Live In The Moment At Concerts (Because Writers Can’t)

Aside from the fact that her hand was in my way...this girl had been recording for OVER A MINUTE. How much did she miss out on?!

Mediated art: Aside from the fact that her hand was in my way…this girl had been recording for OVER A MINUTE. How much did she miss out on?!

They were the most stereotypical punk couple I had ever seen. The guy rocked a studded leather jacket with chains protruding from his pockets. The girl had as many piercings in her face as tattoos on her arms and chest—which is to say, more than she could count on her black-painted fingernails. And they were going absolutely nuts to the crazed music of Oklahoma-based garage rockers BRONCHO.

One part of me was terrified for my brain as I ducked the guy’s flying elbows. Another part of me was annoyed, because as hard as it already is to take notes at a concert in the dark, it’s even harder when someone’s smacking into your arm every few seconds. My music-reviewing handwriting usually comes out somewhere between a drug prescription and a first grader going sans pencil grippie for the first time; this night, I essentially scribbled out an EKG of the punks’ dance energy. If the purpose of note taking is to write down specific occurrences from a band’s performance, then I had cramped up my hand for no reason.

But as I decompressed in bed later that night, away from the sweat-soaked floor of Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, a different feeling washed over me: gratitude. Gratitude at the ecstasy of the dancers, who were so completely lost in the music that they made no notice of their immediate surroundings (read: me). Gratitude at the group of eight or so yuppies shaking and shimmying for the entirety of the opening band’s set. But most of all, gratitude at the lack of damn cell phones in hand at all times.

It happens at nearly every notable concert I attend, and it eats away at me. Instead of dancing to songs that were meant for dancing, people in the midst of the general admission throng stand as still as they possibly can (not very, given the hubbub of the setting) and loft their Galaxy S4s and iPhone 6Ss skyward to capture as many moments as possible for posterity. Maybe they’ll Snapchat the anthemic choruses to their friends, or post an Instagram clip of the amazing drop or guitar solo expecting to rake in at least a hundred likes. Maybe they just want something to watch the next day as they’re coming down from the emotional high of the previous evening.

To some extent, I’m fine with that. The sensory aspects of memory respond powerfully to pictures and videos that allow us to relive amazing moments of our lives. We can revive some of those indelible feelings, recapture an afterglow of elation, and reminisce on the already happy past with rose-colored lenses. Pride plays a role as well, as we incorporate the experiences into our sense of self and share them with friends as if we’re somehow better people for having been there.

But in the process of recording the present for the future’s sake, what do we miss in the present?

Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of music as the artistic expression of the Dionysian, the formless, abyssal life force that aches to direct human action. The Dionysian cannot be contained within the boundaries of a self, or transcendent value, or time—it’s spontaneous, it’s life-affirming, it’s completely within the moment. Stepping out of the immersive, ecstatic experience of a concert to document the moment in the permanent form of a picture or video is a denial of the music’s very life energy. And if you’re not experiencing the music in full, if you wrench yourself away with an eye on social media or later viewing pleasure, your memory of the show—both in your mind and in your smartphone—will not make up for the fact that you didn’t make the most of the moment.

This is a notion I struggle with any time I’m on the job. Do I look down at my notepad to ensure that I’ll be able to recount the setlist in detail and risk missing a frontman’s priceless facial expression? When I snap a picture and view the concert through the camera’s eye, even for a few seconds at a time, can I adequately track the stream of emotions the music evokes in me? How can I even review a concert accurately when the very act of review not only can never recreate the experience, but actually changes the experience by putting it through the filter of my hippocampus? I do my best to strike a balance, keeping one foot in the sonic river and one foot on the dry bank of objectivity—after all, the people who will read the review weren’t at the show, so I need a taste of outside perspective to do them justice.

I wonder how other journalists feel when they cover a live event, particularly in an age when they’re expected to keep one hand on their Twitter at all times. Social media has made it much easier to follow along with breaking news from home, but would we get a more accurate and more valuable narrative if we allowed our reporters to submerge themselves in the present and then churn out the story later, in a time of reflection?

Unfortunately, it’s part of the writer’s credo to live in the present and the future simultaneously. This is not required of concertgoers. And yet so many choose to eschew the glorious ecstasy of the moment for the translucent idea of collecting artifacts. By using a recording to supplement memory, they sacrifice the true timelessness of the experience.

I envy the punks who were able to lose themselves in dance at the BRONCHO show. I just wish more people would follow their lead.

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Nietzsche Would Have Loved Summer Camp.

One of Zarathustra's many songs would have made Nietzsche very happy around the campfire.

Singing one of Zarathustra’s many songs would have made Nietzsche very happy around the campfire.

Song of the day: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

Today marks the middle of the summer at North Star Camp in Hayward, Wisconsin.  This morning, over a hundred boys between the ages of eight and fifteen finished up their four-week session in the North Woods and returned home to their families.  About sixty others are spending the day with their parents, four weeks of camp under their belts elastic waistbands and another four to go.  And tomorrow afternoon, the reinforcements will arrive: over a hundred new campers to replace today’s departed for the next month.

For the first time since 2003, I am not taking part in the North Star revelries.  After five summers as a camper and six on staff it was time to move on to the next chapter of my life (that of being a struggling writer).  I miss camp, and I probably always will.  But the lessons I learned there over the past eleven years will continue to form an integral part of my personality.

I could extol the benefits of being a camp counselor for the next year, without pausing to eat or drink or sleep or go to the bathroom, and still have more to say.  Others, from Fortune 500 CEOs to education professionals, have covered that ground thoroughly.  Camp teaches grit, fosters multidimensional growth in children and teenagers, and aids in the development of leadership skills.  What they haven’t done, though, is an analysis of camp from a Nietzschean perspective.  That’s why I’m here: to tell you that he would have looked at camp and seen a paradise for the will to power.

Two summers ago, instead of telling my 13-year-old campers a made-up bedtime story or playing guitar as I usually did, I pulled out a well-worn copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and explained to them my rudimentary understanding of Nietzsche’s thought.  They found it fascinating, but I hadn’t yet read The Birth of Tragedy or Beyond Good and Evil or The Genealogy of Morals, so the job was far from complete.  Most crucially, I lacked a real understanding of the Apollonian and Dionysian, the two opposing forces that drive art and creation.  To fully comprehend them, I suggest you read The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s earliest significant work, but here I’ll summarize.

The Apollonian, named after Apollo–the god of order, among other things–is the impulse to create forms out of the world, while the Dionysian–named after Dionysus, who represents self-less ecstasy–is a sort of nihilistic energy that stems from the absurdity of human existence and inspires spontaneous action without care for harmony or forms.  In an ideal world or work of art (Nietzsche cites Greek Tragedy pre-Euripedes as the epitome), the two work together, with the Dionysian energy constantly being shaped by the Apollonian into a form that we can understand and then subsequently destroying that form to create a new one.  It’s helpful to think of the Apollonian as a mask and the Dionysian as sheer inspiration behind it.  Without the Apollonian, the Dionysian can’t be expressed in human language or sense, but without the Dionysian, the Apollonian remains a lifeless facade with no energy to shape into forms.

When they’re described like that, the Dionysian seems pretty horrible to behold–existentialist philosophers would spend the next century grappling with the meaninglessness and terror of life that it brings to mind.  But the Apollonian alone is just as bad.  In Nietzsche’s mind, you can’t live in denial of this world’s fundamental lack of objective meaning, morality, and values and simultaneously experience life the way it naturally happens.  So life’s goal becomes one of overcoming your tendency to let the Apollonian dominate and instead allowing the Dionysian to express itself–an impulse Nietzsche calls the will to power and an aspiration he terms the übermensch.  And at camp, the comparative absence of “real world” formations makes it much easier for this balance to be achieved.

When kids go to camp, they often leave behind home lives where their days are rigorously scheduled, where there isn’t much time or mental space for them to think and create for themselves.  When they aren’t being shepherded from school to extracurricular activities, they have access to TVs and phones that might set limits on their creative and intellectual development.  Of course, for some creative types technology has opened vast new realms of innovation–the existence of pre-teen YouTube celebrities is proof that not every kid uses a screen for zombification only–but for many others it’s just another obstacle in the way of their self-overcoming, another Apollonian form that suppresses the Dionysian impulse for absurdity and spontaneity.

At camp, though, kids enter a universe outside of their parents’ colossal shadow and the distracting, overwhelming fray of modern society, where it is nearly impossible for a child to exert independence.  All camps have rules to ensure the physical, emotional, and social safety of all campers, and most of them have some sort of schedule of activities each day.  But compared to life outside the camp bubble–and this is particularly true of overnight camps, where the bubble is more complete–social formations are less structured and free time abounds.  With the guidance of a steady, open-minded counselor, the Dionysian energy that elsewhere finds itself in chains can break loose and contribute spectacularly to the development of campers’ values and creativity.

One of my favorite examples of a camp-fueled Dionysian outburst occurred two summers ago at the lunch table.  A couple of my campers, seemingly out of nowhere, began singing a number from Les Miserables between bites of their grilled cheese sandwiches.  I don’t know how “I Dreamed a Dream” gets stuck in a thirteen-year-old boy’s head, but it apparently had happened and now we were all listening to them impersonate Susan Boyle.  Would this have occurred at their houses back in the Chicago suburbs with their parents?  As a camp counselor your interactions with parents are minimal, so for all I know they may come from families that regularly bring Broadway to their meals…but I would venture a guess that no, this was an anomaly.  I found it highly entertaining, though, and wanted to see it continue in a way that would a) not become stale and annoying after two minutes and b) involve more of the group.  So on the spot I announced, “This is now an OPERA LUNCH.  You all must SING instead of speaking.”

