Monday, March 18, 2013

Jason Molina and the missing superheroes

[The following is cross-posted with my academic group-blog, little group is taken. I probably ought to have been cross-posting for the past little while, but c'est la vie. I will in the future, at least for substantive posts.]

I don't claim an exhaustive knowledge of superheroes, or even of a subset of them. I know only the pop heroes—Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the X-men, basically whoever's had a tv show or movie made about them. The pop heroes tell us something about ourselves, I think, tell us about our aspirations. They also tell us about who, and what, we erase about ourselves.

This is a post inspired,1 in part, by the death of Jason Molina. Molina was the creative spirit behind Songs:Ohia and the Magnolia Electric Company, projects which I can only compare to the sense of watching the stars and understanding—being terrified, really—of your own insignificance; but having someone else's hand to grip while you do it.

The music, the songs, provide simply the knowledge that, even if you can only go through your darkness alone, you are not the only one.

Is that solidarity? Of a sense, I suppose.

But superheroes. Molina's song "Farewell Transmission" goes like this:

"I feel his ghost breathing down my back
I will try and know whatever I try,
I will be gone but not forever
I will try and know whatever I try,
I will be gone but not forever
The real truth about it is
no one gets it right
The real truth about it is
we're all supposed to try
There ain't no end to the sands
I've been trying to cross
The real truth about it is
my kind of life's no better off
if it's got the maps or if it's lost"

and this—this and bizarrely this—is what made me think of superheroes, of the superheroes I don't know exist. Specifically I think of superhero motivation: Superman is the embodiment of All That Is Good; Batman is driven by the misattribution of vengeance onto the "criminal class"; Spiderman is "just like us" and has to learn responsibility; Wolverine of the X-men is gruff, and reluctant, but fights for right when it counts.

I could go on. "Farewell Transmission," I think, presents an emotional logic missing, or erased. It is Superman who does not marry Lois Lane, because he wants to be loved for being Clark Kent; it is Bruce Wayne driven not by revenge but by the oceans of love that remain dry within him.

These heroes, my putative Clark Kents and Bruce Waynes, are heroes to earn the love of others; but that love is a love for them exclusive of what they do. They don't feel loved for who they are, but the paradox is that in helping others they become all the more loved for what they do.

These heroes do good to contain the tragedy within themselves.

Even if these heroes exist in the comics—and they very well may—she is not present equally in wider cultural life. They don't make for a good movie, but the struggle is completely internal. But it solves a different problem: why Batman never gets bored of being Batman. They do; but quitting makes the problem worse, not better. There is no need for goodness to shine through, just the hand in the dark.

I don't want to suggest that Jason Molina was a superhero, or like one. I never knew him. I hazily recall meeting him once many years ago, and mostly this memory is that he wasn't so slight as I had expected. He died, reportedly of organ failure.

In "The Big Game is Every Night," the lyrics

"Let it be me helping
Let it be me honestly
Let it be me working
On being a better me"

become, at the end of the song

"If I'm all fangs and all lies and all poison
if I'm really what they're saying
I don't want to disappoint them"

So I suggest this only about the persona that wrote Magnolia Electric Co: that the narrator of the songs ached to be loved for his faults, rather than for his accomplishments. But trying, creating, was that hand in the dark looking at the stars. Without it, the dark is all encompassing. Without it, we have only ourselves. We try, and perhaps fail, but we try.

"The real truth," Molina sang in "Farewell Transmission," "is we're all supposed to try."

1"Inspired" in the sense of "got me into contemplative reflection," rather than "touched by the muse of" Jason.

Tidepooling, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Moss Beach, California

Friday, February 03, 2012

On rooting

One funny thing about being in La Patrona, about being on this side,1 is that now I root for everyone to get across safely.

Not that I was against it before; but when you talk with folks and come to understand the hardship they've come from is so severe that the hardship they're going to—on the other side, in the U.S.—looks like paradise; when you see a train where the folks get off and you see the faces terrified by something that happened along the line, when you can see it in their eyes and the ways they move their bodies, and you know that the stories of the Zeta kidnappings are not a joke2; when a good-looking, dark-skinned Honduran3 with just a wisp of a beard on his chin tells you, tells you, that "to go to the US and work as a painter, maybe in a garden, it is my dream"; when a man who's fallen off the train, who slipped when he was climbing up a ladder as the train started moving off a siding, is more concerned with finding a friend from home again that being treated for his abrasions and contusions and the gravel still lodged in his back; when you see a couple every day who are working in Mexico because their third friend who they were travelling with robbed them one night, including their shoes, and was gone in the morning; when they casually mention that for four days further south there was nothing to eat but mangos; when all the migrants want to learn a few phrases in English, and you've got the line about us not really using "good afternoon" down4; when the guys who didn't make it, the guys going back home—Santos from El Salvador one night, and before him Rene from Honduras, and before him Hector (also) from El Salvador—talk your ear off because they've been so scared and reserved and caution and alone for two and a half months (Santos) or two months (Rene) or three months (Hector); when one of the guys going home tells you he only finished the second year of primary school and later asks you, the gringo, the guys he's speaking to with simple words so you can have a conversation—he asks you how to spell "Calle de la Cruz"; when you talk to the migrants going either direction and realize that whatever they earn is always divided up, always remitted, in other words that they give to the families that they can only go back and see on pain of completing (or not) their journeys north again; when they are thankful for being recognized as people, just that; it is hard not to want them to find what they are after.


1Este lado and otro lado, this side and the other side, are the ways we talk about the border here.

2See, for instance, 72 Migrantes, which tells the stories of the 72 bodies found in San Fernando, Tamaulipas in August 2010. San Fernando is about 1,000 km north of La Patrona, 1,000 km closer to the border; most of the time 1,000 km more hopeful.

3Oh man, Mexico and race is craziness. I can only assert to you that this is pertinent.

4In Spanish it's normal to switch from "buenos dias" to "buenas tardes" at noon. We don't really do that.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Back in La Patrona...

...and everything looks pretty much the same.

I forgot to bring my usb stick home with me, so I won't be able to post pics till Sunday or so--watch for them then, loyal reader(s).

There is a really good movie called De Nadie that features the Patronas for a 5-minute or so section in the middle. The whole thing is up on youtube.

  • Part 1/8:
  • Part 2/8:
  • Part 3/8:
  • Part 4/8:
  • Part 5/8 (with the Patronas toward the end):
  • Part 6/8 (with the Patronas):
  • Part 7/8:
  • Part 8/8: