I wanted to review Typhoon’s new record, Offerings, when it came out last year. I wanted the review to be hip and short. But Offerings predicts the apocalypse. Hip and short reviews of apocalypse-predictions only work if the reviewer is being dismissive — and I can’t dismiss Offerings, harbinger of disaster, oracle of death’s oncoming. Its prophecies are on point; its predictions are plausible; its doomsday clock has an impeccably accurate tick.
Bob Boilen– the man behind his Tiny Desk and what we all thought of as our unique, individually-crafted taste in music — understood the difficulty. Like the knight that charged the Sphinxes Gate in a Neverending Story, his body lies dead before this album as warning to whatever Atreyus would attempt to pass its awful gates. His review said three very important things: (1) That Offerings was the only record to make him cry since Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell. (2) That “had this album come out even a dozen years ago, many of us might have spent the coming year dissecting and poring over the density and meaning buried in this record.” Which means: (3) He didn’t pore over the density and meaning of this record. But he strongly suggested that, for our own edification, we do so pore. So, Bob, I’m poring Offerings for you.
Offerings predicts the apocalypse through the work of René Girard. Girard was a French intellectual (1923–2015) who, like many French intellectuals, made extraordinarily bold and far-reaching claims about the meaning of human life and history. He argued that what makes human beings different from the other animals is our capacity for desire. By desire he means something distinct from appetite — those needs we fulfil to continue our biological life, like hunger and thirst. For Girard, desire is appetite conditioned by the presence of a model.
The child who cries for the previously-ignored toy when it is picked up; the man who only begins to desire a woman when she is taken; the car you want because that guy has it; the belief you hold because your professor held it first — these are obvious examples of what is always true. Human beings are not original in their desires. They are imitative.
We know this is true of babies — they learn what to desire through the imitation of the speaking, sharing, utensil-using, potty-trained adults who surround them. Girard’s claim is that there is no grand, decisive break between our adult desires and childhood imitation. We simply move from the the imitation of our parents to the imitation of more and more people. Teenage rebellion is romantically described as finding your true identity and breaking away from your parent-model. Girard understands it as most realistic parents understand it — teenagers take up new models and imitate new peers and popstars. They only imagine, with the help of a few slogans, that they are “moving into their own.” Girard calls this phenomenon mimetic desire — desire that imitates the desire of another.
His claim makes us uncomfortable. We have been educated to believe that we are rational individuals whose desires come from some unspecified place inside ourselves — that we must fulfill those desires precisely because they represent the uniqueness of our individual person. If anything could be called the dogma of the age it is this — you have a unique identity, known by your unique dreams that you must follow in order to be fulfilled and happy. Indeed, most of our therapy, whether self-prescribed or professionally administered, takes this as an unwritten dogma that the cure for what ails us is to “become our true selves” and to follow our deepest desires.
René Girard calls the myth of the uniqueness of desire the “romantic lie,” one propagated by a sordid confederacy of bad theology and second-rate literature which describes man as a self-contained, sovereign individual. It is the mark of good literature — most explicitly in the great novels of Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Proust — to debunk this myth.
It’s also the mark of Typhoon’s Offerings. The album is an attempt to rip away the romantic lie of the self-contained individual and expose the truth of mimetic desire. Compared to Kyle Morton’s previous attempts, it feels fed-up. Consider the grooviest song the band has ever written: White Lighter’s Dreams of Cannibalism.
Unhand me I am not a criminal / but I’ve played a guilty part / in the modern sense that one pretends that life is original
I don’t know if we really believed the lyrics; if we nodded our heads to the claim that moderns are guilty of pretending that life is original rather than imitative, or if we just nodded our heads to the beat. So, in Offerings, Morton sheds the groove and becomes cruelly empirical. When he describes the beginning of human existence in, yes, Empiricist, he says that the requirement for attaining humanity is this:
You learn to imitate.
This on-the-nose urgency pervades the whole album. In fact, I think it’s the main reason why Morton turned to the financial suicide of low-BPM, sludgy guitar-rock instead of Typhoon’s signature indie-orchestral sound — sometimes you’ve just got to turn the amp to 11 and tell the people that their desires come from models that they refuse to confront.
When poets in the thralls of the romantic lie sing about not recognizing themselves in the mirror, it usually means something like “I, through my sexual escapades and drinking habits, have lost sight of that unique self that I know myself to be.” Morton uses the trope too:
One day your children find you, locked in the bathroom, staring in horror at the reflection of your face. You say you’re sorry to the guests at your party. But you can’t help wonder, who is this person you celebrate?
But for Kyle, the lack of recognition is not incidental to human existence, as if only bouts of waywardness render us strangers to ourselves. A lack of self-recognition is human existence — we are strangers to ourselves because our desires are not our own. They are imitations.
Kyle’s newfound empiricism almost repudiates his earlier work. The song Darker can be read as “darker than my other attempts” at unveiling mimetic desire. It hearkens back to Typhoon’s The Honest Truth, which advises us to:
Be kind to all of your neighbors / ’Cause they’re just like you / And you’re nothing special / Unless they are too
Because desire is imitative, you are not unique, except in, through and with the neighbor, whose desires form your own. Darker looks back on this attempt at dealing with mimetic desire and admits that it has failed: “I tried, you know, just to tow the line: love all the neighbors, live in the light.”
Nevertheless, the myth of individuality persisted. The singer still believes he is “self-contained (a convenient lie).” The imitation of others still appears as a horror: “Mirror to my left, mirror to my right. A void stretching out on either side. Is it your face or mine?” Once again, the mirror appears as a symbol of mimetic desire — the desires we think belong to us are really reflections of the desires of the models we take for ourselves.
This leads to a question. Why do we imitate? Girard says that we imitate because we lack being. This point doesn’t need to be as esoteric as it sounds. All it means is that when we desire an object, we are not really after the object — we are after the model.
This is obvious in advertisement: Why do you want to drink Coca-cola after you see a happy, hip, freckled woman sipping it through a glass bottle, her suntanned legs dangling off of a pier? Is it because the particular syrup of Coca-cola is a good way to sweeten your carbonated water? Not really. We want to be the person drinking the Coca-cola. We want a bottle of her substance. Coca-cola understands this. Their motto is not “taste the syrup,” it is “taste the feeling.” The feeling is one of a being somebody — in this case, Freckles. The only improvement would be “taste the model,” or, if one was in a mood for being inaccessible, “taste being.”
Why do we want to be others rather than our self? In Empiricist, Kyle describes the self prior to its imitation of other people. The vision is not pretty:
You’re a black-hole bending light beams backwards. Center caving, self collapsing inwards. Against the infinite you have no stature. Shrinking infinitely out of the picture.
Now this is a description of the central narrative of the album, which is, ostensibly, about a man slowly losing his memory. But it is also a universal description of the self attempting to reflect on itself, like a mirror within a mirror. The reason why I can be said to “lack being” is this: I am a subject, not an object. Every time I try to think of myself as this or that object, the image slips away from me, because I am always something more. I am always the one thinking that I am this or that object — and thus I cannot be identified with it.
If trying to find yourself makes you feel like a “self-enclosed short-circuit going round and round forever” — don’t worry. If you try to shine a light on your “true self” and that same self seems like a black hole bending your light-beam backwards — fret not. There’s an entire tradition of philosophy that thinks you should give up. The self is not a thing. If you try to find its center, the center will cave. You are knowledge of the world that cannot itself be known. You are an opening onto things that cannot itself be opened onto. Jean-Paul Sartre calls the consciousness nothingness. Max Scheler simply says that the person is Spirit, non-objectifiable by necessity. A thing that knows things cannot be just another thing.
Since we cannot experience ourselves as a thing, it is no wonder that our neighbors appear more solid than ourselves. We don’t see the inner turmoil of their conscious life. They appear as things that fit within a universe of things. They appear as objects while we appear to ourselves as subjects. Standing next to our neighbor, they always seem to have being, while we can only grasp at it.
We rarely confront this problem in such direct terms. We get inklings of it whenever we see others as “really having it” while we are “faking it.” In work, in marriage, in art, in sex, in travel, in culture, in belief, in musical taste — we are always concerned that we will be called out for a lack of authenticity, mocked for faking our position, our prestige, and our desires by someone who really does have them.
We try to absorb the godlike status of our neighbor by imitating his desires — by going after what seems to be the “secret of his metaphysical success.” This may be normal and healthy, as when a son imitates his father by “playing at” his career; or it may be perverse, as when we imitate the sexual positions recommended to us by magazines in order to attain the sex life that everyone else has. (In this case, religious tradition tends to call our mimetic desires envy.) The creation of celebrities is an extreme end of our tendency to grant object-status to our neighbors and long for their solidity by a constant imitation of their clothes, hair, gait, and political viewpoints. In each case, the illusion is the same: We say that what we want is the desirable object, but what we really want is to be our model who is safe from a lack of being — the object only appears desirable because our model appears to desire it.
That’s why, in Algernon, Morton says “what you want and what you want to be are easily confused.” He speaks pejoratively of need to suck the solidity from our neighbors when he sings “the will to be somebody slows me down.” Girard says that human beings are animals that do not know what to desire. Kyle describes this in the song Ariadne as being surrounded by “one million doorways, I can’t make up my mind.” Since we don’t know what doorway of desire to walk through, we look to our neighbors and imitate them. Thus, in the next line, Kyle goes on to claim that, if we do not have any readily available models, we will invent them: He is “hallucinating audiences just to hand me a lifeline.”
The 54-second song “Mansion” is the mysterious lynchpin of Offerings, but we can already worm our way into its meaning with what Girard has given us so far. The repetition of the line “I am lying down. In the neighbor’s lawn” should be taken as an image of mimetic desire — when it comes to desire, men are always “in their neighbor’s lawn.” As we’ll see next, it’s the growth of desire in the neighbor’s lawn that gives rise to the violence that threatens our world.
Read the second part: The World and its Vicious Appetites