Monday, April 10, 2017

Hope & the Death of God in Father John Misty

I'm always grateful for thoughtful, beautifully produced music like Father John Misty often creates. I've even been able to see him (i.e. Josh Tillman) perform live, which was an amazing experience. There is much to love about his new album, "Pure Comedy", even as most of the lyrics envision a kind of imminent secular apocalypse - intensified by Trumpism, but not only that - and with hardly any evidence of hope. Exemplifying what Charles Taylor insightfully called "the malaise of modernity", the album is pervaded by a sense of loss, frustration, and tragedy, framed in large part by Tillman's experience of the death of god/s and dissatisfaction with liberal humanism. It's pretty bleak, even as it captivates. Or as this critical review in the Atlantic put it, "Pure Comedy often plays like a tedious brochure for nihilism, rescued only by a few flirtations with grace."

Now, I affirm the need to honestly confront the real possibility of humanity's own self-destruction, but one should also take care to avoid confusing optimism with hope. The former doesn't appear to be warranted; the latter seems essential. Perhaps Tillman gets this point, but the overall 'feel' of his new record suggests otherwise (and I'm not alone in this interpretation, as indicated by quite a few album reviews).

To be sure, it can be tempting to give into despair today, as when one considers the immense challenges of climate change, racial injustice, growing economic inequality, and so on. Our world is indeed in trouble, facing many complicated crises. But resigning oneself to a state of radical despair in the present clearly offers little or no help in fueling movements for change, inspiring needed acts of resistance, and imagining real alternatives for a better planetary future. It is to effectively give up on creating any genuine progress - a truly terrifying option, indeed.

So, while I value the art of provocateurs like Tillman (in part because it is relatively rare for music today to demand such existential reflections), here's a suggestion: whatever the source, however variously constructed/discovered - religious or secular, theistic or humanistic, orthodox or heterodox, etc - it seems to me vital to stubbornly insist on the continued cultivation of a sensibility infused with hope, somehow, even in the face of immense challenges, which may or may not progress toward justice. Here I'm reminded of a bit of wisdom from Cornel West that I discovered last November, at a very timely moment:

"Hope has nothing to do with optimism. I am in no way optimistic about America, nor am I optimistic about the plight of the human species on this globe. There is simply not enough evidence that allows me to infer that things are simply going to get better... We can be 'prisoners of hope' even as we call optimism into question. To be a part of the democratic tradition is to be a prisoner of hope. And you cannot be a prisoner of hope without engaging in a form of struggle in the present moment that keeps the best of the past alive. To engage in that struggle means that one is always willing to acknowledge that there is no triumph around the corner, but that you persist because you believe it is right and just and moral. As T.S. Eliot said, 'Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our business.' We are not going to save each other, ourselves, America, or the world. But we certainly can leave it a little bit better. As my grandmother used to say, 'If the Kingdom of god is within you, then everywhere you go, you ought to leave a little Heaven behind.'"

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