I was remixing an old song last night. Trying to see if I can pull out a better song from the old tracks. During the process I came across these lyrics (I say came across because it is almost as if someone else wrote them – me of 20 years ago).
Somewhere east of Cain we all lost ground
Eden guards her fruit, the rains tumble down.
Faith comes, religion falls
Graffiti art on the cloister walls
Somewhere east of Cain we all lost ground.
I was looking for something to read to help me move forward after this past week. I thought about Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Frank. But they all felt like they would be too straight on. I thought about poetry. Perhaps Langston Hughes. There must be insights into coping with living under authoritarian conditions there.
Then the happy thing happened. I was staring at the bookshelf and there it was. Vaclav Havel.
Havel, a Czech writer, lived, wrote, and suffered under various incarnations of authoritarian regimes . . . and then outlived them to see democracy restored and civil society re-emerge. The petty functionaries. Their narrow party-focused lives. Their ‘victories’ and movement up the food chain. Eventually all wiped away and replaced. They were exposed for the small thinkers they were.
Within a handful of pages I found some encouraging insights. These don’t erase the pain of this past week or ensure that the future will be bright. But we don’t have to figure this out all alone. People have walked this path before us and we can learn from them.
With each new work [writing a play and it being embraced by our audience], the possibilities of the repressive system were weakened; the more we were able to do. It was a state of accelerated metabolism between art and it’s time . . .”
And this about the events of 1968 which resonate with me tonight:
August 1968 did not just mean the routine replacement of a more liberal regime with a more conservative one; it was not just the usual freeze after a thaw. It was something more; it was the end of an era; the disintegration of a spiritual and social climate; a profound mental dislocation. The seriousness of the events that caused this transformation and the profound experiences that came with it seemed to alter our prospects completely. It was not just that the carnival-like elation of 1968 had come to an end; the whole world crumbled, a world in which we had all learned to live well and move with some ease, a world that had, as it were, weaned us — the peaceful, somewhat comic, somewhat disjointed, and very Biedermeier world of the 1960s. For a while, the nerves of society were still strung as taut as piano wire, but the tension could not last, and out of the old world a sinister new world grew, one that was intrinsically different, merciless, gloomy serious, Asiatic, hard. The fun was definitely over, and things began to get tough.
In my earlier plays, I had said enough about the seesaw of liberators and liquidators that one might have thought I’d be prepared for this new reversal. And yet I was not; everything was suddenly too different, too serious, too dramatic and tragic, and I was experiencing it all too much as a participator to be able to deal with it in my traditional manner — with irony, a wry grin, or a cool piece of analysis. Suddenly, my position as a distant, amused observer “from below” seemed inadequate, a relic of the past, and yes, even somewhat evasive. The new world into which we entered began to touch each one of us too insistently and it had a far different existential dimension than the one we were used to. After all, not only did it arrive bathed in the glow of a human torch, but Jan Palach’s act of self-immolation was immediately understood by the whole of society. No, this had nothing whatsoever in common with the sixties. Certainly, once again people’s spines were bent, and lying, cheating, and betrayal became common; once again, the theme of human identity and existential schizophrenia was everywhere — but now, it all seemed to take place on a completely different level; the time of oral juggling was over and it became increasingly obvious that human existence itself was at stake. Suddenly, instead of laughing, one felt like screaming. – December 1976.
This week the mean, small old men with tiny digits bamboozled many (legitimately) angry Americans. Promising things they cannot — and never intended to — deliver. How will these folks respond to being screwed yet again? Where will they direct that fury? That will depend to some extent upon how effectively we are able to build bridges and understanding.
What is clear to me is that while the above quote from Havel in 1976 echoes the darkness many feel this week in the U.S., the future is not carved in stone.
In December of 1989 Vaclav Havel — once a political prisoner — was elected President of the Czech republic. In November 2014, Havel became only the fourth non-American honored with a bust in the U.S. Capitol.
If you are going to progress as an artist you have to recognize and honor the small steps. This is harder than it initially sounds because for some reason we all seem to believe in the giant leaps and the breakthroughs.
But as Twyla Tharp noted in her book The Creative Habit, it is the daily work that brings the payoff. What I’m talking about might be some sort of corollary to her work.
I would urge you (a.k.a. the young me) to pay attention to and rejoice in the tiny, infinitesimal gains that perhaps only you recognize.
Your girlfriend or wife or partner may not hear the difference in the way the slide moves. Your bandmates may think you sound exactly like you did last week. But you know something shifted. Something subtle. Something small. You crossed a threshold.
If you feel it. Believe it. And smile. And enjoy it.
This is what progress feels like.
Just realizing that I posted the before images of the Gibson L-00 but never got back to post the after pics.
I can’t say enough about the work that Elliot John-Conry and Dan Erlewine did. Its not just the way it looks but the tone and soul they brought back to life. True craftsmen.