John Keats composed the famous lines “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” in his much-anthologized poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Ol’ Johnny is one of the names that even non-literary people know, even if only as “some guy I learned about in college,” mostly because of this poem. It’s famous for a reason, and that’s because it’s true.
I take that back – it’s half true, maybe not even that. An enormous amount of the truth in this world isn’t beautiful at all. Cancer; war; child slavery; sexual slavery; serial killers; planes crashing into skyscrapers. And some of the beautiful things in this world don’t communicate any truth at all. I’m reminded of Dumbledore’s warning to Harry about the Mirror of Erised: “This mirror gives neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away in front of it.”
My mother is constantly puzzled about why I like some music or some movies that are about suffering, hate, pain or other bad facts of the world. While I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer – even to myself – I think it has to do with my relentless search for truth, regardless of how it makes me feel. The primary source of truth for me is God, and while that’s my mother’s source as well, God leads us down different paths that often lead to different truths. Not opposed truths, mind you; just as a house divided against itself cannot stand (thanks Abe), truth divided against itself isn’t really truth at all. But some of the nuggets of truth that I discover are ones my mother is just not privy to, and vice versa.
Joy Division is one of those places I find an experience that communicates real, unflinching truth. Notice I didn’t say that truth is communicated directly from the band; it’s not. I doubt Ian Curtis knew or cared whether he was communicating truth. But his lyrics are honest – about how he felt, how he perceived things, and how things affected him. To a properly discerning mind, such honesty will always communicate truth.
And it just so happens that Joy Division’s particular flavor of truth wouldn’t be at all palatable to my mother, but it is to me. Maybe this is because I’ve gotten a little taste of death. I’ve faced the reality of shifting my existence from one phase to another, and I’ve faced the pain in that transition. Joy Division never appealed to me before I got cancer. But after my diagnosis, I gained an understanding about both this world and eternity, and suddenly there was much more truth available than before. Strange as it may seem, some of that truth lay within Joy Division’s music.
“So what is that truth?” I hear you asking. I wish I could explain it in one sentence, a pithy phrase or aphorism that people so often mistake for “wisdom.” But this truth can’t be transferred with words only, not even from a writer with my considerable but ultimately inadequate skill. But I can tell you this: it won’t make you feel good. It might even bum you out. But despite that, it has the power to make you a better person.
I don’t have a pithy phrase, but I do have a song that captures Joy Division’s essence and entire musical ethos in a mere 6 minutes and 10 seconds. “Decades” contains all the sadness, weight and depth of meaning that Ian Curtis was ever trying to tell the world. “Decades” is about being brought to the absolute brink of darkness, or “knock[ing] on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,” and the evacuation of personhood that causes. It’s comparable to “The Hollow Men,” by T.S. Eliot, which is about the same thing. The “young men” in “Decades” have been forced into deep, dank places where they’ve had their humanity torn to shreds. The most immediate application of this theme is lads returning home after a war – in Britain, that would most likely be WWII. My own interpretation involves being introduced to death, as I was. When you come back from that, you’re changed, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly how.
But to really understand the truth Joy Division communicates, you need to actually listen to “Decades” – preferably hundreds of times over 5 to 10 years like I did. The real truth is in the music, the emotion it invokes, and the cosmic experience it sparks. And I would posit that ALL the best music is like this.
Joy Division’s career was incredibly short. They formed in 1976 (under the name Warsaw), their first album was released in 1979, and Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980. Closer and the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were released posthumously, and the rest of the band then reinvented themselves as New Order. At first glance this seems tragic, mired in Ian’s unrealized potential. But being the optimist I am, I think that Joy Division’s destiny involved everything that happened to them and they did what they were supposed to do. And they’re still doing it; so many bands simply would not exist were it not for Joy Division. But the most important thing they did was communicate truth. Ugly truth it may be, but truth’s nature is not affected by our labeling of it with “beautiful” or “ugly.” It’s just truth.
Next: Hell IS a bad place be.