Once Again Into the Björk

Reading Time: 3 minutes

With the intention of listening painstakingly (I mean this word as literally as possibly it has ever been used) to each cut on Vulnicura, which is Björk’s newest album released two days ago, and having made it so far through most of one song I have this much to observe.

She seems to speak English as the circumstances require. I don’t know what the circumstances of recording this album may have been, but she speaks it in the lyrics (which she wrote) as if it were, say, a 27th or 32nd language, after a great many more more important ones in front of it. I guess I should say she sings them, but the singing, hmmmm, how shall I say this?… Having been given to understand that she is admired by some musicians for the extraordinary range of her voice (I could only account for previous experiences attempting to listen to her music, and about which I recall mainly very high pitched keening, and very low pitched moaning—so I guess technically it is correct to say “range” and it is also, as far as I’m concerned, appropriate to say “extraordinary;” I don’t know that I’d use the two terms together, and I know that previously I had an extraordinary amount of trouble allowing myself to use the term “singing” with regard to whatever she is doing with her voice) I thought I’d give her performing another chance.

All I can say, beyond what I’ve said, at least with regard to that first song, “Stonemilker,” which I’m supposing has something to do, at least by some law of allowing variation at one or two removes, with the expression “you can’t get blood from a stone” and so maybe the song is about something impossible that occurred in spite of expectations to the contrary, and that this something has to do with emotions (disclosure: I looked at the booklet that accompanies the album and I see that the English word “emotional” does appear at least twice in the lyrics; I had to read it, because I couldn’t quite decipher it from the sounds emanating from my high fidelity loudspeakers). In all events, just to finish my very preliminary observations, and only about one song, what the English she is pronouncing sounds like is a rendition of what a person in the process of being strangled would sound like, as the English, by way of scientific linguistic description, is at best, strangulated, very highly accented, but with no discernible roots as to the native language of the speaker.

Having listened to that much, I realized that though there have been many forays on my part, boldly and intrepidly, to make my way through an entire album in the past (Biophilia, her last album, and a masterpiece by some accounts, was simply beyond my obviously far too fragile and undeveloped sensibilities), I have never heard any recordings or appearances wherein she had a conversation with another living human creature. So I repaired as we all do in such circumstances to Youtube, and found that she had appeared and been recorded as a guest on several talk shows. One of these was British, and the other was German, though the interview was conducted in English.

I was astonished to hear her speak with a perfect British accent in the former, almost an exact rendition of the accent of her interviewer, the host of the program. I was then further astonished, listening to the German TV show, that her accent had been transfigured entirely into a German inflected sort of English, again, an exact recapitulation of her host’s accent speaking his otherwise perfectly fluent English.

It was also in this latter interview that she responded to the host’s questions about her travel through Germany by train, and she explained, when he pointed out that it was certainly to be anticipated that a celebrity of her stature might be expected to travel by plane, as she could certainly afford it, that she didn’t like to fly because, as she put it in her minuscule soprano German-inflected little girl voice, “The air pressure forces the molecules to go tiny.”

What rushed back into my consciousness, more or less simultaneously, as a kind of aggregate wave of thoughts, essentially a tsunami of cognitive energy, billions of synapses firing simultaneously, was that every previous impression of Björk to which I had allowed myself to be subjected had been exactly the same, and that is, she is clearly the most famous, and possibly the largest, dingbat on the planet.

Stay tuned, as I subject myself to further cuts on this new album.

I will try to capture my impressions, if it’s possible.


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John Kerry’s Goofy Diplomacy

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The American literary critic and scholar, R.P. Blackmur, famously wrote of “Language as Gesture.” What I would suggest (and what I see borne out not only in extended conversations with French natives online in forums for precisely that purpose, but in my experience in general—among the general American public, and even in more selective environments, such as American academic centers) is that our European brethren, the French exhibiting a particular aptitude and finesse, are far more serious and analytical about gesture as language. There is, no doubt, meaning in actions, bodily postures, and yes, gestures, that sometimes belie even the words that issue from the lips of those making such motions.

In the United States, the study of these things take on the quality of parlor game or, at its most serious, perhaps the phenomenon of armchair psychiatry, wherein anyone can bestow upon himself the bona fides of accurate renditions of the meaning of “body language,” “sub-text,” and “non-verbal cues…” in short the entire apparatus of wholly ignorant speculation of the “hidden meaning” of what are mainly empty and unconscious actions. Americans, being the largely mindless, unthinking, spontaneous and effusive louts we are in the usual stereotype give no heed to the cultural norms of other collective civilized entities, be they other countries, other religions (than Protestantism), or merely other formalized and highly codified systems of behavior and communication, such as, in this case, diplomacy.

My exaggerated characterization of Americans aside, we generally are tone deaf, not only to the possibility that stepping to the right may mean something entirely different than stepping to the left, or that royalty calls for a curtsy and no direct modes of address. This doesn’t excuse our rudeness, cloddishness, or the kinds of mayhem we cause by our general ignorance of what others, in other parts of the world, take very seriously indeed. However, it also doesn’t negate our sincerity or our good will. We may fuck it up, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have good intentions or heart-felt feelings of empathy and distress over the misfortune of others. We seem to be much better at suffering misfortune ourselves and accepting the world’s sympathy, than we are at conveying similar feelings when the situations are reversed.

