Tuesday, August 08, 2006

“They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves”

Wallace Stevens
“The Man With the Blue Guitar”

Predictably, my interview with James served to only partially validate my world-shattering thesis that the ascendancy of Indy was a result of a reaction against the omnipresence of “ black” cultural forms during your childhood/teen years (as though, like, one interview would in anyway prove this), but did, instead lead us onto an interesting and possibly more fruitful discussion on the nature of pleasure and difficulty, or the fascination and rewards of engaging with “the difficult.” (And it gave me a chance to refine my “ascetic bohemianism” and related quandries shtick, a bit.)

Thinking about his own musical “progression” starting from an early introduction at twelve or thirteen to drum and bass via a mate’s brother’s mix tapes and through to his current fascination for Led Zeppelin the overwhelming common factor seemed to be that there was something in each that, at the point of contact with them, he didn’t “understand”. At first with drum and bass he couldn’t figure out how they did it, how the sounds were produced, the art of the mix etc and that fascination, (what is it?) drew him in, much the same as ten years later, via an excursion through Hip-hop, (again a recognition on James’ part to a perceived greater complexity, a greater fullness, an operating-on-more-levels-ness, a higher degree of production excellence, (“how do they get that snare so crispy?”) the much greater difficulty of mixing hip-hop, scratching etc) onto Led Zep and another epiphany of the how-the-fuck-does-he-play-that? order re Jimmy Page’s guitar work and the overall meshing of the instruments. Many will disagree but for James, “ Led Zeppelin are infinitely more complex than Drum and Bass.”

There must, I guess, be a level of “difficulty/complexity” which approximates to the sublime. In other words we have to both grasp and not grasp what were given, if it’s completely alien, too distant, the result will be incomprehension or disgust/rejection (“that’s not music/it’s just noise” etc) but once it has been assimilated we can move on, seek out the next level/type of “difficulty”. I wondered whether it actually made any difference what the process was, where it started, and James admits that Led Zepplin may not be inherently more difficult or complex than Rat Pack (an early fave of his) and that the reverse journey, from “Moby Dick” to Dieselboy is just as feasible a “progression”. It depends where you start off. This grasping and non-grasping, this moment of fascination/difficulty ( isn’t the main component in fascination the possible revelation of the mystery/resolution of the difficulty: after all it’s only agony for Tantalus, cause he knows he’ll never get the grapes) and the pleasure in its resolution really puts me in mind of Steven’s dictum, “ The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully”. That difficulty is in fact an inevitable component in certain types of pleasure, moments of “exultancy”, rather than mere gratification. When James quite sincerely describes the day he grasped the brilliance of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic (don’t look at me!?) as “the best day of my life” it seems (certainly to me) plausible.

So difficulty and pleasure aren’t in anyway oppositional but generally, culturally we seem to consider that pleasure requires a retreat from complexity and we don’t expect to be taken to task or stretched or made demands of by our “entertainment” even by our “education.” Learning a language (something the British are stupefyingly bad at, and that increasingly includes English itself, apparently) is a good example. It takes a long time (YEARS!) before you can even engage with a native-speaker on a reasonable level conversationally and requires constant tending and practice, yet almost every survey suggests that it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do, (my own experience would confirm this.)

Perhaps the question is, what kind of selves do we want. Do we want the self that stumbles from experience to experience permanently dissatisfied and hungry for the next Kulchafix, or a reflective, more ample self that has some resources, a degree of independence from/within the Kulchazone, an “Entertained” or an “Educated” self, a self committed to engaging with difficulty or a self committed to avoiding it. I would argue that the latter self is the self that is the greatest asset to these who have invested in it, ( Lifelong Learning as a self-directed, purposeful self-enrichment rather than a market/fear-driven "skills" burden) something that's proof, pretty largely, against the vicissitudes of late-Capitalist life (chronic insecurity being but one of them. Make money/technology and the “experiences” it can buy you the necessary precondition for happiness and you’re in trouble).

I think the discourse that surrounds popular culture (here I guess I mean Music) is immensely important because it’s the entry point per se for many people into the world of culture and thought, especially in a world in which utility is becoming the measure of all things educational. It provided an entry point for me and continues to be a source of valuable ideas, (if it weren’t for the blogosphere,etc..) precisely by engaging with what you already love and offering you that little bit more in terms of interpretation, thought, and related reference points in cinema, theory, literature it enlarges you, it holds things out to you, holds them just beyond your reach, creates the urge in you to grasp them.

“a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.”

Jacques Barzun is apparently an appalling cultural conservative, (no fan of the post-structuralists he, but hey, crazy-upside down world that it is, suddenly the conservatives look like radicals. Do I hear Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to be Square” crackling into life on the tannoy?) nonetheless, I reckon he got it right when he observed:

“Pascal once said that all the trouble in the world was due to the fact that man could not sit still in a room. He must hunt, flirt, gamble, chatter. That is man's destiny and it is not to be quarreled with, but the educated man has through the ages found a way to convert passionate activity into silent and motionless pleasure. He can sit in a room and not perish.”

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