Oh out near Stonehenge, I lived alone
Oh out near Gamehendge, I chafed a bone
Wilson, King of Prussia, I lay this hate on you
Wilson, Duke of Lizards
I beg it all true for you

…You got me back thinkin’ that you’re the worst one
I must inquire, Wilson
Can you still have fun?!

-‘Wilson,’ Phish

Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

-From ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream,’ Wallace Stevens

 

Everyday we take ourselves too seriously. But at this point, we’ve earned that right. We have studied, sweat, strived, and achieved our whole lives. Not only that but we’re conditioned to know intuitively that even in the age of memes, Tumblr, viral videos and vines and the incisive satire of South Park, that success is the one aspect of life that can rightfully garner a modicum of seriousness and respect. Capitalism, consumerism, and the new conspicuous consumption, that of unique experiences rather than just material goods then documented and broadcast via social media for all to see, rewards the cult of achievement with dizzyingly fast feedback. From productivity-tied bonuses to ‘likes’ on Instagram, even the creative, the qualitative, and the quotidian has been made performative and quantifiable. So how could one not feel important when meeting the multiplying benchmarks set by our culture? Critics may laugh and say ‘at the end of the day, enough is never enough,’ but I beg to differ. I would feel important if I got those 200 likes or signed that new client or made partner or outsmarted my rival in the cubicle next to me. Earthly riches feel so good because they are so good. Success is intoxicating as any drug, and in almost no time period or culture is it more rewarded than in 21st century America. This attitude may be aspirational in nature for large swaths of the American populace, but it permeates all strata from top to bottom and defines us to our core.

kanyepower

Pictured: Kanye West, self proclaimed ‘voice of this generation.’ Opulent? Maybe, but it looks pretty fun.

Lucky for us, ambition and pride have long been part of the human condition. And for almost as long there have been writers and artists who deflate the grandiose reputations of the ‘first men’ of our society. Such writers point out the absurdity of life in our culture and instead posit their own alternatives. I think those who do this best, in ways both accessible and gentle-yet-effective, are the thinkers who veil their cultural criticisms in the robes of silliness.

Some, like 20th century American poet Wallace Stevens, mock and caricature. He may make your head explode with frustration when using phrases like “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (found in his poem called, I’m not kidding, ‘The Snowman,’ a critique of the Romantic poets’ narcissistic use of personification and the pathetic fallacy). Another favorite is “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” (The the? Are you kidding me?). But even with such laughably enigmatic turns of phrase Stevens manages to masterfully deconstruct the tired myths and hollow symbols of the old poetic canon while artfully denigrating the pretentiousness and absurdity inherent to much of what our culture values most.

Theodor Seuss Geisel or Dr. Seuss was another advocate of imagination and silliness. He injected subtle social commentary into his rhyming, delightfully loony landscape. Others, the sort of locust-and-honey types, have simply posited their own subculture as an alternative to the workaday rat race with its inflated self-importance and consumerist sensibilities. Who exemplifies such attempts: John the Baptist, the otherworldly Jesus of the Gospel according to John, the ascetic Buddha? Perhaps. But for many, (and believe me, it’s hard for me to swallow mentioning them in the same breath as the literary icons Stevens and Seuss) Tre Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnel, and Jon Fishman of the perennially popular jam band Phish exemplify this impetus toward release, through an embrace of silliness, absurdity, irreverent humor and creativity, from the mind forged manacles of modern culture.

phishsticks

Left, Phish drummer Rob Fishman (playing a vacuum?) pictured wearing the dress he dons for every concert. On the right, creepy Phish bassist Mike Gordon playing a dog courtesy the Phish phan website ‘Tweezeburger.’

How are the creators of ‘Sample in a Jar’ and ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ at all similar? For starters they have both been fodder for established critics and poets who question the legitimacy of their silly lyrics. Articles abound with titles like ‘Can An Intelligent Person Like Phish?,’ ‘Top Five Most Tolerable Phish Songs,’ and even publications comparing Phish to Insane Clown Posse (if you don’t know who or what that is and have a strong stomach, watch the 20 minute documentary ‘American Juggalo,’ it’s mind blowing).[1] Similarly, poet laureate Robert Frost diminutively deemed Stevens a ‘bric-a-brac’ poet. But both Stevens and Phish reject conventional norms and instead strive toward something more authentic.

