Thursday, 14 October 2010
Finding God in the Age of Adz
The song seems to proceed (again in startling Augustinian fashion) as an inner dialogue, with Stevens considering how he might relate to God. “Are you a ghost, or the symbols of light?” he wonders, as he eventually implores the volcano to “oh be kind”. It is here that he switches to addressing himself directly: “Sufjan, follow the path\ It leads to an article of eminent death\ Sufjan, follow your heart\ Follow the flame\ Or fall on the floor”. The reference to an eminent death, mixed with a number of references to the “host” throughout the song appears to point towards either a recollection of Christ’s sacrifice (an eminent death) or the fear of literal or metaphorical martyrdom. Yet just as he reaches the point of certainty, new doubts overwhelm the singer. He is faced with the reality of his inner life: “Sufjan, the panic inside\ The murdering ghost\That you cannot ignore”. This stark assessment of his attitude is not something new to this song. It reminded me of “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” on his 2005 album Illinois, in which Stevens ended the stark tale of a serial killer with the razor sharp statement: “Even in my best behaviour\ I’m really just like him\ Look beneath the floorboards\ For the secrets I have hid”.
Yet the existential crisis isn’t resolved at the end of the song. The murderous ghost fighting within Stevens continues. Where he had initially come to the volcano in person and announced that he was “here”, now he implores Vesuvius to follow him. The seeking is now out of his power. Seven times he repeats a call to “follow me now”, a number that I doubt is coincidental given the apocalyptic interest in the album as a whole. With his call ended, he issues a final plea that he is followed “now…or down” before breaking off in seeming desperation: “Why does it have to be so hard?” The separation from God may sound hopeless, but to my ears it sounds realistic – the experience of so many of us over our daily lives trying to seek and find Christ. To me, the song seems to echo Augustine’s lament in the Confessions:
“…because I am not full of you, I am a burden to myself. There is a struggle between joys over which I should be weeping and regrets at matters over which I ought to be rejoicing, and which side has the victory I do not know. There is a struggle between my regrets at my evil past and my memories of past joys, and which side has the victory I do not know...Is not human life on earth a trial in which there is no respite?” Confessions X.xxviii (39).
This seems to be the experience that Sufjan goes through in “Vesuvius”: loving and hating, finding and losing, seeking and being sought. The fact that there is no resolution is not surprising, for in the hardship of everyday life the rhythm of our relationship and attitude towards God will often seem to follow this same frustrating pattern. Yet I find comfort not only in the fact that this experience mirrors my own, but also in Stevens’ affirmation at the start of the song that we would all do well to remember. While stating his own weakness, at the end of the first verse he recalls: “Though I know I will fail\I can now be made to laugh”. As can we all. As can we all.