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

 

I

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.

 

II

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.

 

III

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.

 

IV

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.

 

V

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?

 

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

I

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.”

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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.”

V

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.

VI

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.

VII

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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