Yield

Yield

Kentucky must bear two contentious election cycles in a row right now. State and local politics in 2015 (mercifully over) and the presidential race in 2016, already odious and not even fully conceived. In the midst of all this throat-cutting clamor for power, er, uh, democratic pursuit of your trust and confidence, let’s talk about music. Let’s talk about an album that ought to be one of your favorites from the 90s (that decade now apparent as the last reel of warm, pulsing film before the atomizing storm of the digital revolution). Let’s talk about Yield, if not Pearl Jam’s greatest record, then one that captured a unique and wonderful moment in the evolution of the last great American band, one born in the dying light of an era we didn’t realize was over.

Yield is a proclamation of freedom, incongruously named for the act of giving way. Limitless potential hemmed in by the boundary of wisdom. To understand what makes Yield special, you need to know a bit about Pearl Jam’s history. Now, there is a full-length documentary about this story, but if you trust me to be your guide, here it is.

A brief history of Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam is a world-conquering band made up of five guys who never went on a conquest. In the capricious business of pop culture, the music these five guys cobbled together from the raw materials each brought with them was released into a public hungry hungry for a big emotional punch. Ten was a blockbuster. In the span of a single year, these young, earnest musicians were remade in the image of honest to God titans, expected to define a generation of American youth. But remade by whom? To what end? The music hadn’t changed. How could it? Pearl Jam had still only made their first record. No, the market changed around them, closing in like big teeth.

Imagine going from playing for a hundred people in a club to pouring your heart out in front of a literal sea of people just months later. Propose that scenario to any striving musician and they’re liable to say it sounds like a dream come true. They haven’t lived it, though. More than only the musicians dream this dream and some of the dreamers would just as soon roast your ambition on a spit and eat you alive. We call such dreamers ‘executives’, always serving up a banquet to the consumer. For a fee.

Building the brand

Executives make their living in the formless world of brands, empty notions ready to be inflated by what hot air the PR machine can generate, in this case from five guys making music in a room together. Executives are practiced in the art of appetite. Feed the creature what it wants and it will want more. A new band makes a popular record and the PR machine grinds into action. Radio play and music videos generate demand for a tour (hey, you get to play your music every night and isn’t that what all musicians are after?), which leads to the demand for more music to recapture the feeling of the live experience. Soon, the appetite for Pearl Jam was everywhere.

The thing about appetite, though, is that to be fed, it must consume, and we cannot consume anything without destroying it. This is true of everything I can think of: food, resources, God. So, in a very real sense, the appetite of the consumer is the appetite of the destroyer.

Executives measure themselves by how much they can feed this appetite and the brand is the tool by which they scale up production. A brand makes the band into an abstraction, a disintegration that separates their image from their actions. From bodily creature to ubiquitous entity. The brand is more than five guys making music together. It is what the band says and what is said about the band. It is what the band wears and who wears the band. It is the thrumming impression of the band that can be everywhere that Ed, Mike, Stone, Jeff, and [insert drummer’s name] cannot. A brand in full fledge can stoke the appetite—and the ensuing consumption (nicely monetized)—to amazing heights, which in turn gives rise to the music industrial complex[1].

For Pearl Jam to submit to such branding would mean their end. On a human level, it’s the end of being a neighbor and the advent of being a celebrity, an isolated object of curiosity and gossip. Anyone who performs for a living will be known without human connection, so some degree of celebrity is inevitable, but this can be inflamed to an unhealthy degree. The inevitable result of branding is such inflammation. Eventually, branding also ends the music, one way or another. To meet demand, the band would be expected to stop creating and start reacting, riding the market like a wave. Either the members grow increasingly bored until one leaves (they did start off as artists, after all), or the market begins to leave them behind and, in trying to keep up they find their creative muscles have atrophied and their ‘new sound’ falls in the chasm between imitation and retread. Either way, a band actively caught up in branding has begun the end of their vitality. Of course, the executives draw their vitality from a deep roster of exploitable talent cued up to slot right in when one band fails in endless succession. The machine churns on. Staring down this road, maybe not seeing it all clearly, but having the instinctive unease of an animal sensing a predator, Pearl Jam began to react.

Killing the brand

To the executives’ squealing delight, the golden goose did lay one more batch of solid gold hits: Vs. Their second album displayed ‘the Pearl Jam sound’ perfected. Distilled into a kinetic rush of guitar riffs and youthful solidarity. Vs. sold 1 million copies in its first week and was used to establish Pearl Jam as the hot commodity of 1992. Then their third album, Vitalogy, topped the Billboard charts on the strength of early-release vinyl sales alone (and this was in the barren age between the time CDs killed LPs and the late renaissance of the wax medium). But, on Vitalogy, we find a Pearl Jam already about the study of how to stay alive while being fed into the jaws of a ravenous market. It is a caustic, angry record layering obnoxious, thorny bits with heavy doses of blistering critique aimed at those trying to eat them alive. It’s also brilliant and the executives surely cried all the way to the bank.

