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!

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