An Obligatory Anti-Trump Comment

by Sam Buntz

There is a definite irony involved in writing an anti-Trump essay: it’s a piece that should be persuasive—yet, if one hasn’t been persuaded to oppose Trump by listening to his fragmentary speeches, in which clauses and phrases are tossed up like confetti, never to be joined into a single coherent utterance as they scatter over an energy-drink-stoked crowd, one likely will not be convinced by an essay containing a sentence as long as this one.

Against this crisis of purpose, I nevertheless proceed, preaching to whatever choirs may gather. How are we to explain the Trump phenomenon? More laptop keys have been worn of their letters in answering this tired question than any other (at least, in the history of laptops). Does he represent the honest grievances of a betrayed and harried working class, the latent racism of middle-America, a resurgence of populist Huey-Long-style fascism, the failure of traditional religion to yoke its adherents to a philosophically consistent mode of being, the modern Gospel of Wealth, the Freudian Death-Instinct otherwise known as Thanatos, a response to the anomie and entropy bred by modernity, or reality television’s triumphant conversion of American political life into its own medium?

Doubtless he represents all of these things—and more besides. One thing he doesn’t represent is an articulate narrative about American life. He has a narrative, of course, familiar now to everyone—concisely summarized, it reads, “Stupid people lead America, which makes America lose. I’m not stupid, and thus will make a great president who can make America great again.” We all already know this, and my recapitulation of its bold theme is purely rhetorical and pointless—it’s extremely simple, and therefore popular. (True, it doesn’t have the brilliant, clarifying immediacy of an aphorism from Epictetus, but it apparently gets the job done for some people.)

The thing that most amazes me about Trump’s success is that we live in a nation in which embracing cosmopolitanism has never been easier or more practical. In all of our major cities, Sikhs rub elbows with Tibetans who rub elbows with Nigerians who rub elbows with people from Moldova and Azerbaijan. Virtually all cultures converge in America, nestled under the overarching principles of liberal democracy—which should be exciting and should feel like the fulfillment of something…like, perhaps, the promise of America in its deepest and truest sense? The world is open. If that sounds trite and like something Thomas Friedman would say—well, maybe that’s because it is. It shouldn’t sound that way—not if we were having a conversation in some lofty realm of the Ideal, wearing togas among the clouds. But, unfortunately, we inhabit modern chaos, and that’s all there is to it.

As studies have shown, when presented with the vast marketplace of ideas ostensibly existing on the Internet, people narrow their views. The public recoils from too much information into an extreme selectivity—they edit out the voices that are confusing or that they don’t want to hear. The task of thinking seems not invigorating, but tiring—so much material to wade through, as though we were called upon to play existentialist versions of Woodward and Bernstein. It’s best you don’t get started… Hence, any mildly conscious person who uses social media is aware that, in their political dimensions, Facebook and Twitter resemble a large number of padded cells, with loud and decidedly one-sided conversations taking place in each one.

Trump’s voice is certainly the loudest and happens to be located in one of the most populous cells. He offers his devotees the ultimate negative reaction to the complexity of globalization and modernity—a full-on rejection. No Mexicans, no Muslims, no pesky thoughts. While the best guess anyone can make right now is that Hillary beats him in November, I wonder what the future of Trumpian discontent is, beyond the election. To what extent can America—or for that matter, Europe, or The West in general—learn how to assimilate and adjust to the fusion and mingling necessitated by globalization, that cultural exchange which is both its glory and severest challenge? Is the retreat into a narrow perspective inevitable?

I originally wrote an optimistic ending to this column, but it drifted into vagueness. I didn’t actually put it this way, yet it sounded a bit like I was saying, “Maybe all the people can just come together, and learn from each other.” It was, underneath the verbiage, very Woodstock.

Ultimately, I have no idea how the American people can salvage their battered attention spans from the gutter. Maybe some catastrophe will prod us out of our unreflective rages and stupors, or maybe nothing will happen at all, and we’ll just senesce over time, until something in the system fails, things start to unravel, Vandals and Visigoths show up on the stoop… But is it possible we’re leaving something out of our calculations?

The logical thing to do would be to propose an alternative. I can do that—but I’m merely “ready” for Hillary (Sanders being semi-officially dead in the water), not enthusiastic. By all means, vote for her—I will.  While I can’t quite summon the apparition of a brave new future to attend her passage into office, I can mention the happy fact that she is not, in fact, a raving maniac.  So, yeah—vote.

Yet, before you vote, I would urge you to drop out. Definitely don’t “turn on,” probably don’t “tune in” (unless that means something deeper than drug use), but drop out. Cast your ballot into the void, and then hurry home to your own private corner of the abyss. Turn inward—create something in private. Spread kindness, but don’t preach socialism or libertarianism or any of that stuffing. “Tap inside”—as Emerson put it. Yield to charity, but don’t listen to the cacophony telling you how specifically you should be socially concerned or charitable. Ignore all voices but the still, small voice that visits you at three in the morning. Marinate inwardly. Ferment. Retreat into darkness and chisel for gold.

And then, maybe, in the future—four or eight or twenty years from now—you’ll be able to emerge from your period of seclusion and use whatever you’ve created to capture someone’s attention in a way that isn’t completely sordid. And if you can do that—in the words of Dave Chapelle, “Congratulations, bill: you’re a law.”

Prince: Genius of the Sacred and Profane

by Sam Buntz

I discovered Prince in the Paddock Music Library at Dartmouth College in 2010. Of course, I’d heard of Prince before then, and am sure I’d listened to “When Doves Cry” and “Little Red Corvette,” but for some reason, I hadn’t experienced any albums in full, nor had I granted his music my complete or even mostly undivided attention. I don’t know why I was so late to the game—I suppose I’d received, somewhere along the line, the severely misguided impression that Prince was a very poppy pop star. I didn’t even realize that he wrote his own songs, let alone that he was essentially a Mozartian prodigy. My illusions, however, were ripe for puncturing.

The librarians and student workers at Paddock greeted my selection of Purple Rain with extreme and enthusiastic approval. Expectations ran high, and the atmosphere sizzled. Across the greater Upper Valley, dogs perked up their ears, startled by a sudden change in the earth’s electromagnetic fields.

They knew that someone’s mind was about to be blown.

Back at my dorm room—breath bated, hands clammy—I inserted Purple Rain into my laptop and adjusted the speakers. In the understated words of T.S. Eliot describing the birth of the Christ child, “It was (you may say) satisfactory.”

Of course, it was more than “satisfactory.” For some reason, the first song I listened to was “Take Me with U,” and its orchestral fullness immediately grabbed me. (I don’t know why I didn’t listen from the beginning: “Let’s Go Crazy,” the opening track, might be my favorite Prince song, and some critics consider “Take Me with U” the album’s weakest track—not me, though). It conveyed a sense of movement, of someone actually taking someone else with them. Now, I know that sounds stupid, but if you’ve heard the song you’ll realize how precisely accurate it is. (I liked the breakdown with the toms too.)

