This was the poem that started my blistering love for Don Paterson. I remember reading it a few years ago, and being hit by this wonderful thud of recognition; other people also embraced those heady moments spent waiting for someone to arrive, felt some kind of disappointment when they did. It still remains, by far, my favourite ‘love’ poem.
(Note: All underlined words/sentences are links which can, and indeed should, be clicked on.)
Shortly after it was released in October last year my friend Anna introduced me to Brandy Clark’s debut album, 12 Stories. Up to that point I had been at most a dabbler in country music- with a fairly healthy collection of Johnny Cash and not much else- but it was 12 Stories which got me hooked. To be specific it was track Number 8 which actually got me hooked; ‘Take a little Pill’.
“Mama got depressed, when daddy was a -dying, so the doctor gave her something, to help her with the crying” she begins in a voice like powdered milk, and then you’re in, wound into her story of miserable, broken people addicted to psychiatric medication because they can’t fix their miserable, broken lives. When I listened to it first, by the time she got to “What you can’t cure, you can medicate” I was half in love with her, and wholly convinced that there is yet to be a better statement of the aims of the anti-psychiatry movement. Not because she talks about being addicted to medication, which other musicians frequently do and have been doing since at least the 1960s but because what she’s implicitly criticizing is the pathologization and medication of valid human experiences such as grief and loss. Because sometimes the appropriate response to an unbearable situation just is that special brand of human suffering which lamentably gets carved up and and labelled by psychiatrists as depression or catatonia or schizophrenia and the like. Because people who respond in this way are not “infirm” or “sick”, but gloriously human.
The psychiatric term for it is experiencing intrusive thoughts (or obsessive thinking,) but most of us know it simply as the inability to stop turning something over and over in your mind, to worry at it like a dog even as you desperately try and drive it from your consciousness.
I get it worst when I’m trying and failing to sleep. Sometimes, in those miserable minutes or hours, my chain of thought becomes so involuntary that it almost seems those thought processes have a serpentine life of their own, writhing and turning back in and over each other. Pulling up thought after awful thought until what is happening no longer feels like something I am doing, but something that is done to me.
A week or so before I got a job as a support worker on a psychiatric ward, Lou Reed died of liver cancer at his home in Southampton, New York.
From my own narrow perspective, it was a sad, strange thing to experience the loss and very public mourning of someone who had got me through so much loss, mourning and general misery of my own. In terms of managing to find words (and more) which just got whatever psychological wreckage I was attempting to untangle, there was no-one who had even come close to Lou. Even at his more upbeat points he’d still hit you with a lyric like “Just a perfect day, you made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good.” And of course this post couldn’t be without a mention of the exquisitely depressing “Sunday Morning”; full of these restless, miserable feelings that sink and tumble down on top of each other, and pull you into half-believing you’ve wasted your entire life and everything is over, and then that bass lazily bumps back up again to the beginning of the riff, and things roll on and on and you can’t help smiling at the beauty and artistry of it all.
The strange ability of words and music (and indeed other art forms) to transfigure and alleviate human suffering is hardly a neglected topic (though I still think Nietzsche does it best.) However the person I want to spend the remainder of this post talking about- the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein- isn’t someone really known for his writings on aesthetics, and in fact the paragraph quoted below doesn’t purport to be about art at all. What it does do, though, is attempt to undermine a heap of misconceptions about language and misery, misconceptions which make explaining the effect of the former on the latter much harder to suss out. Continue reading