The documentary maker Adam Curtis wrote in 2010: ‘In Mad Men we watch a group of people who live in a prosperous society that offers happiness and order like never before in history and yet are full of anxiety and unease. They feel there is something more, something beyond. And they feel stuck.’
The system in which the characters are stuck forces them to live divided lives in divided selves. Don Draper, in particular, has learned to put on a mask in order to get ahead and leave behind his background of shame and poverty. But the cost of this pact with American capitalism – I will put on a mask if you let me become successful – is a gnawing loneliness and restlessness. In the first scene of the sixth series, we see him on a beach, next to his beautiful wife, reading in the sun. He’s reading Dante’s Inferno:
Midway through the journey of our life I found myself within a dark forest, For the straight path had been lost.
Of course, Dante gets out of the Inferno. How about Don? Is there any transcendence? Any redemption? Any escape from the system? This is one of the great questions which shows during TV’s Golden Age has asked us – from The Wire (no escape), to The Sopranos (no escape), to Six Feet Under and Twin Peaks (some escape maybe), to Breaking Bad (definitely no escape).
Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, used to write for The Sopranos, and both these shows excel at exploring some of the ways people try and escape from late capitalism through therapy or New Age spirituality, and yet somehow remain stuck in the system, just as confused and egotistical as ever.
Janice Soprano seeking escape through yoga
In fact, as Mad Men explored, late capitalism rapidly co-opted the insights of therapy, sexual liberation, the arts and New Age spirituality, and used them to sell us things (this is the main point of Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, which aired three years before Mad Men began).
So, on the one hand, Don Draper has a sharp artistic insight into the human condition. Some of the key moments of the show are moments during a high-stakes pitch, where he seems to have run out of ideas, and then suddenly he has a brilliant epiphany, and everyone is wowed by his creative power. He’s a Michelangelo of Madison Avenue.
And yet what are these epiphanies? Revelations from God? Glimpses of a better world? No, they’re catchphrases to sell cars or cigarettes. That’s what the idea of epiphany has been reduced to in late capitalism: the magical creation of a new product or ad slogan. That’s what all those innovation companies and creativity gurus are selling: more imaginative ways to sell us things. It’s the least innovative definition of innovation in human history.
So is there no escape?
Certainly, various characters seek various forms of escape. The most common form of escape is booze. The show is swimming in it, the male characters keep their pain and frustration sedated with the bottle.
Paul seeks escape through the Hari Krishnas
Others seek more radical forms of escape as the Sixties counterculture gains momentum: Paul the copy-writer joins the Hari Krishnas, though it seems pretty phony. Roger Sterling’s daughter joins a hippy commune, again it seems phonier than the capitalism it rejects. Roger himself spends a few seasons experimenting with LSD and group sex – it doesn’t really make him any less selfish, though he is perhaps the most likable and content character in the show. Don also finds an escape of sorts through his constant affairs and one slightly weird S&M dalliance. Ken Cosgrove has the option of escape into bohemian creativity by becoming a novelist, though he doesn’t take it. Ginsberg the eccentric copy-writer takes the escape of psychosis. And Lane Pryce takes the escape of suicide.
Don, meanwhile, often takes the escape of going on the road. That old American dream: let’s get lost. Let’s disappear. But this is not a long-term solution. By the final episode, after months of traveling, he feels truly lost, and washes up in a New Age retreat on the coast of California.
This retreat is clearly based on Esalen, which was the spiritual centre of the Human Potential Movement in the 1960s, the place where unhappy middle-class people came to learn yoga, give each other massages, and seek through endless workshops and encounter sessions for ‘the real me’, the pure me, the me stripped of all baggage. Here’s a clip on it from Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self:
As Curtis explored, the Human Potential Movement rapidly became absorbed by late capitalism. Today, there is a booming industry of business coaches who use the ideas and techniques of Human Potential in companies and weekend courses, to help people find their authentic selves within late capitalism. The system proved flexible enough to absorb all the radical experiments of the 60s counter-culture, and turn them into commodified experiences.
