Thursday, July 23, 2020

Love Not in Ruins

I have listened to music for two and a half days. For two and a half days, a continuous stream has played and I haven't had to do anything but pause it and then play it again. Songs have played from the British Invasion through the 1970s and '80s and into the alternative rock of the 1990s. I have worked on an art project while listening, and I have thought about art and the eternal moment, about the passage of time, about nostalgia and the loss of the irretrievable past. I have also thought of our current situation and the pain and suffering and loneliness that it has brought with it. The stream has ended. But while listening, I read comments on the music that made it. So many of these comments are filled with expressions of loss, grief, pain, loneliness, and pangs of memory and nostalgia. I also read about bands, singers, and musicians, and some of their lyrics, too. And through all of it, I have come out with such an uplifting feeling. Despite all of the terrible things going on in the world and that have gone on in our lives, I feel uplifted. This feeling comes from the timeless power of art--of music, images, and words and all of the things they express, none greater than love.

We attach popular culture, especially popular music, to time. We remember listening when we were young, remember the people, many of whom have been carried away by time and circumstance, who introduced us to it or listened with us. We remember our youth and the comfort that music offered us in difficult times and the promise it offered, too, that things would one day be better. We remember the people whom we loved as well as the beginnings of love that still, mercifully, thankfully, lives. There is power in this music, when the voices rise or turn or the music swells, power in the words, like chants or incantations--"Everything is love" or "It's like tears/It's like love"--power in the hypnotic jangle and simple words of "Get Together," the drive and vivid imagery of "Achilles Last Stand," the sweetness and expressiveness of Marty Balin's voice, the big, rousing sound and sentiment of "A Sort of Homecoming" (who setting the needle down for the first time on the first track of The Unforgettable Fire has ever forgotten the experience?), and the white-hot brilliance and depth of feeling in the music of The Smashing Pumpkins. You can substitute your own groups, singers, and songs for the ones I have mentioned here and all of those that I haven't but to which I listened anyway. You can play your own two-and-a-half-day-long stream of music. My hope is that during that time and afterwards, you will feel uplifted, too.

In these videos and streams there are so many comments of nostalgia, and this makes me think about something that has been on my mind a lot, including in regards to this blog and its subject. I have said before that we seem to be living among the ruins of a once great civilization. Like people in the Dark Ages picking through the ruins of the Roman Empire, we gather bricks and stones for our huts and hovels and build little or nothing ourselves. We mine the past for everything we can, including thirty-year-old music, forty-year-old movies and television shows, and fifty-year-old comic books. We also mine pulp fiction, which existed only in and for a brief time, as well as its genres, which have proved a little more durable. I am as guilty as anybody. My current art project is about things that happened decades ago. I have drawn comic book stories of Golden Age superheroes. And I write this blog about a magazine that ended before I was born, and of course about its authors and artists, who are all dead, or if they're not all dead, they are, like Westley in The Princess Bride, mostly dead.

As I listened to this music that is itself attached in our minds to certain times and places--especially as I read comments about the music--I began to think of the necessity of an escape from a serious dilemma and how we might make it. The dilemma is this: If we attach music--or any art form--to any particular time, place, person, or situation, then once it is gone, then the music is gone, too. If it is only for a moment, then when that moment and all memory and experience of it are gone--when the last person who remembers it from the first time around dies--then the music dies, too. There's nothing wrong with attaching music to our lives and to the people and events in our lives, but I think it has to be attached to something greater and more lasting. It has to go on, not just lasting into the ruins that come after it but living and breathing in the eternal moment. It has to be able to mean as much to the person who comes after it as to the person who first experienced it. It can't die with the death of any or all. It has to go on, and if it can, then it can exist outside of time, in an eternal and inextinguishable moment, as an imperishable creation and a true work of art.

People still enjoy pulp fiction and pulp genres, but aren't we now just picking among ruins? I kind of think so. That's one of the reasons I closed my previous article with the question, does it really matter? We are absorbed in minutiae. We endlessly masticate the past like a cow with its cud. (How else is it pulped after all?) We write endless papers and stories about pulp fiction and its authors. (Guilty.) We're always trying to gain new insights into the past. (Guilty.) We want to be the ones to discover something new (Guilty) and to form new explanatory theories, not just about this or that small thing but about the whole thing. We want to be the ones to postulate the Grand Unified Field Theory about individual authors and whole genres, all the way down to the level of the sentence and word,* all the way down to the sub-sub-genre of which we ourselves just happen to be the discoverer, namer, and chief and usually sole theorist.

Why exactly? Does it really matter? How far are we going to go in all of this? (Or I guess I should ask, how far am I going to go in all of this?) The coming of the coronavirus has set into high relief vital things against those of little importance, against the minutiae with which we become absorbed and into which the living of our lives becomes lost. Feelings of nostalgia are natural and human. There is pleasure and an ache in them, thus the attraction, I guess. But I think that if we are going to live full lives--lives lived in the present rather than in the no-longer-possible and gone-forever past--we will have to separate art from our feelings of nostalgia and let it inform, inspire, and uplift us, no matter the time, place, or situation in which we live. More importantly, I think we have to bring into the world the things that art makes as its subjects. Beauty, yes, and other things, too, but most importantly, vitally, centrally--love. There must be love. We must create it, cultivate it, nurture it, propagate it, and never let it die. Living and loving don't have to be only in the past. They can be now. They must be--there must be love, life, art, and other acts of creation in the now. They must never end and never die.

*Some time ago I read a story of a historian who some people thought had changed the meaning of America by her discovery of a faded dash in the Declaration of Independence. Yes, seriously, that's what they thought.

Copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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