Obama administration’s final fiscal year), a recent Pew poll reveals that the public approval of tax rates among Republicans voters rose by 17% this year. On the flip-side, Democratic voters who were polled revealed consistent ratings of approval from year to year, in accordance with the stasis of our current tax policy. Likewise, whereas only 22% of polled Republican voters approved of Barack Obama’s proposal to strike Syria, a startling 88% now find themselves in agreement with our current president’s proposal to do the very same.

Ultimately, it is not our country’s ability to swing back towards popular liberalism that I call into question: it is our country’s apparent inability to swing back towards popular wisdom that I am deeply disturbed by. Because popular wisdom previously would have determined that a country ought not to place a proven con man in its highest office, much less expect a sudden change in character—or, more foolishly, expect this character to offer any viable solution to long-standing problems. And once-popular wisdom certainly would not have ennobled this culture of “famous-for-being-famous,” which somehow—although steadily eating itself—never appears to run out of itself. This is the diseased water seeping through the leaks in our ship: engulfing everything it can reach in a swamp of ignorance and intolerance, and drowning the lot of it in insignificance. Sure, this vessel could remain afloat for an indeterminate period of time; but unless it is patched and properly repaired, it will eventually—inevitably—prove itself unsustainable.

“It is useless. Nothing is possible now.”

The reader may be wondering about the block quotes I’ve sporadically inserted throughout this essay. They are from Pasolini’s film of the Myth of Medea—another of the director’s works that I’ve found illuminating in these times of widespread disorientation. These quotes provide a sort of mantra for the concerns I’m attempting to outline in this disoriented piece, and it seemed fitting to me that they should come from a comparably enraged film. The picture opens with the centaur recounting the Mythical history of the Golden Fleece to the infant Jason: the centaur observes that “there is nothing natural in nature”—referring to the paradoxical notion that we do harm to our own natural environment, whenever we take it for granted; and that the Mythical exists all around us, if we are only open to perceiving it. The centaur further recognizes that “everything is sacred”—an intentionally broad statement, which Pasolini manipulates to reflect his own fears of modern man having lost touch with sacredness in any form (religious or otherwise). The director went on to personally observe, in one of his final interviews, that people were appearing less and less to him as human beings, and more frequently as mere “machines bumping into one another.” Unfortunately, present circumstances offer much in the way of validation for Pasolini’s projected concerns. Because when even the most devout religious zealots are willing to renounce their own stated values, in order to hijack a cultural narrative (perhaps not realizing how their hypocrisy reinforces the disinterest and disdain of those atheist folks whose souls they claim to be concerned about)—and when even the most devout liberal activist is cornered by the hashtag- and selfie-contained activism of millenial “culture”—then truly, “we are all in danger” (the title of Pasolini’s final interview).

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Maria Callas takes on the role of Medea in Pasolini’s film of Euripides’s Myth. The narrative culminates with Medea’s decision to kill her own children, in lieu of having them suffer banishment by their father. © 1969, SNC

To be sure, one hopes that the core qualities of humanity (empathy, cognition, innovation, and reflection) will somehow survive in this hazardous environment; that they will eventually redeem this unsettling fall from grace, and restore some sense of balance to a reality that is—rather swiftly—rendering these very qualities vestigial. One certainly hopes we won’t reach the state of mind Maria Callas’s Medea assumes at the end of Pasolini’s film, when she slaughters her children and burns the castle down, screaming insanely into the camera: “It is useless. Nothing is possible now.” Yet the provocation underlying this film, and the provocation of these outlined concerns, remain of pertinence to the subject at hand—and they beg the question: Who among us is willing  and determined to prove these concerns unfounded? And how are we going to prove it?

PJ Harvey’s pre-apocalyptic North American tour

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View from above: taking in the stage set-up for PJ Harvey’s Massey Hall performance from the upper balcony.

“Water
Walking
Walking on water
Walking
Walking on for years, and years, and years
Taking it into my head
Living by the right lines
Reading what the very man said…”
– “Water” (from the studio album Dry, 1992)

It’s a Thursday night in Toronto, Ontario. I’m seated in the third row of the uppermost balcony in the legendary and historic Massey Hall theater, waiting anxiously for the show to unfold before me. While I await, I engage in some shameless people-watching—taking in the surprisingly diverse demographic range of fellow admirers. I find that I am compulsively adjusting my legs in the cramped space between my seat and the subsequent row; I remind myself that humans were of a somewhat smaller build at the time of this venue’s construction, but I am fairly confident this won’t prove detrimental to my enjoyment of the spectacle I’ve awaited eagerly for the past 13 years. I take in each component of the widespread set on stage (three separate drum kits; two keyboard rigs; a row of five vocal microphones; an array of guitars), and I tell myself one last time: you’re about to see PJ Harvey perform live in concert.

Pinch yourself.

* * *

It’s a trying task—writing about an artist whose craftsmanship and soul essence you’ve admired, studied, and (even, admittedly) obsessed over for a period of over a decade; objectivity is rather firmly out of the question (to put it mildly). Then again, one starts to wonder: is objectivity ever truly within one’s reach as an audience participant? Aren’t we all at the mercy of our individual whims, preferences, and fetishes when it comes to consuming a live performance—let alone being at the mercy of other attendees in one’s immediate vicinity? Subjectivity in such matters seems to me an inevitable and foregone conclusion.

I’m again reminded of Naomi Greene’s writings on the “free indirect subjectivity” permeating the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini: her excellent book, Cinema of Heresy, happened to be my primary reading material during this Canadian road trip. In hindsight, the correlations between these two seemingly disparate sources (Greene’s theoretical writings on one of world cinema’s most controversial and ill-fated legends, and the live performance of a living music legend) seem to me overwhelmingly prevalent. Walking back to our hotel after show’s end—in stunned silence; for what can one say, after achieving transcendence, that might add anything of possible merit?—the images of Pasolini’s final films (having just finished Greene’s chronological text earlier that day) converged aqueously in my mind with the overpowering imagery of the evening’s events. And I found myself replaying the borrowed chorus from the penultimate number repeatedly in my head: “Wade in the water/God’s gonna trouble the water…

I suppose some context may help to frame the following thoughts in a clearer light for the unfortunate reader of this (doubtlessly meandering) essay. For starters, a temporal framework: it is Thursday, April 13th, 2017. PJ Harvey is embarking upon an expansive (comparative to her 2016 outing) North American tour, starting in Toronto. In Canada, the Prime Minister is a doe-eyed populist liberal, beloved by citizens at home and abroad. The United States, meanwhile, has as its Commander-in-Chief a mentally unhinged populist autocrat, who may all-too-conceivably be accelerating the end of the world via any number of available means (nuclear holocaust; opportunistic climate change denial; a general inability to refrain from performing rash acts, with the apparent intent of continuously domineering the attention of profit-driven media outlets).

I’ve spent much of this year having pained conversations with friends, associates, and acquaintances from across the political spectrum—trying in vain to make sense of what is happening in the world; hoping against all hope that a deus ex machina will present itself and save the human species from the destructive urges of this latest assortment of clinically unstable world leaders. Earlier this week, news emerged of gay men in Chechnya being rounded up—some reported to have been murdered—for imprisonment in concentration camps. On the same day that Ms. Harvey’s tour is slated to begin, the Pentagon authorizes the deployment of the largest non-nuclear bomb at the disposal of the grandiose U.S. Military-industrial complex; it is reported that a total of 36 Afghan militants were killed as a result of the bombing. A week prior, the current U.S. president authorized the launch of Tomahawk missiles against Assad’s regime in Syria. And in the midst of all this chaos, American citizens anxiously await confirmation of well-founded suspicions that this very president colluded with Vladimir Putin and his legion of government cronies to influence the 2016 election—which would frame all of these happenings within the disorienting precedent of a traitor being placed in the highest office of the American government, and subsequently authorizing attacks upon foreign countries under the galling auspices of delivering democracy. One may find oneself drawn to the lines from one of Harvey’s songs on her newest album:

“Those are the children’s cries from the dark
these are the words written under the arch
scratched in the wall in biro pen
this is how the world will end.”

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PJ Harvey and her nine-piece band take the stage in Toronto to kick off their 2017 North American tour in support of The Hope Six Demolition Project.

I find myself propelled back into that uncomfortable seat, way up in the balcony of Massey Hall. Polly Jean Harvey is on-stage, decked out like an exotic bird, perched in heeled leather boots that—from a distance, at least—give the marked impression of a heron’s legs. As the second song of the night (and possibly my favorite track from her latest offering) begins to take flight, a curtain behind the stage unveils a new addition to the set. Rising from behind the vaulted proscenium, a massive, dimpled wall starts to loom increasingly (and rather forebodingly) large above the ten-piece band. I’m paralyzed by the intensity of the moment: the stunning silences between the guitar notes; the forced breathing of the keyboardist, adding sonic texture and punctuation throughout the number. Polly’s voice soars at the start of each verse—and this is but a warm-up for the night’s vocal acrobatics: “This is the ministry/Of defence/The stairs and walls are/All that’s left.

Two drummers, Jean-Marc Butty (a resident of PJ’s band since her 2009 tour in support of A Woman A Man Walked By) and Alain Johannes (a newer addition), are pounding out what I presume the opening of the seventh seal, as described in the Book of Revelations, might very well sound like. I’m both riveted by the sights and sounds that are overwhelming my senses, and forcibly reminded of the global events surrounding this occasion. After all, it was Polly’s visits to Afghanistan and Kosovo between 2011 and 2014 that initially spawned the “project” of this album’s namesake; it was her conscious decision to go “to the front line of the issue rather than picking it out of the newspapers” (as quoted by Billy Bragg in the May 2016 issue of Uncut) which resulted in this alarming approach to songwriting, as well as the brave selection of subject matter. Drawing a slight but noteworthy contrast between Ms. Harvey’s approach and that of Bob Dylan, Bragg explains: “Dylan wasn’t beaten up during the Civil Rights in America, but he read about Medgar Evers and he wrote about it. Whereas Polly seems to be much more like a war artist in the fact that she’s actually gone there to experience it and bring it back. It’s like frontline reporting.”

While the ostensible intent of this project appears to faithfully have been grounded in this attitude of “[wanting] to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with,” it’s worth noting that the finished outcomes of this pursuit (the book of poetry and photographs, The Hollow of the Hand; the album; the world tour) all carry a flavor that is noticeably removed from a purely journalistic outlook. A worthy anecdote to highlight this distance between the intent and the outcome of Harvey’s latest project (a distance which, I might add, is inherent to the realization of any creative project—though breadth varies from case to case) is the backlash the singer/songwriter received from Vincent Gray—the former mayor of Washington, D.C.—after releasing the album’s second single, “The Community of Hope.” Inspired by Harvey’s latest visit to the nation’s capital, which centered upon lower-income areas within Ward 7, the song contains lyrics alluding to a school that “looks like a shit hole;” a neighborhood resembling a “drug town” (“just zombies, but that’s just life”); and the renovation of an old mental institution into the Homeland Security base. Gray’s exact words on the subject, as quoted in an online article by DCist: “I will not dignify this inane composition with a response.” His Campaign Treasurer, on the other hand, chose to dignify the song with the following assessment, “PJ Harvey is to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news”—which leaves one in doubt as to whether this fellow would be able to pick Ms. Harvey out of a line-up, let alone being in any position to capably interpret her peculiar style of writing.

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Points of reference (clockwise from left): The Hollow of the Hand poem and photo book; the May 2016 issue of Uncut Magazine; Uncut’s Ultimate Music Guide to PJ Harvey; the studio album.

Although I personally beg to differ with the criticisms launched against this (and other songs) on the album, I find them of significance insofar as they point to the aforementioned distance between Harvey’s stated goal for this project, and the devastating result of her efforts. It’s a distance that Naomi Greene (or Gilles Deleuze, for that matter) might argue to have been marked by that same “free indirect subjectivity,” which forms the cornerstone of not only Pasolini’s work, but Godard’s, Antonioni’s, and Fassbinder’s as well. As explained by Pasolini, this form of subjectivity in writing can be identified as “the presence of the author who, through an abnormal freedom, transcends his film and continually threatens to abandon it, detoured by sudden inspiration—an inspiration of latent love for the poetic world of his own vital experiences… In short, beneath the technique produced by the protagonist’s state of mind—which is disoriented, uncoordinated, beset by details, given to compelling anxieties—the world constantly surfaces as it is seen by the equally neurotic author: dominated by an elegant, elegiac, and never classicist, spirit” (Greene, p. 119).

Elegant and elegiac. Two words that would befit PJ Harvey’s personae of the past decade most suitably. Ever since turning (yet) a(nother) page with the stark chamber pieces of 2007’s White Chalk, Harvey’s listeners and admirers have been privy to a somewhat different character angle than the one we identified throughout her ’90s output. Then again, when taken as a collected oeuvre, a dedicated student of her work may well reach the conclusion that her entire career has been predicated upon this same form of indirect subjectivity all along. One could feasibly take this observation further and argue that what her harshest critics have possibly reacted against is not her perceived “misanthropy,” or the seemingly perpetual darkness of her subject matter; their disapproval may instead stem from an (arguably justifiable) aversion to an artist who has chosen to specialize in the territory between her subject matter and her own creative self. For even in her most dedicated and visceral performances—the “Joan Crawford on acid” persona of the To Bring You My Love tour, or the lovelorn sensualist of Uh Huh Her—there exists an undeniable tension between the committed (forgive the pun) words and attitudes of her characters, and the mannered control of her own artist’s instinct. Not unlike Bowie, and yet the distance is even more pronounced—more arch (closer to Scott Walker territory, as far as comparisons go). With every new incarnation of her 25-year career span, it’s as though Polly Jean has been repeatedly pronouncing: “Here is a woman. She is not me, and yet she is.” (And with Let England Shake, this pronouncement stretched more broadly to incorporate the additional layer: “Here are the men who died in these wars. They are not me, and yet their blood courses through me.”)

This very same message emerged palpably and overwhelmingly at the start of her Massey Hall performance—as she emerged with her cohorts in the line formation of a marching band, and proceeded to chant the opening lines of the first number, “Chain of Keys” (which communicates on a far more imminently powerful level than in the studio recording): “Fifteen keys/Fifteen keys hang on a chain/The chain is joint/The chain is joint and forms a ring/The ring is in/The ring is in a woman’s hand/She’s walking on/She’s walking on the dusty ground.” The song makes reference to a woman whom she encountered on her travels in Kosovo—the keeper of the keys to fifteen houses owned by fifteen men she’s unsure if she will ever see again (the poem version of this song, as published in The Hollow of the Hand, includes the additional lines: “Numbers painted on the doors/posters on the locked-up church/in black and white, the recent dead./Now all I do is wait, she says.”) It is a shameless cliché, but I can think of no better way to describe the show’s introduction than to say it was electrifying.

Whereas in earlier outings, Polly Jean tended to slide rather directly into the skins of the characters sprinkled throughout her songs’ narratives, post-White Chalk PJ appears to have developed a keener dedication to maintaining (and even celebrating) the distance between herself as the artist, and the characters in her songs as autonomous beings. Which is part of what renders The Hope Six Demolition Project so rewarding upon repeat listening: the palpable, positive existence of the human beings who populate these eleven stories. Her perspective is with the subjects, but never totally within. And even this tenuous connection between herself and her characters is called into question repeatedly—most pointedly in the lyrics of “Dollar, Dollar,” where she finds herself “trapped” in the backseat of a car in Afghanistan, struggling to come to terms with the sight of an ill and impoverished child begging at her car window: “All my words get swallowed/In the rear view glass/A face pock-marked and hollow/He’s saying dollar, dollar.

These moments (alongside the militaristic psychodrama of “The Ministry of Defence,” with its cast of children who “do the same thing everywhere/They’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic/And balanced sticks in human shit”) appear to me to parallel the observations of Gilles Deleuze, in reference to Pasolini and the notion of free indirect subjectivity on-film: “What characterizes Pasolini’s cinema is a poetic awareness which… is mystical or ‘sacred’… Here is the permutation of the trivial and the noble, the connection between the excremental and the beautiful, and the projection into myth that Pasolini diagnosed in free indirect discourse [seen] as the essential form of literature. And he succeeds in making it into a cinematographic form capable of grace as much as of horror.”

“…Lying on eleven years
Taking it into my head
Mary, Mary drop me softly
Been reading what your very man said
Lying on eleven years
Taking it into my head
Leave my clothes on the beach
I’m walking down into the sea…”

As with her earliest albums for Elektra, PJ Harvey’s music work continues to carry with it a cinematographic strain. This was rendered explicit with the release of the Let England Shake album, the unveiling of which culminated in a collaboration with filmmaker/photographer Seamus Murphy—who produced a short film for each one of the tracks on the record. Seamus has since contributed three original music videos to her latest project (as well as providing the accompanying photographs for her poems in The Hollow of the Hand), and one can only hope there will be more forthcoming. But beyond the produced visuals in support of the album, one is immediately drawn to the subjectively conjured visuals of Harvey’s indirect lyrics: the characters throughout these songs, nameless though they may be, remain with us for the album’s duration—and they don’t readily abandon us (or let us abandon them) after the end credits roll. There is such a truthful, mythical quality to the depictions of the people in these songs; it’s the type of truth that encompasses all the contradictions of reality, including the likelihood that her harsh description of certain locations (such as D.C.’s Ward 7) are both every bit as exaggerated as the former D.C. mayor would have us believe, and every bit as bad as she succeeds in making them sound.

But beyond these notions of indirect subjectivity and writer’s POV, there appears to be a more profound understanding at play within the subtext of The Hope Six Demolition Project and its supporting tour. Namely, the perceived wisdom of having fully accepted the limitations of what art can accomplish, while simultaneously reaching for the outer limits of what is capable. In short, by carving into the terrain of myth, which reveals itself to be sacred (while offering up equal measures of the profane) Harvey has set herself—and this work—apart from the more traditional forms of front-line reportage. In Cinema of Heresy, Greene also cites a previous text by Lino Micciche, in which he draws a comparison between the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, and the role assumed by Pasolini as a revolutionary film-maker: “Adorno is seen as the man who best described contemporary society as one in which the order of the Enlightenment turned into barbarianism, where thought ceased to think itself, where the destruction of the Myth… created the new myth of Reason (and its order of the ‘rational’). For Adorno, in fact, and in general for all ‘negative thought,’ the mandate of intellectuals and artists… [to] merely oppose what exists… winds up by reflecting… the barbarity of what exists” (p. 170). The rationalism of her critics is thus drawn into stark contrast with the unstated intent of her latest work (further outlined by her refusal to give any interviews on the subject—the interview being that most rational and, all-too-often, belittling of vehicles for the artist’s message): to bring us in direct contact with the unseen and unspoken terrain that lies beyond the imploding confines of twentieth century rationalism.