A few months later, I was immersed in Prince’s music. I had a particular affection for Dirty Mind—it seemed to be the necessary dash of Yang in my Yin-overloaded life—but Purple Rain still remains, for me, at the canonical center of his output. I love Sign o’ the Times almost equally, and am more than willing to admit it might be his masterpiece, but find myself continually returning to the concentrated power of the earlier work.

Now, Prince has passed from our shadow-lands to a realm of eternal day—voyaging across some metaphysical gulf to “the afterworld” where “you can always see the sun, day or night”—in the words of “Let’s Go Crazy.”

He was a figure who managed to incarnate numerous contradictory impulses and divergent cultural tendencies—harmonizing, synthesizing, unifying, reconciling. The most obvious duality is that of his blatant sexuality and earnest religiosity, two pieces of the psyche that many people would consider to be totally opposed. But this is deep, deep in the American grain—what is it but an extension of the blues man’s love for the Blues and for Gospel, for the Sacred and the Profane, for the tension necessary to add adequate seasoning to life? Prince’s compulsive horniness routinely baited him into an awareness of something greater than himself; it’s an essential aspect of his project.

Indeed, there was a wholeness to Prince’s music; black and white, Bible and Kama Sutra, masculine and feminine, rock and pop—the double-consciousness of American experience was fully present within him. He would sing about a girl named Nikki who “you could say […] was a sex fiend,” before asking us if we could “bear the Cross,” in the same concert. He’d swing between the tender, balladic, avant-pop anthemics of “Purple Rain” to the graphic sex-funk of “Head” with no real feeling of radical disruption, because he was expressing the swirl of feelings that quarry in almost every human breast—raw lust, true love, spiritual longing, the concoction of all of these and more. And he expressed those varied feelings with an unbelievable array of talents: he could play guitar as well as Hendrix, compose melodies like McCartney, and funk-it-up with the attitude of George Clinton.

In our current age of hits written by twenty or more people, simply observe the songwriting credits to Sign o’ the Times: out of sixteen tracks, thirteen were written and composed entirely by Prince himself (he played a ton of the instruments to boot). On a double-album that renowned, this is a level of individual accomplishment perhaps akin only to Stevie Wonder’s on Songs in the Key of Life.

A kind of Tantric Christian, Prince combined the sex god deification of early MTV with a spiritual journey, a quest that led him from his childhood as a Seventh Day Adventist to a conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both of those denominations, fittingly, began here—like their illustrious adherent, they’re American Originals, manifestations of the way the Holy Spirit comes to dance in the New World. While expressing the religiosity of our own climate, nothing remained foreign to Prince—he was “at play in the fields of the Lord,” bounding across the full terrain of musical experience, from hip-hop to the Beatles-esque melodies of tunes like “Raspberry Beret.”

Considering his career’s trajectory, you can draw an insane parallel between Prince and the poet William Wordsworth—they both had a great decade (in Prince’s case, that basically means the ’80s, including a few years prior and after) before gradually becoming less radical and less artistically successful, with Wordsworth converting to orthodox Anglicanism and Prince to the Witnesses. But this is not to say that Prince either burned out or faded away. He continued to express his social conscience—consider his Baltimore Concert after Freddie Gray’s death. Additionally, his impact on contemporary music is impossible to overstate: plenty of last year’s biggest hits, like “Uptown Funk” and The Weeknd’s chart-topping songs, owe a major debt to His Royal Badness.

In an era of cheap satisfactions and empty calories, Prince reminds us that transformative musical genius is a real thing, and it can’t help asserting itself through all the white noise that regularly assails us. After all, that’s what Prince evidently was—a genius—and in the wake of his passing, it’s what we’ll be remembering and celebrating.

“The Big Short” Revives Your Idealism by Hilariously and Righteously Appalling You

by Sam Buntz

It may seem amazing, indeed miraculous, that the guy who directed Step Brothers and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby went on to direct The Big Short—my favorite of the movies from 2015 I’ve seen so far. (Granted, I still haven’t seen The Revenant, Bridge of Spies, The Hateful Eight…and a bit more besides). But it doesn’t seem miraculous to me, because creating comedy is hard.

I labored for a weird, collegiate idle in the standup comedy salt mines, and realized that life is but “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The amount of crappy comedy out there is staggering, and a genuinely amusing Will Ferrell movie like Step Brothers deserves all the cred it can get. It’s infinitely easier to write or direct a somberly trudging period piece or a domestic melodrama than it is to be consistently funny; hence, the ascent of Adam McKay into potential Best Director Oscar territory should not come as a huge surprise.

The Big Short (co-written by McKay along with Christopher Randolph) details the true stories behind the people who guessed, circa 2006, that the housing market was ready to collapse in the next year or two, brought down by all those trashy, unstable subprime loans and the bonds underlying them. By betting against the market (“shorting” it), they were able to secure a massive payoff. Among these clairvoyant financial visionaries are Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who experience both the intoxication and the anxiety of knowing more than everyone else.

While the people responsible for the predatory lending of subprime loans appear to be idiotic bros—one of whom is portrayed by Schmidt (Max Greenfield) from New Girl—the smart guys, by-and-large, are outsiders. Burry has a glass eye, a condition that, along with his social awkwardness, separates him from the mass of men—yet, ironically, he can see farther than anyone else, spotting the signs of imminent collapse first. As a child, Baum used to get great grades at Hebrew School, though his industriousness was fueled by his rebellious search for inconsistencies in the Talmud, an impulse now parlayed into finding inconsistencies in the market.

In addition to these quirky performances, another impressive element of the movie is its sheer density. It clarifies much about the financial crisis, yet retains depths and layers—shying in little symbols that you might not notice the first time. For instance, at one point, a character is flipping through TV channels, which show images of both Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong—connecting their own steroid-inflated success to the false prosperity of the housing market.

The movie also makes extensive and impressive use of what the German playwright Bertolt Brecht dubbed “the alienation effect.” Characters address us directly, reminding us that we’re watching a movie, and Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez provide unexpected cameos, explaining how financial tricks like CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) work via clever analogies. While amusing us, these moments also (intentionally) prevent us from accepting the movie solely or purely as entertainment. They make us concentrate on its message. And The Big Short is overtly and unapologetically a message movie—the message being: people don’t act in their own “rational self-interest,” and greed and stupidity will ultimately hold the field.

