On Reckoning with the Violence of American Exceptionalism

To be a patriotic American, I grew up thinking, is to hold a sense of reverence for those more exemplary moments in our history. Chief among this catalogue is World War II, in which we concretized the American spirit as something counterposed with totalitarianism, a shining bulwark of pluralist triumph. A kind of litmus test, this war, settling for good the philosophical terms in which our country conceives of itself. In Hitler’s Germany, something barbaric and rotten and cruel had arisen, and in bringing the beast back down we had slain that very brutalizing instinct within ourselves.

Consider, however, the actual functioning of this sort of American-ness, of the practical decisions made by those who most fervently valorize politics as the consecration of an exceptionalist mythos. An unavoidable reality emerges –– American nationalist sentiment is just as culpable for the debasement, the descent into barbarous, bloody ignorance of the soul, as the thinking behind Hitler’s meditations on the “Jewish Question”.

We are a nakedly violent country, taken by what filmmaker Adam Curtis has described as a kind of “enervated jitteriness”, delicately sensitive to the privations of a world squelched by corruption and greed. The creeping understanding of the profoundest disconnect between citizen and state, between personal agency to effect what is right and the casual exercise of evil among a handful of oligarchs, has led many back to the trough of nativism. We have been infiltrated, the thinking goes. Where once a paradise, here the fall.

What’s worth noting, more so than the violent reality of our nationalist tradition (which, of course, has always been nakedly grotesque), is the question of how we Americans are prepared to conceive of ourselves and our relationship to history in the face of an administration that has definitively laid bare the falsity of this American Exceptionalist mythos. In a moment loosed from the pleasing adornments of the past, when systemically abusive, bloody administrations could retain a consensus of legitimacy with rhetorical overtures to our proud, pluralist legacy, how are we to adjust?

Right wing figures who espouse the purging of the infiltrator, from the media class to the president himself, have manifested real violence, fomenting interminable feelings of vitriol and anxiety among a certain reactionary class. The bounds marking provocation and action have dissolved.  If we are to hope yet for egalitarian triumph, it must surely coincide with a final extinguishing of respect for the American Exceptionalist mythos, as embodied by its proudest disciples.

Best,

Eli.

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On Warding Off Depression

Every now and then, in the midst of a period of relative optimism, I find myself revisiting those thoughts that, when I’m susceptible, I know lead toward depression.

What I realized today, though, is that the way in which my depression manifests itself –– as the temptation to cede to the essential meaninglessness of the human condition –– is little more than my mind’s attempt to reason itself out of happiness. And to continually bow to this cold, irascibly logical vision of existence as a cruel, humiliating trudge into oblivion is, in effect, to insult and repudiate those moments of genuine bliss I’ve been fortunate enough to know.

Am I really to retroactively convince myself of the meaningless of existence, when I’ve encountered such instances of joy, passion, and friendship as to feel that my essence has achieved a kind of harmony with existence itself? When I’ve been made to see the fundamental, eternal interrelation between myself as human being and myself as the one, the all-encompassing, the godhead?

Fuck that! My cache of happy memories, and the faith that more are yet to come, is far too big for me to kneel exclusively at the altar of death and misery. I believe it important to atone with death as an inevitability, but to position it as my idol, as something that takes as sacrifice my continued lack of joy in the human experience, would be an act of violently self-deluded sabotage.

I used to think of language as a kind of attempt to wrap meaning around that which inherently repels it –– i.e., existence itself. At an objective level, I thought, nothing appears to imbue this life of mine with any sort of definite purpose. And while I still think it critical to question any one’s dogma regarding the nature of reality, and the kind of meaning it might entail, I find it increasingly unappealing to believe in the underlying meaninglessness of my life.

I used to talk of the universe as indifferent to the woes, travails, and trajectory of life. Bullshit. Life itself is a creative reverberation of whatever as-yet-unknown force impels the universe to be. How can the universe even be conceived as separate and indifferent when life is one of its very own tendrils? What is this cynical dichotomy my mind has constructed other than the demonic impulse to degrade and delegitimize that which makes me feel most alive?

Best,

Eli

 

A Quick Note on God –– No, Not That One –– Self, and Being

A thought: God is the essential ubiquity of possibility.

To “atone with the father”, as the seminal comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell puts it, is, in my view, to realize existential maturity in the face of a cosmos that –– by virtue of the self-interest born of consciousness –– necessitates suffering.

An atheistic worldview doesn’t admit to the presence of a separate and judging “lifeguard god”, to borrow from comedian Pete Holmes, in prostrating itself before the transcendent might of chance over personal desire, hope, or expectation. There’s a humility in allowing for external forces that shape our existences –– forces indifferent to and outside the purview of the choices we make to mold experience –– and to deny such a humility is to embrace ignorance.

But that’s the point, isn’t it?

In observing our essential humility within an overarching cosmic order, we reconnect with that crucial facet of our lives most hidden by tacit belief in the centrality of our singular –– i.e., isolated –– existences: We are all, ultimately, divergent expressions of the same energy –– regenerative, creative, insistent –– that manifests being, and which being makes manifest in turn.

As philosopher Alan Watts writes, “The Ultimate Ground of Being is you. Not, of course, the everyday you the Ground is assuming, or ‘pretending’ to be, but that inmost self that escapes inspection because it’s always inspector. This, then, is the taboo of taboos: you’re IT!”

Best,

Eli

Donald Trump is an Unhappy Man

Trump House

As bizarre as it is to find oneself in 2017 continually occupied with thoughts of Donald Trump, he makes for a fascinating––and by turns, illuminating––case study in severe narcissism.

Reflecting on my feelings toward Trump during the campaign, I realize that I was much more inclined at the time to regard Trump’s adept manipulating of people’s hatred and discontent for the prevailing political order as a kind of grand scheme on his part. As his campaign solidified, his proto-fascist musings looked to be pieces of a larger authoritarian program he and his ghouls were poised to roll out.

If the past year has shown us anything, though, it is that Donald Trump abides by an instinct for self-preservation––cartoonishly so––before, and perhaps to the sheer exclusion of, any other creed or system of belief.

Living for so long as such a mendacious, bizarro amalgam of celebrity, bigotry, and insecurity has allowed Trump to buy into his own inanity and eschew all sense of culpability for refusing to trust in realities outside his own. As a result, he at some point in his stunted trajectory developed such a reactive temperament that any degree of criticism or probing began to yield immediate defensiveness and aggression. He conflates being a good person with never conceding to fault––the kind of swapping of moral accountability for possibility of inclusion that inevitably renders one intellectually and emotionally hollow, in continual search for approval from the other––the other whose subjective experience matters infinitesimally less than one’s own, we recall.

Trump is a man without a strong self-concept. Well adjusted, self-respecting people just don’t respond as viscerally and ignorantly as he does in moments of embattlement. When you retain a semi-stable, positive, evolving notion of yourself, it becomes easier to sort reproach as either something worth repudiating, or a signal for growth. With a narcissist like Trump, however, enlightenment never manages to occur because the person in question holds to the infantile denial of the necessity of introspection and growth.

That essentially puerile, reactive, self-doubting quality to Trump means he has difficulty thinking compassionately, harbors an innate affinity for white supremacy, and is virtually incapable of communicating or understanding abstract, esoteric, or intellectual thoughts.

He may be empty, angry, and sad, but he’s not calculating, and that’s probably what scares us the most. Where before I dreaded Trump as fascist, I now lament Trump as Trump––a set of fatally narcissistic impulses that might just typify one of the more enduring expressions of the American experience.

Best,

Eli.