What followed was the most memorable lunch I will ever eat.  My campers devised melodies on the spot to ask for the milk and tell each other about their morning activities, occasionally belting out a soprano proclamation at the taste of their food or dropping down to (a pubertal approximation of) a baritone to discuss what their rest period plans would be.  Fortunately none of them were tone-deaf enough to make me regret my decision.  By the time we were clearing the table, things had progressed into full-blown a capella versions of “Defying Gravity,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and the obligatory grand finale: “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  There it was: the Dionysian energy of music transfigured into the Apollonian formation of a normal lunch, and the ordinary transfigured into the extraordinary.

The most important aspect of camp is this freedom to create at all times.  The moral framework and creative interests the campers have developed at home come with them, but in the context of a new community without the cloying influence of the outside world they find their potential as value-creators, if not completely unfettered then at least possessing a far-lengthened leash.  And so long as their creation remains on the side of affirming life and others’ freedom to create for themselves, there needn’t be any problems or moral issues with this type of expression.  They can come home with an appreciation for their ability to exert Dionysian power through the lens of the Apollonian (even if they don’t have those terms for it) and, hopefully, attempt to carry the lessons they’ve learned at camp into the rest of their lives.

I doubt Nietzsche considered the possibility that his thought would be applied to summer camps.  But if he could have spent four weeks at North Star, I think he would have shared my appreciation for the place.  It’s not quite Zarathustra’s mountain, and it probably preaches a little too much reliance on friendship for his liking, but overall it’s hard to find a place where the will to power can shine through more powerfully.

To all the campers who returned home today, I say, “Keep it up,” and to all the campers who remain, I say, “Make it life-affirming.”  As for me, I’ll continue to strive to make the world more like camp–a place where the Dionysian doesn’t have to be chased.

 

What Am I Doing Here?

If I live my life to the creative maximum, will I also try to prevent a horse from being flogged and spend the last ten years of my life as a mental invalid?

If I live my life to the creative maximum, will I also try to prevent a horse from being flogged and spend the last ten years of my life as a mental invalid?

Once and for all, I decided to create a blog that wouldn’t grow obsolete over time.

I’m no longer inside the safety of the Vandy bubble, so the website I maintained for my radio show there has been passed down to a young protege.  And I’m no longer traipsing around Europe with two of my best friends, so it would make no sense for me to convert my account of our travels into a personal space to rant about life afterwards.  That would be like the million false endings of Return of the King except if the movie had continued past Samwise closing his door and just showed him getting older and fatter each year.

So a new website was necessary.  Luckily WordPress doesn’t have a limit on how many websites I can create.  The only inconvenience was having to create yet another Gmail account, but I suppose in the long run that will actually be a benefit–when Chasing the Dionysian inevitably becomes world-famous, I won’t need to sift through all the spambots commenters’ messages in my personal inbox.  Meanwhile, back in reality, I’ll check the new email every day and sigh when the only comments are from my mother and maybe my grandma.

So why did I name this blog Chasing the Dionysian, you ask?  Great question, I was hoping this would come up!  I even thought to prepare an answer for you!

During my college years I came to several major realizations about my life and myself, but two are particularly relevant to this story: first, that I love the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche; and second, that I am going to make my living as a creator.  That’s a really vague term, I know, but I think Nietzsche would’ve been a fan.  After all, he based his entire value system on the concept that there should be no such thing as a set value system–no permanent definitions, morals, religion, not even a permanent attachment to our own past.  For him, the one constant that underlies life is the will to power, which is an instinctive drive to say “yes” to life as it happens and constantly reshape what we believe in most firmly.  To grasp any value, lover, or past identity for longer than the moment is to chain ourselves to something that denies life and remove ourselves from the freedom afforded by constant change.  The formless force that drives us to overcome these bastions of self is called the DIONYSIAN, and the person who can express it continuously is the UBERMENSCH.

As much as I love Nietzsche’s ideas and as much as I will defend him from people who associate him with Nazis (a tragic result of his anti-Semitic sister altering her brother’s works after his 1889 mental collapse), I don’t think I will ever be the Ubermensch.  I don’t think that’s attainable for anybody.  We like other people too much, we steadfastly maintain our beliefs, we can’t escape ruminating over the decisions and events that have defined who we are today.  The person who truly overcomes themselves lives a lonely life.  Is that worth it?  Not to me.

But I can still let Nietzsche inspire me, particularly on my creative side.  I want to write blogs and movies and books and webseries.  I want to interview interesting musicians and film their performances and put them up on YouTube.  I want to make music myself and maybe join a band and quit the full-time job I don’t have yet because I just don’t know what I want out of life and I’ve had to fight the paralysis of indecision for the past I-don’t-know-how-many months.  I am untapped creative potential without focus, and I live in a world of distracting people and newsfeeds that hinders my development as a creator.  But if I keep Nietzsche in mind and always ask myself what the life-affirming, value-creating choice would be in any given situation, I think I will turn out alright.

Maybe one day I’ll actually turn into Dionysus and I’ll throw myself a massive Bacchanalia and anyone who likes my blog posts will be invited.  But until that day, I’ll just be a young man in Chicago, trying to create something new every minute as I navigate through the craze of my 20s.  Check back here as often as you want for updates on how that’s going, what I’m thinking about, and maybe some cool features.  Or don’t check back at all–Nietzsche would admire your fierce independence.