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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"Every Love Story is a Ghost Story"

"Every Love Story is a Ghost Story." 
- David Foster Wallace

This is not a ghost story. It is a figure, hazy like an apparition before me, moving with meaning and speaking in voices familiar. As real and warm as flesh, and yet somehow unanchored to anything at this present hour. Faceless, at least in recollection, but I take more assurance in sound than shapes. Why is it that ghost stories are always told in hushed voices, in dimly lit spaces? A feeling of intimacy so notional that fear is inspired before visions make themselves known. Perhaps it's not the presence of something foreign, but the absence of something certain that breeds fear. Upon taking past moments to mind, I find them so slippery and ephemeral that they are a vision more feared than any real or retold haunting. This is not a ghost story, it's just a memory.

I am fascinated by how we are intrinsically drawn to themes and motifs of language, whether conscious or unconscious. It's no surprise that the supernatural is a theme that prevails in current and popular art forms in many ways; it seems you can't have a modern love story without a blood-hungry vampire, or a survival guide that doesn't involve running from a zombie. Cover your veins and watch your back, these are creatures that deal with the most fearsome subjects - love and mortality. But what about the quieter, more evasive presences? Taking a recent delve into my musical repitoire, I found myself to be haunted by ghosts at every turn. Song titles, albums, subtle references, reoccurring themes. What is the source of this unsettling?

This got me thinking about ghosts as a modern artistic and literary motif. In literature ghosts appear in Greek tragedy and with abundance in Shakespeare, haunting the pages of Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Richard III. In Macbeth, Banquo moves through crowded rooms, but is visible only to the eyes of Macbeth himself. In Hamlet, the ghost of the King appears early on the scene and changes the mental and physical course of the landscape that lies ahead; it is he who convinces Hamlet to seek revenge on King Claudius. Many of our modern stories are built on the shoulders of these tales. Then the Victorian era begot the quintessential ghost story, a blend of folklore and twisted psychology meant to inspire fear and terror. The emergence of Spiritualism and Freudian psychoanalysis led to deeper, darker provocations of the human mind and the supernatural was not only a topic of parlor conversations but prominent in literature and the arts.

Many decades later, the post-modern era shows a strong return to this Victorian gothic sensibility; ghosts haunt every turn. But before writing this off as simply neo-gothic, we should consider this haunting as a vital part of post-modern thought, and a fragment of our current zeitgeist. The ghost that I've encountered in modern music and text provides a single and profound psychological haunting. These are not ghosts that change the shape of plot lines, cause death, or induce terror. They reveal an unexpected presence, but it's more of the mind and less of the body - a dissonance between time and space, a confusion of memory. A dusty visitation from the past, a longing for something other than the present moment, an elegy to a lover long forgotten.

Each story is so wrought with longing, I couldn't help but think of the phrase attributed to David Foster Wallace, "every love story is a ghost story." In an article written by Wallace's biographer, D.T. Max questions the evolution of the phrase itself, perhaps not even originally ascribed by Wallace. The conclusion itself seems ghostlike: "hard to trace pathways" reveal little - maybe he penned it, maybe he didn't. I was also particularly struck by Max's mention of Weltschmerz. In a generation so defined by familiarity with media, a continual influx of information, and the domination of digital technologies, it's strange to come across the presence of something so dim and nebulous as the ghost. Perhaps in a word so hyper-defined, longing is all that's left. The resurgence of the ghost motif reminds us that the physical world is incapable of transcending that of the mind, or more deeply - the emotional subconscious. Even in our current environment, the most terrifying and transfixing of topics are not those that we can conjure, but those that we can't. Memory, dust, love, longing, and some unspoken whisper that reminds us that what we're touching will never rival what we're longing for. This is not a ghost story, it's just a memory.

For your listening pleasure I've complied a Spotify playlist with some haunting tunes that I will continue to add to, please feel free to make suggestions as well: Ghosts.  And yes it does include The Tony Rich Project. You're welcome. I've also included some of my favorite tracks below. Listen and be haunted.

Typhoon, Ghost Train
"You only move when I give chase, when I catch you, you dissipate."

Lord Huron, Ghost on the Shore

"Die if I must let my bones turn to dust
I'm the lord of the lake and I don't want to leave
All who sail off the coast ever more
Will remember the tale of the ghost on the shore."

Sanders Bohlke, Ghost Boy

"With our TV and radio friends, 
we colored our names in with permanent black pens, 
in momentary sentiments."

Black Rebel Motocycle Club, Some Kind of Ghost
"Oh oh oh sweet lord come home, 
Don't feel some kind of ghost."