I frequently find myself mulling over a song for hours and days, playing it on repeat until I can no longer hear it anymore. In most cases, the compulsion ends within a day or two and I can go back to my life again.
But other times, madness takes over.Not too long ago, my obsession with Marcia’s song “A PELE QUE HÁ EM MIM” made me translate the entire song from Portuguese. (No, I don’t speak Portuguese).
The song in question today happens to be in English so I didn’t embark on adventures in translation of languages unknown to me. Instead, Nick Mulvey’s “Fever to the Form” made me think about too many questions I could handle in 3 minutes 44 seconds.
The obvious one was: What does “Fever to the Form” even mean? But let’s leave that aside for a moment and go back to Mexico.
How art can help make sense of life
One of my fondest memories of San Miguel de Allende, the Mexican town of artists, is from an Italian potluck dinner around Mexican painter Gerardo Ruiz’s kitchen table. I was honored to participate in one of his monthly cultural dinners. Each gathering had a different theme – the previous month was Arab food and this time it was Italian.
I sat between two painters, eating homemade pizza and lasagna, singing songs in Spanish. (We ran out of ideas for Italian music within an hour or so.) Tipsy from the wine that Gerardo generously poured without asking, it didn’t take long for us to share personal stories.
Then the inevitable happened: Liz and I started to hug and cry in the patio.
A painter herself, Liz had spent seven years in Mexican prison for falling in love with the wrong kind of man. Her sentence was actually 13 years but God heard her prayers and she was released early.
“I reached a point when I thought that if I don’t get out now, I will die. Then a miracle happened. God listened,” she said.
Liz spoke a lot, laughed out loud, and cursed without a care of who is listening. She lived life with a sense of urgency, as if all she had squeezed within her heart and mind were in a race to leave a stamp in the world before her time would be up. I suppose loosing seven years of life to the Mexican justice system does that to a woman.
But that night, she wasn’t crying about her horrid time in prison. That was long in the past. Her daughter had given birth to a beautiful girl not too long ago but planned to move to Mexico City and take the baby with her. Liz couldn’t bear separate from her most beautiful creation.
“I know she has her own life and my granddaughter is her daughter. But it still hurts,” Liz wiped her damp cheeks.
Having already listened to my pointless stories of love and loss, she raised her finger at me, looked into my eyes as only a mother could, and said:
“Nothing in this world matters but what you create, your art. Listen to me, fuck them all! Create. Make your art.”
The Meaning-less of Life
Strumming his guitar in a continuous trance, it seemed like Nick Mulvey urged me to do the same—to choose music over madness, form over fear, art over apathy. Since I’m the most awful of musicians, I decided that Nick was telling me to write a blog post.
But Liz would be the first to admit that creation does not necessarily relieve the pain and suffering that accompanies our wretched lives. (Yeah, yeah, I am being melodramatic). How does it help to go into ecstasy while painting when one must eventually return home to a dysfunctional family or a boring job or remember that they are missing a leg?
Art helps, but temporarily.
Happiness hinges on two understandings: The present time is the only time (in which to create) and as the First Noble Truth of Buddha declares, to live is to suffer. Even if one gets to make art.
Accepting suffering as a fact of life and extracting pleasure out of the present despite ongoing pain is perhaps best explained in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a psychiatrist who spent three years in Nazi concentration camps. In this half memoir, half treatise on logotherapy, Frankl reveals the essential truth of survival: The answers are all in your head.
Detailing the strategies he used keep desolation at bay in the most hopeless of situations, he warns against daydreaming of a better past, even in the most horrendous of presents:
…we have already spoken of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.
In the concentration camps, Frankl constructed entire conversations, devised and delivered speeches on the psychology of prisoners. All in his head and all in the present time.
At this point, you are probably wondering how the heck I got from Nick Mulvey’s nice little song about music to a Mexican prison and a Nazi concentration camp. You are not alone. But that’s what happened. One moment I was hanging out in my living room blasting “Fever to the Form” to the detriment of my neighbors, the next moment I was in Dachau. I was in flow, going wherever “Fever to the Form” took me.
How to Art and let Meaning find You
Living in the present requires utmost concentration or Flow. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept as a higher mental state one reaches while engaged in a challenging, goal-oriented activity.
Flow is the kind of trance that Nick Mulvey described in an interview regarding the creation of the song:
Fever to the Form is just a bit more special than the others for me. It was the first of the batch and it landed in a flash. Well, a day, then I tweaked and adjusted it for ages… but still, it felt cathartic writing it.
Other obvious examples of people who frequently experience flow are those who practice extreme sports like mountain climbers. When engaged in an activity where the lack of total concentration means life or death, flow occurs naturally.
Csikszentmihalyi writes that flow is possible for us simple folk who sit in front of computer screens, too. The key is in commitment and discipline: in the “voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”
Long story short, whether by finding meaning in suffering or suffering for art, gladness is out there and Nick Mulvey knows it. I’m just happy I got all that out of my system. Now I will go listen to “Fever to the Form” again.
PS. I dedicate this post to Nadav–my new well of musical inspiration–and to my sister Karin. May you always live by music 🙂
Lyrics to “Fever to Form” by Nick Mulvey
So whether music or madness
We live by one of the two
By one of the two
So go on, fill your heart up with gladness
Not a moment too soon
But should we ration the reasons
To the child to ignore
Of this I’ve never been sure
So I will follow the feeling
And sing fever to the form
Oh my fever to the form
Cause the very thing you’re afraid of
It keeps you clean but unclear
It’s the dirt that you’re made of
And that’s nothing to fear
No, it’s nothing my dear
But how do I know what you’re thinking
Maybe I thought it before
Maybe that’s why I’m at your window
Hear me at your door
Singing, give me some more
Oh fever to the form
Won’t you hear me at your door
Singing, give me some more
Cause you were never empty
And we’ve been here before
Yes, we’ve been here before
But now there’s always plenty
Yet still we ask for more
Singing fever to the form