Instead of becoming excessively caught up in the characters’ quest for their MacGuffin (their desired goal, the payoff generated by the “Big Short” of the title), we’re pushed back, forced to consider the movie with more objectivity.   We focus on what it’s actually saying, and we learn its lessons—we eat our vegetables and enjoy it.  Being a purveyor of socialist educational theater, Brecht would’ve been proud.

The Big Short reminded me of why I’m supporting Bernie Sanders (who himself endorsed the movie). Occasionally, the more cautious Sanders supporter starts to think, “Maybe this is all too idealistic… Like, are we really going to have single-payer healthcare and free tuition in state colleges with a Republican-led congress?” But then you remember the roots of your discontent—you see the full battery of dirty tricks used by the big banks, thoroughly exposed and detailed. And you’re reminded that gradual and minimal change, and the impulse to be “reasonable,” can simply act as a smokescreen for unbridled greed. You feel the need to do something—to take a stand, regardless of its imperfect footing. And I’m grateful to The Big Short for that reminder.

Midnight Reflections on “The Witch”

by Sam Buntz

I respected The Witch, but I didn’t love it. The movie has some genuinely disquieting images—they are, to cite a cliché, “guaranteed to give you nightmares”—and is technically well made, using natural lighting throughout. Some of the masterfully composed candle-lit scenes feel like Rembrandt paintings come to life.  Yet it lacks story: it doesn’t have the structural myth-building of a horror movie like The Omen or The Conjuring. To be fair, it isn’t supposed to. It’s meant to be more like The Shining in its slow-burn reliance on atmosphere and tone (props to A.A. Down of the AVClub for highlighting the Shining influence, which now seems obvious). I marveled at its cold mastery, but I didn’t really have fun.

(However, one important difference between Kubrick and the writer-director of The Witch, Robert Eggers, is that Eggers gets great performances from his actors, whereas Kubrick’s control freak mentality tended to generate frankly lousy, typically overwrought performances — as Pauline Kael once observed).

The plot chronicles a 17th Century Puritan family’s isolated life in the midst of the New England woods. The father of the family (Ralph Ineson) breaks with the elders of their Puritan colony (Plymouth Plantation, perhaps?), subjecting his brood to the vagaries of life in the wilderness—which ends up involving a witch with a predilection for gross nudity. (No body-shaming intended—if you have a thing for grotesque love-handles covered by semi-decayed-looking skin you will probably feel a twinge of desire for this malign babe).

The disappearance of the family’s baby devolves into an inferno of mutual suspicion, centering on the budding pre-teen daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose first menstrual period coincides with her potential seduction into witchery (isn’t that always the way?). Will she flee her dour Calvinist surroundings and embrace true evil, in order to “live deliciously”—or stick with the boringly moral route?

There is no “stairway of surprise” in The Witch, and you might be able to guess where it’s going—though some of the imagery attending that arc is surprising and authentically disturbing. Once you figure out the movie’s “vibe,” you know that vibe will remain consistent throughout—we’re going straight to the bottom of Satanic Darkness. Also, we’re not going to get any back-story about the titular witch or arrive at any overly neat conclusions; evil phantasmagoria will sweep us away. The pilgrim family’s anxieties—over damnation, sexuality, and child mortality—are all ripe for supernatural exploitation, ready to explode into full horror-show mode, as they eventually do.

Despite my failure to fully embrace it—and it is mostly my failure—The Witch is a great movie to contemplate, providing excellent fodder for idle academic chatter. Its major achievement is essentially one of empathy. It enters into the mindset of 17th Century Puritans ultra-convincingly, without flinching or qualifying, fusing meticulous historical detail with the fever-dream irrationality of a particularly nasty New England folktale. (The movie’s period-accurate Early Modern English is a much more successful experiment than, say, Mel Gibson’s largely pointless forays into Aramaic and Mayan cinema with English subtitles). You might draw a seemingly bizarre yet helpful comparison with Latin American magical realism: we inhabit the characters’ world as they inhabit it. Instead of remaining objective outside-observers, the audience is thrust into the center of the characters’ obsessions and fears—obsessions and fears that miraculously comport with reality. The story isn’t “all in their heads,” and what they believe to be possible is, in fact, possible.

For instance, the Puritans thought female sexuality was a destructive force, and in The Witch—it is a destructive force! (To be fair, masculine pride comes in for a drubbing, as well: the family patriarch gets his brood into this mess to begin with, thanks to his stubborn refusal to conform to the doctrines of their Puritan colony). The movie interprets the psychosexual world of its characters’ literally, which can be disorienting. I think some critics are bound to take the overly obvious route and say the film is sexist or anti-feminist, assuming that Eggers actually agrees with the extremist Calvinist worldview. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, and reading an interview with Eggers completely annihilates this notion. To the contrary, by presenting the Puritan worldview as a magical realist nightmare, Eggers shows us both how different the past was and how similar. It makes us wonder—have we really liberated ourselves from these ancient prejudices and irrational anxieties? Or are they still lurking under the surface? Is the world of the past then, in some sense, the world of the present?

The psychosexual fear at the center of The Witch can be articulated thusly: the life-giving potential of women can transform into life-taking potential. Women can go rogue, rebel against God, and start killing babies instead of making them. (This is a sick fantasy, but we occasionally do find real life examples—every now and then, the police will unearth a bunch of dead babies from some crazy lady’s backyard). It’s a natural anxiety for a patriarchal society to have, anyway: “Hey, maybe instead of feeding nutritious and hearty stews to the children, the ladies will start thinking that the children might make tasty ingredients in those stews…” It’s the essence of so many witchy fairytales (see “Hansel and Gretel”).

I’m not saying I’m personally beset with these anxieties—I don’t routinely walk around, wondering, “Is the womb fundamentally identifiable with the tomb???”—but I accept that it’s apparently some sort of primordial terror, buried in the subconscious. (Lest we think witchcraft panics were restricted to Salem and environs three hundred years ago, recall the unfounded “Satanic Ritual Abuse” panic of the 1980s).

The movie’s other central fear involves non-conformity, and this likely has even more modern resonance than the “womb = tomb” thing. The father’s decision to sever his family’s connection with its natural group—the Puritan colony—leaves it open to an assault by the forces of evil. In our social media culture, there are plenty of people who feel cast into outer darkness, torn from the Community of the Saved, by their inability to meld with the cult of relentless likeability, awesomeness, and forced positivity that crowds us whenever we go online (unless we start reading comments sections). The contemporary “fear of missing out” is a much milder version of this Puritan family’s isolated terror, but it’s still a prominent piece of our collective psyche. Huddle together, or be damned.

In the end, despite my inability to love it, I have to recommend The Witch. It provides ample food for thought—seasoned with crushed baby bones fresh from the mortar.

