Humanism and Mechanism: Hozier helps The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Contemplate the Digital World

Last week’s Sunday New York Times focused on the ways in which the digital world is altering physical and psychological landscapes around the globe.  I have commented to a number of folks recently that we are engaged in a huge social experiment.  When I started writing this blog on Saturday morning, I was very aware of the experiment being alive in the moment as I sat in the living room with the reluctant son, he on his device, and me on mine – pleasantly sharing the same space but occupying entirely different worlds.  By Sunday night, I had a very different perspective as Hozier came to town and I hung with a crowd of people doing the same thing at the same time.  Sure, they frequently had their phones raised and pointed at him, recording the event for later consumption in their own idiosyncratic ways, but in that moment, we were all together sharing the same experience.  What will be the impact of the digital world on our environment, on our social relating, and, of most interest from a psychoanalytic perspective, on our minds?  How will we be altered and will this be useful to us or, in some subtle but also powerful way, pervert us from our basic humanity?

The world of electronic translation is one place that the Times Magazine (a publication itself threatened by electronic media) asks about technology.  At the upper right hand corner of the home page of this blog, there are a series of buttons.  One of them provides instantaneous translation of the site into a host of other languages.  I marvel at the immediacy of the French version that I choose.  My high school French is not adequate to determine the veracity of the translation, but in general it looks as good as I could have done by laboring over it for many hours at the height of my limited powers.  I don’t know how many of the folks who access this blog from other countries use the translation button versus being fluent in English.  The magazine suggests that electronic translation is pretty good if you want to fix your toaster or if you need to tell someone in a foreign country exactly what kind of help you need, but nuance is not its strong suit.  So, I’m guessing that, at those moments when I am closest to articulating what I mean, the Google translation may become pretty clunky – which, by the way, was also true of my high school and college translations of poetry and prose.

Apparently the electronic and the traditional translational worlds inhabit parallel but seemingly non- intersecting universes.  The electronic translators are actually math and computer geeks who are writing code that allows massive computing power to be used to determine the probability that a particular word in one language should be translated into a particular word in another language – actually a process of transliteration rather than translation.  This is done by referencing tons of existing translations to see what words in one language are likely are associated with what words in the second language.  These original translations; the point of contact between the worlds, are ironically done by the linguists and translators whose existence is all but erased in the minds of the electronic translation group.  The original translators know both languages and are intent, not on getting the right word, but the right meaning.  They are trying to help the reader in the second language experience a similar psychological reaction to the language of the writer that a native speaker of the writer’s language would experience.  This is a profoundly empathic endeavor that involves a deep reading of the intention of the author – appreciating the nuance – and carrying that over into the translated work.  The electronic translators mine this work to produce transliterations – swapping out words for words.

The electronic translitoraters scoff at the 25 or so translations of Don Quixote into English.  They also scoff that, if we show a translator his or her work a year later, he or she will reject it is as being a poor translation.  Though they are reliant on the traditional translators’ work to feed the parallel texts to their statistical machines, they are disdainful of the process that linguistic translation – simultaneous translation of both surface and deep meaning – entails.  They don’t seem to get that the translator has evolved in the intervening year.  They don’t seem to get that a great work of art can be interpreted in many different ways (how many and how various are the translations of the Bible?), and they don’t seem to get that language is evolving; that middle English needs to be translated so that we can understand it – and that the language of our grandfathers sounds to us overly stiff and formal and we wait for them to get to the point – just say it, we almost scream – in the process implicitly noting how literary conventions have led us to be able to craft a language that we find more useful in conveying the meanings that we find most important because of who we are at this moment.

The electronic translators, I suspect, have been living too long in a digital world.  They believe that things, and maybe it is true of things, can be reduced to a particular description.  From their perspective, the task of translating is to change this into that.  Or, more precisely, they are functioning as the people in Gulliver’s travels who carry objects in their packs rather than having words and use the objects to communicate.  What they are missing is the alchemy of communicating thoughts and internal experiences – the evanescent aspects of ourselves that we only fleetingly understand; much less have the ability to communicate.  The dichotomy between these two worlds reminds me of the dichotomy in the psychotherapeutic world between those who are focused on symptom management as their primary goal, and those, like the psychoanalysts, for whom symptom management is a beneficial side effect of a process that involves articulating – to another person – what my internal experience is and, in the process of doing it, changing the experience; I have learned more about myself – partly from the concepts another shares with me, but also from the dance that we are doing together – I learn new steps, and I engage in those with others outside the consulting room.  In parallel with the translators, when describing a recent psychotherapeutic hour in a supervision session - an hour that was alive with meaning - I frequently hear that hour in entirely different ways than when I lived it – there are other meanings that I simply didn’t catch when I was focused on the particular narrative thread that I was following during the hour.



So with this model in mind, I went to see Hozier on Sunday night; a popular Irish musician, probably in the Alt Rock category.  The concert is an early father’s day present, and Hozier is an interesting artist on many levels, not least because he is the first great point of intersection in musical interest between my youngest stepdaughter and me.  For as long as I have known her, she has been a devotee of pop, which I find mind-numbing when I am not shocked by the shallowness of the lyrics with their descriptions of precocious and seemingly mindless sexuality.  She finds my tastes to be stodgy and lacking energy and verve.  Hozier somehow seems to hit a sweet spot (one we have arrived at before with Lorde) -  a place where the catchiness of the tunes is good for both of us, but there seems to be more meat on the bone than in the latest offering from Nikki Minaj. 

So we arrived at the concert an hour and a half early as it was in an outdoor venue on a splendid Midwestern summer evening, and it was festival “seating”, meaning that if we beat the hordes, we were able to crowd nearer the stage to stand and wait for the opening act and then to stand to see and hear Hozier.  The crowd was relatively diverse on the age dimension – weighted towards twenty somethings, there were teens but also enough old fogeys that the reluctant wife and I didn’t feel completely out of place.  The crowd looked to be largely white, with a smattering of other ethnicities, and reasonably hip – with a decent representation of both the tattooed and those without, and did not look Goth at all – perhaps because it is hard to look Goth on a warm summer night.

While waiting, there was a loop of songs that were played – largely oldies.  The group, as it formed around us, swayed in time to them and sometimes sang along with the more popular ones – a Beatles tune and a Janis Joplin tune for instance.  Interestingly, though, when a Wilson Pickett or a James Brown tune played, or one of the other R and B standards, people didn’t seem to recognize or to be much moved by them; the soundtrack suddenly seemed to become background music.  This was interesting to me because one of the popular and very catchy Hozier Tunes is one called “Jackie and Wilson” and the refrain is about getting married, having two children, naming them Jackie and Wilson and raising them on Rhythm and Blues.  Could it be that Hozier’s audience hadn’t themselves been raised on Rhythm and Blues?

Well, we suffered through the opening act, whose tunes we recognized, but whose jaded vision of life, while accurately depicting part of my emotional world, does so in ways that feel all too close – close to the cynical self that I have, one that I am uncomfortable with.  Hozier – well here’s a breath of fresh air – commented at one point that he appreciated the audience’s responses to his songs because they were all about death, and he felt comfortable and supported by a group that, like himself, was drawn to the macabre.  But the beat, taken both from R and B and, in the deeply moving “work song”, directly from even earlier spiritual/field work songs, and the melody – light and bright and hopeful - transform the content into something that is far from oppressive.  There is a stark beauty in the simplicity of the music and of the musician – the artist – armed only with a guitar, his voice, and a back-up band, taking on the stuff that most scares us, and, through the alchemy of his art, transforming it into something that is life affirming.

In this alchemical act, Hozier is not just transforming the scary content – one of the tunes is called “An arsonist’s lullaby” - but the musical traditions that he has inherited into a modern vernacular – one that speaks directly to his audience and matches the rhythms of their lives.  They sang along, not just on the popular songs, but throughout the evening – except when he sang a very old blues tune (with a modern arrangement by an artist he credited), The Illinois Blues.  This tune allowed him to show off his picking as well as his singing and his audience was spellbound, if transformed for a moment into an audience instead of a collaborative organism.  He was raising us – not just in that moment, but throughout the show, on Rhythm and Blues.  Not by playing Wilson Pickett, but by channeling him – translating him into a version that would allow us to feel what others have felt when they heard Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” in the context of a different moment in time.

This raises the specter of White musicians covering Black musician’s tunes – whether with or without credit – to reap greater rewards than the Black’s.  I don’t know how to reconcile that here.  I am reminded of the position taken in the movie “The Commitments” that the Irish are the Blacks of Europe and therefore that Soul is the natural music of the Irish, but that begs the point.  Can we take something that we want to be foreign – our fascination with death, our carrying on with dignity despite the fact that life deals out manifold indignities – more easily from someone who looks and sounds more like us – the privileged majority?  Is there something about the white idiom that makes conscious but disavowed experiences easier to process?  Or is Hozier another in a long line of exploiters?  And don’t all artists – White and Black alike - stand on the shoulders of giants to give us a better view – to move us closer to the experience?  Hozier is engaged not in transliteration: other than the one Blue’s tune, he sang his own material – not covers of black musician’s songs – but in translation.  He is not functioning as Big Blue – the mindless IBM computer that would pull together themes to create a “new” version of old stuff – whether literary or musical – but as an artist, using his own soul to resonate with the soup of material that he has immersed himself in throughout his life and, out of that stock, to create something new, alive and electric and very much his own.

Interestingly, another article in the magazine touched on music.  A writer described the music trade in Mali, Africa, home, in addition to 15 million people, to Timbuktu.  There the computer, in the form of the cell phone has, as here, allowed people to fill their worlds with music.  We can share recordings prodigiously and listen to them, effectively, anywhere.  What is intriguing about the system in Bamako, Mali’s capital, is that telechargeurs, or downloaders, sell copies of music that they discover from local and distant sources in a street vending system.  Buyers go to their favorite vendor, a person who knows their tastes, and the buyer takes the music they have trolled the ether for, downloading music from multiple sources, and sells the latest tunes to be listened to.  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have sung about the last DJ, a person who refuses to be the company man and is the person “Who plays what he wants to play, And says what he wants to say, Hey, hey, hey, And there goes your freedom of choice, There goes the last human voice,” but apparently he hadn’t been to Mali, where the human connection furnishes a soundtrack at about a dime a song.

Also in the issue is an article about an office of disinformation, titled The Agency, in Russia that floods the web with pro-Putin material.  Trolls are hired to incessantly post to fake Facebook and twitter accounts and to drown out any opposition voices - the voices that were originally empowered by the internet.  Of course, here in the States, corporations hire goons who market what they think we want directly to us on Facebook, twitter, and Sirius – the massive national radio network on which my daughter and I found Hozier.  Our telechargeur is some corporate suit who has decided that we can tolerate thinking about death when it is wrapped in Irish Rhythm and Blues.  Thankfully there is, underneath that, and driving it, a real human being – one who is in touch with both his own soul, historical musical traditions, and the rhythms of today.  Thankfully, also, my daughter’s mother raised her on Rhythm and Blues.

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