In 1973, Wendell Berry wrote the greatest poem ever. It closes like this:

“As soon as the generals and politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection”
Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front

 In 1996, Pearl Jam released No Code and supported it with the most hard-headedly alienating tour they could. Boycotting any venue affiliated with Ticketmaster, contrary to the eventual non-monopoly findings of congress, left only a frustrating string of out of the way places hardly equipped to handle the logistics of hosting the most in-demand concert ticket in the country at the time. Now, No Code is not a bad record. Time has been very good to it, actually, but in 1996, it was the most un-Pearl Jam record imaginable. As for the tour, only the most hale and hardy fans had the fortitude to find and attend the shows. They may have been richly rewarded, but the tour was not a success in any business sense. Critics and executives alike thought Pearl Jam had lost their minds, committed career suicide on the day of their coronation. Pearl Jam™ was dead. The music industrial complex moved on (to boy bands. While Pearl Jam was confounding its predators like a fox, Lou Pearlman was manufacturing N*SYNC to put a stake in the heart of rock and roll). Pearl Jam blew up the brand. The dust settled and there was a band, freed of expectations.

What’s to love about Yield?

Despite the titular instruction of No Code (do not resuscitate), Yield was Pearl Jam’s resurrection. The loosest, most confident and enjoyable record in their now 10-album catalog. This is my love letter to my favorite album, not just by my favorite band, but by any band.

What makes Yield such a delight? It’s all in the timing. For one thing, there’s the matter of the band’s internal dynamics. They had actually become friends. (Given their brush with blinding stardom, it’s forgivable that it took them seven years.) This combined with their musical familiarity lends the record a tightness that comes across totally effortless.

Mike McCready and Stone Gossard truly find a great blend as a four-armed guitar monster. Gone is the standard division of labor (Stone’s arena-sized riffs driving Mike’s blues-drenched soloing). Instead, you have a record stacked with great guitar parts woven into a perfect tapestry. They spent Vitalogy and No Code dismantling the Pearl Jam™ guitar logic and Yield is the fruit of good labor.

Eddie Vedder’s voice is also at its on-record peak. He had matured past the soaring baritone that made early Pearl Jam so iconic (and then so imitated, and then so parodied), and he hadn’t yet reached the point where years of screaming his lungs out on tour took their toll. He’s singing at the peak of his dynamic and tonal range and it’s like a vintage tube amp—ranging from warm and rich to a broken-up growl depending on how hard he hits it. If the last time you heard Eddie Vedder sing was “Daughter”, you owe it to yourself to listen to “Brain of J”.

Then there’s the rhythm section. Admittedly, this is the area in which I am least articulate, but I will say that Jack Irons is my favorite of Pearl Jam’s many drummers. Instead of Dave Abbruzzese’s always huge all the time playing or Matt Cameron’s overly-intellectual approach, Jack Irons is expressive, a little off kilter, and always locked into exactly what the song needs. Alongside, Jeff Ament isn’t putting on a bass technique clinic. He’s just laying down a bottom end that’s so consistently spot on that it’s almost subliminal.

As an aside, the political timing of Yield is also just right. Midway through Bill Clinton’s lame duck presidency, the political anxiety of the W. years wasn’t even foreshadowed yet and the H.W. years were far enough past that Eddie Vedder was able to look away from his clear political enemies and explore. He’d also shaken the industrial demons from his back, and so he writes from a place of freedom he hadn’t experienced since he wrote the lyrics to Ten as a complete unknown. All of that earnestness is back, but matured and more contemplative. Lyrically as well as musically, the energy is consistently high and the gloom is consistently absent.

It’s all in the timing. Pearl Jam finally found some breathing room and all of that extra oxygen has the engine firing on all cylinders. There wouldn’t be Yield without the four records of frustration that came before it. The limitless potential purposefully surrendered makes this record what it is. That theme of retreat surfaces again and again. In “Given To Fly”, maybe the best Pearl Jam song of all, on “In Hiding”, and most poignantly in the album closer, “All Those Yesterdays”. “Don’t you think you ought to rest?” The song opens with the question that set the tone for all of Yield. After years and miles of fighting each other and an army of demands with hard-headed tours and albums, Pearl Jam finally got to a place where they could do what they do best, what they had always set out to do: make a rock record. The relief and joy is palpable. Yield is the sound of a dead band washing away their yesterdays. I love it so.

yield back

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[1] All that money attracts a multitude of feeders. Besides the record label with its army of lawyers, accountants, and marketing departments, there’s media. Radio stations. TV networks. Magazines and other print outlets. These all use the band to attract eyeballs, eyeballs that will also look at ads, ads that pay the bills. Then there’s concert venues and promoters who make a killing selling seats and beer. And, of course, all of these have their own lawyers, accountants, and marketing departments.

What is the influence of the music industrial complex? The easier it is to define and sell to a market, the more smoothly the music industrial complex runs and with less waste (I.e. money spent failing to attract the wrong audience). So there’s a lot of pressure to easily and effortlessly match music to audience. This pressures the musicians to make easy-to-package songs and it pressures the audience to conform to easily charted zones of taste. This is why you get so many disparate bands lumped under a term like ‘grunge’—a term they did not choose for themselves— and why you have so many bands that sound suspiciously like established artists. This is also why you are so aggressively sold a particular image to aspire to: the image carves a market segment out of the population. The ease of making money leads to all kinds of subtle attempts to turn people into either markets or products, which is a reduction.

You Deserve to Be Unlimited

unlimited

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One of the most prudent things we can do is pay attention to the promises advertisements make us—particularly from the most ecstatic salesmen of the day (in our day, they sell technology)—and ask whether the promise ever was fulfilled. Or even could have been. Over time, one can hope that the cumulative effect of such asking would be an inoculation against silver-tongued ads romancing our money and therefore our values.

We are awash in marketing. Every scrap of our attention is frantically sought after as a moment in which we might be enticed to consume. Every day we are sifted like wheat. Our urban environments especially are an audiovisual assault of sales pitches, a bullet-quick barrage of images and sounds drilling into our thoughts. In the haze, we seem to grow immune to the effects of advertising, but we are just as apt to grow dull in our ability to step back from the hawkers and shills to consider their honesty. We must come back to attention repeatedly.

One wireless company recently told me that I deserve to be unlimited. As this proclamation of my jubilee was delivered by a commercial, I presume that Sprint meant it as an offer. They would fulfill this essential of my human dignity with cellular data—the ability to broadcast and receive digital information anywhere. Well, anywhere Sprint offered wireless coverage. Well, anywhere they provided reliable coverage. Well, anywhere that coverage was uninterrupted (say by a storm, by nature, that inventive disrupter of the human agenda). Sprint, though, didn’t limit their language and disorienting imagery to the ‘unlimited’ data plan actually on offer, of which we have already found several limitations. This is because they were simultaneously selling cellular data and an ideal for human life, in particular how human life ought to interact with digital technology, the deliverer from analog limitations. Not just my available data, but I myself deserve to be unlimited.

I am, however, generally acutely aware of my limits. For one, there is my skin, that frontier between my body and all the rest of the entire world. I look at my hands and it’s plain where I end. Technology (even technology I enjoy and freely use—like books or the pen I used to draft these words) promises to extend this bodily limit, often by offering an intellectual escape. As though the mind were somehow not of the body and not subject to its own bodily limits. Via technology, my mind can seem to jump the banks of my body. Tech companies love to appeal to this illusion (not to say conceit) with their stunning galaxy of digital communication and its myriad worlds at my fingertips. By offering unlimited access to the ether, Sprint was trying to seduce my thoughts to come wander throughout eternity. Who would lose such an intellectual being?

I am limited even in my mind, though. I can only take in so much information before, overwhelmed, I begin to forget. Who can remember everything they have read, seen, heard, or even themselves said? Yet this unlimited access to information is ever on hand and offered as a sacrament. Some digi-evangelion, the gateway to a better life. Information has become so saturate as to flow like water from our screens. The preachers at the riverbank, that’s the marketing department. They call to us, ‘Wade in and be born into this new life.’ Baptized, full submersion. We have indeed been born away by the flood.

We fill our commutes to the brim with music, audiobooks, online courses, podcasts (though, to be fair, the amount of that last one may actually be unlimited). Our idle time is spent at table, feasting on all delicacies which data can deliver. Taken in and discarded with little digestion because we scarcely reflect. Reflection, after all, imposes a limit on our growth because it is the choice to stop taking in that which ‘expands our minds’ in order to take its measure. Without such a limit, our minds are so filled that information itself has become disposable.

This hypnotic flow, however, is not merely enticing as a trough for consumption. It is also a place to broadcast, so Sprint tells me, ‘every moment’. The people inviting me to their unlimited feast compel me to document and churn every moment into the stew in epileptic blips of text or, better yet, in pictures and video—the richness of the digital world, its fat. Both are data hogs, after all. We project our curated selves out and take in this museum of human activity, outrage, and dinner plates, behold it filtered, distorted, and over-bright as though our screens were warped glass.

Enough! We have just seen how the world in the screen cannot but pass us by unheralded and die largely unremembered. Why, then, do we throw ourselves into it, expecting to be remembered? Do we really desire to make our lives so disposable?

If this stream of information which data bears to us breaks over our limited minds and washes away lasting impressions, what does Sprint really mean when they compel me to be unlimited? Here it comes to a fine point: Sprint doesn’t really care if I am actually unlimited (I am not). They simply want me to feel unlimited as I consume their product because then I would ostensibly consume it limitlessly, which is a handy trait to have in a customer when you’re selling something and you’d like it to be expensive. What we are really being sold is our own demand, by which we will be sold more.