So not unlike Pasolini, with his mythic film quartet, PJ Harvey has ventured into that territory housing the origins of man-made myth itself: the lands of the Middle East. (Lines from “The Orange Monkey” serve to corroborate her intent: “…to understand/You must travel back in time/I took a plane to a foreign land/And said, ‘I’ll write down what I find.’”) Also not unlike Pasolini (who once remarked: “I do not place much faith in action, unless it is truly action”), Harvey is establishing a space for herself—as an artist—in which she can maintain an indirectly subjective rapport with her characters, all the while avoiding the self-righteous sermonizing of most social consciousness-driven songwriting. But what separates Harvey from Pasolini, as both a human being and an artist (among many of the latter’s character traits, not worth numbering), is the apparent, genuine empathy she reveals for the people she depicted in these songs. Unlike the Italian filmmaker, whose career ended on a note of the most profound and dour pessimism, Harvey appears to be at least containing—and quite possibly contemplating—the possibility of a happy ending. Whereas many critics, upon release, commented disparagingly that Ms. Harvey ought not venture into the world’s biggest problems without offering any solutions, I personally find their admonishment laughable and unwarranted—on at least two levels. First, since when has it become the artist’s responsibility to provide tactile solutions for the world’s most enormous social problems? (Morality aside, are competent artists generally equipped to become efficient policy-makers?) And second, couldn’t we all admit that one of the more substantial problems at-hand these days is the proliferation of individuals offering their self-proclaimed expertise on possible solutions, while never actually participating in the implementation of their propositions (or never having been an expert in the first place)? It appears to me, these days, that solutions to social issues are worked out and proposed without even considering the source problem from a multitude of angles. The irony of this faux pas, of course, is that the cultural notion of intentional, “solution-focused thinking”—featured in many an inspirational TED talk—has, in fact, failed to offer many tangible and long-lasting solutions to society’s broader issues. In part, this has been for a failure to comprehend, clearly and unanimously, the source(s) of the problems at-hand.

And so Polly Jean invites us to look. To really look, and to withhold from offering expert advice on something we’re not really an expert in. Her songs seem to be saying: “I’ve actually been there, and I know little more than I did before having gone. But here are the fragmented facts I can attest to; someone else has the rest of the picture.” It’s not just honest: it’s—dare I say it?—revolutionary, in proportion to the present-day worldviews of many writers. There is a genuine empathy inherent to these songs, and to their live performances, but it is all smartly packaged within the mythical/theatrical tradition of storytelling. It is both huge and small; conveyed with a Brechtian influence, and marked by occasions of unexpected warmth and humor (such as the ridiculous sax solos in “The Ministry of Social Affairs,” or the unexpected, highly rewarding inclusion of “50 Ft. Queenie” towards the live set’s culmination). Her current songwriting approach never quite enables us to get comfortable within the sketchy parameters of the scenes she is depicting: the work is clearly conscious of her—and of her likely audience’s—somewhat bourgeois milieu, and it refuses middle-class consumers the somewhat sadistic and classicist comfort of admiring the horrors of humanity from a safe distance. This approach reminds us perpetually that it “does not simply give a vision of the character and his world; it imposes another vision in which the first vision is transformed and reflected” (Deleuze, in reference to Pasolini’s use of the camera). And this is where Harvey most explicitly transcends the defined confines of the various mediums she is operating within (live performance; poetry; songwriting; recording), drawing our attention instead to analyze the intended purpose of the mediums themselves—and to recognize the endless sea of inherent subjectivity that envelops them. It is also significant to recognize here that, for the first time in her catalogue of album artwork designs, we are not delivered a crisply conceived, fine-tuned aesthetic. Announcing an immediate departure with the designer’s choice of the “Impact” font (which so many of us are likely to associate with the pedantic phenomenon of the “meme”), this newest album cover somewhat daringly mixes the personal—the crest being of family origin to John Parish, Harvey’s long-time collaborator—with the culturally vulgar. It is a product for creative consumption, and at the same time, it seems to be calling into question the integrity of its own conception.

In a highly reflexive, quasi-Godardian move, Harvey maintains a steady commitment throughout The Hope Six Demolition Project to not employing any emotional clichés, instead quoting from genre (the gospel blues of “River Anacostia;” the jazz-inflected plastic soul of “The Ministry of Social Affairs;” the barroom chant at the close of “Community of Hope;” the layered, live instrumentation of the tracks, loosely recalling ABCKO-era Stones) and inserting documentary-influenced observations throughout to achieve an almost endlessly repeatable cycle of sonic paintings. Appropriately enough, one of the stand-out pieces from the album (and a high point of her Massey Hall performance, garnering a standing ovation) is entitled “The Wheel:” it takes as its subject matter the thousands of children who go missing every year in the Middle East, leaving empty playground carousels spinning in the wind. Harvey never lets us forget that most of the characters in these songs are now—or have always been—ghosts, and she deploys language as a masterful weapon to conjure simple, timeless images in the listener’s mind of the chaotic, life-drenched, and death-soaked landscapes she has visited.

“…Now the water to my ankles
Now the water to my knees
Think of him, all waxy wings
Melted down into the sea
Mary, Mary, what your man said
Washing it all over my head
Mary, Mary, hold on tightly
Over water, under the sea…”

The back catalogue selections in her live set also reveal an astute awareness of the disparities and the similarities between her former selves, and her current outlook: by blocking the set with an initial chunk of songs from the new project, followed by a series of selections from the comparably poetic and politic-inflected Let England Shake, she then segues from the inebriated woman in a wheelchair at the end of Hope Six‘s “Medicinals,” to the woman undergoing an abortion in White Chalk‘s “When Under Ether” (with both songs also calling to mind the powerful presence of the woman holding the chain of keys to those fifteen abandoned houses—not to mention real-life issues of women’s rights, making global headlines on a daily basis). She then proceeds to weave, in a totally seamless and fluid fashion, numbers from To Bring You My Love and Rid of Me with the remaining pieces of her three most recent albums—alternating between the desperate child at her car window in “Dollar, Dollar” and the woman inviting “The Devil” to enter her soul “on a night with no moon;” between the blues of the beggars soliciting outside “The Ministry of Social Affairs,” and the self-confident swagger of the “king of the world” in “50 Ft. Queenie.” For an artist renowned for being (at times, overly) curatorial and selective in her live set sequencing, it’s an absolute joy to see her make full use of her biggest touring band to date, giving new life to older songs which fully warrant the panoramic treatment (did I mention that this band is phenomenally good?) In fact, two numbers from her most blatantly cinematic album to-date (and one of my personal favorites), To Bring You My Love, serve as a highly dramatic lead-up to the anticlimactic warning sign of “River Anacostia”—which closes out the set proper. Traveling from the woman who commits infanticide in “Down By the Water,” to the one who has “climbed over mountains” and “forsaken heaven/To bring you my love,” the set ends with a subtle return to the more prophetic overtones of the woman whose chain of keys first opened the floodgates. But something has changed between then and now: over the course of her transformative and bristling performance, she has come that much closer to fusing herself with the song’s narrator. She now beckons, with both a genuine urgency and the heightened drama of a Greek chorus: “What will become of us?/What will become of us?” As the band repeats the chorus of a 19th century African-American spiritual (another link in the chain, emphasizing the mythical proportion of the entire project), the wall that was erected behind the band at the start of the night sinks quietly to the ground—swallowed by the poisonous waters of the river in question.

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A towering wall looms large above Polly Jean and her band, as they provide both a warning sign of things to come.

As I left the theater and replayed that hair-raising performance of “River Anacostia” over again and again in my mind, I couldn’t help being reminded of the apocalyptic tone which overtook Pasolini in his final years—ultimately revealing its bleakest colors in the magisterial despair of Salò. I then thought of Harvey’s encore song selections: the broad, mythical canvas of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” and the borderline-romantic (yet invariably gritty) depiction of her homeland, “The Last Living Rose.” I thought of this final moment of transcendent beauty, occurring at the end of this crowning number as she intones: “Let me watch the night fall on the river/The moon rise up and turn to silver/The sky move, the ocean shimmer/The hedge shake, the last living rose/Quiver.” With this final word, she goes through the motions of a mannered circle dance, calling to my preoccupied mind the ritualistic dance at the close Salò, which I’d found myself reading about that same morning. It was both a fitting finale, and a lingering reminder of the fragility inherent to this performance and its contents—let alone the fragility of the world’s survival in the troubling times we find ourselves living in. Once again, in contrast to Pasolini, Harvey doesn’t flatly deny us a happy ending: she seems instead to be denying the viability of any self-imposed ending to the vast and mythical narrative she has embarked upon.

Throughout the towering and unforgettable show Ms. Harvey has put together, she consistently makes us (her long-time listeners and admirers) fully, viscerally aware of the continuity stretching from the opening notes of Dry‘s “Oh My Lover,” to the cinéma vérité -inflected poeticism of her more recent projects—and she leaves us breathlessly wondering what might come next. Her magisterial performance serves as a humbling reminder that she remains in a league of her own, artistically speaking. One could reach for any number of comparisons with other poets/songwriters/performance artists (Patti Smith; Marina Abramović; Kate Bush), but when all is said and done, Polly Jean Harvey has cultivated a soil fully her own—which she is both modestly maintaining and ambitiously expanding from year to year. Her subject matter may have evolved over the course of the past two and a half decades, but it has retained the air of the mountain breeze blowing through the clothes of the protagonist in “Fountain.” The mythical body of “Water” that she walks on at the end of Dry emerges as the same water in which a child is drowned in To Bring You My Love—which is, in turn, the same sea her characters float in during the finale of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The water from this sea now carries with it the poisons of “River Anacostia,” warning us (in a morally neutral tone) of the two most prominent threats looming over our present-day civilization: the devastating effects of climate change, and the contamination of our water supply.

As with Pasolini (widely regarded now as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century), Harvey ultimately calls to mind the “eternal return” of the Romanian philosopher, Mircea Eliade, who determined in his writings that: “Every sacrifice repeats the initial sacrifice and coincides with it… And the same holds true for all repetitions, i.e., all imitations of archetypes; through such imitations, man is projected into the mythical epoch in which the archetypes were first revealed. Thus we perceive… there is an implicit abolition of profane time, of duration, of ‘history’; and he who reproduces the exemplary gesture thus finds himself transported into the mythical epoch in which its revelation took place.” Likewise, Harvey has eschewed the self-righteous proselytizing of her pop music contemporaries, in favor of rooting herself firmly in mythical landscapes that—put in proper perspective—serve to dwarf the short-sighted and ineffectual efforts of modern man and woman.

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The audience dissipates into a crowd outside the venue.

And so we return to our hotel after this life-altering event, and we find ourselves at a loss for words. Because during the course of the past couple hours, we have transcended the boundaries of time and place, and we have experienced an authentic, humbling encounter with the likely origins of the world’s most widely debated (and frequently misrepresented) problems. We have been made hyper-aware of the vulgarity underlying the words of so many politicians, experts, and self-proclaimed artists—all vainly claiming to have found the solutions to these problems. But we can still see that revolving wheel, from which all those thousands of children have disappeared; we see “a tableau of the missing”—“a faded face/the trace of an ear.” And we “watch them fade out/and watch them fade out/and watch them fade out…”

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The newly renovated East Wing in the U.S. National Gallery (Washington, D.C.)

“Is it there I’m from?
I wonder where I’m from.”
– refrain from “’66 Wonder Where I’m From”

I recently had the tremendous joy of seeing The Magnetic Fields performing Merritt’s 50 Song Memoir in its entirety over the course of two nights, at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C. I must admit, it sort of altered my geography, as a person. The songs are incredible—maybe the best of his entire repertoire—and the presentation was phenomenal. It’s my favorite record of the year, as of yet.

While in D.C., I also had an opportunity to pay a second visit to the U.S. National Gallery—whose East Wing was recently renovated to expand its explicit focus on modern art.

Giacometti. Kandinsky. Ernst. Bacon. Beckmann. Picasso. Jawlensky. Rothko.

Amazing works… powerful vibrations. As my partner, Craig, and I wandered from room to room, I found myself (inescapably) reflecting upon some of the current events surrounding this casual getaway: namely, the newly unveiled budget proposal, which would cut the National Endowment for the Arts entirely, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and a slew of other arts-related programs (which, combined, form the most infinitesimal fraction of the overall Federal budget). I thought about this new museum wing, bursting at the brim with pieces of such tremendous energy, wisdom, ingenuity, and sheer creative (let alone monetary) value. I thought about how this is all made available to us (for free!), as citizens of this country, via an existing conviction that it is essential to support and preserve the work(s) of emerging artists; after all, when the NEA was initially conceived, the atrocities of WWII were not far from the memory of many living U.S. citizens and lawmakers. They had witnessed the willful neglect and outright destruction of art and culture at the hands of an extremist European regime, and they were determined to not let that sort of thing happen over here.

