Archive | January, 2013

Down IV Part 1, The Purple EP — A Review

26 Jan

A good few months before the September release of Down’s cumbersomely titled record, Down IV Part 1—The Purple EP, the band was saying something to the effect that they had plans to release an album in installments, or something, which might have meant that they were going to release four or six EP’s, or something, and that each would have a different feel, but maybe some of them would be similar, though there was a lot of different stuff they could do with it … or something.

As might have been expected for the first (how ever many part) installment, they decided to keep it sounding pretty much like a Down record, and good for us, too. Waiting five years and then giving us a record trying to ape Pink Floyd probably wouldn’t have been very accessible. No, the boys in Down remain true to their vision with this release as they continue to pay direct homage to Black Sabbath (and the bands that Black Sabbath spawned). Their frankness about the initial inspiration behind their sound is refreshing in an age when so many bands would like you to think that they appeared out of thin-air, fully grown, with no musical pedigree to speak of. No, the boys in Down can afford to tell us that they want to sound like Black Sabbath because they each bring something fresh to the genre. The Southern Blues aspect of their sound has always been a bit more accentuated than their British heroes, probably because they’re actually from The South (New Orleans, specifically).

We all know the frightening teddy-bear of a singer, Philip Anselmo, from his days in Pantera, who, while he may not sound as vigorous as he did in 1995, can still carry many a bluesy note and is certainly not shy about slipping now and again into an altogether tone-less sludge-vocal as he growls, ‘We wear our heart on our sleeves’ (Open Coffins). The band prided themselves in ‘returning’ to their original raw sound with this release, though when going over their catalogue, one can’t help but think that they never really left their original sound, they just lagged a bit in-between. Fans of Nola will know what I’m talking about: the epic, laborious fatigue that was Down II: A Bustle in your Hedgerow. If you thought that Over The Under was an enjoyable departure but far too polished and studio-sounding for a band of such organic power, you’ll like the near demo-feel of this release.

Never a lazy lyricist anyway (let’s go ahead and say it here—he’s a totally underrated as a lyricist), Anselmo’s themes are as interesting and subversive as ever. His voice delivers to us a stream of pagan imagery in defiant earnestness. The words ‘We’ and ‘Ours’ occur more throughout the EP than ‘I’ or ‘Me,’ which makes it a record of the appeal rather than a personal record. And what is he appealing us to do? This is not the Punk subversion of revolution. This record is an appeal to join Down in the woods where something is already happening. ‘Your days are numbered/ Start counting backward’ he challenges in ‘The Curse Is A Lie.’

More than the cookie-cutter post-grunge of today’s radio-friendly, drunk college girl hard-rock which permeates the radio waves today, Down have maintained only the best aspects of blues and none of the outer, easily mimicable fluff that many bands try to maintain so it might seem for a moment that they have some ‘soul.’ Down alternates seamlessly between being aggressively upbeat and broodingly slow. One notable strain that they’ve pulled from Blues is the sense of tragedy. Empowerment is a favorite topic in art (specifically these days) but few bands speak much about consequences. The concluding track, Misfortune Teller, is a stressful back and forth rivalry between a quick beat and a slower-than-hell chorus as Anselmo pours his soul into a lament of the very risk involved the challenges of earlier lyrics: ‘A grave mistake/ We’re right back where we started from/ It’s devastating.’

Well, we’re hardly devastated that Down is back, nor are we devastated that they’ve promised at least a few more EP’s of varying tone over the next few years. Altogether, this release is an interesting progression in the whole Down dialogue.


Silent Interviews with Samuel R. Delany

19 Jan

Many writers have preferred the written interview to the face-to-face interview. If we’re to take Nabokov at his word when he says, ‘I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child,’ then one couldn’t blame him too much for preferring the former. William Gaddis seldom gave interviews and requested that they be written, and often, no longer than ten questions, which would eliminate such winning nuggets of curiosity as, ‘on which side of the paper do you write?’ or ‘how hard to you press your pen on the paper?’

Samuel R. Delany, the interviewee of this collection (save one where he does the interviewing), when asked why he prefers the written interview, concludes a lengthy response with the following:

‘I’m a writer. When I want to think with any seriousness about a topic, I write about it. Writing slows the thought process down to where one can follow them—and elaborate on them more efficiently. Writing is how I do my thinking. Thus, if you want to understand what I think, ask me to write—not to speak.’

Almost all of his responses are lengthy. He answers each question with great care and consideration. Given the nature of his answers, one can’t help but feel that this is an author who is far too interested in the questions he is being asked to give room to the kind of hemming and hawing one does in a live interview—which causes us to stop well before the suspicion that he’s just some recluse that doesn’t like to talk to people.

