A Slideshow about Guilt: Personal, Collective, and a River in Egypt

A Slideshow about Guilt: Personal, Collective, and a River in Egypt

Also posted yesterday at The Daily Kos. I had a rather disturbing conversation the other day with someone I very much respect, someone—in fact—who has probably done more to improve my outlook on myself and even the world than anyone I have met in a long time. I had just shown him two slideshows, They Moved the Moon (about the California genocide of American Indians), and The Freshmen, a slideshow that started out as an attempt to find a foundation for dialogue in the pain that every individual inevitably experiences, but ended up being more like a prophecy of mutual doom amounting to a kind of self-genocide that would hardly be acknowledged (if ever) until it was far too late. He seemed to be saying that the problem was not with the world, but with me; and if I could just figure out the roots of my attraction to subjects like injustice, inequality, unmerited suffering, and genocide then everything would be—if not exactly all right—at least I wouldn’t be very concerned and therefore a happier, better adjusted human being.

I recognize that there is a good deal of truth in his point of view, I probably would be a happier, more well-adjusted human being, although probably never “normal,” at least in the normal sense of the word. This slideshow is to some extent a product of that conversation a few days ago, and I realize that I, with characteristic perversity, have responded to his call for more tightly focused self-exploration of my anxieties and fears with the goal of eventually forging a more optimistic perspective on life by doing exactly the opposite. While I wouldn’t have really thought it was possible for me to go darker after The Freshmen (which at least started out as an attempt to empathize with people I didn’t like very much at all), I think I may have managed it, in part by Guilt’s wider focus, and in part by its direct attempt to address subjects which are usually either suppressed, denied, or belittled in America: the toxic effect of social expectations and stereotypes, the use of a religion as a justification for exploiting and destroying the marginal and powerless, the silencing and even murder of those who dare to tell us truths we don’t want to hear, and the deliberate suppression of many of the more unpleasant parts of our own history that do not conform to our self-flattering image of ourselves, to our incessantly repeated mantra that “America is the greatest country in world” (I suppose it may be true, depending on what you think “greatest” means).

All of these slideshows essentially grow out of a subject (here, guilt) and a song (here, three songs). Perhaps not surprisingly I chose Marianne Faithfull’s song “Guilt,” originally released on her brilliant Broken English album, although this version is from a live performance on a late-eighties television show. I chose it largely because I thought the drums, and the propulsive drive of the song, were a bit sharper and crisper than on the original. This section largely deals with private and personal feelings of guilt, but also introduces some larger issues explored in the second section. For this next section, I chose a version of Iggy & the Stooges “Dirt,” originally released on the 1970 Funhouse album, although this one is from a 2011 live performance in Detroit, which I chose largely because of the late Ron Asheton’s stunning atonal guitar work. Here I really move into questions of collective responsibility for the way the world is and don’t really come to any cheery conclusions. The final section, to a large extent inspired by Arctic Monkeys “This House is a Circus” from their Favorite Worst Nightmare album (2007). The “house” in question is, of course, The White House, with Hair Furor being the embodiment and inevitable conclusion of the escalating fear, hatred, selfishness, and victimization that are undoubtedly hard-wired into human nature, merely waiting for the proper circumstances (unfortunately now) to bring them to full, poisonous fruition.

I would certainly understand if you decided not to watch something that I freely admit is pretty depressing (in fact, kudos to you for having read this far).  I should warn you that there are a couple of curse words (it is Iggy, after all), and one of them is even written out, a young woman flips off the camera, and a few of the images are disturbing, although probably not as bad as something you could see any day on cable TV. Personally, I’d rate it a PG. I hope you do watch it, in part because I think it works as an aesthetic object, in part because I think it is emotionally powerful and moving, and finally because they are pretty terrific versions of some pretty terrific songs.

The Freshmen: A Slideshow about Pain, Triumph, Loss, and Lots of Suffering, Awful People

The Freshmen: A Slideshow about Pain, Triumph, Loss, and Lots of Suffering, Awful People

Previously posted on The Daily Kos. I really had not intended for this slideshow to be quite so bleak. Once I came up with the idea of using The Verve’s Pipe’s “The Freshmen,” a powerfully moving song apparently written about the suicide of lead singer Brian Vander Ark’s girlfriend, as a way of addressing the political and emotional fallout from the election, it to some degree took on a life of its own, almost in spite of my conscious intentions. Frankly, it’s probably the bleakest thing I’ve done since “UKnowYourReichs,” a slideshow about Holocaust denial set to Kurt Cobain’s last song, a song which (to me anyway) seemed to look forward fairly obviously to his own suicide about a month after Nirvana recorded it. That slideshow was in part inspired by Night Will Fall, Andre Singer’s 2014 documentary about the liberation of the Concentration Camps at the end of WWII. Although I was by no means completely unfamiliar with the material, the film made a deep impression on me when I first saw it about three months ago, so deep that the documentary seemed more like a prophecy of things to come than a a record of events safely compartmentalized in the past.

Like Bitter Salt, this slideshow began as an attempt to find common ground in the shared experience of pain, with idea of moving beyond it to mutual cooperation if not necessarily shared understanding.  Tea partiers and progressives may listen to different media outlets, have different circles of friends, have completely different concepts of the historical and  philosophical bases for American society, and radically opposed concepts for what goals we hope America might become; nevertheless, as human beings we all suffer, and all those other diametrically divergent attitudes are—at least in part—our attempts to deal with our individual experience of pain, trauma, and isolation. Even our “fearless leader” (apologies to fans of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but I just can’t bring myself to say Hair Furor’s actual title), strikes me as a deeply damaged human being, a damage at least in part the product of his family life, education, experiences, as well as of his own bad choices and their often destructive consequences.

Certainly one of the ideas behind The Verve Pipe song is that we make bad choices, often self-destructive or destructive of those around us,  because we don’t necessarily have the wisdom or the life experience to make good choices. To make explicit an implicit conceit of the song, at some point we are all “freshmen,” doing ignorant and even stupid things in stupid ways because we don’t know any better, and because we are too wrapped up in our own pain to acknowledge that of others, at least until it is too late. The repeated and increasingly unconvincing refrain, “I can’t be held responsible,” paradoxically communicates the deep and overwhelming sense of responsibility the singer feels, as well as his understandable and all-too-common desire to blame the other party (after all, like an abused spouse, she’s responsible too because “She fell in love in the first place”).

I am certain that in compiling this slideshow I was playing with the not wholly accurate media portrayal of the Tea Party movement and the “average” Trump voter as—to some extent—political neophytes easily manipulated by a corporate media and political demagogues who cynically exploited these people’s pain for their own ends, ends that were often destructive of the very people that they purported to represent and to help, as well as targeting a host of relatively powerless “others” who could be identified by their darker skin, problematic citizenship, differing sexual orientation, or divergent religious and philosophical beliefs, all of whom merited by their very existence at the very least exclusion and—if Tea Partiers were truly being honest about it—their systematic destruction.

Certainly one thing that struck me in gathering the photos for this slideshow is how fervent the devotion of many Trump supporters were to their leader. While it is difficult if not impossible to truly divine what people are thinking from their facial expressions and body language, with a remarkable number, it looks an awful (and I do mean awful) lot like love, which itself raises questions about how such a beneficent emotion could have such toxic results? I suspect, as the opening  slides try to suggest, such tensions are deeply embedded in our human nature, and are certainly evident in the dark (and largely officially suppressed) side of American history. Similarly, I chose the last verse and chorus of the Ben Folds Five “Brick” (a song about the songwriter’s trip to an abortion clinic with his high school girlfriend over Christmas break), because it is one of the saddest songs I think I have ever heard, perfectly expressing the isolation, grief, and overwhelming pain caused by the experience which (to tie it back to The Verve Pipe song) the couple in question were simply not emotionally ready for, being “freshmen” in their own way. Although it isn’t directly stated in the song, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the relationship didn’t survive the trauma of that fateful day over the Christmas holidays.

