Monday, September 10, 2007

"A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse"

Eduardo A. Velásquez is Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University. He is the editor of Love and Friendship: Rethinking Politics and Affection in Modern Time and Nature, Woman, and the Art of Politics, and author of the just-released A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse: Why There is No Cultural War in America and Why We Will Perish Nonetheless.

He applied the Page 69 Test to the new book and reported the following, beginning with the full text from page 69:
Page sixty-nine:

the flesh made word

At first glance, x and y looks like an attempt to work through some of the conundrums that riddle the previous two albums. But first glances do not tell the whole story. In a highly tentative effort to project hopefulness, we here find Coldplay transforming the puzzles of despair, extending the operative scientific metaphor beyond geometric figures, and finding solace in songs, poems, and words. In x and y there is a concentrated effort to get at the meaning of meaninglessness, to capture in intelligible speech that which defies all speech, including song.

We begin at the beginning, again. Set aside capital letters. “square one” begins at “the top of the first page,” and then again on “the first line on the first page.” The book referred to in the song is scientific but not exclusively geometric. The absence of capitals means that no word is given prominence and this includes the first word of each sentence. This practice reveals a closer affinity to the eternal return than to the Judeo-Christian (and perhaps scientific idea) of a world with a beginning and end. “under the surface trying to break through / deciphering the codes in you / i need a compass draw me a map / i’m on the top, i can’t get back.” What does going below in the context of science mean? The album cover is revealing. We need not delve into the system devised by Emile Baudot in 1870 that is represented on the cover; the work of solving that not-so-mysterious mystery should be left to the reader. Let us approach the cover by appearances only. When I ask my students what the cover and inserts amount to, they tend to speak of spectra and DNA codes. Welcome to the genome. Is the meaning of life to be found in that code?

By less than orthodox means A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse: Why There is No Cultural War in America and Why We Will Perish Nonetheless captures the collision between science and theology in the American experience. If not an oversight on my part, no one has told the story of that collision by focusing almost exclusively on artifacts of popular culture. And perhaps for good reasons. Few would give the artifacts chosen any philosophical weight. Dave Matthews, Chris Martin, Tori Amos, Tom Wolfe, Chuck Palahniuk, and Michael Frayn are not philosophers (though the latter’s recent book The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe makes a good case for the playwright’s philosophic credentials). Before dismissing these authors’ failing to rise to Platonic heights, or my failure for supposedly attributing to them more than they merit, consider that I simply follow a long-standing practice that sees artists as cultural bellwethers.

Page sixty-nine opens a new section on the music of Coldplay with attention to their latest album x and y having just traversed the moral and intellectual geography of their previous two albums Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head. Coldplay, perhaps as no other popular, contemporary band, sings with feeling and eloquence about our yearning to know about and to locate our place in the universe. This yearning is borne of two principal questions that riddle our existence. Are we the animals depicted by science, that is, beings who are here accidentally, without any discernible purpose save the desire to preserves ourselves and in so doing maximize our pleasure? Or can our faculties of discernment and discrimination move beyond the numbers, planes, and figures with which science constructs an image of the universe to arrive at some more comprehensive understanding that speaks to our common sense experience of beauty, awe, wonder, and love?

The prominent place Coldplay gives to science – understood broadly as a way of looking at and being in the world – seems to indicate that our rational faculties should be sufficient to come to terms with the questions of our physical and spiritual existence. Consider some of the song titles: “The Scientist,” “Speed of Sound,” “x and y.” But science cannot on Coldplay’s reading supply us with answers to life’s most pressing questions. It might answer the “how” of things but it cannot by its own admission answer the “why” of things. What then? Chris Martin and his fellow band members seek refuge in feeling or sentiment. To their credit, however, they acknowledge no simple “mind-body” dichotomy. Our feelings shape our thoughts and our thoughts shape our feelings. In the midst of a bout with despair, for example, the consoling words of a friend can alter the way we think and thus feel. For Coldplay then there is an awareness that we are as much a self or soul as body. There is no unadulterated refuge in our feelings. Our imagination is always mingled with them. Images and words intrude. We thus arrive at x and y and to the attention given to words when so much of the sentimentality of the previous two albums proves insufficient.

Words do not emancipate however. We are caught in a vicious cycle moving from feelings to word, around and around. Metaphysics, asking about what lies beyond, courting transcendence, thinking about death, all become mingled with Coldplay’s larger meditation on the limitations of science. How do we escape? Who or what can fix us? Who put this perverted machine together in the first place? Beautiful ballads belie desperation and even rage. Love is solace. But Coldplay seeks permanence as much as love. Human love is fleeting. So much of their music is of lost love. Coldplay returns to the scientific metaphor and elaborates on a universe gone awry. Perhaps by going back to the beginning we can see “how it all began,” Martin and his band ponder. We discover evolutionary themes. Consider the pictures on the final pages of Coldplay’s “Twisted Logic” tour program: four members of the band, each representing one stage of evolution, the first member (Chris Martin) on all four and finally one standing erect reading a newspaper.

Coldplay is one of the protagonists in a larger story I tell in A Consumer’s Guide. In a chapter on Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons I explore the former Washington and Lee University student’s preoccupations with neuroscience’s challenge to the self and by extension soul. A reading of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen explores the ways in which science arrives at its own limitations now that we know that Newtonian certainties alone do not explain the constitution of matter. Together with Coldplay, these chapters constitute my larger rumination on our fascination with and reservations about the capacity of science to account of the breadth of human experience. The second part of the book deals explicitly with metaphysics through the music of Dave Matthews and Tori Amos and the cult-classic novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Under scrutiny here is the towering presence of Christianity, the source of great loathing for each of these artist who try dispense with the old “God the Father” and erect a new mythology for our apocalyptic age.
Read an excerpt from A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse and learn more about the book at the official website.

Check out -- and perhaps even contribute to -- the on-going discussion at the book's blog. The latest entry: "Richard Dawkins on Christopher Hitchens (w/ a note from Tocqueville)."

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue