“Oh, it is the same with the distance as with the future! A vast, twilit whole lies before our soul; our emotions lose themselves in it as do our eyes, and we long to surrender our entire being and let ourselves sink into one great well of blissful feeling. Alas, when we approach, when There has become Here, everything is as it was before, and we are left with our poverty, our narrowness, while our soul thirsts for the comfort that slipped away.”
– from The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe
It seems like the grandeur of a place only reveals itself after you’ve left it. Memory can make the place more ‘real’ than it ever was in reality. For instance, there’s the scent of an object that’s been brought home from somewhere far away. (It doesn’t have to be a beautiful scent. Examples for me have been bug spray or deodorant.) When you smell it again at home, after some time has passed, it brings up a feeling that’s profound and unique — something like nostalgia and acute yearning all at once. You’re dislocated from your surroundings, but only in order to receive a different kind of clarity. You are allowed a glimpse of something essential to that place. It’s a temporary unveiling. After half a minute or less it passes and you’re back in the everyday world that now seems more banal than ever. The feeling is dreamlike: It’s like the heavenly music you dream that fades from your memory as soon as you wake up. You can not recollect the nature of this feeling or recreate it. It becomes a mystery, and you can only wait until the next time that you’re granted that experience.
To say, “This smell reminds me of that place,” doesn’t tell anything. The strangeness is that you never had the dreamlike feeling when you were there. In fact you couldn’t have. Two events must happen to have this experience: spatial distance and the passage of time. A place can only reveal itself in your consciousness with such allure when you’re far from it. That’s disturbing, because it suggests that some of our most authentic experiences have very little to do with the apparent reality that surrounds us, spatially and temporally. For me, those experiences aren’t just brain farts.
What seems to be a dislocation or disorientation is also a kind of recognition-of-being, or maybe the possibility of being, its potentiality. It comes in different ways - through the senses, but also in dreams, poetry, and music. I understand it as ‘sublime’ in the Romantic sense. Schopenhauer mentioned fear in association with the Sublime, following Kant before him. As he speculated, the fear comes about when a person observes an object that is incomprehensible or immeasurable in its greatness. But if the person is able to break free from her will, a will that is hostile to the threatening object, she can experience the Sublime: an elevated form of consciousness that quietly stares into the abyss. Something usually hidden is shown to me, and fear comes from a loss of what I’m familiar with, and confrontation with strangeness. But is it some object ‘out there’ that I’m being shown? Or, if you don’t like that language, is it God? Then why the recognition? Those experiences that Freud called unheimlich or uncanny, the ones we refer to as ‘Kafkaesque,’ touch upon a paradox: The uncanny is so disturbing and weird because of its unexplainable familiarity. Perhaps a part of myself is being revealed a part that’s always there, waiting. I feel the totality of my being, non-constricted, because I've been cut loose from the usual trap of time and space. A place thousands of miles away can be felt with immediacy. My past events and future potential are tangible and real. This kind of consciousness is usually reserved for an all-seeing, immortal divinity. When we experience the Sublime, we’re cheating, and we always get caught, thrown back into a time-bound world. But we can cheat again, because the potential is always within us. If there is a deity out there, it’s probably the one who always snatches the infinite away from us. If that’s true, though, then who did He steal the keys from? Whoever or whatever it was, we have a trace of it, even now.
“Hold to the Now, the Here, through which all future plunges to the Past.”
– Joyce, Ulysses
“Be in the moment.” — What a crock! How can I be in something like that? How long is this moment? Is it one millisecond, one minute? And then what do I do — be in the next moment? That’s a hell of a lot of moments to be in! Perhaps this is a Western misreading of an Eastern idea, that the past and future are illusions. All I know is that for myself, it’s quite the opposite: The notion of a present moment that I could somehow be ‘in’ is pure fiction. Maybe both sentiments are just two ways of expressing the same thing: our inability to catch time, to grab a hold of it.
That same person who tells me to be in the moment says I’m ‘romanticizing’ when I remember a place from the past with longing. He’s right. ‘Romantic’ for me is always after, filled with lateness, whether it’s Wordsworth or Kurt Cobain. At one point there was a unity to everything, a unity that was shattered. Arriving too late, the romantic finds everything in pieces. Where there was oneness, now it’s all dualities. Nothing is ever clear-cut; there’s always paradox, irony. All you can do is make music from the remains, and sing about the brokenness. Is that all a necessary fiction dreamed up by the human imagination to tell sad stories? If so, it’s a convincing one, because it tells about time. Our being is marked by what Heidegger called Geworfenheit — ‘thrown-ness’. We've been thrown into a world of time with no choice. It’s a world full of mortality — everything is dying, everywhere. The problem isn’t so much that reality in itself. The problem is that we care.
