Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Mountain Goats’ "Sax Rohmer #1" As Tragedy

Around the middle of the last century, T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis found themselves on opposite sides of an important literary debate. Lewis thought that the matter of Modern and post-Modern Literature was inherently flawed. That is to say, he was convinced that no literary device, conceit, or convention was worth it's salt unless it preceded 1517. (This position is analogous to that of many hyper-Traditionalists as regards the Liturgy and Duncan Stroik as regards ecclesiastical architecture.) Eliot on the other hand saw nothing wrong with adopting the style of Modernity, as illustrated by his plays and poetry. Why should these materials, this style be any less capable of incarnating reality than the older? Eliot himself proved his hypothesis to be correct, and it is largely as a result of his literary corpus that I agree with him.

A particular style is relatively arbitrary when it comes to a work of art. That is to say, a particular work of art could utilize any, so long as it appropriately incarnates the vision of the artist. Pop music is no exception. There is no reason at all why it should not be possible to produce art in this style. In an effort to show that it is possible and has, in fact, already been accomplished many times over, here beginneth a new feature here at PopSophia: Tunesday (awful, I know), in which I shall endeavor to feature relatively contemporary music which I believe attains to the level of art.

To start then, a song from The Mountain Goats' album Heretic Pride. The full lyrics are included below the embedded mp3. I suggest reading along as you listen. Here's the direct link to the music video in case the audio doesn't work for some reason.

Fog lifts from the harbor, dawn goes down to day
An agent crests the shadows of the nearby alleyway
Piles of broken bricks, sign posts on the path
Every moment points toward the aftermath

Sailors straggle back from their nights out on the town
Hopeless urchins from the city gather round
Spies from imperial China wash in with the tide
Every battle heads to war, surrender on both sides

And I am coming home to you
With my own blood in my mouth
And I am coming to you
If it’s the last thing that I do

Elves move in the tower, wolves howl in the hills
Chalk marks show up on a few high windowsills
And a rabbit gives up somewhere, and a dozen hawks descend
Every moment leads toward its own sad end

Ships loosed from their moorings capsize and then they’re gone
Sailors with no captains watch awhile and then move on
And an agent crests the shadows and I head in her direction
 All roads lead toward the same blocked intersection

I am coming home to you
With my own blood in my mouth
And I am coming to you
If it's the last thing that I do
As expounded eloquently by Dustin Hoffman's character in Stranger Than Fiction, if Tragedy were reducible to one fundamental element it would be death. Death as inescapable. “Every moment leads toward its own sad end.” In Tragedy time always seems to be running out. It presses on the protagonist, reminding him there’s only so much left. The Tragic protagonist is pursued relentlessly be the agents of death and damnation. The entire song encapsulates this feeling of impending doom: “Piles of broken bricks, sign posts on the path / Every moment points toward the aftermath.” Enemies are everywhere. “Agents” and “spies” always upon us. Nature itself seems evil and unhinged, turning on itself and the protagonist with ferocity: “Elves move in the tower, wolves howl in the hills / . . . And a rabbit gives up somewhere, and a dozen hawks descend.” Life becomes but a horridly painful struggle. There is no grace, no mercy, no salvation: “Every battle heads to war.” Even more than that, the song speaks to this struggle’s Tragic futility. Ships are engulfed while leaderless sailors watch and do nothing. No one cares about anything or anyone else because there is no meaning. “All roads lead toward the same blocked intersection.” There is no right choice. No matter what I do, I end up gone, swallowed by the Abyss closing in around me. Soon I will be done for. For what? Nothingness awaits me in this life and the next.

Why, then, would anyone still fight? Why not just commit suicide and be done with it if there's no point to anything and it's all going to end up in death anyway. The refrain offers a glimmer of hope—the person waiting at home. To get back to her. It’s going to cost me dearly—blood at least, if not my life. But there’s nothing left to try for except to get back to her. She is Cordelia to my Lear, Antigone to my Oedipus (see Oedipus at Colonus), there to wrest me out of the arms of Nothingness. She is the one agent of grace left in the world, the only chance to make something of life. And death. To give it meaning and purpose. To make the fighting, the suffering, the humiliation that is life count for something. She is the Beloved of Scripture and countless lyrics. She is the Church, the Bride for which Our Lord lived our wretched life and died our wretched death, thereby making it possible for our life and our death to become a participation in the Divine life and death.

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