Why sad songs?

       “Me and you are subject to the blues now and then
       But when you take the blues and make a song
       You sing them out again” -Neil Diamond

As long as we’re on the general subject of mysteriously aesthetic experiences, why do most people get such intense pleasure and satisfaction out of listening to extremely sad songs? From a purely logical perspective, it would be reasonable to think that listening to such a song would be depressing.

Yet as we all know, quite the opposite is true. I know I can listen to Leonard Cohen singing “Famous Blue Raincoat” all day long, or Billie Holiday singing “Gloomy Sunday”, or Sinatra singing “Blues in the Night”, or Jeff Buckley singing “Hallellujah”, or almost any version of “Hurt”, whether by Trent Reznor, Johnny Cash or Sad Kermit.

Why does immersion in such woe and misery make us so happy? Is it simply emotional catharsis, as Neil Diamond suggests? Or is there something else at work?

Beautiful trees

Walking past Washington Square Park this morning, I was struck by the incredibly beauty of the trees this time of year, in their autumn colors of flaming red and golden yellow.

And it occurred to me, not for the first time, to wonder why seeing something like this provokes such a powerful aesthetic response. I understand why we perceive the face of a lover or of a baby as beautiful. If we didn’t see beauty in such things, the human race would probably have died out long ago.

But why do we see beauty when looking at trees — big plants made of cellulose? Is there some evolutionary advantage to finding beauty when we gaze upon foliage? One possibility is that this response prevented our early ancestors from cutting down the forests. But that general direction of thought doesn’t explain why we find sunsets beautiful, or starry skies, or clouds, or rainbows — all things over which our ancestors had no control.

I realize that some reading this might have a handy metaphysical answer — because God made us that way. But I’m curious whether anyone has a compelling non-metaphysical answer.

Economy of abundance

Yesterday’s post got me thinking — the rise of the Web, together with the development of inverse indexing, has placed us into an information economy of abundance. Bandwidth and compression capability continue to improve, and as they do the per-unit cost of replicating an information product is gradually moving to zero.

This means that once you make something (eg: a song), the cost of physically getting it to the entire world is fairly insignificant, as a percentage of the total cost of production.

Suppose a physical economy of abundance, as suggested by the “Star Trek” replicator, really did exist. What would the world be like? Would our relationship to physical objects change fundamentally, knowing we could simply replicate them at will? Would world hunger come to an end? And would entire sets of social, cultural and economic issues arise that are currently off our collective radar?

Unintended consequences of cloning

One of the more fanciful technologies in “Star Trek” is a transporter, which converts your body into energy, beams that energy someplace else, and then reconstitutes your body at the new location. A related technology is the replicator, which can create unlimited supplies of food, firearms, vintage scotch, and other essentials for modern living.

As far as I can tell, the only thing that prevents perfect cloning — two copies of you, where both are essentially the original — is social convention. Every once in a while this sort of thing happens anyway on “Star Trek”, and it never ends well.

It occurs to me, thinking about this scenario, how we would each get along with our own perfect clone. That is, if we were to encounter exactly ourselves as another individual — same memories, same personality, same everything.

A fundamental aspect of being human is that any other individual, no matter how well you know them, remains on some level fundamentally unknowable. You can never tell what thoughts or aspects of their personality they are choosing to hide even from their nearest and dearest. But this would not be the case for your perfect clone.

So if any of us were to come face to face with our own perfect clone, there would be no secrets. I wonder whether this would come as a relief, or whether it would freak the hell out of us.


I was having a conversation today with some friends who, like me, are (1) big fans of Christopher Nolan’s early film “Memento”, not such big fans of his later larger scale work, notably “Inception”. It occurred to us that it would be great to have a backwards retrospective of selected Nolan films, starting with “Inception” and building up to “Memento”. If you’ve seen “Memento”, this makes perfect sense.

I wonder whether one could do similar meta-themed cinematic auteur surveys. A festival of Tarantino films would start in the middle of his oeuvre, and also end in the middle. A retrospective of Alain Resnais would splice together scenes taken at random from all his films. For Max Ophüls the films would need to go around in a circle, with the last film leading into the first.

A Charlie Kaufman retrospective would need to be in the form of a film about the Charlie Kaufman retrospective. For Stan Brakhage, we would get a lot of projectors and show all his films on the same screen at the same time. A Sam Peckinpah retrospective would continue until the entire audience lay dead in a pool of blood.

We would honor the career of George Lucas by screening three film masterpieces, waiting several decades, and then screening three awful films.

And of course the Jean-Luc Goddard retrospective would need to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

Waiting for a train

Yesterday I was waiting for a train, when a young man strolled past on the very edge of the platform, the part marked in bright yellow so people will know that walking there is dangerous.

There was an older couple standing next to me on the platform — I’d say they were both in their mid-to-late seventies. Turned to her husband, the wife said “I don’t want to see you walking on the edge like that. It’s not safe.”

Although the husband was trying to hide it, I could tell he was unhappy about being lectured by his wife. I couldn’t resist breaking in. “Some people,” I said to her, “like to live dangerously.”

They both smiled at me, and the wife said “If danger he wants, he should ride a zip line.”

