Surrealpolitik: Fear of Music

Author: Jonathan Lethem

New York: Bloomsbury (2012)

Quick Summary

Lethem's take on the Talking Heads album, which includes some useful thoughts on Dada and paranoia.


There are 10 quotes currently associated with this book.

[About the opening track I Zimbra] For anyone demanding sense, or instructions on how to feel about the journey you've undertaken in dropping the phonograph's needle on this particular record, here's a Dada left hook to the jaw. (page 2)
Tags: [Dada]
Talking Heads were meant to epitomize my opportunities to construct a cool that pointed away from "the street," and towards bookish things, but was still cool. I didn't need them glancing at Africa, with or without quotation marks...Into this confusion plopped the clue: Hugo Ball. Finding "I Zimbra" credited in part to the dead Dada poet, I could modulate my worries about this turn to the African, but only a little. My ears were still telling me something, still anxiously parsing this harbinger of the band's future (destined, of course, to consist of a series of collaborations with live black musicians, not dead Dada poets). (page 4-5)
Tags: [Dada]
Hugo Ball's poem, by deflecting meaning, accumulated speculative-interpretive force, like a Rorschach blot. Dada -- European, coloristic, prone to manifestoes and provocation, to sneering at history -- made a fair bedfellow for punk. The song claimed a precursor in Dada's guttural and spasmodic presentation, and its freedom from conventional logic, but also its tendency to the regimented and doctrinaire. Hugo Ball's drill-sargeanty nonsense, and the immobile geometric armor he wore while presenting it onstage: these both satirized the human impulse to control human impulses, and exemplified the discipline needed to make that kind of artwork. (page 6)
Tags: [Impact, Dada]
"I Zimbra"'s origin encodes Fear of Music's motifs in one other sense: the Dada movement itself was a response to "life during wartime." The european aftermath of the Great War seemed to dwarf all attempts at humane commemoration or remorse; trench warfare and mustard gas and shellshock were the language Hugo Ball and his fellow Dadaists sought to overwrite with their avant-gibberish. (page 9)
Tags: [Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Everyday Life, Dada]
"I'm dreaming of a city / It was my own invention."...At the same time, a city exists. Another lyric from "What a Day That Was" explodes the dream with fierce actuality: "There are fifty thousand beggars / Roaming in the streets." If your gaze was really steady enough to see what's before you, there might be reasons to wish to leave this place. (page 65)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Lead Quote Candidate, Dreams]
Paranoia has its downsides as an agency in daily life, or in the political sphere of collective action, which finds itself beset everywhere by the nightmarish influence of conspiracy thinking (they call it theory, but theories exist to be tested, and conspiracy thinking exists never to be tested, and globally ignores the results of tests imposed by others). The suspicion that malign operators are responsible for every one of the injustices and heartbreaks of existence is a consoling view, a balm to bleak glimpses of the void behind our reality. (page 107)

[From chapter: Is Fear of Music a Paranoid Record?]
Tags: [Politics & Art, Truth & Real, Conspiracy]
It's brave to pursue truth, and brave to pursue and expose tricky and well-hidden bad guys (Nazi doctors, Pentagon intelligence-distorters, etc.). It's not brave to think tricky, well-hidden bad guys are the whole truth of what's out there. It might even be bravery's opposite. Or maybe it should go under the name "religion." (page 108)
Tags: [Conspiracy]
For an individual social operator, moving through realms of gossip, through pecking orders and cliques and workplace water-cooler herds, or the even more intimate sphere of requited or unrequited love or friendship, paranoia's not much more attractive or serviceable:...That figure's a universally comic or pitiable one -- the jealous husbands of Shakespeare's Othello or Preston Sturges Unfaithfully Yours, or the Zoonoidal narrator of "Animals." (page 108)
Tags: [Conspiracy]
A remark -- actually a lyric -- comes to bear: "There is a war / Between the ones who say there is a war / And the ones who say that there isn't." (It's from a Leonard Cohen song.) Paranoid art says, basically, there is a war. Between the one who is looking to find something to change your mind, and the mind that doesn't want to be changed; between the sleepers and those awake, between you and the air and the animals; possibly between heaven and earth. Paranoid art insists on tracking lines (drawn on paper, perhaps): lines of force and influence, force fields of motivation, codes of power. It reinscribes the image of something at stake that others may prefer to obscure. This art traffics in interpretation, and so beckons interpretation on the part of its audience. (page 108-109)
Tags: [Politics & Art, Conspiracy]
Perhaps above all, paranoid art is usefully confused about what is on the inside and what is on the outside of the container. Which is the place the war is to be fought?...Paranoid art is where Copernicus goes to be persistently overthrown, for it has noticed that consciousness is itself a permanent conspiracy theory, and one that is ipso facto correct. I think, therefore I am at the center of this story. Even if I don't want to be. Even if I'd rather sleep. While paranoia in everyday life asks questions it believes have terrifying answers, paranoid art knows the more terrifying (and inevitable) discoveries are further questions. For paranoid art, unlike paranoid persons, also distrusts itself. And so, paranoid art is the ultimate opposite, the urgent opposite, of complacent art. (page 109)
Tags: [Politics & Art, Everyday Life, Conspiracy]