Closed Off

by Sam Buntz

“You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy:
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.” –Wallace Stevens, “Of Mere Being”

Psychologically, there are few things more damaging than the belief that one is living in a closed system. The notion that discursive thought can arrive at all possible answers—and that the universe is a system in which all possible questions can be resolved—is not only arrogant but, in a fundamental way, unscientific and irrational. For a specific example of this wrongheadedness in action, we can consider the search for an equation that can explain the entirety of existence—a “Theory of Everything.” Of course, most scientists engaged in the quest for this theory don’t consider why there should be an equation that describes all of reality, in the first place—for some reason, in their understanding, reality isn’t comprised of heterogeneous fragments, but forms an ideal whole: the four fundamental forces of nature need to resolve into one force, and the masses of all particles need to receive their values from one specific particle, and so on. I understand why I believe that reality forms a whole, or why a Roman Catholic believes this to be the case—but I have no idea why theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking or Lawrence Krauss believe this to be the case. And I have never heard them explain themselves in a coherent way.

The idea that all things must, in some fashion, be unified or have a single purpose behind them comes from the imagination, from an intuitive sense, from faith, from strange inner suggestions about the shape the cosmos should take—it does not come from pure logic or reason. To suggest that it does is, in a way, highly unreasonable: pure logic doesn’t determine what we look for, but is only a method of pursuit. The ground of our first principles remains occult—and I italicize that word in order to suggest all of its meanings.

Within a closed system, completely defined by one equation, expectations never shatter. The world is pictured as clockwork—clockwork we haven’t studied yet, and clockwork we have. Minds reduce to physical patterns, immense chemical billiard games—the experts just need to figure out the angles and trajectories. Meanwhile, we live in rigid structures, rigidly defined. We are like the mouse in Kafka’s parable, complaining that its passage through a maze continues to narrow day-by-day—until a cat tells the mouse that it only needs to change its direction… before gobbling it up.

It is interesting that societies officially predicated on rationalism—societies, which made a dogma out of the belief that we were living within a solved system, determined by a final equation—devolved into madness and the starkest irrationality. They ended up replacing the transcendent mystery of the cosmos—a mystery that beckons humanity to seek for its solution, even as it confounds reason’s attempts to do so—with an image of the mundane human ego, projected and grotesquely enlarged on a million propaganda posters and flickering screens: Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un and all the other classic instances of ultra-secular personality cultism.

Somehow, in seeking to magnify the imperatives of the human ego, we narrow the world—and can continue narrowing it indefinitely. By refusing to ground the human spirit in a transcendent reality—one above yet intersecting with space and time—these ostensibly “rational” and scientifically minded regimes managed to constrict that spirit virtually to a point. While attempting to celebrate the human spirit by projecting it into the form of one human leader and the ego of that leader, they denied it and crushed it. They created a gross parody of religion, mirroring the worst forms of fanaticism faultlessly. It’s fair to say that overtly non-secular and theocratic regimes—like that of Iran—actually do the same thing: they substitute the minds of power-hungry, ego-driven clerics for the transcendent or for the God to whom they supposedly appeal. Without imagination, without openness to possibilities yet unrealized, reason becomes a noose: it can only tighten, hanging its most devout votaries.

The Healing Balm of Indifference

by Sam Buntz

There’s something about lazy, morally unallied characters that resonates with everyone (or, almost everyone). It’s refreshing to see one’s secret, inner aimlessness and lack of ideals dramatized—it awakens real sympathy. This is a definite paradox: we can care intensely about characters who don’t care at all. The classic example is Shakespeare’s Falstaff: perpetually mirthful, but devoid of moral direction. He’s endlessly creative, but he doesn’t use his creativity for a greater ethical purpose.  It’s a toy for his own amusement (and that of others). Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is another good example: he compares himself to an onion, consisting of layers without an inner core, and continually acts like a cad while winning the reader or playgoer’s loyalty.  Homer Simpson, the frat guys from Animal House, and any number of illustrious slackers are all fine, present-day instances of the same phenomenon.

A hollow person in a serious situation seems reprehensible—but in a situation with ethically low stakes, a hollow person can become a magnet for our affection. Perhaps this is because, before we side with good or evil, we all feel a similar sense of hollowness, of yet un-polarized being. We sympathize with these characters because we sympathize with ourselves. There’s a kind of crystalline innocence/ignorance to this personality—he isn’t bad, but he’s also unhampered by dogmatic notions of goodness. He is what theologians sometimes refer to as the “natural man”—a child of nature, and therefore innocent, but also corrupt; innocently corrupt.   (Also, there are plenty of female examples of the same archetype—from life and art. Somehow, using “he or she” would’ve interrupted the flow of the last two sentences in a weird way).

Thomas Carlyle argued that, in life, we should journey from saying an “Eternal No” through a “Center of Indifference” to saying an “Eternal Yes.” In other words, we ought to proceed from being mindlessly destructive—kids crushing ants for fun—through the apathy and cynicism of adolescence, to the creative ideals of a fully realized adulthood. Obviously, many of us never make the full trek—and, in our own age, I would argue that making it to the “Center of Indifference” is actually a pretty big accomplishment. The members of ISIS and North Korea’s ruling clique clearly never made it there—they utter their “Eternal No” into the void.

But the valiantly indifferent are (at least, in our bad era) praiseworthy, if only because they haven’t regressed, haven’t ruined anything. They remain unsponsored and free—dwelling in possibility. (Purgatory has so much more room than hell… It’s pleasantly spacious, as it turns out). In a world rife with fanaticism, indifference is, as W.H. Auden said, “the least / We have to fear from man or beast.” I wouldn’t argue that not-giving-a-damn is a revolutionary act, or that we can’t do better than indifference—an Everlasting Yes is where we’re ultimately headed. But we’re so adept at doing worse—at being violently partial about any number of fleeting worries and cares—that indifference starts to seem like a counter-force as opposed to what it technically is, the absence of a position. A little lighthearted indifference goes a long way—in effect, it’s the real “chicken soup for the soul.”

Is This Philly’s Sound?

by Sam Buntz

I’ve never heard anyone describe the kind of music created by The War on Drugs, Strand of Oaks, or Kurt Vile as, specifically, a “Philly Sound” or the “Philly Sound” or anything like that—though I have read articles in which all three of those bands/artists have been compared to one another. (Technically, the classic “Philly Sound” is probably Philadelphia Soul, anyway—but we’re talking about what’s happening in the Now). That being the case, maybe it’s time to finally draw some lines and say what’s what? The boundaries between where one “sound” ends and where another begins have always been pretty arbitrary—like the way far-flung cultures divide the spectrum of visible color differently (one person’s blue is another person’s green). Yet, let’s take a shot at defining the sound, anyway, despite all that.

These three groups/artists all strike me as being part of “Cosmic American Music”—as the alternative country legend Gram Parsons named it. There’s a sense of expansion—canyons and plains implicit in the soaring synths and delay-heavy, reverb-heavy guitar, the visions of early pioneers (which is funny, considering the music is emanating from the East Coast)—along with a sense of smallness, of being a tiny person lost in a swirling, vast Domain. Both these feelings strike at the emotional core of so many Americans’ lives. Walt Whitman, probably the greatest American poet (along with Emily Dickinson), expressed the darker mood—the sense of smallness or contraction—writing in “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”:

“Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.”

Although these Philly artists are using the idiom of rock, they all get what Whitman’s talking about. “There’s just a stranger living in me,” sings Adam Granduciel in The War on Drugs’ “Eyes to the Wind”—expressing the same feeling of desperate self-separation as Whitman, searching and failing to find his “real Me.” But it’s really the feeling-tone of the music, the guitar and synth-based soundscapes that convey this experience: the lyrics hint at it, but you can’t really find it without absorbing the sound.

In the liner notes for a re-release of The Last Waltz, Harold Bloom praised The Band and Bob Dylan for capturing a certain strain of “spiritual loneliness” in American music. The loneliness is “spiritual” because it’s creative—you’re isolated somewhere out in the vast terrain of America, yet despite all this, you sense massive creative potentialities hidden in your lonely self, which you then convert into musical or poetic realities. These Philly groups definitely access the same vein of “spiritual loneliness” (just read about the recording process for Strand of Oaks’ Heal and The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream—both albums emerged from intense periods of solitude and creative effort), and Dylan fans like Granduciel and Vile would probably enjoy the comparison. Strand of Oaks’ Timothy Showalter (who really is the band) belts out, “I was lonely / I was having fun” as a pre-chorus on “Goshen ’97.” Specifically, he’s having fun making music, and the loneliness propels that creative activity. You need to fill that inner emptiness up—just like the pioneers, filling empty deserts and plains (except that those weren’t, strictly speaking, empty: there were actually Native Americans there—though that’s an issue or five away from the subject of this article, obviously). Although those lyrics aren’t, as written, poetry, they take on the quality of poetry when they become transfigured by the music in which they find themselves embedded.

