From the crooked timber of humanity, said Immanuel Kant, no straight thing will ever grow.
It’s either an optimistic idea or a life sentence. Or perhaps it’s both in that with the acceptance of resignation one achieves a certain freedom. Milan Kundera in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being riffs on Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Return – the idea that every detail of every life repeats endlessly in either soul crushing precision for eternity or, in a liberating realization that if it’s the same old same old forever, then one might as well enjoy it.
This brings me to The Blues.
Not because of the sense of depression inherent in being trapped in endless repetition (though that is worth considering) rather because of an inherent contradiction.
The problem, which The Ink sees as a moral dilemma, is enjoying The Blues. In this case we distinguish between two styles of the genre – the uptempo and essentially joyous expression of being alive, and usually about sex, and the existentially depressed narrative of misery and endurance.
Here we are speaking of the narrative of misery and endurance.
For example what does one do with Blind Willie Jefferson?
It’s like enjoying pain. It’s masochistic. It’s majestic.
How are we to navigate this? How are we to reconcile ourselves to the litany of all that has been awful and given us the liturgy of the graceful and the sublime?
Consider the recent, on-going revelations about the Catholic church and pedophile priests. In one sense it is just another chapter in the saga of the church’s chronicles of savagery. In a sense, after The Crusades and The Inquisition, the surprise would be if it didn’t happen.
And yet, despite the sophomoric denunciations of religion by the late and often intelligent Christopher Hitchens and others, we can ask, where would we be without the church, or more specifically, who would we be without, say, James Joyce, or W.B. Yeats, or Jonathan Swift, or The Cranberries, U2, Samuel Beckett or Bruce Springsteen…it’s a fairly lengthy list of tortured Catholics once you get going and the names above barely scratch the surface.
Consider Catholic Spain.
On the one hand it gives you Franco.
And on the other, a list of freaky geniuses so vast as to make any sensible person laugh or slit their wrists. Or both.
Picasso, obviously but also Bunuel, Dali, Miro, Lorca, Almodovar, Goytisolo…and that’s just a ridiculously brief oh by the way.
In the case of Springsteen, the existentially tormented poet American of our times, the national voice, the answer we suspect is that without the crucible of the church, the conservative, torturing, reactionary, disciplining, punishing fire and brimstone misogynistic church, he would be the most popular bartender at the Stone Pony.
And we would be the poorer for it.
And so, must we learn to love the lash?
Where is Foucault when you need him?
What are we to do?
To consider another example, is there a single Hemingway story that ends well – and well, in this case means with joy as opposed to acceptance or defeat? We can’t think of a single one and yet, the works, certainly the best of them, offer one of life’s pleasures so much so that it is common to encounter people who can recount in precise detail the experience of discovering Hemingway and racing through each new story for the first time.
There are artists who offer laughter but it’s always in spite of not instead of misery. For example there’s Miller at the end of Tropic of Cancer who reaches for a Zen, Whitmanesque liberation and declares that only a neurotic would be depressed in confrontation with eternity. And yet, it is a kind of laconic acceptance rather than a dance of ecstasy.
The fascists of both the left and the right are not wrong when they describe Modernism as decedent though they are both catastrophically wrong when they offer their respective solutions for how to deal with it. As both end with miles of barbed wire we can safely dismiss their response philosophically, while remembering Brecht’s warning – Germany, who hears your song laughs, who hears you coming, reaches for his knife…
But still, we find ourselves without an answer.
Could you love a whore?
Could you love someone with a personality like a razor blade?
As Jon Stewart said when introducing Springsteen at the Kennedy Center – when you listen to Springsteen, you are no longer a looser. You are a character, in an epic poem…about losers…
We could, writes Hemingway at the end of The Sun Also Rise, have such a damn fine time together.
Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so…
I’m thinking about The Blues. I’m thinking about our current dilemma; this nightmare that may at any moment spill over into a catastrophe from which there will be no return. I’m thinking of the end of Moby Dick and the Rachel finding one of her orphaned children adrift on the endless sea clinging to a coffin.
Your guess is as good as mine.