Giving the Devil His Due: The Music of Bill Mallonee
These are the liner notes I wrote for Bill Mallonee’s album Rags of Absence.
“The whole creation”, St. Paul says, “groaneth and travaileth until now.” “…what I would,” he says, “that I do not; but what I hate that do I.” This is not denial, this is not evasion. In speaking as he does of the extent of pain and the power of evil St. Paul is not alone among religious teachers. In this at least religion reveals the truth. And it does so not by telling us what we did not know but by showing us what we did. –John Wisdom
“…and when it comes to the human heart? Well, the devil rides for free.” –Bill Mallonee
A good friend of mine–an admirer of Bill Mallonee’s music–commented to me that he finds the music hard to listen to. Now, he, of course, was not complaining about the complicated brilliance of the lyrics or the subtle grace of the melodies. He was not complaining about the recordings or the mixes, about anything in the production. In fact, he was not complaining. He was instead perplexed, caught in a paradox: admiring music that he does not and cannot listen to casually, music that he finds difficult, even demanding. –Now, it could be that what he meant was the Mallonee writes sad songs–and that is true. But Mallonee writes fewer sad songs than you may think he does. (Check the catalog.) And, anyway, my friend was not struggling with sadness in the songs. So, what was he struggling with? I found the question worth thinking about and I still do. I also have a suggestion about how to answer it: First, Mallonee writes unflinchingly of evil. He acknowledges the reality of evil and acknowledges that it is not something we can make go away or overcome on our own. Second, Mallonee insists on our finitude, our limits, our inabilities. And, third, Mallonee understands that individual salvation involves the salvation of others. Salvation is a ‘we’ business, a plural business, not an ‘I’ business, singular. These acknowledgments make the music hard–but they do not detract from its artistic accomplishment.
The great American philosopher, Josiah Royce, declared: “I regard evil as a distinctly real fact, a fact just as real as the most helpless and hopeless sufferer finds it to be when he is in pain.” Royce wrote directly and forcibly, so as not to be misunderstood. Evil is real. It touches our lives, it is sometimes of our doing. We sometimes suffer and sometimes perpetrate evil.
That is hard to hear, hard to acknowledge. Instead, we tell ourselves bedtime stories, even while the day is abroad: “Evil is an illusion. Evil is temporary.” But evil is not an illusion. Evil is not temporary–at least not in the way that we mean it, as something we, on our own, will eventually eliminate.
Evil is not an illusion: any story about it that makes the pain of helpless and hopeless sufferers some kind of mistake on their part–that story gets things wrong. Any story on which evil is not visible–and hence not a real fact–even from God’s point of view, gets things wrong. God will wipe away all tears, yes, surely; but the tears are real, they are there to be wiped away. “I dunno how every tear will be wiped away/God’s got a lot on his plate.” Any denial of this looks like a lapse into a senselessly invulnerable optimism, a foolish confidence. The tears are real. How they are to be wiped away is a mystery, but we cannot wipe them out by declaring them illusory.
But confused religious idealists are not alone in viewing evil as an illusion; confused secular idealists do it too. Their explanation goes various ways–but here is one favorite: no one is evil; those who seem to be are actually sick, ill, psychologically infirm. Now, while psychological infirmity is certainly real, evil does not reduce to psychological infirmity. Sometimes we do evil and we have no available excuse. We choose to hurt others for no reason but to hurt them. We embrace darkness knowingly.
Like all acknowledgments, the acknowledgment of evil needs to be performed rightly. We do not acknowledge it rightly if we think: “Yes, evil is real. It is neither an illusion nor a form of illness. And those folks over there–across some border, or with darker skin, or with names featuring multiple consonants–those folks over there are evil.” No. We acknowledge it rightly only when we realize that the ‘we’ in “We embrace darkness knowingly” is genuinely a first-person plural: I am included among the embracers of darkness. I embrace it. So do you. And it is not just that I can embrace it, that I am tempted: it is that I do and have. Each human heart is desperate with evil. That does not make each of us evil, full stop: but it does make evil something inalienable, distressingly near and familiar. Few of us are all Saturday night. None of us are all Sunday morning. We are mostly damp, chill Wednesdays. –In the struggle against our own evil, every day is hump day.
Mallonee also writes from a genuine recognition of human finitude. No one of us is an end-all or a be-all. No one of us stretches from horizon to horizon. Limits define us. “There are some deadlines no man can make.” We are smaller than we aim to be, believe ourselves to be. Our reach exceeds our grasp, our eyes are bigger than our stomach, we try on big sister’s clothes. We end empty-handed, bellyaching, ludicrous. We need to accept that we can only reach so far, only consume so much, only wear this size. But restraint rankles. Spiritual downsizing seems less discipline and more loss. We would grow as vast as empires, and faster than internet start-ups.
Now, high-mindedness is good; it should be encouraged. But high-mindedness must mix with humility, else it denatures into arrogation. The high-minded person understands the difficulty of what is undertaken, understands that it may very well not be completed, but does not refuse to undertake it on that account. For the high-minded, the view of the goal is always mediated by the means, and this means that the high-minded do not cut corners, cheat. The sort of goals the high-minded pursue are unreachable by shortcuts: it is not the way that is narrow, it is the narrowness that is the way. But that means that the high-minded understand the cost of the undertaking, accept its demands, and undertake it counting it worthy of pursuing even if the pursuit never ends or they fail honorably in it. (The life so short, the craft so long to learn.) So the high-minded are aware–it is part of their high-mindedness–of their own finitude, of their limits. Think of Thomas Aquinas praying for God to “complete his finished task” for him. He knew that he would end before the task did. He left the completion of the task in God’s hands. That is high-mindedness. Think of Socrates, before the Jury and his accusers, speaking of himself as on a mission from God, a mission that had made him poor and profoundly unpopular. But his mission was his mission: he would not be turned aside. –Think of Bill Mallonee in the high desert, selling his guitars to keep making music.
Genuinely recognizing our finitude is not throwing in the towel, or failing to answer the scratch; it is no shelter for cravenness. Restraint is not loss, but a preparation for more important battles, a way of gathering in and husbanding your best forces for the important fights. It is a way of feeding what is best in you and starving what is worst. It is required for purity of heart, required if we are to will one thing. We all want happiness, ample and complete, but restraint furthers that aim, it does not hinder it. Our perfection as human beings is a finite perfection. We are not God, omnipotent and omniscient with Him: and wanting to be, we fall down, trip up, whether in a garden or in a desert or in an asphalt jungle. Socrates claimed a kind of wisdom, a human wisdom, and denied having any divine wisdom. He acknowledged his limits and doing so allowed him to understand that human wisdom ripens only in the acknowledgment of ignorance. There are things Socrates wanted to know that he knew he would not know, at least not on the hither side of the blue. He was ok with that, he could live–and die–with it.
Mallonee also realizes that salvation is not the individual business it is sometimes taken to be. He knows that we need each other, and at the widest and deepest possible levels. I cannot care about my own salvation unless I care about yours. I cannot be saved if I am not genuinely trying to save others. This is not as such a call for witnessing or for evangelism. My effort to save you may take the form only (only!?) of warming you, feeding you, clothing you. And here’s the uncomfortable thing: I cannot care about your eternal life if I do not care about your temporal life. Melville wrote in Moby Dick that ours is a “mutual, joint-stock world in all meridians”. That is absolutely true. Even in the eternal meridians. God is the Lord of Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts. He is a hospitable God, never alone, always in company: Three in One, and surrounded by tens of thousands of angels, by archangels, and by the cloud of witnesses, the saints. The songs sung there are sung by choirs–there are no soloists in heaven. The New Song is our song.
Mallonee can be hard to listen to. But that is not because the songs are anything other than first-rate. All Mallonee’s many virtues are present on Rags of Absence, and in a resplendent array. Mallonee is hard to listen to because he tells us things we know but do not want to know, things of which we are motivatedly ignorant, forgetful. He shows us what we know but will not know. He does it by finding the patterns in the human rigmarole, by his gift for shifting his vision just enough to see the universal in the particular, the eternal in the temporal. Every human life is a scene of universal and eternal importance; every human life gives testimony, perhaps mutely, to what is everywhere and always true. But that is the testimony we do not want to hear. So Mallonee’s music challenges us: to love the songs requires being willing to bear the songs’ burden of home truths.
Not that long ago, thinkers who thought hard about our aesthetic lives, about art, distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime. One distinction between the two is that the experience of the beautiful is pleasurable, and solely pleasurable, whereas the experience of the sublime is not pleasurable or not solely pleasurable. To understand this, consider the experience of a violent thunderstorm–but the experience of it not as a person exposed to the wind and the rain, but as a person contemplating it from a secure and comfortable seat on a porch. There is pleasure in such an experience, but it contains an admixture of pain–a recognition of our own smallness, of our vulnerability, of the uncontrollable and dwarfing and awesome power of the storm. Mallonee’s music I reckon sublime. The sublime songs tell us hard truths. The soaring guitars strike the depth of our plight. The melodies ring out all the discord of our lives. There is pleasure aplenty in the music–but there is pain too.
The distinction between the beautiful and sublime has fallen into disuse, largely because we have little appetite for the sublime. We do not want to face the bracing, the stern; we abhor discomfiture. We do not want to be reminded that we are small, vulnerable. We want to be entertained, stroked, fondled–we want our itching ears scratched. We want what we are interested in, not what is in our interest. We want what we want–to hell with what we need.
We need music like Mallonee’s, art like his: strong, unafraid and soothfast, replete with sublimity. We need to hear what Mallonee tells us. We need to hear it, and to hear it over and over again and again. Because we do not want to hear it, and because we will forget it. And none of that is about to change.
Giving the devil his due–acknowledging evil, finitude, and dependence–is not turning from Heaven. It is recognizing Heaven must begin here, in the wheezing dust of our lives, as Hell must too. Paradise and Inferno are hard against wherever we are. It is perhaps easy enough to look around us and believe that the Inferno is a stone’s throw away (as it was for the mob following the woman taken in adultery), but it is hard to see Heaven as near. But it is near, as near as my own hand, or the leaves in the field. Walt Whitman writes in the fifth chant of “Song of Myself”:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that
pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own…
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.
There is an abyss of wonder, an abyss of grace, in the near, the low and the familiar. But that abyss becomes visible to us only if we know that the kelson of the creation is love: love is the centerline structure of creation, holding it together–leaves, ants, fences, stones, poke-weed and us. Love ensures that the devil never gets more than his due, and eventually gets just what he is due. The devil is limited. The kelson of creation is limitless.
It may sometimes seem that we live squalid in rags of absence, that God has bolted from his creation–and then bolted it shut. That God is a God in jest, cruel jest. But: the Incarnation: God is with us: He is the kelson of creation. He is not a cosmic spectator of our tears but commiserates with us hic et nunc. He tasks us to weep with those who weep. He will not task us with any task that is not also His. How is this possible? I do not know. But I know that this album by Mallonee increases my faith. If a man can enter so into the suffering of others, affirm it, and bless them, how could Got not do so too?