Friday, August 31, 2012


Love and life are similar in that they both end. Nothing on this green earth lasts, but this is easy to forget in the comfortable embrace of the quotidian. One day, however, you stand in dumbfounded silence before the immobile remains of what once was, pain muddling the memories. All that’s left is mourning. In Specters of Marx, Derrida argues that mourning is a way of making present that which no longer is. It is an ontologizing, a giving the form of being, to an absence by locating it here at the place of mourning before this thing that was alive. Mourning is the need to know. To know that what you mourn is what was and that what is left of its essence is here and not somewhere else. In Derrida’s thinking, mourning, then, stages the problem of language. Specifically, the problem behind all semantics: the desire to know shapes meanings that language itself cannot make concrete. Language names things, feelings, and ideas that because of their temporal singularity cannot be properly contained by words, which could only define what was and not what is. The absolute anteriority of life to language does not, however, make life a privileged site of meaning for Derrida, for the dissolving power of time means that life is always in the process of transformation and is therefore never present to itself. Life appears here as a set of singularities forever absorbed into the flowing of time. Furthermore, words are incapable of defining one another so that any definition is simply the naming of equivalents or the giving of examples. To define words requires more words all of which require their own definitions, a process that leads to an endless play of signification. Meaning is the unstable effect of the passage of time and the circulation of language. It is what remains when our need to know confronts the absences created by the relentlessness of time and the instability of language.

The relationship between language and mourning is perhaps what draws me to heartbreak songs. In the best ones, loss becomes a frantic recounting of mistakes and recriminations. By describing the completeness of the grief—the heartbreak when someone stops loving you is total, rounded, and perfect—heartbreak songs attempt to bring to life dead relationships just long enough to draw some meaning or lesson from them, knowing full well the futility of that kind of necromancy. There are too many great examples of this but for some reason I keep thinking of Lola Beltran’s extraordinary version of “La noche de mi mal.” There is possibly no more beautiful rendition of the anger, pain, and self-loathing that accompanies the emptiness of someone walking away from you. But the sun rises everyday on new heartaches and music continues to be made for them. Keyshia Cole’s recent “Enough of No Love” is part of this tradition. Her voice sounds haunted, resigned, and determined—she mourns in order to get over it. But, as always, the convictions that accompany mourning are betrayed by the act itself, which grieves over the body in order to bring to life the spirit.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Darkness and Being

Goddamn Kelly Clarkson, no? The hits keep coming. It’s something about her voice, at once very accessible yet able to soar brilliantly at those key moments of sentimentality. And also the lyrical content of her songs: they depict the evasions, the half-truths we tell ourselves without the critical edge that would make us push deeper. In her latest single, “Dark Side,” she does this by inverting things, by presenting a self-preserving lie as if it were a damming truth. The song begins with what seems to be a moment of vulnerability: “There is a place that I know/It’s not pretty and few have ever gone/If I show it to you now/Will it make you run away.” Here she describes in a generalized way those late night discussions, early in a relationship, in which lovers find themselves talking about the minor disasters and painful defeats that have made them who they are. “Dark Side” suggests that these discussions create a condition of uncertainty and fear in which we feel a deep insecurity that what we have revealed about ourselves will drive our object of love and desire away from us. Clarkson addresses that fear when she sings: “Don’t run away/don’t run away/promise me you will stay.” She expresses the defenselessness of the situation succinctly when she sings: “Will you love me?/Even with my dark side?” But this is mostly self-serving bullshit.

There is a scene in Blood Meridian in which Judge Holden makes gunpowder by mixing powdered sulphur, nitre, and charcoal. Then he takes out his dick and pisses on the mixture. He asks the other men in the group to do the same as he blends the foul concoction with his bare arms. He laughs and cajoles the men to piss for their lives as the urine splashes on him. He spreads the “bloody pastry” on rocks to dry and soon it becomes the substance they use to kill the dozens of Indians who were following them, intent of revenging an earlier massacre. It’s a perfect encapsulation of Judge Holden, a malevolent sexualized predator whose prowess produces only death and chaos. The Judge is the evil, pulsing heart of Blood Meridian, just as the sinister Captain Ahab and the amoral Colonel Thomas Sutpen are the rotten hearts of their novels. Despite knowing the brutality that rests within him, we are drawn to Judge Holden. He tempts us with his seductive sophistries, draws us to him by rendering immorality and the absence of ethics as the only reliable human truths. The Judge’s evil is, in a perverse way, the only thing we can love about him.

It’s the darkness that’s compelling and not just for literary characters. In a social imaginary that locates personal identity within the subject, which rejects the idea that what you look like, what you wear, and even what you do and say define who you are, it is what resides within you that matters. In such a context, your hidden shadows are absolutely central to who you are. In some ways, in our society it is only those private episodes that you can’t share with everyone because they reveal too much about you that make you different from everyone else. All people are good in the same way; it’s the dark side that, like Judge Holden, makes us unique and alluring. So Kelly Clarkson’s question about whether someone will love her even with her dark side is really a fearful evasion of what she and the countless people that identify with this song really want to but are afraid to ask: is my dark side interesting enough to be worth loving?