(The first two paragraphs of this post are adapted from a Facebook post I made yesterday)
Yesterday, in the wake of the US election, Lehigh faculty, staff, and students came together to hold a silent Rally for Inclusion. The idea was to demonstrate the diversity of people who work together on the campus and make Lehigh (and the country) what it is. While it is not yet clear what Donald Trump will do as president because he seemingly holds no firm position on anything, many of my friends, colleagues, family members, and I have been scared by the prospect that he’ll follow through on his exclusionary rhetoric. I was happy to see fellow students, professors, former and current students of mine, and staff at Lehigh of diverse races, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and economic statuses come together to stand with each other. Solidarity is one way, one crucial way, to deal with wrongs in the world, and I am proud to stand next to anybody who chooses love over hate and justice over injustice. We cannot currently know what we will be facing in the next years of our lives, but we know that we must face it together.
In Seth Moglen’s Modernism, Mourning, and Social Justice class, we’ve spent the semester understanding of the two ways that literary Modernists mourned their societal woes as a way of thinking about how we might respond to the difficulties we face in our fight for social justice. Essentially, there is one way which continually looks back at what we’ve lost or might lose and makes that looking back the primary way of mourning. This leads to cycles of sadness, depression, and, often, suicide. That cannot be what we do now. We must instead participate in the other way of mourning and first look back to understand what we lose and might lose, but then we should look forward for solutions and solidarity. How do we stop the loss? How do we not only get back what we’ve lost but also continue to fight further injustice? We must not become, following William Faulkner’s formulation, “back-looking ghosts.” Instead we must do what we did yesterday and continue to affirm the humanity we share with every other person at this school, in this state, in this country, and on this planet. It probably won’t be easy, but we can at least know that we are doing it together.
Following the rally (and a three hour class), I was looking for a way to chill out, to be away from the often terrifying prospect of the next four years and I saw that Sing Street, a film by John Carney (Once, Begin Again) from earlier this year, had become available to stream on Netflix. I had been looking forward to seeing this movie because Once is one of the best romance films of the 21st century, and I was excited to see what Carney would do with an autobiographical coming-of-age story set in 1985 Dublin. What I was not expecting to see was an articulation of some of the thoughts I expressed above on Facebook earlier in the day. It was a reminder that one way to deal with mourning is through art, which can bring real change into the world. It was a reminder that solidarity in the face of oppression both institutional and interpersonal will eventually win the day. It was a reminder that looking forward is better, more effective than looking back. It was, in short, a “flowering balm” which, like H.D.’s marvelous poetry, inspired me to keep at this literature and social justice thing now more than ever.
I want to take a moment to reflect on what we should not do with art and mourning before talking more about the movie itself. My friend, Corey Atad, wrote a fantastic article outlining the problems with a nostalgic turn towards art as a means of escaping from taking real action to fight real problems. He argues that “it’s one thing to take some time, and have a real conversation about the darker factors of our social order that led us to this dismal result. It’s an entirely different, and far grosser, thing to take that which makes us question faith in our fellow people and box it up into childish fantasy.” We cannot diminish the dangers we face by means of facile comparisons to fictitious evils. Nuance should rule our day because it is a distinct lack of nuance that got us into this mess. Art can and should inform and inspire us in times of trouble, but it cannot be the only way we have of understanding our situation. We must live in the real world.
The real world does, however, have art in it, and as a student who has bought into Lehigh’s focus on Literature and Social Justice, I cannot help but read even a musical-comedy about getting a band together to impress a girl as an example of the power art has to inspire us in the face of terrible sadness. After Connor, the boy who forms the band in Sing Street, is introduced to The Cure by his music-wise older brother, he tells his friends that they make “happy sad” music now.
“What does happy sad even mean? How can we be both things? It makes no sense.”
“It means I’m stuck in this shithole full of morons and rapists and bullies, and I’m gonna deal with it, ok? It’s just how life is. I’m gonna try and accept this and get on with it. And make some art.”
“How does that affect our music?”
The John Carney does make an attempt to have the “shithole” that Connor and his friends live in feel like a real place with real problems and real consequences. There is an authoritarian headmaster at the Catholic school he attends, a skinhead bully, and familial strife thanks to a loveless marriage and tough economic times. These are not the problems we face now and it is important to remember that, but his response is how we might respond. He forms a band, a group of young men who face the same problems and feel the same way about them. Solidarity, in other words.
And he creates. Connor expresses what we might feel about our current political and social climate, as it does seem to be full of “morons and rapists bullies” and he offers us a way of dealing with it. If the first part of this series of quotes were the end of the conversation it might be inspiring enough, but his friend asks him how it’ll affect their music, and in the scene’s perfect capper, underscored by the opening bar of his new music, Connor responds with a grin, “Positively.”
It is a cliché to say that the best art comes out of the worst circumstances, but it does have some historical basis in reality. I’ve already mentioned several Modernists who had to deal with a rapidly changing social, economic, and political order, and there are countless other examples. Importantly, Connor also looks forward. The film is set in 1985 and is based on John Carney’s own childhood so it does have a nostalgic glaze, but in that historical setting it continues to look forward and even make fun of the father character who derides Duran Duran saying, “It’s not exactly the Beatles is it?” But Connor tries to create art that envisions a positive future through music rather than wallowing in the music of the past. “No nostalgia, not like your Da’s band. Not looking backwards, just forwards.” Here again my own ideas match what the film is saying. The nostalgic turn, while pleasant, can be disastrous. It is what got us into this; it will not be what gets us out.
It took me a few days to figure out what happened on Tuesday. It’s hard when the world you think exists disappears and something potentially (and in many ways already) worse takes its place. It is hard to have the happy part of the “happy sad” formulation that Connor comes up with and that degree of difficulty will vary for everybody. Some will never recover from such a radical shift. We should not judge them for their problems. I will endeavor to keep the faith in us as human beings and in our capacity to be good to each other. Art will help us remember that people are people and that there are strategies we can engage in to think of better ways of existing with each other.