Arcade Fire yearns for resurrection. Each conflict that Arcade Fire raises, from the aimlessness of the lover searching the streets for his beloved to the madness of the lover who cannot behold his beloved as she walks behind him out of hell, is resolved by one and only one event.
David Bentley Hart writes in “Christ or Nothing”: “As modern men and women, to the degree that we are modern, we believe in nothing.” And Charles Taylor puts in his tome that we live in a “secularized world.” Before and after them, scholars, essayists, philosphers all have formed a sub-genre of cultural criticism on the two assumptions: we are nihilists and we are secularists. There is no God, and nothing after this life.
But then we listen to Arcade Fire. Things are in a different order. What we believe in does not come first because we do not first believe. First, we love. And if we believe in nothing afterwards, we do so because we are first without our beloved.
Disinterest in God and in the afterlife superficially appears in the song, from Reflektor, “Here Come the Nighttime,” which asks for the prolongation of darkness, the nighttime party, the neon-lit amusement. The focus is on how nothing is cared about, nothing matters:
When the sun goes down,
When the sun goes down you head inside
Because the lights don’t work,
Nothing works but you don’t mind
The missionaries tell us we will be left behind
Been left behind a thousand times, a thousand times
If you’re looking for hell, just try looking inside
When you look in the sky, just try looking inside
God knows what you might find
And yet, when we look at the Arcade Fire corpus as a whole, this rejection of an afterlife, and of the evangelized-about God who keeps heaven from us, are secretions, not causes, of the tension that moves Arcade Fire from album to album. There is a suffering prior to having lost faith in whatever they once believed in. It is the loss of those whom they desire.
Listening to the four albums are like watching four plays, all with the same tragi-comedic dilemma, none of which satisfactorily defeat it. But instead of literary analysis on Arcade Fire’s lyrics – which, I think, would be fruitful – Arcade Fire rewards those who listen carefully. Here is one example.
Near the end of Reflektor is a pair of songs: “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus).” They follow Orpheus as he leads his beloved Eurydice out of Hades. Nothing more profoundly than that image conveys the mythopoetic center of Arcade Fire.
As they walk out, they try to remember something. (Which reminds me: a critique of Reflektor is that it’s too drawn out, songs go for too long. But this is why. It takes time, pounding repetitions of “You already know,” before you remember). The song’s narrator sings, “It seems so important now/But you will get over/…/And when you get over/When you get older/Then you will remember/Why it was so important then.” As they walk, and as they sing, almost playfully, perhaps flirtatiously, Orpheus shouts back to his love, “Hey, Eurydice!/Can you see me?,” which must be a painful question, since he cannot see her. But if she can see him, there’s hope. “I will sing your name / Till you’re sick of me.”
Arcade Fire writes two endings. In “Awful Sound,” the story ends as the myth does. Their desire for each other, to turn towards the other, whose love and loving requires being present before each other, swells. We cannot blame them. We can only despair for it being tried. This is the sorrowful freedom of the impatient desire. The song ends with them turning, and we know how it ends:
We know there’s a price to pay for love in a reflective age
I met you up upon a stage, our love in a reflective age
Oh no, now you’re gone.
With the next song, Arcade Fire gives the myth a new ending. The chorus changes. It had at first gone, “And when you get over/When you get older/Then you will remember.” Now it runs, “When you get over/And when you get older/Then you will discover/That it’s never over.” The climb out of Hades to save your beloved from death and separation never ends. In this second ending, Orpheus and Eurydice never make it out.
The Suburbs, perhaps Arcade Fire’s most acclaimed work, is often misunderstood (and acclaimed) as primarily a critique – a condemnation – of suburbia. Supposedly, Arcade Fire wants to show how bad living in the suburbs is, that it’s the worst metaphorically, or actually embodies the worst. “Sprawl I (Flatlands)” ends with a police officer asking kids late at night, “[kids] do you know where you live?” and the kids answering, “If you only knew what the answer is worth/Been searching every corner of the earth.” Though a deep critique of the “convenience” of suburban economy, this is construed as the look, primarily, for a place to live other than suburbia.
However the search for place in The Suburbs is never the search for place for place’s sake. All of place has been traveled, “every corner of the earth.” Place itself is not what they’ve lost. Eleonore Stump, in her moving and profound theodicy – the title of which is incidentally a concise expression of Arcade Fire: Wandering in Darkness – suggests what is the primary desire of our hearts. We desire many things, many kinds of things. I desire this drink, or that place, or this time. I may and often would have desires for certain beliefs, going back to nihilism, secularism and religion. I desire a better understanding of God or I desire belief in something that will happen in the future. But, as Stump writes, “the deepest things a person sets his heart on are persons.” Though the characters of Arcade Fire are lost within a world, a myriad of things, facts, beliefs, what they have lost are not things or states of belief or knowledge. They have lost persons.
Every conflict is that of not yet having found the place where the other is.
With respect to what our culture believes in, secularism and nihilism are largely correct diagnoses. But were we to consider our age with respect to persons (i.e., not statements of belief), we may very well understand our age, vis a vis Arcade Fire, as the reflective age: the age where our beloved is not present. Our lives have become mirrors. We’ve no window out of which to see another (which is an interesting reversal of what the computer “screen” does. Computers are not Windows, they are reflectors). There is ultimately no real Other. There is an absence of lovers except in the dream-house of our mind or the dream-world of heaven. When we think we hear a friend or a lover, it’s a maddening echo (a favorite leitmotif of Arcade Fire) of our own voice.
In theological terms, this age lives in the evening of Holy Saturday. Christ is beneath the earth. The disciples tremble in fear and shame. The world looms cruel and ridiculous. No matter what Christ said, his disciples must surely begin to doubt his divinity. He, like all things, has returned to the earth. That is all. We can hear the devilish whisper the disciples must have heard, in bridge of “Reflektor:” “Thought you were praying to the resurrector/Turns out it was just a Reflektor.” With Christ in the earth, death is once again the natural thing. It reenforces its certainty. The prophecy of resurrection becomes, with all religious promises and rituals, yet another comedic foil which the logic of death dissolves into absurdity. Everything is back to how it’s always been.
To beat the point into the ground (I almost wrote “grave”): epistemic doubt is caused by the death of a person, not the other way around. The death of the beloved mocks all belief. As Stump quotes Aquinas: “If there were no resurrection of the dead, people wouldn’t think it was a power and a glory to abandon all that gave pleasure and to bear the pains of death and dishonor; instead they would think it was stupid.”
And so the world is not full of nihilists or secularists; it is full of lovers who have lost their beloved. Everything after is the paint drying. This is at least the world of Arcade Fire – where in “Backseat,” their sister dies in a car crash, where in “Antichrist Television Blues,” a father abuses his daughter, where in “Wasted Time,” lovers know only a consuming boredom with each other; in each case, where lovers deal with what has rolled between them. Belief in nothing, and in nothing transcendent, comes from solitary confinement. And after that, all kinds of madnesses begin. Orpheus turns around.
Stump explains in an interview that resurrection is the confirmation of the goodness of there being particular embodied souls. Resurrection is always of particulars; and our lovers are these particulars. For belief in nothing to be doubtful, its foundation needs shaking. Life must sweep away the claim of death.
When graves are emptied, any system based on graves being filled becomes deficient. The wisdom of the world becomes foolishness.
Until then, there is the working-out of hope: to live as in the already-present and yet-to-be-unveiled Parousia, as if the stones are already in the process of being rolled away, and we, in the hush of feet walking out, are finally present.