Near his own end, Freud drearily surmised that there was indeed a ‘death-drive,’ that so many of our activities were aimed towards achieving “…the death-like repose of the organic world." If I could truly be in the moment, it would mean just that — death-like repose, death. Joyce’s ‘Hold to the Now…’ works better for me, because his ‘now’ acknowledges its role. Now is only an open vessel, through which time is being siphoned, not some measurable moment one can sit in, enclosed. That’s not just a semantic query. When I mistakenly believe that I can capture time, I’m into a kind of bad faith that can be pure folly. It’s a folly that leads to heartbreak, disillusionment, and resignation — despair. On the other hand, holding to the Now is the best game in town, the most honest one, albeit the most difficult at times.
“Irony: Don’t let yourself be controlled by it…Under the influence of serious Things it will either fall away from you, or else it will grow strong, and become a serious tool and take its place among the instruments which you can form your art with."
– Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
It’s important to distinguish between two types of irony. One is the type in currency today that’s so familiar, it’s almost omnipresent. It runs like this: If someone appears sincere, whether it’s a singer-songwriter, politician, or your partner, it would be safe to assume they’re full of shit. The key words there are ‘safe’ and ‘assume’. Irony of this sort plays it safe, and safely never gets off the ground, running on its own fumes in a self-reflexive spinning of wheels. It assumes that sincerity is a posture to divert our attention from an ulterior motive, or worse yet, is a blanket used to cover up a hollow nothingness, a vapid lack of real sentiment. Good old-fashioned irony involves the awareness that a truth or truism has a hole or flaw in it, an awareness that opens up a whole other set of implications. But the rub (lest we forget) must include an initial belief in that truth to some extent, or at least wanting to believe. If there’s no hope in the first place, irony is an impotent affair, a catalogue of boredom with the world that quickly collapses into what it really is: the ironist’s boredom with herself. That’s a cop-out, and the result is a dismaying reversal, one in which irony is deflated of its purpose. Whereas in its original meaning, it would teach us never to assume, in this case it teaches us always to assume – and dismiss, without inquiry.
Where does that dismissal stem from? It’s in no small part due to a large case of information indigestion. Every single sentiment, it seems, has already been used, manipulated, or co-opted – passion, integrity, and (argghh!!!) even irony itself. So, often there’s an understandable reluctance to offer up anything with sincerity, for fear of being dismissed as derivative, and having your heartfelt creation pissed on by other people, people as cripplingly ‘savvy’ as you are. Blaming or condemning information in itself is pointless and potentially dangerous. Casting blame comes out of a nostalgia that relies on a fiction, mainly that an authenticity has been sacrificed, snuffed out by the plethora of information that names everything into a reduction, a one-dimensional Xerox of the original. This kind of dissatisfaction with the Now is not uniquely postmodern, however much one may or may not buy into it. It’s the continuation of a romantic legacy – the legacy of belatedness, of afterness. We still answer that call within ourselves, although the outside props have changed. Nostalgia like that has and still can turn sour on a grand, horrific level when its fiction drives a political ideology – the evil afterbirth of Romanticism. It’s not enough to sit on the rocking chair and muse over bygone days, smiling through tears that cloud your vision of the world around you.
If a story or song is good enough, it will reach the Sublime, which means this: It transcends that state of pining for authenticity, which is only a starting point, a kind of surface irony. We realize that the ‘Other’, or the Divine, or the longed for prelapsarian grace, are all part of ourselves. Hell, we’re the ones who dreamed them up in the first place, right? Now, irony is retrieved from banal finitude, and can be placed back where it belongs: at the core of our being. It prompts the reader, the viewer, and the listener, to ask: “To what extent is my imaginative faculty, the one that dreams for the Divine, in itself a divine attribute? If that’s a fiction played out in art, then what the hell is real? Where does art get off and life resume?” Amidst those queries, a broader one starts to take shape: “How do I find meaning – or not find meaning – in my life?” That hopelessly bandied question can’t be answered, and that’s exactly what the Sublime reveals. It doesn’t give closure. It gives us contact (if not comfort) with infinitude. For me, art can still be thought of in those terms. It takes the edge off mortality, which can be such a bitch sometimes. Along the same lines, it can teach that a dream of authenticity is just that – a dream – and without dreams, we’re nothing. The trick is to remember that it’s only a dream.
A longing for lost authenticity, or a defeatist dismissal of the possibility of it, are two sides of the same coin. They both grow out of a bad faith in information, bad faith meaning: a false belief in the power of information, and a denial of one’s own cognizance of anything beyond or outside of it. Or, I should say, beneath it, behind it. Information can act as a kind of matrix, a blocking device. It can block our ability to see and feel the Sublime. A text, or the ones and zeros on a C.D., or any information, is nothing in itself. The Sublime is experiential. It is not a self-conscious, willful attempt to ‘be in the moment’, nor can it involve a self-conscious, willful attempt at ironic ‘objectivity’. The experience is a here-and-now affair, which leaves an imprint on your memory precisely because of its ephemeral immediacy. The supposed importance — or dangerous unreliability — of the text is an old, constant dialectic in western thought, from Socrates’ dialogues to Derrida’s deconstructions. It led a Proto-Romantic like Goethe to turn Scripture on its head, and proclaim, “In the beginning was the deed.” Information inherits the tendency to grip us that a text can, a grip that Goethe identified as potentially tyrannical. The tyranny would come from the anteriority of the text. It came before us. Written in stone, the text has an authoritative power. We submit to it, making a covenant, because it gives the comforting reassurance of constancy amidst our own transience. (That includes music texts!) Goethe hit on something that’s at the heart of Romanticism. He identified the human power of imagination as anterior to the text, switching the chicken and the egg. In this new formulation, the active creation of the text takes primacy over the end result. That reversal is no less relevant today than it was 200 years ago. In a time when everything appears derivative, it’s important to remember what any creative act is: a leap, a self-propelled thrust that steps out of history, escaping it for a flicker. When we look at the information matrix, we see the outward form of textual anteriority. It’s all there, recorded already. But so much of it is filler, having none of the imaginative vigor or spiritual resonance that made a text like the Bible canonical in the first place. What we get appears as parody. The modern-day ironist who dismisses across the board thinks he’s acting in awareness, assuming that all is parody. He has acted in bad faith though, because on some level he initially gave an authority to information. He didn’t look any further. It’s the first thing he saw, and he thinks that’s all there is. When he repeatedly draws blanks from the formulated mediocrity rampant in pop culture, his bad faith is confirmed and reinforced. (Or, paraphrased: The Nineties.)
“At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, that I fled from…My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
– Emerson, Self-Reliance
What happens when you come back to a place that you’ve longed for, not just once, but several times? Such is the case with Perugia for me. It’s an idyllic, ancient town sequestered in the mountains of the Umbria region of Italy. I’ve gone there four summers now, for the annual jazz festival. The second time I was there, I experienced a longing for the feeling I had on my first visit. During the next two trips, I identified this same kind of achy yen, but I realised that now, I was longing for the longing itself. Longing for longing — it’s what the Germans call Sehnsucht. The first time I was there, I was already yearning after something. We are born into a state of longing. It’s perpetually unrequited, asymptotically chasing its own tail, forever just short of reaching what it dreams for. Once more, that seems to come about from our relationship with time, contingent on our mortality. Thrown into time, you can only hold to the Now. You can’t save or grab on to anything that’s flying through that funnel — least of all your own transient existence. If time is seen as movement, then mortality is downward movement, a falling towards death. Is that something to despair over? Crying out at our mortality, we long — for the infinite. But again, we recognized the infinite from within ourselves. Sehnsucht is a sublime recognition of our own infinite longing.
The idea for this record started inadvertently. A collection of originals was building up, many of them written on the road during some heavy touring the last year or so. Always at a loss for song titles, I started naming them after wherever they were written. When four or five of them were done, I realized that they were thematically related, and continued to exploit those melodic and harmonic relations, similar to the approach on a previous record, Elegiac Cycle. The tunes, therefore, are not programmatic pictures of where they were written; on the contrary, they are more representative of something constant throughout all that traveling — ‘My giant goes with me wherever I go.” Los Angeles is home for me and frames the set, with a brief trip back in the middle. It’s telling that Freud’s unheimlich frames the word ‘heim’ as its root word — home. Home is truly what we’re always longing for. As a place, for me, it often means the first place, the one that we’re always trying to get back to in our state of afterness. But home only reveals itself sublimely when you’re far away from it. Thus, the opening Los Angeles theme is heard throughout the set, but at a distance. It comes back once more at the end. Returning home, There has become Here, and we’re still left with our longing.
– Brad Mehldau, 2000