The promise of un-limits is ultimately a myth, but one with a real, practical cost that we bear in our emotions, intellect, and bodies. Poring through the shrine of the boastable slices of everyone’s lives leaves us envious, depressed, and awfully narcissistic. Notifications offer validation and so we cram the pleasure of life into single images or 140 barely-coherent characters where it vies with the avalanche of everyone else’s snowflake moments. We feed on info-calories until glutted on distraction and it would seem our minds are growing obese, sluggish, unable to function just as our bodies fail when grown fat on too much food. We live for the screen and fill our eyes with its light yet constant exposure to that glare keeps our minds and bodies from cycling into sleep and rest. So drained, might it come clear that limitlessness is not only a promise no one can keep, but something we should not even seek?

When we set our eye on the brilliance of the digital world, we have set our eye on a dark thing. Dazzling at first, but decaying. The deeper we stare, the deeper the darkness. Sprint advertises only the beautiful show to keep us staring, consuming that data bought under contract. The black at the fringe of the circus, what we find should we actually approach unlimited consumption, Sprint sidesteps deftly. ‘Just meeting demand.’ Never mind their effort to drum it up. ‘We just offer a tool. It’s not on us how you use it. Besides, it’s not like it’s killing anyone.’ It’s a convenient disintegration of the whole person to sell to the pleasure centers with no moral accounting beyond. Maybe we acquiesce to the disintegration, if we even notice it, because Sprint is a business and they function to make money, not coddle people. Nobody ever heard of the Nanny Marketplace, right? And maybe selling this unlimited notion is not such a big deal. The world in our devices is, after all, un-coerced and filled with exits. This does not preclude us, however, from seeing the schemes of the marketeers as bald-faced attempts to exploit the mind’s vulnerabilities, its hungers for connection, distraction, novelty, without care for the effects, and so we ought to be on guard.

It’s a cynic’s view, I know, but it’s hard not to be skeptical of the wonderment and delight on offer in ad spots like this one. Precision-honed by customer behaviorists with the devil at their elbow, boosting demand for that which will always and only make more demand. That’s the final disintegration, the severance of demand and satisfaction. Maybe we accept this state of affairs because to do otherwise would be to attempt bedrock change in the economic system in which we all have a stake. We have built a world of glittering towers and networks, set it spinning on the axis of supply and demand, and now its life is our own. What’s good for business is good for us because we need that rising tide to float our own ships. Fear of drowning in the economy can give us remarkable endurance. What we will bear for the lords of the market who come to us offering autonomy, which we buy with money and then leverage to gain more money and thus more autonomy. If that seems like an endless cycle, it’s because it’s an endless appetite and one which we share with the titans of business. We are all half-breeds of a hungry god.

In an economy where we are sold even our own hunger, what will disenchant us? Well, holding the ads we breathe to account, interrogating their promises should help us see the inevitable cycle of dissatisfaction that salesmen both offer to fulfill yet must continually aggravate. This will eventually require us to get honest about the desperate size of our appetite. But if we can learn our demand, we might finally find satisfaction.

In Praise of Beautiful Things

dore forest dark*     *     *

I spent early 2000s on a liberal arts campus, a campus trying to cope with the cultural arrogance that would lead to terrorism, racism, and other acts of tyranny. I was ardently pressed to agree that no universal standard of beauty exists. The mind that can enshrine its own preferences as universal is the same mind that blows up buildings and kills people, so the peaceful mind must hold its preferences in an open hand. On the face of it, this position brooks no argument. A standard of beauty develops within a particular set of social circumstances into which a person did not even choose to be born. It certainly is true that you cannot privilege one cultural happenstance over another. Circumstances are dispersed and received according to an inscrutable logic and, since culture is the business of people, the byproducts of circumstances emanate from the same essential dignity. So each standard of beauty must stand on a level playing field. We ought to take more care with our words, though, and to do so, we must think a little less of ourselves.

The problem with the preceding argument against a universal standard of beauty is in its presumption, that presumption being that beauty means the same thing as taste. Taste is the human experience of partaking in beauty. We would therefore be mistaken to elevate our experience of it to the definition of beauty itself. Preference varies, but beauty does not change alongside. To presume otherwise, even with the aim of equality for all cultural expression, may aim at humility, but it opens the door for its own kind of arrogance: the arrogance of relativism, that sneakiest form of totalitarianism. Taste must be kept distinct from and secondary to beauty in order for beauty to remain intact, otherwise beauty would have to contain ugliness and this simply cannot be. All beauty satisfies taste, but not all taste is satisfied by beauty.

This may seem to lean towards the very divisiveness that would lead to blowing things up; who, then, decides what is beautiful and ugly? But, that question continues to conflate taste and beauty. Things get blown up in the name of taste, when its whims demand that beauty refuse too much. But a relativistic approach still diminishes beauty, asking that it submit to too much. We must start over from scratch. Is there a universal standard of beauty? Yes, and it is this: that there is beauty.

I can think of no culture that does not agree on this. Whenever two or more people get together, it seems they always get down to the business of finding some things praiseworthy and calling those things beautiful. That in itself—that opportunity to praise—makes a pretty persuasive case against too much much of being by yourself, I’d say. Yes, on the subject of beauty, there is near universal agreement: it’s there and it’s true.

What, then, is beauty? I’m satisfied to think of it like this. Beauty is when we find the materials of our world ordered in a way that least resembles the broken state of their origin, even if in the midst of brokenness. This is a thing we can recreate. A song, a story, an image that pushes against its surroundings and says something different, calls us toward some border. In darkness, and we are all immersed in darkness of one kind or another, beauty carves out space in which we can delight. While our glimpses of quickened order are hemmed in by chaos on all sides, and our curse is to see the order unmade before our eyes, still we continue on, seeking and wielding beauty against gloom with a universal tirelessness that I take as proof that we are creatures of the former and not the latter.

We make music. We quarry sounds around us and we shape them and stack them in sonic palaces, converting noise to song. Our instruments may vary from region to region, as may our preferred timing and distances between the tones, but in praise of ordered sound we remain unanimous.

We make images and in so doing, do nothing less than make a music of light. With highlight and shadow, we order where light appears, and with pigment we reap the unending white light we receive and draw from its spectrum shade and hue. We arrange this harvest on canvas or paper, preparing a feast for the eye.

We make words and this is the greatest music, the music of our selves. This time, it was the sounds in our own thoughts and on our own lips that we put into an order that would summon from deep waters our thoughts and release them into the light. The word formed a community from disparate lives. Others’ words entered us like a torch, illuminating our hidden spaces, and our own words did the same in them and so the light between us grew. In time we shaped light and shadow in a particular way to reflect the sounds we made. We made an alphabet, written language to make tangible the human interior. Manifestation of spirit, this is the ultimate blessing of the word. This blessing enabled us to perfect our relationship with beauty.

With music as with image, the beauty is a blessing we take into ourselves. While this is good and can be so resonant on its own, when we give voice to what stirred in us, our experience seems heightened. What was visceral is refined and we feel cultivated, deepened. To keep it inside, to always keep it inside, is to be cut off from something vital, and ultimately, to step into something destructive. Beauty trapped in a cage is mere pleasure, which has been known to turn on us. The word is the means by which we work beauty into our interior dark and the irreplaceable vessel by which we share beauty with each other, even if so few words as, ‘Look here,’ or, ‘Listen there.’ When image and sound come into communion with the word, the symphony is complete and chaos is most broadly dispersed.

We are makers of songs, images, and words, makers of order in disorder, seekers of beauty in chaos without exception. The universal standard of beauty is that there is beauty. Yes, and how did we ever come to this consensus, perhaps the only human consensus? Well, no matter where or when we were born, we were all born into this world, and nowhere is beauty more effortless than in nature. Wherever we turn, sights and sounds can strike the human spirit like a hammer on a bell. Valleys seen from high places, rivers and seas in eternal motion: these graces, or others like them, are common to all. These were our templates, the visions and sounds that called us out of our interior dark, summoning us to the threshold of stillness and wonder. All our work with light and shadow, consonance and dissonance, and even consonants and vowels has been our attempt to reflect back into the world that which it so abundantly and promiscuously pours out in our presence simply by hewing to its natural state. This very good world is the muse to all of our musics; we answer its call and all the more urgently when faced with the darkness which also swirls around us.

At this point, we must seriously grapple with the origin of this world because that place is the origin of whatever calls out to us. What call are we almost irresistibly compelled to answer? Or whose? Why do we answer back with acts of beauty, especially when the world itself seems so dark? Why do we reject the darkness?

Admittedly, not everyone has tried to answer back with beauty. There are some who say all this talk of beauty and chaos, light and darkness, is an over-wrought load of sentimentality to be dismantled with all urgency. With hard-headed zeal, some set out to make unredemptive even irredeemable work, to reflect chaos into chaos. You know what, I’m going to go ahead and co-opt that just like I’ve co-opted basically all the rest of art. The final act of beauty is its inevitability. What may seem unredemptive and unbeautiful fails by its own design. Its every act to frustrate our embedded appetite for beauty must push against something, it must push against the frontier of beauty; by trying to subvert beauty, which demarcates the border with chaos, ugliness merely charts the chaos from within. Anything that can be mapped can be left, and these dark expressions drive us to beauty by training us what to reject. Every time a person makes an unbeautiful choice, they must choose against something else. We instinctively feel what was chosen against and so we experience beauty except as an absence, and ultimately as a longing.

Our final question, with a universal standard and workable definition of beauty in hand, is this: how do we discern good taste and how can we do so while promoting human flourishing? Some choices, in art, yes, and beyond, aren’t beautiful. As matters of taste, they exist outside of beauty by their own design. By subverting taste to beauty, though, we can make distinctions without being tyrannical. First, an elevated sense of beauty is not threatened by bad taste, in fact, it brings more clarity and gentleness. You see, by positioning beauty above taste, we must subject even our own taste to it, including how we respond to the taste of others. We honor beauty when our taste is tuned to human, not tribal, nourishment. Second, we can see if taste is diseased by the light of the beauty hanging overhead, but we can also see clearly to contrast disease and mere difference. What makes us flourish, what tears us apart? Guided by beauty, we can approach our differences knowing that all darkness is of a piece and so darkness can not drive out darkness but only join with it. Then we can cling to beauty, that it is diversely reflected, and wield our own acts of beauty, carving out space in darkness and making space in which to delight.

Christmas In a Minor Key

Christmas In a Minor Key

 

Christmastime is here. Bring on the blitz of traditions and travels, wants and wishes. Get the shopping done, get the family together, get the food ready, get the getting going in all its guises. Fill the snowy expanse that is the holiday season. With so many things trying to get in, sometimes it seems like nothing succeeds and Christmastime is empty instead of full: Christmas in a minor key. The marketeers have convinced us that we’re longing for something, but once again their offered ephemera have failed to satisfy.

This can only mean it’s time for the annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Under falling snow, Charlie Brown is searching. For meaning, for escape from materialism, for Christmas. He confides in his pal Linus that even with Christmas on its way with gifts and cheer, he still feels melancholy. Through the course of an afternoon, Chuck looks in the places we all tend to look this time of year. He looks in his mailbox for a Christmas card, for some human connection and affirmation. He looks to the 5-cent psychiatrist; perhaps a mental health adjustment will help. Ultimately, Lucy enlists him to direct the kids’ Christmas play and so Charlie Brown looks to a satisfying career to put his heart at ease. And we certainly see how that works out.

Meanwhile, Snoopy dives into Christmas commerce full tilt, festooning his doghouse and erstwhile WWI fighter plane with an arsenal of lights and ornaments. Taking Christmas by storm, in hot pursuit of a glorious cash prize.

At the pageant rehearsal, Charlie Brown learns a lesson in herding cats and so even merry company and music can’t cure what ails him. Beneath the cheer lies vanity, snobbishness, and shallow revelry. Actors, right? In need of a break and determined to set the right tone for this Christmas play, Chuck sets off with Linus to get a Christmas tree. A nice, shiny aluminum one, Lucy shouts after him. Looks matter. So the pair follows the modern equivalent of a star in east: two roving spotlights.

Confronted by an explosion of neon kitsch at the tree lot, Charlie Brown nearly despairs until he finds a spindly, real tree. Wood and needles, the least commercial, most plain thing he has seen in the whole town. With apparent peace, he takes the one true tree to show to the others, but his humble offering receives a humiliating rebuke. What a blockhead.

Deflated and frustrated, Charlie Brown cries out, ‘Doesn’t anybody know what Christmas is all about?’

Linus knows. In what may be the last place a passage of Scripture gets a sincere reading in all of primetime TV, Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 center stage in a single spotlight. Beneath all the hyper-exaggerated veneer, Christmas is really about something as simple as the birth of a baby (albeit a birth announced by angels and the glory of the Lord). It’s the emotional turning point, the moment of quiet clarity. I tear up every time.

On a side note, maybe the glory that shone round about those shepherds long ago has been echoing through the years and people, in a DIY effort to recapture glory, have just gotten a little crazy. Maybe the aluminum trees are just an over-cooked reflection of something real after all.

Of course, that’s all easy to swallow. Christmas™ has grown gaudy and superficial. Tone it down, for heaven’s sake. Have some goodwill towards men. But, the simplicity of Christmas is only half the point. In the final five minutes, Schultz and the animators drive home a seditiously counter-cultural point, exposing the hollowness of mere tradition and DIY glory, to replace it with something enduring.

Comforted by Linus’ soliloquy, Charlie Brown carries his Christmas tree home. As he walks through his snow-bound town, all the other trees stoop under the weight of the drifts. Bowing in the direction of Chuck’s sad little tree, oddly enough. Are they paying deference? At home, Charlie is astounded to see what his beagle’s been up to. Snoopy tucked right into the hype and glitz of his culture with relish and did up his little red house into a festive juggernaut. I tell you, he has already received his reward. First place. Good grief.

Charlie Brown takes a crimson ornament, a token of Snoopy’s best effort, and hangs it on his own tree. The poor, wretched thing buckles under the weight. ‘I’ve killed it.’ Indeed, Chuck. Haven’t we all?