We see the apparent impossibility of genuine transcendence in the show’s final scene. Don is meditating and chanting ‘om’ – a very unlikely scene. Eyes closed, a quiet smile curls upon his face. A bell chimes. Has he finally found the answer? Has he unlocked the mystery of his self? The scene cuts, and its a famous 70s advert for Coca Cola, ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’. The implication is that Don’s epiphany at Esalen is merely another idea for an advert, another way to sell things. (Perhaps the ‘merely’ here is mine rather than Weiner’s – he says he thinks the Coke advert is genuinely beautiful).
This might make Mad Men sound a very dark and cynical show, and it certainly has its dark edges. But for some reason it’s not a dark show. I think that’s because the characters and stories are drawn with such love, such deft words and gestures. None of them are all bad or all good. We care about them, want them to be OK, are interested in their progress. The writers respect our intelligence, and know they can tell a story through a word, a look or a gesture, and we’ll pick up a subtle reference to something earlier in the show. A point doesn’t have to be obvious: ‘subtext is pleasure’, Weiner says. Characters’ motivations are both revealed, and also mysterious – as in the Sopranos, motivation is never a simple cause-effect equation.
And, unlike every other Golden Age hit, this is a show where no one gets murdered. Think of the body-count in the Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood, Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead. Mad Men instead captures our attention with what Weiner calls ‘the quotidian’, with the details of office and domestic life in the maelstrom of the 60s. Office life can feel stale, flat, dull, but it never feels boring at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (particularly when half the office is on amphetamines). Like 30 Rock, it has a rosy view of the humour, creative anarchy and occasional love to be found in the office. Whatever late capitalism is, it’s interesting.
Even if there is no great transcendence from the system, we do see better life-opportunities open up for female and coloured characters as the civil rights movement progresses. Compare the autonomy and power of Joan and Peggy at the end of the show with the simpering bimbos they were at its beginning.
So, in the words of the Peggy Lee song that begins the final season, ‘Is that all there is?’ The show seems to agree with Sigmund Freud – the only transcendence we can hope for are the consolations of work and love.
Sir Anthony Seldon is the former headmaster of Wellington College, one of the first schools to introduce well-being classes into its curriculum. He’s also a co-founder of Action for Happiness. In his new book, Beyond Happiness, he suggests we need to look beyond ‘workaday happiness’ to find something more non-rational and spiritual, which he calls joy or bliss. I interviewed him about this, as well as his thoughts on the ‘politics of well-being’ and his plans to create the first ‘positive university’.
Did you start out to write a book on happiness, and at some point decided you wanted to write one called Beyond Happiness?
Yes. I’d been quite prominent in Action for Happiness, and it occurred to me that we need to move beyond workaday happiness. Obviously that’s wonderful, particularly if you’ve had depression, but there are higher levels of being.
The book starts with a quote attributed to Edith Wharton: ‘If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.’ That’s an unusual quote to begin a book on happiness by one of the founders of Action for Happiness!
Well, I just like that quote and find it funny. And the key word is ‘trying’. Trying too hard gets in the way, or rather, the ego gets in the way. Whenever I screw up my life, it’s because I’m trying too hard. I’m always trying. And then there are moments when you wake up from that. What I mean by ‘beyond happiness’ is going beyond the striving to gratify of the ego, to a place where there is a sublime effortlessness.
I have a theory that people interested in ethics and character education in later life were often quite rebellious and bad at school. It sounds like you were.
I was. In 1971, when I was studying at Tonbridge school, I was one of the ring-leaders of a rebellion against the Combined Cadet Force. We stormed onto the parade ground shouting about the Vietnam War, which in fact did finish shortly afterwards, although the Tonbridge CCF kept existing. The International Times covered it with a headline saying ‘A whiff of If’ – referring to the film about a rebellion at a private school made by a former Tonbridge pupil, Lindsay Anderson. All the ring-leaders were sent down, though I was allowed back to take my exams. So yes, I was rebellious, but I also had a sense of kindness and duty.
We have in common the fact that we both had a bad experience of drugs in our teens and then went to Worcester College, Oxford. Could you tell me about your bad drug experience.
It was in 1972, on a holiday in the Norfolk Broads. I smoked some dope and had a really frightening experience, I felt my mind was changing. It was so frightening I never tried a drug again, and developed a lifelong dislike of drugs.
Were you quite anxious as a teenager?
Very. I once made a list of all the things I was afraid of and it came to 29 things. I was afraid I might become anorexic, for example, or agoraphobic. One of my biggest fears is the fear of going to sleep, which I think is the fear of extinction. I’d have a huge panic attack to keep myself awake, and then I’d stay awake and be even more frightened the next night. It’s not a nice fear to have. That’s why I became so domineering – it was a way of trying to control my world.
Then you had some sort of depressive collapse in your mid-20s.
Yes. I think it was the amount of effort I spent trying to control my world. Also, two girlfriends had chucked me, and I felt abandoned by them. Then I was writing my doctorate at the LSE, which was a very lonely experience. After the collapse, I started to meditate, which helped me through. And I started going out with Joanna [now his wife], and she’s very centred and calm. And I knew she would never leave me, which miraculously she hasn’t.
You say that you moved from a personality based on restless hedonism, achievement and glamour to a more spiritual life based on acceptance. But you’re still a restless achiever – you’ve finished three books since Christmas!
I am two people, at least. There is a more spiritual or philosophical side to me, which is at peace with the world, and that side is more dominant now. But there is also a part of me which feels I need to make my mark in the world, which worries that I’ve never written anything that will survive, that whatever I’ve done in education will fade. There’s a bit of me that is highly self-critical, which trashes my previous experiences. Therefore I constantly need to keep going. I now find myself running a small university, for example.
And that restless desire to achieve and get recognized might come from being short – I say that as a 5 foot 7 anxious achiever!
I’d have given anything to be 5 foot 7! Yes, I’m sure our physical self-perception is a powerful force, and if we’re outliers, it gives us an impetus to want to compensate. I notice still that when I’m around other people I’m edging up on my heels.
So the new book brings together wisdom from Positive Psychology but also from religious mystics like Meister Eckhart or Sri Ramana Maharshi. Do you think Positive Psychology can be a secular substitute for religion?
I’m sure for Alain de Botton and others it is. I’m sure some would like it to take the place of religion, which of course it won’t. But there are similar adjuncts. But when I talk about going beyond happiness, I’m talking about moving beyond workaday happiness to find joy, which is spiritual. For me, that’s about the divine, a blending of the ego into the Atman or Soul. It’s not about the vindication of the ego but the elimination of it. The ego is constantly interpreting and evaluating – only that which is beyond the ego is really awake, conscious, and in love with the whole of creation. But it has to be experienced, it can’t be debated or argued over.
So that means going beyond reason, I guess.
Reason has its place, but it only gets you so far – as far as Richard Dawkins or AC Grayling. We can go beyond reason, without abandoning it, and reach a much bigger view. The ego tends to use rationality for its own goals.
A key part of transcendence in most religious traditions involves realizing that death is not the end, that something in us survives. Do you believe in an afterlife?
I don’t know. I want to move beyond belief. What I know is that when I’m still after meditating, I change. I’m more aware, more present. And then I come out of that state and I’m back in the world of ego-rationalizing. You know when you’re awake, but you don’t when you’re not. For much of my life, I’m egotistic, rationalistic, self-centred, and driven by external stimuli.
The idea of teaching well-being and character has tended to be championed by private school headmasters like you and Eton headmaster John Lewis. Does that give it a class problem – it can seem like private-school teachers bemoaning the lack of character education in state schools.
Well, class can be a problem. But if we go back to Aristotle and the virtues, he was around even before Eton College. There are eternal character values – honesty, kindness, perseverance, which I think schools should emphasize more. But many schools vacate that space because they’re afraid of it or because it’s not recognized by Ofsted. Many people who run education are quite immature and think it’s only about passing exams. I agree with Aristotle – it should be about flourishing.
Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great, and thought leaders should be educated in virtue so that they could encourage eudaimonia (or flourishing) in the citizens. You’ve written several political biographies, and have one about David Cameron coming out soon. Having seen political leaders up close, how virtuous would you say they are, and how capable of leading their societies to eudaimonia?
The leaders I have met and written about have mainly been extraordinarily capable and intelligent. The biggest thing they need is more solitary time in stillness, to get to know themselves and integrate themselves. Gordon Brown was an admirable person, but his greatest problem was he was very unintegrated. His self-image of himself was at variance with his very self-centred ego-driven approach. He needed to calm down and be more integrated. Blair too – he got carried away off himself. Both were good people, but in different ways they got carried away.
And finally, your next job is as vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the first private university in the UK. How useful could well-being education be in higher education?
Very. I want to make the first positive university. That will include introducing mindfulness classes for all trainee doctors, to help them be more in the present moment in their dealing with patients.
I have a friend called Rob, who suffers from what is today called paranoid schizophrenia. He was diagnosed when he was 17 or so, after a psychotic breakdown on LSD. He and I had first taken LSD together when we were 15, and it messed us both up – I had social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder for several years. But that’s nothing to what Rob has had to bear. For the last 20 years, he’s been very isolated by his delusions, in and out of NHS psychiatric facilities, unable to work, find a partner, or engage with society.
Sometimes he’s better, sometimes he’s worse, depending on his circumstances and his medication. Sometimes he is lost to this reality, too deep in the ocean of his own delusion and imagination. Sometimes he surfaces, and you can have a conversation with him, and your old friend is back from the depths.
At the moment he is better. I don’t know what happened, whether they changed his medication, but he’s suddenly more engaged with this reality, writing poetry, painting, reading, laughing. He’s come across CBT, and finds it fascinating. ‘You appear to me to be Lucifer’, he says to me, ‘but this may simply be a mental representation.’ Progress! Seneca thought people suffering from mania were incapable of philosophy, but what Rob is doing is, in fact, philosophy.
I suggested we get some food. What could be more normal and convivial than to go to a restaurant together. But the last time we’d been inside a pub, some months back,the landlord asked Rob to leave, because he said Rob’s behaviour were frightening for the other customers (it was really just frightening for him). Since then, we tended to sit at tables outside pubs, perched on the edge of polite society. But now Rob seemed and looked well enough for us to venture within. Rob said he knew a pizza place, so we went there.
Almost immediately, I regretted it. It was a very posh pizza place. The staff were posh. All the customers were posh. And I was embarrassed lest Rob said or did something weird. I suddenly felt acutely conscious of social niceties, as if I had to be doubly observant of them to make up for Rob’s obliviousness. I smiled extra sweetly to the waitress, exchanged some banter to show I was familiar with the social rules.
Rob picked up on my unease and, with uncanny psychic antennae, he clammed up and glowered at me. I tried to start a conversation – some sort of polite chit-chat like ‘so….er…..do you like this part of town?’ and Rob just stared at me bewilderedly. Our food arrived and Rob poured a huge amount of chili oil onto his pizza and devoured it, slice by slice, the oil dripping from his fingers, while ignoring my desperate attempts to make chit-chat. I was acutely conscious of the people sitting on our left and right. What must they think!
We finished our food, paid the bill and went outside. I have never been so happy to get out of a restaurant in my life. ‘What happened in there?’ Rob asked. ‘I’m very sorry’, I said. ‘It was a bad choice of restaurant.’ What had really happened in there was that my sense of social propriety and concern for the approval of strangers had trumped my sense of compassion and solidarity for Rob.
The mask and the shadow
Being an adult in a highly civilised society like ours is hard. It takes a lot of self-control, emotional inhibition and social tact. We have to learn, from the age of six or so, to read social situations – which can often be bewilderingly complex and nuanced – and out of the million possible ways of responding to ambiguous social cues, we have to select a good response.
Civilization is one long improv competition, on a stage watched by millions. To the best performers go wealth, status, power and sex. But those who miss their cues or disrupt the play end up isolated, unloved, ridiculed or ostracized.
We have to learn to play a role, to ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’. And this takes a lot of effort, because it means controlling and hiding any aspects of our psyche which might be deemed primitive, uncouth, or shameful. Behind our masks there is in fact a whole jungle of psychic energy, and we have to police that jungle and make sure no wild beasts stray into view.
The polis (city in Greek) requires us to be polite and to police our inner selves and keep our daemons at bay. And the daemons of our nature resent this. Pan and his satyrs make faces at us from the wings and mutter ‘phony’. They try to put us off and trip us up, to get us to drop the facade and acknowledge them. We’re in a constant negotiation between the demands of civilisation and the demands of our inner lives.
When people become mentally ill, one of the things that can happen is that the polite mask starts to crumble. People’s ability to read social situations accurately and to respond appropriately diminishes. So does their ability to control their emotions and to hide their weaknesses. People lose the capacity to police the shame-barriers between their polite exterior and the jungle within, and our inner life starts to spill out into the outer world.
When I had PTSD, for example, I had a recurring nightmare where I was walking through a deserted zoo, and realized the cage-doors had been left open, and the wild animals had broken free. It was an expression of anxiety about my shadow-self bursting out and destroying my polite persona.
And my panic attacks and depression did in fact damage my ability to perform well socially. This was a blow to my social ambitions. It’s naff to admit it, but I was very socially ambitious, and had been since I was a child. I wanted to rise in society, as far as I could, and become a celebrated person surrounded by witty, glamorous people. And suddenly I developed mental illness, and it was humiliating. It brought me crashing back down to earth (humus in Latin). It was humbling.
To recover, I had to let go of my social ambitions, drop the mask, and try to accept myself ‘warts and all’. I had to accept my shadow, the jungle within, and all the wild animals which might emerge and upset my plans. I had to put humility and self-compassion before ambition and the approval of strangers.
One of the reasons mental illness is still stigmatized is that it is embarrassing. People with mental illness don’t always behave according to the unspoken rules of politeness. Indeed, often they crash right through those rules. This causes shame and anxiety in the people around them, because we have put enormous psychic energy into learning and obeying the rules. The mad upset the consensual fiction of social reality (unless they happen to be powerful, in which case everyone must go along with their fiction).
That’s why sometimes families in which someone is mentally ill would in the past (and sometimes still in the present) hide them away in the countryside, or in an attic, or in an asylum. To save face. To preserve the front of politeness and self-control that enables them to fulfill their social ambitions. They put the approval of strangers before compassion for their family member.
I think, somehow, email and social media makes this situation worse. It’s another arena of politeness, one with new and confusing social rules. I remember, when I had PTSD, I would often completely misread those rules, and send out long strange emails to all and sundry, thinking they were masterpieces of wit, and then wondered with growing paranoia why no one responded. My sense of appropriateness and my social negotiation with the world was way off kilter, and email and social media only amplified and publicized that fact.
How, then, do we cope with mental illness in ourselves and in our friends and loved ones? The Greeks saw it as a challenge from the gods of nature – or (in Jungian terms) from the unruly jungle of our unconscious. Madness – and the mad – are reminders of the limit of our control, the artificiality of our social masks, and the sheer unruly power of the daemons of nature to sweep away our sand-castles of social ambition. It’s a moral challenge – will you let go of your mask and have compassion for yourself, your loved ones, or the stranger muttering next to you on the bus? Or will you react with fear, shame and disgust?
I recovered from my panic attacks when I stopped freaking out over what other people might think, and said to Pan, in effect, ‘OK, maybe some people will think I’m weird, so what?’ I had to learn to accept myself and put moral integrity before the false morality of social ambition. Only then, when I sat surrounded by the rubble of my social ambition, did Pan stop sending the earthquakes. I achieved a fragile truce between my social self and the unruly gods of my inner jungle.
That challenge continues, with friends and loved ones when they suffer from mental illness. Will I get embarrassed, will I try to control them and get them to behave nicely, will I dissociate myself from them, or will I stand by them with compassion and humility? I failed in that restaurant with Rob. I put the approval of strangers before compassion for my friend.
I’m researching the history of ecstasy and ecstatic experiences in modern western culture, how spiritual ecstasy got pathologised from the Enlightenment to the present day, and how people found new ways to get out of their heads.
An important part of that story is rock & roll and other forms of pop and dance music, which became in the 20th century a sort of substitute religion and means to ekstasis for the masses. Thanks to rock & roll, white agnostic kids got a way to access the release of ecstatic religion, without any of the ethical or metaphysical dogma.
