Sunday, 28 January 2018

Carrie & Lowell

Things are rough as bags around here at the moment. Sometimes I am just so sad and feel so bad that I think I can't bear it a moment longer. But I can and I do. But still it's unbearable. But I bear it.

 I'm committed to a habit of mind learned from therapy: sitting with pain, breathing through it; in Donna Haraway's elegant phrase that does not translate to the tiny narcissism of my situation, staying with the trouble. There's no other way of dealing with it. It can't be run away from, or hastened through, or denied, or changed. It has to be thought about and accepted. I don't seek anything else. I want to feel better, but I don't want that at the price of numbness or obliviousness.

A couple of months ago I noticed, and also recorded, that the worst times are the quiet moments, and worst of all is the commute, when I can't keep my mind distracted and busy or I risk not seeing the door opening on a stationary car ten metres ahead. I've felt truly awful on these journeys lately. But I found some solace, or comfort, or just a little bit of peace, in listening to Sufjan Stevens's record Carrie & Lowell. And this is really what I'm here to try to write about this evening, not the sadness, but the oddity of the things that actually do help to make it bearable. Because there is always this part of me, this small voice coming from somewhere in the back of the skull, that watches any psychological event or experience I have and it goes, Isn't this interesting? Isn't this interesting? I'm not involved in this, and oh, isn't it interesting? (Even during the two alarming episodes, in the unblogged era, when I literally lost my mind, that little presence was there, going Oh this is what psychosis is like? it's just so interesting..... And sure, psychosis is very interesting, absolutely no question about that - I just find the commentary to be incredibly poorly timed. Can't the little voice just let me have my moment of experience without instantly subjecting it to some sort of aesthetic conversion? Well, apparently not. Fuck you, tiny voice, and your tedious relentless fucking interest in everything!!)

The small voice says that what's interesting about the way Carrie & Lowell is working as a balm for me now is something about how it hovers, for me, in a kind of matrix of ambiguities. The only aspect of it that isn't like that is the way it sounds - the timbre or whatever it's called - the sound has this incredible quality of being soft but bright - like prisms or drops of glass suspended in a penumbra of fine, bright mist. Bright and soft together is surprising but there's no ambiguity.

I've written quite a bit about my doctor's deflating lack of interest in the manifest content of texts I attach significance to, and a previous episode of obsession with this album fell into that category. I thought it mattered that the songs on this record, which I listened to over and over, as in two or three times a day for months, are about Stevens's relationship with his mother, who left when he was a small child, and was never stable and reliable, and who died of cancer not long before the album was recorded, but the doctor didn't care about that. What interested her was the listening over and over again. So this is data point one for the interestingness file: does the content matter at all to the appeal, or is it something about how it's amenable to being listened to repeatedly?

I've also said on here before that many of the lyrics don't make sense. Well, that isn't quite accurate: they're in the vein of a private language, or maybe a peripheral language - you see the images in your mind's eye's peripheral vision, and they look substantial there, but if you try to look at they straight on, they disintegrate. It's like John Ashbery without being anything like John Ashbery.

Season of hope, after the flood
Valentine spurn my sorrow
Head on the floorboards, covered in blood
Drunk as a horsefly
Climb on the mattress pad
Twist my arm

It sounds like public language that follows shared conventions and trades in images that have discoverable referents, but when you listen harder, it's nothing of the kind. It's impenetrable. When I first read Alexis Wright's novel Plains of Promise I learned that the modernist use of lacunae & gaps, as a formal gesture of observing the existence of private inner spaces without filling them with content, can also be used as a survival strategy when the inner space is defined by trauma and loss.

I think the lyrical content of these songs is like that Ashberyish mode, but I'm not sure. That's the ambiguity. What even is this communication? I think an instability that fundamental in poetry would be a fatal flaw, but in song I think it can sometimes be a strength.

I'll think some more about this and continue shortly


elsewhere said...

Doesn't everyone listen to certain albums again and again, and isn't that driven by some point of interest in content or execution?

My brief experience of psychs is that they're very occupied with challenging you to bring you round to some point they want you to learn through therapy, but although it's good to have your defences challenged and all that I did wonder sometimes if they missed something valuable I was trying to say. They're only human after all.

kate said...

Because the tennis was on the other night there was a bit of talk about sporting superstitions, the winner's partner and dad had had a particular dinner and shared two bottles of wine and she'd son so they'd done it again the next night. And the next night. Sometimes reptition is an association with something working out ok. I listened to this song and got to work safely, if I listen to it every morning I will get through the week.