The Abyss Stares Back: On Dawes, Death and The Star of Redemption

A friend recently described me as phlegmatic. In a previous post here on UGB, I described myself as a dilettante of fandom. I’ve always been someone who operates on a fairly even keel, and many people love and appreciate me for it; there are even times when I appreciate this quality about myself. But there was a time (and it’s not entirely behind me) when I also feared and loathed the flip side of this, my personality coin.

As a twenty-something guy trying to stay on top of popular music and literary culture in the internet age, I’ve always felt behind the eight-ball. I used to be wracked by self-doubt about my own intrinsic lack of drive and my inability to follow through, and I was convinced I never knew, read, watched or had listened to “enough”. I blamed my usual state of fairly unexcitable contentment: It was why I scratched the surface while my friends and colleagues were drilling for oil. It was why I had heard of the band but didn’t know the deep cuts. “Yes,” I might offer up in conversation, “I read a review or two of that movie, I just haven’t gotten around to seeing it.”

Whereas my friends were always seeking and acquiring new and exciting experiences, I was only convinced to get off the couch and do when the stars aligned; or, more likely, when one of my more excellent friends planned things out for me and we went together. They never let facile excuses stand between them and travel, music, movies; whereas I complained about not having the time, they made the time. If I was lucky enough to be surrounded by excellent people it was largely because I excelled at identifying my own lack of excellence. Everyone around me seemed to be living and I was just existing. I feared the judgment of this guy. ↓

Tightly connected to my self-doubt about culture was the near decade-long sentence I served in graduate school as an aspiring academic. Whether I have always suffered from impostor syndrome or it’s just very common among those pursuing advanced graduate studies and the hangover remains is irrelevant: The effects were real and occasionally still with me. Being a graduate student is a self-aggrandizing, self-important and self-indulgent act on the one hand — and a self-flagellating, self-deprecating and masochistic act on the other. Only an egomaniac could convince himself of the societal worth of his “work” such that he believed he should be given $20k a year to read, write and be in school; only a self-defeating and self-hating glutton for punishment could withstand the indignities that the process actually entails and the slings and arrows of the intellectual hazing he must endure to reach the finish line, whatever that looks like. Aspiring academics get exactly what they deserve (and maybe even more than $20k a year’s worth of punishment), but I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone, including many academics themselves.

But as I hope you will see, this blog post is an ode to the liberative and cathartic feeling of reaching a stage in life beyond self-doubt and self-denial: a quiet maturity that comes with knowing you will die, and no longer feeling the need to live your life comparing yourself to others.

For some, reaching this kind of out-of-shits-to-give awareness of death too early in life leads to a tragic hedonism or forms of mental illness; for others, realizing it too late (or not at all) could lead to chasing experience and intellectual-cultural pursuits blindly without coming to grips with an all-important fact: it is they that chase you. I can’t tell whether it’s fitting or ironic, but a single piece of popular culture gave me the courage to accept this lesson for myself and the literary-musical vocabulary to express it.

Several months ago, I discovered the song “When My Time Comes” from the 2009 album North Hills by the band Dawes. Associated with the so-called neo-Laurel Canyon sound, Dawes stands in the lineage of the folk-rock, singer-songwriter and Americana traditions prevalent in the late 1960’s-70’s, particularly their West Coast vintages. Their music frequently features and draws comparisons to the multi-part harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and occasionally the guitar of Young), and the cerebral, introspective, poet-prophet lyrics of frontman Taylor Goldsmith draw comparisons to Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. Useful contemporary comparisons might include Counting Crows, Conor Oberst and Wilco.

Now, I’m not claiming I really discovered this band, or even this song, and perhaps it would be more accurate to say “it was discovered for me” (thanks, Spotify: Discover Weekly): while grammatically awkward, this phrasing more accurately describes algorithm-based consumption, but that’s neither here nor there. Besides, reading more about Dawes while preparing this blog post I realized they are a fairly well known and commercially accessible group. I mean, lead singer and lyricist Taylor Goldsmith is dating Mandy Moore (who used to be married to Ryan Adams, apparently); the band received some exposure when it performed at the Occupy Wall Street protests; and I discovered that they were playing in my neighborhood at the iconic Beacon Theater (alas, I couldn’t go — family Bar Mitzvah. Sheesh.)

Clearly Dawes is a known quantity, but several months ago they were not yet known to me, and twenty-something me might have lacked the self-confidence to so publicly admit I liked the song but was only hearing it now, or to promote a “popular” song in the full-throated way I am about to: when I first heard it several months ago and began listening to it a lot that it moved me very deeply. It helped me understand that it’s enough for a song or a life to be mine and mine alone, so what I’d like to do is unpack the lyrics and analyze how it accomplished this for me in the hopes that perhaps it will do the same for you.

“When My Time Comes” begins with the bright treble picking of an electric guitar, ascending and descending an arpeggio, and a driving yet balanced beat is soon added. The lyrics, I believe, present us with the inner turmoil of a young artist (perhaps Goldsmith himself) who is growing anxious about whether and how he will make his creative mark. The song speaks about the drive to create something that will last and the simultaneous concern that the author has yet to accumulate the required quality and quantity of life experience that will provide him with the proper fodder to fuel that creation. Goldsmith asks us to think: How do you make your mark or allow life to make its mark on you? How do you write or sing about life when you haven’t lived it that much? The song begins:

There were moments of dreams I was offered to save

I live less like a workhorse, more like a slave

I thought that one quick moment that was noble or brave

Would be worth the most of my life.

We churn and work and churn and work, whether striving to produce a work of surpassing beauty that will cement our legacy, or to accumulate enough experience that we might live through a moment that will anchor our memory and alter our life. But we are always afraid that the end-product is not enough to save us, or that the redemptive promise of experience is illusory; we become slaves both to the process of gathering experience and exploring it, not workhorses. The problem, however, is that we lack all agency and ownership when that is exactly what we crave more than anything else.

So I pointed my fingers, and shout a few quotes I knew

As if something that’s written should be taken as true

But every path I have taken and conclusion I drew

Would put truth back under the knife.

We lack a sense of agency because of the anxiety of influence, to steal a phrase from Harold Bloom. One of the key things those of us who seek to understand the world around us and convey that truth in writing do is read. We strive to create by reading the words of the thinkers, writers, and that have come before us and are with us still. But deep down this causes us to despair as well because we know that we can only ever think with them, and we fear we are only ever thinking with their words. What’s more, we know and fear that words, once written (or even thought) are the congealed aftereffects of the pure, unadulterated experience we strive to capture, and that our language is only ever a blunt tool used to fashion a makeshift simulation of the truth we strive to convey or the experience we wish to translate.

Rather than producing a book of poetry or the great American novel, another alluring option for living a meaningful life is to read and produce a powerful work of analytic insight. This is of course the end goal of PhD, but the path a person walks to get there is filled with pitfalls. I used to sit around seminar tables trying to hold forth on books I really didn’t understand, convinced I would be discovered for the fraud I was at any second. But over time I have no doubt that over time my analytic skills were sharpened, honed and sharpened again. The fear, competition and anxiety of my ability to “make it” as an academic pushed me to pursue greater academic excellence, and I hustled and grinded and shattered my own expectations of what I could do with a philosophical or theoretical text. My usually phlegmatic self self-administered a dose of intellectual-spiritual mucinex, and learning how to analyze and think provided me with plenty of moments that felt like they were truly enlightening. But the life of the mind can be dark and full of terrors, and the light only deepens the darkness around it. Analysis can feel like Alice’s rabbit hole. Every conclusion begs the next analysis. The analytic pursuit of ideas begets nothing but more pursuit. It’s turtles all the way down, and truth goes back under the knife.

Among the books I studied and discussed at one those graduate school seminar tables was The Star of Redemption, an abstruse philosophical treatise by the Weimar German-Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig. The experience of sitting in a semester-long course devoted purely to a close reading of The Star, Rosenzweig’s magnum opus, gave me one of my first tastes of the self-loathing and transcendence that come from wading in the ocean of ideas. Most of the time I barely felt I understood a word; I wasn’t 100% confident I understood the book with much greater clarity when it pertained to my dissertation research, but I couldn’t help but think about Rosenzweig and The Star when listening to “When My Time Comes” on repeat, and I think there are some legitimate parallels between these remarkably different human artifacts.