Someone who has thought about that deeply is David Byrne, the artist, musician, and former lead-singer of Talking Heads. In his music, art and documentaries, he’s explored the different ways humans get out of their heads and into their bodies, or the group, or the unconscious, or the spirit world. He’s also explored the relationship between popular music and various forms of ecstatic religion, from charismatic Christianity to Yoruba and Candomble.
What’s unusual about both him and occasional collaborator Brian Eno, among rockers, is that they combine a critical, intellectual and academic rigour (they once gave journalists a reading list of anthroplogy and cybernetics to try and improve their interviews) with a willingness for personal and group exploration of ecstatic states. That tension between the self-conscious / intellectual / critical / ironic and the ecstatic is one of the things that makes both their work so interesting – because we’re all longing for ecstasy, but we’re also struggling with our irony, our detachment, our rational skepticism and our emotional inhibition.
Anyway, I was lucky enough to get an email interview with him. Here it is.
To what extent would you say that African American-inspired pop music got Western culture out of a ‘dead end’ and gave it a way to find ecstatic release from the iron cage of rationalization?
Wow…that’s some heavy lifting for pop music! But yes, though there were always ecstatic cults in Europe and North America, it would seem the African influence – whether Latin music, Yoruba-inspired spirituality that seeped into world culture, jazz, funk, dancing from the waist down…the renewed appreciation of rhythm and repetition…changed not just Western culture but the whole world’s culture. And I don’t just mean the music.
To be convinced and seduced by ecstasy is to be won over to a new way of looking at the world and oneself. The groove, which in the last 200 years, since slavery, ultimately derives in this form at least, from Africa, is found almost everywhere around the globe now – it’s a species of globalization, but one of joy and integration of body and spirit….
The musical meme is carried by deep and profound work but just as often by hackney’d and cliched pop songs. Any carrier will do, there’s no discrimination.
Here’s Born Under Punches, the first song from the Eno-produced 1980 album Remain In Light, which was one of the first white rock albums to consciously draw on Afro-beat influences. I love the groove of it, the rhythmic guitar, the layers of chanting and Byrne’s nonsensical yelps over the top. Plus the incredibly weird guitar solo.
You’ve written that performing brings catharsis for you and the audience too. I’m fascinated by the idea of what classicists call the ‘Dionysiac cure’ and how everyone from Aristotle to Nietzsche say it brings healing. How is music cathartic for you?
As ER Dodds pointed out in The Greeks and the Irrational, ecstatic cults (with drumming!) were always around…but when did they lose acceptance? With the triumph of the Enlightenment? Perhaps it was during the Renaissance that the view of the workings of the universe changed – from a universe that obeyed and was structured according to musical harmony – to one in which music was a subset of other, possibly more inclusive physical laws. The universe as a song is more poetic, but science has its glories and beauty too…And maybe not surprisingly, those cosmic harmonies, or at least the idea behind them, might be re-emerging in crazy entangled sub atomic physics and in the cosmos.
How is music cathartic for me? In so many ways, and often simultaneously. Psychologically, physically…music engages so many parts of the brain (and body) all at once that no one part is central- which is a key to it’s power I suppose. It integrates. It may be a spandrel, or mental cheesecake as Steven Pinker says, but it’s pretty potent.
For the listener that catharsis has always been there – everyone has heard the “music saved my life” story or “music got me through high school” and it’s true…and that’s just listening, not even making it!
When I was younger and more socially uncomfortable music was my outlet- my way of communicating and announcing my existence. It was cathartic, therapeutic, but hardly ecstatic. It was even painful at times- but completely necessary.
Later, and little by little, something in me began to change, and I began to sense that rhythmic and repetitive music could do something more that just be an outlet for my unspoken unheard self- it could gradually change that self….and it seemed to be most effective in music rooted in a something that had been repressed or cast aside by western culture….
I found myself more open to trance-rooted music – whether via dance or funk grooves (which I always loved) to the Pentecostal church, voudun, gamelan, salsa, samba etc etc…and the music I and others were making began to partake of some weird white-man version of all that African-rooted culture.
