The Jasmine Also Is Too Hasty
Cardinal Dulles on the Magisterium

Sunday Night Journal — February 24, 2008

Desire and Expectation

Somewhere in a recent discussion here about music the blogger who calls herself Pentimento noted that popular music is especially focused on emotions of desire and longing that are particularly useful for a consumer society. The first part of that statement is something I’ve noticed for a long time. I’d never thought about the second part, but I suppose it’s true. And if it is useful for a consumer society, that’s because the emotions are so powerful and universal.

Some more-than-fifty percentage of popular songs deal with romantic love, and a large number of those deal with incomplete or unhappy love: the one I love does not love me, or has stopped loving me. (The cruder ones, of course, of which there are very many, only deal with lust.) But the overall spirit of the music is not so much romantic as Romantic, in the 19th century cultural sense.

Once I was a few years into a happy marriage, these songs of romantic love ceased to work on me in the way they once had: I had what the singers claimed to want, so their plaints no longer meant to me what they had once meant. But I continued to like the songs just as much, or almost as much, because the yearning never went away. Even though the lyrics no longer applied directly to me, the emotional content of the songs did, very much. Without making a conscious decision to do so, I did the same thing with much popular music that the Church has always done with The Song of Solomon: I made it allegorical, redirecting the erotic longing toward the spiritual. Even if (or maybe especially if) our personal circumstances are happy, we are still, if we’re at all reflective, conscious of a still-unsatisfied longing, a desire for some sort of perfect happiness that simply is not available to us in this life.

In popular music, the outstanding expression of this great yearning for me is Van Morrison’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks. I’ve never been able to put into words the emotion it arouses in me, although I did find in C.S. Lewis a description of it: it’s a painful yearning that is sweeter than pleasure. (The passage is in Surprised By Joy, which for some reason I don’t have a copy of, so I can’t quote it exactly.) It’s sweet because it promises something far more wonderful than anything we can hope to encounter in our earthly life; it’s painful because we can’t have what we yearn for. It’s like a fragrance that brings back a memory of some enchantment lost in the past.

Sometimes we find the yearning more or less consciously expressed in popular music, or at least removed from its connection with romantic love. It always interests me when I encounter it in places where I don’t expect it. I think the most surprising of these may have been in an interview with the leader of the heavy metal group Emperor. I came across it a few years ago when I became curious about the phenomenon of death or black metal: heavy metal music, mostly Scandinavian in origin, which celebrates death and violence. Emperor was one of the most notorious of these bands: some of its members were involved in the burning of historical wooden churches in Norway, and at least one murder. I can’t easily locate the interview now, so I have to rely on memory, but it included an observation to the effect that their band speaks to the longing in everyone for something transcendent, something greater and more wonderful than anything offered by ordinary life. I can’t help wondering if someone like this is really in much worse spiritual trouble than the hedonistic bourgeois who anesthetizes the longing with pleasure and shopping.

I know several people my age or older, which is to say that they’re either within sight of the gates of old age or have already passed through them, who are afflicted with the yearning but who do not have the faith that promises that the yearning will be fulfilled. I see some of them becoming more frightened of age and death, or more bitter toward life, or both. It was only life in this world that ever held any promise of giving them what they desired, and now they know it never will. That is very hard to bear.

I certainly have had my share of those hopes, and many of them have been disappointed: for instance, I never had any intention of spending thirty-five years in a line of work which doesn’t interest me that much and which I’m not all that good at. But I’m happy to have been able to earn a decent living from it, and now I only hope that I will be allowed to keep at it until I can afford to retire with my mortgage paid. But whereas one who has no other hope can only expect more of the pain of disappointment, I am now finding that mine is disappearing. And even though I certainly have far fewer years remaining than I have already lived, I look to the future with hope, albeit it with the awareness that I probably have some very difficult trials ahead of me.

Some of my favorite pop music is made by people who have no religious belief (that I know of) but an acute grasp of what it means to yearn for heaven in a world which cannot supply it. Tom Waits is one of the first of these who comes to mind. Melancholy is everywhere in his work, and bitterness common. It seemed in one recent album, Blood Money, in which one of the gentler songs, “Lullaby,” has the refrain

Nothing’s ever yours to keep
Close your eyes; go to sleep

that he might give way to bitterness altogether, but there are moments of something like desperate prayer in the one that followed, Real Gone:

Since you're gone
Deep inside it hurts
I'm just another sad guest
On this dark earth

I want to believe
In the mercy of the world again
Make it rain, make it rain

But the world is not merciful, except for brief periods, and never finally. You have to look elsewhere for that. I want to offer these people the words of Traherne which I’ve quoted before (this time I’ll modernize his archaic spelling):

We love we know not what: and therefore every thing allures us. As iron at a distance is drawn by the lodestone, there being some invisible communications between them: so is there in us a world of love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance, by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel your self drawn with the expectation and desire of some great thing?

To feel the desire, and to believe that the expectation is not in vain: these are the foundations of peace and joy in this life. Without them, the best we can strive for is resignation.



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