Monday, January 02, 2006

There Is Nothing Left to Fear

After I'd come across an unconscious Hurricane Katrina theme in my best of 2005 mix CD, I looked at the rest of the songs I'd been lining up to include on the album. After discarding some that didn't thematically fit at all, I noticed that while several of them couldn't be shoehorned into the Katrina mythology I'd cooked up, except tangentially at best, they did have a different and complimentary coherence.

The Mountain Goats' "This Year" is a salutary example. Like all of the songs from the excellent The Sunset Tree album, it tells a story about a heartbreaking and an almost jubilant urge to self-destruction punctuated with fights with an abusive stepfather. I liked how the narrator's "We played video games in a drunken haze / I was seventeen years young" dovetailed into The Hold Steady's "Lord to be seventeen forever" on "Stevie Nix." But mostly it was the attitude of defiance in the face of catastrophe that appealed to me and seemed to fit into the schema I was putting together. I loved the shifting narrative reference of the choral refrain: "I am gonna make it through this year / If it kills me." "This year" could be any year -- the year the narrator was seventeen or now, at the moment of the utterance. The lesson seemed to be that recognition of destruction in the past steeled you to face it in the present, even if ultimate destruction was inevitable.

I've written briefly before about Walter Benjamin and the Angel of History -- ironically enough, in the context of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea -- but it's worth mentioning some quotes again:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
--- Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History"
It's strange -- for a nonbeliever, I have a strange affinity for religious visions of the apocalypse. Benjamin's concept of history as a single, unending catastrophe -- which, for him, culminated but did not conclude in the rise of fascism and his own suicide -- almost coincides with a Gnostic vision of our universe as trash, a kind of cosmic accident. I say almost, because the key difference for Benjamin, and what makes his concept of history a Jewish-Marxist one rather than a fully Christianized one, is that redemption is not spiritual or for the soul alone, and that there is and can be no other world but this one -- flawed and failed though it might be.

I've already identified the apocalyptic vision animating Andrew Bird's beautiful "Tables and Chairs" -- one which reconciles the catastrophe with a kind of foolish hope. But I found a better statement of purpose in the verses of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood":
Now that everybody's here
Can we please have your attention
There is nothing left to fear
No, now that Bigfoot is captured
And the children are all right...
There is danger in the night
There are things we can't control but
Will we give ourselves a fright
When we become less than human?...
We are men who stay alive
Who send your children away now
We are calling from a tower
Expressing what must be everyone's opinion
They are going out to bars
And they are getting into cars
I've seen them with my own eyes
America, please help them!...
The line "There Is Nothing Left to Fear" immediately reminded me of Neutral Milk Hotel's "Ghost":
And there she goes
And now she knows
She'll never be afraid
To watch the morning paper blow
Into a hole
Where no one can escape
The most debilitating part of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has been the cynical attempt to manipulate Americans into being afraid -- not by the terrorists, but by actors within our own government. Hurricane Katrina both exposed the extent to which we were not (and quite possibly could not) protected from disaster and offered up new images to play on our fears.

The lesson Benjamin offers, and which I've embraced, is this: catastrophe is the rule rather than the exception of history. Furthermore, once this is admitted, there is not only nothing one can do to insulate oneself from the storm of history, but there is nothing to fear even from disaster itself. We are absolved from our sense of our own importance -- after all, we are all, and have always been, already dead.

This was when I decided to title my mix CD "There Is Nothing Left to Fear."

No comments: