American Tragic is a breakup album. This is obvious enough that it can’t be ignored, but leaving it at that would be as reductive as it is silly. In general, any worthwhile work of art is about more than its nominal subject; specifically, this album isn’t the type of thing that a breakup album normally is, and the difference is important. As just a convenient point of contrast, the recent Best Coast album opens with a breakup song called “Feeling Ok.” Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, it’s just that American Tragic is not about feeling “okay” or “getting over it” or “moving on.” It’s about being on your knees, tightening your grip, and facing the night. It’s about survival.
The previous Wax Idols album, Discipline + Desire, was where sole permanent bandperson Hether Fortune really came into her own as a songwriter. It’s a broad album that covers a lot of territory, beginning with “Stare Back,” a full-throated statement of intent which takes Nietzsche’s famous warning as a commitment, and ending with “Stay In,” a low-key personal lament that, in retrospect, disturbingly foreshadows the content of American Tragic. In between, it confronts suicide, oppression, mercy killing, and the fundamental emptiness of the universe. It maps out a worldview, and American Tragic is what happens when that worldview has to face up to a specific catastrophe – when ideology hits the ground.
Where Discipline + Desire was more noisy and opaque, the songs on American Tragic are clear and dramatic, though with the same post-punk guitars and gothy atmosphere. The real difference, as noted, is that American Tragic is less of an ideas-focused rock album and more of a personal bloodletting. There’s sort of an open stage in the middle of each song for the vocals to inhabit, and Fortune uses it to basically emote her ass off. Between introspectively murmuring on “Lonely You,” howling in desperation on “I’m Not Going,” vamping it up on “Severely Yours,” and lashing out wildly on “Seraph,” she’s almost acting (or, you know, not acting) as much as she is singing. This is all underscored by the fact that, aside from the drums (by Rachel Travers, who adds a real sense of underlying strength) and couple of supporting bits, everything on the album is performed by Fortune herself. Of course, you can’t actually tell that by listening, but you can tell that everything on here is coming from a single human heart.
There are a number of specific references between the two albums that make the connections explicit. American Tragic begins with “A Violent Transgression,” which contains the following warning: “There are no squares in nature, so don’t create a corner when the pain starts to burn.” This is an extension of a metaphor from “Ad Re: Ian” off of Discipline + Desire, which is certainly among the best songs ever written about suicide:
In these never ending circles
A corner can be paradise
Press your head against the wall
Colors dance inside your eyes
And the promise of eternity
Escape from all the lies
Now with open arms & reaching hands
You give yourself to night
So a “corner” here is an escape – a place where you can go to get away from the constant horror of reality, to get out of the “never ending circles.” The tone of “Ad Re: Ian” is deeply sympathetic; it’s an attempt to understand what things would have to be like for someone to choose to annihilate themselves. Whereas in “A Violent Transgression,” the tables have turned: the singer is now the one on the knife’s edge, and she’s rejecting escape as an option for herself. There are no squares in nature, nothing can be boxed off and avoided, so when you’re tempted to try, you’re creating a corner. The fantasy of escaping from the lies is itself a lie. You have to stay in the circles.
The result of this understanding is that, despite the vibrant songwriting and emotional intensity that make American Tragic the exact opposite of a depressing slog, the album nevertheless lacks of any kind of comfort or resolution. It simmers, seethes, and screams, and there is zero catharsis. Again, this is an album that doesn’t “get over it”; it’s drenched in suffering from start to finish. There’s one particular moment that really drives this home. “Deborah” is given the standard “lead single” positioning: it’s a few songs in and it’s the most “fun” song up to that point, with a strong, smooth rhythm and a catchy chorus, but also with sketchy, twirling guitars that lack the satisfaction of any big riffs. The chorus includes the lines “dream of nothing, cuz it feels that way,” and “flowers wilting, axis tilting,” so, you know, there’s that, but the critical moment comes towards the end. The song is an explicit exorcism, and it seems to be building up to a big cathartic finish. The instruments drop off, leaving nothing but a chattering drum line and sparse, heavy bass notes. Fast, whispery vocals rush in to build the tension, and everything is primed for a big power lift to finish the job. But the lyrics here are a series of unresolved questions, and the drums chop them off before the second repetition finishes, pounding a couple of times to create an arresting tension (Travers really nails it here), which leads in to . . . basically nothing. The chorus comes back again, sounding just as anguished as before, only with the addition of a background full of desperate, repeated cries that drag the song to a limp conclusion. The exorcism fails.
So, even though all this really is as dark as you’d think, this is not a depressing album. Though the album exists in a small space, the songwriting is bright and open, and the key to the whole thing is the fact that it’s actually dance music. As scary and dramatic as it is, it’s also just really fun and exhilarating to listen to. This approach sublimates the album’s deep personal emotion into something new and alive, while maintaining an imposing sense of dread throughout. The obvious reference point for this contrast is Joy Division, but, despite its subject matter, American Tragic lacks that band’s dense haze of oppressiveness. It’s less melancholy and more, like, fire-breathing. (By the way, the title of “Ad Re: Ian” refers to Ian Curtis, so this isn’t just a musical difference: Hether Fortune’s understanding and rejection of the perspective portrayed in that song constitutes both the connection between and the bright line separating Wax Idols and Joy Division.) The inventiveness and energy of the album are central to its message: rather than seeking comfort, it surges forward.
I saw Wax Idols last year around when the album came out, not knowing anything about it at the time. But when they played the new songs, I understood exactly what was going on, even though I didn’t know what I was actually understanding yet. The songs were imposing and unnerving, and at the same time exciting and engaging. You can feel the combination of horror and visceral positivity. The dance aspect is important not because it ameliorates the album’s negativity, but because it synthesizes the negative subject matter with an affirming spirit. This combination is what the album is truly about. It’s both an embrace of the infinite darkness of the universe and a refusal to give in to it – a commitment to life with an understanding of the true terror it includes. This is the apparent paradox that defines the album: “we turn and face the night, that’s where we find the light.”
The lyrics are full of evocative and occasionally mysterious imagery, much of which sits alongside outright cliches. Of course, the “breakup album” itself is a cliche, and this sort of situation tends to inspire people to make big gestures that are as dramatic as they are familiar. But this doesn’t actually imply a lack of insight, because there’s an ironic subtlety to cliches that is lost when you either take them at face value or dismiss them as inherently empty. After all, this is hardly an album that falls back on familiar comforts; even with the cliches, there’s a striking lack of naivete. Cliches may seem like native inhabitants of the realm of fake smiles and Hollywood endings, but they contain truths that can be imported into the real world and applied productively.
Cliches are not at all the same thing as stereotypes, for example. It’s commonly said by stupid people that every stereotype is based on a grain of truth, but this is exactly wrong. Stereotypes are lies specifically chosen to cover up inconvenient truths by overwriting them with the opposite understanding. As a particularly dramatic example, the stereotype of black people being lazy originated during motherfucking slavery, a time when black people were being worked harder than perhaps any other group of people who have ever lived (I guess the people who built the pyramids might have a better case). Acknowledgement of this fact is not compatible with belief in white supremacy. The paradox of slavery is that any group that would implement it does not deserve to be in charge, which is why it requires a supposedly naturalistic justification. Slavery was deliberately reconceived as an inherent defect in black people to conceal the fact that it was actually a chosen defect in white people’s values. In short, stereotypes operate by using power to replace the uncomfortable truth with an apologist lie, and this is why all stereotypes must be destroyed.
A cliche, however, represents an original insight which only seems glib and meaningless after being dulled from overuse and flattened by assimilation into a truthless narrative. The reason cliches are usually intolerable is that they’re being spewed out by people who don’t really have any problems and aren’t actually saying anything, and it’s valid to dismiss them for this reason. But they can also be usefully redeemed by pulling them forward through the spectacle into present reality. Specifically, when everything goes to hell and you need something to hold on to, the hidden insights buried in the static start to shine forth. Shit gets real.
The various cliches scattered throughout the album act as hooks, connecting the album’s perspective to more commonly understood concepts. “I won’t let you hang me out to dry” is elevated into a radical statement of justified selfishness, while “pushing up daisies” is used to highlight the passivity and hollowness of the path being rejected. The moment of deepest connection comes on “At Any Moment.” This is the one purely upbeat song on the album – the one that seems to finally break free of the darkness. It carries itself with a blood-pumping sense of vitality. Rapid-fire drums and slashing guitars hold tough, confident vocals snake effortlessly through the verses and strike hard on the chorus, and synth melodies blare out on top of everything, rising towards an open sky. Yet in the face of all this, the vocals are just as chilling as ever, “wrapped in subtle forms of sorrow, and laced with fear.” The song’s powerful hook is actually terrifying: the singer takes as her saving grace the fact that anything can die “at any moment.” This would seem to be a Pyrrhic victory: there’s no despair, but only because there was no hope in the first place. But the intensity of the delivery makes this reading impossible; it’s brimming with such confidence as to force itself to be felt as genuine triumph.
What connects the song’s apparent cold comfort to its burning blood is its use of cliches. Following up on the chorus, the singer insists that “it’s a damned if I do, damned if I don’t ever-after.” Again, we can’t understand this as a statement of futility. To interpret this properly, we need to know what “ever-after” refers to here, and this information comes from “Dethrone” off of Discipline + Desire. As the title makes obvious, this song is a comprehensive refutation of any justification for rulership.
They take you to the edge of light
“Have a glimpse of ever-after”
They sell you faith, they sell you lies
And you’re the source of all their laughter
The source of the ruling class’s power is their claim on eternity – they extract loyalty by offering the hope of a room in heaven or a footnote in the pages of history. But it’s a mere hope, a glimpse, because there’s no such thing as eternity. As the term itself connotes, “ever-after” is a fairy tale. It’s a lie, masking the true purpose of material gain in this world, the only world there actually is. The “throne” here is the conceptual source of arbitrary authority – the concept of something else that supposedly justifies an obviously unjust state of affairs – and that’s what we have to destroy.
So, with regards to being “damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” what this means is that there’s no hope of salvation, that we’re screwed either way, but also that this realization is the substance of liberation. Letting go of the fantasy of eternity allows us to really be present in present reality, to make free choices. Here, it means that the singer isn’t shackled to an abstract conception of love, and she doesn’t have any arbitrary expectations to live up to. She’s dealing with a direct threat to herself, and she’s facing it directly.
Building on its momentum, the song drives home its final statement: “You fool me once, you won’t fool me twice, I’m not a virgin on the altar of sacrifice.” Again, the cliche here is normally a palliative, a sort of “oh well, maybe next time” at the discovery of having been fucked over. But by making it a promise rather than a hypothetical, both halves become necessary. Being fooled the first time is the unavoidable consequence of real engagement, of caring enough to make yourself vulnerable; when it comes to love, there’s no room for half-measures. And the second half is more than just learning from your mistakes, it’s a commitment to cleave as strongly to pain as to passion, to face up to and actively oppose the things that are trying to kill you rather than merely avoiding them. The statement thus becomes a commitment to deep engagement, anticipating disaster, combined with an obligation to take the pain and use it. Hence, not a virgin, and also not a sacrifice.
Because another thing that’s a stereotype is the “negative” person who “looks for things to be upset about” rather than doing something “constructive.” The truth that this lie conceals is the fact that “negativity” is a positive force. For one thing, it’s very often nothing more than honesty; the insistence on “staying positive” at all costs is a requirement to abandon the truth. Furthermore, “negative” people are the ones doing the real work of reconstructing an evil world into something that actually works for people, and mandating glib positivity is an attempt to cut them off at the knees. While cliches are not inherently political in the way that stereotypes are, they can be politicized. They can be used to construct a world where the pathways to freedom are missing, where the only choice is in choosing how best to get by. A man telling a woman to smile is the entire psychology of oppression distilled into a single gesture.
Our ability to use the components of reality’s present constitution against itself is more than just a means of defense, it’s how we make the world a real place. If this really were “the best of all possible worlds,” there wouldn’t be anything to do except sit around feeling content about it. But in the jagged, ill-made world that we actually inhabit, there are decisions to be made, things to be sought, and things to be driven out. Instead of walking around in a haze of complacency, fated to forever act out the shitty scripts that have been written for us, we can decide what matters, draw lines, and define our own terms. We can be real people.
There are an awful lot of religious references on this thing, particularly for an album written by an atheist (well, I shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s beliefs, but we’re at least talking about the kind of person who capitalizes “Death” but not “god”). What religion and love have in common is that they both speak in the language of transcendence. They’re the aspirations that humans have to be something more than mutated apes shuffling about a crumbing ball of dirt.
Christianity in particular has been very successful at conflating its own particular mythology with the general concept of love. This success is unjustified. What’s notable about Christian metaphysics is that the Christian “God” is literally everything – the world is represented as one big undifferentiated mass of creation. Unlike in, for example, Hinduism, where Shiva the Destroyer is worshipped as one of the universe’s primary forces, the Destroyer in Christianity is the enemy – destruction is always an evil act. In other words, the central claim of Christianity is that nothing ever actually dies.
This is the meaning of the crucifixion: it’s the ultimate affirmation. Jesus affirms the human world even in the midst of suffering its greatest horror, granting it redemption. “Goodbye Baby” uses this imagery in the same sense: “nail me to the cross, I’ll be a martyr for this lost cause.” The singer here affirms love while suffering its worst consequences. This is kind of self-deprecating – when we tell someone to “get off the cross,” especially in the context of a romantic relationship, it’s not because we’re impressed with their commitment – but it’s also kind of serious. The lyric is a testament to the lengths that people are willing to go to for the sake of affirmation.
But of course, as the refrain of the song makes obvious, the point is that this isn’t actually what she’s doing. Like religion, love can oppress as well as liberate, and sometimes the only solution is to cut it off hard, to insist that “I owe me more than I owe you.” And while she accepts the consequences of her decision – “you can call me evil, you won’t be the only one” – she still claims allegiance to the truth (the song actually includes the line “I’m not a liar, I gotta tell the truth,” which seems pointlessly general until you consider it in this context). She insists that she’s doing the right thing – “I won’t let you turn my good heart bad,” which is what can happen when you commit yourself to affirmation over all else, when you decide you owe someone, or an idea, or the world more than you owe yourself.
With Christian ideology having thoroughly percolated throughout secular America, the idea that full, uncritical affirmation is the solution to everything manifests itself in a number of places. We see it in the naive valorization of “free speech,” which asserts that malicious and ignorant opinions are just as valid as deeply considered ones, that expert testimony is just as good as knee-jerk reaction, and that “censorship” is the only true crime. Related to this is the concept of the “marketplace of ideas,” which holds not only that active discernment is unnecessary, but that harmful ideas must be permitted to keep existing. It’s why we can only understand economic activity in terms of constant, accelerating growth. And obviously consumerist ideology is based on the assumption that crowding store shelves with as much trash as possible is an appropriate definition of “abundance.” Hand in hand with all of this is the concept of salvation – the idea that, because the existence of everything is justified, something in there has got to be the thing that saves us.
Obviously, none of this is accurate. If nothing else, the rise of the internet has made it painfully clear that some people really do need to shut the fuck up. More generally, some ideas don’t just represent bad things that should be rejected but are themselves harmful things that must be destroyed. A dramatic example is rape, which is only understandable based on the malformed idea of sexuality as a dominance game. Whereas most crimes are committed for the sake of some other goal, rape is unique in that it is its own motivation. Rapists rape because they enjoy rape specifically and not sex. Therefore, the only solution is dissolution – the concept of sexuality that leads to rape must be eradicated from the collective psyche of humanity. This is why the activist assertion is that rape is not a type of sex but is rather sexualized violence. It’s also why rape “prevention” ““tips”” are so offensive: they presume that the concept has a right to exist.
Back on topic, this ideological malformation also applies to love. Love is supposed to be the thing that transcends physical reality, so we only understand love in terms of affirmation. The adjective that goes with the word “love” is “eternal” (one more example of affirmation-only ideology is the assumption that divorce is always a bad thing). But as anyone with any actual experience knows (which is everyone, as long as they’re honest with themselves), love doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package. It doesn’t just have rough spots, it has sharp edges. And sometimes it fucks things up bad enough that it has to be destroyed.
Obviously, affirmation itself isn’t a bad thing; on the contrary, as the ability to transform the world into more than it is, it’s one of the great powers of humanity. But it has a necessary counterpart: negation, the power to annihilate things that have lost their right to exist. Together, affirmation and negation are the powers that we as humans use to create the kind of world we want to live in. We decide what deserves to be preserved and what has to die. The problem is that we live in a society that denies the validity of negation. This is done out of fear, which is understandable, because negation really is scary. It requires accepting that some mistakes cannot be undone, that it is possible to lose important things forever, and that everything that currently exists is going to die. But these things have to be accepted, because without the power of negation we’re facing the universe unarmed, carrying a shield but not a sword. As one more example, addressing global warming requires destroying the current means of production. We like to talk about the “positive” ways of addressing the problem: new inventions, green jobs, and “alternative” sources of energy. But because we’re facing a tipping point, there will eventually be no acceptable level of carbon emissions, and because fossil fuels inherently contain way more energy than any possible alternative, we actually are going to have to lower our levels of production, which is the one concept that capitalism absolutely cannot abide. This might end up being humanity’s final paradox: without the power of negation, we’re all going to die.
This whole dynamic is summed up very concisely when the album sets up its situation on “Lonely You”: “What once was always, on its knees, screaming ‘never, never’.” The inherent contradiction in something that “once was always” demonstrates the limits of affirmation. We can pretend, for a time, that the things we love will last forever, but even the luckiest of us will eventually face the final curtain. Once ideation hits the ground – when it’s “on its knees” – reality has to be dealt with. And sometimes the result is horrific enough the only appropriate action is negation – to scream “never.”
Maybe this all sounds depressing, which is another reason why people don’t like to think about it, but it’s affirmation that’s tragic, because it can never really work. Negation can. Eternity is an illusion, but oblivion is real. What this means is that negation can actually offer a kind of inverted salvation. On “I’m Not Going,” this turns out to be the real answer.
Tonally, this is by far the most depressing song on the album. The slow, insistent rhythm and desperate vocals shroud it with the sorrow of a funeral march, and the lyrics back this up with a determined advance into the darkness. The cosmology of the song is established right at the beginning: “This is a wicked world, full of crooks and fools and kings.” This is notably comprehensive: the evil in the world consists not only of malicious people, but also people who don’t know what they’re doing, and people who think they know what’s best for everyone else. And by identifying herself with this complete strain of wickedness, the singer leaves herself without any escape. She can’t position herself as an innocent victim or a principled rebel – whatever evil is in the world is also a part of her. The result is that, when she finds herself in the midst of catastrophe, she has no defense. She can’t claim she doesn’t deserve it, and she has no possible action other than hopeless acceptance. “I roll with the thunder, take me under, wait for god to call.” This line is another Discipline + Desire callback, this time to the defiant “When It Happens”: “I was listening in on phone calls to ‘god’ / I was laughing to myself because I know there’s no one home.” The singer’s desperation here is such that she’s down to relying on the one thing that she knows can’t save her.
And in the face of all this, the the very un-chorus-like chorus is as simple as it can possibly be: “no, I’m not going down.” It’s precisely the overwhelming negativity of the song that makes it a radical statement of hope. As the black sky is met with defiance, screams harden themselves into cries of strength, and the singer finds the power to shine alone in hell. This is the power of negation, the ability to eradicate the possibility of defeat, and its raw force does not require reliance on anything. This is also the note on which the album ends: “I’m not nothing.” This seems like a pathetic understatement, but it’s enough. You can accept that you were wrong about everything, admit your faults, face the destruction of what’s most important to you, and still refuse to go down. You usually can’t win, but you can always not lose.
This is also essentially what we saw on “At Any Moment”: negation can be a source of hope. The fact that everything is temporary means you’re never completely trapped. And this is why we can’t allow ourselves to surrender to “positive thinking” and relinquish the power of negation. The insistence on affirmation also has a political motive: certain people would prefer it if we were only capable of devoting ourselves uncritically to things that already exist, as this would limit our options to either compliance or despair. Imagination, and hence desire, is essentially an act of negation: it denies the present state of reality in favor of something that doesn’t exist, which is why negation is our only defense against benevolent totalitarianism. We can’t live without devoting ourselves to something, but we have to accept that nothing is really going to last, and learn to live with the expectation of catastrophe. And when devotion inevitably turns poisonous, we have to be willing to excise it. We have to hold back this last card, because there’s going to come a day when it’s the only one we have to play.
“Severely Yours” is the thematic inverse of everything else on the album – instead of a song about heartbreak with desire burning in the background, it’s a song about very explicit desire haunted by implicit tragedy. This is backed up by the vocals, which are less aggressive and more conventionally sexy, but with a wistful undercurrent that maintains the thread of sorrow. That doesn’t make this a mushy love song, though; in fact, it interrogates power dynamics through an emphasis on dominance and submission, illuminating the the inherent political dimension of relationships that is otherwise obscured by the album’s raw emotion.
The key to this song lies at the intersection of its submissiveness and its swaggering confidence. It gets down on its knees immediately, and from there the whole thing takes place on the floor. The singer states her intent directly, with a single line that says both “I want you to hurt me” and “I want you to fuck me.” This whole situation presents a very conventional picture of female desire as wanting to be the object of someone else’s actions, which is what makes it so obvious that it’s a trap.
The chorus provides the first clue to the song’s true nature: “he could be mine, he could be my god” (it’s only here and on “Deborah” where the subject of the song is specifically male, which both emphasizes the gendered aspect and makes the target more specific than the usual universal “you”). Repeating a line and extending it like this is pretty standard songwriting; it’s at least as elemental as “be my, be my baby.” So because it sounds so natural, it’s easy to miss that these two lines are exact opposites. The whole “I’m yours” angle is about as cliched as it gets, but, as the title indicates, “Severely Yours” takes it seriously. If someone is “yours,” that means you own them, but if someone is “your god,” that means they own you. A later repetition of the chorus doubles this dynamic up again by inverting the line to “I could be your god,” and the end of the song conflates everything together by layering all of these lines on top of each other. (The lack of capitalization on “god” has added significance here, as it indicates that the concept is being used in the general sense and not the specifically Christian and therefore patriarchal sense. Also, the hypothetical phrasing shows that the role of “god” here is both optional and temporary.)
Of course, in terms of dominance, this is all blatantly contradictory. Mutual dominance is not an intelligible concept, and that’s the point: relationships are inherently mutual, and they shouldn’t be understood in terms of dominance. The BDSM imagery brings this point into sharp relief, because consensual BDSM makes it obvious that what something looks like isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual dynamics at play. It’s sort of a BDSM truism that the sub is the one with the real power, since it’s the sub’s limits that define the scope of the action, and, despite appearances, what the dom is actually doing is fulfilling the sub’s desires. This isn’t because it’s a “game,” though, it’s because this is a more accurate picture of reality than the one that we usually use to understand dominance. Dominance is typically presented as an act of will, by which one affects others while remaining untouched. But this is a fantasy; there’s no such thing as being “untouched” in a purely physical existence. Any act, in addition to its affect on the target, imposes constraints on the actor. Accordingly, submission is not necessarily failure or even weakness. It can be a means of self-defense, and it can be a weapon.
Taking the song as a whole, the complete situation – two people acting as each other’s “gods,” while also annihilating each other – is more complicated than simple boy/girl dominance, and it’s also more realistic. In fact, the transition from apparent stereotype to complex reality demonstrates that situations which are presented to us as confirmation of easy archetypes are in fact no such thing, that we’re being lied to. Nobody ever has absolute power, and the inherent mutuality of the physical universe means there are always tools at hand to work with. This also drains the venom from the paradox of intimacy: the way to exercise real devotion while maintaining the force of your own will is to belong to someone else, but to do it severely.
This is not a narrow conclusion – it applies to power dynamics generally. Power dynamics pervade everything, from our most abstract institutions to our most intimate relationships, but this does not mean that we’re doomed to live in a world at war with itself. On the contrary, while it does mean that we’re never safe and things are never easy, it also means we’re never truly under anyone’s thumb. Things like having money or holding an official position of authority or being a man are not absolute strengths; everything has a second edge (this is what the term “toxic masculinity” refers to). I’m certainly not eliding the fact that there are real power differentials that really do kill people, but on the level of technique, we’re all on equal footing. Anyone can be outmatched, in any situation, at any moment.
In 1984, O’Brien claims that the only way to know you have power over someone is to inflict pain on them. This is based on the assumption that pain is something absolutely unwanted by everyone in all situations. But this is not true; the basis of non-violent protest, for example, is to deliberately subject yourself to suffering in order to claim the moral high ground. And not only is it not true of pain, it’s not true of anything. Humans are not utility droids; we have complicated relationships with physical reality, and our desires are not straightforward. What this means is that there is no such thing as absolute dominance. Dominance is not the infliction of one’s will on the world, it is a specific, contingent type of interaction with the world, just as writing is not the direct transmission of pure ideas but rather the interaction of ideas with the social medium of language. And, just as the act of writing something down can reveal things that you didn’t realize you were aware of, the act of dominance can restrict the actor as much as the acted upon. When you interact with the world, the world interacts back.
This even applies to the basic predator/prey relationship: predators that become too effective will end up destroying themselves by driving their food source to extinction. In our modern jungle, the same is true of capitalism. If capitalism actually worked the way it claimed to – if everyone really had to pay equal value for everything they acquired – it would be completely untenable. Capitalists would be unable to extract profits, and workers would become so boxed in that they’d have no choice but to rebel. (It’s worth remembering that this is what Marx predicted would happen. It’s actually because he took capitalism at face value that he ended up being wrong; his mistake was putting too much trust in the system.) In truth, capitalism is completely dependent on public goods, and the more it enforces its ability to marketize everything, the weaker it becomes. Thus, the key to capitalism’s ubiquity is its incompleteness; the reason it’s able to cast such a wide net is because it’s full of holes. The same is true even of god itself. Though portrayed as an absolute force, the strength of the god-concept actually lies in how ill-defined it is; the fecundity of a religion such as Christianity follows from its flexibility. It finds adherents in people as far apart as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fred Phelps, all because the relationship between humans and god is not one-way. The saying “if god did not exist, we would have to invent him” does not go far enough: even if god really did exist, we would still have invented him.
In other words, power is a liability as much as it is an advantage. This is why asymmetric warfare is possible. As perhaps a more relatable example, owning a smartphone doesn’t simply allow you to do more things, it changes your relationship to the world. You might, for example, fail to research your destination on a trip on the assumption that your navigation app will take care of it, and thereby end up getting lost because you had an extremely powerful navigation tool at your disposal. It’s not just that, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, it’s that having a hammer at all necessarily creates an orientation towards nails.
And yet, everything in society is based on the illusion of power; every formal institution is organized based on who’s the boss of who. Indeed, our entire conception of civilization rests on the notion that it represents our “dominion” over the world, that it’s our escape from the “state of nature.” Yet it’s obvious that civilization introduces as much danger as it averts. The only reason earthquakes are capable of killing people is because we have lots of giant buildings around to crush us. And of course there are the more explicit maladies we’ve gifted ourselves with, including stress-induced neuroses, nuclear fallout, “collateral damage” in warfare, and suicide. Oh, and global warming, which is poised to make a rather persuasive argument that humanity remains within reach of the red claw of nature.
In case anyone’s thinking something stupid at this point, I’m no kind of primitivist. This argument refutes romantic savagery as thoroughly as it does technological utopianism. Earthquakes can destroy buildings, but only because there is something there to destroy. It’s better to be alive now than is was at any time in the past, and that will continue to be the case until the sea finally rises up to reclaim us all, and that’s why it’s actually going to be a bad thing when that happens. Rejecting progress for fear of backlash is like cutting off your head to spite your face.
We all have our moments when we feel like humanity doesn’t deserve to exist, but to seriously entertain this impulse is to uncritically embrace nihilism. To keep harping on global warming (since it’s really the one topic that can never be harped on enough), you’ll occasionally encounter soothsayers pontificating that, after humanity is gone, nature will be able to “heal itself” and another species will get the chance to “not fuck things up like we did.” This is actually worse than nihilism; it’s a denial of everything good that’s ever happened. Without humanity, it doesn’t matter what happens to “nature”; the state of reality can only be said to be good or bad in relation to beings with the ability to care about it. If we all really do end up struck by stray bullets and drowned in stagnant water, then guess what: it was worth it.
Though it’s somewhat understandable that people would feel this way, since the concept for dealing with this whole situation doesn’t really exist anymore. That concept is tragedy. You can tell the concept is gone because the word has devolved, like an old shell abandoned by its hermit crab, to meaning little more than “sad thing.” In truth, a tragedy is a situation in which a hero is destroyed by her own virtues, and the point of it is that sometimes(/often/always), bad endings are morally necessary, because the only way to avoid them is to destroy the good that caused them in the first place – to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The other way you can tell that the concept is dead is that almost all mainstream stories, whether action or romance, are ones where the protagonist “overcomes” their flaws in order to earn a “happy” ending. It should be obvious that violence never results in a definitive resolution, but it’s equally true that love is never “happily ever after.” The only purity is in death.
By refusing to accept this, we also refuse to accept our moral responsibilities. With the assumption that we’re “good people” who “mean well,” we consider ourselves virtuous not as the result of our actions but in spite of them. America had the opportunity to respond to the destruction of the World Trade Center with the understanding that all the act really proved was that America had something worth destroying, to look at the people who thought that petty slaughter would be enough to shake our faith in ourselves and say nice fucking try. Instead, we immediately proved them right by going bug-eyed and frothy and basically committing ourselves to fucking everything up for the foreseeable future (I mean, worse than we already were). The thing that should never be forgotten is that history’s greatest superpower basically threw a fucking tantrum.
It’s easy to run the numbers and conclude that America is the greatest force for evil in the world in just a sheer mathematical sense, but, just as assuming that America is the “good guy” doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s also not enough to regard America’s actions as “villainous,” as though “defeating” it would fix anything. Just as it is with everything else in the world, America’s crimes are the result of real strengths, and its successes are imbued with failure. It’s because America is nominally founded on ideals of equality and liberty that we have to constantly invent new methodologies of oppression. It’s because we’re committed to open discourse that we end up smothering ourselves in stifling noise. It’s because we conceive of ourselves as a “city on a hill” that we constantly try to bomb everyone else into recognizing that. It’s by impoverishing the rest of the world that we’ve given ordinary Americans the opportunity to achieve the kind of greatness that genuinely enriches humanity. There’s no contradiction in taking our merits and turning them around to attack the very faults that caused them in the first place; in fact, that’s the only thing that actually makes any sense. America must be understood as a tragedy.
The culmination of all this is that there’s no culmination. American Tragic finalizes its commitment to existing in the never ending circles of reality by rejecting the convenience of a comfortable conclusion. The album is structured to make it seem like it ends prematurely – the B-side only has four tracks on it, with “Seraph” as the inconclusive closer. It’s the loudest track on the whole thing, so it almost violently forecloses on any expectation of a peaceful denouement. And like everything else on the album, it’s all drama and no resolution. It’s not even really a climax, it’s all buildup until the abrupt ending, where the last line cuts off mid-roar, leaving only a fading echo. The text that would normally constitute the climax is compressed into a spoken-word rant and submerged into the background – the only time on the album when the vocals are deliberately buried.
And yet, the album does finally arrive in a different place from where it started. “Seraph” is entirely in the first person, lacking the I/you dynamic that characterizes every other song on the album (except for “I’m Not Going,” which is the same idea taken from the opposite perspective), suggesting that the exorcism may finally have worked. But the place arrived at isn’t an ending or a stopping point, it’s a nexus connecting the trauma of the past to the uncertainty of the future. Because, despite its forcefulness, this song is still uncertain – the singer “can’t tell” whether she’s still whole or not. But she does know where she stands: she refuses to let go of her passion, and she’s going to endure. The only sensible response to tragedy is redoubled engagement. This is why her final resolution is to “replenish” herself with “youthful lusting.” After everything’s been poisoned, she goes right back to the well.
It’s also why this album begins and ends with fire. We live in a society that’s constantly trying to freeze people. In fact, we’ve got a good number of rich fucks who literally think they can freeze their severed heads and wake up in magical robot paradise. Even if cryonics worked, though, it would still constitute abandonment of the world that actually exists – it would still be suicide. The tendency to respond to suffering and danger with retreat and denial is what this album stands in opposition to: “they wanna lock me in, iced and wrapped in moonlight satin, kept but never seen.”
This tendency is the result of a deep mistake. It’s based on the idea that the world is something that we have to be protected from, that the point of civilization is to build a big wall around ourselves so that the bad things can’t get in. Cosmologically speaking, it’s the idea that evil has the force of truth and that the light is a mere temporary defense. But the darkness of the universe is actually nothing; everything that exists is contained within the flame of life, and that includes suffering and hatred as much as creativity and love. To fear being burnt, then, is to fear the light itself – to fear life. “Positive” people who think the goal of life is to minimize conflict are liars; seekers of truth are necessarily “negative”: they are engaged with the horrors of reality. This is the final reclamation of the ultimate cliche: the light of the human spirit really does endure, not as a cold glow that remains still amidst the turbulence of existence, but as a white-hot flame that consumes as it empowers. We can only tend to it by embracing peril alongside pleasure, keeping our hearts open and our claws sharp, and refusing the easy escape of eternity. Reality doesn’t have corners, and it doesn’t have simple answers or convenient resolutions. It does have violent transgressions.