Monday, September 22, 2008

Use Your Allusion

This painting is of Dante and Virgil, strolling through Hell’s lobby, bumping into Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. This sort of pow-wow, I understand, used to happen all the time.

There is an entire category of enjoyment which has recently all but vanished from my life.

I refer to the belatedly recognized allusion.

A slow-fuze ticking time bomb in the brain that explodes into kaleidoscopic bunga-bunga api of awareness and delight. The independent discovery of something in one artwork which was inspired by another, and which in turn transforms one’s appreciation of both works. The countless matryoschka-embedded Fabergé “Easter eggs” squatting complacently behind the trompe-l’œil Potemkin-village façade of every great work of art. Note that France and Russia appear to be the birthplaces of all artistic deception or concealment.

Anyway, in other words, I miss the nice feeling you get when you hear or read something and then later find out that it was a quote from somewhere else.

Why is this feeling scarce of late? Wikipedia. Google. Etc. Whenever I get that mental twinge which tells me I’ve heard something before, within seconds I can now find out exactly where I’ve heard it before. My mom used to tell me that instant gratification was a bad thing. I still don’t see her point of view at all, but I’m closer to it than before.

What am I blathering about? Well, one of my very favorite albums of the past several years, and of all time, really, is White Chalk by PJ Harvey. One of its best tracks is “When Under Ether”, a mesmerizing, haunting song sung by someone etherized on a table, watching the ceiling move, with hints that some disturbing medical procedure has just taken place. Here is the song.

Here are the lyrics (emphasis mine).

The ceiling is moving
Moving in time
Like a conveyor belt
Above my eyes

When under ether
The mind comes alive
But conscious of nothing
But the will to survive

I lay on the bed
Waist down undressed
Look up at the ceiling
Feeling happiness
Human kindness

The woman beside me
Is holding my hand
I point at the ceiling
She smiles so kind

Something’s inside me
Unborn and unblessed
Disappears in the ether
One world to the next
Human kindness

On first hearing, the song instantly made me think of “The Yellow Wallpaper” (I wasn’t born yesterday, after all) and of a couple of Harvey’s previous songs which seemed to deal with abortion or the death of a child (come back here, man, gimme my daughter, etc.). But there was something else about the song’s lyrics which sparked a fire within my head, and my dull, slow brain was unsatisfied for about a year. Until a rainy Sunday afternoon last week, when I happened to be re-reading Eliot’s Four Quartets, and in particular “East Coker”. What did I see but some lines I’d read 15 years ago in high school or college, but half-forgotten (emphasis mine):

Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Harvey’s customary brilliance at visceral allusion, which started with the brutal Biblical tales of her first album Dry, and only got more complex from there, should have prepared me, as this was not her first exercise in dredging up a great English(-language) poet in an odd place - there was, for example, her unexpected Yeats homage B-side “The Northwood” - but I nevertheless, as I scanned Eliot’s lines, felt a quick cold satisfaction of awareness. Art had spoken to art across the decades, and my brain had traced the thread between the two without recourse to any crude series of tubes. I had found and enjoyed an allusion, and its path from my ears (when I heard the song) to my eyes (when, a year later, I re-read the poem) didn’t involve anyone but the artists and me, and for an instant I felt as if we three, the great poet, the great musician, and the listener/reader, were one. A Hermetic trinity, as it were, of artistic appreciation.

As I said above, this is a particular type of joyous recognition which I experience less and less frequently lately, and which I feel future generations will probably not be able to experience at all, because any snippet of text is now able to be checked against all of humankind’s previous snippets of text, and every allusion can be instantly deciphered via online search. I’m sure future generations will develop ever-more-subtle and relevant and intricate types of artistic expression and reference, so there’s really nothing to worry about in the grand scheme of things, but I’d like to take a moment of silent mourning for the loss of my dear, old friend, the belatedly recognized allusion, and for the demotion of our human brains, which were once our primary means of remembrance, to second fiddle after the omnipresent, pan-memorious Spiritus Mundi of the Internet.

1 comment:

Intrepidflame said...

I am listening to this song right now, as per your blog post.