“Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men stages the old problem of synthetic knowledge. Throughout the long history of philosophy there have been many partial and unsatisfying answers to the question of the objectivity of knowledge that is produced through subjective experience. How can we be sure that what we know through our subjective experience of the world is objective and true? This is a question that has troubled philosophy from its earliest days. “Little Talks” addresses that dilemma in familiar ways.
Taking the form of a dialogue, the song renders the discrepancy between one speaker’s perceptions of things as they are registered by her sensuous experience and the contrasting explanations of the same events by another subject. “The stairs creak as you sleep/It’s keeping me awake” says one singer. “It’s the house telling you to close your eyes,” says the other. What is for one subject the violation of sleep by an insistent voice that will not let her rest is for the other a soothing voice beckoning one to sleep. The same physical manifestation produces not only two separate explanations but also two explanations that cancel each other out. It’s not simply that there are two ways of understanding an identical experience but that to claim the truth for one explanation necessarily falsifies the other.
The inability to communicate experience has very poignant consequences in this song. Later, one of the performers sings, “Soon it will be over and buried with our past,” and the other responds, “We used to play outside when we were young/And full of life and full of love.” What is nostalgia for one, the longing to feel again as he felt in his youth, is for the other the resignation that the past never returns and in it are buried all the good and bad things that happened and cannot be lived again. Their inability to find common meanings for their shared experience anticipates the way their voices intertwine around their understanding of loss. Both sing: “We’re torn, torn, torn apart/There’s nothing we can do.” The failure to comprehend together is symptomatic of a broken relationship in which the only thing the couple shares is their knowing that it’s over. Tragic shit that, and we’ve all been there. Ironically in this context, it’s one of those things that is easier to understand than it is to accept.
Husserl argued that if we subject experience to a rigorous analysis in which we describe all of its possible contingencies and variations we will discover that what we call the real world is never available to us in an unmediated way. What constitutes it is in part the consequence of the presuppositions and assumptions of something we might call the idea of objective consciousness. What stands in for truth, then, is a response elicited by the world outside of the subject, a response that does not and cannot fully encompass the empirical event. “Little Talks” grasps this idea intuitively and deeply. They sing: “Don’t listen to a word I say/The screams all sound the same/Though the truth may vary/This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore.” In the heady lyricism of the brass notes that elevate the chorus these words remind us that while understanding fails and truth sometimes has the materiality of shadows, our embodied selves remain the only vessels through which we traverse this ocean of sorrow.