Male Humiliation

by Sam Buntz

George Orwell once claimed that 75% of waking male life was comprised of humiliation. This was a fair, perhaps even conservative estimate. Now, I’m not an expert, and can’t claim to know much about the general rate of female humiliation—can’t say whether the bucket of pig’s blood dumped on Carrie’s head is at all representative. But I do think that male humiliation is marked by its frequently public and dramatic nature. It’s an event.

I can offer an example from my own life. Fortunately, this isn’t even remotely tear-jerking and not in any way a plea for sympathy. It’s definitely pathetic, but hopefully in a more or less comic mode; it’s not nearly the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had, for one thing, and I’m not engaging in any emotional striptease by relating it. This isn’t some sob story I wish I could tell Oprah. But I think it’s archetypal enough to offer admirable, illustrative service.

In tenth grade, I joined the track team—or, I guess, to be technical, the field team. I was supposed to be learning how to throw the shot-put and the discus, but I was a pretty low-priority team member, and never officially competed in either event. I was on the B team, possibly the C team of shot-put-ers and discus-ers. At one point, my parents bought me a shot-put and a discus so I could practice at home, but the discus mysteriously vanished after I left it outside. Given that we were living in a fairly rural area, I have no idea what happened to it. Coyotes got it.

Anyway, we were on the bus one afternoon, headed to a meet. The track coach turned around in his seat—I was right behind him—and asked me what I was going to be doing today, and I admitted that I had no idea. I definitely hadn’t been singled out to participate in shot-put or discus. He made it clear that I needed to do something, and volunteered me for the 800m. I was immediately apprehensive, but had to agree, despite having engaged in no running since I joined the team.

I got lapped—severely. Everyone else finished and I still needed to make one more circuit around the track (you only have to run around twice; that’s how the 800m works). The entire girls’ track team actually cheered me on as I made my final lonely, out-of-shape lap—which was the worst part, of course. And then at the next meet, I had to do it again, and the exact same thing happened, with the girls’ team offering their doubtful cries of “You can do it!” once more. It was even worse with repetition…. But my mom knew the track coach, and actually asked him, politely, not to make me participate in the 800m again—only the shot and disk if I ever got good enough. None of the other non-competing shot and disk scrubs were being forced to do anything, ever, after all… He obliged. (Having your mom bail you out of problems is another form of humiliation too, in a way, though not a public way, thank God. But I was just grateful).

I distrust any guy who doesn’t have a battery of similar experiences. I’m not sure to what extent you can really grasp the horror of existence without a hundred or so dips into the font of undiluted humiliation. Some people are naturally empathetic, but most of us—especially me—require a series of shocks in order to awaken or re-awaken the instinct. In studying weird religious movements, I’ve heard more than one cult leader (Manson, for instance) claim that panic is the purest experience, since it provokes one into a state of sharp awareness. This is a thoroughly debauched parody of mysticism and enlightenment, obviously—but I would say that, applied to humiliation (closely related to panic) it has a certain truth to it. We need to be successively pricked (or flogged) into consciousness. A cult leader is an unnecessary and completely faulty aid, though, since existence itself is sufficient to do the trick.

When I was making that last lap, I could perceive myself from a second vantage point. In T.S. Eliot’s words, “I assumed a double part.” Mercifully, life let me split my consciousness and function not just as the person being humiliated, but as a spectator to my own defeat. So, I wasn’t wholly present in my gauntlet—I also could look at my experience and myself impersonally, staring from the stands and curiously considering the isolated person presently being ground down by fate and casual human indifference. Not to lavish myself with praise, but I think this was an accomplishment. It was an infinitely more vital and significant experience than winning the 800m would’ve been, and being a bashful adherent of magical thinking, I’m sure that’s why it happened. In retrospect, I’m completely glad that it did, along with all the other, hopefully forever-unwritten humiliations. (At least, I’m glad in theory).

Because of the accumulation of these various shocks, I think I can look at people making fools of themselves, or getting stoned and shamed, with a look of real empathy. What they’re going through might be way worse than anything I’ve experienced—they might be an Iraqi family surrounded by ISIS troops on Mount Sinjar—but I think my deep sense of its terrible loneliness and wrongness is pretty genuine. I think I really can, to some degree, understand what a eunuch or someone who’s just received a pink slip, and needs to march out to the parking lot with their stapler and “World’s Best Aunt” coffee mug in a cardboard box, might be going through. At least, I want to understand, which is more than half the battle. And the battle is to ameliorate human suffering—at least, the forms of suffering that are completely pointless and wasteful. (There are necessary and unnecessary forms of suffering). However, as a cautionary note, successive experiences of humiliation can breed the character of a Hitler as well as a Gandhi. It can sting one into consciousness, or drive one in the direction of consuming resentment.

If human indifference—as much as human malice—can cause humiliation, it can also offer a mild balm. You take consolation in the fact that your public humiliations probably don’t stick with people as much as they stick with you. Of course, some malicious people might latch on to them, especially when you’re in school—but it’ll fade from their memories too, most likely. Our peak moments and profound defeats always mean far less to other people, who are mainly consumed by their own problems, than they do to us. You might be nervous when giving a speech at a charity pancake breakfast, concerned about how your delicate nuances of sound and sense will be received, while most of your auditors are just hungry and waiting for you to shut up so the flapjacks can arrive. Only in rare cases will these humiliations really come to define you in other people’s minds for more than a decade to come (like Howard Dean yelling “Yaaaaaaahhh!”).

Summing things up, W.H. Auden wrote a great poem about the way suffering happens, as observed in Brueghel’s painting of the fall of Icarus:

“…everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

A New Sense of Time: ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ Reconsidered

by Sam Buntz

If I had to make a flat, broad generalization about Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, I would say that the album’s lyrics are mainly about time. This is perhaps a nearly meaningless statement, and you could apply it to a lot of albums and movies and books. But I’m going to stick with it. Poets and songwriters have been raiding the “time-is-passing-so-what-are-we-gonna-do?” pantry for eons. If you were to tersely summarize the message of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” you would probably say, “Time is flying—so you should put out.” (Which, in a more Romantic vein, is the message of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” as well, itself similar to “Don’t Lie” off MVOTC.) Sometimes it seems like that’s the message of nearly 90% of 16th and 17th Century verse: Shakespeare, for one, was eternally preoccupied with time and all the things that “within its bending sickle’s compass come.” (Also, somewhat relevantly, Ezra Koenig, the principal lyricist for Vampire Weekend, is evidently a John Donne fan).

