Lying to Ourselves

Proust, Midwestern Emo, Hume, and Our Transient Identities

David Clay / 3.16.23

The fear of a future deprived of the faces and voices of those we love, those who today give us our dearest happiness, this fear, far from being dispelled, is made worse by the thought that the pain of this deprivation is to be compounded by something which at the moment seems even more unbearable — our no longer being affected by it as a pain, but being indifferent to it — for that would mean our self had changed, and not just that we had lost the delight in our parents’ presence, the charm of a mistress, the warmth of a friend; it would mean that our affection for them had been so utterly obliterated from our heart, of which it is an integral part today, that we would be able to take pleasure in a life spent without them, horrible though that seems at present; it would amount to a death of our self, albeit followed by a resurrection, but a resurrection in the form of a different self, whose love will remain forever beyond the reach of those parts of the former self that have gone down to death. — Marcel Proust

In February 2020, Vulture released its list of the hundred greatest emo songs of all time. The list’s compilers prefaced it with some well-deserved caveats: “emo,” they noted, is an unsatisfyingly elastic term that very few bands would actually embrace. Nonetheless, “emo” remains a useful descriptor for that particular subgenre of rock which evolved from the Washington, D.C. punk scene sometime in the 80’s, unified (however loosely) by an “emphasis on melody, dynamics, and, yes, lyrics about feelings.

Vulture’s top pick certainly meets all three of these criteria, but it achieves the last not by way of indulging in the melodrama frequently associated with emo but rather by a sustained attempt to quietly disown certain past (romantic) feelings, or more accurately to pretend that they never really existed in the first place. That song, of course, is American Football’s “Never Meant,” the opening track of their first self-titled LP (1999).

Both the song and the album have since taken on mythical status in emo lore. American Football, a trio hailing from Champaign, Illinois — frontman Mike Kinsella was attending the University of Illinois at the time — is frequently credited with inventing or otherwise establishing the sub-sub-genre of “Midwestern emo.” It may be a questionable move to apply geographical specificity to an otherwise vague movement, but I think it’s helpful in this case. Personally, I’m quite certain that no outfit from any other region of the country could have put together this LP, and especially not this track.

Musically, “Never Meant” is driven by the interplay between two guitars — Kinsella and his bandmates had been listening to Steve Reich at the time, and the influence of the latter’s “Duet for Two Violins” is not hard to detect — and from its opening riff the track takes on a kind of major-key cheerfulness tinged with melancholy that immediately became the hallmark of American Football. It creates what is quite simply the ideal emotional atmosphere for driving through, say, the cornfields and small towns of southern Illinois on a clear autumn day.

For the most part, the Midwest is not a place of geographical extremes or even of much variation. This geography has lent itself, I think, to the famous emotional restraint of the region’s inhabitants. What loveliness exists in the Midwest — and there is much that is lovely — is typically of a muted and measured variety. Somehow “Never Meant” captures all of this in sonic form: it is music for people whose loves and griefs are deep but not quite apocalyptic, people who find it more natural to reminisce on a failed relationship from years past than to curse the gods over some fresh betrayal or heartbreak. This is the kind of emo that has to get up and go to work the next day.

True to this Midwestern disposition, Kinsella (or at least his narrator) is very keen “not to be / overly dramatic.” The narrator of “Never Meant” is addressing an ex-lover, neither to vent his rage nor to express lingering desire, but rather to make an appeal: “Let’s just forget everything said / and everything we did.” Their romance had died from natural causes, and ideally it would fade gently into oblivion. After all, as the narrator notes, “you can’t miss what you forget.”

But the narrator senses that the simple “forgetting” of what they had had together would not be possible. In that case, it would be “best” to adopt the fiction that the romance had never been real, that he and she had just been messing around like the stupid kids they were and saying lots of things that really amounted to nothing. There is no emotional disruption from which to recover. The solemn promises of undying love that spilled so easily from their lips were, surely, never meant.

There are all kinds of tactics to ameliorate the pain of a failed relationship: self-pity, smashing or burning memorabilia left over from the other person, drinking too much, getting spiritual, getting a new girlfriend. Denying that a meaningful relationship ever even existed is perhaps less destructive than some of the other alternatives, but neither is it the epitome of emotional maturity. Moreover, it’s an approach probably doomed to failure, being rooted in a self-conscious fiction.

Why would someone choose to lie to themselves?

Because, I suspect, there are deeper forces at play here. “Never Meant” is a retrospective break-up song, but it can be heard as an attempt to grapple with an ancient and terrible philosophical problem: namely, the problem of the unity of the self (or lack thereof) over time. The intensity and all-encompassing nature of romantic love (particularly in its first stages) is such that, when it fades or disappears altogether, it is difficult to identify the person who had once been in love with the person who has fallen out of it. Kinsella’s narrator senses this, and would rather deny the reality of the past romance than to accept that the composition of our emotional (spiritual?) landscapes can shift so drastically. He would like to talk himself into believing that he is the same person now that he was then.

