Culture Shock

 

Here’s what we’re into this season.

Seen or heard something amazing recently? Send your 200-word review to editor@areweeurope.eu and get published. 

 

MUSIC

Really Love - D'Angelo and The Vanguard

by Pietro Zappala

I've always loved music—like, really, really loved—so there was no way in hell I was not going to really, really love "Really Love." It’s the embodiment of a jazz-soul orgy, a scrumptious fruit-salad of acoustics and feel. In the intro, we feel a greedily-loved soul release its constraints with a suffocated sigh. Tu estas jodiendome la vida. This exasperation culminates in a rainbow of sweetness, where a thumpy, jazzy kick-drum decides to chaperone an exuberant bassline through the swirls of this splash of colours. Spanish guitar is sprinkled like lemon all over the place, making love to harps, clarinets, strings and yes, fucking French horns. Bienvenue au ménage à quatre. This song should make you want to grab the one you love, squeeze him or her like an orange and drown in its juice.


The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs - Wye Oak

by Jackson Webster

This May, 2018 album from American dream pop duo Wye Oak was created by trading demos while singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer Andy Stack were living thousands of miles apart, in North Carolina and Marfa, Texas, respectively. Wasner's lyrics betray a kind of frustrated introversion, at times seemingly vindictive. The single "It Was Not Natural" contains lines about the troubled relationship between an artist and their work, where working is too emotionally stressful to bear but is also the only thing that keeps the artist going.


Animal Collective performs Sung Tongs

by Bram Hilkens

Ever felt like experiencing music made by highly intelligent eight-year-olds who just discovered an espresso machine, caffeine dips included? Or perhaps it was just some guys on LSD. Either way, you’re in luck. 2004’s Sung Tongs, the fourth studio album by experimental indie band Animal Collective, is an extant pool of magnificence. After first performing the album live at Pitchfork last December, Avey Tare and Panda Bear are taking the record to stages across the world. With gorgeous, inimitable vocal harmonies over drone-y and/or jumpy acoustic guitars, Sung Tongs sounds homey, tribal, and ethereal, often all at once. Like spirits from a forest, you would never actually deem it possible to behold its exertion unfiltered with your own senses. Seeing it performed live, then, feels nothing short of a miracle.


THEATRE

 

Hamilton: The Musical (and how to make peace with the hype)

by Viola Stefanello

As a huge consumer of American TV shows, I’ve been running into inside jokes about Hamilton: The Musical for years. Characters living all around the United States, no matter what their story was about, all had this one shared obsession: somehow managing to grab a ticket for this one specific musical that was sold-out from the minute it starred on Broadway. The hype was deafening – to the point that for this one very specific reason I absolutely refused to listen to this musical, even when it single-handedly landed a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Although the musical came on Broadway in 2015, it was only in late 2017, when I casually heard a few theatre kids from my university practice the musical’s Helpless for an upcoming play, I finally understood what all the hype was about. Almost a year later, there isn’t a person I care about I haven’t annoyed with the story of Alexander Hamilton, the immigrant founding father of the United States that sings alongside Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the Marquis de LaFayette while reflecting on the meaning on his historical legacy. It’s basically a historian’s dream come true.

Summing it up in a few words would be impossible, so I’ll paint a very confusing mental image for you. Imagine listening to an historically accurate musical about very white figures, all interpreted by a non-white cast rapping about war, love, independence, betrayal, loss and redemption dressed in period clothes. If I still haven’t convinced you about how epic Hamilton is, I only have one thing to add: it’s Barack Obama’s favorite musical. What more do you want?


 ART 

The Ghost Library - Wafaa Bilal

by Julie Mathon

“In any culture the dispossessed and powerless will turn to religion and legend, because what else do they have to believe in? They need these stories of heroism and superhuman saviors to give them hope.” - Wafaa Bilal, Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun.

In May 2003, just a few months after the beginning of the Iraq War, anonymous rioters burned down the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad—the fire consumed more than 70,000 valuable books and manuscripts. Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal commemorates that disaster in his latest exhibition, “168:01.”

For the interactive exhibit, on display during summer 2018 at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, visitors sept into a spacious, brightly lit room and immerse themselves in complete silence. The sole object in the bare room is an austere bookshelf stacked with purely white books, which represents the loss of Baghdad’s library and stands as a reminder of the cultural deconstruction that followed the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. The blank pages, bereft of their function, poetically underline the tragic loss caused by the fire. The ghost library is therefore empty of words but heavy with meaning. 

 

BOOKS 

Fitz.jpg

F. Scott Fitzgerald might be best known for his portrayal of the Roaring 20’s, but little did you know, he wanted to break that stereotype time and time again. Almost 80 years after his death, a collection of stories resurfaced that were published last year under the title “I’d die for you and other lost stories.” These stories show a rather raw, unglamourous view of the Gilded Age and what followed, taking on divorce and unrequited love, the Great Depression, hard working days and poverty, unemployment and despair, war and its horrors. Chronicles of a dark side of America, most were so dark they were rejected by magazines like Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post, and then lingered in obscurity for decades.


Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

by Kyrill Hartog

220px-DoorsofPerception.jpg
But the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.

In 1926, Aldous Huxley boarded a steamer across the Atlantic to the U.S., where he would permanently settle over a decade later with his wife and son. What he witnessed during his brief stay in the land of liberty were the early stages of a society suffocated by pulpy pop culture and consumerism. It was this first visit to America that formed the inspiration for Brave New World, which, together with George Orwell’s 1984, paved the way for an entire genre of dystopian literature and presaged, with bone-chilling accuracy, a vision of a future which today has become popular sci-fi—one where the misuse of technology by a malicious elite gives rise to a cornucopia of Black Mirror-esque scenarios.

Few traces of this profoundly pessimistic view of the future remain in Huxley’s famous essay, The Doors of Perception (published in 1954), in which the almost blind author describes in great detail his eye-opening experience of taking mescaline—a hallucinogenic substance derived from the peyotl or peyote cactus—for the first time. The essay had a profound impact on 60s counterculture (guess where Jim Morrison got the idea for the name of the band from?), as hallucinogenic drugs like acid and mescaline became adopted as symbols of, and vehicles for, pacifism and anti-establishment feeling.

Huxley’s writing in The Doors of Perception is as brilliant as the universe he transports us to: bursting with color, blazing with intricate patterns and brimming with ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’. We are taken through the various stages of his trip, leading up to the final state of Nirvana—a moment of “Oneness” that opens the author’s mind to the infinite totality of the Universe and leads him to conclude that “each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.”

That is, of course, if we are willing to take the chemical shortcut there.

On the other side of the doors of perception, we have the drab, everyday world of human perception which, at best, can provide glimpses of this Nirvana through art and ideas, and, at worst, fails utterly to convey its truth and meaning because, writes Huxley, we are limited by language and forced to resort to symbolism: “However expressive, symbols can never be the things they stand for.”

To Huxley, everyday reality is therefore nothing more than a Platonic cave; a shadow-puppet show projected on a wall. This “reduced awareness,” he writes, is the product of thousands of years of evolution during which our brains have been neurologically programmed to focus exclusively on biologically relevant stimuli, thus blinding us, he argues, to some of life’s deepest truths.

Yet, while Huxley does a magnificent job of explaining how exploring the “furthest antipodes of the mind” may help us achieve inner enlightenment, it less clear how widespread mescaline use would improve society at large—an argument he tries to advance later on in the essay, when he argues in favor of replacing more harmful (yet socially accepted) drugs like alcohol and nicotine with mescaline:

“The universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence is not to be abolished by slamming the currently popular Doors in the Wall. The only reasonable policy is to open other, better doors in the hope of inducing men and women to exchange their old bad habits for new and less harmful ones.”

But Huxley’s endorsement of drug-induced escapism is ridden with contradiction. In The Doors of Perception, his unequivocal advocacy of mescaline as a benign chemical highway to Nirvana (not just on an individual level, but for the whole of society) suggests a tacit acceptance of the sort of ‘brain-in-a-vat’ society we have come to know from films like The Matrix. Yet this is puzzling when we consider Huxley’s implicit warning against precisely this sort of institutionalized escapism in Brave New World, where one of the main building blocks of his dystopia is the fictional “holiday” drug ‘soma’, which is administered to the populace by a totalitarian government set on keeping them docile and enslaved.

In what way, then, does mescaline differ from ‘soma’? Huxley seems uninterested in the question. To enlightenment-seekers and psychonauts like him, the journey to chemical Nirvana is in itself a worthy enterprise. But to extrapolate this purely individual, introspective experience to a generalizable model for social health and happiness—all the while ignoring the very real dangers of social maladjustment and mental breakdown—is one giant leap too far.

To the majority of (non drug-taking) readers, The Doors of Perception probably feels as much as an enticement to explore the outermost limits of our consciousness as a challenge to prove Huxley wrong. Because what if there are those among us who actually feel delighted, mystified, amazed and awestruck by the “drab” world around us? Huxley seems to have forgotten we exist.

His claim that “the majority of humans seek chemical escape from their mundane lives,” though undeniably true to an extent, fails to do justice to the experience of everyday life, off drugs. For what is human life worth, in the end, if its true meaning is to be found elsewhere, in some distant, chemically-induced, neurological Nirvana?
 

 

 
 
 
The Ocean Between Us
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80 pages
Oct ’18

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