Bill Mallonee, Lead On, Kindly Light (Album Review)

A few words about Bill Mallonee’s lush, cornucopia of songs.

Ending the Preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes these words.  

It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely.

Bill Mallonee’s newest offering, Lead on, Kindly Light faces a similar problem.  Mallonee would no doubt grant the poverty of his work, and he calls attention repeatedly to the darkness of this time.  But, much like Wittgenstein, he stubbornly hopes to bring light into one heart or another. No, it is not likely. We each have a heart full of weeds, tall weeds; it is hard for light to get in.  And even if we see a little light, true blue, we are too ponderous, too full of devices and of the 21st Century to rouse into concerted action. Mostly, like Nietzsche’s ‘Last Man’, we blink. And turn on the blue-light filter.  A little sleep, a little closing of the eyes in sleep. All apps, we lack application.  

Kindly Light is a dialogic album, lush with interlocutory guitars. Mallonee’s singing, his plain but precise phrasing, his wife Muriah’s delicate, tasteful harmonies, needlework through the songs, stitching together the different conceptual orders of melody and words.  Like exceptional conversation, the songs become bearers of meaning as wholes beyond what they are about, centrifugallyIn an elusive sense, they are meaningful in themselves, centripetally.

But, centrifugally, what are the songs about?  — About the accumulated weight of human experience, bourne by an individual but touching the lives of all: about the unappeasable hunger of the human imagination, the irrepressible vanity of human wishes, the endless tedium of another day and our sickened anxiety over wasted time, — about our damaged hearts and darkling fates.  There is no emigration from a world bursting with evil and sorrow, despite the fact that we all seem to have immigrated here. Death guards the borders, fencing us in.

That makes Kindly Light seem more about (the) darkness (of this time) than about light, and that is misleading.  The songs chart the path of light in the darkness, its dimming and brightening. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  The light is there, never really gone, but we will not admit it.  It’s easier to lapse into darkness. A little sleep…

The songs of Kindly Light all are cries of, cries for, wakefulness, for admitting the light, fighting toward it, for it. But it is also a reminder that our spontaneity is ever a receptive spontaneity, that our words were never the first words, are never The Word.  And the light we admit, fight toward, fight for, will never allow us (to borrow John Henry Newman’s phrase) “to see the distant scene”. Light enough for the next step — that is what we can admit, fight toward, fight for. Some light in the brain, in the heart, enough to hazard everything, as we all do everyday, — no choice —, though we hide the fact from ourselves.  We do not choose or see our path but we have to walk nonetheless. Time forces our footfalls. Will we sleepwalk or take the single step, awake, we have light enough to see?

The songs are sermons but not of the televangelist variety that rules today, preachers on screens, holygrams.  No.  The sermonizer here is sermonizing himself: Mallonee is his own congregation.  He needs to hear what he is saying. We all need to be reminded more than informed.  No message here from on-high, UHF.  The message is sung from a modest place among the least of these, in poorness of spirit, from among the weeds by the wall.  

For fans of melody, there is much here, songs that stay in the ear of the mind, that end up being hummed almost absently during the day’s business.  The songs are unhurried, the guitars linger on, over and around the melodies. The listener is drawn into the dialog of the songs, asked to join it, given spaces to fill.  These songs are, as Mallonee says life is (in “A Borrowing of Bones”), “a gift by slow degrees…

No blinding flash of light & few epiphanies/No one really leaves with anything that is his own/You get your doubts and a borrowing of bones…

Mallonee gets his doubts and he gets ours.  All our bones are borrowed bones. We must return them in the end, like it or not.  But, until then — lead on, kindly light.  These songs hallow that light and, moonlike, reflect it back to the listener.      

Giving the Devil His Due (Liner Notes, Bill Mallonee, Rags of Absence)

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?


Buckner’s Surrounded (Album Review)

Buckner has perfected a shaken rosebush sound–all at once moving, woody, thorny, and petaled in difficult beauty.  His album, Surrounded, attests to his remarkable virtues as a singer-songwriter.  But his virtues are not easy to appreciate; he offers no ease of access to them. The melodies of the songs on the album are lovely, but they exist more as traceries than as simple single lines, they are densely structured and closely knit–there are few big, dramatic chord changes, few reaches for the immediate, call it the hummable.  You might deem the melodies ruminative–but that should not suggest the bucolic or the pastoral:  they are fiercely ruminative, the rumination determined not to spare the ruminator or the ruminated topic or the listener–intense, brooding ruminations.


Perhaps the best way to understand the difficulty of Buckner is to consider the writing process that produced the songs on the album.  The nine songs are built from the text of five prose vignettes.  (The album liner supplies these.)  The vignettes are numbered, and their text looks a little like the text of old New Testaments–some of the words are in black, the words that become lyrics of the songs, and other are in read, the words that are part of the vignettes but not themselves lyrics of the songs.  There are also words in green bold face, the words that serve as the titles of the songs.  So each song is a complicated distillation of a vignette or of some portion of a vignette.  For illustration, the opening section of the first vignette is:

[Those static arrangements have led you to attempt a rest, but] you just won’t lie down.  Even closing your eyes, you can’t let it go, surrounded inside.

The words in brackets are the words printed in red.  The other words are the opening lyrics of the first song, “Surrounded”, whose title is the bold-faced word.  The vignette continues:

Leave it alone.  You don’t get it back [by] undoing the scenes [that] you can’t explain, whatever [it is that] you dream that you’ve buried away.

It seems like you’re there as someone removed [of the proof, then returned to the pride] and [abandoned with others] left in their place with nothing to do, [still] bound to the switch.  [But], railing again at the thought of the fight for well-earned dissent (undeserved at the time, as you’ve been shown), the motion has gone a shade of the night, only leading you on.

Before I say much more about the process of building songs this way, it is worth pausing to consider the vignette itself, independent of the song that Buckner scries within it.  Anyone who knows Bucker’s recording history and who has reflected on the character of his lyrics, knows that they are elliptical exercises, worse even than the prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi.  Buckner does not speak but conceals, gives signs, hints, suggestions.  But he won’t come clean.  Early songs were built around an implied but never actually used word (“Blue and Wonder”):

And what’s that word:
I forget sometimes
It’s the one that means
The love has left your eyes?

Bucker never actually supplies that word.  He leaves the reader wondering (perhaps a deliberate pun in the title of the song), since there is not a single English word with that exact meaning, or none I can think of.  (Maybe I have forgotten it too?)  Part of the artistry here is that by claiming that there is such a word but that he has forgotten it, Buckner supplies that sense of familiarity with everyday tragedies that we all have, even if we would like to forget it.  But Buckner always cares more to bring us around to a cold plunge into a familiar but uncomfortable reality than about telling us about such realities. That continues here:  this vignette never really tells us, in so many words, about what surrounds the narrator–it instead surrounds us itself, won’t let us rest.  What does it mean?  Something has been done, something undone, something buried, something dissented from.  But what?  Several of the sentences have a murky grammatical structure, stringing the reader from word to word without the benefit of creating any clear lexical expectation.  You find yourself at the period, stopping. but only then, if at all, having any sense of where you have been.  This is clearly deliberate–not a failure, but a success of art.  It bears comparisons with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and with, say, Claire Lispector.

The hollow at the heart of the vignette deepens in the song Buckner finds in the vignette.  (The relationship between the generating vignettes and the generated songs varies in each case.  “Surrounded” is perhaps the song that most fully preserves its generating vignette.)  Consider the lyrics.

You just won’t lie down
Even closing your eyes
You can’t let it go
Surrounded inside

Leave it alone
You don’t get it back
Undoing the scenes
You can’t get explain
Whatever you dream

That you buried away
It seems like you’re there
As someone removed
And left in their place
With nothing to do

Bound to the switch
Railing again
At the thought of the fight
For well-earned dissent
Undeserved at the time

As you’ve been shown
The motion has gone
A shade of the night
Only leading you on

There is no straightforward verse/chorus structure here exactly.  There are no rhymes.  But it is far from formless.  The words ingather around whatever it is that is missing from the lyrics, some skeleton key word or phrase that would allow escape.  The words create claustrophobia, crowd densely around.  No escape offered, the lyrics end in stasis, the only hope (?) a shade of the night–a grayer black, a ghost? both?–that offers to lead you–only you?–on.  But is that an offer of anything more than empty change?Substituting one siege for another?  Railing, fighting, dissenting get us nothing deserved.

Buckner finger-picks insistently, weaving the lyrics through the pattern.  His vocal expression gives little away–the words matter, the delivery is not inflectionless.  But the singing reveals mainly the intensity of the self-questioning, of the restlessness of the desire for explanation, the restlessness full stop.

Perhaps nothing more thematizes this song, this album, and Buckner’s career, than his grappling with a wide-eyed sleeplessness, physical and psychological.  In Emerson’s essay, “Experience”, Emerson bemoans not just the death of his son, Waldo, but also, and even more intently, he bemoans the fact that he cannot fully realize Waldo’s death, concretize it into a current circumstance of his life.  He writes

In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, –no more.  I cannot get it nearer to me…[I]t does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off and leaves no scar.  It was caducous.  I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.

Buckner lives out a kind of nepsis; he paces the walls while the rest of us sleep.  He spends his nights inquiring up and down, tiring his animal eyes and the eyes of his mind.  But he cannot sleep.  He cannot bring the things that move him–those that calm him, those that grieve him, those he has loved and those he has lost, –he cannot bring them nearer to him.  They have done what they have done and he and they have moved on, no lesson surely learnt.  Everything touches him but nothing touches him:  everything slides away, led on by a shade of the night.  Life itself proves caducous.  Dream delivers him to dream, and there is no end to illusion.  –How can we hold onto lives that flux like water, running out of our clutches, leaving behind only trails of tears?  How can we step into real nature–not just as observers, pacers of the wall, but as bodily entrants into reality itself?  Our skin seems sometimes to get in between us and the world, making our grasp of things gloved, mediated, distant.  Sleep comes to seem like an acceptance, a yielding to dreams, a conniving at agreeable illusions.  Buckner will not yield.  He remains awake in the inextricable darkness.

The sheer intensity of Buckner’s refusal of sleep can overwhelm the listener.  Buckner is determined to exhaust exhaustion.  He is bound to the switch.  How can art arrest life, incarcerate it? That is a question that will keep you up nights.  Perhaps there is a confusion in it, as perhaps there is a confusion in Emerson’s grievance about grief–but, even if there is, it is a confusion we all find ourselves in eventually.  What we want nearer we can get only so near, and no more.  Nothing we care about seems capable of being both ours and other.  Everything eventually sees or saws, settling in one place or another, wholly ours and so not of interest, or wholly other and so out of reach.

Buckner always brings Emerson to mind for me.  That is because each man devotes himself to what I call, if you will excuse the term, a phenomenology of moods.  Each is more interested in finding a way to capture a mood than he is in capturing the object or scene or whatever it might be that creates the mood.  (One of the songs on Surrounded is, fittingly, “Mood”.)  Each takes mood itself to be his ‘object’.  This, I take it, helps to explain what I have called the hollowness of the lyrics, the fact that something seems always to be left out, left up to us to supply, if it is supplied at all.  –The fascination with mood has developed over Buckner’s career.  You find it on early albums, but usually as a bit or a piece of a song, not as the song itself.  As he has continued to record, the fascination has deepened.  Now, the songs are often fogs of mood, obscuring all non-moody objects, and leaving us with only the fog itself as a subject of attention.  No doubt to some this seems like willful obscurantism–but that is true only of those who cannot bring themselves to focus on the fog, to see that it is worthy of attention, despite its shifty, ephemeral nature, despite the fact that it seems always to recede just as we lean in to study it.

Buckner’s problem (and, so, not his willful obscurity) is how to bring into focus the very stuff that we take to soften or blur our focus, to hinder our gaze.  The things it is hard to see from up close, because they are often best visible in the distance.  (Emerson has his own version of this problem.)  I suspect that Buckner’s method of composition, the creating of the vignette, then the subtracting from it until the lyric emerges, is itself driven by his problem.  The vignette captures the mood, but does so in a way that threatens to solidify it, to make it too object-like.  Subtracting to find the lyric de-objectifies the mood, as does adding the music, the melody.  Buckner captures the mood by capturing us in it, by getting us to find ourselves inside it, instead of standing over and above it, outside it.  We come to know the fog by learning how to see it, and to see in it, as best we can.  Buckner’s pursuit of mood creates the strange mix of determinacy and indeterminacy in his lyrics, the combining of sketchy personal presences with carefully delineated emotional detail.  The songs are scenescapes of free-floating emotional disturbances.

“Surrounded” is one of the best of the songs on the album; but there are no weak songs.  There are deeply lovely songs, like the unanswered mystery of “Beautiful Question”.  There’s the trembling demon seance of “Mood”.  The album ends with a transcendental take on a symbol of the temporary, “Lean-To”.

Buckner is a songwriter of real brilliance.  His songs are exercises of that brilliance, a force creating its appropriate expression.  These are not songs that wear what makes them so wonderful on their sleeves.  They require time, frequentation, serious thinking.  Thoreau once remarked that books must be read as deliberately as they are written.  These songs must be listened to as deliberately as they were composed.  Buckner wears himself out.  He wears his listener out.  And that, odd as it may be to put it this way, is part of the point:  what Buckner is doing is demanding.

Half Rumination, Half Scrutiny (Mervyn Peake)

The long-sounding final paragraph of MP’s The Craft of the Lead Pencil:

What does it matter how long or slow you are in the traffic of lead and paper?  The advance from virtual blindness to that state of perception–half rumination, half scrutiny–is all that matters.  The end is hypothetical.  It is the journey that counts.

We could say this of writing too, and philosophy, and of thoughtful living generally. 


Reading Annie Dillard on a picnic table.  Tiny ants trudge around in myopic busyness.  One ambitious climber clambers up and onto the open pages of the book.  I fail to observe him and so crush him with my hand.  He dies slowly over minutes, seconds, aeons.  I watch him die:  it is the only gift I can give him.  His filament legs stop moving and he goes still.  Goes. Gone.  A universe of death packed into his inarticulate articulated body.  Goes.  Gone.  I look up at the patchy blue sky.  It seems to ripple above the water of the lake.  It envies the lake’s shores, the lake’s shapeliness.  A form of meaning.  The horizon is an obstruction, not a limit.  Gone.  I begin again to read, now careful where I put my hands.

