Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Affection and Affectation

"Some cynical Frenchman has said that there are two parties to a love-transaction: the one who loves and the other who condescends to be so treated."

Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Part of me--a brisk, imperious, tolerating-no-fools-gladly side of me--delights in this. This is deflationary fact, nothing in excess of what is the case. As Wallace Stevens icily wrote, "Let the lamp affix its beam."

And yet...this observation, while surely occasional fact, cannot be truth, or at least the whole truth. For as I reminded myself recently (it's not original), fact is immune to our needs and desires, while truth should not be.

And then there are the Avett Brothers, a (mostly) North Carolina trio whose new record, I and Love and You, I've been enjoying. The CD package includes a preposterous but nonetheless affecting "mission statement" that illuminates for me what I like about the band's music and overall ethos: their honesty, sincerity, and pathos, but also their naivete, painful earnestness, and bathos. Depending on the day, I have either the former virtues or the latter vices, either buoyantly bobbing on the waves or floating bombastically into the heavens. I am, at least, capable of self-puncturing (or is this merely a kind of meta-bombast?). The Avett Brothers' previous record, which was superb, was entitled Emotionalism; that says it all.

I know this "mission statement" for what it is, something I myself could have written, most likely a dozen or more years ago, perhaps after a couple of glasses of wine. Only the most desperately loyal readers of this blog will make it to the end of this Avett Brothers statement, which may belong in some twisted "Purple to Purple" site:

The words "I" and "Love" and "You" are the watermark of humanity. Strung together, they convey our deepest sense of humility, of power, of truth. It is our most common sentiment, even as the feeling of it is so infinitely uncommon: each to proclaim these three words with his or her very own heart and mindset of reason (or lack thereof); a proclamation completely and perfectly new each time it is offered. Uttered daily and nightly by millions, the words are said in an unending array of circumstances: whispered to the newborn in a new mother's arms; shared between best friends on the playground; in the form of sympathy--said by a girl to a boy as the respect continues but the relationship does not. It is said too loudly by parents to embarrassed children in the company of their friends, and by grown children--to their fading parents in hospital beds. The words are thought in the company of the photograph and said in the company of the gravestone. It is how we end our phone calls and our letters...the words at the bottom of the page that trump all those above it, a way to gracefully finish a message, however important or trivial, with the most meaningful gift of all: the communication of love. And yet the words themselves have been the victims of triviality, a ready replacement for lesser salutations among near strangers, burst forth casually as "love ya." Truly? To what degree? Why, how much, and for how long? These are questions befitting the stature of love, though not the everyday banter of vague acquaintance. The words have also been twisted by the dark nature of deceit: to say "I love you" with a dramatic measure of synthetic emotion; a snare set by those who prey upon fellow humanity, driven to whatever selfish end, to gain access to another's body, or their money, or their opportunity. In this realm, the proclamation is disgraced by one seeking to gain rather than to give. In any case, and by whatever inspiration, these words are woven deeply into the fibers of our existence. Our longing to hear them from the right place is maddeningly and simultaneously our finest strength and our most gentle weakness. The album "I and Love and You" is unashamedly defined by such a dynamic of duality. As living people, we are bound by this unavoidable parallel. We are powerful yet weak, capable yet temporary. Inevitably, an attempt to place honesty within an artistic avenue will follow suit. This is a piece which shows us as we are: products of love surrounded by struggle. The music herein is, in many ways, readable as both a milestone and an arrival. A chapter in the story of young men, it bridges the space between the uncertainty of youth and the reality of its release. The record is full with the quality of question and response. As far as questions go, there are plenty...

Oh my, I couldn't even finish transcribing it. Yes, there are plenty of questions here, like What are you thinking by putting this turgid mess into the liner notes? (Fortunately, the music is far better). Yes, some of what it expresses does capture a faint glimmer of truth, but only in the same way that, say, Bach's B Minor Mass played on solo tuba captures a faint glimmer of beauty. This is the kind of thing that might drive me back to the Beastie Boys and Licensed to Ill.

What the Avetts seemed to be after is that "love," like "war" or "God," is a word that is wholly inadequate to the phenomena it purports to describe; words fail, and they are susceptible to debasement. When someone quipped that "all is fair in love and war," why did he leave out "God?" The three words arguably express the most violent emotions we can feel toward our own species: toward, against, and...up, up, and away. In the cases of love and war, at least, we can be sure that there is a there there, that there is a someone we're engaged with.

This is why poetry exists, to save words like these from exsanguination.


Retriever said...

The Eskimos have so many words for snow, because it really matters to them. But we have just the one for love.

Anonymous said...

Poetry sucks up the bodyless blood from abused words and transfuses new lifeforms (that is, new configurations of words or re-contextualised words) more worthy of the original sentiments.

The word love: a sugary sediment with an empty aftertaste.