Why is Johnny so Sad and Angry?
Finding Refuge in Music and the Incredible Hulk
Interview with John Darnielle
In appreciation of John Darnielle
Any Buddhist can tell you why Johnny is angry. Johnny is angry because he is suffering. He is not an inherently mean person; but he is riddled with anger and rage; and he feels powerless.
This is the first Noble Truth in Buddhism. Life as we ordinarily live it is filled with a restlessness of the soul, a sense of woundedness, pain and disease, suffering. The suffering can be induced by things we control and things we can't control. Still, it is with us and sometimes, in Johnny's case, it is incredibly intense. We do things we hate because we suffer. Don't you?
Johnny wants to punish those who have made the world such a messed-up place. His parents, the assholes in school, the military-industrial complex, God, himself -- it doesn't matter. His anger is both particularized and generalized. He wants to get even with the assholes and he wants to level cities.
Johnny's anger began early on, with events in his life over which he had no control. Something was broken and it never got fixed. Some say it's chemical and others say it's circumstantial. He's not sure.
The anger has been with him for some time now as a habitual response to whatever happens. His anger festers and even starts to glow, almost like a holy icon. It is intense and gives him energy.
He has studied a little Whitehead along the way. He knows that Whitehead speaks of two ways that people find satisfaction in life: harmony and intensity. He knows that ideally, according to Whitehead, we seek harmonious intensity and intense harmony. He knows that Whitehead is all about peace and compassion. That seems, well, sweet to him.
Too sweet! But he's about justice! And justice always carries within it a desire for retribution. So, for him, at least these days, intensity seems the better option -- the intensity of rage and the desire for retribution.
Yes, he feels harmony with his friends. They are loyal to each other. They enjoy a sense of comradery. But it is the anger that makes them feel alive. In being loyal to each other they are also loyal to the anger.
Sometimes he even cuts himself to know that he's alive and to feel the pain, which fuels the anger. In a funny kind of way, the pain feels good. There are certainly moments when he wants to go ahead and punish the people he hates. After all, they deserve it.
But there's also a side of him -- it comes out in what he calls his better moments -- when compassion and forgiveness, not punishment, seem to call. He knows that Whitehead thinks this other voice is that of God. Maybe so?
The Desire to Pulverize
Still, inside him, there's the festering. It would be nice if there were an image, an icon, of someone who could help him understand himself. Someone like the Incredible Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk was fiercely loyal to people who had treated him well. It was - the one major value in life was that he valued and treasured his friends. And then, anyone who mistreated them he wanted to destroy - utterly - not just to punish, but to pulverize. And when his - when he was angry, then he - or upset in any other way - but when he was - when his emotions were too strong, he was transformed into this creature who destroyed. And that was beautiful. I mean, it's like - because that's how you feel.
So will he become the Incredible Hulk? Will he hurt people? It's very tempting. But what he really wants is for people to understand what it feels like to want to pulverize. He's read Arlene Goldbard's The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists, and the Future. He knows that she speaks about the need in our time for people to listen to one another's stories and understand that everyone has a story to tell. And he knows that, for her, community-based arts and music are one way that this can happen. Might comic books and music be ways for this to happen?
Turning Anger into Storytelling
In any case, the Incredible Hulk might be a way for people to know what he and others are feeling.
I don't know that I wanted to wield the power so much as I wanted them to see what it felt like to want that. You know, it's like in your better moments, obviously you don't want to hurt anybody, you know? But you have this point of rage and powerlessness where you think, I wish you could see what it feels like this anger could do to a person, you know?
He'll use his own anger as creative energy instead. He'll write songs and novels that help people understand the feelings and that, along the way, help transform his own anger into something constructive story-telling and story-sharing. Process philosophers influenced by Whitehead call it creative transformation: in this case, the creative transformation of anger into communication. Maybe it will inspire others to share their stories, too.
He senses that music might have a special way of doing this. If our need today is to have a republic of stories, one vocation of music is to help bring this about. Not just the kind of music he writes and likes, but all kinds. It's about storytelling.
It's this area of communication that is unique to music, I think. That's a choice that the listener makes, to share that part of themselves with the artist who hopefully shared part of himself. ... It's very intense to have those sorts of conversations, have people sharing stuff that may be a secret, but I try to be worthy of it. It's an honor. I've worked a lot of jobs — this is the best one.
Cry for Judas
Johnny decides to write music that tells the stories of those who have felt like him or will feel like him. He wants some of them to be very sad, dealing with hard drugs and tragic ends, hurting yourself and others, sicknesses of body and mind. He thinks of the character in the Bible named Judas, who betrayed Christ, whom everybody seems to hate, and who, according to the story, killed himself. He wants to tell stories of people who feel like this. He remembers somewhere that Whitehead said that all souls -- all people -- are held in deeper arms and loved for who they are and can be. He knows that, for people influenced by Whitehead, Judas is nested in these arms, amid there very sense of lostness.
Wasn't it Jesus who had lost all hope while dying a violent death? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He knew what Judas felt. Surely we can, too.
As A Lyricist And Novelist, The Mountain Goats' Lead Man Writes About Pain
On writing music that inspires fans to share their stories
John Darnielle has written almost 600 songs now, and some of them are very sad, dealing with hard drugs and tragic ends, hurting yourself and others, sicknesses of both body and brain, off-brand alcohols. They are told in beautiful, unnerving, specific detail because he is a very good writer, and also some of them are just true stories about his own life.