The Present Actual Situation of Philosophical Reflection

While philosophical reflection is temporally-historically so conditioned, its aim is the universal and eternal.  These however are, and are reflectively discernible, only in and through the individual and temporal.  Or better:  since the universal and individual, eternal and temporal, are not distinct things or opposites, but constitute reflectively characterizable aspects of the concrete situation of being, reflection must break forth out of non-reflective immersion in the present actual situation.  In so doing, it does not leave that situation but constitutes that altered mode of absorption within the concrete situation which attempts to elicit in conception the universal and eternal accessible to it.  –Richard Gotshalk, “Reflection and Seeing”

Between (Charlie Hickey, Music Review Essay)


This is Not Easy for Me 

Charlie Hickey

Patience with yourself is demanding, particularly when you are young.  You are prone to impatience with yourself; others are prone to impatience with you.  It can seem that your teenage years are a weary succession of one today “I am forever committed” and one tomorrow “On to the next thing…”.  A chorus of voices, your own often the loudest, keeps chanting: “Choose!”  But choosing is precisely what you really cannot do, not once and for all.  This is not the stage of life at which choosing, final choosing anyway, typically gets done.  The hard thing is to be between:  neither a child nor an adult, but on the way from one to the other.  It is hard to keep focused on the journey, –hard not to reach backwards in remembrance toward the voicelessness of childhood, with its attendant freedom, if you are lucky, beneath the rainbow of your parents’ love, –or hard not to reach forward in anticipation to the full voice of adulthood, with its attendant responsibilities, if you are lucky, toward those beneath the rainbow of your love.  The hard thing is to be between, not a child, not yet an adult, but composedly trans-ing  from one to the other.  To be between.

On his new EP, This Isn’t Easy For Me, 16-year old Charlie Hickey presents four songs about being between.  The songs are melodically assured, subtle, eschewing big musical poses for smaller, more intimate gestures.  None of the melodies leap out of the speaker–but all register over listenings and make a home in memory.  Hickey’s voice centers the album:  clear, warm, palpably human, it is a real voice, alive. But it is never showy, never cocky, never crooning, never plangent. Unlike many (and many older) singer-songwriters, Hickey never sends his voice on an errand while he stays behind.  He is there, right there, fully present in his voice.  This substantializes the songs, giving them power and immediacy.

The EP opens with “Broken”.

I’ve got so much love in my life
But I’m looking for some kind of tattered touch
Yeah I can live without it
But sometimes this livin’ is not quite enough

I feel the love of my family
It’s the only thing that really lets me sleep
But when the sleeping gets easy
Sometimes I wish that there was someone beside me

I’ll let my bones be broken when I can find someone to make me feel fixed
I’m looking for someone’s tattered kiss
We can’t go on living like this
We gotta find each other…

Not a typical song of teenaged love.  The addressee is more possible than actual, the distance between the two logical, not spatial.  Part of learning to love is being loved and achieving an open-eyed understanding of the cost of that love.  Familial love is not romantic love, of course, but the loves remain bound up with one another, and the first typically sets the stage for the second.  Hickey captures this beautifully:  he sleeps easy in the love of his family, and yet finds that the very ease of sleep allows him to long for something else, a different kind of love. At a certain point, familial love, however overflowing, is not all the love we wish for.  Our hearts prepare a place for someone else, prepare themselves for the work of loving in a new way.

Part of what makes the song memorable is Hickey’s willingness to acknowledge familial love and its role in fitting him for a new love.  Part of what makes it memorable is his ability to capture the new love while it is still a mere possibility, while he is still reaching out toward someone-he-knows-not-who, who he understands is reaching out, in reciprocal unknowing, toward him.  The final part is carried in its titular word, ‘broken’, and its conceptual rhyme, ‘tattered’.  Hickey treats the possibility realistically.  I mean that he recognizes the cost of love he is wishing for, understands that it will, precisely to the extent that it is real, exact things from him–but he is willing to face the exaction:  “I’ll let my bones be broken…”  He will face it because, again precisely to the extent it is real, it will also reward him:  “… when I can find someone to make me feel fixed.”  And it will cost the person he is reaching out toward–her touch and kiss will be tattered.  Even so, her touch and kiss will be what he needs.  And he will do for her what she has done for him.  Together, the broken and the tattered are fixed and repaired.

“Broken” reaches forward hopefully to new love.  But in the different mood of “I Like the Idea of Loving You”, Hickey expresses the natural diffidence the actual prospect of a new love can cause.