None of these bands have lyrics that would transfer really well to the page—as is true in the vast majority of cases (Dylan’s always been the big exception to this rule, to some degree). Their words are crafted to work with music, not with the silent rhythm of a reader’s mind. But they’re still interesting: Granduciel and Vile’s lyrics capture the hum of thoughts drifting casually through a tired or distracted brain, and include the kind of things you tend to hear your subconscious muttering when you tune into it. Here’s Vile: “You could say I been most all around / But honey I ain’t goin nowhere / Don’t worry bout a thing / It’s only dying / I live along a straight line / Nothing comes to mind.” So, yeah… Whatever that meant. And here’s Granduciel, in a somewhat more coherent mode: “I come to my soul / Walking in the downtown / Talk to my soul / They won’t get lost inside again / On my way / I can see it the darkness coming my way / Well we’re here / Don’t get lost inside /Yeah, you won’t get lost inside at all…” It’s a little like Samuel Beckett… and it makes sense: it’s the same sort of conversation-with-your-own-soul that Whitman used to have, part of his search for the “real Me” or mystic “Me, Myself”. But it doesn’t really become art until it fits into a musical context. (It’d be wrong not to note that.)

A great album to compare with the work of these Philly bands is The Joshua Tree (Showalter’s on record as being a U2 fan; and I’d be surprised if Granduciel and Vile were going to slag off The Edge). Tracks like “In God’s Country” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” definitely get at that delay-laden, American Sonic Expanse—despite having been composed by non-Americans, of course. U2 was consciously trying to explore America with that album, and The War on Drugs, Vile, and Showalter all testify to the accuracy of U2’s musical observations—they’re the denizens of the America U2 explored back in the ’80s, even though they’re living in Philly and not halfway between Texas and a mysterious desert Nowhere. They inhabit the same psychological and spiritual landscape… The Irishmen staring out across the Western Shore were right—they had the perfect vantage point from which to contemplate (what it should be fair to call, without a hint of corniness or irony) the American Spirit.

But, as indicated in some of the above, life in this soundscape America isn’t just a lonely drag. There’s a spiritual bigness that goes along with the feeling of smallness. Whitman could go from the despair of “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” to the triumphant, cosmic expansion of “Song of Myself”: “I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, / I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.” Whitman is mystically becoming everything—and, listening to some of these albums, you get the sense that that could happen, considering the guitars’ capacity to evoke really large spaces. These new Philly sounds are an unexpected blessing in these dark days, and the fact that an ancient, storied state like Pennsylvania still has the juice—and can still launch us, musically, into this kind of psycho-spiritual headspace—is enough to cheer at least one former resident.

A Most Excellent World

by Sam Buntz

There is nothing more difficult for the imagination than to guide a story through utter darkness to a happy conclusion—a believably happy conclusion. We tend to think that King Lear is pretty great—but even it, unimpeachable masterpiece that it no doubt is, only leads us through extreme darkness to an end-point that is yet extremely dark. When it came to finding peace and rest and last, the Bard had no trouble in guiding his comedies to terminate in pleasant dreams—but to start where Lear ends, and to somehow weave the chain of events round to light, without boring the audience with metaphysics or shocking its fundamental credulity… this was beyond even the Bard’s capabilities (as was depicting sainthood). It may be that Life itself is the only story that dares the worst before reaching the best…  For instance, it’s not too hard to author a story in which the hero surmounts a history of petty thievery or the death of his own family to achieve something noble and good.  But it is difficult to create a “hero” who can really rise through genuine, extreme, personal darkness — through murdering his own family or ordering a massacre — to somehow attain redemption.  That taxes the imagination.

To some extent, you could argue that Dante achieved this great goal—since, as a character, he goes from initial despair in a “dark wood” to a final Vision of God. But, of course, all the real bad boys are left squirming in hell. To depict their redemption would’ve been more to the point—an ultimate tribute to and of the imagination. After all, Dante the Pilgrim was only ever a little off course… To make things clearer: it would be difficult for a human being to write a series of novels, plays, or movies successfully detailing the spiritual evolution of the soul of Hitler or of Ted Bundy, in the afterlife or in numerous future incarnations, in the hells and in our world, culminating in ultimate redemption and rebirth. Is there an imagination capable of authoring that story? I believe there is—to speak of Divine Imagination. But I leave the question with you.

Part of the difficulty in attaining this quest, or even getting it off the ground, lies in evoking a transcendent world—a “most excellent world”—using material dredged from a world that, to all appearances, is actually quite anti-transcendent, quite mundane, even pretty terrible. It is a kind of imaginative alchemy—the conversion of dross to gold—that only the most genuine creators can attempt. Dante gave it one of the all-time great shots, ladling on the special effects and the psychedelic, angelic choreography in his Paradiso, and you could praise Blake, Wordsworth, Rilke and others for their equally convincing intimations of immortality. This at least—putting aside the spiritual evolution of former tyrants and serial killers—is possible. It is within the imagination’s reach. (The Palme d’Or-winning Tree of Life managed to do this very effectively, to select a more recent example). If “faith” is allowed to still have a meaning, I think it means resting in the knowledge that the bridge of Divine Imagination will eventually span the chasm between the scattered shadows of the mundane world and the true daylight of the whole, the complete, the “most excellent” world.

‘A Certain Tone of Feeling’ and ‘The Pen of the Gods’

by Sam Buntz

“A Certain Tone of Feeling”

I write about politics on my blog sometimes—and I always regret it. It’s not just that I have a penchant for second-guessing myself (which I do) but that I ultimately feel like, by spouting political jabber, I’m only buying into another moth-eaten conception of the “Good Life”—yet, a conception, always, at bottom, cold and inhuman. To take two extremes: Libertarianism and Communism both, in their popular expressions, are devoid of any feeling, any real hint of sympathy for the human race. In making their critiques, wrath is typically the resonant tone (wrath against exploiters or presumed exploiters and wrath against moochers or presumed moochers)—and wrath is always its own undertaker. The Collective and the Individual, as features of political textbooks, are both abstractions… the coldest, hardest abstractions. A purely mental “love” for humanity is really no love at all. To the contrary, only a special quality of feeling, like longing or devotion, can awaken the intellect to loftier perceptions—or make any of its twisting designs valid.

Living in Ayn Rand’s utopia or in Karl Marx’s utopia, we would be confronted with a strange situation—a fine-tuned adjustment of all externalities, leaving us, despite all promises, with no real inlet to our actual selves. The terrain of the psyche would still remain wild, despite the fact that the outer world had been “solved”: the inner self would be a baffled, chained passenger rotating on one ideal wheel or the other… Sympathy in all things—it’s an old Romantic truth, which the pundits of today (like the pundits of all ages) can never accept. But it’s still true—what Whitman said: “Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral.”

By getting political about this or that—even if I manage to cloak the politicking in jokes and ironies and self-conscious, fundamentally insincere attempts to provoke—seems contrary to these purposes. I’m leaving another, more important function unfulfilled—and it’s not just a function that I assume I’ve been assigned to fulfill in one way or another. It’s the primary duty (if I may modestly say so). The notion that we can somehow engineer human-heartedness is a pipe-dream—we can make it easier, by adjusting certain social conditions, but there is no formula and never will be. Only a person, acquainted with solitude, with silence, and with the inward reaches of the self, can ultimately access that tone of sacred feeling. It’s probably harder to come by than we assume.


“The Pen of the Gods”

If life is—contrary to some appearances—a story, and not just a fit, a frenzy, and a nightmare; if life has an author or even is an author… then, I sit content, “calm and composed before a thousand universes.” I think I really do believe that’s the case, and I find it genuinely astonishing. If the story really can swoop through the grossest absurdities, the worst atrocities, and somehow, in the fullness of time, still make sense, I am utterly humbled and amazed. If, in the beginning, everything was perfect and stayed perfect, obviously the story wouldn’t have been a story… But if the story can dare all things—can actually, at one point or another, weave through all possible digressions, all genuine variations of cause-and-effect, and all forms of stark nonsense—and still, in the end, remain a good story… well, then I tip my hat to the author or authors (considering that we, each of us, might be one of them) and play whatever part the pen has assigned. That’s more than good Stoic philosophy—it’s a commitment to decent writing.

I’m trying to keep awake and ready for the next twist in the Fable. I know it won’t be the scheme I’ve projected—since it’s never been—and part of the point of the Story is to baffle our expectations, to fulfill its own narrative demands rather than those of our own cheap-seat comments (we’re both spectators and characters, apparently). In Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” the twist is that there is no twist—nothing really happens to the main character, despite the fact that he expected something would, all his life. That Nothing is the Something that happens. And why isn’t that good enough for me… or you? Who am I to say it isn’t? But, of course, now that I’ve guessed that possible outcome, I’m hoping the Story won’t be so crude as to give me the very ending (or non-ending) I’ve been anticipating. I have more faith in the authors than that—I think the writers’ room will come up with something, even if it requires multiple incarnations as a catfish or a grasshopper or a speed freak. The sordid and mundane will be made meaningful in that long-awaited fullness of time. Oh, Divine Pen—blur no word, blot no line!