‘Radical tenderness’, Dani D’Emilia and Daniel B. Chávez write in their 2015 manifesto of the same title, ‘is to be critical and loving, at the same time’, it ‘is to not allow our existential demons to become permanent cynicism’. In the world we find ourselves in — call it the Trumpocene, the Anthropocene or simply late fucking capitalism — it’s difficult to resist this cynicism, to find productive ways of channelling the angst and frustrations that belong to us but also seem much more than us, that link our smallest actions to global feedback loops. How do we productively engage with events whose scales elude our usual modes of expression? Naming his latest album Western Culture, Kiran Leonard could be forgiven for falling short of doing justice to such a sweeping title, but that would be missing the point. As Leonard says:
as a phrase I think [Western Culture] is really funny, because when somebody says it it’s got these heavy grandiose connotations, like they’re drawing at the roots of something — but the phrase has no concrete meaning in itself. Any attribute you can apply to it, there are hundreds of examples throughout history where you can undermine it as a term. It’s not consistent.
The term Western Culture is one of many problematic signifiers that Leonard unpicks across the ten songs of his new record. With deft combinations of subtlety and sweep, Western Culture explores the poetry and politics that are possible in the present moment, casting a nuanced, historical long-view over the conflicts many other indie practitioners seem ill-equipped to sing about, let alone talk about. But maybe the lyric mode is its own conversation.
After reviewing Western Culture for GoldFlakePaint, I sit down to chat to the Saddleworth songwriter ahead of his gig at Glasgow’s The Hug and Pint, with support from mesmerising Heir of the Cursed (based in Glasgow via Dumfries and Kenya) and the otherworldly Ubaldo, hailing from Spain. What’s striking about the support acts is the stark intensity of their work: Heir of the Cursed weaving stories with her crystalline voice and guitar, Ubaldo sending the bustling crowd into trance with his splintering, almost meteorological arrangements. Leonard’s own performance explodes that intensity with a full band, shaking the room up with an irresistible sense that this was something to see. I find myself jotting odd tuning commentary on my phone: ‘Tom from MySpace this goes out to you, to a happier internet’.
I ask Leonard what kinds of crowds he typically gets at his gigs, and aside from the reliable 6 Music Dad demographic, there’s definite interest from younger audiences who find themselves drawn to what seems different. He mentions going to see Norwich duo Let’s Eat Grandma in London and being delighted to find ‘an amazing cross section between queer teenagers and 6 Music Dads’. It’s nice to see the demographics of gig-going crowds evolving alongside supportive stalwarts. Aside from the general enthusiasm of youth, part of this, I suggest, is due to a bit of innovation in the kinds of gigs folk are putting on now. In March, Leonard had a break before uni exams and ran his own solo tour. I caught him playing Mono alongside local artist/poet Jessica Higgins and experimental guitarist Jon Collin, an event billed as ‘late start feel good sit down heavy listening/viewing after hours party’. He’s also done the rounds of pubs and arts collectives, as well as Manchester Central Library.
Although Leonard admits it can be tricky to get people to respond in-depth to his lyrics, there’s something of a latent DIY energy in his work that crowds definitely respond to. The care he takes with his lyrics (you can read them, lovingly presented, for free here) is basically akin to poetry; but with the energy of math-rock rhythms and tendencies towards epic or eccentric riffs, even the more intricate or ‘difficult’ lines deliver a universal punch. It’s important to highlight this word lyric, because what Leonard does is play with voice, and I don’t just mean those Jeff Buckley-esque leaps of octave: he inhabits the lives of other characters, marries marginalised experiences with structural forces, pulls us into the harmony of chorus, makes literary use of his academic background. There’s a sublime quality throughout Western Culture that is nevertheless controlled by a narrative arc, where clamour is followed by quiet reflection, walls of noise by careful intricacy, suspension by release. You can tell Leonard has thought long and hard about the challenges involved in singing about the morass of chaos and apathy that we are faced with as millennials, human beings, selves and others, innocents and actants all at once. He writes about the sad decline of a man who loses his job and struggles to ask for help (‘Working People’) with the same deftness used to tackle a lecture delivered by a human rights lawyer (‘Exactitude and Science’). There’s a timeliness and timelessness across the album, which makes it as rousing as it is reflective. It offers both the noise and stillness we need in a time of insidious, pervasive war, migrant crisis, media confusion and mass extinction. With so many people and species and values lost on this planet, sometimes it’s all you can do to cling to a single voice, bask awhile in its quiet wisdom, which rises sometimes to a shout.
For it’s the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ that Leonard points me to when I ask him about the role of empathy in his work. D’Emilia and Chávez, both transfeminist activists and performance artists, describe the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ as an ‘embodied poetic exercise of resistance’, and you might say the same about tonight’s cathartic performance at The Hug. I sense that tenderness, for Leonard, is not just affective choice, but an ethical position to take as a maker of culture, a way of being radically self-reflexive, conscious and careful of one’s positioning and power in a world that demands immediate expression and response, a crowded echochamber where we fight to be heard. Radical tenderness asks for space, consideration, which isn’t always easy for anyone who spends a lot of time online.
For Leonard, the song that most engages with this idea of radical tenderness is ‘Unreflective Life’:
‘Unreflective Life’ is the song on the record most to do with [radical tenderness], but a lot of that is to do with misconceptions around internet use. The internet not as this thing that magnifies the self but instead the thing that disintegrates it. The metaphor I came up with to describe it was: if we think of narcissus as a figure that looks into the lake and sees his reflection, the computer sees every particle in the water and loses a sense of themselves. So there are strands I try to follow in that song: the first is the individual anaesthetised by the weight of history, they can see and access everything so how can there be a capacity for activity; the second strand is fascism — if we want to make a neutral generalisation of what fascism is, it’s an extremist desire for things to make sense. […] What I wanted to get across is that there’s almost like a desire to find something beyond this complete exhaustion by violence.
And of course violence is there in that search for meaning, it’s the wrench that stings in lyric, it’s the painful awareness of one’s complicity, one’s own frustrations, one’s disintegrated identity. But there’s an ancient, philosophical beauty in that search for meaning, even when manifested in the fraught conditions of the contemporary. While many musicians respond with sheer anger or apathy, aggressive walls of sound that do little but mimic the frustrated commuter’s journey on the London Underground, Leonard is striving for something genuinely different. He’s writing from the heart, he’s writing from the history of literature, he’s writing sensitively from different languages and cultures (Leonard studied Spanish and Portuguese at university); I’d wager that he’s making genuine attempts to swerve the passage of the western indie canon. And he does it with a humbleness, eloquence and care that inspires me to try harder with my own writing.
We talk about the lyric ‘fiction in leverage’ from ‘Exactitude and Science’ and Leonard suggests that ultimately the song is about how much of the Israel and Palestine conflict is
a question of maps and lines: how do we redraw, who drew what. That supplants the very real murderers and human beings. That’s an aspect of the Borges story [from which the song takes its title] that I think is very true, especially if you think about the way representation now more than ever preempts everything, the way that things are framed becomes reality.
Going back to his previous thoughts on the internet’s disintegration of identity, I suggest this is what web 2.0 does: maybe social media is a sort of map that constantly remakes itself and the world through targeted ads and data dissemination, these endless feedback loops that we navigate in the map, rather than with it. So all questions of identity and conflict, from something as individual as cultural selfhood or ‘brand’ to geopolitical conflict, are all about framing, the tailoring of fictions.
When asked if he writes consciously within a cultural context, Leonard responds:
I feel like in terms of what I’m trying to do, maybe it’s not a question of communicating something but instead to assess what the value of that communication is. A lot of the songs on Western Culture are to do with this difficult paradox within art-making in the context of general communication and articulation. On the one hand, writing something in response to an event is — from most pragmatic points of view — a waste of time, and I think you see this in a lot of post-Trump art: a lot of it’s really bad, pointless and coming from an arrogant place. Being anti-Trump is the easiest thing in the world; organising against him is difficult but writing against him is a complete performance. One of the things ‘Exactitude in Science’ is about is that these kind of verbal responses are almost doomed to fail because they lack a physical activity in the world, yet at the same time it’s impossible to deny that the way these things are framed within language both changes the way that we interact within reality and also changes the way that that reality happens.
Art, then, has the power to structure reality. We can’t escape ideology, we can’t write from some ideal non-partisan position, we can’t deny that every little event in culture is contributing to the way politics, identity and such abstractions as space or time are framed. We can’t dismiss the complex identity politics of a pop song with ‘Oh it’s just a song, it doesn’t mean anything’. Even as this process becomes increasingly diffused with the internet, the album is a form that, like the lyric poem, bears a cultural weight. People still talk about albums on the radio; Leonard admits most of his gig-going audience is probably owed to coverage from BBC 6 Music. This isn’t an admission of hubris around the importance of music, but a humble statement about a cultural artifact and its wider dissemination. And hopefully a statement of hope. Albums express things, they are containers of multiple points of view, they provide escape from reality while changing the way we experience reality. They are points of contact, contrast, friction. Leonard elaborates:
The central thing in ‘Exactitude in Science’ is a talk I went to given by an international human rights lawyer, which leads him into work around Israel and Palestine. Inevitably when he’s invited to talk about these things, he’s saying he’s doing all these things but he’s mostly failing, admitting that we’re not getting further with this. If there are active attempts to amend oppressive activities, what’s the point of verbal responses? It shows an interesting juxtaposition between framing the world through language and how that impacts on the world, especially with that incredibly complex and sad issue, which is totally a question about how we verbalise what genocide is. And the difference between that has an impact on the extent to which that genocide is perpetuated. So yeah, especially if we’re dealing with any of the big-2016 nonsense — it’s about thinking through when I’m speaking in the world, speaking against a thing, what world am I looking at, what world am I creating when I say these things, and what worlds are other people creating.
It strikes me that this is more succinctly and eloquently put than many of the academic perspectives I’ve come into contact with during my five years of higher arts education. Stepping back from who might be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a complex, entangled, deeply historical issue, we should ask ourselves what we are doing when we comment on something we might be involved in, or otherwise ‘simply observing’. What world do our opinions and comments contribute to? It resonates with so much about what we do when we make art of any kind, when we express anything in this cultural sphere or that. This admission of the gravitas of the speech act; awareness that what I am saying has impact, accumulates within a wider discourse, ripples across the water, does something.
I was curious to find out if Leonard had much experience with a sense of cultural commons within the music industry. While his first two LPs were recorded at his parents’ house (Leonard grew up in a ‘really old farm, so the neighbours were never really an issue’), after label Hand of Glory picked that work up he had the opportunity to participate more in the Manchester scene, on a somewhat tangential basis. Leonard is clearly comfortable with making music on his own, and while he admits most of his attempts to form bands ‘never really worked out’, it’s clear he gels well with the musicians that play with him on this tour. What’s more interesting, however, in his response to this question, is a point he makes about representation in arts communities:
Music is often less receptive than other art communities to think about the contextual importance of their scene and representation within their scene. In Manchester there was quite a big debate around a venue which had an all-dude bill on a night, and when someone called them out and started a boycott it was surprising how that concept developed — the gig was eventually pulled and replaced with an open panel discussion on the day. I often feel like in art communities, because it’s grounded in theory from the get-go, people get it.
It will be interesting to see how this progresses in the next few years, whether the music industry will continue to take representation seriously and how this plays out in terms of the politics of promotion and access around diverse identities. Does DIY and self-release culture present a formidable challenge to the mainstream, whose macho Gallagher avatars still haunt the walls of many a Manchester pub?
Aside from this nuanced, socially responsible approach to music and lyric expression, we also talk about bands who do provocation in more direct ways. Specifically, our shared love of Death Grips. Leonard mentions a quote from Mark Fisher’s K-Punk about how Kurt Cobain is a symbolic embodiment of ‘the person who’s completely exasperated by the thing in culture where the best thing to play on MTV is a thing that’s against MTV’. If consumer capitalism subsumes all postmodern attempts at irony and critique, maybe we need something that’s ‘reactionary in the right way’, rather than simply ‘hostile and alienating’, as Leonard puts it. As an all-male band making noise rock, it’s important, he admits, to be aware of what the ‘imperative’ is here. For Leonard, Death Grips seem to get this spot on. He refers to their work as ‘genuinely funny and provocative, the real deal’: ‘they manage to make something on paper that could be incredibly macho and annoying, but I kinda like the character of MC Ride – I like his words, he’s a vulnerable figure in his lyrics, incredibly intelligent’. Not to mention the fact of the band crossing the line of business, and deliberately getting dropped from their label.
Maybe what we need in a time of crisis and fragmentation is a turn to something maximalist or long-form, sensorially and intellectually challenging, or (with regards to mainstream culture) simply ‘imperfect’ in some sense. Leonard agrees that there’s probably
a hunger for people to see a process where you work stuff out. I think art’s very prone to answering, because a lot of artists are very arrogant and think they have the answers, to say it in a plateau kinda way. But I think that’s really important — going back to what we were saying at the beginning of this conversation — to be against atrocity and fascism in a verbal way is easy, but it’s often more helpful, especially with something like the Brexit vote, to properly engage with the reasons for that, to take in the history. The way we think about the European vote is riddled with amnesia; I find it funny that nobody talks about the miners’ strike around this issue.
We’re almost out of time, and there’s still so much to unpack here. Kiran Leonard is someone you could share many a pint with and learn a lot from, but I’m also content listening to him as we sip water in the venue basement, the ethereal sounds of Ubaldo’s soundcheck leaking from upstairs. I ask him what’s next, now that he’s got his degree and some solid album reviews under his belt. I’m especially interested in whether he’s considered working with poetry or translation. Leonard tells me he’s ‘hoping to put a pamphlet out next which year which is a load of very short essays which are tangentially relevant to songs on this last record’ and also an exciting new double-CD release, which promises one side of ‘long abstract’, ‘kinda My Bloody Valentine but more through-composed’ songs and the other ‘more sparse acoustic songs’. ‘Something that’s got more space in it’. It’s only been about forty minutes and already I feel a lot of my worldly cynicism dissipate. There is still so much to be said for the world, and I want to hear it.
[An essay on anorexia, femininity, adolescent pain & writing the body]
I distinctly remember the first time I watched someone apply liquid liner to their eyes. We stood in the Debenhams toilets before a sheet of unavoidable mirror. She emptied her rucksack of trinkets and tools, drew out a plastic wand with a fine-tip brush and skimmed the gooey ink skilfully over her lids, making curlicues of shimmering turquoise. Her irises were a kind of violent hazel, whose flecks of green seemed to swim against the paler blue. She was very tall and for a while, very thin. She had a nickname, a boyfriend and sometimes she shoplifted; in my head, she was the essence of teenage success. Only later, in the maelstrom of a drunken night out down the beach, do I discover she’s heavily bulimic.
A year or so passes since this first incident, watching my friend slick her eyes with electric blue. I have since learned to ink my own eyes, draw long Egyptian lines that imitate that slender almond shape I long for. My makeup is cheap and smudges. I have grown thinner and people are finally starting to notice.
My mother goes quiet when we do the shopping. She tells me to move out the aisle and I ask what’s wrong. People are staring, she says. I turn around and there they are by the stacks of cereal, mother and daughter, gesturing at my legs and whispering: stick insect, skeleton. A feel a flush of hot pride, akin to the day in primary school when I got everyone to sign my arms with permanent marker—this sudden etching of possession. I am glad I lack this conspiratorial relationship with my own mother, reserving comments on others for the page instead, for my skin. My pain and frustration are communicated bodily: I slink into the shadows, sleeping early, avoiding meals. When people stare, they imbue me with a visibility I desire to erase. I should like better to float around them intangibly, diaphanous, a veil of a name they can’t catch. Instead it rests on everyone’s tongue, thick and severe: anorexic.
It took a week for all the names to fade from my arms; it takes much longer to erase a single label.
In the television series Girls, Lena Dunham’s character reveals that she got tattoos as a teenager because she was putting on weight very quickly and wanted to feel in control of her own body, making fairytale scripture of her skin. In Roald Dahl’s short story, ‘Skin’, an old man gets a famous artist to tattoo the image of a gorgeous woman on his back, the rich pigment of ink like a lustrous ‘impasto’. Years later, art dealers discover his fleshly opus and proceed to barter, literally, on the price of his skin. The story reveals the synecdochical relations between the body, the pen and the value of art. Everything is a piece of something else, skin after skin after skin. In Skins, Cassie Ainsworth gazes into the camera: I hate my thighs. With black marker, she scrawls her name onto her palm; she’s got a smile that lights up, she’s in love. Everyone around her rolls cigarettes, swaps paper skins like scraps of poetry. It feels dirty, the chiaroscuro mood of sunshine and sorrow. Her whole narrative purpose is the spilling of secrets, of human hurt turned to vapour, smoke. Wow, lovely.
For a while, my name mattered less than my skin. There were levels of weight to lose, dress sizes which signified different planes of existence. Over and over, I would listen to ‘4 st. 7lbs’ by the Manic Street Preachers, Richey Edwards’ lyrics spat over a stomach-churning angst of guitar: ‘Self-worth scatters self-esteem’s a bore / I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau’. That summer, ten years ago now, I would walk for hours, the sun on my skin. All the fields stretched out before me like fresh pages of impossibility; my life was a mirage on the flickering sea. I thought of liquid turquoise ink, the friend in the mirror. I started to forget the details of her face, so she blurred into the impressionist portraits I wrote about in school.
Midsummer’s eve; I laid down in one of those fields. With bone-raw fingers, I counted the notches of my spine. Even in free-fall you never feel quite free.
I was obsessed with Richey’s ghost. He disappeared decades ago and they never found evidence of his body. I wanted to evaporate like that, leave my abstracted car somewhere along the motorway; step into the silence of anonymity. Richey wrote screeds of furious notes: ‘I feel like cutting the feet off a ballerina’. There it was: the dark evaporation of resentment and envy. Around this time, Bloc Party released A Weekend in the City, a record that uses Edwards’ lyric to express the racial frustration of being made Other by a racist society. I was acutely aware that the figure of a ballerina, the doll-like white girl, was a divisive source of symbolic desire. We inscribe such societal alignments on the female body, and shamefully I was more than ready to fall into place, to shed the necessary weight. But what I wanted was less the bloody violence of a crippled ballerina, and more the success of erasure.
In Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz,the protagonist Alabama trains to be a ballerina late in her twenties, too late to ascend to any real career success. Here was ballet, the pre-adolescent world of waif-thin bodies and she was a mother, a woman—someone who once gave birth, who was strong in flesh. She reaches this frenzied state of beautiful prudence, honing her body to the point where every movement and thought is guided by the waltzing beat, the perfect arabesque: ‘David will bring me some chocolate ice cream and I will throw it up; it smells like a soda fountain, thrown-up, she thought’. I could attest to that. Ben and Jerry’s, swirls of it marbling the toilet bowl, clots of sweetness still clear in your throat. Fitzgerald’s sentences stream towards endless flourish. Alabama makes herself sick with the work, her desire is lustily bulimic. She gets blood poisoning, finds herself hospitalised with tubes in her body, drip-fed and cleansed by the system. I thought of how I wanted to photosynthesise, survive on nothing but air and light. Like a dancer, I was honing my new ascetic life.
Sometimes at night, the old ticker would slow to such a crawl and I thought it would stop in my sleep, sink like a stone. A girl I met on the internet sent me a red-beaded bracelet in the post and in class I’d twirl each plastic, pro-ana ruby, imagining the twist of my own bright sinew as later I’d stretch and click my bones.
I was small, I was sick. I used to write before bed, write a whole sermon’s worth of weight-loss imperatives; often I’d fall asleep mid-sentence and awake to a pool of dark ink, flowering its stain across my sheets. Nausea, of one sort or another, was more or less constant. Waves would dash against my brain, black spots clotting my vision. I moved from one plane or scale to another, reaching for another diuretic. I tried to keep within the lines, keep everything in shape.
Often, however, I thought about water, about things spilling; I drank so much and yet found myself endlessly thirsty. Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, trying to drown, being spat back out by the sea: I am I am I am.
I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine. The familiar litany.
Something buoyed up, started showing on the surface. People could read the wrongness in the colour of my skin, all that mottled and purpling blood like a contrast dye my body had been dipped in. Against my pallid aquatic hue, I used to envy the warm and luxurious glow of other people’s skin. I sat on a friend’s lap and he freaked out at the jut of my bones. Someone lifted me and we ran down the road laughing and they were like, My god you’re so light. The sycamores were out in full bloom and I realised with a pang it would nearly be autumn. Vaguely I knew soon I would fall like all those leaves.
Anorexia is an austerity of the self. To fast is to practice a refusal, to resist the ideological urge to consume. To swap wasteful packs of pads and tampons for flakeaway skin and hypoglycaemic dreams. Unlike with capitalism, with anorexia you know where everything goes.
The anorexic is constantly calculating. Her day is a series of trades and exchanges: X amount of exercise for X amount of food; how much dinner should I spread around the plate in lieu of eating? It was never enough; nothing ever quite added up. My space-time melted into a continuous present in which I constantly longed for sleep. The past and future had no bearing on me; my increasingly androgynous body wasn’t defined by the usual feminine cycles—life was just existing. This is one of the trickiest things to fix in recovery.
Dark ecologist Timothy Morton says of longing: it’s ‘like depression that melted […] the boundary between sadness and longing is undecidable. Dark and sweet, like good chocolate’. Longing is spiritual and physical; it’s a certain surrender to the beyond, even as it opens strange cavities in the daily. The anorexic’s default existential condition is longing: a condition that is paradoxically indulgent. Longing to be thin, longing for self, dying for both. The world blurs before her eyes, objects take on that auratic sheen of desire. Later, putting myself through meal plans that involved slabs of Green & Black’s, full-fat milk and actual carbs, the dark sweet ooze of depression’s embrace gradually replaced my disordered eating. I wondered if melancholia was something you could prise off, like a skin; I saw its mise-en-abyme in every mirror, a curious, cruel infinitude.
In Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus asks: ‘shouldn’t it be possible to leave the body? Is it wrong to even try?’. What do you do when food is abstracted entirely from appetite? What happens when life becomes a question of pouring yourself, gloop by gloop, into other forms? What is lost in the process?
I started a diary. I wrote with a rich black Indian ink I bought from an art supplies store. The woman at the counter ID’d me, saying she’d recently had teenagers come in to buy the stuff for home tattooing, then tried to blame her later when they all got blood poisoning. Different kinds of ink polluted our blood; I felt an odd solidarity with those kids, remembering the words others had scored on my skin for years. Tattooing yourself, perhaps, was a way of taking those names back. In any case, there was a sense that the ink was like oil, a reserve of energy I was drawing from the deep.
Recovery was trying to breathe underwater; resisting the urge of the quickening tide, striving for an island I couldn’t yet see.
(…What I miss most, maybe, is the driftwood intricacy, the beauty of the sternum in its gaunt, tripart sculpturing. Thinned to the bone, the body becomes elegiac somehow, an artefact of ebbing beauty…)
I think about beef and milk and I think about the bodies of cows and the way the light drips gold on their fields sometimes and how I’d like to curl up in some mossy grove and forget that all of this is happening. Sometimes I worry that my body is capable of making milk, making babies; its design is set up for this nourishing. Hélène Cixous insists women write ‘in white ink’ but I don’t want to be that plump and ripe, that giving. I want scarification, darkness, markings. I want Julia Kristeva’s black sun, an abyss that negates the smudge of identity.
I try to find loveliness in femininity, but my hands are full with hair barrettes, pencils, laxatives, lipstick—just so much material.
As Isabelle Meuret puts it, ‘starving in a world of plenty is a daring challenge’. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Recently, I logged onto my Facebook to find an old friend, a girl I’d known vaguely through an online recovery community, had died in hospital. Her heart just gave up in the night. People left consolatory messages on her wall; she was being written already into another existence. Another girl I used to know posts regular photos from her inpatient treatment. She’s very pretty but paper-thin, almost transparent in the flash of a camera. Tubes up her nose like she’s woven into the fabric of the institution, a flower with its sepals fading, drip-fed through stems that aren’t her own. She’s supposed to be at university. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald, of broken ballerinas. A third girl from the recovery forum covers herself in tattoos, challenging you to unlock the myriad stories of symbol. Someone I know in real life gets an orca tattoo in memory of her sea-loving grandfather; she says it helped to externalise the pain. My own body is a pool of inky potential; I cannot fathom its beginning and ending. I wish I could distil my experience into stamps of narrative, the way the tattoo-lovers did. I am always drawing on my face, only to wash the traces away. I must strive for something more permanent.
Recovery, Marya Hornbacher writes in her memoir Wasted,
comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up and there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect.
And yet you are all that you have, so you must be enough. There is no other way.
Every meal, every morsel that passes the lips, we tell ourselves: You are okay. You deserve this. Must everything be so earned? Still there is this girl underneath: the one that screams for her meagre dreams, her beautiful form; her starlight and skeletons, her sticks of celery. I try to bury her behind sheet after sheet of glass, lose her in shopfronts, the windows of cars and bathrooms; I daily crush out the bloat of her starched hyperbole, keeping the lines plain and simple. Watching others around me, I try to work out other ways of feeling full, of being free. There is an entry from 2009, scratched in a hand I barely recognise in the final page of a diary: ‘Maybe we are only the sum total of all our reflections’. I wonder what kind of sixteen-year-old wrote this, whether she is happy now and if that matters at all.
Disclaimer: my middle name is Rose. This means nothing, as far as I’m aware. I have never received roses for Valentines (as far as I’m aware). What follows comprises an essay on what a rose is a song is a word is a rose(?), feat. the likes of Gertrude Stein, Idlewild, Oscar Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, the French Symbolists and Lana Del Rey…
Despite having two degrees in literary studies, a lot of my more convincing intellectual references were first encountered through music, not books. The Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible album introduced me to Foucault, Plath, Ballard, Nietzsche, Mailer and Pinter in one fell, aggressive swoop of a Richey Edwards lyric barked over the guttural shudder of Nicky Wire’s bass-lines. Gertrude Stein, the awkward goddess of modernism, first came to me via an Idlewild song—deep in some distant vestige of the noughties, when I still bought CDs. She’s mentioned in ‘Roseability’, the last single to be taken from the band’s 2000 breakthrough, 100 Broken Windows. It’s a typically angsty track, reflecting on the futility of being dissatisfied with the present and finding pathetic solace in the past: “stop looking through scrapbooks and photograph albums / because I know they won’t teach you what you don’t already know”. Say it and already you know, right? ‘Roseability’, like ‘Idlewild’, is a compound word, a mashing of nouns that seems to promise deep meaning as its very premise. But where is it pointing us? What of Stein and what of her roses?
Stein’s famous quote on roses, ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’, seems to do two things. Firstly, it indicates an essentialist perspective on semantics—circularity conveying the uselessness of further description. Secondly, it enacts a qualitative echo chamber by which the reader must question what constitutes this essence, this roseness which is the rose’s identity. The repetition suggests the elusiveness of this essence, deferring with dreamy assertion—the kind of beautiful aphorism you might coin on an acid trip, completely sure of your own new logic. There’s a sense, with every ‘rose’, of meaning’s possibility blooming. You want to wrap the sentence in a circle (as Stein did, selling the phrase on plates) and close a precious loop, devoid of full stops and fixed meanings. Is a rose a rose or the space between a rose and what a rose is? Swap Saussurian triangles for sweet hips and sepals, a new rose budding in the roots. Lose all fixity for the chance trellising of structure, turn attention to sunlight, rainfall, temperature and other environmental conditions. Acquire tautologies and promise of spring. A rose is a whorl, a loop; a delicate head so heady with beauty. Humans like roses share beds sometimes. Look too long into the corolla and maybe you’ll lose your mind.
Idlewild: the secluded meeting place in L. M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables Idlewild: the original name of John F. Kennedy International Airport in NYC Idlewild: to idle wildly; to wildly idle; to idly go wilding.
“You’ll always be, dissatisfied.” Perhaps the mere act of flicking through memories is a form of idle wilding. Making a wilderness of memory’s stasis. Depart only at airports; dwell between continental impressions of kisses.
100 Broken Windows marks a turn in Idlewild’s direction: from their 1990s brit-pop/punk roots to a more spacious, ambitious sound, influenced by the likes of The Smiths, The Wedding Present and R.E.M. When I first started listening to Idlewild, 12 or more years ago in those tender, pre-adolescent times, I sort of filed them as the Scottish version of Ash: they had that punk sensibility coloured by stadium choruses and a cheeky pop strain that balanced the anxious lamenting aspects. All sincerity, sure, but the lyrics were sharp enough to lift them from the sentimental pitfalls of subsequent contemporaries—the end of alt. history that was ‘Hey There Delilah’. Here we move into screaming emo or post-hardcore as inherent hauntology of the fuzzy rock club: the bourbon and sweat, the greasy hair, the frank, shuffling indifference of stoner punters. There were words that smouldered, sparked, then extinguished in the wind; but Idlewild had something different, a primitive attunement to human sorrow that cut through the gum-snapping cool of postmodern irony games, even as its affect blew up in a drumbeat or solo, the loquacious, Michael Stipe angst of Roddy Woomble’s voice. Think sonorous violins and a solid rock chorus, all the energy and wit being typically Scottish. Like the Manics before them, Idlewild did punk and guitar pop, did the stylised mosh and generic fusion, did the political and personal. The millennial malaise in their songs was very much of the times even as it seemed already tired of them:
It’s a better way to feel When you’re not real, you’re postmodern (It’s not that one dimensional, it’s not the only thought)
Cut out all feeling, except wait. There’s more. We don’t have to languish in the paralysing grunge of the nineties. The drama of strings would grace each melody electric and maybe you’ll find historic truth in this plugged-in homage to folk turned on its head. If postmodernism is a Mobius strip of self-referentiality, that recursive collapse of linear progress (figured as a Scalextric set in the video for Idlewild’s ‘These Wooden Ideas’), then how to find meaning again, to find sense at all? Stand in a doorway and find yourself blasted with void fill, flick grapes in a wastebasket, count up your demons for the old stoned longing. Shrivel like raisins. The turn of the century has already happened, but maybe if you surrender to the chorus you’ll feel less jaded. There’s a reassurance. The thing about choruses, after all, is that they repeat.
As it does with choruses, algorithms and perennial blooms, repetition happens a lot in Tender Buttons,Stein’s infamously cluttered collection of prose poetics. With repetition and modulation, a queering of standard grammar, everyday objects become less the tools which underpin human existence, and instead things in themselves—the wasteful artefacts in excess of definition. Paratactical, concatenating assemblages which entangle like vines or else accumulate. Grapes on the carpet, styrofoam littering the floor, a word or two oozing through the backdoor…Am I far too close to the things I mistrust? Maybe there is always a stammering, a stilted stilling. I buy roses for the restaurant in which I work and the very act drags me into heteronormative time: the time of expensive dates, birthdays, weddings, funerals, candlelit dinners. What preference for the deep, luxurious, elusive bloom? Must lovers cut their tongues on thorns? I wonder, do those erect stems contribute their strange teleology…to what, to what…are roses always in excess of themselves—showering petals, shedding, being ever so much just roses?
“I stopped and waited for progress”. Back in the day (2005), the NME rated Idlewild ‘a stolid group of trad guitar manglers’, whose new single ‘Roseability’ served ‘both as a rabbit-punch to the head of agnostics and a celebratory three-and-a-half minutes of safe, predictable, wholly generic, utterly brilliant rock ‘n’ roll.’ It makes me dewy-eyed to remember the magazine’s honest, scathing days. That insouciant, throwaway cool. Music criticism was pretty brutal when I grew up, and you basically had to tick every indie rock’n’roll formula (hello Alex Turner: snake-hips, haircut etc) to get consistently decent reviews. Or you could nail the attention on some eccentricity (The Horrors), or perhaps mediocre throwback to rock’n’roll times gone by (need I name every white boy indie suspect circa 2007). ‘Roseability’ is how it feels to be in your twenties, surrounded by people looking backwards; not quite in anger, but in nostalgia. It’s been a long time since I’ve considered something new as ‘utterly brilliant rock ’n’ roll’ in the transcendent sort of way Idlewild pull off—hardcore guitars, thrashing drums, literary references and all. Sweetness and thorns. Uneasy noise secretion. Tip your hat at tradition and then blast through the chorus, scatter your petals to cover the seams. What words in ‘Sacred Emily’ follow the roses? ‘Loveliness extreme’. I miss the NME, I miss being young enough to get lost this easily.
To veer into Idlewild itself, let’s wallow in passages from Anne of Green Gables:
You know that little piece of land across the brook that runs up between our farm and Mr. Barry’s. It belongs to Mr. William Bell, and right in the corner there is a little ring of white birch trees–the most romantic spot, Marilla. Diana and I have our playhouse there. We call it Idlewild. Isn’t that a poetical name? I assure you it took me some time to think it out. I stayed awake nearly a whole night before I invented it. Then, just as I was dropping off to sleep, it came like an inspiration. Diana was enraptured when she heard it. We have got our house fixed up elegantly. You must come and see it, Marilla–won’t you? We have great big stones, all covered with moss, for seats, and boards from tree to tree for shelves. And we have all our dishes on them. Of course, they’re all broken but it’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine that they are whole.
That endearing, childish hyperbole, the absolute thrill of invention. The special grove in a ring of white birch trees, heart of the circle, the rose’s secret pistil. Place of germination. Fragments congeal as expansive imaginings, disappointment evaporates in hope.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough”. I’m not quite sure how Roddy Woomble, Idlewild’s lead singer, intended the Stein namedrop, but I take it as a reference to her poems’ weird loops of recursion. In the video for ‘Roseability’, Stein’s portraits are hung up all over the room; her face is even on the front of the kick drum, looking all knowing and stately. The video’s aesthetic has the feel of a 90s television set, all pop art circles whose colour has faded, sharp swivelling camera angles and hair swishes. The pop iconography of teenagers flooding the room with their plastic bracelets, braided hair and awkward moshing. It would be totally American if not painfully, most Britishly sincere—I mean just look at how the guitarist crushes into his own instrument, how Woomble wipes sweat off his face, paces around with the mic so close it could feel his breath. Loveliness extreme. When this was released, I wasn’t even a teenager. When I finally see him live, it’s in a church hall in Maryhill 2k17 and it’s utterly beautiful: how generous the set-list, how gracious a frontman with his small-talk and nods to the band, his thank yous. Watching the kids in the ‘Roseability’ video recreates that weird oscillation between feeling old and seeing in their faces the bizarreness of MTV ennui: the ghost of what I would temporarily become at thirteen, fourteen; cladding myself in discount Tammy girl, then Topshop, dying my hair pink and donning studded collars. With the hormones, you lose that ecstatic childhood imaginary hope; desire is amorphous and endlessly droning. You close your eyes and it seems the world has already ended. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes not. Maybe roseability simply means innocence.
‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’ (Woolf). But customers rarely do. It’s up to me to ornament a room, to flourish a mood, to mark some milestone in another life that’s not mine, whose linearity’s not mine.
My mother bought rose-coloured roses for my eighteenth birthday, blush pink. Red when I turned twenty-one. I stopped acting sweet and rosy, dyed my hair red too. Fell through the whorls, the plush abyss.
‘Roseability’: the ability to be of roses, for roses to exist? Sensibility is, according to my laptop’s built-in dictionary, ‘the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity’. Does roseability denote a similar sensitivity? When we think of roses we think often of Englishness: that angelic Laura Marling figure, a garlanded Bronte heroin, Paul Weller’s ‘English Rose’. We think tenderness, pastoral, a certain enclosure (marriage, gardens?) and guaranteed loveliness. She who coils golden hair round her porcelain finger, who knows how to talk to sheepdogs, who paints watercolours of the dawn. We think Shakespeare—‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’. But we also think north of the border, a little bit of the visceral made kitsch: Robert Burns’ ‘my love is like a red, red rose’, whose unfortunate fate is to garnish every dishtowel bought on your granny’s last visit to Alloway (Roddy Woomble, perhaps not incidentally, is also an Ayrshire lad). The faint rose scent in a golden cologne, mingled with tobacco; the glistering sweetness of a youthful, drugstore perfume. Roses are roses, but roses are so many things, are poised on the lips of also…
The rose is a complex flower, a perennial whose species number over 100. Roses are typically ornamental, grown by those who know what cultivation means and spend their Septembers clipping away the thorny remains. An old man round the corner from my flat is out in all weathers among soil and stem: grafting, trimming, tilling for his roses. Perhaps he loves them more than his children. In summer, walking home on warm evenings you can smell them in the pale ambrosial air, a delicate bounty. If properly cared for, roses can live a long time, perhaps over and over, perhaps forever…what exactly does perennial mean?
The appropriately named Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, stands on Cumberland Street and opens a letter from Martha Clifford—a woman who responded to his newspaper ad requesting a typist. The Dublin postal system facilitates a sort of illicit exchange between them. Half-rhyme, consonance: petal/letter. The delicate thrill of letterly infidelity. She wants to know ‘what kind of perfume does your wife use’; the animal possession of scent. She attaches to her letter a flower, slightly crushed:
He tore the flower gravely from its pinhold smelt its almost no smell and placed it in his heart pocket. […] walking slowly forward he read the letter again, murmuring here and there a word. Angry tulips with you darling manflower punish your cactus if you don’t please poor forgetmenot how I long violets to dear roses when we soon anemone meet all naughty nightstalk wife Martha’s perfume. […] Fingering still the letter in his pocket he drew the pin out of it. […] Out of her clothes somewhere: pinned together. Queer the number of pins they always have. No roses without thorns.
So many compound words, clustering in the mouth like so many attaché petals peeled off from a dress. He plucks them away, fingers the soft excitement of words: ‘naughty nightstalk wife’ with the luridly alliterative twist of fantasy. Libido vs. loss of life. What slips away with the pin? What does the pin pin together? Folds and creases, sleepless. Spike of cactus, nasty, phallic. Prick. Tulip. Coiled anemone: wild flower or tentacular sea creature? Connotations of slip. In her slip. Slippery. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, waxing lyrical about female genitalia:
I thought of what seemed to me a venturesome explanation of the hidden meaning of the apparently quite asexual word violets by an unconscious relation to the French viol. But to my surprise the dreamer’s association was the English word violate. The accidental phonetic similarity of the two words violet and violate is utilised by the dream to express in ‘the language of flowers’ the idea of the violence of defloration (another word which makes use of flowersymbolism), and perhaps also to give expression to a masochistic tendency on the part of the girl. — An excellent example of the word bridges across which run the paths to the unconscious.
Dear roses dear romance; violets are pale taste of childhood’s sweet naivety. Violets are blue and so are you. Things you can take away. Lines of flight, tangled stems and botanical echoes. Semantics. Lingering taste. The burgeoning rhizomes of the greedy unconscious. Lana Del Rey: “there are roses in between my thighs / and a fire that surrounds you”. The Metro calls it a ‘shocking new track’, but I’ve never heard anything so languid and dreamy and in love. Hungry. Sugar is sweet and…
Angela Carter’s roses bite, don’t you? In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, the self-starving somnambulist—the ‘beautiful queen of the vampires’—is a figure for desire’s recursive, self-destructive appetite. Manifest as addiction, or withdrawal; the flesh-shedding lust of anorexia, its resistance to growth and fuel. ‘She herself is a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit’. Her dialogue billows round and round into absence. Like Stein’s rose, she is bound to the noun and the grammar of herself—the flickering inward structures of mind, matter.The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. Clustering rootlets, trapped yearnings for impossible perfection. No rose can be the perfect rose; except perhaps Stein’s rose: the virtual rose at the end of the looping rainbow. Loopy, lupin, lupine, luminal. Devouring, emanating, alluring. The virtual rose, perfect by its very impossibility, like Mallarmé’s Book. So many leaves and words. The stain of ink and rain, imprinted teeth. Carter again: ‘I leave you as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave’. Those intoxicating roses, like Carter’s baroque, coruscating prose, cascade across the page, the white snow, the grave. La petit mort. In every petal the promise of a word, a breath.
Roseability. Faith in the unknowingness that is adulthood’s full blooming. Desire’s maturity bound in nostalgia, that noxious plague of your twenties; the ‘sense sublime’ of Wordsworth, five years later, experiencing ‘something far more deeply interfused’. Like the rose’s corolla, time rolls both round and onwards. It’s nauseating, an almost vortex. You’re always chasing that inward spirit, the thing that burns regardless: “They won’t teach you / what you don’t already know”—don’t Idlewild know it?
“There is no roseability.” Enduring, complicated, hungry and sweet, it’s no surprise that roses are symbols for romantic love. Oh hallowed, protected cliché. Expensive hotels strew red roses on white bedsheets, a look that is oddly funereal. Share the ephemeral with melting chocolates. Reminiscent of menses, the blot of a clot in time. He got shot. She bled freely. Blood is like iron, a sharp metallic taste. What do roses taste of? What kinds of symbolic immersion might get at the essence? A bathtub of roses, a bedspread, a bouquet exploding for wedding celebration. Petals of confetti; a blossoming, artificial effect. White roses can be purity, lightness and marriage; or maybe undying love in death, restoration of innocence. I love you as the snowfall that closes Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. Sitting on the languid banks of a river in June, desecrating a rose with your sorrow: one petal, he likes me, two petals, he likes me not. Enough petals to fill a river, all the world’s worth of unrequited love. Red upon red upon blue. Flowing, felt in the blood. But no river is ever twice the same, no rose identical, no inflorescence—despite the algorithmic genius of plants—symmetrical. The beauty of roses comprises their subtly unique detail. ‘Lesser’ flowers, mere ornaments to weeds, clutter up close in mutual similarity. Maybe’s Gatsby’s Daisy could be anybody—she just had to be sweet and blonde, smelling of the damp rich old world, ersatz fresh, ready to decorate. The colourful shirts were mere petals for the true dark rose of his longing. Did Gatsby have blue eyes? I can’t remember.
I did a hard-drive search for the phrase ‘blue rose’ and found an old flash fiction piece I wrote years ago, called ‘Watercolours’. An extract:
The garden fills with new light; conscious light, collecting a clarity not quite recognised. The roses have left their earthly bodies, and the worms burrow up through the untilled soil. The roses’ spirits lift the leaves from the trees and scatter them like sloughing flakes of a giant’s skin. A sigh escapes the sultry violets, the ones he captured once by mixing blue and red. The red poppy is a pretty thing, but she is unborn yet. A mulch of memory overturns as day decides to end.
Isn’t it strange, the seduction of fairy tale ecomimesis? Nature’s ekphrasis surrendering effortlessly to the same saccharine motifs; the kitsch aesthetic containing within its insistence a certain artifice, then the theatrical mists of deliberate illusion. I think of watercolours and I think of everything blurring. Colours decay in the rain, or do they saturate? And again, the roses and violets, whores and madonnas? What of the feminising of botany’s blushing ornaments, ‘captured’ by a (male) artistic vision? But time is ever more flowing, desire afloat, liquid and trembling as rain. What would it mean to anthropomorphise roses, to imbue them with certain abilities? Roseability. These would be the most precious roses, the memorialising and future-making symbols. The blue ones.
I also found a piece from 2013 titled ‘Blue Roses’ It’s about a botanical garden famous for its sky-coloured flowers. The narrator’s lover, Richard, laments the death of his mother and talks about what it would be like to be a carnivore plant. The narrator says: ‘“Those long, slow deaths would suck out your soul.”’ Was I reading Carter at the time? Nature (always capitalise to denaturalise) in this story is narcissistic, strange, devouring: stars are ‘aware of themselves’, the twilight forms deliberate ‘geometric patterns’, the rain ‘spilled out in oozing puddles that clogged the scum of the pavement’. Security patrol the blue roses in the glasshouses. It isn’t entirely clear what they mean in the story. Symbols for what? Eliding natural selection, these monstrous flowers blur into nothing but blueness—the exotic quantity, intangible mystery, possible infinitude. Despite the wholesomeness of the tale, I couldn’t help but think of the weird erotic undertones of its spooky botany. Blue rose, blue movie.
So yes, the very phrase ‘blue rose’ denotes something exceptional in Nature (in Twin Peaks, a ‘blue rose’ case is one which involves supernatural elements). In Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, Laura (a character based on Williams’ mentally ill sister, the aptly named Rose) is nicknamed ‘Blue Roses’ on account of her fragility, her spiritual affinity with that which transcends the ordinary (and a childhoood attack of pleurosis). Laura dwells in a surreal version of reality; her very nickname harks back to André Breton’s ‘First Surrealist Manifesto’: ‘Cet été les roses sont bleues’ (this summer the roses are blue). Things have reversed and in their delirium remain quite beautiful. Roses, blue or not, are associated with a certain precious wavering between worlds both spiritual and physical; worlds crossed only by rare occurrences of romance, imagination, memory. He loves me, he loves me not…Laura is obsessed with a little glass unicorn, symbol of mythology, virginity. Preservations of the body for another world, or from another world? I go into the woods and find fairy rings made from small white flowers (I think of the inverse fable of extreme depression, the harp-sparkling Manics’ track, ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’). While there is a lovely joy to the common daisy or meadow flower—an ethereal quality that recalls our initiating buttercup crushes—the deep lust of Romance must be associated with the scarlet plumage of the rose. Love is calculated on decadence, exception.
Is a rose as shatterable as glass, as a heart?
I used to live in a house called ‘Daisybank’, but my friends always teased because there were roses painted onto the window, not daisies. What weird reverse supplement? The fat white dog daisies would spring up on the front lawn in summer, but they were always overlooked by those glassy roses. There’s a certain authority, majesty even, to the rose. You associate it with tragedy and great beauty: Lana Del Rey with her lips stuffed full with a rose, playing the calamitous heroine. Snow-White and Rose-Red. Shakespeare’s ‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’ is taken from Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet convinces Romeo that it matters not that his name, Montague, is her family’s rival house. A rose is a rose; regardless of name it will always come up smelling of roses. Having graduated from Daisybank, I now find myself living on Montague Street…
‘Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?’ This is W. B. Yeats, probably writing to a woman he loved, Maud Gonne. He seems to set up beauty as life’s eternal opposite; where human existence is fleeting, beauty remains archetypal, enduring. Think of Keats’ ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’. There’s a universality, a mythological underpinning to this beauty. In Yeats’ poem, the loved one embodies wistful figures of glory: Helen of Troy and Usna of ancient Irish history. Surely she slips between the shadows of comparison? Whether Yeats scorns the idea that beauty ‘passes like a dream’, or whether he ultimately reveals its truth, is unclear.
For Immanuel Kant (see, Critique of Judgement), the experience of beauty hinges on a paradox: since it seems that beauty is a property of the object—indeed, emanates from it—you’d think beauty itself was universal. Everyone should fall in love with that painting, that colour, that song. But not everyone does find the same things beautiful. It feels like a betrayal of reality when I play Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’ (where roses are swapped for “lollipops and crisps”) to a friend and their reaction is a casual ‘meh’ and a shrug, while all sorts of biochemical reactions of wonder and euphoria are swirling around inside me. Beauty, for Kant, is largely nonconceptual: that is, there’s an unspeakable quality to it, a thing you can’t put your finger on. In Realist Magic, Timothy Morton describes it as beauty’s ‘je ne sais quoi’. Being unable to pin down what it is that makes a thing beautiful is part of its beauty. You take a rose. You could describe its petals, its inward swirling whorls, its scarlet colour, the slenderness of its stem; but in doing so, you lose the rose itself. As ever in synecdochically applauding a woman you lose the woman. The love object. The love? Recall Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’? ‘Love is not love’; it’s what it is and it isn’t, and what’s left over as forever. 4Eva/4Real. Personally, I prefer Cate Le Bon’s take: “Love is not love / When it’s a coat hanger / A borrowed line or passenger”. But isn’t everything stolen and temporary, in transit? How do you claw back the rose when the rose, maybe, is just this epic symbol for love? What moves in the static eternity?
I used to draw roses all the time; I’d always start in the centre, finding my way outwards with liquid ink. You see I had no conception of the rose’s shape, I was just following the shaky trajectories of layering lines. Important not to excise too sharply the arrangement of beauty, to impart onto nonhuman forms a reified taste. Eroticism preserved by ellipsis, meditation contained in the mysterious code of the senses. What was it Wordsworth said so long ago, in his famous tract against book knowledge: ‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; / Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect’. Wordsworth would prefer you to go out and encounter the objects themselves rather than try to ‘dissect’ them through rapturous, scrutinising poesy. Being one of the great Romantic poets, distracted by words even when in Nature, Wordsworth is of course a filthy, (forgivable) hypocrite—up to his knees in Kant’s paradoxical beauty as much as the rest of us.
Making words of roses involves cutting their heads off, losing the essence, letting the adjectival rose oil leak into language’s dripping pores. Binding the immortal to time. That seepage is ink, is tense’s durational flow, is poetry’s cruelty. This is perhaps what Mallarmé means when he says: ‘Je dis un fleur, et le fleur est parti’—‘I say a flower, and the flower is cut/split/gone’ (translation: Tom McCarthy). To break the object of beauty down in writing is to incur a violence; as McCarthy glosses, ‘Things must disappear as things in order to appear symbolically’. What is perhaps most seductive is the remaining qualities, the deconstructionist’s milk and honey, the semiotic residue that clings between things. Spiderwebs, woven by first light, acquire a serene and gossamer gleam; but what is most seductive perhaps is the spaces between the lines, the way up close the lacing makes new frames for the real, the scenery behind and through.
Then we have Derrida’s ‘maddening’ supplement. For all roses refer to other roses, to every iteration of the word ‘rose’ throughout literary history. What a rose means can only lie in the space between these occurrences, and even then the meaning is temporary, contextual—there is no outside text, no place in which to hurl your roses to semantic abyss. We might hope for Love as some manifestation of the Lacanial Real, a pre-symbolic realm of pure emotion; but love too (as Roland Barthes reminds us) is discourse, perennial and yet bound to the fluctuations within language. ‘Rose’ is a noun, but it is also qualia: the subjective quality of something that cannot be objectively measured. Her cheeks were rosy, the rose-coloured sand (of the dream sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Red Desert), a rosiness to the air that spoke of July. By scaling tone, we might get a general sense of what ‘rose’ is (a quality defined by difference rather than identity), but we’d never get to see rose through someone else’s experience. What is ‘rose’ to one poet might be ‘pale and bloody’ to another. Rimbaud writes, ‘The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears’. Abstraction meets the concrete which itself is a spill through synecdoche. What music seeps, weeping, into the beloved’s ‘ears’? ‘Rose-colour’ becomes that synaesthetic property, the oozing, effulgent thing that cannot be pinned. For colour, like music, is perceptively subjective. What prompts a sudden spasm of imagining in you might send me to sleep; could we call both actions reactions to beauty?
