Rockstars and Whetstones and SSRIs: Steven Hyden, the 90s, and Other Things

From 2013.  Grantland was too good for this world (most of the time).

Steven Hyden puts out some really good stuff.  The fact that I can’t type the word “intervention” without hearing Win Butler tells you two things:  1) like Butler and Hyden, I’m a man of a certain age, and 2) (perhaps) like both of them, I have struggled with my share of obsessions.  (I also work for a church, but my family is fine.  Bonus points for a Billy Joel reference within an Arcade Fire reference).

Hyden is working on a pretty ambitious Winners’ History of Rock and Roll at Grantland.  The first piece I read was about Metallica, and it’s so good I need to email it to my best friend because, well, yeah.  Painstakingly thorough in its fidelity to mission, History is not meticulous in the typical sense: it’s a grand, narrative survey and a primer in postmodern historiography.  But Hyden weaves and he weaves and weaves, expertly.

I can’t speak for him, but I know I spent a good deal of my twenties obsessing about the long-term ramifications of my pop-culture pantheon.  In my early 30’s, not much has changed.  Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is a really great record.  But what kind of obsessive-compulsive Oasis fan would I be if I’d never stayed up all night watching Gallagher’s hilarious interviews on YouTube and wishing, still wishing, they’d released The Masterplan instead of Be Here Now?  Not a very good one.

Rock needs its obsessives, and Hyden’s a great one.  So are so many of the artists he profiles.  If good art borrows and great art steals, you can’t be Led Zeppelin without aping the bluesmen or, apparently, Spirit, and you can’t write Defiantly Maybe without a whole lotta, er, love.

Butler, Hyden, and I are young for GenXers.  We’ve learned the postmodern notes of professional curation, appreciation, executed by big cultural brothers like Rob from High Fidelity and Lloyd Dobbler, our cool 80s teen cousin.  We don’t obsess because they did, but because we’re obsessive.  But they paved the way for this kind of writing, for this way of being in public and in popular culture.  In 2013, we’re all kind of tired of clever so we’ve gone academic.  Tarantino nods are now dissertations.  More intelligent memes replace cliched, received language.

On a long enough timeline, obsession is burden.  On a short one, too, but you don’t really notice.  You don’t amass 400 issues of Rolling Stone all at once, but, now, here they are.  You can’t just throw them away.

For a long time, it meant a lot to me that the 90s meant something.  It hurt that great bands fizzled and died, that brilliant shows were cancelled, that I’d turn twenty without the great rock revival Gibby Haynes promised was coming with Beck.  But after Odelay, irony stopped being fun.  Letterman won’t even wink, now.  I had to move on.  We’d reached the end, hadn’t we, of what Hyden calls Elitist Taste?  We were in on the joke, but it stopped being funny.  Be Here Now was amazing for how little it cared and how big, too big, it sounded, but it didn’t sound too big then.  It sounded like filling a hole with Code Hero swagger, the logical end of the first two brilliant discs.  This is what you do when you conquer the world, when you’ve done so rejecting rejection, writing Live Forever as a dis track hurled at Kurt Cobain for  I Hate Myself and Want to Die.

In college, I found new things to obsess over.  Relationships.  MP3s.  The platonic ideals of The Phaedrus and classic rock.  The fundamental paradox at the center of Descartes’ Enlightenment project and the center of me.  My future, my grades. Change, all that change, the farmland banding my home, Lehigh County, plowed over and under for strip malls and suburbs.  The efficacy of Christ and his cross.

I got stuck.  Eventually, I realized I wasn’t just existentially advanced or overly sensitive.  I realized that God made me in a lean time, 1980; in an echo of the energy crisis, he’d held back serotonin.  I supplement, now, and think with less hurt about what’s been lost.  Forever, I feared this.  No pain and no edge.  But there’s always pain and there’s always edge, and there’s the blunt edges of the tools we pick up to make meaning:

“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well oiled in the closet, but unused.”  (Ernest Hemingway, Preface to The First Forty-Nine Stories).

As long as I fretted, only, the instrument stayed shiny and smooth.  It was an engine always oiled, never stopping, some perpetual emotion machine gorged for want of the chemical breaks.  Do SSRIs blunt it?  Maybe.  But they buy me enough margin to push to the next thought and the thought beyond that, to construct some kind of perspective, peace.  In this margin I find productivity, too.  An output for the inputs I continue to plug in and share.

“There’s depression,” Leonard Cohen said, “and depression.”

“What I mean by depression in my own case is that depression isn’t just the blues. It’s not just like I have a hangover in the weekend … the girl didn’t show up or something like that. It isn’t that. It’s not really depression, it’s a kind of mental violence which stops you from functioning properly from one moment to the next. You lose something somewhere and suddenly you’re gripped by a kind of angst of the heart and of the spirit…”  (from a French interview, trans. Nick Halliwell).

Something happens somewhere.  Mental violence. You get stuck.  There are triggers, short and long, but you focus on the short ones.  “If I hadn’t heard that song, if I hadn’t walked that way today,” and miss the bigger picture: you live in world of uncontrolled stimuli and your off-switch is broken.  Fix it. Fix it safely, fix it wisely, fix it with the help of a professional.  I always thought the fix would dull me in a bad way, but it’s actually made me more precise.  It’s helped me, immeasurably, learn to speak and say.

I love treatises like Hyden’s for obvious reasons.  I’m not suggesting he has OCD or general anxiety or trouble letting go, but, like the postmodern obsessive compulsive I am in my soul and my biochemistry, respectively, I’ve felt free to use his work as a grindstone and whetstone, hammering out what I need to say to you about letting go but not forgetting, being refreshed and strengthened by the good things from our past instead of being washed away and drowned out by their loss.  Thank you, Steven.

Rollins, Zizek, Durruti, Tillich: Religion Deconstructed, Wisdom Demolished By Love

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”  I had occasion to be reminded of that recently.  It comes from Marx and Engels, and Slavoj Zizek uses it as the title of a recent treatise.

In his affirmation of pyro-theology, Peter Rollins takes up Buenaventura Durruti’s claim that “the only church that illuminates is a burning church.”   Cross-search Durruti’s quote with Zizek and you get this, which basically encapsulates, beautifully, Rollins’ own project.  Hear Zizek:

For this reason, Christianity is anti-wisdom: wisdom tells us that our efforts are in vain, that everything ends in chaos, while Christianity madly insists on the impossible. Love, especially a Christian one, is definitely not wise. This is why Paul said: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise” (“Sapientiam sapientum perdam,” as his saying is usually known in Latin). We should take the term “wisdom” literally here: it is wisdom (in the sense of “realistic” acceptance of the way things are) that Paul is challenging, not knowledge as such.

With regard to social order, this means that the authentic Christian tradition rejects the wisdom that the hierarchic order is our fate, that all attempts to mess with it and create another egalitarian order have to end up in destructive horror. Agape as political love means that unconditional, egalitarian love for one’s neighbour can serve as the foundation for a new order.

That Rollins takes Zizek (and Tillich) as major influences is clear, and I love the accessibility of Zizek’s piece in The New Statesman.  Rollins’ new book, The Idolatry of God, builds from ideas like these if this fantastic lecture is any indication.

This, plus mysticism is the Christian future.  I don’t see very many other ways forward, at least not very many that make sense, as Baptists say, to “us and the Holy Spirit.”

If Jonathan Fitzgerald is right that the New Sincerity is making a new, earnest morality possible, it’s also the case a that a New and Faithful Pluralism is helping more and more Christians explore themes like these, saved anew by the radical implications of a God bound by love over retributive justice.   Yes, please.

Bartleby, the Carpenter; Bartleby the King of Pop: The Inevitability of Jesus and Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson died in 2009.  This post is from 2013. 

I enjoyed this recent post from Wandering Mirages about the eponymous hero (or something) of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener.   Wandering Mirages concludes that Bartleby is all things at once:

But, in the end, in the tragic and evasive end, the novella had proved itself to be anything but simple and he was none of this and all of this, of course. He was probably the essential human present in the most inscrutable of strangers, in the inner life of the other. He might also be the scion of capitalism, a representation of its many wonders, and an idle. early sacrifice at the altar of pacifism and non-violence. He was some mysterious combination of the heroic and the ironic, and the rest too, in all probability – of the incongruous and the inevitable. A Gandhi without an audience.

Just before Christmas, I was talking with a friend about Michael Jackson.  I’ve been trying to put into words exactly how it is that Michael Jackson’s later life and death were in certain ways inevitable: that somehow, Michael Jackson is precisely what we do to people in the pop age, the age of celebrity cults and ever-massive media.  (Ever-massive is incorrect, but I like the way it sounds.)  Michael Jackson is our Joker: he was formed by the dynamics of his family and then by the pathologies of the second half of the 20th century. We’re not entirely at fault:  the machinations have been moving since the printing press, since cuneiform.  But in another way, MJ died for our sins as much as his.  Everything odd or evil  about him was leavened with the grist of our corporate fascinations: in whiteness, in youth, in being thin, in being rich, in child stardom, in the facilities of fame, of fortune over health.  That he was born black and poor in 1958 in Gary, Indiana is essential: none as gifted or as tortured would emerge from white suburban basements. Jackson’s migration from black to white was, he said, genetic, but it was also an indictment of our racist predilections and expectations of goodness and beauty.  The man who transcended the color barrier on MTV and in popular music more than anyone before him was black, and we demanded greater whiteness.  He obliged.  Abused in youth and adolescence, this eighth child of the Jackson clan knew a thing about survival, keeping peace, being poor and not wanting to go back, about the weight of family needs and expectations.  Unlike our Bartleby, Michael did what he was told.  It killed him anyway.