The two brief film clips—only the second time I’ve tried to include them in a slide show (the first was (“UKnowYourReichs”)—also seem even more significant than they did when I first thought to include them. The first portrays the suicide of a gay German Jew, Albrecht Stein, the lover of the tortured hero of Before the Fall, while the second—from the 2008 horror movie Quarantine—shows the professional woman lead character Angela (a TV reporter) being dragged off into the terrifying darkness by rabid, zombie-like people who really don’t seem much like people at all anymore. The images of the two falling or being pulled into nothingness are both similar, horrifying, and haunting. The point about the dangers of being in a marginal group are almost too obvious to belabor, although one has the sense that being part of the powerful “in” group—whether being a Nazi or an uninfected male—offers no more than a brief reprieve in our collective, ever-accelerating plunge into the abyss.

It seems silly to say I hope you like slideshow, which takes two songs about deeply individual feelings of guilt and transform them into a means of exploring our collective guilt (at least I’ve given you fair warning about what’s coming), but I hope you are moved by it, and that some of that emotional rearrangement might result in positive action.

The Rainy Season: A Slideshow about the Weather

The Rainy Season: A Slideshow about the Weather

After working on “Slave to the (Algo)Rhythm” and “They Moved the Moon,” and purchasing a copy of Bob Drury’s and Tom Clavin’s The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, I thought I needed a change of pace, which is to say, something to work on that was a bit more optimistic.  I haven’t even started the book yet, but it looks fascinating, enlightening, horrifying and–I have a feeling–probably profoundly depressing.  Being in a bit of a melancholy mood (not at all the same thing as depression) and thoroughly sick of the hot weather, I found myself drawn back to two Aztec Camera songs from probably my favorite album of theirs, Frestonia.  I had not realized until making this slideshow that the name comes from a street in Kensington (in London).  As I remember, they were Elvis Costello’s favorite band for a while back in the eighties, although they never really broke through here in the states (I believe their biggest hit in the U.S. was a cover of Van Halen’s “Jump”). These two songs, “Rainy Season” and “Imperfectly” are both to some degree about the weather, but of course that is really just a metaphor for expressing songwriter and singer Roddy Frame’s emotional and philosophical insights.  The point is, at least in part, that all of these things inevitably change and evolve, and that even deep sadness allows for the possibility of being transformed into something better. I managed to find a huge number of gorgeous images of the natural world, none of which I took, and a couple of which I had to pay for the rights to use them on the web.

I hope you enjoy them, if only from an aesthetic perspective, and they are lovely songs that I think have hardly been heard on this side of the Atlantic (or “the pond,” as my dissertation director used to say) and–if you listen to the lyrics, I think you’ll find that they have rather lovely lyrics to complement their lovely melodies.

Kathleen: Another slideshow about mortality, this one inspired by a Townes Van Zandt song.

Kathleen: Another slideshow about mortality, this one inspired by a Townes Van Zandt song.

This is another one of Townes’ more oblique and allusive songs (cf. “Our Mother the Mountain”), and I certainly see how one could interpret in different ways–most obviously as about alcohol and/or drugs. As I am now looking at those as sort of a way of avoiding the anxiety caused by avoiding rather than confronting mortality, I of course place the song in the visual context of grief, loss, isolation, and death. As you might guess, I’ve been reading Irvin D. Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, and its explorations have unquestionably had an effect on me.  In some sense this is another slideshow about existential dread, and about some of the more dysfunctional ways we deal with pain. At the same time, Townes has created a beautiful, mysterious song about pain, loss, and how we flawed human beings deal with such things, and I hope that the images, timings and movements I have chosen for the slideshow do it justice.  I really believe that quote from Kathleen Raine above, by the way, and it also ends the slideshow.

Here’s a video that I just ran into last night for the first time (I didn’t even think Moby was still relevant–obviously, I just hadn’t been paying attention).  In some sense it explores some of the same issues–isolation, pain, grief, empathy, and how we deal we such things–but on a much more universal and apocalyptic level.