My neck gets sore from trying to keep my head turned away from you
You’re an open door and you’re closing on my fingers
My heart rings. it sounds like a warning bell from heaven
Saying don’t confuse me with anything real

I think I like the idea of loving you
I think I like the idea of loving you
I like the idea of loving you
Sometimes it lights a fire in me
Sometimes it lights a fire in me

This is not easy for me
I couldn’t let the promise of air just breathe
And I’m lying awake cause I couldn’t leave that hope alone
And I’ve been waiting for you or any other red rose that’s passing through
But I relive every little beautiful thing until I can’t see it’s colors anymore…

Commitment in possibility and commitment in actuality are radically different, however similar they may seem in conception.  January 2nd teaches us this unmercifully.  Still, substituting living in imagination for living in reality seduces us, especially in between, when what we hope for is neither inexistent nor in existence.  The work of realizing what we hope for we often want to dodge:  we like the idea of something but shrink from realizing it.  “Don’t confuse me with anything real.”  The problem is that the idea now seems like it must be realized (“Sometimes it lights a fire in me.”) but now seems like I should simply luxuriate in its ideality, waving my hand dismissively toward its reality.  “Almost thou persuadest me…”

Commitment is hard.  (“This isn’t easy for me.”) And so we attenuate it, delay it, by a series of prefixes, each expressive of a mental state:  ‘I think…’, ‘I like…’ even ‘I think I like…’ burying the proposed commitment deep in propositional attitudes.  –A related example:  James Thurber’s title for the fear of the fear of the fear of something:  phobophobophobia.  That is a towering, babbling fear.  –In between, this kind of stepping back from our steppings-back is all-too-common.  We are trying things on, seeing how we look.  But the problem of stepping back repetitiously is that it not only attentuates or delays commitment, it also leeches the color and the vitality from our experiences themselves.  Seeing the rose is one thing:  a visual plunge into a warm pool of saturated red.  But as we relive the seeing, it is as though our eyesight itself dims or the red cools and desaturates:  eventually we cannot see the rose’s color anymore.  I am, as it were, free with respect to what I relive in a way that I am not with respect to what I live–I have elbow room in reflection that I do not have in perception.  But still:  it is the rose that matters, the actual red rose, and if we pass on seeing it in favor of reliving seeing it, we start to lose our anchor in what matters.

The next song turns its attention to the real and to the seduction of escape from what is real.  “I’m Alive”:

Living in the arms of the past
And it’s wildest dreams for me
Old flames to light up just one more time
Weary guiding light

Waiting for the sun on my face to pass
So the hope of tomorrow can show me it’s face at last
When the moment’s grip gets tired of me
I just try to make the future last

I’m alive
In this very instant and my
Breath goes by
Unnoticed but true, you know that
All I have
Are these very moments cause they’re
All I have to run away to

Tomorrow’s always coming
It’s giving me a break
I do so much dreaming
I forget that I’m awake

Dreaming of the day
That don’t need me to be anything that I’m not
A day that is right now
A day that is alive…

The present is our happiness.  This is one of those things we have to tell ourselves over and over because we never quite effectively internalize it.  And that is because being present in the present leaves us vulnerable.  For the most part, we can render ourselves safe from the past, variously jettisoning, suppressing, muffling or misrepresenting it–or, more helpfully, we can gain distance from it and perspective on it. And we can render ourselves safe from the future, because it has no definite shape, and so no sharp edges.  We find in ourselves a will to absent the present, to run away from it.  But of course, if I run away to the past, then I am presently remembering, and if I run away to the future, I am presently daydreaming.  Try as I will, I cannot actually absent the present.  I am always in these very moments.  I succeed only in turning my attention from my vulnerability in the present, I do not render myself invulnerable in the present.  Any escape from the present is a present escape.

Hickey ends the album with “The Child in Me”, attempting to measure accurately the difference between the child he was and the man-in-becoming he has become.  Here, again, Hickey’s patience with himself is instructive.

Being in control is a concept that I sit and try to understand
Scared of fate but hey I guess it’s somewhat up to me in the end
Sitting here meditating on wishing myself the best
Years will grow around me and I’ll try to make the best

Of the child in me that stayed and played and only did the steps he made
But he got by and sometimes he cried

Sittin trying to keep my eyes on the ground
But they keep on going up
I shoot the question out of the gun
But don’t stay long enough to see where it hits me

Like I said, I wanna look down and see both our hands on the ground
Trying to grasp the same thing.  Maybe it’s common ground
It’s all coming down

The child in me that stayed and played
Is going places, looking into faces
And saying, what a beautiful day
And the child in me will make it where you’re going and he’ll meet you there

At sixteen, it is natural to disown your childhood for fear of being treated as a child.  But we often lose our grip on childlikeness in the hurry to discard childishness.  If we mature as we should, a kind of immaturity remains–something resistant to narrow prudence, gamesmanship, cynicism and faithlessness.  And that something is the child who stays and plays within us, if we allow him to do so.  If we exile that child, we exile ourselves from the kingdom, whether the one we now live in or the one that may be to come.  Wonder is spiritual youth; it preserves that plasticity of childhood, preserves a structure weak enough to be responsive but not so weak as to be nothing but response, to be nothing in itself.  To lose that child is to lose the best part of ourselves.  One of the reasons for the common happiness of childhood is that childhood is all present.  (The child has no past really, and has not yet become aware of the future as the future.)  And so childhood is also vulnerable.  And maybe that completes the lesson in Hickey’s sequence of songs:  the cost of happiness is invariably vulnerability.  Absolute safety includes safety from happiness.