A dejected boy heads in from the cold. The Peanuts gang shows up (hopefully to apologize for being mean as vipers) and Linus, that bastion of loyalty and wisdom, declares that the tree ain’t all that bad. It just needs a little t.l.c. Linus lays his security blanket down at the foot of the tree. Snoopy could probably spare some lights and bells. But wait! Is the whole premise about to come undone? Is the commercialist brigade about to take the last lonely refuge of humble simplicity and bling it into oblivion? Thankfully, no. When the gang finishes, what we see remains a real tree, but a Christmas tree fully revealed.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the kids start humming ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’. Glory to the newborn king. Indeed, glory has found its home. Not on a dog house, but on the one true tree. The emblem of Christmas. Snoopy’s reaction might just be the most subversive moment of the whole show. His glory has been robbed and given upon this tree and instead of moping or snarling about it, he joins the singing. Every tongue confesses that the lights look better on the tree, even the dog who thought he had cornered the market on glorious display.

Charlie Brown returns, touchingly stunned to see what’s become of his lowly little tree. His honest search has been rewarded with a beautiful vision far more than he could have imagined. Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.

*       *       *

Imagine

Imagine

Nelson Mandela died recently and every news network and program has rightly devoted a good deal of time to remembering his legacy. By  plain fact he did good as he lead his people. He was a flawed man, but those flaws reveal a complexity of character that should be an assurance to anyone that their failures and their weaknesses are no death blow to accomplishing real good, nor are they an excuse for failing to do so. I don’t know every nuance of his biography, but I know that the story of a young, frustrated man passing through such a crucible as 27 years in prison to be poured out as a humble leader of inexorable strength pushing to end apartheid is a beautiful story. Nelson Mandela’s legacy of justice matters.

One news program, though, made an odd choice in its coverage. 20/20 ended an hour-long special with a pair of children’s choirs singing “Imagine” by John Lennon. Nelson Mandela had the courage to imagine a world without apartheid and so children, our hope for the future, should honor his legacy with this inspiring song. But the message of Lennon’s song totally undercuts any talk of legacy, of lasting good, so an hour of tribute to Mandela’s courage and meaningful conviction ended with this weird moment of meaninglessness, albeit cut with wistfully diluting sentiment.

Lennon opens with an altar call of sorts, a hymn of invitation to “imagine there’s no heaven/it’s easy if you try/no hell below us/above us only sky.” His song preaches that people only kill and starve each other to serve religion or government. Whether The Man or The Man Upstairs, any such authority ends in abuse. Therefore, Lennon prefers to imagine the end of such authority. God is greater than government, so he ultimately envisions a cosmic power vacuum. What if join him in this? No devils, no angels, just dirt below and clouds above. With no heaven and therefore no hell, the sky will indeed be empty. Will we find people living for today, eruptions of benevolence and brotherhood? Or will we lose more than we might imagine by tossing heaven and hell onto the trash pile of ideas we’ve outgrown?

In our modern age, the afterlife is heated and hammered, like iron in a blacksmith’s tongs, into all sorts of shapes to serve all sorts of masters. Even as it changes shape, the theme of ultimate justice endures. Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell—that dichotomy pervades vast swaths of human culture across time and place. How the sheep and goats get sorted is a real source of contention, but the winnowing is nearly universal. Perhaps from boredom with all the variations on this theme or perhaps from irritation at a continual vague sense of guilt, it’s become fashionable to throw out the idea of hell altogether (maybe people just don’t want to think about going there). But then you get into trouble.

Not so deep down, we all know there is evil in the world that doesn’t always meet its proper end in this life—neither redemption nor justice. Hell would certainly make sense, but we’ve imagined that away. If you believe in a heaven without a hell, though, you have to get cozy with the idea of bunking next to Hitler in the sweet by and by. That won’t do, so Lennon rightly realizes he must dismiss the afterlife completely—no heaven, no hell, just nothing everlasting I guess. Setting aside the idea that being unmade in such way sounds more like hell for everyone, it remains that life and doing—good or evil—become pointless. You either wind up in the same place as everyone else no matter what so who cares, or you cease as though you never were and what matters then?

When Lennon tosses heaven and hell he loses two things he probably wishes he’d kept: the ability to tell whether anything is good or bad and any real motivation for self-sacrifice. On the point of good and bad: without an outside vantage point life spirals down into a relativistic cesspool. In the parable of the blind men encountering the strange beast and making claims based on what they felt with their hands, they’d all be correct without an outside observer to say the perceived snake, rope, and tree trunk actually added up to an elephant. Of course, the sightless men would all be wrong, too.  It’s the problem of polytheism: without one God to set the standard by which good and evil take weight, you have many gods and many standards and no way to weigh any one against the other (at least no peaceful way). They all weigh the same and they all might as well weigh nothing. Morality is unmade and a great darkness awakens.

What happens when two gods and their two truths come into conflict? Which will sacrifice for the other? Which could? Each must certainly want the most pleasure and power in this life because each faces death, the absolute end with no beyond and no hope for reward or dread of justice. Why on earth choose weakness and risk death or discomfort with the strength to avoid both? In a world of nothing and unto nothing, that is an unanswerable question.