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Craig gazing into A Moment of Calm (Max Ernst, 1939). Collection of the National Gallery, East wing. Gift of Dorothea Tanning Ernst

I couldn’t help but wonder, what might happen to these museums if the NEA were to be successfully eliminated. At the very least, one could safely predict that efforts to champion artists and facilitate these vessels of cultural enlightenment would be forcibly diminished. I think about how in past times, when art has been forcibly diminished and/or suppressed, it’s often been the product of fear: a fear of what the artists might have to say. I think about how much bigger, richer, more enjoyable, and how intellectually engaging my life has been as a direct result of access to arts and humanities. I think of all the lessons I’ve been taught by the artists who have affected my being, and I try to imagine a world where they don’t even exist. And I just can’t.

Walking around a display of Giacometti sculptures in the East Wing, I was (typically) enraptured by those grotesque yet stunningly beautiful shapes. The way he chipped away at every angle and curve of his emaciated figures, leaving behind these skeletal ghosts—spectres of past horrors; strange angels of compassion. Nearly a century later, these pieces have retained all the power and urgency of the times from out of which they originated. I think about what might have happened if these pieces weren’t respected, appreciated, and valued as they universally are; if they just vanished into the dirt, or remained stashed away in the private headquarters of some war criminal or other. I suppose some could argue that it wouldn’t have made any difference, either way. The very idea of posing such a theory makes my soul shrink a size or two.

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The endless marvels of spending time with the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti (The City Square, 1948/1949, and Standing Woman, 1947). Collection of the National Gallery, East Wing. Gift of Enid A. Haupt.

After venturing through the West Wing of the National Gallery, and taking in several amazing works by Van Gogh and Bruegel (including this amazing piece by a follower of his, pictured below), we went in search of the Chagall mosaic we had heard to be a part of their collection. A front desk clerk told us it was somewhat difficult to spot, tucked away behind a pavilion somewhere in the sculpture garden. We ventured through the garden and spotted what we assumed to be the pavilion in question; there appeared to be the section of a wall, hidden behind a small grouping of bare trees. Picking our way through the bushes, we came upon the object of our search: Orphée, a kaleidoscopic rendition of the myth of Orpheus.

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The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1550/1575)

The story goes that a collector in Georgetown, Evelyn Nef, had this mosaic in her private collection: a clerk in the museum bookstore informs me that he once lived in the area, and would often peek over the garden wall when walking by, snatching only a glimpse of the epic work. The clerk seemed mildly disappointed that the wall was now public domain, oddly enough; he felt it now lacked some of its original intrigue. It goes without saying, from an objective standpoint, that having a piece like this as public domain is both a priceless gift and a noble gesture (and I appreciate the museum’s efforts to place the piece somewhat out of immediate sight, to avoid damage from heavy traffic). Looking at the various fragments and figures scattered throughout the fantastically imagined rendition of Orpheus, I think of Chagall’s personal history of abuse and exile.

I think about how Marc Chagall was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Germany, after falling out of favor with the increasingly fascistic regime, which now viewed his vibrant and extra-worldly paintings as nothing but “green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air … representing [an] assault on Western civilization.” (from the text of Chagall: A Biography, as cited on Wikipedia). I think about Chagall and his wife fleeing to Vichy, France—only to realize that it, too, was occupied by French Nazi collaborationists, who were shipping French Jews off to concentration camps in Germany. And I thought about Chagall finally escaping to New York, and finding refuge in a colony of other escaped artists: writers, painters, composers… All seeking a safe haven away from a war-torn and fascistically governed European landscape. I think of the immigrants being targeted, in such a seemingly scattershot and disorganized fashion, by our current presidential administration.

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The Magnetic Fields perform the 50 Song Memoir at the Lincoln Theater (second night).

I look at the individual tiles of Chagall’s mural one last time, and breathe another sigh of relief at having found the piece, and having experienced this moment with the most important person in my life. We go see the second night of The Magnetic Fields performance at the Lincoln Theater, and I’m once again flabbergasted by the amount of wit, hilarity, musicianship, showmanship, and intelligence boiling over from that stage. I’m moved by so many moments throughout the course of these two special evenings, but one that sticks out in my mind is a penultimate track, “I Wish I Had Pictures.” The final line is repeated several times: “I wish I had pictures of every old day/’Cause all these old memories are fading away.” The video projected on a screen above the stage shows a hand flipping pages in a photo album, but all we see is the glare from the sunlight hitting the camera lens. Even though we all had to make a vow not to at the door, I cannot resist the impulse to snap a surreptitious shot during the final number (which, predictably, turned out a glare-y disappointment). As the band takes the stage for the final ovation of the night, I think to myself: “I hope people get out to see this show. I hope these songs are preserved, and that all that amazing art in the National Gallery’s East Wing doesn’t go anywhere anytime soon.”

We ride the metro train back to the hotel. I check my email on my phone during the ride back and am surprised to see a lot of positive and encouraging feedback from friends and strangers, who’ve taken the time to check out a newly released track I had the privilege of performing on. I thank my lucky stars that art is a part of my life, and then I hop off the train.

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For love of Marc Chagall (Orphée, 1969). “Infinite wonder/If it’s to end here.”

“We are the United States of Amnesia: we learn nothing because we remember nothing.”

With these words, Gore Vidal summarized (albeit somewhat cynically) what seems to be a recurring motif of our country’s ancestry. And it does stand to test that we, as a nation of people, have persistently struggled to effectively process our past. Like a patient who keeps returning to his therapist for analysis, but then disregards the insight provided about himself during every session, we seem to carry on in a state of oblivion—forever wondering what on earth might be the matter with this dysfunctional country we live in, when the answers have been presented to us time and time again…

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The great Tilda Swinton, playing a mother who fears her child might be developing sociopathic tendencies in Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin © 2011, Oscilloscope Pictures

In Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin (later developed into a chilling film by Lynne Ramsay), the author explores the psychology of a family whose parents struggle to come to terms with their child’s emerging sociopathic tendencies. Ignoring the author’s advice, Kevin’s parents fail to adequately explore what might be the matter with their increasingly disturbed son, and (spoiler) unnecessary bloodshed ensues. The text functions as an apt dramatization of a real-life struggle within many American families—namely, the disregard of clinically established mental health issues, which all-too-frequently debilitate (and sometimes destroy) otherwise functional family units when ignored and left untreated. But it also functions as a pointed criticism of our country itself: a country that has the highest death rate by gun violence among all the developed countries in the world (as cited in a 2010 report published by The American Journal of Medicine), yet refuses to acknowledge the benefits of common sense gun control; a country that was founded upon, arguably, the most egregious of all documented acts of genocide in world history (as summarized in great detail by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in her text, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States—among many others), and yet continues to minimize the egregiousness of these crimes against humanity (read this thoughtful yet infuriating piece by Guenter Lewy, who appears to be gunning for title of “hair-splitter extraordinaire” in his justification of these crimes); a country that—after having wiped out the native peoples of said country—proceeded to import slaves from other countries around the world to do our dirty work, while our ancestors feigned religious superiority; a country that, once forced to grudgingly acknowledge the heinous and un-Christian acts of slavery it perpetuated and legislated, slowly proceeded to modify the institutionalized oppression of people of color into forms of segregation—and later, into the Machiavellian mass incarceration of minorities, whose byproduct (or intention, depending on how one dissects the situation) has been gross profiteering at the expense of an unpaid labor force in for-profit prisons (“a rose by any other name…”).