Our long tradition of lending aid, in many forms, both material, and spiritual, but as well in the time and compassion we direct towards the direct support of other peoples in the world who are under duress goes at least some way towards neutralizing what can sometimes be our ham-handed manner of visiting ourselves upon other soil. We’re still a young country, relatively speaking. We certainly have a lot to learn. We have some straightening out internally, in terms of getting everybody within our borders on board to the notion that we may be an exceptional entity in the community of nations, for the richness of our resources, for the depth of our resourcefulness, for our might, and for the sheer size of our country in its unique position of insulation from other areas of the world. Some of us think this reflects a kind of exceptional privilege as well, as if our destiny as humans is somehow on a higher plane than any other humans, purely by virtue of being American. This is, of course, not true. For all of our great attributes as a people and a nation, we still have far too many faults. But we’re getting there. France will survive John Kerry… It’s survived far far worse.

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Freedom of Speech is No Compulsion to Speak

Reading Time: 3 minutes

What’s on my mind:

As I continue to cogitate, though in certain respects it’s largely a sub-conscious rumination, on the events of the past week in France, plus the shit-storm of commentary that appears through all outlets in all channels of communication, certain thoughts are beginning to cohere in my little head.

Knowing me, I’ll have more than enough to say, I suppose, in due course, but, for now, I’ll say this.

It seems to me that a steadfast belief in freedom of speech (which is a far-ranging freedom, and is not excluded to politics or religion) is not an injunction or an obligation to be compelled to speak. And especially not just because you have some feelings, particularly strong ones, on any subject.

I have been known in the past not to be afraid to speak truth to power, and in the right contexts, I’ve done so, sometimes spontaneously, because it was just and ethical to have done. It is no virtue to be honest, especially if it’s gratuitous. But it is entirely justified to oppose oppression, coercion, or outright lying and to confront it with the truth. I don’t think this has ever made me a hero or courageous. I am the opposite. I am, more often than not, filled with anxiety, but fear is no excuse for not acting. I am never fearful when circumstance finds me in a place that, in the absence of any other voice for uttering the truth that applies, I open my mouth.

I also have learned that nothing is as powerful a weapon against tyranny and oppression, or even mere bullying (when an institution does it, through its agents and agencies, it’s called throwing their weight around) than the skillful application of truth to make the oppressor look ridiculous. Scorn, anger, and righteousness render them deaf. But the potentiality of being laughed at by the public almost invariably makes a tyrant, at least one with some remnant or shred of reason intact, suddenly reasonable.

This latter truth, though, has never induced or compelled me to rain down ridicule, even to the point of disrespect, on anyone or any institution simply for the effect, or the pleasure of voicing my implied superiority. Even dressing up scorn and ridicule in the respectable cloaks of art, calling them satire or parody, does not excuse gratuitous provocation. No matter how deserving the ridicule, some account must be taken of the state of mind, or more likely the mindlessness—never mind the evil beyond any form of reason—of the oppressor. Most of the time, if red cloths are waved to incite beasts to an instinctive state of preservation by aggression, it’s mainly for sport. This is called cruelty by some. With humans, the same rules apply. Cruelty, however incisively and cleverly applied, in the incitement of humans to act like beasts, when that is the predictable (and increasingly inevitable) result, renders questionable the motives of the provocateur. Universal scorn, applied equally to all manifestations of ridiculous behavior and belief, is no defense for the basic cruelty and inhumanity of the act.

Certain commentators of prominence (I’m thinking of David Brooks on the right, and Jeffrey Goldberg, ostensibly on the left; conveniently an ur-Republican, a self-described “liberal…who came to his senses,” and a Jewish liberal who wears his ethnicity on his sleeve professionally) have found reason, through very clever, but still specious, argument to declare that each “is not Charlie…” I am still sorting out what I know now only intuitively to be faulty logic (though it may be overly generous of me to call it even that) to be able to say what’s wrong with these declarations, never mind the possible underlying motives for doing so.

What I find myself thinking, instead, as, indeed, I read the now ubiquitous declaration of solidarity “Je suis Charlie..” and, plumbing my own feelings, realize that I sense no resonance with the sentiment within myself, is that if I am anyone, and it is something spiritually akin to some abstraction that I can identify with the current trials we all somehow suffer together in France, it is this: Je suis Charlot.

Charlot is, of course, the affectionate name bestowed on that comic genius, no stranger to the finer points of ridicule, satire, and the skills required to pull at the heart strings of all, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s name has come up countless times in the last five or six days, because of his iconic motion picture masterpiece of eviscerating tyranny, “The Little Dictator.” The film came out in 1940, and the plaudits it, and its maker, deserves notwithstanding, it also must be remembered that the war we now refer to as World War II (and which, in the end engulfed the entire planet) had already been raging in Europe for almost a year, and it was five years, and 50 million lives extinguished, before it ended.

Truth is powerful. It is necessary. And it must never be abandoned or denied. But, even in the face of truth, evil and tyranny are so relentless, sometimes virtually implacable, that we must constantly remind ourselves that these shifting transformative enemies are still abroad in the world, and will require more than faulty logic, or lip service and ritual to be suppressed.

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