Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Little Free Association

Some people get sad with the rain. Some people need the sun to keep from lugubrious meditations. But spring days bring me to tears. Warmth, the smell of flowers whose names I don’t know, blue skies scribbled by clouds, a breeze. I can’t stand it. It fills me with love and sadness. It makes me want to get drunk and stare at water. I have always lived relatively near the Pacific. In spring you can sense the sea. In the breeze you feel the movement of the waves as they rumble on the beach. Not as a metaphor. As a physical thing. The planet in its turning. Dust from the other side of the world. The breath of things moving everywhere. The full, round light of spring, filtered through leaves, dropping at a slight angle. And the sky. If only the rest of life could be so blue.  Everything else by comparison is ashes. No, not ashes, because those are also beautiful and delicate. Against blue skies and grey ashes everything we have made seems like something human-made. This is not a dismissal of human achievements. It is only an acknowledgement that we ourselves are the product of world-making and thus our achievements are second-order phenomena.

In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye argues that spring in literature is connected to comedy. The mythos of spring, as he calls it, culminates in a wedding through which a society torn by falsehoods is brought back together. Conflicts are resolved in such a way as to reintegrate all the participants of the struggle. The antagonist—a false groom, a meddling parent, a social pariah—is vanquished but allowed to reenter society. Continuity is prized over vengeance, community over all else. Frye is right, of course. Many, if not all, of our stories are connected to the grand rhythms of planet. In the yearly cycle of rebirth, maturity, decay, and death are written the smaller cycles of life, love, and self. But while the seasons may structure our narratives, this does not suggest that we experience them in the manner in which we write them.

In one of their earliest and best songs, Modest Mouse sing: “Just the smell of the summer can make me fall in love.” Here feeling and experience are connected to each other, bypassing narrative. The immediate sensory experience of a warm summer day can transport you by itself into a set of expectations and associations that we call love. This happens in a pre-linguistic way. We perhaps bring it into consciousness by describing it to ourselves in words but its operations occur at a level in which language is secondary, if not completely unnecessary. To describe this in a song is fascinating because the emotions generated by music so often oscillate between the linguistic and the pre-linguistic. We listen and feel music and sometimes that feeling is connected to the meaning of words in a song and sometimes it is only connected to the sound of those words.

Recently I was sitting in a bar with a bright-eyed girl. It was late on a Sunday night, the place surprisingly full and lively. Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” started playing on the jukebox. We burst into laughter at the contrast between the mournfulness of the song and the trivial lightness of the scene. “The last time we saw you, you looked so much older/Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder,” sang Cohen, and while the musicality of the song contributes to its maudlin character, it’s the words themselves that bum you the fuck out. In contradistinction, the refrain of BeyoncĂ©’s recent “Drunk in Love” conveys its emotional content through the musical sound of its lyrics. Indeed, I don’t really know what BeyoncĂ© says when her voice rises over and over in the chorus. The meaning of the words is of no consequence because it is the lyrical elevation of her voice that testifies to the song’s depiction of love. In that refrain, she doesn’t tell us what love is, instead, the sound of her voice reminds us what love feels like.

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