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October 21, 2008

O, death (or, Let the mystery be)

The inspiration to create art is rooted in man’s recognition of mortality. It seems to me that creativity flows more passionately from those artists who embrace their temporariness and address the universal spark that animates our withering flesh.

As a fan of pop music, I think I came to this position very early. At a young age, I fixated upon Terry Jacks’ recording of “Seasons in the Sun,” a maudlin celebration of a brief life ending with an early, lingering death. It was to become the first record I would own, and I played it over and over until my sister sat on it and broke it. (I’m almost sure she did it on purpose, but honestly, looking back, I can’t really blame her.)

Still, I think that if my parents had been more enlightened, they may have seen in my affinity for the song a warning sign of some sort and would have taken me for a psychological evaluation. My life could have been so much different. As it was, I remember becoming concerned about death at a very early age. Another song, one we sang in church every week, gave me some reassurance with its closing phrase, “world without end.” 

Still, I realize that my affinities in the various arts have gravitated further toward issues of mortality. I watched “Harold and Maude” at the Vogue at least 20 times before I was old enough to drive. George Harrison’s massive triple-LP, All Things Must Pass, and the second Neutral Milk Hotel album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, rank as all-time personal favorites. Both of these are steeped in the joy and melancholy of existence, and both feature artists boldly gazing upon the face of death, developing their own glorious responses to the mystery of life.

Oddly, Harrison’s album was made around the same time as “Seasons in the Sun,” the early ’70s, the post-Beatle years that were rife with songs about miserable loneliness and death, possibly inspired by “Eleanor Rigby”; my favorite example of this extreme is Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally,” a song that can still make me laugh and cry, violently, both at the same time. 

The Neutral Milk Hotel album is a song-cycle written by Jeff Mangum, inspired by a reading of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” In it, among other observations, he marvels at the impossibility that we are “anything at all,” and by extension, every thing becomes marvelous, the glorious as well as the tragic. The record never embraces a religiousness, but approximates an Eastern sense of peace and wonder while also being occasionally very strange; one song is titled and sung to a “Two-Headed Boy,” apparently inspired by the preserved body of conjoined infant twins on display in a glass jar at a European natural history museum.

Over the years, I lapsed out of church, but when my son reached an age at which I thought he might benefit from hearing all of the colorful Bible stories and being a part of a church family, I went back. Happily, I found a community that is more interested in sharing compassion than enforcing a particular dogma.

Meanwhile, Bill Maher, a man with whom I feel something of a kindred spirit, has made a movie, “Religulous,” which takes a militant position against organized religion. As part of his introduction, he advocates Doubt, but what he really seems to be selling (in spite of himself) is an acceptance of mystery. His basic argument is that the three primary global religions are ultimately divisive and are leading us to the self-fulfillment of apocalyptic prophesy. Ultimately, he argues that only by abandoning religion can we ever hope to embrace reason and prevent (nuclear) self-destruction. 

I am sympathetic to Maher’s point, but as a documentary, “Religulous” is something of a suspicious product. There are funny moments, but while he is playing for humor, Maher sacrifices a sense of honest reportage. The interviews have been carefully edited, and it is often impossible to tell if various reaction shots are accurately timed to the statements they follow. Where it is most successful, the editors have dropped in cultural images from religious feature films and television to emphasize the ridiculousness of his interviewees’ positions. 

Unfortunately, like the various religious experiences he decries, Maher’s position is basically intolerant and doesn’t leave the viewer feeling good about anything.

For further consideration: Iris DeMent, Infamous Angel, and The Dutchess and the Duke, She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke (but more on that next time).