Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: The Soundtrack To Your Funeral, Part V: Our Forgotten Vow

13 February 2008

The Soundtrack To Your Funeral, Part V: Our Forgotten Vow



Download this entry's song and listen along to my commentary:

Of Montreal - The Repudiated Immortals

The creator of what's now cliché had some funny words to say
”All you little things are incomplete”
Why did he speak of us that way?
I don't cry, no, 'cause I don't care
It's very hard to feel the way we used to feel up there
The creator of what's now cliché
Wants us little things to cry and feel alone

But no, don't don't lose hope - no, no, no, no
No, no, no, don't feel sad
'Cause it's a violent world
But there's still beauty
I'll take care of you if you take care of me

I like to sit and listen to the sound
Of the snowflakes landing on the trees
But I can't get used to feeling cold
I can't get used to what has happened here to you and me
There's no escaping so I won't try
It's just the heaviness that comes with knowing you will never die

But no, don't don't lose hope - no, no, no, no
No, no, no, don't feel sad
'Cause it's a violent world
But there's still beauty
I'll take care of you if you take care of me

There's something about this song that moves me in a way that few songs ever do. Much like the music from the previous entry of this series, Cake's "End of the Movie" and "Tougher Than It Is," Of Montreal's "The Repudiated Immortals" is an anomalously profound and intimate offering from a band that usually revels in silliness, and so it penetrates my unsuspecting mind much deeper than it otherwise might. As Stuart Davis likes to say of his own music, this track "Brings God back where it belongs - in the hook of a three-minute pop song." (This one clocks in at an even-slimmer 2:18) Of Montreal's psychedelic cacophony is temporarily contained, and in its stead appears this incredible bauble, a precious statement that holds in its spare and prosaic couplets an impossible poetry.

Maybe this is a funny (or "funny") song to play at a funeral: a peppy, poppy diddy about the incredible frustration of immmortality as a small and splintered self, struggling to accept the limitations of embodiment in the face of divine disdain. But beneath the veneer of its bouncing bassline, frail tenor, and drum machine kitsch, "The Repudiated Immortals" is simultaneously one of the saddest and most reassuring songs I have ever heard. It points to a truth so deep and meaningful that it is among the rare and precious pieces of music that clearly communicate the double bind of life and death as I know it. It is this embrace of paradox, this comfortable expression of the polarity and ambiguity of existence, that touches me more deeply than any straightforward and univalent declaration. Popular spiritual anthems like U2's "One" can make a glorious statement, but usually lack this depth of subtlety. Existence doesn't offer us a single easy answer; it bombards us with conflicting pluralisms that we have no way to rationally digest.

I don't know how other people perceive this song - whether they think it's a joke, or what. To me, it's as true as the Bhagavad Gita. (And considerably more concise.) At the risk of sounding crazy (and when was the last time that stopped me?), here's why.

Last week I was hanging out in the graveyard with a friend of mine, one of several that enjoys the reverent innocence of cavorting among the resting spirits and marble-etched profundities (go find yourself a copy of The Bible and look up Psalm 39:4-5, and see what I mean). Sitting in the crook of an ancient tree, we pulled our coats up around our necks, fluffing like birds in the cold brightness of the sun as it slid behind the mountains. I made some comment about the cold and she said, "I'm used to being cold."

She grew up in Boulder, but I grew up in Los Angeles and Orlando. The cold is as foreign to me as the warm winters of my childhood years must have been to my Kansas City mother. It's another reminder of my confusing embodiment - born with crooked feet and a crooked nose, I lope through the world with an awkward bouncing stride and breathe through one nostril more than the other. Sinus trouble keeps me from diving more than a few feet underwater. I teeter and twirl, my movements generally experimental, a fledgling bird's. My mind seems timelessly ancient, but in this life I feel newer than most. Not younger - just a more recent arrival to form. Beauty makes sense to me in a way that many things do not, and so:

I like to sit and listen to the sound
Of the snowflakes landing on the trees
But I can't get used to feeling cold
I can't get used to what has happened here to you and me


Like many of my friends, I am working through not being quite comfortably human. The world is easy to imagine, but difficult to meet. Existence was a bait and switch with which I am now trying to make best.

And so it's little surprise that I had a dream last spring in which my friends and I all convened between lives to share stories and excitement for our next foray. When the time came to dive back into new separate selves and individual limitedess, I fell, a simple swooning of inability, a submission beyond choice. The graft hadn't taken. I had gotten my one life as a human being; it was something for which I was not really cut out, and now - that mission over - something I would never do again. No failure, no shame, and only the shadow of yearning - not rejoining my beloved souls on Earth was as inevitable and as matter-of-fact as the first moment after unimaginable news, before interpretation, when the ground and body disappear from beneath and the spinning and falling are everything, no cause, no effect. Plainly and inarguably, human nature was a coat that hadn't fit. Only the smallest cry of sadness lay like a black pearl in the gut of my uninhibited weeping. The suffering was crystal clear and imminent, but not mine - it gushed forth in waves of affectless intensity while I effulged compassion from a thousand miles above. Collapsing onto what I thought was a bed, I landed on the shock of a hard floor - no yielding relief, even as an immaterial idea. Not embracing brokenness in full flush as a human being was no guarantee against the pain of existential mystery.

I suppose a lot of people are familiar with this feeling in one way or another. We are all slightly incredulous to the limits of our being. But:

There's no escaping so I won't try
It's just the heaviness that comes with knowing you will never die


The narrator of this song is Christ on the Cross. This song is for everyone nailed to the painful intersection between the vivid and intimate knowing of our own divinity and the bafflement of physical constraint, any of us who have yet to resolve the paradox of being.

Tibetan Buddhism speaks of the boddhisattvas, enlightened beings who made the promise to return again and again forever, until the entire world remembers its liberated essence. When that happens, the game begins anew. All of us are buddhas with amnesia, fumbling home drunk and lonely. We are all eternal but spend half the time in ignorance of the agreement.

Down here, at the bottom of our well of incompleteness, the bright light of the surface warm but out of reach, what is there for us to do but recognize our common plight? What greater comfort can we find than in the mutual consolation that we each face this strangeness together? In the divide, there is a deeper union. In that union, a deeper divide. With no explanation and no offramp, we make the best of what's around. Sometimes it feels like we are trapped; but if we are trapped, we are trapped together. And it's actually quite pretty down here - look! My first word was "good."

No, don't don't lose hope - no, no, no, no
No, no, no, don't feel sad
'Cause it's a violent world
But there's still beauty
I'll take care of you if you take care of me


We trade one vow for another, back and forth. When we are the sleeping meek, we lie protected beyond our knowing, secure in the palms of saints. Sooner or later, our turn comes to offer midwifing and hospice. We hold the sobbing child, and then we are the sobbing child, love in a circuit flowing forever.

And that's why I love this song.

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Appendix: I read the following passage, from "Alternative Cosmologies and Altered States," by Stanislav Grof, last night and feel compelled to include it here. Grof's argument is that we must seriously consider the overwhelming empirical evidence that suggests the survival of consciousness after death - knowing that confirmed awareness of an immortal soul (in whatever guise) would radically transform our contemporary morality.

"Whether or not we believe in survival of consciousness after death, reincarnation, and karma, it has very serious implications for our behavior. The idea that belief in immortality has profound moral implications can be found already in Plato, who in Lawshas Socrates say that disconcern for the postmortem consequences of one's deeds would be 'a boon to the wicked.' Modern authors such as Alan Harrington and Ernest Becker have emphasized that massive denial of death leads to social pathologies that have dangerous consequences for humanity. Modern consciousness research certainly supports this point of view.

At a time when a combination of unbridled greed, malignant aggression, and existence of weapons of mass destruction threatens the survival of humanity and possibly life on this planet, we should seriously consider any avenue that offers some hope. While this is not a sufficient reason for embracing uncritically the material suggesting survival of consciousness after death, it should be an additional incentive for reviewing the existing data with an open mind and in the spirit of true science. The same applies to the powerful experiential technologies involving non-ordinary states of consciousness that make it possible to confront the fear of death and can facilitate deep positive personality changes and spiritual opening. A radical inner transformation and rise to a new level of consciousness might be the only real hope we have in the current global crisis."

(Written for iggli.com)