‘It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world’. So goes the line in American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ 1999 suburban modern classic—a film about midlife crisis, inappropriate lust, neurotic materialism and the nuclear family under late capitalism. Where Ricky, the visionary, weed-smoking teenager, sees a sort of sublimity in waste, videoing a plastic bag’s leaf-like billows in the wind, Lester falls for his daughter’s cheerleader friend, Angela. The particular Gen X fatigue over cultural trash and consumer excess is recycled as a pared-back appreciation for symbolic indications of the world’s decay—little quotidian details which offer momentary redemption as beauty in tragedy. The old Kantian adage of beauty’s je ne sais quoi. Lester’s misplaced infatuation for Angela is represented by motifs of lurid red roses, flowering outwards like bloody snowstorms of feminine intensity. The chase falls cold when they kiss IRL, and he realises she is just an insecure teenage girl. Tell me I’m beautiful. Interpreting the film is as tricky as trying to clasp onto any one of those whirling petals, to kiss a single tear on an eyelash, a dew-drop clung to the flesh of a rose. Joni Mitchell, in ‘Roses Blue’: “I think of tears, I think of rain on shingles / I think of rain, I think of roses blue”. A lyricist’s ability to make pearls of emotion. Superhydrophonic. Is this another symbol, listless, transient, glistening?
The Symbolists were mostly French poets of the fin-de-siècle, the likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire (whose flowers were assuredly evil), who probably drank quantities of absinthe and wrote symbols that emblematised reality itself, rather than merely inward feeling. All that absinthe had to come out somewhere, idly wilding in the streets of Paris (pronounce it the French way). Where abstraction reigns often in the world of emotion, meaning accumulates through the repetition, modulation and pattering of these symbols. While Mallarmé’s poetry indulged in dreams and visions, it’s a certain patterning of associative power that provides the stitching behind his fashion for aleatory. The poetics of chance may still have a structure of sorts, something you can trace like the veiny trellises within a leaf. W. B. Yeats, the Irish Symbolist, loved a good rose: just see ‘The Rose of the World’ and ‘The Rose of Battle’. In his essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’, Yeats makes frequent comparisons between symbols and music, describing the ‘musical relation’ of sound, colour and form as constitutive of symbol.
At a workshop I’ve been running with homeless people, a girl who shares her name with Stein’s favourite flower reads out a piece she’s written in ten minutes flat. It’s a typically tragic tale of abuse, of a family torn apart by pain, drugs, death and violence—written from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl, perhaps her daughter. She reads it with a stilted west coast accent that picks up its confidence and lilt as the sentences run on. Somehow in those sad and wilting lines, strewn with the accidental detritus of truth, there’s hope. It blooms so unexpectedly in all the despair. A ten-year-old girl sees the world very clearly and pure. I can only paraphrase, of course. I’m sad that I don’t get to see my mother, but she says that it’s okay because if I look at the moon I know that she’s looking at it too. This part struck me harder than any other—it seemed an echo from elsewhere. The whole piece became suddenly a buildup to that single, simple, irresistible image. When Yeats presents Burns’ ‘perfectly symbolical’ song of the moon and time, he misquotes him. Translation falters to glitch, like with lossy compression. The moon as a symbol, as something to be shared, a white chocolate button broken in two. Except you can’t split the moon. You can only imagine what the other person is seeing. I wonder what they were looking up to.
Where metaphors ‘are not profound enough to be moving’, symbols move in both senses of the word: they act through motion, the accumulative or associative arrangement of sound and meaning (as opposed to metaphor, which acquires meaning through more static, straightforward comparison), and they prompt affect in the reader. Such affect is not just the temporary indulgence of an artwork’s emotional value, but can indeed alter how the world is discursively understood. The rosy words thrown upon some poetic zephyr recalibrate reality as we know it. As Yeats puts it:
Because an emotion does not exist, or does not become perceptible and active among us, till it has found its expression, in colour or in sound or in form, or in all of these, and because no two modulations or arrangements of these evoke the same emotion, poets and painters and musicians, and in a less degree because their effects are momentary, day and night and cloud and shadow, are continually making and unmaking mankind.
The construction of feeling through symbols, then, institutes the substance and gaps that structure how we relate to ourselves, others and nonhuman objects. A very delicate, precise, imagist poem like William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ has effectively changed how we relate to both the colour red and wheelbarrows more generally (never mind the ‘white / chickens’). Symbols can charge our perception with fresh emotional channels. Music relates a bit differently, of course, but only because it literalises Yeats’ musical relation metaphor—there’s a more physical intensity, maybe. Like a river (you can never dip your finger twice in the same river), a piece of music cannot be played the exact same way again—a truism owing to the arbitrary dynamics of individual players, environments, acoustics or subtle interruptions of duration. A breath or a sneeze, a chance sigh in the background, a trumpeter who can never quite pace her crescendo. You experience the opera differently from me, even though we watch the same one (I have never been to the opera). My hearing is slightly muted, along with my interest in self-congratulatory coloratura; while you have perfect pitch, ears that ring with pleasure as the high notes hit. Though the same in one sense, comprising a shared duration, our encounters are completely different. Music’s durational function is made explicit with the likes of John Cage’s music concrète, composed of sounds rather than notes and thus retaining elements of chance within a certain duration. The process becomes more about selection, sampling and curation, rather than composition according to tones, melody, chords.
If anyone idled wildly, it was the notoriously languorous aesthete, Oscar Wilde. The decadence of roses is also associated with a certain concretisation of language, a making material of words, a honing of time and world. Consider the opening line of The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses’. The way assonance works, subtly wafting its chiming vowels through ‘filled’/‘rich’ and ‘odour’/‘roses’, creates that musical relation that Yeats so fetishised. Poetic techniques such as alliteration and assonance abound in Wilde’s novel, where prose becomes musical, lilting, exactly honed upon sensory detail, the vivid relation of objects. Roses that fill a studio, that pungently glow with lavish scent. There is a heady, ambient quality to much of Wilde’s descriptions, giving off the impression that we are perhaps perceiving how objects seem to one another, filtered through the opium vapours that so penetrated Dorian’s accelerating decadence: ‘In the slanting beams that streamed through the open doorway the dust danced and was golden. The heavy scent of the roses seemed to brood over everything.’ Objects are at once anthropomorphised and ornamental; that play between movement and stasis, however, cuts across binaries between human and nonhuman. The world of Dorian Gray is sprawling, random, a chase through meshes of entangled desire. A straightforward death drive is diverted by all sorts of sensory encounters, plastic morality, visionary beauty. And words? Words in Wilde are the petals that swell and unfurl into Yeatsian symbols:
Music had stirred him like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?
Words have (re)active potential. Each one shivers with the weight of its every use, alive with subtle magic. Be careful what you write.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough (I know that that’s not enough now)”. Gertrude Stein said a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. She said it first in ‘Sacred Emily’ (1913), and later wrote, in ‘Poetry and Grammar’:
When I said.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.
What do we swap for tautologies? Love is tautological; love justifies itself. It means everything and nothing. There’s isn’t any escaping the reifying loop, the ring with its symbolism of marriage. That which encapsulates and closes. The hermeneutic circle. Stein makes us linger, ponder the grammar of each rose. Ring-a-ring-‘o-roses. What does it mean to ‘caress’ a noun? To render the erotic potential of language by gesture of touch, extend into physical… Idlewild: a word whose internal rhymes fold together, whose l sounds caress the roof of the mouth.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough.”
Lana Del Rey: “You always buy me roses like a creep.”
Also Lana Del Rey: “And then you buy me roses and it’s fine.”
There’s a surfeit of petals and sex, a gluttonous economy of symbols which Stein stamps out with the simple carousel of her musical roses. Sing it slowly. Tell me what you mean.
Luce Irigaray, from This Sex Which Is Not One:
Your body expresses yesterday in what it wants today. If you think: yesterday I was, tomorrow I shall be, you are thinking: I have died a little. Be what you are becoming, without clinging to what you might have been, what you might yet be. Never settle. Leave definitiveness to the undecided; we don’t need it.
Lana Del Rey, reading from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
I pass between worlds and names and symbols. Every lipstick stain is another iteration, each kiss the palimpsest of the first, and even photographs fade in the sun, faces dissolving like planes behind clouds. Of ‘cappuccino pink ranunculus’—not roses—Colin Herd writes: ‘They’re at their most ravishing and / ethereal the day before they expire’. I imagine a white corridor imprinted with all your flickering dreams. Between realms, the soft wilt allures more even than it does in bloom. Images become sentences: long thorny stems of sentences, stretching and snarling a confusion of brambles and briars. The more you write, the more you grow your beautiful garden. I tear my wrists and fingers, trying to get to it: ‘There is a forcible affect of language which courses like blood through its speakers. Language is impersonal; its working through and across us is indifferent to us, yet in the same blow it constitutes the fibre of the personal’ (Denise Riley). This garden I make is not really mine and daily it grows stranger. The roses offer their pretty heads, then droop in winter. I hear their beautiful words in arterial melodies, sprawling among shadow, platitude, the skeins of a letter letting loose through my pores.
Roseability: the quality of forever chasing roseability. File under qualia, noun/rock, the poetics of etcetera.
Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric
What a treat to listen to a lecture sprinkled with songs and stories, especially among the beautiful acoustics of Glasgow University’s chapel. After a rather spectacular introduction from Professor Simon Newman, singer-songwriter Roddy Hart gave the 17th Annual Gordon Lecture, organised by university’s Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies. Having collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, released an EP of Dylan covers and found success in the States with a stint on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show—not to mention running his own radio show for BBC Scotland and hosting Celtic Connections, the BBC Quay Sessions and the Roaming Roots Revue—Hart was well qualified to talk on this subject from a musician’s point of view.
Hart’s talk was a tribute to the great American lyric; to what makes it, in Hart’s words, particularly alluring, otherworldly and cool, especially to those who grew up outside of the United States. Admitting that he lacks an academic education in the history of American culture and music (actually, Hart has a law degree gleaned from within these very walls), Hart made up for this by sheer enthusiasm, celebrating the musical merits of songs from Woody Guthrie to Father John Misty and covering such topics as the journey motif, humour, darkness, nostalgia, politics and death. The talk took the form of a powerpoint, with Roddy speaking, singing snippets of songs and then commenting on their significance in a lucid, passionate way that kept everyone hooked for an hour and a half.
Hart began with the assertion that lyrics are not poetry, or indeed literature of any kind. Lyrics, he claimed, involve respect for structure, rhyme, metre and field (all definitions you could apply to poetry…), a certain knack for a hook, a streak of ingenuity and originality. Like poetry, a great lyric can reshape how we view the world we live in, send ripples through the fabric of reality and inspire us to take action, critically reflect or wallow in grief. The distinction Hart draws between poetry and the lyric prompted a desire to find out what exactly his thoughts are on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. My own thoughts on this issue have never rested on a single position, and I don’t really know enough about the prize’s history to comment on Dylan’s suitability. However, there have always been strong connections between lyricists and poets, from the likes of Langston Hughes writing jazz poems during the Harlem Renaissance to Kate Tempest releasing rap albums as well as a novel and poetry collections published by the likes of Picador and Bloomsbury, no less. Hell, what about Leonard Cohen? At the end of the day, all writing is a performance of sorts, regardless of how it’s delivered. I could talk about Roland Barthes here, mention ‘The Death of the Author’, how the reader ‘performs’ the text like a score of music etc etc, but I won’t digress. Basically: sometimes a poem seems built for performance; other times it rests more easily on the page, where the eye follows an intriguing visual form or dance of letters arranged on white space. While poetry can be a two-way street, I’m not sure how well Dylan’s verse works on the page. Admittedly, most of his songs tell interesting stories, but that deceptive simplicity often needs the nuance and expression of Dylan’s voice to draw out the subtler levels of irony, humour, derision or sorrow from straightforward-seeming lyrics. Just my two cents on the matter, though I still like to wallow in ambiguity when it comes to these distinctions.
Hart gives the proviso that his talk is meant to be a working definition of the American lyric, not a comprehensive history. He does, however, mention a few characteristic features. The prominent one, of course, is name-checking: all the best American lyrics will draw on the wealth of states, street names, famous bars and hotels. In doing so, they draw on a tradition, they write themselves into a history of locations, urban legends and folk tales. Hart illustrated this by starting with Paul Simon’s ‘America’, pointing out how the song documents a search for America itself; this idea that America will always be this endless signifier, sliding along the great highway of desire that stretches across desert, country and city, drawing across generations. On the way, the lovers in Simon’s song make the best of their adventure, cooking up stories from the characters on the Greyhound, honing in on material details. It’s this sense of taking the listener on a journey that’s one of the American lyric’s greatest seductions. As Simon sings, “it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” the chords soar and there’s that sense of being lifted to somewhere radically elsewhere, an open field, road, desert. The sweet spot between freedom and sorrow, of missing something deep and mysterious, the impossible pursuit.
Hart traces such material details in songs by Kris Kristofferson and Dylan, this sense of a ‘quintessential American aesthetic’ which he quite eloquently describes as a ‘Moby Dick-esque hunt across America’. The whale, ironically, is America itself. The road narrative is central to the American lyric. It’s a romanticised, extravagant sprawl into the dust of the past and glitter of the future, marked by place names which glow with familiar warmth and legendary spirit. Hart argues that this is something specific to the American lyric; that a Scottish equivalent wouldn’t quite have that same epic effect. He even sings a made-up local spin on ‘America’ to prove it; a journey between Edinburgh and Dunoon falls pretty flat in comparison. Of course there’s something special about the land of the free, in all its bright mythology and promise, but it’s not as if Scottish bands haven’t tried it. There’s that famous line from The Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ which immortalises an array of parochial towns ravished by Thatcher, deindustrialisation and eighties recession: “Bathgate no more. Linwood no more. Methil no more. Irvine no more”. Of course there isn’t the same expansive magic, but there is something epic about lyrically connecting the local to broader political discontent. Still, you can’t really compare the Proclaimers to Simon & Garfunkel…or can you?
Back to America. Hart describes Dylan as the nation’s great scene-setter, effortlessly drawing a sense of the times from the wisping drift of personal narrative, of stories about people and their lives. Details shuffled together like cards and strung along a line of verse. While some singers make their politics clear in the didactic manner of protest, Dylan sets these more intimate tales against the backdrop of cities and an impressionistically vivid sense of history. Hart plays possibly my favourite Dylan song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, spending time going over the lyrics to point out the singer’s knack for detail, the narrative journey which documents a succession of relationships, places and jobs. That famous philosophy: you’ve got to keep on keeping on. There’s something more raw here than the cosy, apple-pie fuelled comforts of Kerouac’s road narratives, which always depend on money from back home. You can hear it in the howl of Dylan’s voice, which becomes more a sultry croon in Hart’s version. What does he mean by blue? There’s the blues, there’s the blue of the sky and the ocean—symbols of infinitude. It’s a signifier that shifts as easily as Dylan’s character, from fisherman to cook, as he crosses over the West, learning to see things “from a different point / of view”. Surely this is one the basis for democracy, the meritocratic ideal of fairness upon which the USA was founded: empathy? The ability to openly shift your perspective, to never stay too long in your own shoes. That existential restlessness, set against the backdrop of a shaky political atmosphere, the dustbowl sense of losing one’s bearings in a maelstrom of uncertainty, characterises many of Dylan’s songs and indeed many road narratives throughout literature and American lyric.
You can’t talk about the American lyric without mentioning politics and Hart documents the history of the protest song, from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talking About a Revolution’: songs that pose an equality of belonging, that document the quiet desperation and struggle that takes place beneath the surface of everyday life. Rather than tangling himself in the barbed reality of contemporary politics, Hart opts to situate his chosen songs in the context of more general themes: the failings of the American dream, social inequality and the oppression of working people, all set against the turning tides of the economic landscape. It’s notable that most of these singers are men, singing about working men, often with reference to some vulnerable lost girl who needs saved. But then you have the likes of Anaïs Mitchell, writing visceral songs of longing and misplaced identity. ‘Young Man in America’ opens with this mythological, sort of monstrous story of birth: “My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog”. Images of industrial decline, capitalist opulence and landscapes both mythical and pastoral are woven by a voice whose identity is a mercurial slide between human, animal and disembodied call. Skin is shed, belonging is only a shifting possibility. It’s a complex song, with native percussion, brass; moments of towering climax and soft withdrawal. The music mirrors the strange undulations of the American journey from cradle to grave, its dark pitfalls and glittering peaks, the cyclical narratives of the lost and forgotten; the “bright money” and the “shadow on the mountaintop”, the fame of the “young man in America”, a universal identity disseminated across a range of experiences. For this is the myth of the American Everyman, and Mitchell deconstructs it beautifully.
On the subject of female songwriters, I was very pleased that Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams got a mention in Hart’s talk. The self-destructive sentiment of Welch’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ reminds us that the experience of being ground down by the relentless demands of a marketised society isn’t confined to men alone. Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, not mentioned in the talk though highly relevant, makes this clear. It’s a song about artists will go on making their art even if they won’t get paid, and the tale of how capitalism discovered this and cashed in on its fact: “Someone hit the big score, they figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”. Like Dylan, Welch finds herself winding up on the road, working in bars, working hard and regretting being enslaved to, well, The Man. ‘Everything is Free’ is a message of both despondency and hope, crafting this sense of the beauty of song itself as protest and freedom even as the structure closes in: “Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song / But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home”.
Hart mentions how the American lyric provides an escape to those who find themselves trapped in the smallness of their lives. You might live in a nondescript town slap-bang in the middle of Scotland, where the musical climate favours chart music blasted from bus-stop ringtones, but then aged fourteen you discover Dylan or Springsteen and suddenly America opens up its vast, sparkly vista, from East Coast to West. This seems to be Hart’s trajectory, as his career—from the first tour with Kristofferson to his continued promotion of transatlantic connections—closely follows an American strain of songwriting. My mum used to listen to Welch’s Time (The Revelator) album over and over again on long car journeys, so the lyrics to all those road songs are burned in my brain like tracks in vinyl, superimposed with endless visions of the M8 stretching out before me… It was only a couple of years ago that I found out Time (The Revelator) was released in 2001; I’d always assumed this stuff was ancient, the seventies at least. Maybe because Welch just has this knack for writing timeless songs; songs about heartbreak, loneliness and restless desire that reach back into the comforts of the past even as the journey itself is long and hollow, the destination vague as the blurred sign on the front of a train.
I guess this raises a broader question which Hart’s talk touched upon: the politics and poetics of nostalgia. There weren’t opportunities for questions afterwards, but if there were I might have asked Hart whether nostalgia is a necessary condition for American self-reinvention. It’s a pretty relevant question right now, with much of Trump’s whole appeal based on the nostalgic vision of a vaguely industrial golden age of capitalism—a vision which is obviously the smokescreen for whatever chaotic ideologies are at work beneath the surface. The American lyric can set up this romanticised vision, only to break it apart; reveal its seedy underbelly, its failings, the disastrous gap between identified goals and actual means of attainment. Yet throughout the cynicism, there’s always that restless desire to continue, to keep on keeping on. Hart compares it to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel significantly indebted to music (jazz, of course). The final line of that novel captures that past/present lyrical impulse so well: ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.
Which leads to the question: what about genre? Is the American lyric necessarily the domain of indie folk rockers? What about commercial music and pop? Can a pop artist deconstruct the American dream and earn a play in the lyrical family tree if they make money off their record and earn fame from MTV? Hart engages with Father John Misty as an example of how the American lyric can use humour to deconstruct the nation’s ideologies of progress and meritocracy, at the same time as retaining a post-postmodern self-awareness of identity politics, a meta-awareness of his own dabbling in ironic coolness. His very name evokes a sort of New Age gospel figure, a preacher for the times, whose stage is the television set or Twitter feed instead of the old-fashioned soapbox. Hart describes songs such as ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ and ‘Bored in the USA’ (obviously a riff on Springsteen’s classic) as depicting the ‘American dream for the millennials’. I’ve written about Misty extensively already on this blog (specifically, on his metamodernist tendencies), so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say I agree that FJM represents something special about contemporary cultural critique. It’s that blend of irony and sincerity, an exaggerated interrogation of the romanticism and the Gen X postmodernism of yore; the oscillation between raw subjective experience, political critique and the cool facade of self-deprecating wit. A constant juggling of ‘candour and self-mockery’, as Dorian Lynskey puts it. FJM notoriously got into a tiff during an interview with Radio 6 Music veterans, Radcliffe and Maconie. Aside from all the awkward sarcasm, what strikes me about this interview is the mentioning of kitsch merchandise objects: oven-gloves, jeggings. Hart explores a bit of kitsch lyric in the likes of Randy Newman, but I think FJM blends especially well that jaded sense of millennial despondence alongside tracks that can feel like rollicking simple narratives or epics of history on a 13-minute scale that gives Springsteen’s marathon tunes a run for their money. He pushes his stuff to the edge of the cheesy and cringe-worthy, exposing how all conviction has that shadow side of kitsch, even the most authentic lyrics—kitsch is somehow the cheap taste of someone else’s experience, the trick is to make it meaningful, and not just another imitation, a plastic model of the Empire State Building.
But Misty isn’t the only singer-songwriter deconstructing the American dream, exploring how both its poetic promise and jingoistic glory play out on a personal level. What about Ryan Adams, whose songs have that alt-country appeal of the restless bard? ‘New York, New York’, from his 2001 album Gold, opens with a Dylanesque lyric about shuffling “through the city on the 4th of July”, brandishing a “firecracker” that’ll break “like a rocket who was makin’ its way / To the cities of Mexico”. The clean rhymes and ballad-like lilt of guitar are also very Dylanesque. But at some point I’ve got to stop making comparisons to Dylan, because ultimately this is reductive; it’s cheap and lazy music journalism. I do think, however, the ease with which we make these comparisons reveals something interesting about our generic assumptions. Guy has a guitar, sings melancholy songs about America and his place within it, a smart knack for a lyrical twist, occasionally picks up a harmonica? Instant Dylan; their careers overshadowed by a giant. (Note: I guess a similar thing happens with very talented female folk singers—the likes of Laura Marling—being compared to Joni Mitchell). But even Dylan doesn’t monopolise the American lyric. He might have a Nobel Prize, but this doesn’t crown him King of the Lyric Alone (or maybe it does?); we’ve got to tease out what exactly we mean by this term and how relevant it is in the fragmentary scene of contemporary music. Think with Dylan, but beyond Dylan.
Conor Oberst, formerly of the band Bright Eyes, is an artist who’s been branded with Dylan comparisons throughout his career (an extensive career at that; the precocious Nebraskan recorded his first album, Water, aged just 13). Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker condenses many of my own feelings on the Oberst/Dylan comparisons: ‘Dylan is armour-plated, even when singing about love; Oberst is permanently open to pain, wonder, and confusion.’ Oberst is in many ways a liminal figure: cutting it out on the folk and country circuit (Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch appear on previous records) while hanging and collaborating with indie rock bands (The Felice Brothers, First Aid Kit, Dawes), flirting with punk (The Desaparecidos) and fitting with some comfort within the elastic nineties/noughties stratosphere of emo. Frere-Jones describes Oberst as a ‘poet-prince’, again opening debate on that binary between poetry and lyric that Hart sets up but that nonetheless remains slippery and problematic. Where Dylan espouse the solid wisdom of a sage or wandering bard, Oberst has a reticent, warbling quality that rises to epiphany but admits failure and the graceless fall into existential aporia. He wails like Dylan wails, but many of his songs have a fragility and surrealism that doesn’t quite match up with Dylan’s more assured narrative balladry. So in that sense, he’s a lyric poet in the more subdued, Keatsian manner, exploring the self in all its fragmentary, perplexing existence.
But he’s also very much an American lyricist. In his ‘mature’ career, Oberst hasn’t shied away from more directly tackling political themes alongside more personal songs. 2005’s ‘When the President Talks to God’ rips to shreds George W. Bush’s policies. Comprising a series of questions addressed to an audience, it more closely follows the form of a traditional protest song, laced with bitter satire: “When the president talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls still can be saved?”. This is definitely a song to be performed, on a wide open stage or indeed to the even wider audience accessing broadcasts of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he performed the song in 2005. Then there’s the angry, crunchy southern kick of ‘Roosevelt Room’, off Oberst’s solo record, Outer South (2009). Oberst’s later work isn’t as playfully weird and surreal as his early bedroom stuff, sure, but increasingly he masters the power of allusion that characterises American lyric, in Hart’s sense of the term: “Go ask Hunter Thompson / Go ask Hemingway’s ghost”. He’s addressing someone to be critiqued, wrenching them off their political pedestal: “Hope you haven’t got too lazy / I know you like your apple pie / Cause the working poor you’ve been pissing on / Are doing double shifts tonight”. There’s that apple pie again, symbol of steadfast Americana, fuel of the nation, the well-lighted place of a diner—a place of domesticity, stability and, let’s face it, commercial comfort. Oberst cynically dismisses the well-nourished white middle class politician, recalling a generalised story of poverty from material details: “And I’d like to write my congressman / But I can’t afford a stamp”.
Then there’s the frontier motif, the sense of America as a place of deep mystery as well as self-created landscape. Experiments with Eastern and Navajo cultures. Bright Eyes’ 2007 album, Cassadaga, with its album art requiring a spectral decoder to be fully appreciated, its envisioning of the singer as mystic or medium, channelling psychic forces through song. Cassadaga is very much a journey. The opening track, ‘Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)’ involves an extended spoken word sample of some kind of very American mystic who begins by setting us in the ‘centre of energy’, Cassadaga’s ‘wonderful grounds that have vortexes’, moving us through astral projections of a ‘new era and life’ that is changing, a message of hope, doubling back on the uncanny sense that ‘Cassadaga might be just a premonition of a place you’re going to visit’. Cassadaga is a real place, a spiritualist camp set somewhere between Daytona and Orlando, known as the ‘Psychic Capital of the World’. By naming his album Cassadaga, Oberst isn’t just name-dropping in typical hipster fashion, honouring local identity nor casting back nostalgically to a familiar place; he’s attempting to channel the energy of this location, interrogate its spirit, draw out its various psychic possibilities for the present. He sings of attempts to detoxify his life, of former affairs, of lost soul singers and the pursuit of a sense of belonging.
‘Lime Tree’ is one of the most beautiful songs Oberst has written. It’s a composite tracing of impressions drawn from various experiences, both personal or secondhand. While much of Cassadaga follows an upbeat, distinctly country sound in the manner of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, ‘Lime Tree’ closes the record with a dreamy, wistful serenity that recalls the likes of ‘Lua’, ‘Something Vague’ and ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. Accompanied by angelic female vocals, ‘Lime Tree’ is ethereal, the guitar strumming minimal though following a certain continuous loop. Pale and lush strings contribute to the sense of being pulled downstream, giving yourself up to the languorous current. Ostensibly, it’s a song about abortion, about a struggling relationship: “Since the operation I heard you’re breathing just for one / Now everything’s imaginary, especially what you love”. But as in all good poetry, the beauty of the lyrics on ‘Lime Tree’ is their movement from specific experience to a vaguely spiritual voyage that gestures towards ending but instead finds the open plains of abyss, always suspended in paradox and ambiguity, the fault-lines between life/death, hope/despair, dream/reality: “So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good / I took off my shoes and walked into the woods / I felt lost and found with every step I took”. Home is a tidal wave, a churning wind, a shifting sand, a fragment.
America’s great confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, also explored mysticism, and her writing is rich with strange imagery, not to mention all those Tarot allusions in Ariel. In The Bell Jar (1963), the fig tree is the novel’s dark and mysterious heart, this vivid image that sprawls its symbolism through the text, a figure for existential paralysis: ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose’. We might think of the connection between the term ‘roots’ and ‘roots rock’, its rhizomatic sprawl of influence never quite settling on a home even as a sense of home and locality is supposedly the music’s grounding purpose. Roots, of course, are always growing. The lime tree is an image plucked from a dream, but its significance is less clear in Oberst’s song than the fig tree in Plath’s narrative. Perhaps more than most contemporary songwriters working within a lyric tradition, Oberst is content to write from a position of uncertainty, in gaps and pieces of affect and narrative. The sound of his voice suspended over those gentle strings and strums is enough to make tremors in your chest, as if the slow vortex of another world were opening its mouth like the parting of the sea in someone else’s biblical or drug-enhanced dream: “I can’t sleep next to a stranger when I’m coming down.” The way of the lyric; so often the way of the lonely. Even as ‘Lime Tree’ might be a love song, it opens itself towards ending, loss, death: “don’t be so amazing or I’ll miss you too much”; there can never be plenitude in the journey: “everything gets smaller now the further that I go”. Bittersweet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s too subtle for that, a softly shimmering lullaby goodbye to the world, a retreat and a return, just like Nick Carraway’s vision of beating on but back into the past. The passage of an everyday spiritual pilgrim, the way we all are in life, our faces fading in the ink-blot of photographs. We turn back to look at ourselves through others, through words, just as Dylan notes how the girl in the “topless bar” “studied the lines on my face”.
A voyage through nostalgia, a quest for identity, belonging, an escape from something and a return, a desiring pursuit without end, a lust for life and ease into death; a twist of humour, a narrative of hope, aspiration and the failures that draw us back into the dustbowl. The American lyric is all of these things and more; its boundaries perhaps are pliable as the nylon strings on somebody’s battered acoustic guitar. Maybe it all culminates in madness and absurdity. For every One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you’ve got The Felice Brothers’ ‘Jack at the Asylum’, a rollicking satire on the madness of contemporary American life which trades in richly surreal and absurd imagery to render the accelerated pace of this madness, crossing history in the blink of a screen flicker: “And I’ve seen your pastures of green / The crack whores, the wars on the silver screen”. Pastoral America is always already contaminated by an originary violence. Maybe the best American lyric depicts such realisations through personal stories, the relationships and encounters set against and embedded within wider structural phenomena, the recessions and closures and urbanisations. The Felice Brothers remind us, however, that all of this is secondhand, aspirational narratives passed down to us through screen culture, advertising: “You give me dreams to dream / Popcorn memories and love”. Once again, there’s that fluctuation between an earnest love of country to an embittered sense of its very elusiveness, the distant static shimmer of success whose failed pursuit we watch ourselves experience through the mediating comforts of daily life—the popcorn pharmakon poisons and cures for (post)modern existence, as calorific as they are nutritionally empty.
But once again, genre. String off a handful of names from Hart’s Americana playlist and you’ll be pressed to find anything that falls outside the folk-rock camp, even as its boundaries remain pretty permeable. Yet what of hiphop? Isn’t hiphop, in a sense, the great alternative American folk lyric? Rap is it’s own kind of poetry, after all. You might think of someone like Kendrick Lamar as an American lyric writer, working from a different generic background from Hart’s examples, but nonetheless telling the story of contemporary USA from the streets to the level of the visionary, just like Dylan did. Lamar even has a track called ‘Good Morning America’: “we dusted off pulled the bullet out our heads / Left a permanent scar, for the whole world to recognise / California, economics, pay your taxes bitch”. Once again, that originary violence, the scar of identity. Lamar works back from the wounding.
My knowledge of hiphop is far too limited to discuss it in any detail, but thinking it through the idea of American lyric prompted me onto the figure of Lana Del Rey, who often uses hiphop production techniques, from trap beats to muted, stadium echoes. I hate to bang on about oor Lana again (see articles here & here), but irresistibly she’s a shining example of a mercurial musician, drawn to the sweet dark chocolate centre of American melancholy. LDR performs a kaleidoscopic array of identities, just as Dylan often wore a mask that veiled itself in the confessional sincerity of the beaten-down worker, drinker, lover, escaping to the Mid-West alone. Yet while America’s great bard more or less got away with it, Lana has been constantly lambasted for her artifice and supposed inauthenticity. Which begs the question: what do we even mean by authenticity? Is only the white male—your Princes, Bowies and Eminems—allowed to strut in the performative identity parade? Both LDR and Lady Gaga have been lambasted for their supposed fakeness. There are obviously complex questions of racial, class and gender identity which I don’t have time to cover here. Sometimes, a musician is lauded for their alter ego (and doesn’t alter ego itself imply a certain surrender to the patriarchal ideology of masculinity?)—take Beyoncé’s hugely successful Sasha Fierce—and other times, it takes the invisible tide of the internet to swell in support for those critiqued by other forms of media.
My friend Louise is always comparing LDR’s work to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novelistic visions of 1920s America, and while this might seem a bit extravagant, there’s something to be said for the way Lana seamlessly evokes the spirit of the jazz age, the consumer paradise of the 1950s and the hipsterdom of millennial Brooklyn in the through the poetry of song. Is this just retroculture, in the sense of recycled kitsch and the twenty-first century urge towards nostalgia explored in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania (2011)? Is there something pathological in Lana’s obsession with the past, a symptom of a broken psyche or worse, a broken generation? Perhaps. But there is something transformative and subversive about LDR’s retrovision, even as it may be critiqued for indulging in vintage gender roles as much as vintage styles (framing yourself as a sort of white-trash ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ is always gonna invite a certain feminist controversy, let’s face it).
One of Hart’s recent examples of the American lyric came from The National (even the band name evokes questions of what it means to be American), with their song ‘Sorrow’ from 2010’s dark and trembling High Violet. I’m interested in how this song apostrophises sorrow in the manner of a great Romantic lyric. We might think of Keats’ ‘Ode to Melancholy’ or Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility remade for jaded and alienated millennials. Sorrow once again invokes that Platonic idea of the pharmakon as both poison and cure. We can wallow passively in sorrow, as The National sing: “I live in a city sorrow built / It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk”: it’s a trapped landscape, a petrified terrain in which the self can only slip deeper into isolation; but it’s also milk and honey, a kind of temporary nourishment to a darker psychic scar. As Smith so eloquently puts it in the final lines of 1785’s ‘Sonnet Xxxii: To Melancholy’: O Melancholy!–such thy magic power, / That to the soul these dreams are often sweet, / And soothe the pensive visionary mind!’. Sorrow provides a toxic tonic for the soul, a lubricant for paralysis that eventually leads us back towards the existential road. Life goes on.
Lana Del Rey is fixated on sorrow. Blue, she admits, is her favourite colour, her favourite “tone of song”. Her songs are always hyper aware of the transient beauty of life, even as they lust after death. On the soundtrack song she did for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, she worries “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” ‘Video Games’ is a melancholy ballad for the contemporary relationship, a lush, brooding expression of love in the time of Call of Duty. Roddy Hart even did a cover of it. Her songs have titles like ‘The Blackest Day’, ‘Cruel World’, Sad Girl’, ‘West Coast’, ‘Old Money’, ‘American’, ‘Gods & Monsters’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’. All these titles evoke the Daisy Buchanan sad girl trope at the same time as gesturing towards the broader existential melancholy of America itself in the manner of Springsteen; with sometimes the detached urban cool of Lou Reed, other times the genuine, trembling passion of Billie Holiday. The video for ‘National Anthem’ restyles Lana as a Jackie O type married to a young, good-looking black president, with 1950s iconography spliced among pastel-hazed footage of the pair lolling around in love, sniffing roses, smiling, looking good as a Vanity Fair shoot. The video begins with her character singing Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ routine. She re-envisions JFK’s assassination, with a spoken word piece on top. She’s imagining alternative political futures even as she casts back to the past. There’s that lyric sense of wonder and ambiguity, of being lost in time.
It’s this layering of styles, scenes and cultural iconography that makes Lana’s work way more complex than most of what else fills the charts. Sure, it’s great that a positive message of bodily empowerment (Beyoncé feminism) is doing the rounds just now, but that shouldn’t mean that those who fall outside this category are anti-feminist or ignorant to gender identity politics. When all the R&B pop stars are prancing around proclaiming their sexual freedom, dominating men in various flavours of BDSM allusion, getting all the looks in the club or whatever, LDR is crying diamond dust tears into her Pepsi cola, draped naked in an American flag. Her videos, songs and artwork engage with cinematic discourse, high fashion photography and cultural history in a manner that’s intellectual interesting as much as it is affective and aesthetically satisfying. In a sense, she’s meaningfully evoking the past in order to say something timeless about the American dream and the objectified position of the ‘white trash’ woman under its mast of starry glory. In another sense, she’s indulging in a postmodern recycling of historical styles: constantly name-dropping, from James Dean to Springsteen, Lolita—perhaps the great American road novel not written by an American—and David Lynch’s lush, dark suburban epic, Blue Velvet. Despite the performance and ventriloquy of figures and archetypes from twentieth-century cultural history, she retains a sincere expression of melancholy, heartbreak and longing that’s personal but also strives towards rendering the more universal experiences of womanhood in certain communities. All the controversy surrounding Lana in relation to racial politics, class politics and sexual politics exists because her work is provocative, problematic and complex, like any good American lyric.
One reason that Roddy Hart was such a good choice to deliver this lecture is that he’s had experience writing new melodies for Robert Burns poems for Homecoming Scotland. Why is this relevant to the American lyric? So much of the lyric tradition, in all its forms, is based on that sense of romanticism, visionary wonder, self-exploration; the rendering of universal experience through personal narratives, the subjective telling of a story, the trade in imagery and sound and careful arrangement. Burns was a sort of rock star poet of his times, and not just because he was a bit of a cheeky philanderer. He toured around, worked as a labourer and farmer; he talked to many people, opened himself to influence. It’s this diversity that continues to mark the American lyric in the twenty-first century; the way that Father John Misty can sing a very ironic and playful song on late-show tv, about a man checking social media on his death bed, with the conviction of a crooning Leonard Cohen; accompanied by a gospel choir whose voice raises Misty’s ballad to a level of epic, overly extravagant grandeur that still somehow works, remains genuinely compelling beyond the initial sarcasm. The way Detroit’s angelic avant-indie hero, Sufjan Stevens, can ambitiously and patriotically plan to write an album for every state in America, then turn on the project, calling it “such a joke“. The way that Suzanne Vega, in ‘Tom’s Diner’, sings about a familiar American institution, the fabled diner—or Well-Lighted Place, as Hemingway put it—with the simple verse structure of an Imagist poem made narrative, sketching brief impressions of the myriad people she encounters in a public space. It feels cinematic, with deep eighties bass, bursts of brass and string-like synths, but also has that emergent sense of a postmodern folk, looking at the world from the bottom-up, catching everyday lives and stories in song. Even when irony remains the chief aesthetic order of the day, the lyric doesn’t have to be sucked into self-referential abyss. The best singer-songwriters continue to channel the American lineage through a romantic strain as much as a humorous one, inflecting songs with sorrow, joy and vitally that lust for something more—sometimes beyond life itself, sometimes just the restless possibilities of the road. Singing alone in the Glasgow Uni chapel on a Thursday evening, Roddy Hart rekindled some love for all that.
Nostalgia for the Future: Lana Del Rey’s ‘Love’ and the Cultural Politics of Celestial Hauntology and Queer Temporality
[this essay arose out of Tumblr & IRL discussions with Scott Coubrough & Douglas Pattison; all images taken as screen-caps from the ‘Love’ video unless stated otherwise]
look at you kids with their vintage music
coming through satellites while cruising you’re part of the past
but now you’re the future
Lana Del Rey finally dropped a new song. Critics are calling it ‘uplifting’, ‘radiofriendly’, ‘an ode to allowing yourself to feel’. They aren’t wrong: on the surface, ‘Love’ does what it says on the tin. It’s a pop song dripping with sentiment, evoking that sense of yearning, the fragile desire of a typical Lana ballad, the kind of retro-culture sadcore found most prominently on Born to Die (e.g. ’Videogames’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’). However, as with all of Lana’s material, there’s more going on beneath the surface. This isn’t just a saccharine ballad about love. In fact, this is probably the most poignant address to millennial angst I’ve experienced in pop music so far.
In the video for ‘Love’, clad in a white dress, dark hair studded with sixties-style daisies, Lana’s figure fades into view out of blackness. The mood is monochrome, but the song and its video deal in more than one mood, one temporality. As Scott Coubrough puts it, ‘it totally depicts the experience of the cultural anachrony of now’ (citation: Tumblr chat). The black-and-white vintage Hollywood vibe is lingered over with sensuous closeups of smouldering cigarettes, dust swirling on a rain-streaked window, a handsome man pulling shapes from his vintage guitar. In the first half of the video, Lana’s performance is spliced around footage of kids living in a pastel-hazed Instagram version of the sixties, skateboarding and drifting in couples around graffitied streets. While most of these teenagers carry sixties iconography—huge plastic shades, cropped haircuts, Ginsberg-glasses—there are the odd anachronisms, the kind of hoodie-clad ambience of a Blink 182 video romanticised in slow-motion. Smartphones make an appearance only as cameras. It’s not a selfie that’s taken, but an old-fashioned snapshot of a friend. Why invoke this vintage idea of relationships, of summer afternoons wasted innocently without the distracting paraphernalia of everyday technology? Who are these kids, who have time to lean seductively over trucks, to laugh arm in arm in glorious LA sunlight?
This is all a deliberate exercise in nostalgia. The warm haze of an Insta-filter showers these moments in the warm glow of preservation, the stylised memorabilia we accumulate daily with our social media feeds. There’s a sense of the future anterior to everything that happens: such visual flickers of perfection, snapped as photos, remind us that youth is always about imminence: knowing that this won’t last forever, that soon it will slip away. We are always finding ways to preserve, to prolong it. Youth. Even as we’re living, we’re thinking of ways to capture the moment.
So far so ordinary. Nostalgia for lost youth and lost love isn’t exactly a new theme in pop music, from Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ to Del Rey’s own back-catalogue, notably her offering on The Great Gatsby soundtrack, ‘Young and Beautiful’: “will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” What’s different about ‘Love’ is its relentless insistence on the temporal deferrals within presence. “To be young and in love” she sings over and over, a collective rallying cry to her fans that urges its utopian possibility through the infinitive, rather than present tense. There’s no actual sense that these kids are all in love, but Lana explores what that love really means. She references the confusion of modern dating, mired as it is in the conventions of various apps and different types of hookup (“signals crossing can get confusing”). She repeats the word “crazy” like she’s trying to conjure it into being from the word’s invocation of chaos. But other than that, ‘Love’ doesn’t explicitly explore what it means to be in a conventional relationship; there’s none of the vivid imagery of masochism and defeat, none of the apostrophised Brutish and Beautiful Men you might find scattered around previous albums. Instead, love figures on this song as a kind of energy, the channels of desire that seem to pull us out of our current reality and into nostalgic futures.
The problem is, this desire isn’t a simple longing for a lost object, the loved one who slipped from our grasp; it’s a kind of depression, the Freudian melancholia that lacks an identifiable source, that eats away at our sleep. Beneath the sugary imagery of couples sharing walks and drives together, there’s that restless unease. The dark pulse of Born to Die-era strings. The heart of the song is a sense of self-reflective stasis. The camera pulls outwards to reveal the teenagers in the ballroom, watching Lana perform with reverent awe in their faces. Already, the singer is reflecting on the cultural presence of her music as it spreads into the future through the track’s own duration. This is a song which never seems to build to obvious climax, which rejects that teleological impulse towards the goal of release and decline, the cycles of reproduction which compel us to consume more and more as we start again each time. Instead, ‘Love’ wallows in the shallows of its strange, haunted swing, mesmerising us with cinematic production, with delicately repeated refrains that twirl like spun sugar. Onstage, Lana is bathed in white light, this ethereal beacon from the past or future, existing in the timeless space of an auditorium. It’s like the set for a Beckett play, that dark space of absence and aporetic timelessness where anything might happen. Beckett, only with sex, beauty and audience adoration. We’re encouraged by a playful, irresistible wink to fall for this surreal and breathless dream.
The kids slowly sink into Lana’s music, lolling their heads in time, blinking in meditative motion as they stare at her swaying onstage. When we see the starlight reflected back through Lana’s eyes, the kids begin seeing the same celestial beauty. A huge moon rises above them, the walls of reality shattering as the ceiling becomes a super-imposed night sky. The truck starts spinning in space, a truly lost object, like the kind of anachronistic cultural products scattered across Back to the Future, divorced from their temporal ‘home’ and washed up elsewhere, the debris of a lost present. In space, the truck’s radio says ‘No Service’. We’ve entered Beth Orton’s ‘Galaxy of Emptiness’, the starry space where we’re detached from the everyday. “Back to work or the coffee shop”; these banal facts of daily life are usually excluded from the typical Lana song, which is more likely to feature gangsters and bad boys and probably a branded soft drink or declaration of deeply personal romantic sadness. This song feels more universal, generational, though nonetheless affective. The ordinariness of work and coffee (made more poignant by the obvious fact that many millennials combine the two as baristas, again reinforcing this idea of a dull labour cycle) infiltrating a LDR song? Woah. Her previous work explores the saturated hyper-dreams of consumer capitalism, with presidents dripping in gold chains, Lana herself resplendent in expensive pastel Jackie O suits, or riding across sunset highways against the vintage billboards advertising various American Dreams. The haunting quality of ‘Love’ is that it sort of rises above the glitz and glamour. Smartphones aren’t product placements but rather become anachronistic, incongruous relics, twirling out of time. The youth depicted in ‘Love’ are caught in a static reality, never growing old. By floating into space, they are cast adrift from capitalism’s materialised temporality.
“You get ready you get all dressed up / To go nowhere in particular”. With this line, I’m reminded of an endearing extras video from the Skins series, called ‘Cassie’s dark dates’. Cassie, the ethereal and bittersweet anorexic character, announces to her flatmates that she’s going on a date, slicks on lipstick and smiles nervously in the mirror. She sits in the park smoking in her mustard socks, hair blown back wispy in the wind, watching a red balloon caught in her tree, fragile as her own wee heart. She wanders the city alone till it gets dark, then finds an old man lying on the ground. Thinking he’s dead, she tries to talk to him, then lies down beside him after he says he’s ‘listening to the pavement’. The pair wander home and she helps him make beans and toast; they share a cigarette and some laughter. It’s a lovely depiction of two lost souls from different generations finding temporary peace in their lives. He falls asleep on her knees while she reads an old book. It’s wistfully delightful; watching it now reminds me that those teenagers we watched grow up grotesque and vivid onscreen are somewhere, someone else now. The girl I was ten years ago (literally, wow) is equally lost. Part of her thought she would return to Mars. But she didn’t (or did she?) and instead she faded through the years, through the ether.
Reality is a Stage Set/Baby the World’s Ending
J. G. Ballard famously said that ‘one of the things I took from my wartime experiences was that reality was a stage set’, whereby ‘the comfortable day-to-day life […] could be dismantled overnight’. I’m reminded of the closing scenes of Ashes to Ashes, where Daniel Mays’ devil-like character starts smashing up the office ‘stage set’ and revealing that this reality is really just a kind of limbo, suspended in starry space—all the characters, we suddenly realise, are already dead. This is a series that, as with Life on Mars, is constructed on the premise of a sort of techno-hauntology, where the characters find themselves cast back in time but connected to the present through various forms of twentieth-century media. Signals start crackling with uncanny resonance, spirits and voices carried across the ether.
In ‘Love’, the film’s stage set is revealed as suspended somehow in the rather grandiose setting of space. Seeing the truck spinning, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gene Hunt’s Quattro, this retro object that acquires nostalgic significance for the contemporary viewer. Why is it hurtling, in Lana’s video, towards the smouldering sun? The faces of the young folk in the car are seen glowing amber as the sun approaches, but they look happy rather than frightened. Somehow the video ends with the cool kids frolicking in this strange environment which could be anywhere, any planet. There are several moons in the sky. There’s a diner in the middle of nowhere. It feels a bit like Mars, all red canyons and desert sands. But there’s the blue water. These sublime landscapes evoke a sense of both fear and wonder as all the characters, including Lana, stare up at the sky. Are they scared of what lies beyond? For a generation whose futures are likely to be less well-off than their parents, whose hopes and dreams are clouded with rent-markets, dead-end jobs, cycles of unemployment and crippling student debt, the world of phantasmagoria evoked by the planets and stars seems a welcome retreat.
Like Clay in Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero, they spend endless time just floating. While Clay drives about on the LA freeways, these characters drive about in their trucks, then frolic in the wastelands of space. What Gen X and millennials have in common is that sense of suspension and boredom. Where millennials differ, perhaps, is in their urge towards something greater, a less jaded sense of existence. When pushed to the edge, where else to go but down into that abyss? Simon Reynolds explains this sense of suspended progress in the twenty-first century, where the problems Ellis’ characters faced in the eighties are even more accelerated within culture and social life:
our belief in progress itself has been shaken badly recently – by the resurgence of faith-based fundamentalisms, by global warming and toxic catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, by evidence that social and racial divisions are deteriorating rather than improving, by the financial crisis. In a destabilised world, ideas of durable tradition and folk memory start to appeal as a counterweight and a drag in the face of capitalism’s reckless and wrecking radicalism
(Reynolds 2011: 404).
It’s this drag that Lana’s languid beat creates. She assures us: “It doesn’t matter if I’m not enough / For the future or the things to come”. This is a bold statement in the goal-orientated universe we live in; a time when everything has to be justified, ticked in boxes, underlined with attaching transferable skills. ‘Love’ allows us to dwell on just being, on the non-instrumental connections we make with other humans. Like many LDR videos, ‘Love’ offers a form of escapism from reality, but unlike those other videos this is an escape we all live everyday. The anonymous teenagers/young adults featured in the video could be any of us; they are scaled down, their insignificance is made vivid by the appearance of huge celestial bodies. We literally transcend the Earth. So why not make it spiritual? After all, our planet is itself on the edge. We are living in the time of the Anthropocene. Isn’t it about time our pop-cultural heroine consulted the oracle and told us how best to look westwards?
“Baby don’t worry”: Lost in the Chora
Take previous LDR videos. ‘Born to Die’: the American flag, the imperial palace, the denim shorts and red baseball sneakers, tattoos and stretched ears, tigers and headlights, a lost highway, vampy red nails, the virginal white dress, sex, silence, a crown of summer flowers. A glut of signifiers. Money, power, glory. Oh wait, that’s another Lana song. The point is, we’re used to this sort of postmodern meta-play of signifiers when we’re watching a Lana video or listening to a Lana song. Like Ariel Pink, she works with readymade styles, retro-fitted fashions, vintage imagery and iconography. While Pink tends to work with a lo-fi, rough-edged, VHS aesthetic, the juicily plastic styles of the eighties, Lana favours the melancholy Hollywood dreams of the sixties. Those dark lashes, irresistible grin, hair so perfect you could frame it. ‘Love’ is a cinematic video; its very cover art suggests an old-school Hollywood film more than a new single. It’s got grandeur, it rises to what might be called ‘an intergalactic space opera’, although that sounds more like something Muse would get up to. We’re watching shooting stars stream silvery blue over a pyramid. What is a shooting star? A wish? And aren’t wishes necessarily orientated towards the future?
In opposition to an easy play of signifiers, ‘Love’ favours the expansive space of the sensuous and strange. Space itself, understood as whatever that mass of stars and matter that exists beyond our planet, is a bit like Plato’s chora. Or at least, the way it functions in Lana’s video (hell, I’m no astrophysicist). The chora is a kind of ‘mobile receptacle of mixing, of contradiction and movement’ (Kristeva 1977: 57); it is a womblike space which drive flows of renewal and infinite multiplicity within and beyond the subject. Think of a space in perpetual motion, no stasis allowed in its play of atoms. There is always a shimmering, a flickering between being, self, other. The language we use to describe this deconstructive flickering is, as Timothy Morton reminds us, ‘highly accurate’ at ‘a quantum scale’ (2015: 71). ‘When a verb is intransitive,’ he continues, ‘like flicker is, does the fact that it has no direct object mean that it represents a state of being or does it mean that it represents a state of doing—and if so, doing what to what?’ (Morton 2015: 72-73). What if ‘love’, as it appears in Lana’s new single, is an intransitive verb. To be in love is different from saying, ‘I love you’, ‘I love chocolate’ or ‘I love sunsets on the hottest days of June’. You’re not attaching the state to an object. There’s a sense of transition, passage, deferral between expression and feeling, the manifestation of a signifier. The space we inhabit in Lana’s song is a kind of chora, always undergoing some kind of self-rupture.
‘The chora, as rupture and articulations (rhythm), precedes evidence, verisimilitude, spatiality, and temporality’ (Kristeva 2001: 2170). Phantasmagoria are necessarily virtual images, superimposed on reality; the flicker of a hologram, a light display, a shower of fireworks, a neon sign flashing in the darkness. The blur of street-lamps in rain, the light of your phone glowing through a pink gauze of candy-floss, shimmers of fairy lights in a stranger’s window. There’s a sense of being seduced by the other side, by the beyond of the looking glass; nearly getting through but not quite. The allure of the surface, its invitation of depth that mistakes perception for layers of mirrors. The cameras filming ‘Love’ rupture time and space as they burst between different scenes, different worlds. Staring up at the stars is an old-fashioned Romantic image, but it seems less like the humans are projecting themselves onto the landscape, declaring their love as Keats did to the stars: ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—’. Rather, this is more an experience of the sublime: the camera’s focus is more on the characters’ eyes, which become reflective screens to the visual dramas unfolding. The world impresses itself upon us, we become but reflective surfaces in the endless refraction of this mysterious universe, its scintillations of colour and light, of divided time.
We view the subject in language as decentering the transcendental ego, cutting through it, and opening it up to a dialectic in which its syntactic and categorical understanding is merely the liminary moment of the process, which is itself always acted upon by the relation to the other dominated by the death drive and its productive reiteration of the “signifier”
(Kristeva 2001: 2175).
With the word ‘liminary’, I can’t help but think of luminary. Is light necessarily a transitive state between presence and darkness? Can one have presence in darkness? A luminary is someone who shines light, who inspires or influences others; but of course it is also a light-giving body, the sun and moon and stars. Lana, clad in white and seeming to emanate light from the stage, is easily the video’s luminary. I also can’t help but think of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, ‘turning away from the future to face the ruined landscape of the past’ (Love 2007: 5); she’s caught between past and future, deliberately shadowing the future with her turn to a retro-fitted past.
Liminary, on the other hand, is that which is placed at the beginning of the book; it is the instating moment of ‘the process’. ‘Love’ is the start of something new, even as it is grounded in retro culture. The mise-en-abyme of its central ballroom performance instates a rupture in discourse, the sensuous invitation to revel in its temporal infinitude, the possibility of abyss offered by sudden expansions of space-time, the spreading out into the galaxy. How do we relate to one another in this reconfigured universe, this endless opening of the book that leaves us stranded in the interval between what exists and future artistic possibility? The faces we encounter in the video are always Other, always slipping from our grasp as the camera gives us insufficient time to retain them. What is the signifier so constantly reiterated in ‘Love’? Why, love of course! And here, love is inseparable from death.
No Future: Rejecting Reproductive Futurity
The video’s inertia and the song’s refusal of the little death of musical climax enacts a kind of non-consumerist pleasure. Take a standard pop, rock or indie song. There’s the buildup, the verse/chorus repetitions, the climax (with its attendantly indulgent, masturbatory solo) and the middle eight, a swift denouement. It’s all over before you know it and there you are, gorged and glutted but ultimately empty as you were to begin with. It’s the standard model for masculine sexual desire, which is pretty much always ego-centred. You keep going back for more but the high lasts only as long as the song. ‘Love’ strains towards something more intangible, elastic; both evanescent and eternal, a sensuousness moving between bodies, minds, times—never entirely confined.
I think a clue to the video’s strange temporal dynamics is, perhaps, its conspicuous lack of non-heterosexual couples. If it’s a paean to love, it’s a very straight one. Why have her characters plunge into the fiery planet? Is this a heteronormative apocalypse?
There is a sense that this video is ghosted by a queer temporality. This opens up questions about identity, sexuality but also a more epochal sense of where we are now in terms of our experience of being and time.
According to Walter Benjamin (1940), one of the hallmarks of the modern era is a constant movement through “homogenous, empty time,” as opposed to the hauntings and co-occurrences of premodern civilisations and religious times. Attention to queer temporality explodes the idea of such homogenous and empty time, indicating the public face of white, heterosexual Western normativity as its vanguard.
(Cho 2015: 49)
Another striking thing about ‘Love’ is its white-washing. There are a few mixed-race characters but overwhelmingly these kids are the white youth. Maybe not quite Made in Chelsea-level, but nevertheless the video is pretty white. Now, while there’s been some controversy about Lana’s performative stylisation of racial tropes (and that’s a whole other essay on the topic of cultural appropriation), I don’t think white-washing is an inherent problem with Lana herself; she’s worked with people of colour in previous videos and in her touring band. So this instance of whiteness seems potentially deliberate. It’s part of a more general invoking of this hegemonic bloc, the young folk who we expect to have a wild youth and then grow up and settle into settled, middle-class heteronormative, reproductive lives. But what happens instead? They end up in this performative limbo, this space of the sublime, which is by definition ‘limitless’: ‘the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt’ (Kant, A Critique of Pure Reason). Lana offers us this impulse to strain beyond what the world, in all its narrow clarity, offers. She urges us to relish in the shadows, even as she emanates light and knowledge.
What are these shadows? Where are the queer and non-white hiding? As Lee Edelman (1998) points out, culture and society translate desire into temporality, into narrative; specifically, into the heteronormative teleological narrative of reproductive futurity. Fall in love so you can settle for a single partner, bind your desire in a capitalist social contract based on ideas of possession and commitment (marriage) and then help perpetuate the social order by having children and raising them to share your heteronormative ideologies. ‘Love’ unravels this teleological narrative of love. Those who fall out of the heterosexual camp are considered negative, ghostly, associated with the death drive since they do not reproduce. Lana, with her asynchronous depiction of sixties youth in the age of the smartphone, invokes a kind of time out of joint. As I’ve already said, these kids are trapped in stasis. The chora allows a sensuous, non-object related pleasure that goes beyond the consumer ethic or the typical romantic ethic of attachment. As they enter the waters of Mars (let’s just assume it’s Mars), they spread out from their initial couplings and form a collective of shared wonder. We’ve seen them plunge towards the fiery planet, the possible apocalypse that explodes instead into celestial beauty.
For Edelman, the project of queer theory is to embrace this association with the death drive:
Queer theory, then, should be viewed as a site at which a culturally repudiated irony, phobically displaced by the dominant culture onto the figure of the queer, is uncannily returned by those who propose to embrace such a figural identity within the figuralisation of identity itself.
(Edelman 1998: 27)
As discursive space, queer theory allows for ironically retaliating with an embrace of this phobic backwards queer. So imagery associating homosexuality with ghosts, vampires, absent figures and so on is vividly figured as an assertion of refusal, refusal to capitulate to reproductive futurity. In ‘Love’, the time of adolescence is transformed as these early models for future capitalism become ghosts, faces lit up in celestial white as they form a sort of playful colony on another planet. Their anonymous identities are held in stasis, prompting the audience to conjure for ourselves a narrative for their existence, their future.
By its very exclusion, the queer figure haunts Lana’s video. She reminds us that in Hollywood culture, rarely does a queer character get to share screen pleasure; but ultimately, the couples that do get together in ‘Love’ aren’t doing the old R’nB style dry hump in the back of a fancy car, but rather more innocently share in each other’s being. The moment of collectivity towards the video’s end when everyone looks up at the sky, just as before they looked at Lana, Angel of History, initiates a different kind of shared love. Friendship, perhaps, is just as important as romance. It’s all about a shared openness to the wonders around us. Maybe this is a sort of jouissance, that joy and bliss that cannot be pinned down simply to signifying object relations, ‘the sense of a violent passage beyond the circumscriptions inherent in meaning’ (Edelman 1998: 27). An experience of rupturing pleasure that can poke a hole in our normative sense of reality. However, as with most of Lana’s output, jouissance is inherently tied to the death drive, since by unravelling our symbolic reality, it also peels apart ‘the solidity of every object’, including the subject—making us painfully aware of our finitude, the void that stares back at us through the torn gauze of everyday signification (Edelman 1998: 27).
The Loop of Depression
Often referred to as ‘Hollywood sadcore’, Lana’s music is always inflected with a tragic undertone, a flirting with death (notoriously, she claimed in a Guardian interview that, ‘I wish I was dead already’), an atmosphere of darkness and depression. Depression works often by a loop logic. As Timothy Morton points out, the problem with depression is that it restricts temporality ‘to a diameter of ten minutes’: five in the past and five in the future. This narrowing translates into a kind of loop where one’s inability to think long-term forgoes the possibility of interrupting and re-directing the cycle of negative thought. The beats on ‘Love’ are tensely held; the song rarely develops beyond its repetitive ah-ah-ahs and it’s refrain of young and in love; while on the surface it seems affirmative, really it operates by a loop logic which betrays its cultural claustrophobia, its haunting. As my friend Scott points out, ‘Love’ also has a sound effect ‘that sounds like a metal bolt being locked’ which ‘reinforces how trapped we are in this loop’. And what exactly is this depressive ontology in which we are caught? How does Lana make it so seductive, even as she deconstructs its sources in heteronormative futurity and the existential despair of our millennial generation?
Depressive ontology is dangerously seductive because, as the zombie twin of a certain philosophical wisdom, it is half true. As the depressive withdraws from the vacant confections of the lifeworld, he unwittingly finds himself in concordance with the human condition so painstakingly diagrammed by a philosopher like Spinoza: he sees himself as a serial consumer of empty simulations, a junky hooked on every kind of deadening high, a meat puppet of the passions.
(Mark Fisher 2013: 61)
Being depressed highlights how much of a serial, looped existence we live on a daily basis, regardless of our mental health. It’s just capitalism. Only, unlike their ‘healthier’ or ‘more adjusted’ comrades, the depressed are unable to pursue this consumption of ‘empty simulations’ with any exuberance, feigned or otherwise. What’s the point in washing our hair when we’ll only have to do it again, when we’re not even sure what this body is or who it belongs to or what the fuck it’s doing in the world. When you don’t give a fuck about looking like that girl in the Loreal advert? Sylvia Plath’s protagonist Esther Greenwood, falling into clinical depression, says:
I hadn’t washed my hair for three weeks, either.
I hadn’t slept for seven nights.
The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly.
I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.
It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it.
I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.
(Plath, The Bell Jar)
The way Plath’s sentences spill out like lines of a poem, of code or fragmentary diary entries, indicate this sense of a loop: Esther can’t think beyond the next five minutes, and when she tries, she sees the infinitude of a ‘desolate avenue’. This is the future of the depressive, an endless repetition of mundanity that has no release from its shade. Esther has lost a sense of purpose or instrumentality: she cannot buy into the ideologies of femininity or self-care that justify the washing of one’s hair. She is, in body and mind, utterly exhausted.
What’s the point in having any faith in television, love, novels—the everyday detritus, landscapes and people of life itself—when everything reveals its inner hollowness, its lack of presence. The depressed see the emptiness in everything, the way everything concatenates, leads back round to the false positive of consumer logic. Maybe it’s a bit like seeing the world through Derrida’s eyes, but without Derrida’s flourishing ability to express it. Being depressed is actually—aside from the myriad debilitating physical and serious mental side effects—about having a very incisive and mostly, sadly, accurate view of the world. The problem is that there are ways of thinking through this loop and creating an alternative, positive subjectivity from the surrounding ruins; but when you’re stuck five minutes into the future and five into the past, this is pretty difficult to achieve.
So in a sense, ‘Love’ fetishises not death per se, but a depressive ontology which overshadows its surface celebration of exuberant love and celestial futurity, the astrological symbolism of possibilities to-come—future predictions. As with Esther Greenwood’s white boxes and black shade, Lana works with a monochrome logic of feedback loops (the audience viewing the artwork which we as audience are presently viewing), the symbiotic, repeated exchange between black and white, presence and absence, past and future. We are gifted with her “vintage music”, with the siren song of the past spreading into the celestial bounds of tomorrow. The sixties were a decade of utopian promise, representing the hope of future freedoms being realised in the present through protest, communes, youth culture—putting new ways of living into practice. In ‘Love’, the stylised invocation of the sixties represents the lost futures which our generation has been outcast from by the structural logic of late capitalism, its favouring of those who came before us, its refusal to invest in the infrastructure of youth and its possibility. The sixties can only appear here in the cinematic vintage of nostalgia.
The sound that comes “through satellites while cruising” could refer to the satellites of the present, the ones that structure the global interconnectedness of the internet, of broadcast television, the possibility of a rhizomatic exchange of divergent (and, hopefully, ideologically and temporally subversive) dreams that goes beyond the one-way projection of Hollywood’s cinematic vision of heteronormative LOVE. The word ‘cruising’ evokes the sense of pointless drifting, the sensuous and pleasurable experience of sailing around without definition of purpose that we find in the chora; in the way the characters float without gravity in space, surrounded by the suspended debris of identity, with smartphones and skateboards. It also, however, connotes the act of wandering around in search of a (casual) sexual partner, a practice often associated with gay culture. Once again, the spectre of the non-heterosexual returns to haunt this vision of sensuous, anti-teleological pleasure. Casual hook-ups rupture the reproductive marriage logic of possession; they instate a consumer attitude of recycled desires. Yet Lana’s video, unlike many contemporary music videos, doesn’t portray a vacuous array of club meet-ups leading to casual sex. It moves towards something sensuous, visionary and strangely warm and beautiful. There’s genuine affect, as Lana smiles and sings her way through this weird journey. She celebrates a kind of jouissance which seems to exist outside of reproductive futurity, outside of capitalism, outside of the Earth as we know it. Is this where we Millennials are headed? Will only the choice, privileged few get to share in this utopia, as is apparent in the video? Whose vintage dream is this, anyway?
Cho, Alexander, 2015. ‘Queer Reverb: Tumblr, Affect, Time’, Networked Affect, ed. by Ken Hillis, Susanna Paasonen and Michael Petit, (London: MIT Press), pp. 43-59.
Fisher, Mark, 2013. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Alresford: Zero Books).
Freud, Sigmund, 1914-1916. ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement: Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, Vol. 14, trans. by James Strachey, (London: Hogarth Press), pp. 243-258.
Heather Love, 2007. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (London: Harvard University Press).
Morton, Timothy, 2015. ‘Sparkle Time Time Sparkle’, in Sophie Sleigh-Johnson, Chtonic Index (Southend: Focal Point Gallery), pp. 66-79.
Reynolds, Simon, 2011. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (London: Faber and Faber).
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, loosely inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking ecological text, Silent Spring (1962), one of the characters complains that he was at a restaurant and the ‘eel tasted of petroleum’. This is a film landscaped by oil rigs, the persistent murmur of a dull grey dying sea, industrial structures whirring with eerie electricity. While there is a distinct sense of disconnection between characters, between humans and their environment, one connection that persists is between excess, waste and the body. While nowadays fish change genders due to oestrogen from the Pill being excreted and pumped from sewage into rivers, in Antonioni’s film, haunted by the apocalyptic backdrop of the Cold War, the characters worry about their food getting cloaked in some essence of what gets dumped and yet is also extracted from the sea. A perverse cycle of waste, energy, wasted energy.
This early expression of ecological disaster as embedded in a fear of contamination, of sliminess mixing with toxic sliminess, has its roots even further back, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). After shooting the albatross and overcoming a terrible, supernatural (super as in extra nature, nature made unnatural by being its full strong self) storm, the mariner finds himself suspended in the aftermath, ‘as idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’ (Coleridge 2015). This sense of time frozen, of the environment refusing to yield to human command, is uncanny, a reminder that the land isn’t just something we can divide and conquer. The image of idleness and a ‘painted ocean’ recalls the experience of a crashed computer screen, hung or ‘frozen’ as the mariner is in the sheets of ice ‘green as emerald’ (Coleridge 2015). Think of a typical glitch, that which overlaps colour, blends unrelated materials together in a random, patchwork image. The ice is the colour of grass, yet still we are in the ocean. This is an environment without location, an ‘anywhere’ of strange displacement. This is the place of the ecological glitch.
Rosa Menkman describes a glitch as ‘a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident’(2011: 9). While we are dealing in poems like Coleridge’s with a ‘natural’ system as opposed to a digital one, the strange effect of ‘accident’ persists. ‘Nature’ is never as it seems, never ‘natural’ but always unexpected, strange. Systems follow patterns which glitch; the patterns themselves, like evolution, proceed often by a logic of chance, randomness. The weather in The Ancient Mariner is not just climate, a conventional flow of data to be charted and forecasted; but it is positively weird. Weird in the etymological sense identified by Timothy Morton as ‘a turn or twist or loop, a turn of events’, the ‘flickers [of] a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing’ (2016: 5). We question whether the crime of shooting the albatross instigates this ecological horror, which culminates in the monstrous appearance of ‘a million million slimy things’ which the mariner sees surrounding the ship. Like Antonioni’s petroleum eels, these slimy things are stuck with the human character, they have by proximity or digestion become enmeshed, to borrow another term from Morton, the idea that ‘nothing exists by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself”’ (2010: 15). The mariner realises his own surprising mortality, just as the slimy things ‘liv’d on – so did I’. His attempt to lump the slimy things as one gelatinous mass of gross matter leaves him realising that he can’t distance himself from the ugly parts of nature, because he himself is part of the mass, that mesh of beings.
We might now describe Coleridge’s flirtation with the supernatural as a kind of magical realism, and the trend of using such weird elements to render ecological themes continues in a short story written by Karen Russell and published in the New Yorker in 2016. ‘The Bog Girl’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, Cillian, who works as a turf-cutter in the peatlands of some ambiguous ‘green island off the coast of northern Europe’, inflected with hints of Heaney’s hardy Irish pastoralism. Cillian falls in love with a young girl pulled from the bog; she is ‘whole and intact, cocooned in peat, curled like a sleeping child’ with ‘lustrous hair’ dyed ‘wild red-orange’ by the ‘bog acids’ (Russell 2016a). Crucially, there is a noose round her neck. She is young in appearance but probably 2000 years old; her flame-haired and gaunt appearance recalls Celtic/Pictish origins as well as a ragged Pre-Raphaelitism, which hints at Cillian’s weird fetishisation of her beauty. The story that unfolds can be read as a love story, a tale of caution against projecting your ideal fantasies onto ‘the mask of another person’s face’ (Russell 2016b); but here I will read it as a tale of ecological horror that warns of the dangers of industry and celebrates the sensuous mysteries of the peatlands as something that deserves preserving.
Our current era, the Anthropocene, is one of distorted scale, where constantly we deposit chemicals into the atmosphere and earth whose afterlife beyond our own we can barely even gauge as mortal humans. Russell’s story explores this (im)possible meeting of temporalities through an encounter with strangeness which allows us to mull upon our relationship with the earth, to realise our absolute enmeshment with the environment. No matter the narratives we construct through history and science, all human theory is at best the ‘most speculative fiction’; while improvements in science (‘radiocarbon dating, DNA testing’) allow us to trace the ‘material fragments’ as ‘clues’ about our ancestors’ experience, ‘their inner lives remain true blanks’ (Russell 2016b). At one point, Cillian decides it’s time he met the Bog Girl’s family, so he takes a ferry from the island to a museum. He scans the museum’s labels, which attempt to give context to the ‘pickled bodies from the Iron Age’, but is unsatisfied by these attempts to ‘surmise’ details about the ancestors’ lives based on material detail alone (Russell 2016:a). Their bodies are ‘fetally scrolled’ (Russell 2016a), suggesting that screeds more of history are inscribed on their skin like ink upon scrolls, a literal blending of flesh and text. The inadequacy of the museum labels allows Cillian to continue his fantasy that the Bog Girl appeared for him alone, that she ‘was an alien from a planet that nobody alive could visit—the planet Earth, in the first century A.D.’ (Russell 2016a); none of the other ancestors stir the same emotion as the Bog Girl. Love becomes a token, a talisman of magical power: ‘He told no one his theory but polished it inside his mind like an amulet: it was his love that was protecting her’ (Russell 2016a).
Russell’s narrative sustains this fantasy, resisting the natural outcome which would be the Bog Girl’s rapid decomposition upon exposure to air. This commitment to a magical realist effect allows her to explore problems of intimacy and otherness, which relate deeply to ecological issues. Take the bog itself. Russell describes it as a primitive hole, the ‘watery mires where the earth yawns open’, a place where time is suspended by a ‘spell of chemical protection’ which prevents the decomposition of matter: ‘Growth is impossible, and death cannot complete her lean work’ (2016a). Her rendering of the bog is crucial to the story for its associations with the suspended temporality embodied in the Bog Girl. We are told that much of the peat is cut away to turf, a key energy source still used by the islanders, and ‘nobody gives much thought to the fuel’s mortuary origins’ (Russell 2016a). Death, a haunting presence seemingly without telos, lingers in the earth, in the home; the Bog Girl weirdly embodies our paradoxical relationship to natural fuel sources: we consume them to produce energy, but our consuming instigates the loop of destruction—de-energising the earth—pumping poisons and coagulating into new forms of deadly matter. The peat bogs are a kind of charnel ground, already containing the detritus of bodies and time in a ‘disturbing intimacy […] that exists beyond being and non-being’ (Morton 2009: 76). The bogs are both ‘shit’ and ‘fuel’ (Russell 2016a), embodying the waste we must expel to maintain presence and order; but also refusing this separation, stickily gluing us through interdependence (the islanders need it for fuel) just like those slimy things reminding the mariner of mortality.
Moreover, the introduction to the bog includes the narrator’s address to the reader, the only such address in the story. The narrator remarks of the island, ‘it’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit’. This seemingly throwaway comment interpellates (in Althusser’s sense of the word as a ‘hailing’ of subjectivity within ideology) the reader as a global consumer, whose ‘circuit’ references a sort of capitalist freeway (the places we drift through for pleasure) as much as it slyly hints at the cycles of life/death which are interrupted in the text. From the start, we are made to feel as outsiders in this community, which is self-consciously established as a wasteland of sorts, off the circuit, the beaten track; a charnel ground for exploring the mystical possibilities of strangeness and ecological intimacy.
What’s more, her association with primitivism and death links the Bog Girl to the past in a way that is queer, that disrupts the reproductive logic of heteronormative capitalism, a disruption that Cillian welcomes. Cillian ‘imagined, with a strange joy, the narrow life’ he and the Bog Girl ‘would lead. No children, no sex, no messy nights vomiting outside bars, no unintended pregnancies […] no promises’ (Russell 2016a). Note again that word, ‘strange’. The Bog Girl’s body is bounded; she will never consume nor produce waste, will never reproduce to bring more consumers upon the earth; with her, Cillian shrugs off the lusty masculinity of the ‘mouth-breathers’ (Russell 2016a) who help dig up the Bog Girl, he deviates from the established gender norms. Indeed, Cillian’s docility, his placid detachment from the rugged rural manliness of those who surround him (personified most perfectly in his uncle, who refers to the Bog Girl as a ‘cougar’ and has ‘a thousand beers’ laid out for himself at dinner) renders Cillian a queer figure, ‘so kind, so intelligent, so unusual, so sensitive—such an outlier in the Eddowis family that his aunts had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay’ (Russell 2016a).
Yet while the Bog Girl embodies a queer backwardness, more specifically she offers an openness of temporality, a strange oscillation between past and future rather than an obsessional projection towards the future. Derrida (1994) explains the promise as bound up in the logic of messianism, the guarantee of the future to-come of some saving force that would sweep up history. Remember the religious breathlessness which narrates Cillian’s discovery of the Bog Girl: ‘The bog had confessed her’ (Russell 2016a), as if she were a message passed on from a Neolithic age. Yet Cillian is oblivious to the fact that his love is itself the promise of an (unspeakable) secret, a promise of a present without future, a seamless overlapping of present and a past that can never again be as time demands its rupture, the Event of her eventual, unexpected awakening. The silence between them, the Bog Girl’s inability to speak, indicates his sense that love can be their pre-linguistic communication, an avowal without trace; but this originary language is impossible:
Invented for the genealogy of what has not happened and the event of which will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a pre-originary language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a foreword, a lost language of origin. It can only be a language of arrival or rather of the future (une langue d’arrivée ou plutôt d’avenir), a promised sentence, a language of the other, again, but entirely other than the language of the other as language of master or coloniser [and now I emphasise], although the two of them can sometimes announce between them, keeping them in secret or holding them in reserve, so many troubling resemblances.
(Derrida 1998: 61)
This ‘language of the other’ breaks down the classically patriarchal imposition of telos and closure upon the Bog Girl: she will be his forever faithful silent Angel in the House; that is, until she starts speaking. Cillian’s aphasia, ‘a stutter that had been corrected at the state’s expense’ (Russell 2016a), hints at his own problematised presence in the text, since commonly we associate speech with presence. He lacks the authoritative Word, is himself described as a queerish glitch in (human) nature, a ‘thin, strange boy’, ‘once a bug-eyed toddler’, whose grownup, ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a) bely an inherent connection to both land and water—there’s a suggestion of his slightness, his precarious and translucent appearance in the world. The mutuality of recognised love he comprehends with the Bog Girl is this ‘secret’ which excludes his mother and friends, which makes others jealous; and yet it is also a source of troubling disruption, the threat that emerges in the master/servant dynamic symbolised by the noose round the Bog Girl’s neck, which Cillian tightens as his ‘fantasy life’ grows deeper (Russell 2016a). And what is ‘the language of arrival’? It is the Bog Girl’s coming-to-life, her messianic resurrection into present existence.
The irony of the story is that Cillian and indeed all the human characters in the story failed to predict this resurrection. The Bog Girl is adored or feared precisely because she skims with death; the body-conscious girls at Cillian’s school are ‘jealous of how little she ate’, the vice-principal sees her as shedding ‘an exciting new perspective on our modern life’ through her contrasting connection to the past (at this moment, the Bog Girl ‘had slumped into his aloe planter’), the fear among Cillian’s mother and aunts is that she will drag him away from the safety net of respectable surveillance: ‘“I’m afraid,”’ Gillian, the mother, confesses, ‘“if I put her out of the house, he’ll leave with her”’ (Russell 2016a). There is no suggestion of the Bog Girl’s autonomy here; rather, she is seen as embodying a terrifying strangeness that might contaminate ‘innocent’ Cillian. But then she wakes up. Her ‘radish-red’ lashes are vegetable (in the sense of passivity and organic matter) companions to Cillian’s ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a); she too is an earthling, bound to the bog in an inexplicably deep, mournful way. Her awakening is erotic, marked by ‘a blush of primal satisfaction’; it is only at this point that their relationship emerges fully into what Donna Haraway calls that of companion species, whose interdependence is based on mutuality, in ‘forbidden conversation’ (Haraway 2008: 16). Haraway says of her relationship to her canine friend:
I’m sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. Some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living will surely leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. […] We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy
(Haraway 2008: 16).
It is only when the Bog Girl awakens that the relationship becomes properly ‘in the flesh’; she has learned the communion of erotic love, is ‘tugging at his boxers’, but at this point Cillian is tipped into the abyss of signifying rupture: ‘something truly terrifying had happened: she loved him back’ (Russell 2016a). The nasty developmental infection called love’ rips apart his perfect communion of static silence. The Bog Girl’s language ‘was no longer spoken anywhere on earth’, it is a primitive cry from the depths of the peatlands, which Cillian cannot answer because he is indifferent to the Other as anything more than his own anthropocentric projection: ‘The past, with its monstrous depth and span, reached toward him, demanding an understanding that he simply could not give’ (Russell 2016a). We might think of the title from Jonathan Bate’s crucial ecological polemic, The Song of the Earth (2000), or a strange, aberrant passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), where a vagrant woman whose ‘rude’ mouth is a ‘rusty pump’ (signifying, perhaps, the decay of industry, its material crudeness) singing a song of ‘love which has lasted a million years’ (Woolf 2004: 70-71). The idea of song suggests an ambient music that stretches onwards without climax and fall, echoing past and future in its rasping cry. The eerie, anthropomorphic crackles, growls, roars and howls that come from the ice in The Ancient Mariner. What would the earth sound like, speaking back? Surely it would be our own cry, endlessly deferred; the echolalia of life forms caught in this experience together, entangled in the rendering of a dark and dying world.
In many ways, the Bog Girl is animal, Other; she is not quite human. Better then to think of her as someone who embodies the terrifying intimacy of all life-forms, which brush up against one another, bearing their various sensations and temporalities. While the mariner comes to admire those gross ‘slimy things’, noting their ‘rich attire’ and blessing them with a whiff of Romantic kitsch as ‘happy living things!’ (Coleridge 2015), Cillian finds himself caught between the Bog Girl’s world and his own, ‘struggling to pay attention to his droning contemporaries in the cramped classroom’ (Russell 2016a). Referring to his classmates as ‘contemporaries’ reinforces their association with the present; juxtaposing with Cillian’s mournful retracing of steps, back ‘to the lip of the bog’ (Russell 2016a), the word ‘lip’ suggesting both spatial liminality and the erotic possibility of the temporal and primordial lacuna that lies within. We can think of the Bog Girl as what Morton (2010: 41) calls the ‘strange stranger’, a word for all life-forms which encapsulates the way that even those closest to us are inherently weird, because they remind us that we are not wholly ourselves, that we too are composites of life-forms, viral code, enmeshments of DNA.
Although the Bog Girl always seems close—we get vivid details of her ‘rhinestone barettes’, her ‘face which was void of all judgement’ (Russell 2016a))—indeed she becomes a vital component of Cillian’s life, ultimately he is forced to realise her absolute strangeness. Unlike the mariner he is unable to overcome that gap of Otherness and make peace with the uncanny experience of the ecological mesh. He goes down, enticed by the ‘lip’ of the bog, listening for the ‘primitive eloquence’ of ‘the air-galloping insects continu[ing] to speak the million syllables of [the Bog Girl’s] name’ (Russell 2016a). At the end, the narrative becomes ambient, with a distortion of inside/outside, self/other:
“Ma! Ma! Ma!” That night, Cillian came roaring out of the dark, pistoning his knees as he ran for the light, for his home at the edge of the boglands. “Who was that?”
My immediate assumption here is that Cillian is calling “Ma!” for his mother, a riff on the Irish references of the piece which are probably a nod to Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems (1975). However, it’s not clear; elsewhere she is usually referred to with the Americanism, “Mom”. Cillian himself has adopted a primitive roar, which rips through the resonant chorus of insects as if refusing their incantations of the Bog Girl’s presence. The call for the mother seems vaguely directed, a generalised cry for help rising from pure terror as he runs for the light. ‘“Who was that?”’, embedded in the same line, seems to come from Cillian, but equally it could come from his mother back home, or even the boglands themselves, watching this skinny boy run off from the darkness. A mutual sharing of strangeness. This is an affective, fleshly and sensuous experience of horror that the written texts, the museum labels, cannot document. There is always a possible slippage, which Russell literalises in the Bog Girls’ figure. Nature has betrayed its accident, the glitched intrusion of the prehistoric past upon a modern present. While Red Desert more overtly projects the ecological breakdown of the external world through the increasingly disordered mind of its female protagonist, ‘The Bog Girl’ leaves us with an unsettling vision of lingering presence: the insects singing the elegy of her name, a name which tremors, sends nightmares to Cillian, which resonates with the bog, itself a microcosm of a wasting, gurgling, plundered world. Is this a haunted logic for future coexistence? We’ll have to take the plunge to find out…it’s going to be dark, sticky and maybe dangerous…
Bennington, Geoffrey, 2004. Other Analyses: Reading Philosophy (Bennington Books).
A Voicemail for Some Scots Poet (scrawled in bed on the morning of Burns Night)
Your thatched roof I hid under with a jar
of rhubarb & custards, birthday gift for a friend
of the old-fashioned sort. Hiding my anxiety
with the pishing rain and roses for eyes,
I tried not to cry with the waiting.
Alloway was never the place for me,
though tourists once snapped my photo
sitting at the bus stop in my pinafore; maybe because
the bus never came as before and I seemed to them
an exhibit of the idle, plaited poet, crouched
and concrete with schoolbag and notebook.
I tried then to draw out my longing
but the salt water was sore and washed
each sketch away. At fourteen I took blackouts in the park
with the help of old Glens and Bell’s whisky.
Now they keep putting pictures of your face
under the hair of Che Guevara but my wi-fi
is shite as I look farther for the secrets
of some revolutionary conspiracy
known only to Twitter.
You were the smell of burnt haggis
in primary school kitchens, the passion
of incompetent, childish longing;
every January blackened for lack of snow
or a coffee topped with Irish cream
and dreams of home.
I’m trying to make you more of a meme
but the birds sing merrily of some Scots
that got tangled in my mouth, made a scandal
of the girls slinging glittery hooks
against the Ayrshire weather, dreich and pitiful
in the stench of manure and nicotine.
You made poetry from head-lice and folktales
while I’m starting out on madness and palm trees
and the single best beat to snatch, ecstatic
from a still calm sea. Dylan loved you
and god knows I share your fetish for roses,
though mine are long-glitched out of semantics
or flourishing poesy. The inevitable middle name; the rose is a dead rose, a broken cable.
Every time they sing Auld Lang Syne
the spell snaps tight like the cutting of tartan
on a slut’s dress as she readies herself legendarily for bewitching auld Ayr’s errant men. I love her
with the crimson candled extravagance
of the urban occultist, dull and lonely. She’s got legs
enough to kick them in the Doon when she’s finished,
chortling like a slot machine.
A match, perhaps, for the farmers of the toon
who tossed my friend in a hedge when he tried to join them at school
in talk of fags and cattle and the internet equivalent
of cutty sarks. It’s a fell swoon for the rest of us,
with ardent cries for freedom
from the trendy alt-truths of southern politicians
and the armies of bagpipes swarming the park
to practice for every month of fucking summer.
That hot breath steaming the January air,
some promise for Scots blood running cold in the veins
of my milky Englishness. I’d swap it all
to be back there, sugar-tongued and sweeter
in teenage confusion, rain spilling off
the thatched roof, every drop fused
with a purer kind of truth like the shape of your words (Romantic).
Can you call me dear Rabbie,
if you’re able? I’m waiting, but the rose
is a dead rose, a broken cable.