I sensed that as opposed to much of what I had done before – which amplified the individual or one’s persona – this swallowed the individual whole. And it was in that loss of identity that the ecstasy lay. In some ways this seemed counter intuitive….wasn’t the individual what we and our culture are about? Why would we ever want to let go of that?
Surely most of us have a some point, in sports, music or some other group activity, found ourselves lost, subsumed in the group, in the team or larger community – and we have experienced how wonderful that can be. Well, some kinds of music are a machine for making that happen- and happen reliably.
One senses a commonality with a lot of religious and spiritual practices – the surrender to something greater than oneself…and how good that feels. One realizes that the pleasure one derives and the seductiveness of the communal feeling can be manipulated to all sorts of ends. It can be directed towards Jesus or Jihad, whatever. So one has to be careful. I attribute this phenomena to innate human/social/neurological tendencies and structures- not to an outside agency like God or something like that….
Here’s a clip from the 1982 Channel 4 documentary The Name of This Programme is Talking Heads, which combined concert footage with interviews and anthropological clips of ecstatic religions – which Byrne helped to select.
Being a little analytical I also noticed that this music that induced trances and ecstatic states was made up of simple modular parts…and these parts are useless alone, they don’t work, without all or most of the others. No one instrument or beat in this world carries the entire groove/texture (unlike much western music where the melody played by the loudest instrument is king).
Each module here has its role to play, and only when all do their discrete parts does the emergent thing come into being and the floor drops away. It is, in this way, a model of a new, more perfectly functioning society one might say – where all are essential, all are needed and there is a great reward when all work together. A glimpse of utopia, for an instant- and a glimpse that is felt – felt unconsciously. There is a reason the feeling happens, but the impact does not come from reason.
Byrne has written of how the Stop Making Sense tour gave Talking Heads a sense of ‘mystical communion’ , ego release, and even a glimpse of a new utopian community. You can see some of the sheer infectious fun of playing in a group in their performance of ecstatic anthem Burning Down The House:
Your work can be critically detached / ironic / conceptual and also ecstatic / surrendering. Do you find a creative tension between those two urges – wanting to surrender but also analyzing, detaching, thinking?
They’re not mutually exclusive- but they don’t happen simultaneously! One can have a completely immersive transporting experience and then later ask why did that happen. Knowing, or trying to know, why a thing works does not stop it from working or diminish the experience in any way- if anything it makes it even more marvelous.
When you have drawn on Christian evangelical ecstasy in your work (like in the song Once In A Lifetime and the video of it) it tends to be somewhat ironic and detached. But when you have explored Brazilian or African animist religion you seem to leave the irony and go with it. Why is that? Is it something about leaving the iron cage of the west and feeling one can finally ‘let go’ in other cultures? Is it harder for us to do that in Christian culture?
You hit the nail on the head there- one has to leave one’s home to be able to turn around and see it and appreciate it for the first time. (that’s a paraphrase of whom?) [TS Eliot]
Here’s a performance of Once In A Lifetime, in which Byrne performs an ironic version of an evangelical preacher, cut with anthropological footage of charismatic Christians (from the Channel 4 documentary):
If pop music became a kind of surrogate religion for many people (including me) – what would an ethnographer from Mars make of it? How successful a surrogate religion was / is it?
What religions do is codify and formalize existing experiences – they provide a safe context and support system for what could be frightening or uncontrolled experiences and thoughts, but at the same time they impose their own narratives and values onto what is a naturally occurring social/ neurological/physical phenomena. They tell a story about it, but it came before the story. The formalization can help it occur regularly, on demand, but the formalization doesn’t create it – or does it?
Now I’m wondering if at some level it’s like DNA-maybe the form, the structure, IS the thing itself. If the form and structure are present, then the phenomena has to happen? Certain musical structures reliably generate specific emotions. Now we’re back to the universe being musical – as harmonic (in the cosmic sense) structures come into being what follows is inevitable. The God behind the universe, in this view, is a song.
