Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Being Bored

The nightmarish scenario of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1975), depicts time travelers (“tempunauts”) stuck in a time loop. In Dick’s novel A Maze of Death (1970), a group of space travelers is stuck forever in an orbit around a dead star, unable to break free of its powerful gravitational field. And in Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), an astronaut is forced to remain in orbit around the earth, doomed to die alone in his space ship, unable to return home because the world has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Dick’s idea of Hell as being stuck in a loop (time, or an endlessly reiterated orbit) was plundered for comic effect in Groundhog Day (1993), perhaps the most truly Phildickian film ever made, although ironically it doesn’t bear his name. (As T. S. Eliot once observed, “Strong poets steal; weak poets imitate.” The filmmakers obviously recognized a good idea when they saw one.) Once, after having shown the film to the students in one of my classes, a nonplussed student asked me to say exactly how many times Bill Murray had lived through Groundhog Day. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer, I say. So I replied simply, “a lot.”

Personally I thought the question itself demonstrated a colossal misunderstanding of the movie, on the order of, say, someone having seen Citizen Kane and then asking what “Rosebud” meant. In other words, she didn’t “get” it. While stuck in the loop, we see Bill Murray—a Dickian hero if there ever was—go through several phases, among them a suicidal one, a prankish one, and, of course, one in which he is profoundly bored. But his boredom is a kind that comes not simply from repetition, but from the recognition that the repetition will never end. Of course, for Philip K. Dick, the loopiness I’ve remarked upon is more of a metaphysical nightmare than the sort of crushing spiritual effect of boredom known as ennui.

But Philip K. Dick wrote about that, too. In perhaps his greatest novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Martian colonists seek escape from their dreary lives through the ingestion of a drug, Chew-Z, that enables what we would now call “virtual” experience, fantasies that are almost impossible to distinguish from actual reality. The irony is that while the colonists presumably live in an exotic locale like Mars, and presumably are enacting the nineteenth-century American form of individualism known as “pioneering” or “settling the frontier,” they suffer from profound boredom, from ennui. Their lives are very much like those of the space travelers in A Maze of Death: stuck in an endless loop, with no hope of escape, escape in this case being returning to Earth. The world of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is, of course, uncannily similar to our own: the spirit of the Martian colonists is crushed because the colonists live in a world that claims it prizes and values individualism, yet is really dominated by mindless, unrewarding labor.

Walter Benjamin observed over seven decades ago, in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that mechanically reproduced art had rendered obsolete aesthetic concepts like “the Beautiful” and “the Sublime” because they both depend upon the idea of aura—that there is just one of a particular art work, an original. (In other words, most of us encounter the reproduction of a work of art before we encounter the actual thing, e.g., we know the Mona Lisa because we’ve seen a reproduction of it, not because we’ve actually been to the Louvre to see it.) While our so-called “entertainment industry” is premised on individualism—the “artist”—it is actually premised on reiteration and redundancy, on immediate recognition—what we call “genre” or “type.” But if our system of artistic evaluation no longer employs concepts such as “the Beautiful” and “the Sublime,” it no longer employs “the Boring,” either. Critics avoid using the term if at all possible. Thus in the same way that the modern world prizes individualism while the life of most people is comprised of mindless labor, modern critics laud originality in the form of generic innovation (the same, only different).

Most of us experience what we call “boredom” much like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day, the same, in an endless loop, day in, day out. One must recognize that the entertainment industry is premised on this sort of reiteration. The repeat, the re-run, the second run, the golden oldie, the classic, classic rock—all of these institutional practices are based on redundancy, and in fact, encourage repetitive behaviors such as “fan favorites” and, in radio, for instance, “make a request” programming. I’m not sure about you, but my idea of Hell would be to hear endlessly looped Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” the scenario Bill Murray endures in Groundhog Day. The trouble is, with no concept like “the Boring” anymore, there’s no way of making the simple aesthetic observation that what was a bad song then is a bad song now. Nostalgia, often understood as the longing for an earlier and hence simpler time, is actually a peculiar expression of boredom, a consequence of having forgotten the monotonous redundancies of an earlier age. If you don't believe that, put on “I Got You Babe” and hit the repeat button, promising not to stop the process, minimally, for at least 36 hours.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Man on the Moon

