“It seems that Courbet had a friend who used to wake up in the night yelling: ‘I want to judge, I want to judge.’ It’s amazing how people like judging. Judgement is being passed everywhere, all the time. Perhaps it’s one of the simplest things mankind has been given to do. And you know very well that the last man, when radiation has finally reduced his last enemy to ashes, will sit down behind some rickety table and begin the trial of the individual responsible.”
– Michel Foucault1
“I don’t get it when people just have the goal of meeting someone — then it’s only about the goal.”
– Zooey Deschanel2
I was stopping at a gas station in southern Oregon when I heard the news that Zooey Deschanel and Ben Gibbard were filing for divorce. Although this was somewhat understandable (especially given their astrological incompatibility), it was undoubtedly a blow to both the Deschanel and Gibbard family legacies, in which both sets of parents remain in pleasant, wedded unity, respectively. (You could hear through the parents’ half-smiles, “What will the neighbors think?” Or, “What did we do wrong?”) Okay, okay. I kid. Some relationships, you know, just end (without great reason, without fanfare, without too much resentment). And that particular announcement simply dangled in front of me. I filled up, and went on my way. You just can’t reckon with certain forces. As I drove on, their divorce drifted along through airwaves. That was 2011.
So if you can fast-forward a year and a half with me, then your life has a narrative… then it’s only about the goal. (Deschanel) Foucault (under the influence of Nietzsche and Heidegger) sought to release history from its (meta-) narrative confines, from its Goal. There would no longer be a historical crescendo. There would be no spectacular end. Rather, there would be links upon links upon links, with all of the time wasted spent clicking through Wikipedia. Yes, there was affirmation and, yes, joy. To give history over to its historicized moments was to celebrate a plane of immanence that historians tend(ed) to overlook, or avoid, in the scheme of things. (It’s, frankly, not easy, if impossible, to faithfully document such moments in time.) And yes, while goals help make sense of our lives, to what degree we’re forcing the narrative is seriously debatable. Remember (500) Days of Summer? The joke, throughout, was Tom’s narcissistic wounding. Summer was nothing but a secondary character in Tom’s story — story that he couldn’t even write, much less finish3.
Now, I don’t know how much of this I personally believe. I’d like to think there is a reason to my being here, and that the rationality that propels my existence — and especially my love — are more than a series of crude, biological functions. Yes, I know (for example) there are neurobiological and psychological reasons for why I love who I love. But I want to believe that when you brush all of that away, there remains a mysterious core. I want to believe that there is a complex, yet unnameable, structure. I want to believe this precisely because of the pain that comes from loss — that is, from losing the one whom you love. Mourning is a mystery, and no matter how much the DSM-5 wants to pathologize grief, there is neither an adequate therapeutic nor a psychiatric workaround. No one can step into your mourning for you. Instead, there is only a process (that is, the process of working through all of your stories cut short), which brutally proceeds at an indeterminable pace.
(So perhaps, then, it’s too reductive to limit love to what we know about it. Perhaps.)
Where do we turn to better understand the process, though? I think, better than any psychological and medical literature, the arts traverse it best — with patient and unresolved questioning, with ambiguous sophistication4. (Consider the ways in which loss is explored in John Berger’s novels or Kieslowski’s films or in every lost-love song ever written: in gestures toward reconciling one’s self to the permanently lost object, the empty-ahead.) This, therefore, is where I want to give those other love songs, breakup songs, their due. And while it’s easy to stand in judgement of Deschanel (there’s no need to reiterate the names she’s been called in the indie press, because you already knew them before you clicked this link) and her ridiculous posturing as an “indie” star, it’s easier yet to justify the necessity of her practice as a writer of sad songs. Before being a symbol (always), before her connections and her hundred-thousand-dollar wardrobe and her impossible good looks, she is human. Here, she sings:
Of the moments in which need and desire intersect, curiously (“I never wanted your love/ But I needed it all.”), and of the moments in which the loss of love becomes our undoing (“I fought my heart/ It’s broke and shattered to a million and one/ I’m done, I guess I haven’t won.”) and of the moments in which vengeance stares out through blurred vision (“If I could do it over/ I’d send you the pillow that I cry on.”), and of the moments in which [see above] the stories we tell run away from us (“You and I, we told a story of love/ From our hearts, but it never came true.”), and of the moments in which one identity becomes unhealthily subsumed within another (“And I want you, I don’t wanna forget/ If you go, I’ll surely get distracted.”), and, finally, of the moment in which despondency sets it (“Time goes by, it’s only shades of gray/ In my heart, where the colors should be/ There’s no tomorrow to set us free.”), which is, coincidentally, the moment we usually begin drinking a little too much.
There is no question concerning the banality of Deschanel’s lyrics (to say nothing of the music), because the answer is obvious. But, and here’s the rub, sophistication doesn’t emerge from the black bile. Instead, mourning is a site of unknowing. There is only stumbling. There is only feeling your way through the dark. It’s a terrifying banality (that is, the boring, everydayness of despondency) that lets up, well, only after the fact — when the mourner’s identity is finally reclaimed, anew. It lets up, finally, when the loss is assimilated into the strange new world of your life, and love, now5.
It’s 2013 now. The Deschanel/Gibbard divorce was finalized in December, 2012. The degree to which these songs reflect Deschanel’s own experience of loss is unknown to me, but I think it’s safe to say that this third Volume remains the most autobiographical of the bunch. I hear you: autobiography does not guarantee quality, and in this case, that is especially true. But rather than take the easy way out, rather than stand in cynical judgement of Deschanel’s work, I want to echo the sentiments of Foucault (who I know would not really appreciate my psychologizing here), which directly follow the passage I used as an epigraph:
“I dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence…”
And here I think of my own task as a critic (and as a lesser thinker than Foucault, among others), and I wonder: in all of our experimenting (as artists and critics alike), what’s left of the boring fact of pain and all of its hackneyed, cliched attempts to speak itself into existence? (And do these attempts fall on a one to five rating scale?6) What keeps drawing us to make, or listen to, banal breakup songs? Why doesn’t loss never really resolve? As with love, there are no good answers. (There are pills and gimmicks and Goals, but no good answers. Instead, there are only other people, and the absence.) Somewhere, there is an ambiguous “place” from which words swirl and echo, until they settle, if only momentarily. There is a place where love and loss are assimilated into a single experience. But who am I to judge anyone’s attempts at articulating this mystery?7
“I’m done, I guess I haven’t won.”
“I’m done, I guess I haven’t won.”
1. It’s a TMT inside joke. Foucault, I mean. Do you really think we take ourselves that seriously?
2. You might notice that I never refer to M. Ward, who is one half of She & Him. This is intentional.
3. Theory: I think the degree to which you identify with Tom is also the degree to which you’re an undatable asshole.
4. In The New Black, Darian Leader reminds us that recent academic literature on mourning is scant, if almost totally nonexistent. Yes, “depression” is addressed frequently, but depression is a series of symptoms and not a primary, if unconscious, reality.
5. That is to say, it never lets up.
6. Hi, Birkut!
7. But for Tiny Mix Tapes, I have to. I think I’m being generous, Metacritically speaking.