 

On Identity, Stubbornness, and Shame

It’s a familiar scene. You do something that irritates someone close to you, the person sequesters their frustration in the hope that you’ll stop, you keep doing the thing, and the person finds that only so much silence is maintainable before they’re compelled to unleash upon you every hitherto unarticulated grievance logged over your shitty behavior.

And unless you’re a sociopath, you likely respond in one of two ways.

The first is to become indignant at the very suggestion of wrong-doing. As someone who thinks of himself as essentially decent, self-reflective, and respectful, you can’t help but meet divergent appraisals of your character with incredulity. A belief in the righteousness of your intentions renders criticism of your actions baseless, ill-informed, myopic. It’s the other person who’s the piece of shit, brandishing with restrained delight something you’ve said or done to hurt their feelings in some tragically minute fashion, insisting it to be symptomatic of a larger blight on your integrity, and silently envisioning the moment you’ll fall to your knees and grovel for means of atonement. Fuck you, you think, for assuming your opinion of my actions would gain purchase with my self-concept.

Conversely, you might actually feel ashamed at having hurt your friend. You might feel so embarrassed at the disconnect between action and intention that you become a stranger to yourself, lost at the prospect of a good person resorting to such naughty behavior. Zealous and pathetic in your rush to atone, you promise a complete reformation of character; whatever they ask, you’ll deliver.

As experience reveals, though, neither reaction has much to do with your friend’s original complaint, or your relative interest in amending behavior.

To the degree that existence is a continual crisis of identity, you struggle constantly to know just who you are. Because you have only the most tenuous understanding of the relationship between how you see yourself and what others think of you, the moral stakes present in moments of interpersonal conflict afford ripe opportunity to swing dogmatically in either direction, to take a brazen swipe at identity’s gordian knot.

Sure, people don’t like an asshole, and no, there’s nothing redemptive in being a coward, but at least either provides a definitive sense of self.

At least, that’s how you feel when vulnerable. But the reasonable you remembers what the great existentialist thinkers were getting at––that identity proceeds from action. To react in defiance or shame in the face of criticism reveals more about your particular set of neuroses than either your or someone else’s capacity to objectively assess identity, as the concept will ever remain the amorphous bastard son of observers’ competing perceptions. Indeed, as the fight with your friend demonstrates, there’s plenty of room for disagreement when it comes to subjecting actions to moral interrogation. But that’s ok––it’s part of figuring out how to get along with someone you care about.

In expressing their anger, your friend has offered a subjective––not definitive––account of your behavior. Transcend the inclination to either arrogance or pathos and what you’re left with is choice––radical freedom, as Sartre might say, to determine the actions that will bring you into closer alignment with how you want to be perceived, both by yourself and others.

Change your behavior or don’t––the universe doesn’t care. But if you strive to be the kind of person whose actions strengthen rather than degrade the ties between friend and friend, you might just decide to clean your damn frying pan for a change.

Best,

Eli.

 

 

 

On Dating and Self-Doubt

In principle, I don’t take umbrage with self-criticism; it can make you a better person, if applied with positive growth in mind. Lately, however, I’ve meandered from the boulevard of self-reflection to the woods of total, unnecessarily indulgent self-deprecation. I can’t glance at my reflection without disparaging my looks, or check a dating app without assuring myself of my total lack of agency in romantic affairs. For whatever subliminal, self-serving, puerile reason, I am set on devaluing my sexual agency.

In spite of feeling confident on an intellectual level in both my looks and personality (self-love, after all, is an essential), I experience withering self-doubt at the prospect of landing a relationship. I eschewed dating in both high school and college, and am now paying the emotional penalty for having sublimated those feelings of embarrassment and powerlessness that can go along with just liking a person. After a particularly stinging rebuke in high school (no malevolence on her part, I was just really into her), I figured I’d wait it out. No use in investing in more heartache, I thought. That attitude must have carried into college, because I levied virtually no effort into so much as kissing a girl. Can’t get hurt if you don’t put yourself out there.

The thing is, having only now begun seeking a relationship in earnest, I’m finding that between loneliness and striking out, the former stings most. Rejection is not that big a deal; no one owes me anything other than honesty. People’s emotional paths are not always destined to cross, and disappointment is an inextricable part of the game.

This isn’t to say, though, that I necessarily regret having sidestepped relationships earlier in life. To the extent that I suffer from self-loathing, it doesn’t extend to the core of my being. Mine is a struggle to act on what is ultimately a strong self-concept, to render self-love visible, real. Which is why it’s so infuriating when my brain lashes out in duplicity, sinking my perceived worth in an obsessive, needless deluge of negativity.

I don’t know just what it will take to exorcise these feelings of inadequacy, but something has to give. I’ll be damned if I go through my twenties without awakening the confidence sleeping so frustratingly beneath the surface. In committing to simply putting myself out there, I’ll be far better off than were I to persist in stilted equilibrium, a kind of death unto itself.

It’s just a matter of not allowing that needless negativity to encroach on my essential feelings of self-worth.

Best,

Eli.

Even After Trump, Dignity is Non-Negotiable

trump-mocking

Trump, mocking a New York Times reporter with a congenital disability

There’s an idea floating around that Donald Trump, having ascended to the presidency, is now owed the respect of his opponents. I beg to disagree. The powerful do not deserve respect merely by virtue of their being powerful. Like anyone else, the respect they receive should be proportionate to the level of dignity with which they conduct themselves, and treat others.

And yet some feel that Donald Trump deserves respect.

That’s right. The serial misogynist. The candidate who ran his campaign on bigotry and xenophobia, and who incited violence at his rallies. The 70 year-old who responds to detractors with ad-hominem jeers. The able-bodied billionaire who publicly mocked a disabled reporter. Our zillionth white president, who sought to delegitimize the first black one. The Vietnam dodger who insulted prisoners-of-war.

(On this last point. If you didn’t go to Vietnam, power to you. But to then degrade those who did, and were captured? That’s low.)

Trump’s behavior invites ridicule, not respect. He continues to act, react, and communicate in as indecent a manner as ever, signaling a lack of interest on his part to make meaningful amends with the people and groups he so gleefully cast aside during the campaign. Until such time as he reverses course on this matter, the notion that he deserves even a modicum of respect remains laughable.

I don’t know that Trump could win my respect even if he were to temper his rhetoric. I’m tired of the suggestion that it was primarily economic frustrations, rather than bigotry and xenophobia, that enabled his faux victory. Working class folks did have a champion, and it was Bernie Sanders.

Whereas Trump won over his voters with vacuous promises and a kind of rigorous self-promotion to put P.T. Barnum to shame, Bernie offered genuine solutions. Oh, and he did it without the race-baiting and Islamaphobia. If it is the case that Trump voters didn’t act out of antipathy toward minorities and immigrants, then why didn’t they go with the actual populist?

Well, Eli, maybe they voted for Sanders in the primary?

Perhaps, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that Trump never actually proposed meaningful solutions to working folks’ malaise. Sure, he was anti-free trade, but other than that, it was standard Republican policy.

Anyone who supports massive tax cuts for the wealthy, disdains unions and the minimum wage, alienates large swathes of the country on the basis of ethnicity and religion, and displays zero interest in expanding health coverage, cannot reasonably claim to be fighting for the needs of average folks.

The country is in a volatile place, and we have yet to arrive at the terms of reconciliation. All the same, I know this to be true: We will continue to honor the ideals of dignity, decency, and respect, even when our future president does not.

Treating women, people of color, those with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, and religious minorities with the same degree of dignity, decency, and respect as befits any other group? Non-negotiable.

As someone who, broadly speaking, aligns himself with the philosophy of existentialism, I hope to someday see a world in which individuals are treated as such. If someone’s a jerk, it’s because they act like one. Not because they’re a woman, or a Muslim, or any other group, but because they have acted in such a way as to garner the label that most accurately describes who they are as an individual.

Trump-ism (indeed, bigotry in general) universalizes, ascribing identities to people before they act, in line with their ethnic, religious, and biological backgrounds. Trump might not be above it, but the rest of are. He might not be dignified, but the rest of us are.

Or, at least, we should be.

Best,

Eli.

Bernie or Busters, Time to Call it Quits

sandersclinton

Come November 8th, those who still carry the torch for the “Bernie or Bust” movement will have to make a challenging decision. These die-hard Sanders supporters will have to saddle up to the voting booth, take a long, deep breath, and affirm to themselves that they are, in fact, comfortable foregoing the chance to ensure that Donald “grab ’em by the pussy” Trump is one vote further away from achieving the Presidency of the United States.

In that moment, they will have to reckon with the hard truth that sticking to their conscience will do nothing to help guarantee a victory for the lone person on this planet capable of keeping Trump out of the Oval Office, Hillary Clinton.

I can already hear the Bernie or Busters chiding me for my complete dismissal of moral consistency: ‘We stand opposed to warmongering, accepting donations from millionaires and special interests, and a Democratic establishment that colludes to keep outside challengers from having a fair shot at winning! To vote for Clinton is to be complicit in all these awful things!’

To this I say: I know.

I know that it sucks to have to cast a vote for a candidate whose message you definitively rejected just a few months ago during the primaries. It saddens me immensely that I have to look like a hypocrite from a number of perspectives to ensure that Trump doesn’t become president.

But that’s what this is ultimately about. If you consider yourself a true Bernie fan, you would recognize that the myriad of truly awful effects of a Trump presidency (e.g., less hesitance in the deployment of nuclear weapons, federally sanctioned intimidation of the press, an overtly arbitrary and racist ban on Muslims entering the country, the deterioration of crucially important alliances, a massively expanded and financially cumbersome police presence to pursue and deport illegal immigrants, etc.) should be enough to orient you on the only voting path guaranteed to deal a blow to Trump’s odds of succeeding.

Lest this come off as an ode to lesser-evilism, I should note that a Clinton presidency is the only way we Sanders supporters can hope to find any degree of support within the Executive Branch for the causes Bernie has championed. Think Mr. ‘I love Scalia’ Trump will be nominating to the Supreme Court anyone remotely interested in overturning Citizens United? Think he’ll attempt to move the needle on gun reform, health care expansion, or making college more affordable? Work to make certain that the wealthiest pay a bit more in taxes? Veto spending bills that contain drastic cuts to welfare programs, food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? Do anything to combat climate change?

Given that the only options available to Bernie supporters are incremental progress or full-fledged regression, the choice should be simple.

Ah, but of course, moral consistency muddies the equation, doesn’t it? That’s what I thought for a while, when I was genuinely considering writing in Sanders’ name at the ballot booth. We should remind ourselves, however, that we constantly undermine our moral integrity.

Abhor animal cruelty but still eat meat? Deplore the consumption of fossil fuels yet use them every day? Want to be a caring person but act unkindly towards those you love? Value honesty while continuously finding reasons to lie?

While you can continually work to bring your actions into closer alignment with your moral convictions, the unpredictable, chaotic, capricious nature of life is such that it’s silly to think you could ever be wholly morally consistent. Situations arise in which you pick a mode of action that runs counter to the kind of person you’d like to be. It feels shitty when that happens; the trick is to refine yourself, to constantly modulate your behavior so as to not replicate the bad decisions of your past.

Presidential elections are dichotomous by nature, and thus force people to make morally ambiguous decisions. I’m not just talking lesser-evilism here; it’s hard to imagine an instance in which a genuinely favorable candidate could be said to be entirely free of moral baggage. Your vote is not the full metric of your morality. Unless you’re the lone individual in history to have acted ethically for every moment of your life, don’t feel ashamed to have to be pragmatic at the polls. The moral trade-off of a vote for Clinton is not insignificant, and I won’t attempt to mitigate the amount of damage she has had a part in fostering through such things as her vote for the Iraq War, or her fervent support for Israeli militarism.