Phish in many ways rejects traditional music industry standards for their revenue model, song structure and length, and lyrics. Stevens rejected the conventions of connotative poetry and the inflated sense of self, found amongst the poetry of the Romantics, as fraught with the imposition of the pathetic fallacy, hollow personification and false metaphor. Phish fans laud the sophomoric humor, inside jokes, and unique brand of showmanship along with their sense of community, sometimes compared to the Deadhead movement, that accompanies live Phish shows. Associated with this is lead singer Trey Anastasio’s creation of an alternative universe, frequently mentioned in Phish songs, know as Gamehendge: a fantasyland filled with a down-the-rabbit-hole character list of personalities including a man named Wilson, lizards, llamas, etc.

phishcoverStevens’ main trope is the exploration of different human attempts at discovering value and affirmation. He illustrates a menagerie of characters reminiscent of poets seeking to refine the literary language and cannon, politicians seeking power, professionals seeking the fictive covering of respectability, businessmen, and everyday citizens seeking anything from recognition to salvation. He presents each idea in the form of a character and then sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, but always with clever banter bordering on nonsense, cuts them down to size. In his work ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ and other poems with silly titles like ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream,’ ‘The Man on the Dump,’ and ‘A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts,’ Stevens goes further than critiquing literary modes. He exposes and excoriates earthly man’s hubris, pedantry, baseness and mortality. Stevens searches, in the words of Yale Professor Herald Bloom, for characters of capable imagination, but in my opinion, rarely finds them. He fastidiously explores and dismantles each false character of imagination and their philosophical underpinnings. He explodes the old myths, mocks everyone from the bourgeois dilettante (the sort of pseudo-intellectual I imagine one might find in certain coffee shops) who attempts a brief escape from the ‘ennui of apartments’ by dabbling in (the worst sort of) poetry, to his character General Dupuy who represents the sort of security found in the stodgy institutions of professionalism and political power.

Along the way Stevens satirizes any hope to be found in romantic love, reproduction and parenthood, most forms of art, mankind’s buildings and achievements (equated to those of Percey’s Ozymandias), progress, even the philosophical and religious mental cartwheels we all make to try to add value and meaning to our everyday lives. Though both Phish and Stevens are ambitious in their scope, Stevens proves uniquely unrelenting in his artful dismantling of the tenets of Western culture.

 

For those of you who want a more in depth attempt at analyzing Stevens read the PDF document in the forthcoming comment found below. For those of you who have lives, jobs, friends etc. and want to get to the point, read just these last few paragraphs.

 

After such deconstructive verse verging on nihilism, Stevens leaves the reader with little hope. The intellectual vigor and rhetorical skill with which he explodes the belief systems, the mantras that we repeat to ourselves daily as ‘one would sit and beat on an old tin can’ are depressingly persuasive. He thoroughly rejects transcendentalist tendencies like those found in religions such as Christianity. On mortality, he sees the constraining bookends of birth and death as preventing us from sitting around, immortal yet bored, where we would simply pluck our ‘insipid lutes’ in perpetuity without ripening, rhyme, reason, or artistic value. The narrator in his poem ‘Sunday Morning’ concludes, ‘Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,’ human achievement and reasoning has been shaped both against and in relief of its unfaltering march. But Stevens still sees death as man’s ultimate undoing, an expiration date on all his arrogance and self-importance. Christianity and belief in an afterlife are simply a ‘procession of the dead,’ myth meant to comfort and console those who even ‘…in contentment I still feel/ The need of some imperishable bliss.” In his poem Aubade, Philip Larkin echoes Stevens’ assessment of lurking mortality and the assuagement that the ‘old catastrophe’ (Christianity) provides, saying, ‘Religion used to try,/ That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die.’ Stevens agrees with Larkin on Christianity and concludes that there is no worthwhile alternative in deathless religion saying, ‘”The tomb in Palestine/ is not the porch of spirits lingering./ It is the grave of Jesus where he lay.”’

In critiquing tradition, Stevens’ poetry ultimately finds the nothing that is not there. He never satisfactorily captures the nothing that is. However he does leave us with this kernel, probably equally frustrating to believers and nonbelievers alike, that “The final belief is the belief in fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and to believe in it willingly.” Instead of growing endlessly discouraged at the void left after Stevens’ subtle, comic, even silly, but all encompassing devaluing of human capability, I instead see it as further need for the good news of a belief system. Having been to two very enjoyable Phish shows, I’ve concluded that, though fun and a refreshing break from the constant demands for productivity found in modern American culture, that at the end of the day a mythology of lizards and Wombats doesn’t cut it. Silliness is helpful in realizing the inadequacies of everyday life but I’m afraid it’s not a sufficient substitute for it. Rather I hope, deeply and sincerely, that among the absurdities of the world, real and literary, that there is something more than varying levels of fiction. That instead there is truth in the beauty, charity, compassion, the unconditional love and salvation found in the gospels. That beyond the sad absurdity of this world, characterized so well by Wallace Stevens, there is the possibility of something more.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://vimeo.com/29589320 (warning: some nudity, pervasive drug use and weirdness)