And the list goes on; and the denial goes on; and the oppression goes on. This isn’t to say that our history isn’t being properly re-evaluated by present-day historians, documentarians, and artists; but it does much to substantiate Mr. Vidal’s argument. Consumed by the notion of progress, but ignorant to the painstaking effort and integrity required to truly achieve progress, we’ve by and large mastered the art of the dog and pony routine: instead of subsidizing adequate efforts to alleviate gross income inequality, house the millions who are homeless, and ensure basic healthcare and education for our tax-paying citizens, we’ve committed ourselves to “liberating” the denizens of countries abroad. And bear in mind, this is not an attempt to oversimplify the accepted complexity of diplomatic relations with foreign nations: we do (at least, for the time being) retain a Constitutional freedom of speech that many men and women across the oceans from us are bereft of. But since we are entering an era where “telling it like it is” is valued over respecting nuance and the ever-resented gray areas of our running history, I suppose it’s only proper that I should follow suit(?)

Then again, is that not the root of our problem? For how can we tell anything like it is, if we refuse to properly investigate what “it” actually is, or has been? If we persist in filtering the failures of our nation’s forefathers through a lens of “Manifest Destiny,” via which just about any crime (including ethnic cleansing) can be rationalized under this pathetically childish euphemism for “finders keepers”? As prone as we are to distilling the gray into black and white, I have an unshakable conviction of the urgent task at hand: to accept and to paint the gray areas we are so often inclined to ignore, and to talk—to actually talk, and listen when spoken to—about our past in terms that are frank, clear, and evidence-based. It’s not an easy task, by any means, but I can provide examples for reference as to how one might proceed.

* * *

In April of 1945, British forces liberated the last of the still-living prisoners discovered in Bergen-Belsen and Neuengamme—the last of the Nazi concentration camps to fall to the victory of the Allied Forces. During the years that ensued, the people of Germany faced a unique conundrum: while their economy rebounded at an extraordinary rate (so extraordinary that it was referred to at the time as an “economic miracle”), the citizens of this troubled nation struggled to incorporate the reality of their recent past into the greater scheme of their national history. Many accounts I’ve read by then-living German citizens argue that the years following the war were marked by quiet denial; by an unspoken refusal to address the proverbial elephant in the room, and later, by several political regimes of dubious merit (let us recall that, a mere 16 years later, a great wall was erected between the two halves of this troubled country).

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A snapshot of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, located in what is now Lower Saxony. Courtesy of the Holocaust Education & Research Team website.

And yet, if we fast-forward to the fall of the Berlin wall and the period of reunification that ensued, we will find a change has taken place. In 1991, an art competition is held in West Berlin to commemorate the Holocaust in the form of a national monument; the winning artist rejects the most popular idea—a central monument in the Bavarian Quarter—and chooses something far more affecting. From the hundreds of rules imposed by the Nazi regime upon the Jewish population in West Berlin, the artist selects 80, to be reprinted one by one on street signs throughout the Bavarian Quarter; so that, while waiting to cross the street, a passerby might stumble upon a phrase like “Jews aren’t allowed to leave home after 8PM,” or “Jews must forfeit all electrical devices”—reminders of an unforgettable atrocity, to ensure this atrocity will not be forgotten (and, with any hope, not be repeated). Mind you, this change did not happen overnight: this change happened gradually, over the course of half a century, and through the concerted efforts of artists and historians to come to terms (without justification or rationalization) with the full extent of their country’s history of genocide and oppression.

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Fassbinder challenges his (real-life and screen) mother’s interpretation of German history, in his episode for the collaborative 1978 film project, Germany in Autumn, renewed © 2010, FACETS distribution.

It is because of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff; Alfred Döblin, Otto Dix, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Douglas Sirk; Karlheinz Stockhausen, Conny Plank, Michael Rother, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and Dieter Moebius (among many others—too many to name in one essay) that this change took place. Because of Alfred Döblin and Otto Dix, the oppression brewing beneath the decadent veneer of the Weimar era was painted in broad relief—through the jarringly prescient words of the former, and the harrowing brushstrokes of the latter. Because of Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, and Billy Wilder, the hatred and genocidal racism prevailing in Nazi Germany was documented, satirized, and captured in real time through the medium of popular film (they did their jobs so well, they were all three forced to flee the oppression of the Nazi regime, so they could continue documenting and satirizing from a distance). Because of Fassbinder, the prejudice and amnesia that had become ingrained within his parents’ generation was dragged into broad daylight and brought to the attention of those who previously refused to pay attention. Because of Conny Plank, Rother, Roedelius, Moebius, and all the pioneers of the neue German musik, the foundations of a better future were laid within the cultural narrative—wiping the slate clean of all the MOR “schlager” detritus, and offering an alternative to the sins of their fathers through entirely new art forms. And to this day, Wim Wenders continues carrying the torch for the country of his namesake, painting some of the most beautiful moving pictures man has ever known—reminding viewers around the world of just how precious and significant these little lives of ours are, and giving us cause to carry on loving and learning more about each other.

Which brings us back to the U.S. of A.—a country that, as Meryl Streep so pointedly remarked during her headline-making acceptance speech at the Golden Globes this past Sunday, has become so eager to reject immigrants that it might soon have “nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts” (and I suspect that, despite the slightly sarcastic undertone of that little caveat, there are many who would beg to differ with her chagrin at this notion). Without meaning to come across as pessimistic or overly self-deprecating, I can and will readily admit the painful truth: that we are a nation drowning in our own ignorance. We have forgotten how to love one another, because we have forgotten how to foster a loving society. We have invested so much in our institutions of religion and our splintered ideologies, and in doing so, we have forgotten the simple gestures that reveal love in its truest forms.