In a very important sense, this is not true. No aspect of our personalities is immutable. Nothing in the web of characteristics, values, relationships and interests that we use to identify ourselves is exempt from change, and sometimes profound change. One of the most poignant and philosophically rich conversations I’ve ever had was with a student in my youth group who felt she was losing herself as her interest in K-Pop waned. When we are in love, or absorbed in some great task, we may feel the unity and permanence of the self, rooted in eternity. But this cannot and does not last. There can be no guarantee that what we cherish now will not become strange to us in the years to come.

In his 1740 masterwork A Treatise of Human Nature, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume roundly rejects traditional religious notions of the unity of the human self (i.e., the “immortal soul”). In keeping with his ruthlessly empiricist method, Hume notes that we human beings love to talk about the “self” even though we never have any direct perception of any such entity. What we do perceive are our various and ever-changing desires, bodily sensations, ideas. But, Hume continues,

… the self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner.

Of course, no such permanent and immutable impression actually exists. The “self” lacks any detectable unity. It is in fact “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” The existence of the permanent self, like the principle of causation, is not at all a proven fact about the world but rather a mental habit that we unreflectively adopt for the sake of convenience.

Or, perhaps, a mental habit to which we cling because the fear of “losing ourselves” is akin to the fear of death. We fear the dissolution of the self. We cannot help this; eternity is rooted in our hearts. But the reality is that our selves have been — if not exactly dissolved — then at least profoundly altered, sometimes to the point of near unrecognizability. Who can look upon the priorities and mindsets of his twenty-year-old self without puzzlement and most likely embarrassment? When I remember some of the stuff I said when I was twenty or twenty-five, I assure myself that, “Surely I didn’t mean that.” But of course I did. I don’t at all feel like an improved “version” of my twenty-year-old self. In many important respects I feel like I’m a different person altogether. And I have no doubt that my fifty-year-old self will feel the same way.

For Christians, St. Paul informs us  that we have already died in baptism and that our lives (those characteristics that make me who I am) are now hidden in Christ (Col 3:3).  But I can’t help but wonder, “Which life?”. The truth is that the life hidden in Christ is not something readily recognizable on a daily basis. It does not exist anywhere in my subjectivity, as Hume demonstrated.

That self exists nonetheless, and it is safe. St. Paul declares that, “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” (Col 3:4). What really counts as “you” is rooted in eternity, in the Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever. On that day, your self will be presented to you, and you will recognize yourself immediately and you will be neither shocked nor ashamed. There will never be cause to disown, rewrite, disown, ignore, forget the past or to pretend that it never happened. Nor will there be cause to mourn what one used to be and the loves one used to have. The eternity and immutability for which all love instinctively reaches will have been revealed, just as it was always meant to be.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


7 responses to “Lying to Ourselves”

  1. Joey Goodall says:

    “When I remember some of the stuff I said when I was twenty or twenty-five, I assure myself that, ‘Surely I didn’t mean that.’ But of course I did.”

    David, I like everything you write for the site, but I think this is my favorite one yet. It cut straight to my Midwestern heart.

  2. David Clay says:

    Joey — thank you so much. That means a great deal to me.

  3. Ian says:

    David, bravo! The providential guidance on display here bandages my own broken, Midwestern heart. For whatever reason, I’ve been listening to American Football and Braid more recently and lo and behold, here you are explicating our retrospective “self”-understandings through the king of Midwestern empire songs. Nothing feels good, but this isn’t half bad!

  4. Ian says:

    Ugh, emo* not “empire.” Blasted auto-correct!

  5. David Clay says:

    I like “Midwestern empire.” Good band name possibly. And I am grateful that I could be of service.

  6. Robert F says:

    “The existence of the permanent self, like the principle of causation, is not at all a proven fact about the world but rather a mental habit that we unreflectively adopt for the sake of convenience.”

    Who is the we that unrelectively adopts the idea of a permanent self? Is there no there there? We don’t exist, except as an illusion being imagined by ….. who, or what?

  7. David Clay says:

    Hi! So Hume wouldn’t go quite so far as to deny the existence of the self. He wouldn’t say it’s imaginary. Rather, we can’t point to anything in our consciousness that we can identify as the self. We can only perceive changing attitudes, feelings, passions, etc., so we have no (empirical) way of knowing if our self is a unified entity that persists through time. Maybe the self isn’t just one thing, but a succession of things through time. There’s no way of knowing empirically.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *