Yuval Noah Harari dedicates a sizable chapter in his most recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century to what is commonly referred to among us as “meaning.”
It’s a big word.
What is most impressive is the way Harari manages in a relatively short chapter (even though I just said it was fairly large) to cover the expanse of religion and God, humanity and the Enlightenment, and Nationalism and the nation-state all in the scope of how we go about finding meaning. Is it our ritualistic dedication to seeking an afterlife? Is it our belonging to a culture or creed? Or is it in the connectedness with other human beings?
None of these things, at least for Harari. At the end, he transitions to his final chapter on meditation, and speaks to the reality that is suffering. When we start with suffering, we find meaning.
It is a tall order. Perhaps fiction since the book of Job has had to deal with the concept, and the way that stories allow us to uncover what pain looks like to others is a way to bridge the very real gap that we all experience when we see someone else with pain that we ourselves cannot feel. Does this mean that the highest form of art henceforth will concern the depths of suffering despite radical progress? Perhaps. What this suffering is, its breadth and depth, will be in the eye of the beholder.
Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.
Meaning is somewhere in between.
To introduce Mount Eerie’s album in this, even with these preliminaries out of the way, will still be difficult. To call this a morbid album would be an understatement. It feels wrong listening to the album, like you somehow took the wrong door and found yourself the only audience member and Phil Elverum is onstage recording using his wife’s instruments. It does not encourage you to keep going, in fact it hardly takes any steps to acknowledge your presence. Yet, for some reason you keep listening. Why this is proves Harari’s exultant labeling of suffering as being humanity’s connecting state.
Phil Elverum lost his wife to pancreatic cancer not long after she gave birth to a daughter. When we think of suffering, cancer is up there as a top contender. To have the diagnosis and the year and a half quickly take a story of burgeoning family and throw it in the dumpster must have been jarring. I am sure for a young family the threat of death seems so far away. Considering the drastically reduced rate of death due to complications in childbirth, and the hope for families for a new life both metaphysically and biologically must be all too common. Elverum was prevented from all of that.
Here are the opening lyrics for the first song, “Real Death.”
Death is real.
Someone’s there and then they’re not.
And it’s not for singing about. It’s not for making into art.
When real death enters the house all poetry is dumb.
The general idea of art from adversity is over, told in rawness that reminds listeners of Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking when Didion watched her husband collapse in front of her and she claims throughout the memoir, “Life changes in an instant.”
Not only that but the enduring power of art to change a person is dropped entirely. Elverum signals to the listener that the entire act of the album, although pushing the limit to what he can produce, fails, is failing, and will continue to fail. The songs mention parochial lyrics of objects, of toothbrushes and trash, of photographs that have no bearing on the memory of his wife, and may in fact be creating a new truth to the experience of being in love, which is that the reminders are replacing what it is like to hear her “in the other room.”
This is terrifying. Harari in his chapter on meaning laments that many of his Jewish ancestry has lived and died without so much as an artifact, not a poem or photograph or diary, to remind him of his heritage, and his 96 year old grandmother cannot keep straight the names on the faces of the photographs that were taken. So the connections, and the artistic attempts to remind us of those connections, will end in the same vanishing point, at the back of the canvas where no one’s eye bothers to look.
We are all always so close to not existing at all.
Except in the confusion of our survived by’s, grasping at the echoes.
Elverum throughout the album gropes in desperation for some reincarnating belief in the soul passing on, either through the water or into some other life form. “Today our daughter asked me if mama swims,” he sings. “I told her ‘Yes, and that’s probably all she does, now.'”
In Purity by Jonathan Franzen, Tom Aberrant’s mother dies and he says he was reduced “To an animal mourning the death of his mother.”
To some extent, we cannot help the reactions given over to us in the moments of grief. Harari agrees that our notions of free will are significantly blinded by religion and psychobabble, when the truth is that much of our bodies carry on thinking and pumping and bleeding without us, like we are some uninitiated passenger. It is why I, like Harari, believe so much in meditation. I felt as if my brain, even with all the reading I had done and even with all the thinking I had done, was a massive elephant careening through the jungle, while I was the rider comforted in the false belief that I was directing the thing. Intelligence and knowledge were not taking me where I wanted to go.
And I needed control more than ever. I started listening to this album unconsciously in the same way I ordered a subscription to Nature journal and started to read heavily in neuroscience. My wife has a neuro-degenerative disease, one that we have a clinical trial for, but no cure is readily available. When I met my wife I thought it was simply cerebral palsy, but now I know the truth. In retrospect I thought by learning more about the brain I could save her, but that obviously is not in my power. I thought by buying a camera I could preserve the memory of when she enjoyed herself more, but a reminder is not the same as experience.
So I listen to Mount Eerie’s album to remind me that perhaps Haruki Murakami may be wrong about suffering. Maybe the line should be, “pain is mandatory and suffering is mandatory.”
A Crow Looked at Me is quiet, and is not meant to sound “good.” Elverum’s voice is suspended over a giant chasm where a thin spider’s web lurks at the bottom for all of us. It is overexposed as well as the instrumentation, which reverberates in uncompromising analog spaces. The lyrics are immediate and raw and tear-inducing. It is very difficult to listen to Elverum mention a backpack in the first song, sung with rolling quickness, like he is trying to get the lyrics out before he breaks down, and not feel at least a hint of sympathy on his behalf.
Still the capacity to make pervasive the ramifications of suffering are all too easy. The benefit to meditation, to understanding that the thoughts that enter your head are not you at all, and arise and destroy themselves without provocation, is a great goal of Harari’s. Elverum in his grief looks on the forest fires along the west coast in “Crow”:
Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you?
Smoldering and fascist with no mother.
Now, more than ever, it may feel this way. The news outside is certainly one of personal turmoil and political strife. Quite simply it seems that the definitions of meaning that we attempted at the beginning of the 21st century are already being tested.
But I cannot make permanent these sadnesses, these bouts of suffering. Even in all this, and even in the spaces where my wife and I cry on the kitchen floor, I believe in the robust capacity for human kindness, empathy, and power to problem solve. A Crow Looked at Me offers an application to Harari’s lesson on meaning, but we must take Elverum’s dictum out into the world. Death is real in a way that most art has no business explaining, yet still we try. Some fantasize about going into the underworld themselves and bringing them out. Others simply admit that it is vanity. Whatever the artistic result, suffering is an endemic part of humanity.
Endemic: that’s what they are calling the coronavirus now. More than simply around us, it is with us. It is here to stay. The sooner we accept that, not just for coronavirus, but for suffering at large, the sooner we alleviate the suffering, and admit to ourselves that our lives are not a story.