Delany is best known as a Science Fiction writer—which he is very careful to identify with, as opposed to a writer of ‘speculative fiction.’ He goes great lengths in these interviews to articulate why he thinks that different genre distinctions more represent a way of reading rather than a way of writing. Very hermeneutic in nature, the collection takes interesting turns as simple questions turn into deep studies of such all-encompassing subjects as ‘the city,’ which is only explored in such depth in order to determine the origins of the Sword and Sorcery genre (of which much is discussed in relation to Delany’s Neveryon series). In a game of textual interplay and rigorous historical mapping, Delany concludes that the Sword and Sorcery genre is, ultimately, about the transition from a barter economy to a currency economy. Undermining academic definitions of Science Fiction, Delany likewise concludes that the whole genre of Science Fiction is ultimately founded on the transition from a currency economy to a credit-based economy.

His answers are so careful and all encompassing that we start to believe all the lucid connections he has put much thought into, even if they only represent his interpretation at the end of the day—as is the case with his theory that most of the imagery in Sword and Sorcery and epic fantasy stems more from Richard Wagner’s opera than it does from anything else.

Calling Delany ‘well read’ would be a bit of an understatement. As he talks about Science Fiction and its place in history, it’s then necessary for him to get onto the subject of literature as a whole. He remains adamant about the fact that Science Fiction is a form of ‘paraliterature’ that has operated outside of ‘literature,’ both commenting on it—often completely unaware—and overlapping with it. While many of Delany’s contemporaries—like Michael Moorcock and Thomas M. Disch among others—were very much concerned with that very overlap between ‘literature’ and Science Fiction, Delany remains interested more in teasing the different genres apart in order to trace them to their roots. He is a thinker who is interested precisely in difference and how objects relate to one another and at roughly what points they integrate and separate.

According to Delany, all hard definitions concerning genre come about through ‘over-determination.’ This is the same when one tries to define ‘literature’ just as it is with Science Fiction and all ‘paraliterature.’ When curiosity is raised as to why he is so adamant about calling what he writes Science Fiction, he responds:

‘I’ve never proclaimed my work SF, proudly or humbly. I assume most of my published fiction is SF—and I assume most of my readers feel it is too. But that’s like a poet assuming she writes poems, or a playwright assuming he writes plays.’

He gives very interesting reasons why fantasy that occurs within ‘literature’ isn’t enough to put it on the Fantasy shelf—Kafka being one example. When we read The Metamorphosis, something extraordinary happens. Gregory Somsa wakes up and has turned into a giant insect. Delany takes into account that one can determine what kind of writing this is by other writings—whether they are that of people who have studied Kafka or whether they are the other writings of Kafka himself—just as one can determine what kind of writing it is by the work it sits next to on the shelf, the kind of publishing house it comes from and the kinds of printing it has gone through. One comes away from this discourse thinking that ‘genre’ as a subject is a lot woollier than the academic world gives it credit for, and if one wants to say anything about it, one must look at it in many different contexts.

The voracious reader’s mouth will surely water as Delany gives the interviewer reading tips on where to start reading Derrida if one’s not sure, along with many other texts and how they both relate to and inform the reading experience of one another. The ambitious reader will perhaps feel a hint of recognition as Delany describes how reading Levi-Strauss’s ‘Sunset’ at a slowed-down pace helped stretch his brain into a place where it would then be prepared for a second reading of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. Some interesting thoughts occur around the AIDS epidemic as Delany talks about incomplete (even backward) studies and statistics on the subject. Discussions of race, class, and sexuality abound as well, and this inevitably all ties back to all things literary. He even delves into why ‘difficult discourse’ is more useful when approaching certain subjects.

This is highly recommended not only for Delany’s fans, or people curious about the subject of genre, but for anyone who cares very much about language, literature and history. It’s also a good example of how to articulate and place very difficult thoughts one might have into cogent interpretations.

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe

12 Jan

Goethe was young when he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther. He said famously of his title character’s suicide in the end, ‘I shot Werther to save myself.’ With this said, it should come as no surprise that the novel is largely autobiographical, even up to the preservation of his beloved’s real name—Charlotte.
The widespread controversy that surrounded the book is well known. It was thought to be anti-Christian because poor Werther’s suicide was glorified, with deliberate mention in the last line that ‘no priest attended’ his funeral. It’s seen as a catalyst to what has been called The Werther Effect—It suddenly dawned on dozens of young romantics that suicide was a reasonable way to deal with their unrequited loves.

Seventy-five percent of the book is made up of letters from Werther, to his friend, Willhelm. It is through these letters that the book’s great polymath of an author, thinker and poet can exercise his most refined aesthetic on life. It is almost hard to imagine, for the first third of the book, that this will be the story of a destructive unrequited love, for Werther spends much of his time expressing a sort of rapturous joy about the mystery of life.

‘I examine my own being, and find there a world, but a world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Then everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream while pursuing my way through the world.’

Werther, the artist, is contented to operate as an active interpreter of the world around him.

‘But the man who humbly acknowledges the vanity of all this, who observes with what pleasure the thriving citizen converts his little garden into paradise, and how patiently even the poor man pursues his weary way under his burden, and how all wish equally to behold the height of the sun a little longer—yes, such a man is at peace, and creates his own world within himself …’

It probably wouldn’t be too out of the way to say that the one major difference between Goethe and his title character is that this said character did not go on to write a novel about his beloved. Had that happened, the novel would have considerably less weight and would probably more resemble something like Hermann Hesse’s Gertrude—a novel whose main character, a composer named Kuhn, falls in love with Gertrude, who is in love with another man. Kuhn suffers through this but is able to make an opera about it, thus achieving some sort of self-actualization through the situation.

Goethe, with his real life Charlotte, came out the other side of the suffering she caused him with a renewed tenderness and respect for her that poor Werther never had the luxury of achieving with the fictive Charlotte. Rather, Werther is depicted as a strong, passionate idealist whose fluid, subjective view of the world is suddenly interrupted by an object of adoration. This is problematic since she is betrothed to a man named Albert. Werther stays in their orbit, aware of his own intentions but unable to help himself, just as Albert and Charlotte are both aware of his feelings though they are both unable to consider him anything less than a great friend on account of his great charm and warmth toward them.
Rather than being a book that ‘deals’ with suffering in the contemporary sense—as a means of achieving some vague enlightenment or self actualization—the book, even today, maintains all the controversy that first scandalized the world in which it was written as it turns into a bold study of passion and its relation to action. Suicide does not only seem to be the inevitable conclusion of the book, it is the all pervading theme of the book and the symbol of Werther’s interpretation of human passion.

Early in the story, when Werther playfully puts one of Albert’s pistols up to his head in morbid jest, an argument about suicide takes place between them. ‘We were speaking of suicide, which you compare with great actions,’ Albert says. ‘You moral men are so calm and so subdued!’ Werther says of Albert’s view.
It is clear by Werther’s every pontification, his every expression of his heart, that he is concerned very little with morality as it is understood by common people. And yet, what incredible allegiance and devotion he pays to Charlotte, unable to leave the two of them and forget about her altogether.

‘And when I feel for her in the half confusion of sleep, with the happy sense that she is near, tears flow from my oppressed heart; and, bereft of all comfort, I weep over my future woes.’

Far more moving than the dripping, dewy, morose poetry of his later musings on suffering that become more desperate later in the book as Werther nears his end, the above passage is very telling, for it is indicative of his awareness that the choice he is making is a self-destructive one. He knows his heart will only get him into more trouble.
Charlotte says to him late in the book:

‘I entreat you to be more calm: your talents, your understanding, your genius, will furnish you with a thousand resources. Be a man, and conquer an unhappy attachment toward a creature who can do nothing but pity you.’

All this while, aside from a few commonplaces about Charlotte’s fairness, her intelligence, her kindness, Goethe doesn’t go incredible lengths to let his reader in on what, exactly, it is about this girl that makes her worthy of such obsession. Whether or not Goethe intended it to be read this way, we are led to believe that Werther has certainly brought this suffering upon himself, though guided by forces that he cannot control nor understand.

Aside from accomplishing what is perhaps the most epic suicide letter that has ever occurred in literature, there is a fascinating subtext to the already weighty subject matter of the book. One has to remember that Goethe wrote this book having been under considerable distress. More extraordinary than the fact that he was able to put all of these feelings into a book when in this state was the fact that he could comment on the very nature of these feelings and how they come about. It would be almost two-hundred years before Proust would come along with his rigorous study of personal aesthetics and how our interpretations of our lives shape our affections, coming full circle with the kind of self-reflective work that Goethe started. Having said that Charlotte is not necessarily the star of this book, one then has to ask what is? Is it Werther? It seems to be that the star is Suffering itself, but more broadly, passion, which serves to say that the transient forces that drive us are more important to the activity of the story than the actual object of fixation.

The book is structured in such a way that the reader is granted this insight. Alternating from letters to second hand accounts from Wilhelm, he describes the events surrounding Werther’s death and thus brings us in touch with the true nature of the book. Ultimately, the book has something to say about choices that are available to us when other choices are taken away.

The reason the book will probably remain loved as a problem to be solved for years to come—and thus, why it will remain controversial—will have as much to do with its treatment of suicide as it does with the way it treats the nature of self-awareness. Werther, having even been aware of where his affections for Charlotte were born and perhaps how to distance himself from them, having even been aware that he was headed down a dangerous path, knowledge could not give anyone a monopoly on the perfect way to act in a situation. It is the danger of uncertainty that Goethe both during and long after a state of distress that this book helped him (and perhaps many others) surpass.