Born in 1886 in Germany to a middle-class, assimilated Jewish family, Rosenzweig is far from a household name, even by the standard of German philosophers. He is better known in Jewish and Christian intellectual circles, as Professor Benjamin Pollock writes, “…in large part from a fascination with his compelling biography, a biography that included a near-conversion to Christianity, an inspired return to Judaism, the composition of the beginning of his magnum opus on military postcards sent home from the Balkan front, the abandonment of a promising academic career in order to live and teach in the Frankfurt Jewish community, and his heroic efforts to continue his thinking, writing, and communal work after succumbing to the paralysis brought on by ALS.” (More here) Working with a special typewriter and later with the aid of his wife, Rosenzweig lived, worked, taught and wrote heroically in the face of a crippling neurological disease none of us should ever know from. He met his own untimely death with courage in 1929.

Death figures prominently in Rosenzweig’s work as well, but not in a macabre or even morose way. According to him, all of western philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Hegel attempted to take the sting out of the fact of human death and console the individual that experiences it by putting truth under the knife, so to speak. Philosophical idealists like Descartes, claimed they could whittle away all assumptions and begin with no presuppositions; this purportedly offered humanity the comfort of knowing its knowledge of an all-encompassing system, the “All”, rested on secure foundations, and that something of the individual remained after death because the “I” could think and be thought.

What was needed instead, according to Rosenzweig was a “new thinking” that would re-orient philosophy back to the individual life lived within the temporal bounds of its concrete existence.

In the pre-chorus, Goldsmith offers a slightly different but related notion that there is comfort in recognizing that the self is bounded, hemmed in on all sides by time:

And now the only piece of advice that continues to help:

Is anyone that’s making anything new only breaks something else.

In other words: embrace the fact that you have been influenced and the contingency of your own thinking and creating.

In order to craft this “new thinking”, philosophy needed to be informed by theological categories, though not as traditionally understood. Rather than a single unity — the “All” — Rosenzweig’s new thinking features a multiplicity containing three core elements, each irreducible to the others: God, Man and World.

These elements interact with one another along three lines of relation: Creation, Revelation and Redemption. When these two tripartite structures overlay one another, they form the eponymous Star. For Rosenzweig, the truth is that we experience the world in the midst of our own stubborn particularity, and we only ever relate to a world that is always already there for us that we experience as past (Creation); This is no less true for the artist, poet or writer. We can only ever offer misreadings of those who came before us. But perhaps Rosenzweig would have approved of Goldsmith’s notion of bounded creativity: What he referred to as Revelation was the orientation of one’s true self in the world experienced as an ever-renewing present.

And what about Redemption? Do Rosenzweig and Goldsmith hold out hope in either or their schemes? For Rosenzweig, it is the experience of being loved that pays into the world through the creation of a true community that-is-coming. What Dawes offers is pure musical redemption. Oh, that chorus. An anthemic, a capella, crowd-community building sing-along if ever there were one:

When my time comes,

Ohhhhh, oh oh oh.

When my times comes,

Ohhhhh, oh oh oh.

How are we meant to understand this beautiful moment, musically and lyrically? The brilliance of the line lies in the lacuna. Perhaps the intention is “When my time comes [to go]”, and the moment in question is death. Perhaps Goldsmith remains the young optimist who continues to stand firm in the conviction that his time will in fact come, and he will make his mark artistically. Regardless, whether we sing these words thinking of moments of beauty, the ability to write beautiful words, or our own deaths, the missing words mean we alone experience them and they are ours.

So I took what I wanted and put it out of my reach

I wanted to pay for my successes with all my defeats,

And if heaven was all that was promised to me

Why don’t I pray for death?

And now it seems like the unraveling has started too soon,

Now I’m sleeping in hallways and I’m drinking perfume

And I’m speaking to mirrors and I’m howling at moons

While the worse and the worse that it gets.

