We have ants. I woke up and there they were, the not-unexpected outcome of an open window and poorly cleaned, empty cat-food can. Shanda has some stuff for this. It kills the ants, and our cats—whose tastes tend toward plastic bags and onion skins—don’t want to eat it. I know it works but don’t know where it is. She’s in Boston helping her sister recover from back surgery. I can’t raise her yet. I think I found it, but it’s not clearly marked. I cover my nose as I douse the teeming ant-horde, just in case.
In his essay, “Tragedy and the Whole Truth,” Aldous Huxley writes: “To make a tragedy, the artist must isolate a single element out of the totality of human experience and use that exclusively as his material. Tragedy is something that is separated out from the Whole Truth, distilled from it, so to speak, as an essence is distilled from the living flower. Tragedy is chemically pure.”1 As an example of “chemically pure” tragedy, he cites the story of Odysseus and his men, who—distraught after watching their crewmates be devoured by Scylla—take pains to eat and sleep before allowing themselves to openly mourn. Their physical needs inhabit a “Whole Truth” to Huxley, and their fulfillment provides a deeper, human meaning to the crew’s mourning than the gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair.
Right now, my focus is on these fucking ants. Where are they coming from? And how long do I stand here, mushing them as they straggle out of my diatomaceous-earth strafing campaign. Shanda confirmed on the phone that this was the right stuff, so now I stand here like Scylla and destroy the ant crewmen one by one.
In the last year, we’ve all experienced tragedy. This is a statement so universally true and now ubiquitous that its meaning has become diluted. Throughout quarantine, while dealing with my own anxiety and sadness—and societal anger and helplessness—I have noticed people looking to the artists around them to “make sense of,” or “articulate,” a collective grief. This is a historically proven tactic: we ask those who show an inclination for expressing difficult truths to help us feel something; those that can, should. And in the next few years, we will get those responses, whether they are about the pandemic or George Floyd or the January 6th insurrection. They may tackle institutional injustices or try to express some small, but universal, sadness. Some will be sincere, others cynical. We will get more of these responses, perhaps, than we want or expect.
The ants being dispatched for the most part, I talk to Shanda on the phone. Our car has been recalled for an airbag replacement. It’s an old Hyundai that has been paid off for years, and we’re not sure where we can go. We rarely drive, but will be on a long road trip soon and would rather not spend 450 miles wondering if the life-saving features of our car will work. We Google simultaneously on separate computers, trying to figure out who I need to call.
Music—unlike literature, film, or drama, which has figured out how to creatively embrace the mundane—trades in emotional largesse. Even when it’s small, it’s large. (If a musician had been in charge, Odysseus’s men would still be starving.) Maybe it’s the ephemeral nature of the form. If you don’t grab the heart quickly and completely, you lose the listener’s attention. And what has a better chance of doing that: once-in-a-lifetime global gut-punches or the exigencies of daily life?
It ends up that we just have a bad mechanic, and there isn’t a recall on our airbags. One less thing to do. I’m a little over-happy with this good news and, while doing dishes, I try to stuff my whole bearpaw-hand into a wine glass. I hear a disembodied pop before realizing that the sink is covered in glass. “Better than ants,” I think until I notice the blood running down my knuckles. I wrap the hand in a paper towel and root through our collection of old Band-Aids, remembering that we had a box specifically for fingertips and knuckles. I clean the hand, disinfect it, and put an x-shaped bandage on my hand. It remains half-affixed as I begin picking glass out of the sink.
Artists, and musicians in particular, are beginning to come to grips with what has been going on around them—around us all—for the past sixteen months. They have begun the process of translating feelings and impressions. Some people will move faster, others will mull things over, and still others will choose to keep their experience to themselves. As they churn through larger events, however, certain questions will have to be answered as well: When will work come back? Will I be able to get my strength back? Am I too old now? Will my family be okay? Will I be okay?
When someone finds out I am a musician, their first comment is how exciting touring must be. “You’re so lucky! The food you get to eat and the places you get to see, all while doing something you love!” And they’re right. I have seen beautiful places, met colorful people, and eaten some memorable dinners. But, more often, I’ve read on grounded airplanes, eaten pilfered sandwiches pocketed from the hotel breakfast, or been cornered by a fan that has written a short, but concise, dissertation on why my music sucks. Understandably, to say this out loud would be an affront to the person that sees my life in such a romantic light. So, I just smile, nod, and maybe share a story of a particularly beautiful moment, thankful for the large joys.
Music, however, is not made only from large joys, or large tragedies. It is chemically pure: a combination of the universal and the personal, the macro and the micro. A piece of music may be intended as a response to a social injustice, but on some level it may also come from a remembered moment of the creator’s pre-pubescent fragility. A recording may, according to the liner notes, be based on the composer’s mourning, but it is also made up of friendly slaps on the back, drunken nights of friendly arguments, and pride from something well built. It is a distillation of a life’s essence, and that essence contains more than its biggest traumas and exultations. In this way, artists are no different than anyone else but, because of their inclinations toward expression, we may forget that they have the same bullshit problems as everyone else. Whether that makes them better or worse is not really the question. It makes them human.
I look forward to the music and art that will come in response to this recent existential trial. I think some of it will be profound and transcendent. There are some pieces that can make that case for themselves in this issue, actually. But that’s not all that SA27: The Life Issue is about. Instead, this is a chance for musicians to also talk about the mundane living things: injury, new jobs, family, and traveling, all while finding ways to continue to make grand statements that help us understand our recent trauma. Consider it their short break to eat and sleep before they commence to mourn.