Part I of a Two-Part Review
“We can know ourselves truly only when we communicate ourselves in love, but the act of communication depends upon the reverence of someone else, who rejoices in the mystery of our being. So true is this, that the lover may come to know us better than we know ourselves, and ‘many wait only for someone to love them in order to become who they always could have been from the beginning.’”* Self knowledge and actualization is only possible in the presence of others and is only possible to the degree that we love others and are loved by them in return. It is not good for man to be alone. Aristotle tells us that man is a political animal such that a self-sufficient man becomes either a beast or a god. The Church tells us that God Himself, while self-sufficient, is not solitary; He exists in perpetual communion between the Persons of the Trinity. It may be that personhood can only be understood in the context of community, in the context of other persons. If this is the case, then a loss of community and the communal interactions between persons will negatively affect personhood.
The Airborne Toxic Event is an indie rock band keenly aware of the problems posed by the breakdown of community and, consequently, personhood. Taking their name and themes from Don DeLillo’s 1985 post-modern classic White Noise, The Airborne Toxic Event explores the feelings of loss and loneliness and their effects on a person. They rebel against what they see as inauthentic expressions of love and relationship and hope for something more, only to see those hopes dashed again and again. The resulting angst is expressed in different ways.
“Wishing Well,” the initial song of their debut album, is a faced paced expression of the gnawing discomfort of loneliness and meaninglessness.
Standing on a bus stop/Feeling your head pop/Out in the night/In the kind of night/Where you want to be out/On the street, on the street/ Crawling up the walls/Like a cat in heat/…But you don’t know what/And you don’t know when/So you tear at your hair/And you scratch at your skin/You wanna run away, run away/Just get on the [expletive] train and leave today/… And you think to yourself,/“This is it, this is it/This is all that I have/All I can stand/…And the walls spin/And you’re paper-thin/From the Haze of the smoke/And the mescaline/…We ran far and wide/You screamed, you cried/You thought suicide was an alibi/But you were always a mess/You were always aloof/Yeah, it’s awful, I guess/But it’s the awful truth.
Here loneliness creates a tension within the person himself, like a tightly wound rubber band ready to snap; tension that can be felt in the strong bass pulse of the song. Because this loneliness results in a loss of personhood, the unactualized person becomes trapped within himself and can find no release for that tension. The release properly ought to come from loving others; The Airborne Toxic Event suggests that such love is difficult if not impossible in a world obsessed with inauthenticity; even if it does exist, they are not sure it could be recognized:
She said, “I haven’t forgot/Any words that you said/I just stare at the clocks/And I cry in my sleep/And I tear up your letters/And I burn them in heaps/And I gather the ashes/In that hole in the ground/Where we fell.
Because the world is so inauthentic, and because their experience of love has generally been inauthentic, there is doubt that authentic love could exist and fear that one will merely be burned again.
In “Letter to Georgia” a man expresses his love to a girl he’s always loved, but from whom he is now separated.
I sit alone inside these sinful walls I’ve lived inside./So many lies have lived and died; none so much as the one I lived with you./…Everyone that I know said I should’ve just let you go./You run from everything, you see./Hurt the ones you love like me./…Your heart’s so big and broke in two./ Your mind drifting through all you knew./Afraid to love; afraid to lose;/Afraid to start; afraid to choose;/Afraid to live; afraid to die;/Afraid to let these days go sail by;/Afraid to change or stay the same;/Afraid to lose yourself again;/Afraid of the truth that love could cause you so much pain.
Unlike in “Wishing Well” where knowledge of the inauthenticity of life and love builds an internal tension waiting to burst forth, here it builds a crippling fear that prevents future action or love. Because of past experience of inauthentic love, the individual is “afraid of the truth that love could cause you so much pain.” The individual is afraid that the only authentic experience he will have is the experience of loss and pain. Thus the singer, after diagnosing his beloved’s problems, states: “I know./I felt it, too./Darling, I wish it wasn’t true.” He is able to diagnose the problems separating them, but is unsure if those problems are surmountable. Feelings of hopelessness are reinforced by a tragic duet of piano and violin, while the piano progressions and percussion instruments suggest a feeling of being constantly pushed forward without destination
Even when the experience of authentic love is present, the singer is never sure that love will endure; like the characters of White Noise, he has seen too much divorce and betrayal. “The Graveyard Near the House” portrays those fears. The singer is accompanied by a guitar; the feeling throughout is that he is singing only for his love’s ears, spilling his heart to her.
The other day, when we were walking by the graveyard near the house,/You asked me if I thought we would ever die./And if life and love both fade so predictably, we’ve made ourselves a kind of predictable life./…I can’t pretend that I can tell you what is going to happen next or how to be./But you have no idea about me, do you?/And it left me to wonder/If people will ever know each other/or just stumble around like strangers in the dark.
Far from delighting in the mystery of the beloved’s being and coming to know oneself and the beloved more and more, the singer sees the beloved as a stranger, an unknowable:
‘Cause sometimes you seem so strange to me,/I must seem strange to you./We’re like two actors playing our parts./ Did you memorize your line? ‘Cause I did/ Here’s the part where I get so mad,/I tell you I can’t forget the past./ You get so quiet now,/And you seem somehow/Like a lost and lonely child./And you just hope that the moment won’t last./Bye bye bye, bye bye bye/To all this dogged innocence./…But you have no idea about me./You have no idea about me, do you?
His beloved clearly has no idea about him; she too lives her love in fear. More than fearing that love will die, she is afraid she will abandoned when her loveliness begins to fade:
And you wake in tears sometimes,/I can see the thoughts flash across your eyes./They say “Darling, will you be kind?/Will you be a good man, and stay behind/If I get old?”
Because the two, though “in love” and married, are not secure about the authenticity of their love, they feel that they do not truly know each other. Even if they do truly love and know each other, the specter of loss through death looms large and dark:
And then the letters all pass through my head,/With the words that I was told./About the fading flesh of life and love, the failures of the bold./I can list each crippling fear like I’m reading from a will./And I’ll defy everyone and love you still./I will carry you with me up every hill./If you die before I die,/I’ll carve your name out of the sky./I’ll fall asleep with your memory/And dream of where you lie.
The singer realizes that if the answer lies anywhere, it does not lie in bottling up one’s inner tension or giving in to fear’s paralysis. Though one’s love may not be perfect, though one cannot have complete certainty, one must love:
It may be better to move on,/And to let life just carry on./And I may be wrong./But still, I’ll try./‘Cause it’s better to love/Whether you win or lose or die./Yeah, It’s better to love/Whether you win or lose or die./It’s better to love, and I will love you ‘til I die.
Here at the end of the song, we get a glimpse of the solution. Love is not just an emotion; emotions fade. Love is action and choice. We do not know what the future holds, we do not know if we will “win or lose or die.” But it does not really matter: we can choose to love and remain in that choice.
Love as choice and action is also seen in “All I Ever Wanted.” The couple in this song are again afraid – afraid of death and afraid of love’s fading as they have seen with their parents.
I can tell that you’re scared of turning into your mother/And I can feel myself turn into my father/So we can lie to ourselves like they do and say we’re still happy/I guess it’s easy when you’re young/And you know you still want it so badly.
Again, we see the fear of inauthentic love creep in between the lovers; the man will “only say these things to you when you’re sleeping/I hear the hum from the wires/And the sounds of the morning creep in/So I lie awake and I hope that you don’t hear me.” He sees through the fear and realizes that he does love her authentically; she is “all I ever wanted, dear/And I still utter each word as I hold you near/But I shudder when I think that I might not be here/Forever, forever, forever.” Within that love, however, remains the fear that she does not love him, or that he will die and be separated from his love. But he truly loves her – loves her as the person she is now, not as the person she may have been in her “prime.” The pace of the song and the harsh strokes of the stringed instruments suggest urgency in his attempts to communicate his love.
I’d tell you that I’d always love you/Like some pristine doll that you hold at night/But I’d be lying/Love is defying/And all I could think is that there must be some kind of rebellion/We’re on these fears like soldiers and we slay them./…Your face so twisted and your eyes a lie/I want to tell you I don’t see you when you cry at night/But I’d be lying/Love is defying/We’re slowly dying.
The Airborne Toxic Event realizes that authenticity is essential to love and that loving is necessary to authenticity. This cycle must be continually engaged if love is to last. Inauthenticity will lead to loneliness because it makes love impossible unless “we lie to ourselves like they do and say we’re still happy.” “The Graveyard Near the House,” however, in its suggestion that “It’s better to love/Whether you win or lose or die” hits upon the solution. Loving others and being loved in return is how we can truly come to know ourselves. When we know ourselves, we can truly begin to attempt to know others.