The young struggler is given to extremes, but Goldsmith warns of the danger. Some turn to traditional religion, but its asceticism and this-world-is-but-a-prelude mode of thinking only begs the question: Why work so hard to achieve the keys to the kingdom in this world if the kingdom itself is the ultimate goal? On the other extreme stands a destructive hedonism: living too hard, too fast and seeing too much lends itself to chemical annihilation, e.g. drinking perfume (See under: Dylan Thomas, Delmore Schwartz, etc.) The pursuit of experience is the unraveling of life. Lunacy sets in, but there is no there there to return the howl. Don’t give yourself over to death too soon. It’s not that the unraveling can be denied, or that Goldsmith wants to stick his head in the sand; it just doesn’t need to happen just yet. Don’t succumb to despair.

To my mind, the pre-chorus couplet is the soul of the song. The guitar recedes to two single strums, one each at the beginning of a line; everything but the sparest of drumbeats falls out as Goldsmith muses:

Oh you can judge all the world on the sparkle that you think it lacks.

Yes you can stare into the abyss, but it’s staring right back.

Yet again, we are called to account. “Suicide”, Rosenzweig writes, “is not natural death, but a downright unnatural one…It is, of course, necessary that man step out one day in his life…in his dreadful poverty, he must have felt some time lonely and adrift from the whole world, standing for a night facing the nothing. But the earth wants him back. He may not drink up the brown juice that night. For him, there is reserved another exit from the impasse of the nothing than this fall into the yawning of the abyss. Man should not cast aside from him the fear of the earthly; in his fear of death he should — stay.” Taylor’s abyss is silent but not necessarily unresponsive. Just as he was “speaking to mirrors” in the stanza above, the abyss does not answer back in any way other than how you address it. Your hangups and baggage don’t stack up. Instead, wake up and be prepared to join in with your fellow human in engaging in acts of love, so that you can say:

When my time comes,

Ohhhhh, oh oh oh.

When my time comes,

Ohhhhh, oh oh oh.

Oh you can judge all the world on the sparkle that you think it lacks.

Yes you can stare into the abyss, but it’s staring right back.

When my time comes,

Ohhhhh, oh oh oh.

When my time comes,

Ohhhhh, oh oh oh.

When my time comes I won’t think about it, plan for it, or pine for it. It will come, and that is enough. If so, then when it does, I’ll rest assured, content in the knowledge that it must come, as it must for us all. Letting go of the need to strive is its own wisdom, and the serenity it brings is unparalleled in its life-affirming qualities. Perhaps it is best likened to the undeniable feel-good joy of screaming “Ohhhhh, oh oh oh”, whether it’s by yourself in the shower or alongside your best friend-stranger at a concert, with that lyric meaning precisely and only what it can mean for you and you alone. When my time comes it will be mine. How could it be otherwise?

— —

Shortly into my third decade of living, something statistically unlikely happened: I completed my dissertation and graduated with a PhD. I was the Rocky Balboa of the humanities, albeit the original version Rocky: While I technically did not “win” because I failed to obtain a tenure-track job (or even an interview, to be frank), I had gone the distance, and the dignity and confidence that came with that will always be mine. Another crucial life event paid dividends: I fell in love and understood what it felt like to be loved. I married my wife, who makes me very happy, and I took a job at a private school. My wife and I had a little girl, who is so damn cute that the cynicism, insecurity and one-upmanship of both academia and the cultural game of who’s-too-cool-for-school all melted into air. For me, this song has become a musical encapsulation of the serene, beautiful, difficult and contradictory sentiments that life as a thirty something brings: it is powerfully life-affirming even as it brings into sharp relief the important role a clear-eyed confirmation of death must play in the process of living freely.

Twenty-something me would have shrunk from the idea of producing a piece of amateur musical analysis at all, let alone one this earnest, and twenty-something academic me would have doubted the sophistication and acceptability of using The Star of Redemption without apology, caveat and self-doubt.

Yes, there is wisdom in pushing yourself and striving to be better, and of course we should go out and live, but there’s also wisdom in shutting out the anxiety and posturing that comes with measuring yourself against other people’s experiences, minds, knowledge, or work. “When My Time Comes” has given me the ability to say that it’s enough for a song or a life to be mine and mine alone — all of the striving and pushing to produce and consume comes to naught, but that’s not sad — it’s beautiful. I write this today fully accepting that you are free to judge me on the sparkle you think my ideas lack, but I won’t be shaken. I stand firm in the conviction that my time has come because I know that it will.