Monday, September 16, 2013

The Devil in the Detail

The only concrete thing about love is the details you remember about a body. The taste of a woman’s jaw, her skin softening or tightening under your lips. The feeling so complete you forget there is anything else. But there are so many jaws and so many kisses. The flesh sweet or salty like water or acrid from makeup or perfume. But no matter how she tastes you remember your arm around her waist as you sit on the couch, stand by the door, lie in bed. You picture your hand under her shirt and the involuntary calculation through which you measure the difference between the coolness of her jaw and the warmth of her stomach.

Roland Barthes wrote that in fiction a concrete object can establish the mimetic sense of the objective world, what he called “the reality effect” of fictive discourse. A clock, a curtain, a table, these could serve in fiction to differentiate between the hermeneutic order in which fiction develops meanings and the referential order in which it grounds those meanings in the experiential world outside of the text. Those objects can be made to serve no other purpose, says Barthes, than to say to us: “I come from the real world. I am a testament to the realism of this work.”

But the concrete object does not serve the same purpose in music. I’m walking down an unfamiliar street on my way to meet friends for a drink. I am on the shady side of the street and the light shines on me filtered through the branches of the trees that line the block. A breeze picks up from the west and when I feel it I’m left rooted in place by an unobjectifiable feeling. The breeze and the light transport me into a composite past where I feel the aspirations I felt as a teenager in Los Angeles mingle with the desire for a different life I had as a young man in Portland and the hopes and disillusionments I have about life these days. My eyes filled with tears and I made myself walk faster so that I wouldn’t start crying.

In music the concrete image does not denote the real. It is late in the night and I can’t sleep. I read poetry in Spanish through tired eyes. Neruda writes: “Estoy mirando, oyendo/ con la mitad del alma en el mar y la mitad del alma en la tierra,/ y con las dos mitades del alma miro al mundo.” Again I tear up like a lachrymose cretin. This time in my bed, I let myself cry for no reason. I feel the tears stream toward my ear. This kind of foolishness is lost on people who see the world in sensible terms, who don’t understand why some people go crazy at times.

I heard Fulanito’s “La novela” on the radio a couple of days ago for the first time. The song made me so happy I wished I could hear it ten more times in a row. But as delighted as I was by the song’s rhythm and sense of humor I didn’t really know what it was about. I didn’t know who Iris Chacón was, although she serves as the reference point for the song’s lusting. Not surprisingly, Iris Chacón was some fine-ass entertainer lady from the 70s and 80s, very popular in Puerto Rico where Fulanito are from and in the other parts of Latin America. My ignorance, however, clarified something for me. The solid details in music are references not to experience but to amplified and distorted memories. They evoke the past as we sometimes want to remember it, full of desires and emptied of facts. Those details relate to the past as a feeling and not as the objective events that add up to our lives. Unlike the reality effect of fiction, music uses the referential order to evoke emotion. Tear up if you like music, fools!

Monday, September 9, 2013

The More Things Change

Melancholy is a vice. It is a nebulous grieving that we indulge in for something we cannot understand, let alone name. It is a mourning that gives us pleasure, thus we continue to inhabit this diffuse pain, which remains beyond the level of full cognition. Unlike real loss, where the thing we loved and cared for is gone and our minds work on processing what cannot come back to us and thus get over the pain, melancholy fixates on something that gives us the pleasure of feeling sorrow. Mourning, then, is about the world, melancholy is about the self. Freud, in an essay that like nearly all of his writings is equal parts brilliant and loony, argues that melancholy is the product of a loss that we have internalized as an identification between self and object. In melancholy, argues Freud, the mechanism that keeps us attached to a desired object, person, or ideal is let loose by some traumatic event and rather than reconnecting us to another object it establishes a bond between the ego and the lost object. The loss of the thing is felt as a loss of the self and grieving the thing allows us to contemplate something about ourselves. Or to put it a different way, the grieving of melancholy is purely self-indulgent.

Romantic love is the perfect material for melancholic suffering. So much of that kind of affection is related to the way we cast things in us unto other people and the ineffable shit that draws us to someone else. The sentimentalism of romance has everything to do with the way we want to imagine ourselves in connection to other people. For that reason songs that resist the sentimental impulse while at the same time dealing with love and its aftermath seem exceptional. For example, despite conclusions and memories there is little melancholy in Interpol’s “Obstacle 1.” Beyond the harshness of the music, the sense of the past is one of absolute endings: “It’s different now that I’m poor and aging/I’ll never see this face again/You go stabbing yourself in the neck.” Few feelings remain here beyond anger and resignation. There is no romanticizing the past, internalizing the loss into a reason for joyous sadness. Things will be different, “we can find new ways of living,” but what was is over.

Graham Parson’s “A Song for You” splits the difference between sorrow over loss and maudlin satisfaction.  A phrase like “Oh my land is like a wild goose” evokes the kind of atmospheric feeling that is melancholy’s natural terrain. But there is an atonal, jagged quality to the song that interrupts any easy sentimentalism. And when at the song’s ending its protagonist says “I loved you every day and now I’m leaving,” the feeling there is too specific, too pointed to be self-indulgent. What is there is hurt feelings, lost hopes. This song may draw on the idiom of melancholy but it is ultimately about what’s left over after a broken heart.

 Taylor Swift’s “Everything Has Changed” is at the other end of the spectrum. Her song takes an unapologetic approach to dreamy fantasies and the origins of melancholy: I have just met you; I know nothing about you; I’m deeply attracted to something in you I may never be able to describe; my entire sense of self has been changed by something which may have no significance at all; I can begin to love you without reason; this means everything to me even if it’s actually meaningless. Affect in this song is a projection cast from the desiring subject onto the wanted object, which if to be considered “real” must take the shape of the illusion.  That is, if love is genuine, then it must be as it seems to the person who “wants to know” the object she already craves. This song makes us melancholic for something that hasn’t even happened yet because it understands that melancholy is a feeling that emerges from the self and not from the objective world. And while it would be easy to judge this song’s proleptic melancholy, such an attitude misses the point. The song’s fantasies are illustrative of something that all of us do and that few of us would be able to express in such emotive detail, and it reminds us that while melancholy is a vice it is a vice that satisfies all of us.