But I will say this. Pragmatism may be a hard pill to swallow, and incrementalism an excruciating road to walk, but given what’s at stake, what President Trump would mean for the direction of the United States and the world, I suggest we take our medicine.

Best,

Eli.

On the Magic of McCartney

McCartney Summerfest

I recently had the privilege of seeing Paul McCartney live in concert. As a huge fan of his, I knew I was going to enjoy myself, but I hadn’t anticipated just how moving the experience would turn out to be.

McCartney is a man unencumbered by age. His playing was so tenacious, his voice so resilient, his presence so powerful, I was overcome by a sense of awe that didn’t subside until a good few days after the final number.

To feel in person the passion that all those years ago jettisoned a young Macca out of Liverpool and into the pantheon of music history is to know the meaning of the word remarkable. This is a man who, having seized the world more than fifty years ago, is in no position of letting go.

Not that anyone would want him to. My brother, during the sing-along section of Hey Jude, aptly noted that we, along with the thousands of others in the amphitheater, were worshipping the man as though he were our deity. It actually frightened me for a moment. Had I, an atheist, unwittingly put my musical idol in the God role?

What does it say about McCartney’s contributions to the musical lexicon that someone as irreligious as me could feel such spiritual renewal in his presence? After all, the man is as human as anyone else, with his own share of foibles, hangups, and insecurities.

The most enduring point I was able to tease out from that philosophical quandary is that McCartney embodies the ideals towards which those of us passionate about achieving the semblance of aesthetic beauty attempt to strive. As a writer, musician, and filmmaker, it was empowering to see an individual whose artistic passions had been able to sustain him and enrapture millions of people for more than half a century.

McCartney gives strength to those of us trying to muster the audacity to make our artistic pursuits our life’s work.

Some highlights from the show:

A Hard Day’s Night

The show’s opener, and one which McCartney hadn’t performed live until this tour. Nothing beats the ecstasy of that iconic first chord.

Letting Go

A great track from 1975’s Venus and Mars. It was entrancing; McCartney and his band are adept as ever at the heavy jam.

I’ve Got A Feeling

Hearing McCartney sing “Everybody had a good year / Everybody let their hair down / Everybody pulled their socks up / Everybody put their foot down” made me happy to remember how gleefully postmodern the Beatles were. At least, that’s the thought I had at the time. I’m not exactly your resident expert on what makes something postmodern. At the very least, the Beatles were delightfully silly.

Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five

Perhaps the greatest Wings track. The raucous, swirling coda gets me every time. I was really glad it was included in the night’s setlist.

Here, There And Everywhere

I was extremely impressed with how elegant this sounded live. McCartney’s vocals felt just as buoyant and delicate as on the studio track, and the band did a phenomenal job with the instrumentation.

Maybe I’m Amazed

I’m typically not a big fan of this song, but it was phenomenal live. The soaring vocals and guitar, along with the song’s refusal to end, really evoked just how much McCartney must have loved Linda.

You Won’t See Me

McCartney opened with the guitar riff that originally spawned the song. It was cool hearing the band fill in on top of it. It was reminiscent of his version of Something, in which he begins with solo ukulele and has the rest of the instruments progressively come in.

Love Me Do

Another track he hadn’t played live until this tour. He said that he was reluctant to perform it because of how simple it was, but relented when people told him that the simplicity was what made it enjoyable. It’s obviously not the most nuanced or daring pieces of music out there, but it has such a history (and catchy melody, for that matter) that I couldn’t help but appreciate its inclusion.

Queenie Eye

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this track live. It’s from his 2013 album NEW, which I love, but I had never been overly enamored of Queenie Eye in particular. I think it’s a testament to how phenomenal McCartney’s band and sound setup are that my feelings for a song could change so drastically when I hear it performed live.

