Magritte at MoMA

René Magritte. “The Menaced Assassin”. Brussels, 1927. Oil on canvas, 59 1/4″ x 6′ 4 7/8″ (150.4 x 195.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art. Kay Sage Tanguy Fund. © 2013 Charly Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

My relationship with art (or pictorial art, more acurately) is a weird one. There are certain artists and whose work I know reasonably well, appreciate their historical importance, and relate to what they tried to accomplish, be it on a technical, symbolic or narrative level. But I can still remain an external, passive observer of such art. I stand for a few moments in front of a painting, read the useful summaries attached next to said paintings, and perhaps hear the audio guide. And then I may move on to the next painting, 20 feet to your left, with no lasting, emotional connection to what I just saw. I may buy the exhibit’s catalog with the inner hope learning more about the artist, and yet, a few weeks later, I have only added another object to my coffee table.

But there are some instances where art grabs you, and communicates with you on a guttural level that you didn’t know was possible. You feel that certain works of art were made just for you (because, yes, art has a way of unleashing your inner hubris, too). A song. A painting. A film. You get the symbolic meanings. You appreciate the technique. You understand why art is art.

This is a long way of introducing my visiting the excellent Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 at MoMA last month. While the Belgian painter always struck a curious chord within my brain, I never thought much about him, and decided to visit the exhibit without any expectation, on a sunny Monday off work.

In those six or seven rooms sprawling across MoMA’s sixth floor, however, I was awe-struck by the vigor and emotional charge of the exhibit. History, politics, psychology and art all came together like the rond-points that are everywhere in the old continent, and yet so absent in the new world. 

It’s commonplace for social scientists — and I would guess for art critics as well – to look at individual actions as a product of the context in which those actions come to life. This is clear throughout this exhibit. Magritte’s work is at the very intersection of the interwar malaise in Europe, the rupture of the pre-war European class system (which Renoir captured so brilliantly in Grand Illusion), the early decades of psychoanalysis (and its unbound promises), and the rise of Dadaism and Surrealism against that context.

He is a product of this environment, but he’s not the only possible product of such an environment. Magritte shows that individual agency does not disappear even under powerful social constraints. How else would one explain the bizarrely unique (or uniquely bizarre) set of motifs that appear throughout his oeuvre (the pipe, the bowler hat, the green apple…), his unmistakable individual style, and yet his ability to communicate on a personal level with his audience? Is this his visionary contribution to the structuralist-individualist debate that divided Europe and North America just as much as the Atlantic Ocean?

The psychoanalytical influences over Magritte are everywhere in this exhibit. In fact, I like to think of some of his paintings as attempts to depict his own dreams. Magritte himself said that “Surrealism claims for our waking life a freedom similar to that which we have in our dreams“, but his work goes further than that; it tries to put his dreams, or more generally his subconscious, on the canvas. His motifs can also be interpreted along these lines: those inexplicable patterns, images or characters that recur from dream to dream, disparate as they may be. Like the cowboy in Mulholland Drive. The mystery of the ordinary can be nothing more than these common objects becoming extraordinary by their placement outside of their usual contexts. When art achieves this, it “excites your admiration through the likeness of things the originals of which you do not admire“, to quote Magritte again.

René Magritte. “The Therapist”

His portrait of The Therapist is perhaps the most obvious acknowledgement of the role of psychoanalysis is his work. This old, faceless sage that conceals below his poncho an open cage, where two birds refuse to fly away. Are the birds the neuroses, memories and repressed desires that therapy brings to the open, but that never truly go away? There is no way to know. But iin analyzing this painting, aren’t we analyzing ourselves (our neuroses, memories and repressed desires?). And isn’t this exactly what psychoanalysis is all about?

For an artist whose work is seen by many as eerie and eccentric, Magritte is a remarkably scholarly painter too, in my view. In showing some of his famous word/image experiments — like The Treachery of Images (aka Ceci n’est pas une pipe)  — this exhibit also sheds light on what one could call Magritte’s ontological work, his methodical exploration of symbols, words, and meaning. His questioning of what is real — of the veracity of depictions of simple objects — has deep philosophical underpinnings, streams of which can be found across academic and artistic undercurrents, from existentialism to pop-art (Foucault’s book This is not a pipe is just one example).

The Magritte that comes out of this exhibit is a truly complete artist, whose tentacles are able to pull together different streams of thought into one coherent, meaningful and unique self. Maybe you already saw him in this manner. I certainly did not. But seeing him in a new perspective has certainly been my artistic epiphany of the year

***

“Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938” Museum of Modern Art. New York, NY. September 28, 2013–January 12, 2014.

What I’ve been reading

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon, 2003): this is a cute little book with a bittersweet story about an autistic boy who decides to investigate the death of his neighbour’s dog. Haddon writes it in the first person, and his greatest merit, in my view, is capturing the voice/worldview of autism. There are a few gimmicks here and there that annoyed me a bit, but overall it was an interesting read. A short one, too.

By Nightfall (Michael Cunningham, 2010): I didn’t like this one as much. Cunningham, in my view, has a certain disdain for his female characters and an undue fascination for his dull male protagonist, the owner of an art gallery in Chelsea who lives in a Soho loft (does it get more predictable than this?); is going through (guess what?) a mid-life crisis and may or may not have feelings for his brother-in-law. To make matters worse, his prose is unnatural and forced. I hate labeling things as pretentious because ambition is often mistaken for pretension, but I would give By Nightfall this label – a made-for-preppies book.

Leviathan (Paul Auster, 1992): Auster is a good example of ambition than some will take as pretension. Leviathan is a touching tale of a writer’s disillusionment and decent towards radicalism. Despite the book-within-a-book structure, it has a pretty conventional narrative style (at least for Auster), and its beauty lies in the psychological exploration of the two main characters.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2009): I expected more of Ishiguro, although this was perhaps not the best place to start.  Nocturnes is a collection of very loosely connected short-stories that have some relation to music (which was the selling point for me). With one or two exceptions, I didn’t find the stories (or characters) to be very compelling, and Ishiguro’s sparse, simple style didn’t do much for me either.

Cosmopolis (Don DeLillo, 2003): Mixed feelings about this one. I absolutely loved DeLillo’s prose  – beautiful, lyrical, and often impressionistic. At the same time, I wasn’t crazy about the story or most of the characters (except for the wife). I thought DeLillo went a little overboard with his parable of de-humanization in the digital age; I usually prefer my moral lessons to be subtler, if that makes sense. In any case, the writing was good enough to make me want to dig further into his material.

A Man and his Stories: Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

* General warning: my reviews will, in general, contain spoilers. I will not reveal information just for the sake of revealing information, but I find it hard, if not impossible, to have an intelligent discussion of a piece of art when one is bound to avoid key plot details. It shouldn’t be a big deal — I, for example, only read reviews after I’ve watched a film, or read a book — but I wanted to throw this out there. Calum Marsh at Film.com had a good piece about spoilers and film criticism, and I tend to agree with his views.

—–

This winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for best fiction is a small miracle of a novel, expansive and yet intimate, an ambitious and rare combination. With breathtaking attention to detail, Johnson plunges into the North Korean experience, infiltrating the mindset of an essentially impenetrable country, and its people, to tell the story of Jun Do’s — John Doe’s — rise from a nameless rural boy to a prominent character in Kim Jong-il’s court. The Orphan Master’s Son can be read as a totalitarian dystopia — in the tradition of 1984Fahrenheit 451 or Lord of the Flies –, and a solid one at that, but its real distinction is to be found in the personal and psychological levels, in Johnson’s exploration of the identity-suppressing effects of an oppressive regime.

The connecting tissue in the novel is a sentence uttered about 100 pages into the book:

“Where we are from… [s]tories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change” 

This novel is, ultimately, an improvisation on this theme. In each of its distinct movements, a man and his story are in conflict, and the story wins the battle. The lack of an objective, externally-verified, factually-sound truth is perhaps the worst consequence of tyranny, and a result of the de-individualization process that is the basis for its very existence. A story is true when the state — or, more precisely, the Dear Leader — declares it to be true, even if it flies in the face of all existing evidence. We, outsiders, tend to giggle when we read about the delusional stories that come out of North Korea. Can people really believe that the Dear Leader shot eleven holes-in-one in his first round of golf? Or that he learned to walk at just 3 weeks, or talk at just 8 weeks? Or that he wrote thousands of books?