The ‘priests’ of pop music tended to be people in their teens or early 20s who were often quite unprepared for the mass Dionysiac adulation that gets projected onto them (as well as the commercial opportunism). in that sense, was it quite a dangerous sort of cult (for the priests and the followers?)
One is somewhat vulnerable in these states- as you mention, there is an opportunity for all sorts of exploitation. Commercial, religious, political.
I’m fascinated by how the sacred and secular have fed off each other in 20th century music – it’s been two way traffic. But a priest might say that rock and roll gave agnostic and atheist white kids a ‘taste’ of religious surrender but with none of the ethical or metaphysical commitments (including the belief in the afterlife and soul which has been a crucial part of ecstasy in most cultures). In that sense, is rock and roll selling ecstatic surrender on the cheap, as it were – as a no-strings weekend experience rather than a lifetime ethical commitment?
I don’t know about the afterlife or the soul- but this experience does give a sense that one can inhabit a larger body- the social body, something greater than oneself as an individual in a way that is visceral, not intellectual- – the Cartesian split heals and it’s wonderful.
Is there then an obligation to make ethical and metaphysical commitments? That sounds as if, after such pleasure, one is made to feel guilty and obliged to “pay” for one’s pleasure. I think, OK maybe in an ideal world, the social and moral inferences, at least some of then, happen organically- without need of an organization. I’m being very optimistic here, obviously a formal structure helps guide a realization. But maybe, just maybe, once one loses oneself, one is in some way forever bonded to that group. To everyone that was at a rave, or experiences the same thing in the same place. A tiny brotherhood emerges- unfortunately it isn’t made of all humanity, just the others in the room.
Do you think there is a ‘formula’ for ecstasy in musical performance? (I guess musicians are always searching for it, like alchemists.) Or does it depend on shifting cultural expectations and technological innovations?
Yeah, there are techniques – just like the Swedes know how to construct a pop song – but once you’ve seen the DJ drop the bass over and over it gets pretty tired – the effect doesn’t work any more. But it will work in the next town maybe.
You’ve spoken of how rock can become an mass ecstatic surrender to the band or the charismatic guru (or even Fuhrer!) of the front-man. That’s something some artists have explored and played with – David Bowie, for example, or Kanye West today. What do you think of that sort of exploration of the rockstar-cult? Is it a dangerous game?
I think it is a little dangerous- performers who play these roles often seem to forget that it’s an act- they loose themselves alright, but in an unfortunate way – the character they are playing swallows them. Rather than loosing oneself in a communal moment, it is an enlargement of an individual.- and a made up one at that! One becomes the mask.
One way that rock and roll is different from traditional religion is that, like modernism, it’s obsessed with the new, so there’s a pressure for endless new styles and innovations – ever louder bass lines and drops. And music is also everywhere now, as background music and on our iPhones. Are we becoming numbed to it, and thereby slowly reducing its magical power over our bodies and souls?
Biologically it can never lose that power. Do we get over-saturated? Maybe. But I still hear from folks how some music they heard recently affected them deeply, so it can happen- but yes, a lot of music is wallpaper now. But occasionally something cuts through.
One final bonus question- I think my favourite Talking Heads lyric is ‘there’s a city in my mind, come along and take a ride…they can tell you what to do but they’ll make a fool of you’ – you sound like a utopian preacher who is very unsure of mass movements! Where does the beautiful image of ‘city in my mind’ come from?
That’s straight out of preaching…. The City on the Hill from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s been overused, but its familiarity also makes it a potent image and phrase.
Here’s Byrne performing Road to Nowhere with St Vincent in 2013. It’s a typically ambiguous song – it sounds uplifting and hopeful, yet the words suggest they are going ‘nowhere’ . Is nowhere somewhere good, a utopia (which literally means ‘no place’ in Greek), somewhere beyond our present imagining? Or is he leading them straight off a cliff? It’s that kind of tension between ecstatic hope and ironic ambiguity that is typical of Byrne’s work, and which makes it different to more corny rock ecstasy.
If you want to read more on this topic, here’s an interview I did with Brian Eno, who’s often worked with Byrne, about music, ecstasy and surrender. And Byrne is curating the Meltdown festival in London in August, which will no doubt feature some ecstatic moments!