Despite their thematic unity, Hickey’s songs musically are varied.  The tempo changes , and so does the instrumentation.  Hickey’s voice and guitar are the centerpiece, but not all there is.  The melodies are subtle–subtle, but hummable, singable.  You will find yourself singing along.

It is not often that someone between cables us a thoughtful report about what it is like to be between.  It takes a certain talent, and a certain strength of character, to make such a report.  Hickey gives one to us, and if we listen carefully, we can recognize in his the report we might have sent. In art, one criterion of getting it right is that what you create ceases to be yours alone and becomes everyone’s.


Letter to a Philosophical Inquirer

As I suppose most philosophers do, I get fairly common requests from folks who are fascinated by philosophy asking for reading lists and advice. I thought I would share my latest response to such a request.

Dear (Inquirer),


   Reading serious philosophers is demanding, but it is ultimately worth it.  But you have to read with a notebook and a pencil, working to write out what you take passages to mean, providing illustrations (literally, pictures), asking yourself questions, making notes of connections with other texts–whether that philosopher’s or other philosophers’.  You cannot read passively.  You have to push back against the text as hard as you can.  It will whip you soundly, but if you are game, and keep coming back, the volleys will last longer and you will begin to understand more and more.

   Suggestions:  Plato’s Socratic dialogues, particularly the Euthyphro, the Euthydemus, the Ion, the Charmides, the Apology.  Read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.  Read St. Thomas (Aquinas Ethicus is free online and a great place to start.)  Read Descartes’ Meditations.  Read Rousseau’s Social Contract and Emile.  Read Kant’s Prolegomena.  Read Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.  Read F H Bradley’s Ethical Studies.  Read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.  Read Wittgenstein’s Blue Book.   These are all wonderfully written, central works, that are written for an educated reader, but not necessarily someone with much formal training in philosophy.  If you can find someone to read with, that is a huge help.  Best if it is someone you can talk to face-to-face, but online is better than nothing.

Expect to be baffled.  Expect to be confused.  As I tell my students, philosophy requires a high confusion threshold.  To read philosophy, you have to be willing to be confused, know you are confused, but nonetheless to read on.  Much of what is necessary in philosophy is the right intellectual habituation, and you can only get that by frequent active reading and frequent conversation.





Ears to Hear: Bill Mallonee’s *Slow Trauma* (Music Review Essay)


Earlier this week, I was walking across the red brick and green tree campus of Auburn University, where I am lucky enough to teach philosophy.  My daughter–a rising senior philosophy major–was walking with me.  We were chatting, and, our chat, as our chats often do, turned to books.  My daughter reported that she was nearly finished with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

As my daughter knows, I venerate Robinson.  If Robinson were to walk toward me on the sidewalk, I would step off, doff my cap, and cry, “Empress!” as she passed.  I deeply admire Gilead.  My daughter continued:  “But I think I am going to have to read it again when I am older.  I don’t think someone my age can fully understand that novel.”  I stopped and thought for a moment–then I agreed.  “Yes.  Some novels you can understand because you can make do with your imagination to fill in where necessary.  But with other novels, only experience can fill in where necessary.  You can imagine being experienced; but that will not substitute for experience where it is necessary.  James Gould Cozzens’ Morning, Noon and Night is another novel like that.  You have to have lived forty years or more fully to understand it.”


I recall this conversation because it highlights an important fact about Bill Mallonee’s fine new album, Slow Trauma.  This album, which I think continues what is now a conceptual trilogy of albums that includes Winnowing and Lands and Peoples, is perhaps the Mallonee album that is most clearly the result of his long experience and experiment in art and in living.

The slow trauma is life itself.  We know–late at night, when we cannot sleep, and the ceiling reveals nothing, and our joints cry bitterly about their long misuse–cringingly, we know at such moments that no one escapes life untraumatized.  But we forget that the trauma has been on-going since our first greedy suck of breath, accumulating.  We keep such thoughts at bay when we are young, maybe we do even until we get just past halfway betwixt mother and Maker.  But eventually, they settle on us, heavy:  we are at war with Time:  we are going to lose.  Time is a bloody tyrant.  He happily besieges us.  He can wait for the walls to fall.  Beginnings and endings are his speciality. But he is done with our beginnings.  Our endings are all that are left.