July 20, 1969: As Bogey says in Casablanca, “That was so long ago I don’t remember.” Actually, I do remember where I was, at least, when Neil Armstrong placed his foot onto the moon: in a trailer house, on a horse ranch, about twenty miles or so west of Wichita, Kansas. I was fifteen years old, just barely, and I remember the moon being full and bright that night. I was younger than my son John is now, who will turn sixteen years old in slightly under two weeks. I can’t remember the brand of television on which I watched the moon landing, but it was a small 13” or 14” black and white with “rabbit ears.” I remember the startling contrast between the technological leap the moon landing represented and the moonlit ranch surrounding me, an image straight out of the nineteenth-century American West. It happened that just a few days ago, Walter Cronkite died at 92—would that he could have lived a few days longer in order to celebrate this momentous 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon. The nightly news has replayed his reaction to the historic event many times the past few days, his rubbing his hands together in joy and saying, “Oh Boy!,” like a little kid. I think his child-like expression of glee captures my reaction as well: in order to recover what I felt, I simply have to watch that small piece of footage depicting Walter Cronkite’s response.

Mythology about the moon is vast, of course. I remember as a little boy being asked if I could see the man in the moon—of course I could. In one of his early shorts, fantasist Georges Méliès spoofed the mythology of the moon being made of green cheese (pictured). But perhaps more importantly, the moon is heavily romanticized. Traditionally, it is associated with the Romantic Other—Romantic in the sense of lovers, yes, but also in the sense that it sparks the imaginative faculties. There’s the image of “man in the moon,” but actually the moon is more strongly associated with the feminine. “Happily the queen moon is on her throne,” Keats wrote, suggesting that the moon is an image of calmness and serenity—and didn’t the first moon landing occur in the Sea of Tranquility? But Juliet, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, instructed Romeo not to swear by the moon, because the moon is “inconstant,” meaning that its phases imply an incapacity for steadiness and a tendency to change. The inconstant moon gave rise to the metaphor of the “lunatic,” someone whose mind is unsteady and erratic, too heavily influenced by the either waxing or waning moon. And there’s the phenomenon of “moon madness,” the association of the moon with an increase in erratic, often criminal human behavior, which possibly influenced Curt Siodmak’s famous couplet from The Wolfman, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night/May become a wolf when the Wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Some great pop songs have been written about the moon, of course, and hence I dedicate the following playlist to both to the inconstant moon and the 40th anniversary of humankind’s first step upon it.

Two Dozen Or So Tunes Of Inspired Lunacy:
Walking on the Moon – The Police
Man on the Moon – REM
Moondance – Van Morrison
Dancing in the Moonlight – King Harvest
Mr. Moonlight – The Beatles
Moon River – Henry Mancini
Mississippi Moon – Jimmie Rodgers
Blue Moon of Kentucky – Elvis
Blue Moon – The Marcels
Blue Moon Baby – The Cramps
Everyone’s Gone to the Moon – Jonathan King
Fly Me to the Moon – Bobby Womack
Moon at the Window – Joni Mitchell
Mad Man Moon - Genesis
I Don’t Know A Thing About Love (The Moon Song) – Conway Twitty
Moonlight Becomes You – Bing Crosby
Moonlight Feels Right – Starbuck
Moonlight Mile – The Rolling Stones
Moonlight Drive – The Doors
Marquee Moon – Television
The Killing Moon – Echo & the Bunnymen
The Moon of Manakoora – Dorothy Lamour
Other Side of the Moon – Moon Men (with Link Wray)
Bad Side of the Moon – Bo Diddley
Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Eclipse (from Dark Side of the Moon) – Pink Floyd