Lady Madonna

I love this song. You probably do too. It’s McCartney’s homage to the likes of Fats Domino, and it’s a ton of fun. And a kindly portrait of a working mom with kids.

FourFiveSeconds

This song sounded great with full band accompaniment and McCartney taking over for lead vocals. It didn’t feel as though he was appropriating more than what was due to him; the rendition sounded all his own.

Eleanor Rigby

It always impresses me that McCartney and his band can pull this one off live. Kudos to the keyboardist, who was responsible for simulating the original string section. I loved that a song this utterly nihilistic could prompt thousands of people to joyfully sing along.

Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!

Yet another song that would have been incredibly difficult to replicate in a live setting. With the help of some stellar effects, and what must surely have been loops from the original track, it turned out to be one of the most sonically and visually arresting performances of the night. As my brother observed of the psychedelic lights and graphics during the frenetic, circus-esque coda, “Dream Land!”

Band On The Run

I knew McCartney did a great job with this song live, but all the same, it was amazing hearing him and the band work through the different movements of the track. It felt liberating to hear those bright, joyous chords that open the final section, and to then sing about how “the jailor man and Sailor Sam were searching everyone for the band on the run.”

Hey Jude

An entire amphitheater’s worth of people singing in unison to this song really is something to behold. It was a powerful reminder of the unimaginably large reach of McCartney’s legacy.

Tickets are expensive, which blows, but if there’s an artist you really admire and would love to see live, I encourage you to seek out opportunities to make it happen. Having been to both Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen this year, I can testify to the rejuvenating power of experiencing in person the musicians and music that matter to you.

Best,

Eli.

 

 

 

 

 

Mapping Springsteen’s Message

Bruce Springsteen The River Era.png

In Bruce Springsteen’s Hunter Of Invisible Game, the narrator, a hardy, itinerant bard, finds himself on a continual odyssey through scenes of ruin and decay (e.g., “empty cities and burnin’ plains”), concluding that “there’s a kingdom of love waiting to be reclaimed”.

Not to be undone by these harrowing scenes, the narrator sings, “Through the bone yard rattle and black smoke, we rolled on / Down into the valley, where the beast has his throne / There I sing my song and I sharpen my blade / I am the hunter of invisible game”.

Living amidst “empires of dust”, what compels this character to keep at his hunt? Indeed, what is it that compels so many Springsteen characters to persist in spite of adverse, seemingly hopeless circumstances?

The answer, in my view, is the core thesis on which virtually all of Springsteen’s music is based: We have to get out of here.

Springsteen’s work implores us to resist the kind of stasis that arises from the fear of abandoning one’s sphere of comfort. This inertia may lead you to stay in your hometown and “do just like your daddy done” (to borrow from The River), or to retreat inward out of a juvenile desire to avoid heartache.

For Bruce’s heroes, that ain’t no way to live.

Anxiety over making a wrong move, the potential for pain, knowing you don’t have all the answers—according to Springsteen’s cosmology, they’re not reason enough for inaction.

Thus, we can understand why it is that the angst-ridden, insecure narrator of Dancing In The Dark  (“Man I’m just tired and bored with myself / … I check my look in the mirror / I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face / Man I ain’t getting nowhere / I’m just living in a dump like this”) is somehow enlightened enough to recognize that “there’s something happening somewhere”, and that if you “stay on the streets of this town”, “they’ll be carving you up alright”.

After all, he notes, feelings of insecurity and restlessness won’t abate unless we actually act on them: “You can’t start a fire worryin’ ’bout your little world fallin’ apart / This gun’s for hire / Even if we’re just dancin’ in the dark”.

It’s directly reminiscent of Thunder Road, in which the narrator pleas for his world-weary love interest to give romance and escape another chance: “You can hide ‘neath your covers / And study your pain / Make crosses from your lovers / Throw roses in the rain / Waste your summer praying in vain / For a savior to rise from these streets / Well now I’m no hero / That’s understood / All the redemption I can offer, girl / Is beneath this dirty hood”.

“Climb in”, he sings: “Heaven’s waitin’ on down the tracks”.

This ‘following the highway to fulfillment’ motif pervades Springsteen’s work, notably in the proud, defiant cries of the narrator of The Price You Pay: “So let the games start / You better run, you little wild heart / You can run through all the nights and all the days / But just across the county line, a stranger passing through put up a sign / That counts the men fallen away to the price you pay / And girl before the end of the day / I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away”.

In Born To Run, the sonic epitome of teenage escape, the narrator vows to “live with the sadness”, telling counterpart Wendy, “Someday, girl, I don’t know when / We’re gonna get to that place / Where we really wanna go / And we’ll walk in the sun / But till then, tramps like us / Baby, we were born to run”.

We find such consistent and urgent calls to break away, to make something of oneself, because Springsteen is among that rare breed of people so brimming with passion as to be incapable of doing anything but hounding their dreams.

Take, for example, Badlands, in which the narrator calls out, “For the ones who had a notion / A notion deep inside / That it ain’t no sin / To be glad you’re alive / I wanna find one face / That ain’t looking through me / I wanna find one place / I wanna spit in the face of these / Badlands”.

Discovering music as a means of making good on this sense of yearning, the narrator in No Surrender sings, “Well, we busted out of class / Had to get away from those fools / We learned more from a 3-minute record, baby / Than we ever learned in school / Tonight I hear the neighborhood drummer sound / I can feel my heart begin to pound / You say you’re tired and you just want to close your eyes / And follow your dreams down / Well, we made a promise we swore we’d always remember / No retreat, baby, no surrender”.

In The Promised Land, the narrator is rendered so impotent by his situation that he must will himself to be a man of action: “Working all day in my daddy’s garage / Driving all night chasing some mirage / Pretty soon, little girl, I’m gonna take charge / The dogs on Main Street howl / Cause they understand / If I could take one moment into my hands / Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man / And I believe in a promised land”.

Of course, diving so passionately into life isn’t in itself a guarantee of happiness and fulfillment. Much of the beauty of Springsteen’s rallying cries stems from the acknowledgment on his part that hardship is an inextricable part of life, that the indeterminate nature of the future means that we should expect to stumble.

In Springsteen’s parlance, just because he has the intuition to set off down the highway, to chase something greater than what could ever be found here, doesn’t mean he can predict everything that will happen along the way.

Thus, we have songs like With Every Wish, in which the narrator tells us, “These days I sit around and laugh / At the many rivers I’ve crossed / But on the far banks there’s always another forest / Where a man can get lost / Well, there in the high trees love’s bluebird glides / Guiding us across to another river on the other side”.

In Waitin’ On A Sunny Day, the singer describes moments of pain as inexorably natural: “Hard times, baby well they come to us all / Sure as the tickin’ of the clock on the wall / Sure as the turnin’ of night into day”.

More succinctly, the hapless narrator of Girls In Their Summer Clothes reminds us, “Love’s a fool’s dance / I ain’t got much sense / But I’ve still got my feet”.

Springsteen is kinesis incarnate, a sonic preacher for whom the mere search for redemption is a kind of salvation unto itself. He admonishes, in a way that rarely feels didactic or heavy-handed, that we abandon the comfortable in pursuit of the ecstasy that accompanies having followed a dream.

But what are we to make of this continual searching, this ravenous hunger for love and connection and a sense of place that has yet to be satiated for Springsteen?

Perhaps that it’s in yearning that we exact from life what we need to reach spiritual fulfillment. That happiness lies not in having followed your ambitions to some divine, mythic conclusion that’s essentially akin to death, but rather in ceaselessly resisting the ease of stasis, to only ever grasp at the fruits of passion, music, and love for moments at a time.

Those who look for invisible game will never stop hunting.

Best,

Eli.