Mallonee’s album is neither a carping lament nor a willful carpe deim.  Its dominant tone is reverence.  Mallonee has a deep understanding of human limits–and of the human limits in handling human limits.  He knows we would like nothing more than to deny our humanity and to transcend those limits.  We so imagine them that we run against them, believe ourselves to be caged by them.  But there is no cage.  We are limited to our nature but not by our nature.  Our slow trauma is our slow trauma.

Mallonee realizes that coping with our slow trauma necessitates acknowledging it as part of who and what we are.  It would be nice to opt out or be lifted up, be caught up in a cloud or be given a spot on some low-swinging, sweet chariot.  But neither is likely to happen.  We have to hoe our row to its end, sweaty and dirty, knowing the weeds grow back when we finish. But while we hoe, we are surrounded by mysteries.  Our hoeing, our living, has a meaning–but that meaning has not been vouchsafed to us. And what would it matter if it were? How could we recognize it as the meaning of our life?  And how could what I recognize be the meaning of my life, if that recognition comes before my final chary exhalation? My life after I have recognized the meaning of my life would then not be able to change the meaning of my life.  But that cannot be right. Repentance, at least, is always possible, even if it is unlikely.

We are homo viator.  We are in passage, in transit.  The meaning of our life is not available to be known until we are not around to know it–and maybe not even then. The meaning of our life extends past our death into the lives of those we have touched and those we have refused to touch. Our journey’s end is our end, our last stop our last stop–but our meaning travels on. It continues without us.  We don’t arrive, and then get to go and see the sights. Arrival at our destination is our departure for Parts Unknown.

We have to live within these limits.  –How do we do that?  Mallonee opens the album with a short song (“One and the Same”) responsive to the question.

What to hold onto?
What to let go of?
And what to give away?

What’s going to save you?
And what makes you smile?
Sometimes, they are one and the same.

We often see things under aspects.  The thing I need to keep and the thing I need to reject are sometimes the same thing–but seen under two different aspects.[1] What exalts me is the same thing as what makes me chuckle–but under different aspects.  We deplore this state of things.  We want to be able to see under nothing, non-aspectually.  But when we try to see what is both needful and rejectable, but to see it non-aspectually, it simply recedes into some indeterminate, more or less middle distance, neither foreground nor background, just an irregular clump amidst visual clutter.  This means that we cannot have what we want, some final, non-aspectual vision of the thing.  We are stuck with it as both needful and rejectable.  This is not a problem to be solved, but a condition of our lives.  Things don’t sort for us.  They remain a weird tangle, knotted to us and to each other inextricably, in inexplicable ways.  No final preference ordering is forthcoming.


We are curious about Parts Unknown.  We wonder at mysteries.  As we should.  Still, we need to remember that mysteries are not unsearchable because they are abysmal, dark rifts.  They are unsearchable because they are blinding, consuming fires.  Those fires create the light in which we see light.  We live in the light of mysteries, surrounded by uncreated light.  We come to understand the mysteries, to the extent that we can be said to do so, not by staring directly into them, as if we could interrogate them, but by looking ever more carefully at what they allow us to see:  the world around us, and especially other people. We understand the mysteries by caring for what they show us.  (We love God by loving what God loves.  Thus are the first and second commands forever yoked together.)  Our spiritual posture toward the mysteries is forever interrogative–but our question-marks are not symbols of skepticism, but of a desire to progress from glory to glory, to move ever deeper into the Heart of Wonder.  The next of the wine in Cana is better always than the last.

You know, it’s funny how things can get so damn misplaced
Where you bet your farm and where you place your faith
And time is such a precious thing to kill
I just wanna see over that last hill

Will my highbeams flood the plain?
Will the Gatekeeper know my name?
Will there be Someone to claim me for his own?
Well, you whisper to yourself when time runs low
Darling, I’ll carry ever smile we shared with me when I go
Lord, gather me unto Thyself when my wayward heart grows still
I just wanna see over that last hill (“That Last Hill”)

It is important to recognize that this is an entreaty, a prayer, not a demand.  Mallonee asks to see.  Mallonee’s aversion is the clenched fist, the demand aimed at heaven or at earth, the refusal to touch unless it is to hurt–but he also knows how easy it is to clench the fist, to treat the mess, the ugliness, the pain, the worry, as excusing the fist:  it is easy to harden our hearts and curl our fingers.  Reverence sours into resentment.  The light of the mysteries fails us–because we fail it–and so the light we see by is now itself unlit.  The world becomes a grey-on-grey assembly of petty nothings.  We all know the temptation of such moods.

No, it’s not really a good time.  No, it rarely is these days.
Loneliness she washes over you like a wave;
And the snow is ever falling down.
Doldrums in Denver…Doldrums in Denver
And it’s time you leave this town…There ain’t nothing for you now.
(“Doldrums in Denver”)

In such moods, faith and hope seem hellish currency, too awful to carry.  We cannot keep ourselves from such moods.  They come and they go, and fighting against them when they come tends only to aggravate them.  To blacken their shades of grey.  All we can do is let them come, endure them (yes, even, after a fashion, reverencing them), in holy indifference, asking for nothing and refusing nothing.  One of Mallonee’s greatest strengths as a songwriter is his gift for writing from and creating in his listener this holy indifference.  (The ‘holy’ here is an alienating adjective of a complicated sort; it changes the register in which we should hear ‘indifference’, making of indifference a yielding, a pliancy, an availability, instead of self-willed stoicism.)  Such a state is, I hazard, Mallonee’s most fecund state as an artist:  his best songs seem to me to come from a state of waiting.  And, as a result, they re-create that state when–perhaps even most successfully when–the songs are not in any way about that state.  As Emerson once said:  “Character teaches above our wills.”


Holy indifference and reverence are not two distinct states.  They are rather the inward-looking and the outward-looking faces of the same state.  It is a state opposed to the state expertly captured by Alan Dugan, in “Passing Through the Banford Tolls”:

Proceeding sideways by inattention I arrive
Unknowingly at an unsought destination
And pass by it wondering:  what next?

This is not the sort of wonder Mallonee seeks to cultivate, the inanition of boredom. Mallonee’s waiting is of a qualitatively different kind.


The most remarkable song on Slow Trauma is “Waiting for the Stone to be Rolled Away”.  It opens with a lilting, meditative guitars, anticipating the melody.  It then settles into a gentle, upbuilding cadence.  The first verses and the last:

There’s a halogen glow cast from across the street
From the parking lot of the Holy Spirit Assembly
It’s a beacon in the desert night until the break of day
Waiting for the stone to be rolled away

I told Solomon, the shepherd of the flock
I’ve got none of the gifts he’s got
You see, you cannot speak in tongues if you’ve got nothing to say
Waiting for the stone to be rolled away


Baby, gimme those keys, sit back and just watch me
Navigate this thing back home with considerable ease
Down these sad, back streets of doubt to a new and brighter day
Waiting for the stone to be rolled away

This song manages three levels at once.  One, the actual scene in the desert night; two, Mallonee’s reflections on his own work as an artist; and, three, a metaphysical representation of the human plight.  (Consider the density of the name, ‘Solomon’ here–the name perhaps of the actual minister of the Assembly, the name of the writer of the Songs, the name of the not-entirely-grateful vessel of God’s wisdom:  “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation”.  –Doldrums in Jerusalem.)  Mallonee’s gift of tongues, perhaps not a form of Pauline glossologia, but a gift nonetheless, is real.  But he too needs an interpreter, someone with ears to hear–someone who has not only had experience, but lives and has lived in devotion to that experience, intent on creating a heart that passes out of itself. We are all waiting for the stone to be rolled away.


This brings me back to my wise daughter, and to Marilynne Robinson.  Some things we grow into understanding.  We have to develop certain habits of mind and feeling, and that takes time.  We have to learn how to hear–we need the proper acquist of experience, and we need training in how to listen, lest, hearing, we not hear.  We have to become human ourselves in order to hear the music of the human voice–in order to understand.  Robinson, contemplating this issue in her essay, “Wondrous Love”, writes:

Jesus spoke as a man, in a human voice.  And a human voice has a music that gives words their meanings.  In that old hymn [“In the Garden”]…as in the Gospel, Mary [Magdelene] is awakened out of her loneliness by the sound of her own name spoken in a voice “so sweet the birds hush their singing.”  It is beautiful to think of what the sounds of one’s own name would be, when the inflection of it would carry the meaning Mary heard in the unmistakable, familiar, and utterly unexpected voice of her friend and teacher.  To propose analogies for the sound of it, a human name spoken in the world’s new morning, would seem to trivialize it.  I admire the tact of the lyric in making no attempt to evoke it, except obliquely, in the hush that falls over the birds.  But it is nonetheless at the center of the meaning of this story that we can know something of the inflection of that voice.  Christ’s humanity is meant to speak to our humanity…The mystery of Christ’s humanity must make us wonder what mortal memory he carried beyond the grave, and whether his pleasure at the encounter with Mary would have been shadowed and enriched by the fact that, not so long before, he had had no friend to watch with him even one hour.

Our lives are shadowed and enriched by Mallonee’s voice and music, if we hear it.  His work is a beacon in the desert night.  He is waiting, watching with us–and that eases the waiting, the watching.




[1] A very simple example:  the way food looks when we are hungry and not dieting, and the way it looks when we are not hungry and dieting.

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