I could keep throwing out examples, but we’d be here all day: Donne, Shelley, Keats, Hardy, Dickinson, Larkin, the Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay, Dylan… Lamenting temporality while looking over your shoulder at whatever Eternity might lie hidden behind the scenes—that almost is poetry, and the essence of song. (In one of his poems about time, W.B. Yeats addresses the subject of poems about time, making much the same point: “What’s the meaning of all song? / ‘Let all things pass away.’”) We live in time, and its ravaging effects tend to be of universal interest. Even if some of us, due to peculiarities of socialization and culture, get circumcised or baptized or get discs inserted into our ear lobes and some of us don’t, sickness, old age, and death remain truly cross-cultural. The poet or songwriter usually suggests a solution or solutions to the time-is-flying problem, too. Lamentation only gets you so far. He or she might say that everything is impermanent, hurtling into the abyss, and therefore, you should do one of the following A). Marry me now, before we’re both dead, B). At least, let me get to third base, C). Go crazy, live it up, D). Accept the redeeming love of Christ, E). Accept the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha… And so on. Chicago (the band) once asked if anyone really knew about time, and MVOTC has plenty of digressions, retreats, half-guesses, and even tentative conclusions on the matter

More than two years after it’s release, Modern Vampires of the City continues to stand out. It isn’t going anywhere. It’s one of the few unambiguously permanent records of the past half-decade (to my mind, anyway). This is because its music is magnificently composed and produced, but also because its lyrics comprise a beautiful examination of how a thoughtful, roughly twenty-eight-year-old person might approach the “time-is-flying-what-we-gonna-do?” question in the present day. There are plenty of albums that I love, but find I can’t take the lyrics that seriously—especially from the last few years. But MVOTC is the complete package. I might go so far as to call it my favorite album, not just of the past half-decade, but of the 21st Century. It’s in the same weight-class as masterpieces like Songs in the Key of Life, Pet Sounds, and What’s Going On? It’s honestly that good. And, lyrically, there’s not really anything else like it, with its strange thematic blend: it’s an agnostic quest, an emotionally elevating tone poem addressed to doubt and anxiety.

Modern Vampires of the City takes its title from reggae artist Junior Reid’s “One Blood.” While Reid’s track is a fairly straightforward plea for human unity—echoing Bob Marley’s “One Love” in an intense, moving, and even somewhat desperate tonality—it begins with a cryptic image: “Modern vampires of the city / Hunting blood…” Vampire Weekend uses this image as a guiding metaphor for the entire album. “Modern vampires,” as I understand them, are doubts and fears that sap human energy, a battery of needless cares that can paralyze life, freezing it like a mosquito in the amber of anxiety. Instead of using time creatively, for love or music or what have you, you become a slave to “the slow click of a ticking clock.” Paraphrasing the literary critic Northrop Frye, you’re operating on “clock time” instead of “creative time”—a desperate situation. This mood is deepened by the cover art, which consists of a photo of the smoggiest day in New York’s history—since doubt, fear, and anxiety are all like smog. On the album, these vampires take multiple forms: worries about age and dying, worries about spiritual belief and unbelief, worries about the world situation and the savage pageant of history, mock-worries about being dissed by music snobs. Yet, while it begins on a note of strangely playful hopelessness, it ends on a note that could be described as, if not strictly hopeful, definitely not as beset by vampirism as earlier. As for the music itself, lyrics aside, it contains elements of reggae, hip-hop, Afro Pop, electric Dylan, traditional Scottish music, baroque classical, Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon—and probably a lot else besides.

The album begins with “Obvious Bicycle,” the title being a meaningless one, attached to the original, purely musical demo and predating the lyrics. It mixes simple Plastic Ono Band-style piano chords with sampled percussion from the Ras Michael track, “Keep Cool Babylon” (New York is Babylon, or part of it, as far as MVOTC is concerned. It’s a damned, majestic nexus of confusion). According to Rostam Batmanglij, the band’s multi-instrumentalist who co-produced the whole album and co-wrote the music with Koenig, the track was inspired by “Good News from Africa” by Dollar Brand. “Obvious Bicycle” sounds like an exhortation, but it’s the opposite. It’s urging you, or whomever the target is, to give up, to skip shaving this morning, because no one’s going to spare their time for you. It might be an insult directed at someone, specific or unspecific—but I prefer to take it in a broader way, like it really is addressing “you.” Koenig sings, “No one’s gonna watch you as you go / From a house you didn’t build and can’t control,” perfectly capturing the inner isolation of any twenty-something New Yorker, subject to uncontrolled rents and the vagaries of postmodern existence. So instead of asking “you” (whoever you are) to give the American Dream another go, it discourages you—before asking you, in the chorus, to do something else. It asks you, quite simply, to “listen.” Listen. And “don’t wait.”

The second track is the closest thing MVOTC had to a hit single, “Unbelievers.” Some people interpreted it as a New Atheist anthem, sonic Richard Dawkins, but it really isn’t. In an interview, Koenig explained that he was actually addressing the fact that everybody is, in somebody else’s eyes, an unbeliever, not just atheists specifically. Isn’t there some kind of fundamental consolation, some sort of healing balm, available to a person with a genuine sensitivity to life, but no real taste for stringent dogmas and sectarian divisions?

The song, under a charging Highway 61 Revisited organ, asks the question: “I’m not excited…but should I be? / Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me? / I know I love you, and you love the sea / But what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?” The fact that the lead-singer loves the girl he’s addressing, and that she loves the sea, puts the lie to the hell-fire predicted by the world’s sundry dogmatists. There’s something real there, in that love, unsponsored by creedal faith though it is. And why can’t there be some sort of salvation implicit in it? This would be a salvation that isn’t written into any code, that isn’t even particularly defined. But it’s real, a drop of holy water anyone can drink. There’s an odd, air-like bridge in “Unbelievers”—it seems to sonically reference “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond,” which contains the famous lines, “O ye’ll tak’ the high-road and Ah’ll tak’ the low-road / And Ah’ll be in Scotland before ye.” The song itself takes the low-road, advocating humility before the mystery of the universe. It’s not trying to hem that mystery in with dogma, but it’s willing to let a sense of the sacred exist, without trying to define it. “Unbelievers” inaugurates the agnostic quest element of MVOTC, which will continue through to the end.

“Diane Young” is the album’s first direct meditation on time and mortality, and its second closest thing to a hit single. (The title is a pun on “Dying young.”)   It uses pitch-shifting techniques, which, as Batmanglij observed, make Koenig sound both old and young, deepening and heightening his voice. Like another song, “Don’t Lie,” this one’s pleadingly addressed to a girl, trying to get her to slow down and not live quite so wild a life (oddly buttoned-down sub-messages on some of these): “Irish and proud, baby, naturally / But you got the luck of a Kennedy / So grab the wheel, keep on holding it tight / ’Til you’re tottering off into that good night.” The awareness of mortality should make you settle down, not speed up—though the prospect of dying young might not actually change your mind.

The next track is “Step”—a total masterpiece, in which sizable fragments of classical baroque and hip-hop seem like they were always meant to go together. And, somehow, the fusion is completely natural. In keeping with the greater themes of MVOTC, it’s a meditation on time and mortality, with some incidental commentary on contemporary arguments over music. The refrain comes from “Step to My Girl” by ’90s hip-hop group, Souls of Mischief: “Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl.” In Vampire Weekend’s case, the girl in question seems to be the kind of music they make—some dick keeps stepping to her, i.e. criticizing their stuff. (Initially, after the release of their excellent debut album, there was an extended, somewhat violent argument in music criticism quarters over Vampire Weekend’s Afro Pop influences and preppy sartorial choices—though that seems like ancient history at this point). In this sense, too, maybe it’s slightly reminiscent of “I Used to Love H.E.R.” by Common…

While the band trucks fairly heavily in the Cryptic, “Step” is even harder to peg than most of the other songs on the album. Koenig dismisses critics, noting that “Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife,” and that “punks who would laugh when they saw us together […] didn’t know how to dress for the weather.” But then he starts reflecting on aging, putting the squabbles over relevant music into the context of a discussion of impermanence, more generally: “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth / Age is an honor—it’s still not the truth / We saw the stars when they hid from the world / You cursed the sun when it stepped to your girl / Maybe she’s gone and I can’t resurrect her / The truth is she doesn’t need me to protect her / We know the true death, the true way of all flesh / Everyone’s dying – but girl you’re not old yet.”

After “Step” comes “Don’t Lie”. It’s a “gather ye rosebuds while ye may / for tomorrow we’ll be a’dying” kind of song, but whereas Robert Herrick’s poem is advocating an ostensibly cheerful, make-hay-and-get-laid-while-the-sun-shines philosophy, “Don’t Lie” seems a little less comfortable with this. The singer is trying to convince a girl to dump her boyfriend and bring it home for the real thing. Like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” or Marvell’s poem mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the singer tries to use a vision of impending mortality to seduce a girl: “I want to know, does it bother you— / The slow click of a ticking clock? / There’s a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know.” In a less morbid register, Koenig sings, “Young hearts need the pressure to pound / So hold me close my baby.” While I can’t recommend this seduction tactic to anyone—it’s probably not effective—it’s good materia poetica. Also, the sense of being haunted by the ticking of a clock, of time being utterly wasted, feeds directly into the message of the next song.

“Hannah Hunt” is, in my view, the central track on the album. It’s one of my two personal favorites (the other is “Ya Hey”), partly because it’s simply beautiful, and partly because it really blows open the album’s doubts and anxieties. It suggests an escape—“Hannah Hunt” points toward the hidden drop of holy water that the singer couldn’t find in “Unbelievers.” The song is, as Koenig described it, a kind of “mystical country song” describing a road trip between two lovers. (Apparently, Koenig actually knew a girl named Hannah Hunt, in his Tibetan Buddhism class at Columbia, and just borrowed her name for the song’s purposes.) The American landscape comes alive as the two protagonists journey from the east to the west: “A gardener told me some plants move, but I could not believe him / ’Til me and Hannah Hunt saw crawling vines and weeping willows / As we made our way from Providence to Phoenix.” Somewhere in America, the narrator says that “a man of faith” insisted that “hidden eyes could see what I was thinking”—but he (the singer) smiled and “told him that was only true of Hannah / As we glided on through Waverly and Lincoln.” So, he rejects the external conception of Deity-as-a-snoop (like a Tibetan Buddhist), but there’s still something strange and transcendent happening between human beings in love.

The key lines to the song, and maybe to the whole album, come with the chorus: “Our days were long, our nights no longer / Count the seconds, watching hours / Though we live on the U.S. dollar / You and me, we got our own sense of time.” There’s a difference between this and the message of “Don’t Lie” and “Step.” In those songs, time was purely an engine of destruction—but here, it’s a pleasure to count the seconds and watch the hours. “Time is money,” and the pair are forced, of necessity, to live off this everyday, currency-oriented kind of time, but they attain their “own sense of time” by just being with each other and experiencing what’s there. To indulge another quotation from a poet, Wallace Stevens once wrote: “Out of this same light, out of the central mind / We make a dwelling in the evening air / In which being there together is enough.” I think something similar is going on in Koenig’s lyrics.

At the end of “Hannah Hunt” the song bursts into a final reiteration of the chorus, accompanied by instrumentation that really does have the feel of “a mystical country song” (like Gram Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music”). The chorus is altered in its first two lines: “If I can’t trust you, then damn it, Hannah / There’s no future, there’s no answer, / Though we live on the U.S. dollar, / You and me, we got our own sense of time.” Having your own, or a new sense of time is thus the answer to the problems posed on the album’s other songs, obsessed as they are by that ghostly, ticking clock. If that won’t help, then nothing will. Plus, isn’t music itself really a way of developing a new sense of time, of sonically embellishing a succession of moments, elevating them out of the mundane sphere? Following Northrop Frye again, in art and in love, consciousness triumphs over “clock time,” making time creative and wholly worthwhile. It transforms each second into a radiant jewel. (Also, the idea that lovers have the capacity to forget about time is not an uncommon one in poetry and music, after all. As Bob Dylan sings to one of his muses in “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”—“I could stay with you forever and never realize the time.” In such a state, the slow ticking of a clock can’t bother you anymore.)

Next come a series of songs that interweave the political, the religious, and the personal. As Koenig describes them, they examine the relations between individuals and things that are greater than the individual: political and ecclesiastical institutions, and God, particularly. “Everlasting Arms” expresses some of the same agnostic difficulties as “Unbelievers” and “Ya Hey” (to be discussed shortly). Koenig tells God, or religion as an institution: “Oh, I was born to live without you / But I’m never gonna understand, never understand.” The security of a comprehensive religion might solve some of the speaker’s problems, but he’s too much a child of unbelief to really buy any of them. To again draw a parallel with classic poetry (sorry—it’s a curse), we can look to Yeats: “I—though heart might find relief / Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief / What seems most welcome in the tomb –Play a pre-destined part. / Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.” Yet remaining in uncertainty doesn’t seem to help the speaker, which is part of his acknowledged difficulty. “Everlasting arms” could protect you from the terror of death, made more real ever since you, “Looked up, full of fear / Trapped beneath the chandelier / That’s going down”—as well as liberating you from the dark cocoon of egotism: “I hummed the ‘Dies Irae’ as you played the Hallelujah / Leave me to myself, don’t leave me in myself.”

