Saturday, December 25, 2010

Literary & musical retrospective 2010

This time I really will keep it brief, and hopefully focussed less on the items and more on the process of reading & listening itself. Truthfully, this year I had half a mind to not bother with this retrospective, but I suppose they have their uses. Giving up is probably akin to admitting that time has won, and that there's no hope in keeping track where it all goes. But that's a battle I've always intended to win, and so here we are!

If you've stuck around for long enough, you might remember that '09 was a pretty poor year on both cultural fronts, for a variety of reasons but primarily because things weren't quite clear upstairs. I can't say that things are much better now, but I seem to have accepted this as a state of quasi-normalcy. So I did fare a bit better this year, though nowhere near the heights during my undergraduate years, steeped as they were in obsession and free time. On reflection, it appears that I only had my first serious taste of Philip Roth, The Go-Betweens and The Triffids this year, all three now crucial components of my cultural and mental makeup. (It really is surprising that all that happened this year; I told you these retrospectives were useful!) There isn't anything coherent tying these fellows together ('cept Quality, of course), but that is to be expected. As always, there were other first-timers too, but perhaps one sign of things being not as strong as years past is that for these, the signal is extremely weak: yes, I did read Old School, but I don't think I can say anything more about it. (And yet somehow I did write a post about it earlier this year...) I might even have tried some Pynchon, but found it utterly incomprehensible. I have enough trouble getting through my many unlistened Tom Waits albums, so somehow I doubt I'll be revisiting him anytime soon.

Given the addition of the GB's and Triffids to my musical map, in the uppermost echelon of my preferred artists I now have a pretty impressive triumvirate of Australians (the third's Nick Cave, of course!). I wrote a stirring, gripping piece about counterlives recently, where I asked what good it all was. Obviously I should've noted that at the very least, this life has allowed me private access to a very worthy collection of music. If we say that the '60s were for the English, the '70s for the Americans, it's clear where the '80s belonged. (Please don't think about that too long, lest you find innumerable counterexamples that completely destroy the careful symmetry of the sentence.) Who knows where the real gold of the '90s is to be found, then? At the very least, it's nice to think that these artists partially validate the mythos of the Outsider. Given only snapshots of trends in rock music overseas, and a careful sample of "historic" records - I think Dylan is a common favourite of all three, and probably Lou Reed - they managed to create a personal, unique response to the world. So maybe isolation is necessary after all; I've conjectured about many modern artists being overburdened with music, to the point where every note sounds like a deliberate homage to something from the past. They should all clearly relocate to New Caledonia.

Here seems an appropriate venue to ponder aloud the question of why one bothers reading or listening in the first place. "To understand yourself" has a nice ring to it, and seems plausible on first consideration. And while that may be the goal we should strive towards, I feel as though my use of the arts is much less noble. At times it feels as though I'm amassing the greatest ever arsenal of quotes, turns of phrase, and melodies so as to wear as a proud badge to tell people of my innate greatness. While I'm at it, I may as well admit that I imagine some fair maiden swooning at the prospect of finding such a fine catch. ("Come to think of it, yes, my eyes are desert sand!") I suppose there's a bit of this confusion in everyone who takes the arts seriously, at least when you're young. The problem with music, much more than books, is that it's so easy to consume, or so one thinks: just hit play and sit quiet for three quarters of an hour. Consequently, it's really easy to give muddled goals more chances than they deserve to take over. In reality, of course, music isn't that easy, at least not when it's worthy of serious thought. I think this harsh reality is what sometimes thrashes against the childlike hunger to devour everything, an impossible ideal that perhaps seems most within reach when it comes to music. After all, one only need sit quiet for the rest of one's existence; not too shabby if it means eternal salvation!

I suppose we also look to the arts to teach us things about life. I've spoken about songs enough throughout the year - suffice to say my romantic repertoire grows stronger by the hour - but books were useful too. It's a stretch to say I was "taught" anything, but at least I managed to see the potentially troubling conclusion to my current plan for dealing with romance. Zuckerman's stories from Roth's Exit Ghost may be the saddest I've read in a long time, and wonderfully capture the laughable, beyond-pathetic nature of the heart, but how we are bound to it anyway. Zuckerman is commanded by the "ghost" of his desire, and sees no way of proceeding but to write his fantasies down. Despite his complete consciousness as to the impossibility of it all...somewhere, he feels they may become reality yet. (Reminds you of another talented modern author's work, perhaps...?) This odd distinction between fiction and reality, which sometimes feels like it can be breached - been there, Nathan! The relentless pursuit of this barrier, no matter how obviously foolish the task appears - (oh God...) been there! The book really did make me feel I ought to be around authors more, because they're the only ones capable of even contemplating the same degrees of madness that pass through my mind everyday. I don't know if Roth wrote from experience or imagination here; probably the latter. But I'm sure he'd be happy to know it is possible for it to be the former.