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't Look Back

Son of the god Apollo (proficient on the lyre) and Calliope (Muse of epic poetry), Orpheus was a richly gifted musician admired for his immense skill with the lyre as well as his lyrical acumen. Orpheus is thus largely seen as an archetypal figure for the poet and musician. Legend has it that soon after he married Eurydice, his young bride, she died. The inconsolable Orpheus descended into Hell in order to get her back. Improbably, he charmed the gods of the underworld into accepting his demand that she return to the land of the living with him. His demand, though, was subject to one fundamental condition: he had to walk ahead of her from Hell, and must not look back until both of them were safely in the sunlight. But, alas, Orpheus looked back at the very last moment, and Eurydice vanished. (Milton: “I woke, she fled, and day brought back my night.”) Having lost his beloved wife twice, Orpheus vowed never again to touch a woman. His swearing off women earned him the wrath of the Maenads, devotees of the god Dionysus, and as a consequence he was torn to pieces. His dismembered body parts were gathered by the Muses and buried, and his lyre became the constellation Lyra. (In J. W. Waterhouse’s famous painting, “Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus,” his head and lyre are discovered floating side by side.) The figure of Orpheus is thus more than the archetype of the artist as poet and musician, but also the figure of the artist who has the power to exorcise death by his song, the power to descend into Hell—and return. As a figure unafraid to confront the darkness—and more importantly, to conquer it—Orpheus is a figure for immortality.

I’m by no means the first to observe that the blues is Orphic in the sense that it confronts the darkness and conquers it. Understanding the blues is much like understanding jazz, which reminds me of the famous line of Louis Armstrong, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin characterized the blues as “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness,” while Langston Hughes observed, “For sad as Blues may be, there’s almost always something humorous about them—even if it’s the kind of humor that laughs to keep from crying” (qtd. in Saadi A. Simawe, ed., Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction From The Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison, p. 66). The existential theme underlying the blues—I can’t go on, I will go on—is one that Samuel Beckett recognized: the hope that emerges from recognizing one’s despair. Freud observed that the feeling of anxiety couldn’t be questioned because it is absolutely and unquestionably real: one doesn’t “doubt” the feeling of anxiety because it is indisputably true. Despair is also real, in the sense that it can’t be doubted. But it can be fought, which is what I take to be the meaning of the injunction at the center of the Orphic myth, “don’t look back.”

In “Run Through the Jungle,” a song I take to have been inspired by Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail” (as was Creedence’s “Bad Moon Rising”), John Fogerty sings:

Thought it was a nightmare,
Lo, it’s all so true,
They told me, “Don’t go walking slow
‘Cause Devil’s on the loose.”
Better run through the jungle,
Better run through the jungle,
Better run through the jungle,
Don’t look back to see.

The Devil, the Hellhound, “the voice of rage and ruin”—these are all tropes for the darkness that the music serve to dispel (or at least ward off, like apotropaic magic), and why Orpheus’ singing is capable of transformation, why he allegedly could charm nature itself.

A Few Songs With the “Don’t Look Back” Theme:
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “The Lyre of Orpheus”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Run Through the Jungle”
Charlie Daniels, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer”
Madonna, “Jump”
Robert Pete Williams, “Prisoner’s Talking Blues”

This article explores the Orphic theme that informs the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004). There’s also Belle & Sebastian’s “Like Bob Dylan in the Movies” that references D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967), an orthographically incorrect title that is apparently a deliberate reference to the Orpheus myth. The early Bob Dylan was also inspired by Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail”: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” owes as much to Johnson’s surreal, apocalyptic image of “Blues falling down like hail” as it does to metaphorical nuclear fallout. Later Dylan songs such as “Man in the Long Black Coat” also strike me as being influenced by Robert Johnson’s demonic Hellhound as well.