strindberg’s ‘easter’ and absolution

I think about August Strindberg’s play Easter fairly often. I first read it when I was about eighteen, at a time in my life when I really enjoyed reading a play in a single sitting, usually in the afternoons. I lived in a room above a bookstore that received the full brunt of afternoon sunlight, and I’d sit there with the curtains drawn drinking strong coffee that I’d only just learned how to brew, half naked and sweating profusely. There was something oddly psychedelic about the whole setting, although it’s hard to pinpoint why – I think a large part of it, beyond the inhuman heat and my intolerance for caffeine, was that it was a time in my life when I first realised (and realised in a bodily, visceral level) that life is just irreducibly strange (even when not that strange at all, on the surface) and that the mere fact of being and existing can be heavy. “The great fragmentation of maturity” was a line I read at the time from (I think) Henry Miller and it made and makes a lot of sense: the moment of shattering, where you begin to understand that life doesn’t loop back or stand still or tie itself up, but instead, just goes on…

Anyway, I digress. Easter was one of the plays that I read in this period, and for such a simple story, it’s never left me. The action of the play takes place over (surprise) Easter, and the central theme is of the main characters (in particular the young man Elis)  struggling with the guilt they carry from past actions, and the suffering they go through as these things are remembered and relived. The chief conduit for this recurring suffering, and the emblem of this theme, is the old enemy Lindkvist, who stalks the outside of the characters’ house, remaining shadowy and unseen until the end of the third act. Lindkvist has old scores to settle with the family, but it’s not anything he says that causes pain – it’s his mere presence: his shadow falling across the windows is enough to invoke, in the long-suffering Elis, all the horrors of the past that reach their fingers into the present day.

Knowing only a bit of Strindberg’s biography, it’s hard not to see something of self-portrait in Elis: his paranoia, fearfulness and suffering seem to mirror the playwright’s own tortured attitude towards life and equal feelings of victimisation and guilt.  It’s the sense that no skeleton stays in the closet for long, that no accounts remain unsettled – indeed, this “settling of accounts” is a recurring metaphor for guilt in the play: not just the real monetary debts owed to Lindkvist, but the “spiritual” debt following on, and the wider sense of accounts and debts as is invoked by the religious holiday itself.

As an unseen force, Lindkvist makes a powerful character, but even more striking is when he does appear onstage to resolve the drama and effectively end the play. By act III, all suspicions and anticipation of sadness and pain have come to a head, and there is a sense that what has been sowed will finally be reaped: Lindkvist’s knock on the door comes as a terrible omen. However, this isn’t how things turn out. Lindkvist is forgiving and kindly, and arrives only to relieve Elis and the others of their guilt: to wipe clean the slate, and to allay all fears.

This, I think, is the most compelling part of the play. There’s something almost naive about this unlikely scenario of absolution: something almost painful in Lindkvist’s deliverance from fear. It reads like an imagined, timeless moment – the eschatological Easter Sunday, maybe – where all fears are proved false and all hopes are realised: a moment craved for in secret, whispered in dreams, where the many fragments of life come together again, where all ends meet, and where salvation is offered unreservedly to all we sinners. It’s framed by a religious feeling in the play, but to me the scene with Lindkvist goes deeper:, almost to something childlike: the desire to be cradled, to be absolved of all pain and frailty, to be told that everything is alright.

Amerika and Father Ted: a eulogy for Dermot Morgan

I caught a repeat of the final episode of Father Ted last night, “Going to America”. While most laugh-track comedies of the 90’s, no matter how on-point, seem more dated than relevant, Father Ted still seems fresh – or, when dated, not in a way that’s detrimental to the laughs. Part of this could be the nostalgia I have of the show from childhood, but I think it’s mostly the quality of the acting and chemistry between the actors, the clever jokes, and the irreverent setting. All of this is on display in the finale, and it’s one of the best episodes – yet there’s a strangely elegiac note to the whole thing, an extended sense of requiem that runs beneath the episode. After all, Dermot Morgan, who played Father Ted, was dead within a day of filming: the movements on-screen are some of his last.

I found it hard no to think of Barthes: he is dead and he is about to die. He lives on, yet he is gone. Frank Kelly, too, who played Father Jack, died this year – eighteen years to the day that Morgan died. There is a feeling that ghosts linger around the episode: that past, present and future converge here.

Intonations of death haunt “Going to America”: one of the first shots is of a man on a ledge, who is last seen towards the episode’s end on a bus, the light fading, mournful music playing, as it drives into a foggy ether. Kurt Cobain is invoked. A game of Snakes and Ladders leads the suicidal father down the snakes every time.

Even the title and theme of the episode seems to speak of an ending, a loss. “America” seems to function like Kafka’s “Amerika”: not so much as the real place but as a beyond, as the edge of the world. Father Ted’s delayed goodbyes to his people recalls not only the pain of death and of leaving but of Irish migration to the New World, the unlikelihood of ever seeing loved ones again . In a more spectre-like reading, perhaps “America” serves in the same manner as Michael Haneke’s Seventh Continent: death embodied as place.

The final sequence of the episode involves the Father quitting his travel plans to return with his people to his (now empty and desolate) parish: a desperate change of mind and a return to the living. A dreamlike quality haunts these final moments: eulogy for the show and for the man. The final shot eschews laughs, or any obvious emotion at all, as the camera zooms in on Dermot Morgan’s blank face. He is dead, he lives on always, and he is about to die.

thoughts on three songs

i often feel that the way music operates is in a “resonant” sense, bringing to mind a constellation of meanings – ever shifting – with a note or line: not something clearly apprehended but something that rattles around inside you. this is just my reflections on a couple of songs i enjoy, and what they make me think of – not necessarily anything coherent.

Gang of Four, “Return the Gift”

Please send me evenings and weekends.

Amidst the clanging, deteriorating guitars and the failure of the rhythm, the line echoes out as yet another breakdown: not a plea or a lament, but an ever-repeating signal, destined to die out unheard.

Please send me evenings and weekends. Even without a close analysis of the rest of the song – loss of opportunity, loss of hope, loss of words – the meaning is clear on some level. Maybe this meaning is not something we can articulate to ourselves, but this barely matters: the force of the words resonates within it (and maybe suggests meaning in music is not something apprehended with a cool intellect, but is in fact this resonant, bodily shaking – something irreducible and undecipherable, rendering articulation and explanation as secondary).

Few people are spared the horror of the 9 to 5 (if not worse), and all know the sacredness of the evening, the weekend: whenever they fall for the worker, these secular Sabbaths of respite are the only true moments of the week. Time sweeps you away, work sweeps you away, a life that is not your own and a self that is not yourself sweeps you away: only in the evening, on the weekend, can we cling to and regather that other self: that supposedly truer self that is washed by time into a fiction.

In this light, what is it to ask: please send me evenings and weekends? Fill my shifts until they overflow, rob me of my refuge, drain that other self until I barely remember it, or better yet, until I don’t remember it at all. We can tell from the singer’s voice that it’s not the joy of work. “Return the Gift” is industrial drudgery, repetition, living death. And yet he emotionlessly pleads for more, more, more.

Maybe the answer is in the sacred/profane duality of time and work, life and money: on one hand, what is a life without money? When the minimum wage job fills the week and still leaves nothing for the weekend, what is there but to work more, more, more? On the other hand – is this what it has come to? Is there really nothing left inside me when my time is drained and my spirit is crushed? Send me back to work so at least I no longer have to think.

Future, “Never Forget”

Future’s song ‘Never Forget’ is a mass of associations – semi-related lines and thoughts, biographical, confessional and observational – that add up to a singular, powerful picture. The lines and the beat become a singular figure: a constellation of meaning without a particular centre or outlier, but rather a churning mass; a dark system of hope and failure, guilt and redemption, wealth and the abyss.

As the title implies, memory is the theme here: the past reverberating in the present, the claws of predetermination and familial recurrence digging into the future. Unusually, Future’s voice is unmodified and extra-pained in the harshness as he recounts stories of childhood visits to family members to prison contrasted with warnings against the drugs he’s now consuming and selling. Wealth and material salvation hover above societal decay and oppression.

Two sets of lines at different points in the song are a particularly chilling narrative:

I ain’t make my auntie’s funeral, I ain’t never forget it
I know she know I love her and I hope she forgive me

And later:

I’m drankin’ on my lean, I swear to God I would quit
My auntie was a fiend, I used to serve her a hit
I’m thankin’ God today that she don’t smoke it no more
I made so much fuckin’ money I put a safe in the floor

Whether or not this is the same aunt or not is unclear: if so, however, is death better than the hit? Addiction and relapse, drug death and healing wealth, paranoia and luxury sit side by side, a cluster of meaning and contradiction so entangled as to be singular.

Nomeansno, “Forget Your Life”

One of the best songs on Nomeansno’s album The Day Everything Became Nothing is “Forget Your Life”, also one of the most monotonous and heavy tracks. Lumbering, doom-laden verses string out a painful scenario, “if…

you feel / like nothing / nothing and no one
and you see / nothing / nothing and no one…

The horror intensifies, the introspection and crippled insides multiply. Suddenly, the clouds break: the chorus opens up into a slowed, throwed, yet nonetheless full chugalug-inspirational power metal dazzler:

forget your life! forget your life! forget your life!
…it’s nothing!

Fairly depressing on some level, maybe, but who cares about lyrics now. The meathead confidence of the rocker has overpowered that introspective shit like the dweeby sentiment it is: only the surface remains – forget it, “rock out”. On some level, this is the song’s most prominent and greatest achievement: maintaining the intellectual dignity of existential despair while rocking with some disturbingly feel-good goofmetal chords, without sounding like it’s doing it for the sake of irony alone, or, indeed, like there’s anything put on about the juxtaposition.

In a way, there’s no juxtaposition at all between the words and the music.

It’s in this conspicuous absence of contrast that the song’s facets begin to reveal themselves. At first glance, it would be easy to take the sentiment of “life is nothing” (combined with the album title) at face-value nihilism: there’s no shortage of forehead-crushed rock ‘n’ roll tinnies to attest to the ready marriage of ignorant chords and forgetting your life. But it runs past that, deeper than that. The day that everything became nothing was not so easy to bear, and the sorrows were not so easy to drown

Nomeansno don’t stop at nihilism, but move past it into some kind of absurd moment of clarity and peace, and most importantly, some suggestion of the end of pain; a scale beyond comprehension where all our sins and victories are weighed as blissfully meaningless: you’re scared? What are you scared of?

The chorus is not a confirmation of the verses’ nihilism, but a refutation: and the refutation is that your life is nothing. Not meaningless, nihilistic nothing, but nothing nonetheless: a game, a spark, a flash. Ultimately what emerges is not despair and hopelessness but the joy of the absurd, of the meaningless life brimming with meaning. This is rock for people who hate rock, for people who hate to rock.

pointless juxtapositions: miles davis’ “bitches brew” proposal + daumier’s images of don quixote

the first picture is Teo Macero’s note advising Colombia records of the title of Miles Davis’ forthcoming album.

pictures two and three are Daumier’s sketches of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, apparently showing the same moment from the front and side. the melancholy aspect of the story dominates these images.

pointless juxtapositions: manuel ocampo’s “why I hate europeans” + ezra pound’s cage

first image: this 1992 painting by Filipino artist Manuel Ocampo, “Why I Hate Europeans”, was used on the cover of a Skinny Puppy album (this is where I first saw it, although I never listened to the music). Ocampo once said:

“It’s only a coincidence when people understand your work. People can never really understand what you are trying to say.”

the second picture is the 6×6 foot cage in Pisa where Ezra Pound was detained in 1945 after being arrested for treason against the United States. he was transferred to a tent after showing mental strain.

If the hoar frost grip thy tent
Thou wilt give thanks when night is spent.