Next year? I intend to use the good response to '09 to leap into new and strange waters. That means all the Ballard and Dead Can Dance money can buy. And thanks to that blasted Hornby, all the Haydn and Dickens I can stomach, I'm sure.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When going through Nick Hornby's articles on books he's bought/read (which are significantly more entertaining than they sound), it struck me that I can't actually think of anyone else who has written so endearingly yet accessibly about the form, in particular about what is sometimes classified as "serious" fiction. While critical barriers of objectivity have been significantly demolished in music, with books the analysis is almost always of an academic bent (if not, it's often devoid of information). There is of course a very real need for such serious and semi-academic analysis, but so too is there one for Hornby's relaxed style of writing. I don't have that much else to say, except that I am glad to have found out about these articles, else I would have surely have him pegged as yet another pop-music obsessive (a charming one, mind!). I think my own shying away from books in this blog could be in part because I've felt ill-equipped in terms of the language needed to express my reactions about them. Hornby has made me reconsider that stance: perhaps unfortunately for you, dear reader! Stay tuned, I suppose.

Tangentially, before reading his articles, I had a vague idea that went something like: perhaps the place of classical music in the scheme of things is like the place of Dickens. Something you maybe dabble with when you're young, and then all but forget until (possibly) old age sets in. But his piece on Great Expectations makes me half-tempted to buy a fresh copy of that classic and re-read some 15 years on. Although, I should probably get through Anna Karenina first. And given this new uncertainty, lord knows what future awaits for all those Haydn symphonies...

Exit ghost

The last note struck, confirming succinctly that the moment had arrived. The past is now totally at rest, and time cannot be undone: the spirit newly exited is now beyond communication. This feeling isn't sadness, but emptiness: it is one of the moments (believe me, they are blessedly uncommon) where the prospect of having it all end does not seem so bad, because living with this seems an impossible weight to bear. So many years of collected memory and feeling are now extricated from inside me, and no amount of imagination lets me see what will take their place.

What makes me think there is a chance of pulling through, though? It's the tranquility that allows these thoughts to exist in the first place. This is the same forge from which I shall have to build another life. We will have to wait and see.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What she said

They were just words, after all, but words delivered with such a level of measured precision that you knew there was an abyss lying beneath. Ever so often these lyrics would be accentuated by a sigh, a purse of the lips, and a gaze into the empty distance. "Play one of the early numbers!", one might be tempted to say, imploringly, but there was no turning back. I knew this leaf would not, could not be turned; the singer could only hum the lines she was dealt. So I had to listen to that melody as it evoked a strange mix of nostalgia, sorrow, and helplessness in me. On consideration, one could not help but wonder that maybe - maybe - this is what the saddest song in the world sounds like.

It's decided, then. One by one, I shall have to burn them all.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I keep mine hidden

I largely value the quiet privacy my thoughts are allowed in this forum, but sometimes it can feel solipsistic. Especially when I feel like making bold statements, like the following: surely there can't be more than three other people in this world with as vast a cache of emotion, unopened and unknown to all? I rather doubt anyone's going to challenge this, so let's assume it as if for surety (it'll make things easier, believe me). It has its positives, of course. I can nod knowingly to a wide range of songs, checking them off mentally in my head. ("Yep, that's good ol' index D, section 1 of emotion repository right there!".) But sometimes one must wonder where this trepidation of expression comes from. It also leads me to wonder whether it will hold me in good stead. I don't particularly mind pontificating as usual on these items, coming up with all manner of theory and aphorism. But screw all that. At some point it seems like coming up a fitting turn of phrase is seen as a substitute for actually acting upon these issues. It's easy to convince yourself that you're making progress when you're both the patient and the analyst. The following is as good as I can do in this sitting: there's too much going on inside, lad. If you let it all keep burning away till the end of time, things can only get worse from here. At the very least, expressing and being embarrassed convinces you that you're real, and not a work of fiction.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The counterlife

Perhaps the only good thing about living all these counterlives, and having to go through the pain and confusion of transiting between them, is that it offers a sense of perspective. It's pretty serious pain and confusion, mind, so it's hardly equitable perspective. Nonetheless, during my latest transition between lives, I have become quite convinced about the impermanence of it all, a truth that I've always accepted but never experienced. The uncertainty and instability of one life seems rather quaint when one steps into another. And it's always the case that the current one seems the most real. I once believed this truth would guide me through life more confident and less encumbered. But of course I was wrong. Impermanence is the last thing a counterlife needs. I'm sure there is magic in living through changes, and watching the fabric of a life be unravelled into something better. Yet when it happens when you're not around to witness it, it feels like the worst thing in the world. At least if one could close the door for good and banish things to the past, there would be some hope of moving on. For me, though, the life is being dismantled before my eyes, piece by piece, until the only thing left is me. If this is how it must turn out in the end, I do not know why it bothered to happen at all.