Roger Ebert famously referred to the cinema as a “a machine that generates empathy,” and yet a substantial chunk of the top 100 grossing films of 2016 (and 2015, and 2014, and 2013…) consists of obscenely violent action blockbusters which do nothing to generate empathy, and actually function through a reversing of this very formula: they are the products of a machine that aims to belittle and eradicate empathy. To be perfectly fair—and with respect to those gray areas I’m endeavoring to highlight—there were many films in this year’s top 100 that stand up to the litmus test of Ebert’s definition; in fact, the #1 box office success of the year, Finding Dory, is a populist but shining example of empathically-geared family filmmaking. And yet, the age demographic that seems most in need of empathic development—namely, the voting age demographic—doesn’t seem to be picking up on the message. We have to scroll down to the 70th percentile of the top box office grossers before we find a film (Fences) that addresses the ever-growing racial divide in our country; we have to scroll to the 80th percentile before we find Manchester By the Sea, one of the most remarkably skilled and affecting pieces of American film realism this past year (at least when it comes to fostering empathy for characters on-screen, and for the struggles they contend with). And we won’t even find the most powerful machine for empathy to tour the film circuit in 2016 (Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight) among the top 100 box office grossers this year; I can only hypothesize that the appeals of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and The Legend of Tarzan were too irresistible to sacrifice in favor of something that might serve to edify and enlighten. (For comparison: Ken Loach’s latest documentary, I, Daniel Blake—a study in the failure of the British welfare system to adequately provide for the needs of an ailing carpenter and his family—can be found in the top 100 grossing films of both the British and French box offices. Can you imagine?)

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Ken Loach’s latest documentary film, one of the highest-grossing pictures of the year in England and France © 2016, Sixteen Films.

But the task at hand involves more than just empathy-building (which ought to be a given in any civilized society): we need to pair our empathic skills with our critical thinking skills, and difficult as it might be, we need to wean ourselves off of this addiction to sanitizing history—of our passion for distilling all those varying shades of gray into crisply delineated shapes of black and white. I can already see (and am myself contending with) the struggle ahead, as we prepare to wave so long and farewell to our current commander-in-chief: a man who rather gracefully served as leader of this country for the past 8 years—all the while speaking in complete sentences, refraining from extramarital affairs in the Oval Office, and polishing that veneer of social progressivism that we liberals cling to so readily. Difficult though it might be, I believe it is crucial that we not forget the unfulfilled promises of this seemingly squeaky clean administration. The failure to close Guantanamo Bay, as promised; the implementation of drone-bombings in the never-ending war for oil in the Middle East; the growing socio-economic divide among the citizens of this country; the endless flow of the almighty dollar between lobbyists, Congressmen, and the Executive branch—influencing nearly every decision that is made at every level of Federal government.

Let’s not do what the Republicans did with Reagan in the ’80s, and the Democrats did with the Kennedys in the 60’s: let’s not turn the work of a flawed man into a gilded legacy act, impermeable to the critique and reasoned analysis of future generations. Let’s celebrate the fact that we finally elected a person of color to the highest office in the country, but let’s also acknowledge and respect the limitations of his work—just as we must acknowledge the institutionalized racism that continues to prevail throughout so many structures of our haphazard economy. Let’s bear in mind that, should we live to tell the tale of our 45th president, there are likely to be individuals who persist in championing the infallibility of his being; and who are we to cast stones, if we cannot refrain from making the same mistake in lionizing our current president’s time in office? It is only by cutting our losses now that we will be able to adequately number the (possibly innumerable, I fear) losses we’re preparing to sustain throughout the next four years.

So at long last: can we begin to talk about Us? Can we drag ourselves, as a nation of people, to the analyst’s chair that is the study of history, and can we truly examine the ghosts lurking within? It’s an unpleasant task, and I understand the general reluctance to undertake it, but I trust we have the means and the resources to do so. It will require self-awareness and discipline, to be sure; it will require taking the time and effort to engage in open dialogue with individuals who cling to a conviction that differs from ours. Instead of shaking our heads at the seemingly uninformed statements of younger people—so often coated in a language that seems to betray an over-developed sensitivity—we must seize upon each and every opportunity to inform and educate: we must respect (and strive to learn from) their views of this confusing world they’re growing up in—and whenever appropriate, we should offer an expansion to their perspective (which might also serve to alleviate that heightened urge to mind every single “p” and “q” spoken in public).

Lastly, we must rediscover the significance of the arts in our daily lives. Although I don’t foresee the United States maturing enough to rein in its fanaticism for gladiatorial sports, I believe we have the capacity to meet halfway by restoring the arts to a place of heightened importance in our schools; I believe we have the capacity to invest in our country’s fledgling artists way more than we currently do—not just by subsidizing the works of up-and-coming artists through government sponsorship (let us bear in mind: nearly all of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 30-odd films were publicly funded by the German government), but by making a deliberate effort to seek out works that endeavor to comment on and elucidate our present and our past. We simply cannot continue referring to ourselves as the Greatest Nation on Earth, when our state of cultural affairs remains in such vacuous disarray.

Mr. Vidal was easily one of the greatest satirists ever to emerge from our country, and his passing has left a notable void in the satirical department. We need intellectuals to continue seeking out new, innovative ways to engage the minds of our nation’s youth—as well as stimulating the dormant thought processes of so many a working adult. It was because of Vidal’s incisive commentary that so many of us took the extra time to investigate the folly of our country’s forefathers, and it will be because of similarly capable analysts that we might manage to do the same moving forward. Because I still retain a (quite possibly foolish) belief in the far-off possibility of guiding the dilapidated, runaway train that is the United States onto a track of reason, reflection, and true progress—and I believe I am not alone.

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Still taken for the forthcoming Raoul Peck documentary, inspired by the words of James Baldwin © 2017, Velvet Film.

But first, we must take the time to recall—and to challenge our recollections, when we fear they may have faltered. In our efforts to restore reason and empathy to this fallen land, we must invest as much energy as the artists of the German new wave invested in studying and repairing their own history. Documentaries such as OJ: Made in America, 13th, and the forthcoming James Baldwin film, I Am Not Your Negro, are an important step in this direction—but I’m convinced we can do so much more (especially when it comes to supporting these efforts with actual numbers). Whenever we watch a movie, read a book, or look at any piece of art, we should be asking ourselves and each other: what is this telling me about myself and my fellow man? Does this message ring true?

And what have I learned?

“If no one asks, then no one answers
That’s how every empire falls.”
– John Prine