Then the husband got a big grin on his face. Turning to his wife he said, “I don’t want to see you riding zip lines. It’s not safe.”

That middle thing

What’s up with that middle thing?

Case in point: There is an epic film trilogy, set in an alternate world where Good battles Evil. The trilogy follows the story of a callow young fellow who has been growing up in a small rural backwater. Under the tutelage of a mysterious and powerful, yet kindly old mentor with great powers, he ends up being thrust into the very center of the epic battle. You’ve probably seen it.

In the second of the three films, a strange gnomish figure appears. He is short and unsettlingly alien in appearance, and is incredibly ancient. He moves with an odd ungainly grace and speaks very strangely, with a noticably garbled syntax. This character is brought to life on the screen by the latest in Hollywood special effects puppetry. We soon come to realize that this strange little being is at the very center of the struggle between good and evil.

I’m speaking, of course, of Yoda. I mean Gollum. I mean Yoda. I mean Gollum (insert famous scene from Chinatown here).

Here’s another example: A laid back singer/songwriter writes and sings a song during the hippie era about a mysterious and elusive woman named Suzanne who has clearly touched him deeply. The first and third verses are about the emotional effect she has had on him. But that second verse is different — he doesn’t mention Suzanne at all. Instead, in he takes a detour and sings about Jesus. And somehow it all works.

I’m speaking about Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. I mean James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. I mean Suzanne. I mean Fire and Rain (cut to Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway).

This idea of a surprising, yet crucial, new character appearing suddenly in the second part of a three part narrative seems to be a recurring trope in popular culture, and maybe there should be a name for it. I’ll go with Kevin Klein as Otto in A Fish Called Wanda, who almost certainly would have called it “that middle thing”.


The first time I traveled to Brazil I was determined to learn the language, so I struggled with the words and phrases until I managed to make myself understood. It helped that Brazilians are enormously kind, and were generally delighted that I was trying to communicate. The first phrase I learned well was “Eu não falo português” (I do not speak Portuguese). My accent was passable enough that people would start laughing. “Sim,” they would argue, trying to be encouraging, “Sim fala!”

During that first trip I ran into a guy from Germany who was traveling around Brazil. He had a little portable electronic phrasebook, which he would use to communicate. “Why do you bother trying to learn a whole language?” he asked me. “All I need is this little device, and I can get around just fine.” I sensed a vast and unbridgeable gulf between us. As far as I was concerned, if you’re going to be in a place for a while, at least try to learn to speak the language.

Yesterday someone suggested to me that Google Translate, which is getting better and better, might replace learning other languages. Perhaps one day, when we are all seeing the world through our augmented reality contact lenses, and running nth generation versions of Siri and Google Translate, my belief that you’re supposed to at least try to learn other languages will come to seem hopelessly quaint.

Of course it won’t be as good as the real thing, but we all know that sometimes convenience trumps quality. After a while, we might just come to think of foreigners as people who speak our own language in a kind of Google-accented pidgin.

That would be sad on so many levels.


Yesterday’s post was about acquiring knowledge and thereby losing innocence. Somewhat coincidentally, today it is exactly forty eight years, to the day, since John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Sometimes you can draw a bright red vertical line through a culture’s timeline, with a clearly labeled “before” and “after”. Obviously the 11th of September, 2001 was one such bright line for our culture. The 7th of December, 1941 was another.

It seems to me that what these three dates all have in common, in spite of their differences, is that they were all moments when our culture suddenly, dramatically, lost a sense of safety, of innocence. These experience were, on a national scale, roughly equivalent to an individual’s change in viewpoint after the first time they are betrayed by a close friend, or the first time they have been violently assaulted.

Before such a thing has happened to you, you can have the intellectual understanding that you are not really safe, but it’s all abstract. Afterward, of course, you know a terrible truth: If it happened once, it could happen again.

A friend of mine, after reading my post yesterday, asked me whether, given the choice, I would always choose knowledge. I blithely answered yes. But days like today, November 22, remind me of the terrible price we can pay for a loss of innocence.

Pandora’s dilemma

I was having a conversation today that touched on the concept of “Pandora’s box” — the ancient Greek myth about the first woman, who through simple curiosity opened a container (actually a “pithos“, or jar, not a box) that unleashed evil into the world.

Of course there is a parallel here with Eve partaking of the apple from the tree of knowledge. I find the Greek version more compelling, since the act of opening a jar to see what is inside is such a perfect metaphor for our quest for knowledge.

Pandora was facing a dilemma. If she left the pithos unopened, then all of the human potential that arises from our wonderfully curious minds would have been left unexplored. Yet if she opened it (a metaphor for leaving childhood behind if there ever was one), the world could never again be innocent.

In my mind this story paints Pandora as a very positive figure, although Greek and Christian philosophy often paint Pandora and Eve in a negative light. For what defines us, as humans, if not our quest for knowledge? If the gods punish us for this quest, it is because the gods are jealous.

Should Pandora have left the jar unopened? If you embrace enlightenment, curiosity, science and the quest to honestly try to understand the world around you, then you come to the conclusion that her only choice was to embrace the tragedy, and to open the damned thing.