In his essay “E Unibus Pluram”, David Foster Wallace turns his Eye of Sauron-ish gaze towards television and U.S. fiction. I won’t break the whole thing down for you right now, one because I don’t remember everything he says in it and two because most of what I do remember is irrelevant to this piece, but I wanted to begin by mentioning one thought he lays out in the essay: mainly, that television has engendered us (the audience) with a subconscious feeling that we’re being watched. That we have an audience too. That there is an expansive context for, and cinematic quality to, both us ourselves and the things that happen in our lives.
Maybe you think that’s not true of you, and it may not be, but it’s true of me and I started thinking about that idea again recently while I was listening to Ben Howard’s recordI Forget Where We Were. For one reason or another Ben Howard hovers somewhere between being tied-to-the-mast Odysseus plugging his ears and, simultaneously, the Sirens trying to wreck him and his crew. How this paradox came to be I have no idea, but it seems to have been ordained by whatever Apollonian entity may be floating around out there. Here’s the thing though, Ben gets it. He sees, with an at-times-startling level of clarity, the simple, naked destitution that comes (to varying degrees) with relationships both good, bad, and absent. He sees the hunger and calls it hunger.
Many of us were raised to think that love (I’ll keep this short) was this spaceship that would show up one day to whisk us away from our predictable, intelligible lives. That it would bring a sense of mystery to a world which, the older we get, starts to feel more and more like a fucked up chemistry lab. That it would end up being a destination at which, once we arrived, things would finally start to make sense. And, in some ways, those ideas aren’t completely bad. Being in love, after all, really does rule and brings with it a certain stability and affirmation. The problem, of course, is that the camera in our minds never zooms out and pans away. Instead it is, 100% of the time, all up in our shit. This is inconvenient of course because 1. it means that instead of love being this artifact that just sort of makes us better by its presence, it becomes a long process by which we are (eventually) made better after it shows us over and over again just how conflicted and difficult we really are. 2. It means that Happily Ever After is a task we wake up to every morning and work towards and not a sentence that runs across the screen at the end of our personal, relational movie. 3. It means that, in capital R Real Life, the kind of love we want requires leaving behind our now-almost-genetic-level belief that we exist as Consumer, as Central Character, and instead stepping out of our insular heads and into a world, however small it may be, that needs and wants our help. Love, the real stuff, is sloppy and hard to talk about categorically. It’s hard to say anything about love that isn’t specific to another person. It only ever wears the faces of the people we meet (including our own), and anything past that is very likely untrue.
Ok so what am I getting at? Well, the thing is love pretty much goes wrong until it doesn’t and the going-wrong part hurts like hell and leaves us adrift. And sure, that stuff can be instructive blah blah blah blah but that’s not the only point. It’s also miserable in an unadorned, un-macro-ly-comforting way. It is immediate, view-obscuring pain. And what we’re left with after looking at all the different things Love can be is this Something, this breathing idea, that over the course of our lives evolves and grows and leads us time and time again into the most beautiful and painful moments we’ll have. And Ben helps that mystery bloom over us like nightfall and find peace in it. He helps us settle down and learn to live, quietly, inside of one of the great, difficult truths we are all falling through.
You probably read Camus in college or have a friend who did and to be honest there’s no clear difference between the two situations. Camus is a writer that people love to have read. That being said, thinking through this essay brought Meursault, the main character (back off Lit majors I’m trying to finish this thing) and narrator ofThe Stranger, to mind. Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those essays. I only mention him because I think, in a Jack-Gilbert-ish Icarus-also-flew kind of way, Meursault’s pre-guillotine dismissive be-here-nowness is the practical companion to a lot of what Ben Howard spends this album wrestling with. Mainly, learning not to lose ourselves in moments and accepting them for what they are but instead to find ourselves in that process. Learning that living with painful memories and feelings and letting them go is not a miserable distraction from reality but a part of reality itself. That one of the most important skills we’ll ever learn during the course of our lives is to digest what we can from our hard times and then forget them. To leave behind what deserves to be left behind.
Ben Howard spends this album saying love is this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and, it seems, leaving some things behind. And I think processing this album helps us learn to be comfortable with saying and doing the same thing. With not simplifying our humanness or love literally to death. With stepping softly into the plainclothes fact that there is no camera or broader audience or applause-dependent clause hidden in our life and instead we, very simply, were once there, then, and now are here, now. To wrestle with the truth that part of finding who we are now means learning to forget who we were.