The way one feels could be likened to an opening
or a slamming
or a breathing hard
all of them,
all of them
have seen inside my mouth
have grown and flown south
one day I’ll be my own Leadbelly
and I will grow a baby
oh he will move so swiftly
to hold me completely
all of them
all of them have pushed into the air
all of them
all of them will bathe with me
when we are safe
in the salty caves.
A triumph of song, of poetry. A triumph, in the precise sense of the Greek thriambos from which it derives: a hymn to Dionysus. Dionysus was of course the God of drunkenness, madness, and revelry. Nietzsche insisted that this Dionysian spirit is nowhere better exemplified than in music, in the revelry of the chorus that begs us to sing, to lend our voice, to participate, and of course, to dance. It begs us to expose ourselves, but not alone, rather to expose ourselves together, and insodoing, to stand naked together.
In his analysis of the figure of dance in Nietzsche, Badiou insists upon the essential nudity of the dancer: “Of [the dancing] body, one will necessarily say…that it is naked. Obviously, it matters little if it is empirically so. The body of dance is essentially naked…Dance, as a metaphor for thought, presents thought to us as devoid of relation to anything other than itself, in the nudity of its emergence. Dance is a thinking without relation, the thinking that relates nothing, that puts nothing in relation.” [Handbook of Inaesthetics, p 66] One might assume that such a figure that stands naked, without relation to anything but itself, is therefore incapable of holding anything in common, or constituting any sort of togetherness. And yet we all know that no one can dance alone. Even when dancing alone, one cannot be alone, because there is no one there: the dancing body does not strictly relate even to itself, the self of the dancer, but only to the nudity of the dance, to the pure, meaningless, contentless exposition of the dance itself.
In the dance, the dancing body only relates to itself insofar as it is itself nothing, a pure nothing embodied in the ephemeral flailing and contorting of the flesh, no matter how disciplined these movements. The monstrosity, and monstrous beauty of dance rests in the possibility of a rigorously disciplined and coordinated, choreographed, movement that itself signifies nothing, that is not disciplined in the name of some higher authority, but precisely for no reason, taking the exposition of its own exuberant and restless extraneity as its essence and purpose. An essential inessentiality, and purposive impurposiveness.
No one can dance alone, because no one can dance: dance can only begin when there is no longer anyone to resist the somatic seizure of dancing, to oppose some meaningful posture to the imposture (the deceptive, the placeless, the positionless; impostor, without posturing) of movements resolutely bereft of meaning. In dancing together, with others, we share in this nudity, this exposure of the nothing we are, and we stand naked together in the face of the Nothing, Nihil, abandon and extinction. Yet even without anyone to share in this exposure, we nonetheless cannot dance alone, because in dancing what is exposed, what stands naked, is no-one, the no one that can never be anyone (das Man) and can never belong to anyone, can never properly be anyone. In dancing together, we share in this being-no-one, we are no-one-together.
It is the same with song: in song, the voice no longer says anything, it is only the exposure of the nudity of the voice, a voice that says nothing and can say nothing, because it is a voice that speaks for no one, the voice of no one. It is a voice that gives no meaning, no content, and says nothing, not in the negative sense of not speaking or saying nothing of value, but in the positive sense of saying nothing itself, putting nothing itself into words (even if this forces words themselves to come apart at the seams). In song, even the most explicitly narrative song, the act of singing itself amounts to the exposure of the nudity of the voice, such that the meaning of the words and the story they tell is only a vehicle for the exuberant voicing of meaninglessness, the utterly inessentiality of the voicing itself, which might as well not happen. Even if we pretend there is some necessity to saying these words, there can be no necessity in singing them, other than to revel in the madness that they might be voiced at all.
In song, the voice is no longer an instrument of the one who speaks, and thereby imparts some meaningful discursive content. The singing voice is that of no one, it is the voice and voicing of no one, it is the always potentially humiliating exposure of the no-one and nothing that I am. In singing and dancing, I always risk humiliating myself, because I must confront and very well may recoil from the meaningless and inessential nothing that is my identity, even as I refuse and cover it. And in singing and dancing together, we refuse to allow one another to stand so humiliated alone, without also encouraging cowardly recoil into prideful posturing. Here we find and rejoin the chorus, the revelry of the chorus, the spirit of Dionysus.
It is fitting that Mountain Man voice their hymn in such a choral style, with the bare and naked voices of the singers unaccompanied, unsupported, calling out and echoing in the dark night of silence. One can easily imagine, beginning from this song, the utter silence that is so barely abated by the flickering candle of the choral voice. The silence is so starkly present it seems to threaten extinguishing the song at every moment.
The choral theme is only affirmed in the lyrical content which insists on the refrain: all of them. All of them, who? “Have seen inside my mouth”; “will bathe with me” – first, all of those who have seen me so exposed, in the voice as issuing from “inside my mouth”, from the raw pink flesh which recedes into ever darker depths, depths which have no bottom, in which one will never find an original and reassuring source. Inside my mouth, one does not find the source of the voice in the sense of the one who speaks, but only the pure no-one of the nude flesh whose articulate groaning has been so disciplined into song. And yet they, “all of them”, are not obscene voyeurs in whose gaze I stand humiliated, laid bare in the quivering nudity of my insides. They “will bathe with me”, they will share in my nudity, “when we are safe/in the salty caves”, together in the darkness of being-no-one, of being our very nudity.
The difficult first lines must be read in this light: “The way one feels could be likened to an opening/or a slamming/or a breathing hard”. An opening, or a slamming: an exposure, or a desperate covering up, closing off, blocking out. A singing, an opening and exposing of oneself in song, that could just as easily be extinguished in silence, the silence of shutting up, slamming one’s mouth shut out of embarrassment. “Or a breathing hard”, the difficult breath, the pained exhalation that could as easily become song as despondent sigh. “The way one feels” – who is this one, this impersonal one from which we begin and begin to slide into something more personal, more intimate and desperate? It could be anyone, perhaps. This could mean “the way one is feeling, the way one happens to feel”, but also, with a bit more interpretative risk, perhaps “the way in which one feels, can feel, is capable of feeling anything, that by which feeling is possible”. It is this very precariousness of exposure that is the very condition of possibility for feeling anything, and in whose dialectic the composition of emotion is constantly drawn and redrawn.
It is from this condition that the personal voice of the singer then begins to confront “all of them”, and exposure before them. Yet this confrontation is not limited to the precarious shift between being exposed to others and sharing in this exposure with them. “All of them…have grown and flown south”; “all of them have pushed into the air”. The first mention of departure follows the anticipated humiliation of exposure, as perhaps a flight from the frightful spectacle of the denuded singer. Yet in the final verse, the theme is repeated just before exposure becomes shared. The bridge between these two repetitions is the second verse: “one day I’ll be my own Leadbelly/and I will grow a baby/oh he will move so swiftly/to hold me completely”. Leadbelly was of course the infamous outlaw folk singer whose inspiration is palpable even without explicit citation. If Leadbelly does serves as an inspiration, and as an example of inspiration more generally, then the music of Mountain Man is marked by a certain inheritance, a certain familiarity. Leadbelly stands in for a tradition from which Mountain Man’s music is born, a new offspring. Yet the narrative voice here wants to become this figure of inspiration, and wants to give birth to a child of its own.
Perhaps it is to hasty to say ‘a child of its own’, for the next lines betray an inverted relation: it is not the child that belongs with and to the family or tradition from which it is born, but rather, it is the child that ‘holds completely’ that which bears it forth. This holding, embracing, ‘enowning’ of the inspiration is accomplished in a “move so swiftly”, which might be the means by which the holding is accomplished (he will move swiftly, and in this movement, I will be held), or simply a haste in taking hold (he will be swift in taking hold of me). Either way, we have here a clear sense in which this embrace is tied to swiftness, which undoubtedly resonates with the lyrics about taking flight. Specifically, it becomes clear how, in having pushed into the air, they thereby become capable of embracing me in my exposure. Taking flight can only signify a radical departure and abandonment in which that ground from which one originated cannot be carried along, lest swiftness be encumbered by the burden of tradition.
There is far more in these dense lines then can be unpacked here. Yet we should be attentive to the sense in which, within this song, the singers aim to reconfigure their relation to tradition, the tradition of folk music which has plainly borne them. They want to embrace this tradition, and to embrace the nudity and exposure that is at its heart, specifically at the heart of singing, voicing, and especially voicing anonymously, words that are ‘traditional’ belonging to no one, even the moment they are first conceived intended only to be sung by innumerable voices and to become lost amongst them, to become completely embraced by the voices they inspire to sing, to expose themselves in song. The tradition of folk music is one of a shared anonymity, it is a tradition of anonymity, of being-no-one in song, together in song, in sharing song. And it is a tradition of giving oneself over entirely to the embrace of an inheritor that can never know you, but will nonetheless embrace you in this totally nullified and denuded being.
Dionysus is the god who comes, the god who is coming and is to come. A hymn to Dionysus is a song for those who are coming, those to whom you will be lost, to whom you will be no-one, in hopes that they might not forget this exposure, that they perhaps will embrace this nudity in which, together, we are no-one.