Even if, if one of those gods, John Lennon perhaps, chose a noble sacrifice, how could he ever reasonably expect others to follow suit having imagined no heaven, no hell? His plea could only come from arrogance, from the untethered conviction that his desire for lower, broader prosperity is better than their desire for higher and more narrow. A weightless request easily ignored.

True, some folks do make small sacrifices, but only in order to gain tangible benefit; we have tribes and nations, collections of people willing to give up some freedom for strength in numbers and reliable trade. (Funnily enough, it seems we desire the moral autonomy of gods and yet try to weasel out of total self-sufficiency that a god ought to possess. We want to live as though we have no limits, but we know to play society games in order for others to be willing to shore up our weaknesses. And how we seethe at having to stoop even a little to buy from the efforts of others who can do what we can’t, who have what we have not. We want godship, but we could never pull it off. Oh what fury, what frustration.) Some sacrifice serves self-interest, collective-interest. At some point, the sacrifice cuts too deep and instinct kicks in. This is it! THIS IS IT! There is nothing else coming. Survive as long as you can and drink deep cup of pleasure and power while it lasts. Be vicious if you have to. It’s not like you’ll ever have to pay for it. Even with small social sacrifices, eventually tribe will come against tribe and, absent the watchful eye of heaven and any ensuing restraint, one will force the other to bow or bleed.

Isn’t this exactly what happens, what happened in apartheid? Apartheid was actually good for a lot of people: the white people in power. One pale-skinned South African tribe beat down competition from the other tribes and so flourished. They served their truth like gods unaccountable as though there were not bigger truth that might condemn. Spooky. We imagined there was no heaven and we wound up with apartheid. It’s starting to come clear why ‘Imagine’ was such a strange choice to honor Nelson Mandela. It’s a lonely song.

‘Imagine’ is a paradox. Half of its aspirations create the very world that the other half longs to undo. Clearly, it’s not just that you imagine; what you imagine matters. John Lennon thought his misguided dreaming would help him find peace and equality, but he dreamt the very root of the war within himself and every self around him: the war between wanting to be God and longing for the world to be the way God made it. Imagine there’s no heaven? We already have and look where it got us. Alone and run amok.

How do you hope in Loneliness? If life came from nothing and ends in nothing, you simply can’t assign any enduring meaning to it. Without posterity, it just won’t matter if apartheid had crushed Mandela or if his noble struggle had slowly won over hearts and minds to bring the institution to its end. It won’t matter if you were at the bottom or the top of the ladder of cruelty if the human race is merely a chance eruption of consciousness and matter unheralded in its birth and unmourned by a void in its eventual death. Children would be no hope for the future, just a hope unto themselves to outwit or outfight, to be cruel in order to avoid cruelty, to deprive in order to prosper. Zoom out far enough and the sun explodes, burning up all our molecules, leaving nothing behind with no one to remember whether good or bad had transpired during the brief blip of time during which we lived. Will there even be time without anyone there to count it?

This is all silly. We know in our hearts that oppression is a great evil and men who fight oppression do good. We know in our hearts that children, new life among us, do bring hope. That’s why we do our best to raise them well, to pass along any wisdom we may have. Very few people tell their kids to go and take as much as they can by any means necessary, at least not outright. We teach our kids how to share because we know that sharing is a part of friendship, a part of being in the human community. And this isn’t some cold, calculated strategy to gain strength through tribalism. Not in our hearts it’s not, not in the moment of teaching our child. No, we don’t want our children to grow up alone because loneliness is pain and cruelty is evil. This is written deep, deep inside us. Eventually, yes we lose sight of it turn to injustice as we grow older and find our desires fast outpacing our resources. But, it wasn’t God or heaven or hell that changed us and that we need to unimagine. It was arrogance; we changed our own damn selves and twisted God into something that would justify our injustice.

That twisted image of God and its contemptible beneficiaries are what John Lennon really wants to toss onto the trash heap of ideas we’ve outgrown. I join with him. I long for the banishment of the awful so-called gods of injustice and tyranny that obscure the view of an actual God of justice and dignity. But you can’t fight subjectively from untethered conviction. That’s arrogance easily ignored. You must fight from humility, submitting to the strength of an objective authority greater than any of us that quite clearly declares us each of equal dignity, each debased or exploited only through evil. Suddenly, justice is back in town bringing with her motivation and endurance to resist tyranny. It’s a leap of faith, an act of imagination if you will, but the right response to the wrong God isn’t no gods, but the rediscovery of the right God to wage a war of conscience against all our false gods.

I don’t know what Nelson Mandela thought of heaven or hell or God, but I know that his long fight against apartheid bore many signs of submitting to an unarguable authority. Any long and arduous fight against injustice and tyranny, whether the fighter admits it or not, happens under heaven and by its guidance. There’s just no other way. To try to honor the legacy of such a dignified battle with a song that erases the very concept of justice, as 20/20 tried, rings dead and hollow. Heaven offers a far better legacy.