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The Bittersweet Pain of Impermanence

The Bittersweet Pain of Impermanence

Disillusion, longing, and the music of Weyes Blood.

Image: Natalie Mering (aka Weyes Blood) Rollingstone.com

Recently discharged from service in World War II and surviving on a government pension for unspecified battle wounds, Hazel Motes returned to his abandoned home in Tennessee. As the son of a traveling preacher, Motes grew up with nagging doubts about the Christian doctrines of salvation and original sin. In response to his theological misgivings and In the aftermath of his experiences in the war, Motes became a committed atheist and set out to spread a new gospel of “antireligion.” 

He met and befriended Enoch Emery, a profane, hyper, 18-year-old zookeeper whose abusive father had kicked him out of their house. Emery introduces Motes to the concept of "wise blood," an idea that he has innate, worldly knowledge of what direction to take in life and requires no spiritual or emotional guidance.

So goes the setup of the book Wise Blood—a product of the intensely fertile mind of southern gothic author Flannery O’Connor. It is also the inspiration for the pseudonym (stylized as Weyes Blood) of 34-year-old Indie music phenom Natalie Mering. Like Motes, Mering has arrived at her life’s station with theological wounds and the stench of religious hypocrisy in her nostrils.

"I was raised in a real spiritual Bible Belt household. So I developed my own cynicism because there are always things in the Bible that really bum me out.”

Now, depending on what she means by “the Bible” and how she has been taught to understand its contents, she may be very justified in thinking as she does, but by that same token, there are always certain realities that bum us all out about a lot of things. For instance, Nature is generally regarded as a pristine and goodly aspect of existence, but on closer inspection can also manifest as just plain horrid. 

For instance, the South American fly species Pseudacteon obtusus creates “Zombie Ants” by injecting their eggs into an ant's body. After the fly maggot hatches, it burrows its way to the ant's head and starts eating the contents. Once hollowed out, the head pops off, providing the maggot the perfect place to pupate and turn into an adult. (National Geographic). This bums me out. Why does it need to be like that exactly? 

Image: David Thewlis as Johnny, deadlymoviesandtv.wordpress.com

There’s a brilliant ten-minute sequence in the 1993 dark comedy Naked in which degenerate but loquacious protagonist Johnny Fletcher verbally duels with a bored and anxious security guard named Brian who harbors deep hopes of a better future for himself and for humanity. It’s oddly profound and touches on some of life’s most significant questions. Johnny is not as sanguine as Brian about reality and its future. Sitting quietly with Brian in a stairwell, he articulates one of life’s grand ironies:

Johnny: If God is good, then why is there pain and hate and greed and war? It doesn’t make sense. But if God is a nasty bastard, then you can say, why is there good in the world? Why is there love and hope and joy? 

This irony also bums me out.

Now, setting aside the theological simplicity of these reflections, these are good questions and ones that force a kind of intellectual reckoning. You can’t split the baby. The seemingly negative aspects of life are either proof of life’s meaninglessness, in which case they aren’t as much “bad” as just…meaningless. Or perhaps the “good” aspects of reality are evidence for a wholly good existence but one which requires a good deal of investigation to comprehend the appearance of “bad.” 

The classical theism that Motes and Mering struggle with has long posited that this dichotomy of human reality (the presence of good and evil) is just two sides of one coin and that ultimately all that exists is a fully good higher plane of reality. It’s the temporary, limited, and fluctuating nature of physical existence that confounds us by masking the changeless, timeless, and immaterial good. Our pain is a result of too closely identifying with the temporal and misunderstanding its purpose.

Mering (aka Weyes Blood) composed a profoundly beautiful song that explores the notion of this bittersweet pain of temporality called “Grapevine.” 

Musically, Mering has described herself as Bob Seager meets Enya, but I think she has more of the cleverness and originality of an Amiee Mann but with hints of the range and vocal mastery of Joni Mitchell. The chord progressions and instrumentation in this tune are fabulous—dark, rich, and evocative. The use of Bells gives it a classical and majestic feel, while the synth keeps it poppy. You can feel her longing for a lost moment of joy that can never be recaptured—something we all struggle with. She sings:

Ooh, you know I would

Go back to the camp

With the kerosene lamps in the woods

Ooh, when you were mine

And I was yours for а time

On the grapevine

The Grapevine represents our temporary physical existence—one in which we all grasp for something solid to hold only to find each and every attempt dissipate like steam in the end. Everyone we know is “ours for a time”—some for more and some for less. That’s a hard fact. But, despite the poetic nature of the name, it’s a mistake to believe that our unmoored, unspiritual Wise Blood will lead us to anything other than Johnny's naked nihilism and lawlessness. 

There is another road on which we’re not “just two cars passing by” as she sings in the last verse, but rather fellow travelers engaged in the long process of opening our mind’s eyes to see beyond the imposing but false facade of transient material reality. Wise blood looks to “worldly knowledge” to survive while wiser blood looks to the otherworldly.  

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