Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

On September 11th, Ritual, and Radiohead.


Today is the seventeenth anniversary of when aircraft knives cut through the cool, blue sky into the fabric of our lives. It always happened this morning. It always is like it was yesterday. Such is life after trauma. Such is life after trauma. I keep saying that. I keep hearing myself say that, as I am laboring to metabolize my memory, to get to somewhere beyond my experience. I look at myself from outside myself. There is distance between us, myself and I. At least, that’s what I’m going for. Yet my experience can only fold into who I am. It is a part of me. I can’t get away. I don’t want to get away. Don’t leave me. Leave me alone.

Ritual is a kind of performative container, a sphere around and conduit attached to a series of actions that is repeated, the meanings reinterpreted through time and space. Rituals relieve us of re-creating entire worlds and understandings for ourselves. The container, the movements are already well-worn for us. Sometimes, we can abandon our faiths in God or each other, but we will return to the rituals that surrounded ourselves with them. We have the word “habit” for our rituals we find most banal. The force and gravity of monuments, such as they are, resist, they combat the force of habit. I won’t even acknowledge the banality of its shorthand date, my September 11, 2001 resists such banality.

Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” has always served as my monument toward (and it is always toward) this day. In the wake of traumatic events, we tend to create bespoke monuments to anchor ourselves to our experiences. Tethers offer range and limits. They keep us close, if only close enough. This song is my tether. It keeps me from running off in despair.

The lyrics are like the Revelation of John of Patmos. It is a revealed story of a future told in retrospect. The vision is fantastical, impossible, nonsensical. the vision is intensely personal, hopeful, and permanently resolute. The story can be told in past tense because of the safety to share it.

I jumped in the river, what did I see? I think of the billowing clouds of smoke and concrete and ash billowing across the harbor, the myriad ferries and boats gathering people to take them to safety. I think of the people jumping from the Towers, the Towers at the junction of the Hudson and East Rivers. They can only fall to the street below. They cannot fly over the river, except this one person. This person plunges into the churning Hudson and sinks.

Black-eyed angels swam with me. Bruised, ethereal creatures accompany this person below the surface of the waves. They are messengers. They are ministers. They hover around this person in the water, their wings undeterred by the current. This person is not alone.

A moon full of stars and astral cars. Under the water there is the soft-lighted moon, who manifests impossible, cosmic physics. The heavens are within her. Vehicles shuttle people through the vacuum of space here in the ocean. The R and W trains, the A and C trains. They fly and they arrive on time. There is wonder. Space and water, they are beyond the raging earth above.

And all the figures I used to see. Every shape and outline, everything of their entire life up to this moment. Every memory is present. All life in New York City is here, every bodega cat, every other skyscraper, every summer evening and every morning coffee. Their life unspools before them, the most habitual and ordinary.

All my lovers were there with me. Every partner of desire, love, and heartbreak is present. The remnants of every date. Every one-night stand. Every divorce. They are not alone. They were gone, but they are here, in the water, under the water. They have gathered for this moment. The intensity of intimacy made manifest.

All my past and futures. The singular thread of experience, of a lived-life is present and every possible trajectory from the point of the present is observed. Everything action and event of an individual’s life before them. Every apartment move and every taxi ride. Every little moment of city life.

And we all went to Heaven in a little row boat. Everyone who has shared this intimacy, this experience of life, this heightened awareness of self and other, fit into a tiny skiff to row from bathos to the sky. There is an escape from the murky waters, from the raging fires, from the cool air, from the falling concrete. From every element, there is escape. There is release from New York City, the only true release: to above it.

There was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt. There is no anxiety or uncertainty. The frisson of Gotham is gone. All is resolved. And is this not what the vision of Heaven is about? This utopian dream of assured present and future? The Towers have fallen, one after the other. Everyone else is left behind with the anxieties that come with war and death.

And the verses are repeated. A ritual is begun. The memory is pressed into the wax. We will listen to the song again until… what… exhaustion? Relief? Something not yet come. Such is memory and memorialization.

And yet the video above is so different from the lyrics. The lyrics proclaim an alternative vision beyond jumping into the water from what we watch. The lyrics proclaim a hope not made manifest before our eyes. The diver swims down to the ruins of a world lost to the elements and the animals. And the diver finds their home and remains until finally… well, that part of the song is without words.

What we see and what we hear and what we believe are often different from each other. And our rituals are a way of combining our senses and imaginations for something toward… what? A future? A past? A self? A community? Yes, all of this and more for the eternal present in each of our lives. We are always now. And for some of us in the rituals we have inherited and created, we take part in relating to ourselves, each other, and our God seeking to make sense of it all. This is church. This is prayer. This is lamentation. But there are many moments when ourselves, each other, our God, these events to not make sense. There is only now. And so we comfort ourselves and each other, as best we can, as best we know how, and hope and believe that there is a God that comforts us, too.


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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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