Johnson shows that these questions entirely miss the point. It doesn’t matter if people believe or disbelieve. Individual opinions, or beliefs, are meaningless in this context. Stories are, they exist, they form part of a nation’s unconscious. And you don’t question them. You accept them.

—–

Jun Do — the orphan master’s son — is a boy that grows up in an orphanage in rural North Korea, supposedly the only non-orphan among all the kids.  He later joins the army, and as expected of lowly citizens — yes, despite (or because of) half a century of communism, jucheism and, well, delusionism, class divisions are ever present in North Korea –, is sent to do the work that others will not. First, he joins the tunnel squad, a military contingent that roams the pitch-dark, moonless wormholes beneath the DMZ. Later, he becomes a professional kidnapper, one of those soldiers North Korea sends across the Sea of Japan to capture persons of interest, such as a Japanese opera singer whom a high-ranking general might fancy.

As most North Koreans, he is destined — doomed — to an undistinguished and indistinguishable life of suffering in the service of the nation. But after a plot twist that warrants gives him a chance to learn English, he is sent aboard a fishing ship to work as a surveillance officer, hunting for radio communications from other boats. There, he has his first life-changing experience when he tunes his receptor in the frequency of two American girls rowing across the Pacific, broadcasting their ruminations through the airwaves. The contrasting imagery is powerful: Jun Do, incarcerated in his tiny cabin in a crummy boat, in a prison of a country; the girls, travelling across an unending openness of water, towards an unknown, but certainly exciting, fate. For the first time, he questions the purpose of his existence, and tries to grip with his own identity,

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Best albums of 2013: mid-point list

July is a good time to take stock of the good music released so far this year. Here’s a dozen of my favorites, in no particular order (I plan on doing a ranking at the end of the year).

Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety 

Arthur Ashin’s sophomore record is a treasure trove of crescendos and climaxes propelled by his constant falsetto (which, I admit, may annoy some). Anxiety is partly a throwback to R&B-influenced disco music, especially in tunes such as “Play by Play”, “Ego Free Sex Free” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”. But it’s also a sincere and touching records at times, when Ashin opens up about modern malaise and, well, anxiety. “Gonna Die” is a heartfelt confession of the inner dialogues that recur during depression, and contains the best line in the record: “These lines on my face say that I’ll be okay for a while”.

Highlights: Play by Play, Counting, Gonna Die

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

This is the sound of a band that can’t seem to stop getting better. It’s not necessarily their best record – Boxer holds that distinction, in my opinion – but it is their most accomplished one musically. It’s a subtly complex album, with layers upon layers of instrumentation pulsing behind Matt Berninger’s baritone. Lyrically, I’ve already written about how some of the familiar themes of urban anxiety are still there, but more fully fleshed out than before (growing up can do that to you), with the usual pinches of comedy here and there. Music doesn’t get much better than this.

Highlights: Humiliation, This Is the Last Time, Don’t Swallow the Cap.

Rhye – Woman

Let me get this out of the way first: I didn’t realize the lead singer was a man until I read more about Rhye online. That discovery was an eureka moment where everything seemed to click. Rhye’s detractors have pointed to their easy-listening, yuppie-pleaser, Sade-like style. And on the surface, they’re not totally incorrect. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine this album as the soundtrack to a lobster and champagne dinner party of 30-year old professionals who take turns talking about each others’ achievements. But the whole thing takes on a totally different dimension, with much deeper meaning, once you realize it is sung by a man. Suddenly, it becomes an interesting exploration of gender ambiguities, and an attempt to break some gender stereotypes that are well prevalent in music. Their minimalist, sensual style is compelling not only for its prettiness, but also for its honesty.

Highlights: Open, The Fall, 3 Days

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Windows, broken and fixed

Copyright (c) 2007 Lam Thuy Vo, made available under an Attribution 2.0 License.

On an early Saturday morning in June, walking down Broadway, I see a few men removing the faded blue tarpaulins from tables set on the sidewalk, revealing an array of old New Yorkers, 1970s Playboys, cookbooks and art books that had spent the night underneath, protected from the elements. These men, vendors of of written matter, are part of the New York urban landscape, like fruit stands, columns of vapor rising from the sewers, and umbrella dealers on a rainy day. Most of the time, you pass right by them. But occasionally, there’s this one book, pages turned yellow, that draws your attention and makes you stop for a closer look. You notice the books, but you rarely notice the men who sell them.

Yes, they are men. And they are poor, almost always black, and often homeless. They are mostly invisible to us, unnoticed as many of the things we block out in our daily New York experience, like the musician in the subway. Sociologist Michael Duneier, however, made them less invisible. In Sidewalk, his magnificent ethnography of book vendors in Greenwich Village (with gorgeous photography by Ovie Carter), he takes you inside the lives of these men, their routine, their existence. 

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What I’m Listening To

Personal Record 

Take the title as literally as it is meant. If Eleanor Friedberger’s first album, Last Summer (2011), was about life in the big city – New York City, to be more precise – Personal Record is, well, about relationships, and the little things that happen in relationships. She writes about returning the keys (and the toothpaste, and the ointment) after a breakup . She describes sitting in the back of a cab, when he turned off the TV and read her a book in his cell phone (maybe that’s still a New York City experience after all). She confesses that “this could get boring after a while”, and then asks “but what if it doesn’t? What if it never?”. It’s not all in the words, though. Friedberger’s singing style and cadence makes you feel close to her, and to the stories she tells. In some ways, her style reminds me of Stuart Murdoch’s narration in early Belle & Sebastian (think Tigermilk). While she does sound more confident and sincere than Murdoch, the ironic, confessional and mood-shifting lyrics are all there, surrounded by very engaging melodies. Strongly recommended.

Hands of Glory 

The most baroque record yet by my favorite baroque musician. As Pitchfork said in their review, this is Andrew Bird’s “fiddle complement” to Break It Yourself, a violin album. The album definitely takes you to Andrew’s farm/recording studio in Illinois, with a sound that is somewhat reminiscent of his Bowl of Fire era. The melodies are a cross of midwestern and southern roots – at least to these untrained years – but with layered arrangements (as is usually the case given his use of loops). While I have always been found of his music, I gained new appreciation for his introverted-expressionist style after watching Xan Aranda’s beautiful documentary Fever Year in the New York Film Festival. Coupled with Andrew’s recent contribution to the New York Times Opinionator blog, it enlightened me on the exhausting, exhilarating and addictive process of creation that goes into his music. Hands of Glory is not necessarily a must-listen album for those unfamiliar with Andrew Bird – I save that description for The Mysterious Production of EggsArmchair Apocrypha and Break It Yourself – but it is still a window into his creativity and music-making prowess.

Muchacho 

Can a record be sprawling and intimate at the same time? What about a song? “Song for Zula” – a candidate for song of the year, in my book – does just that. Phosphorescent’s new album is a breathtaking journey into heartbreak and despair, bookended by odes to hope — Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction), and Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit). This has all the ingredients to work as the soundtrack to a Cormac McCarthy novel. Matthew Houck alt-country origins are still subtly president, but they are now the pulse behind a wall of layered arrangements, including some beautiful horns, that have led to some comparisons with Fleet Foxes. I don’t hear those similarities throughout, but “Sun, Arise!” could be, in name and sound, the opener to their self-titled album. This is an incredible journey through different sonic tonalities and narrative turns. Muchacho makes a good companion for another highlight of 2013: Kurt Vile’s Walkin’ on a Pretty Daze.

Motel Country

“Motel in Lapa, São Paulo”. Copyright (c) 2011 markhillary, made available under an Attribution 2.0 License.

In one of the many roads that link the Guarulhos International Airport to downtown São Paulo, the visitor is confronted with a unique landscape. Behind a parade of alloy orange street lights, one can see a procession of large, impenetrable fortress-like structures: automated solid metal gates, high walls, intercoms at the narrow car entrance and a conspicuous lack of windows. One could easily mistake these places for criminal outposts if not for the shimmering heart-shaped neon nights announcing their real purpose: MOTEL. The shabbier ones may even contain details of special sales. Since I moved abroad, this scene never failed to surprise me.

To be clear, these motels are very different from those inside-out monstrosities that dominate US inter-state roads, with their doors facing the gravel parking lot, their 1960s drip coffee makers, their ice machines, and their dusty duvets with their floral patterns. The “motor courts” are not an American exclusivity, as anyone who has watched Ascenceur pour l’Echafaud will attest, but at the same time there’s nothing that screams “American roadtrip” like roadside motels. Even Professor Humbert Humbert took his prey to motels.

No, for Brazilians a “motel” has a very specific, sexual connotation. The high walls are there not for security, but for privacy. That’s where people go to have sex. The room is rented per hour, not per night. You go in and out without any direct human interaction. Your key drops in a box by the entrance, you park in a separate garage box that can be sealed off with a pull-down awning, you get your bill in a pass-through drawer in the room. Oh, and you also get a round bed, ceiling mirrors, and a menu of sex toys you might fancy.

Go to any city in Brazil and you will find a similar scene. Motels are as popular as football, beer or Lula circa 2010.

Some people, especially non-Brazilians, may tend to associate the prevalence of motels in Brazil with a certain sexual liberalism. This may be true to some extent, particularly in some sexually liberal cities like Rio (but overall I find that the perception that Brazilians are sexually liberal is somewhat overstated, particularly by foreigners). However, motels are also used largely by couples in stable relationships. And this helps understand what’s most interesting about the culture of motels.

Couples frequent motels because that’s often the only place where they can have privacy. Why? Because Brazilians tend to live with their parents until quite late in their early adulthood, often into their 30s. A scholar at the Federal University of Minas Gerais dissected the numbers collected by the Brazilian Institute of Statistics. Their 2006 survey showed that 44 percent of men and 33 percent of women between 25 and 29 still lived with their parents. For the 30 to 34 age group, the numbers were 22 percent for men and 17 percent for women. I don’t have comparative data for other countries, but I would assume that these numbers are much lower across the developed world.[1] Interestingly, the survey showed that Brazilians tended to leave their parents’ home earlier in 1986 than they do today. My (untested) hypothesis would be that this happened because the average age of marriage increased, while the proportion of people living with their parents until their wedding remained constant. We have more (and older) single adults living with their parents.

There’s a lot to be said about the meaning of “staying home”. Psychologically, I think it quite certainly delays the process of becoming more self-sufficient (not financially, but emotionally). It may also affect patterns of behavior in the marriage, when one basically replaces the parents with the spouse. There are certainly economic repercussions as well. I would think that the relatively paucity of one-bedroom apartments in major Brazilian cities, compared to a place like New York, has at least something to do with it.

More importantly, I think “staying home” has major social meaning. Ultimately, it reflects the centrality of the family in one’s social life. This has generally been interpreted as a good thing in Brazilian circles – it is often seen in opposition to those detached Europeans and North Americans who “abandon” their family to live their own live.

However, it comes at the expense of other things, most importantly other social ties. When the family is the central unit, there is less room for other communities, like the neighborhood, PTAs, cooperatives, etc. Tocqueville and Putnam, among many others, have showed how these community ties, or more broadly civil society, are crucial for the development of democracies. In a family-centric society, Patrionalism is more likely, as is authoritarianism. The public and private become more blurred. Does this sound like Brazil at all?

1. I’m still trying to find some data on this, but one 1994 study argued that only 10 percent of American men and 30 percent of women remained at home until marriage. I would assume that these figures have decreased since them.

A Desert Island Playlist

Here’s a playlist I put together about four years ago. I’m still fond of it. Spotify streaming available below.

Part I – Change

1. Herbie Hancock – “Watermelon Man” – Head Hunters (6:32)
2. Broken Social Scene – “Pacific Theme” – You Forgot It In People (5:09)
3. Grizzly Bear – “Easier” – Yellow House (3:44)
4. Antony & The Johnsons – “Kiss My Name” – The Crying Light (2:48)
5. Seu Jorge – “Bem Querer“- Cru (3:21)
6. TV on the Radio – “Golden Age” – Dear Science (4:12)
7. M83 – “Couleurs” – Saturdays = Youth (8:35)
8. The National – “All The Wine” – Aligator (3:15)
9. Beck – “Gamma Ray” – Modern Guilt (2:57)
10. The Shins – “New Slang” – Oh, Inverted World (3:51)
11. Beirut – “Postcards From Italy” – Gulag Orkestar (4:17)
12. Air France – “Windmill Wedding” – No Way Down EP (3:13)
13. Fleet Foxes – “Mykonos” – Sun Giant EP (4:35)
14. Bob Dylan – “Most Of The Time” – Oh Mercy (5:02)
15. Death Cab For Cutie – “You Can Do Better Than Me” – Narrow Stairs (1:59)
16. Andrew Bird – “Fake Palindromes” – The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2:53)
17. Sufjan Stevens – “You Are The Blood” – Dark Was The Night (10:14)

Part II – Doubt

1. Radiohead – “Packt Likey Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box” – Amnesiac (4:00)
2. Portishead – “Hunter” – Third (3:59)
3. Deerhunter – “Microcastle” – Microcastle (3:40)
4. Pavement – “Here” – Slanted & Enchanted (3:56)
5. David Bowie – “Weeping Wall” – Low (3:29)
6. The Arcade Fire – “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” – Funeral (5:13)
7. Wilco – “Radio Cure” – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (5:09)
8. Okkervil River – “For Real” – Black Sheep Boy (4:43)
9. Panda Bear – “Take Pills” – Person Pitch (5:24)
10. U2 – “Fez-Being Born” – No Line On The Horizon (5:17)
11. Interpol – “NYC” – Turn On The Bright Lights” (4:20)
12. The Beta Band – “Dry The Rain” – The 3 EP’s (6:07)
13. My Bloody Valentine – “Soon” – Loveless (6:59)
14. Elbow – “One Day Like This” – The Seldom Seen Kid (6:34)

The only song missing in the Spotify playlist is Sufjan’s “You Are the Blood”, released in the benefit album Dark Was The Night. YouTube it here.

Indie Rock’s Antonioni

Red Desert (1964). Mistaken for Strangers could be another worthy title.

Emotional alienation, social anxiety, urban ennui, depression. These have been recurrent themes in The National’s catalogue. I’m not sure why they have at times been described as reflective of “blue collar struggles”. Other than The National’s origin in working class Ohio, the themes they address are rather universal and, if anything, have been traditionally – and mistakenly – associated with “upper class” maladies.

Surely, The National are not the only group to currently explore these topics (See: Arcade Fire). But there’s something different about their approach to these issues. It’s not so much the themes as it is the delivery, both lyrically and sonically. Their compositions are moody, transcendental, with deliberate pacing and slow build-ups. Matt Berninger’s lyrics are the perfect match to this sound: intimate and yet surreal; poignant and yet detached. There is nuance, shades of gray, complexity. Corey Beasley conveyed this quite eloquently in Popmatters:

The real draw, the thing that sets the National apart as a subtly subversive and calmly brilliant band, is in Matt Berninger’s lyrics. (And, yes, the rich baritone that delivers them.) While most of his similarly successful peers—who shall remain nameless—are writing ENGL101 screeds that translate to “The suburbs, they’re bad!” or taking a quick break from self-pleasuring to rhyme balaclava with horchata, Berninger’s lyrics marry razorwire wit, plainspoken clarity, and evocative surrealisms to create a voice at once immediately relatable and pleasantly mysterious.

I couldn’t agree more. In the brilliant new album, Trouble Will Find Me  (more on it to come in a future post), Berninger further refines his art. In “Demons”, he is pretty straight-forward, but still very evocative, in his description of depression:

I get this sudden sinking feeling
Of a man about to fly
Never kept me up before
Now I’ve been awake for days
I can’t fight it anymore
I’m going through an awkward phase

His frequent forays into social anxiety are still there, too. The first lines of new highlight “Humiliation“, are reminiscent of the “Standing at the punch table swallowing punch” lyric in “Slow Show“, the standout in 2007’s Boxer:

I survived the dinner
And the air went thinner
I retired to the briars by the pool
It gets so loud

If I die this instant
Taken from a distance
They would probably list it down
Among other things ’round town

In a way, the sonic landscapes built by the National are the musical equivalent – in structure and content – to Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, and his “gorgeous, densely layered fog to contemplate and wrestle with his characters’ imprecise quandaries and endless possibilities” [1]. His films are, above all, mood pieces. They capture snapshots of emotions and thoughts, but refrain from making decisive causal statements about them. They use carefully constructed visual aesthetics to reinforce these emotions, but let the viewer subjectively interpret them. I feel this is what Berninger achieves in verses such as these:

Turn the light out say goodnight, no thinking for a little while
Let’s not try to figure out everything at once
It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky

The fact The National invite comparisons to one of the true auteurs of modern cinema is a testament to their carefully constructed art. Nothing seems to be random about it, and they’ve perfected their craft with each new album. Their rise to the high echellons of contemporary (indie) rock is to be celebrated.

But they also leave me with a question that I hope to explore in the future: why do these songs of mid-life anxiety, the troubles of marriage and parenting, and professional disillusions appeal to the 20-year-olds that surely form a significant portion of The National’s captive audience? Is it possible to empathize with Berninger’s lyrics without some form of shared experience? Are his baritone voice, Bryan Devendorf’s impeccable drumming and the Dessler brothers’ exquisite color pallete enough to explain the connection? Or are these so-called “mid-life” issues just simply “life” issues that affect college students and recent graduates as much as anyone else? To be continued.

[1] Harvard Film Archive. The Mysteries of Michelangelo Antonioni.

A Sort of Homecoming

Writing, or at least non-academic writing, is a new thing for me. As I pounded over the decision to create this blog, one of the questions that kept popping up was whether I should write in English, my somewhat adopted language, or Portuguese, my mother tongue. The answer is less obvious than one might think, and it actually made me think of identity issues, and how one goes about defining his or her identity.

To be clear, this is not an issue of language skills. I think anyone is more comfortable writing in his or her native language, even though native language skills may gradually deteriorate when you’ve been abroad for too long. But I’ve always believed one can never be a great non-academic [1] writer in a foreign language, with exceptions that are so outrageous  in their brilliance (praise be to Nabokov and Conrad) that they are useless as standard-setters. Even someone as remarkable as Kundera, with all his literary instinct, has probably written his best books in Czech, not French. It’s just too hard to master  cadence , rhyme and flow in a foreign language. Even if you get the subtleties and nuances right, a herculean task in itself.

But leave the skills issue aside for a moment, and focus on the substance. Writing means writing about something, establishing a relationship with the thing you are writing about. That thing inhabits a universe, and that universe speaks a certain language. A real language, not a metaphorical one. If you’ve ever watched a truly alien sport narrated in a foreign language – say, baseball in Portuguese or pétanque in hindi – you get the point. It is difficult to engage this universe in a language that is not its own. You feel like you need closed captioning, or possibly this.

The universe I want to write about is a universe that communicates with me in English. Not because the objects I want to look at originate in the English-speaking world, but because I’ve discovered them, engaged with them, and discussed them in an English-speaking context. Even if I’m talking about Truffaut, Fellini or Buñuel. Due to my personal experience, they just belong here. I think most people who have been expatriates for a good chuck of their lives may share this feeling, at least partially.

For an expatriate, there is no home [2]. Your home country is no longer home because you’ve been away for so long. You observe it as an outsider. You take mental notes of customs, norms and modes of behavior that have become alien to you. Things that you used to take for granted stick out. You become an outsider in your own culture, an ethnographer of sorts. And your current place of residence is also not home. You may feel as integrated as possible – like I do in New York City – but it’s still foreign. You don’t have the childhood memories, the school stories, the family restaurants, the early romances, or the different aspects of that subjective feeling of “being home”. You are a citizen of nowhere. But you are also a citizen of everywhere.

But if home is no longer home, where is it? This takes me back to the why of this blog. For me, home is ultimately the things I love. And I don’t mean exclusively people (although they too are home). Music, books, food, films. The experience of knowing them intimately, of sharing secrets with them, of having memories associated with them. They are home. They accompany you wherever you go. So, in a way, this blog is a celebration of home, of the things that make me feel home. It’s about time I give them the recognition they deserve.

[1] Goes to show how boring most academic writing really is. Just too standard, with little room for creative writing. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. Making your point as clearly as possible is a must, and a skill many scholars still miserably lack.

[2] Although the bureaucracy in my office tries to convince me otherwise, as they always process my so-called “home leave”.