“Finger Back” is probably the most violent song on the album—also, the most overtly political—which is funny, given how catchy it is. You wouldn’t think lyrics like, “Bend my finger back, snap / Wrap it in a paper towel” could be sung in an essentially upbeat way, but they are. Without getting too explicit, Koenig examines the emotions and attitudes behind the Israel-Palestine conflict, though the implications extend to other areas of the world, as well, obviously. One of the song’s best lines is, “Listen to the evidence exonerating me from being right”—skewering any number of polemics in one swift movement. “Finger Back” fully captures the tension between a naturally humane disposition and existential fear, vying in so many people: “Remembrances of holy days in Tarrytown and Rye / I don’t want to live this way, but I don’t want to die / Remembrances of generous hearts that couldn’t bear to try / I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.” The song has some decent comic relief, though—an amusing spoken-word interlude about an Orthodox Jewish girl who falls in love with a guy who works at a falafel shop: “Should she have merely averted her eyes and gazed at the laminated poster of the Dome of the Rock?”

Back in the mode of agnostic quest, we find “Worship You”—a song, which, along with the following track, “Ya Hey,” is addressed directly to God (specifically the Biblical God; Koenig’s Jewish, by the way). Somehow, the chorus of “Worship You” reminds me of the Psalm-inspired, Rastafarian hymn “By the Rivers of Babylon” by The Melodians (found on the famous The Harder They Come soundtrack). Here’s Vampire Weekend: “We worshipped you, / Your red right hand / Won’t we see you once again? / In foreign soil, in a foreign land, / Who will guide us through the end?” And here’s The Melodians, “Because the wicked / Carried us away in captivity / Required from us a song / How can we sing King Alpha’s song / In a strange land?” (The Melodians call God “King Alpha” in reference to the Biblical idea that he’s “the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end.) Both speak from a position of exile and longing, but, in Koenig’s case, I think the lyrics aren’t meant to express the longings of Jews in the Diaspora, exclusively or particularly. (The spirit of Vampire Weekend’s lyrics is usually more expansively cosmopolitan). Overall, I think they’re meant to express the longing of humanity for anything Greater-Than-Us. The exile isn’t physical, isn’t so much being kept out of a literal promised land. It’s about inhabiting the modern state-of-mind and dealing with an honest inability to escape uncertainty. The God with a “red right hand”—a wrathful, warrior Deity—seems more than a little suspect to Koenig and to any humane sensibility. But it would be nice to have a plot assigned to life, some golden thread to pull you through the maze.

“Ya Hey”—along with “Hannah Hunt,” one of my two favorites from the album—takes “Worship You” and makes its theme more personal. It’s a direct confrontation between the singer and God, an agnostic hymn, a sublime “What gives?” Koenig states his own dilemma, and the Creator’s: “Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love you / And Babylon don’t love you / But you love everything… / America don’t love you / So I could never love you / In spite of everything.” The so-called righteous and the unrighteous both have no real love for God: they’re either following rules or breaking rules, but there’s no authentic devotion present. Also, this isn’t a particularly carefree form of agnosticism. Its troubled, haunted by “the lingering scent of divinity” (to rip a phrase from Cormac McCarthy). Koenig continues: “In the dark of this place / There’s the glow of your face / There’s the dust on the screen / Of this broken machine / And I can’t help but feel / That I’ve made some mistake / But I let it go.” Crazy chipmunk voices start chanting a version of the Biblical God’s name, “Ya Hey, Ya Hey…”—in a mad, inspired reversal of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” The singer puts the question roundly, “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only ‘I am that I am’— / But who could ever live that way?” The fire and the flames aren’t just the combustion of the burning bush, from which God addresses Moses. They seem to be a representation of the forces that cause human suffering, more generally—fires in the crematories of Auschwitz and the Killing Fields of Cambodia and Rwanda.

The song never really reconciles itself to that “lingering scent of divinity,” but it also never fully detaches. In another spoken word interlude, Koenig hears God as a cosmic DJ, spinning the world from an Age of Faith represented by reggae pioneer Desmond Dekker, into an era of confusion represented by the Rolling Stones: “Outside the tents, on the festival grounds / As the air began to cool, and the sun went down / My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound / Of you spinning ‘Israelites’ / Into ‘19th Nervous Breakdown.’” This is more necessary levity, but its still part of the tension, the unresolved state of the song’s questions and anxieties. Its what makes MVOTC so relevant, so directly pertinent to the times, since it speaks to the honest and perturbed questioning of many people. While we see plenty of religious votaries who are utterly content with the concept of hellfire and judgment, and plenty of New Atheists who are utterly content with a universe devoid of purpose, it’s rarer to hear a voice that’s simply eager to know what’s going on (cosmically speaking) but can’t really find the ground required to make a stand, one way or the other. There have been great rock albums written from a position of passionate—and compassionate—religiosity, like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and any number of Bob Marley albums. But MVOTC’s tensions, the unresolved nature of its issues and debates, grant it a unique energy. Few bands have ever captured quite the same vibe.

The second-to-last song on the album, “Hudson,” is almost as overtly political as “Finger Back.” It envisions a post-apocalyptic New York, part of an America ravaged by the nightmare of history, unable to escape the specters of past violence that continually crowd the land. The various empires that have ruled the world keep changing the map, while generations of soldiers lie in coffins, wrapped in flags: “Over and over again, all these never-ending visions / Over and over again like a prize that’s changing hands / The time has come, / The clock is such a drag / All you who change your stripes can wrap me in the flag.” The final version of the chorus changes some of the lines: “The lines are drawn, / The map is such a drag / All you who changed your stripes can wrap me in the flag.” Time and space are both a “drag,” both comprising the playground of destructive and dehumanizing powers. And the apparition of “clock time”—time as purely a force for dissolution—returns. We actually hear a ticking clock in the song itself, as time is made brutally palpable.

But the bleakest track on the album gives way to a final, essentially hopeful song, “Young Lion.” It consists of just one, repeated line, nested in a gentle musical setting: “You take your time, Young Lion.” Apparently, Koenig was inspired by an encounter with an elderly Rasta who basically gave him the line, actually saying, “Take your time, Young Lion,” when he was in the midst of picking up coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. If you take your time, the modern vampires can’t suck you dry, because you’ve converted time into an ally, a canvas for creativity and exploration, as opposed to a locked cell, crowded with worries. MVOTC doesn’t exactly end on a note of resolution, but there’s peace, there’s a sense that it’s all right. In a way, “Young Lion” makes us recall “Hannah Hunt.” You get time itself to move to a different rhythm, instead of being enthralled to a pointless procession of minutes and hours.

Modern Vampires of the City continues to resonate with me so strongly, because it seems to distill some of the persistent conflicts I see around me, in a manner mercifully free of cant and self-seriousness. I like plenty of contemporary indie and not-so-indie bands, but few present a vision so searching, so engaged with greater issues. Vampire Weekend manages to mix attitudes ironic and humane, comical and serious, in a way that few others can. Personally, I think only Jeff Tweedy and maybe one or two other present-day rock lyricists are in the same ballpark as Koenig, and Batmanglij, as a producer and a composer, is morphing into a kind of latter-day, non-insane version of Phil Spector. The rhythm section, comprised of drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio, is one of the very best in rock—which is important, considering how rhythmically driven so much of V.W.’s music is. They’re as essential to the finished creation as Koenig’s lyrics and vocals and Batmanglij’s multi-instrumentalism and production.

It’s hard to say where they’ll go from here, and I have absolutely no idea how to begin speculating. Their first three albums form so definite a trilogy—with Modern Vampires of the City offering a truly towering conclusion—that it’s extremely difficult to predict how a new beginning might sound. But when you’ve got your own sense of time, there’s a future… and perhaps even an answer.

The Wind of Idiocy

by Sam Buntz

Blood on the Tracks is probably Bob Dylan’s most popular album. You don’t need to be up for Rimbaud-style strangeness to appreciate it, and you can find its songs of heartbreak immediately affecting. It’s the most widely-appealing because you’re able to know “what it is” with relative ease, which wouldn’t be true for, say, Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, albums that trade heavily in the cryptic (not that Blood on the Tracks is lacking in cryptic moments, of course; “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” is one solid 8 minute and 52 second crux). At any rate, it’s susceptible to definition. Basically, it’s a break-up album.

Four tracks in, we find “Idiot Wind,” clocking at 7 minutes and 47 seconds, making it the second-longest track (after “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” obviously). Like most of the songs on Blood on the Tracks, it seems to bear a definite relation to Dylan’s impending divorce from Sara Dylan, the goddess-muse presiding over his work from Blonde on Blonde onwards. Whereas tunes like “Simple Twist of Fate” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” are melancholy and tender lamentations, “Idiot Wind” is one of Dylan’s greatest, caustic kiss-offs: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth / You’re an idiot babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” So far, so clear, but the title itself presents us with a puzzling poetic image (not that wind really has an “image”). What is specifically wind-like about idiocy and the means by which it is spread?

It’s not only a force that’s ruining his relationship with Sara, probably the most important relationship in his life, both artistically and literally speaking, but one responsible for broader societal and cultural dysfunction. The track’s actual music is uplifting, as soaring organs and up-tempo drums provide an ironic contrast with the biting lyrics, indicting the malign effects of this “idiot wind.” Insidious tabloid rumors and persecutions become emblematic of its effects: “They say I shot a man named Gray / And took his wife to Italy / She laid hands on a million bucks / And when she died, it came to me / I can’t help it if I’m lucky… / People see me all the time, and they just can’t remember how to act / Their minds are filled with big ideas / Images, and distorted facts.” The idiot wind blows through the collective mind, wilting and corrupting it, the intellect perishing, flowers withering as they make contact with this poison breath. It’s not the “breath of life,” but its opposite, a wind conducive to senility and decay, and hence to death.

The symbol isn’t unique to Dylan. Seth Rogovoy locates its origins in The Talmud (Jewish Tradition being a perpetual source of inspiration for Dylan), where Rabbi Reysh Lakish says, “No one commits a sin unless the wind of idiocy (ruach shtus) enters him.” (Seth Rogovoy. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet. New York: Scribner, 2012. 167). But we can go back even farther, and analyze the Biblical sources of the symbol, as well. The term for “wind” in this Talmud quote is actually ruach, which is a Hebrew word frequently translated as “spirit” in the Bible (spiritus being the Latin word for “breath”). Hence, when we read in 1 Samuel 16:14 that “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him,” we’re metaphorically witnessing an evil wind or breath take possession of Saul; in this case, not a “wind of idiocy” but a wind of depression and despair. It’s a good metaphor for domination by an undesired feeling: a person falls subject to despair or idiocy in the same manner that wind controls a dry leaf. While the spirit or breath of God possesses and directs human action in a definite and positive way, this opposing, alien, and evil wind forces human action into undesired channels.

We can further trace the genealogy of the symbol into English literature, isolating one example among many: while John Milton doesn’t specifically reference an “idiot wind” or “wind of idiocy” in his great elegy, “Lycidas,” he uses the symbol of a corrupting breath to indict Britain’s clergy. He compares them to shepherds playing on pipes which fail to lead their sheep (the congregants) on to satiety and more life: “when they list their lean and flashy songs / Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw, / The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, / But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw, / Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread […]” Instead of generating spiritual life, the breath blown through the shepherds’ pipes just makes the sheep swell with gas.

Leaping ahead roughly three hundred years, we find that Dylan is already using imagery related to the wind and the spirit in “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As Rogovoy and others have observed, “The answer is blowin’ in the wind,” can mean either that the answer to society’s ills has been sadly lost in the breeze, or that this answer is a truth conveyed by the spirit, by the “breath of life.” This more positive reading doesn’t seem egregiously out-of-step with the song, either… It’s similar to D.H. Lawrence’s great line, “A fine wind is blowing the new direction of time.” But on “Idiot Wind,” Dylan laments the absence of this purer spirit. We really are lost in the breeze: “Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol / Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth / You’re an idiot, babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.” The literary critic Christopher Ricks observes that the idiot wind wraps around the singer’s head and around the Capitol, which is the metaphorical head of the country (since “capitol” literally means head). This buffers what was said earlier, that Dylan is considering the idiot wind’s effects on scales both personal and societal. (

If he stopped there, Dylan would simply be calling his soon-to-be ex-wife an idiot. He would be doing it eloquently, of course—but it would still seem a bit harsh. Yet, as the song concludes, he indicts himself, equally: he’s been possessed by the idiot wind, too. He sings, “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor all the pain I rise above / And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love / And it makes me feel so sorry… / Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats / Blowing through the letters that we wrote / Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves / We’re idiots, babe / It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.” His self-humbling elevates the song from being a mere kiss-off in the vein of “Positively 4th Street” to something tragic and searching.

The problem is communication. That’s what the idiot wind disrupts. It breaks down comprehension and receptivity, creating destructive mental distance between people. Dylan sings, “I kissed goodbye the howling beast / On the borderline that separated you from me,” meaning that he’s not going to try to communicate anymore, the separation is final, and the idiot wind has done its work. (Actually, later on, he and Sara nearly reconciled and even considered remarriage.)

After Milton discusses the workings of the same wind in “Lycidas,” he concludes with one of the most famous puzzles in English Literature: “But that two-handed engine at the door / Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.” These two lines have been debated over and over again, with no settled conclusion. Yet the fact that the engine is “two-handed” seems to imply something significant: to break down the idiot wind’s power and counter its effects will require a total effort, and, what is more, an individual effort, a kind of self-cultivation. Once the victory is won, and the ability to communicate has been re-established, the struggle really will be finished.  The engine smites no more. But for Dylan, the tragedy of “Idiot Wind” is that the break is absolute.  He needs to start over.