Clearly, I’ve thought of Jackson as a kind of Christ figure for our repulsive age.  And Wandering Mirages reminds me that Bartleby may just as well have been The Carpenter, one who is all things to all people, one sacrificed like Jackson on the altar of what the old hymn calls God’s “children’s warring madness.”  If Bartleby was killed for his refusals (first to do as he was told, then to protect himself and his interests), so too was  Jesus.  While Bartleby may have been “the most essential human present in the most inscrutable of strangers,”  Jesus came, according to tradition, so that we might see God in one like us.  Fully human, he was treated as a stranger.   The mirror-Leonard Cohen.  And yet he is also, in my experience, a “mysterious combination of the heroic and the ironic, and the rest too, in all probability – of the incongruous and the inevitable.”

Michael Jackson was inevitable.  So was King.  So was Jesus.  Whether you believe he was from Nazareth or God or some mystic union of both, the incongruity of his life and message with the power values of the system in which he lived, the system in which we live, made his sacrifice inevitable, subversive, and, for those who find life in him, full of saving grace.

The deaths of Bartleby, King, and Jackson indict us all.  So too the death of Jesus.  But when Christians talk about his resurrection, I think we mean that there’s a point to unwarranted suffering, to refusing to compromise our core convictions about the economy of justice or the economy of God even in the face of our destruction.  This is the power of a flower in a rifle, of one lone citizen refusing to move before a procession of tanks.  Of a dying God refusing to come down from his cross, to call down all his angels, as it were.  This is holy irony, and a saving kind of subversion.

Conquering Our Moloch

An 18th century illustration of the Canaanite ...
An 18th century illustration of the Canaanite deity Moloch, as depicted in the Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been considering John Milton’s Nativity Ode anew this Advent.  Today, I saw a tweet from The New York Review of Books quoting from Milton’s Paradise Lost about the blood lust of the pagan god Moloch and the gruesome terms of his worship, child sacrifice.

I clicked through to the piece, which you can read here. The gun, says Gary Wills, is our Moloch.  Maybe so. But if so, our collective and willful ignorance of America’s mental health crisis is something of an original sin from which we haven’t come close to working out or making right.

Wills reminds us that in Paradise Lost,  “Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind.”  Yes.  And in Milton’s Nativity Ode, Moloch is among the first to flee his seat of power at the birth of Christ, the coming of the Holy Child.

I left this comment at NYRB:

“To continue the Milton and Moloch theme, on the Third Sunday of Advent, we remember that Moloch only flees with the birth of the Holy Child. I don’t offer that as a bit of religious imperialism, but as a comfort to those who will find comfort in it, and as a point of literary irony worth considering in the larger context of the extended metaphor.”

There’s something fundamentally profound about the juxtaposition of the reign and flight of Moloch with the coming of the Prince of Peace as an infant, as a child.  I’m not offering a positivist religious fatalism, here.  I’m saying that Wills makes one of the best arguments for pacifism you’re likely to hear if you bear mind 1) the Mennonite insistence that the crucifixion of Christ was God’s clear condemnation of violence as a means of ending violence 2) Milton’s liturgical resister in Advent, and 3) Milton’s insistence that God’s overthrowing of idols happened not only at Christ’s death but also, fundamentally, in his birth.

In the Nativity Ode, Milton struggles with the now-and-not-quite-yet nature of the Prince of Peace’s reign.  I struggle with it, too.  The child Jesus would grow up to say “The Kingdom of God is here!” but few and far between are the kinds of communities that prove the claim.  Few and far between are the leaders who lead and live like Jesus, few and far between are churches with progressive witnesses for peace and mental health commitments.

Think what you will about guns.  But it’s hard to argue that with our wars, our drones, our violent entertainment and our voyeuristic gaming, we’re not sacrificing children to the grim god Moloch, to the military-industrial complex, to big businesses and lobbyists and other interests.  All the while spending a comparative widow’s mite on the nation’s mental health crisis.  That’s idolatry any way you cut it. That is injustice, that is sin, that is, frankly, evil.