Arcade Fire and the Weight of Childhood
"Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."
- C.S. Lewis, from “The Weight of Glory”
How did they know? When Arcade Fire sing about those “wasted hours” of suburban teenage life on their now-classic 2011 album The Suburbs, it’s as if they were watching old videos from my room at my parents’ house. There’s something both healing and embarrassing about looking back on those years of feeling like an isolated weirdo and realizing that the experience was common to the point of cliché. One of the major themes in The Suburbs is the “chasing after wind” of our own past, as lead singer Win Butler (or the character he’s portraying) repeatedly laments the disappearance and replacement of the neighborhoods he and his friends called home during those impressionable years. “They keep erasing all the streets we grew up in,” he pines on “Suburban War.” “This town’s so strange. They built it to change.” Home is gone forever—at least that home. Nostalgia is nothing new; every decade longs for decades past, and everyone misses his childhood home in one way or another. But it seems that more recent years have seen the escalating near-perfection of the idolatry of childhood. As one article, geared toward exploiting this tendency for greater sales, has nonetheless rightly observed:
"Nostalgia is so powerful with 20-something Millennials because they're stuck between childhood and adulthood. Many recent college grads are moving back home and living with their parents while they figure out what they want to do with their lives. They're waiting longer to marry and start families, preferring to relish their freedom for a few more years. They can continue to act like kids (while enjoying the privileges of adulthood) well into their 20s. With this combination of fear and freedom bearing down on them, the last thing Millennials want is a marketer telling them they have to act like grown-ups. Instead, a subtle nod to their desire to be kid-like a little longer suits them much better."
And so the money machine has both noticed and encouraged this tendency. Turning back to those emotionally poignant days is a free experience (healthy or not), but if you want a tattoo based on your favorite children’s book or the latest re-hash of your favorite 1990s cartoon, it’s going to cost you—and, if the devotion is fervent enough, not just your cash. Whenever we embrace an idol—a statue, money, the past—we sell ourselves tragically short. But even if I could return to those days of awkwardness and delusion (for such they certainly were in my case), what would I find? In “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis observes that, were one to follow such a pang of nostalgia to its source:
"what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing."
In other words, for so many of us, memories of those teenage years produce such longing precisely because they were the moment at which longing itself first awakened in us. We yearn not for the remembered events themselves but for the “search” (as Walker Percy calls it in The Moviegoer) on which we were embarking at the time. And that search was—whether we knew it or not—for nothing less than eternity. But if we lose sight of the eternal, if we take the means for the end, then we simply fall into self-worship. And the one who can imagine nothing better than his own past is doubly tragic. First, because what he loves is finite. Second, because what he loves is already gone; there is an insurmountable distance between himself and the time he loves (or thinks he loves), and that distance will only grow as the future pushes the past ever further behind it. It is worse than love for stone; it is love for a phantom. Lewis again:
"These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited."
Another song, “Sprawl I,” takes place (in part) in the present day. Butler, accompanied by an old friend or two, drives around his old neighborhood but cannot recognize his house. This scene blends with a flashback in which a police officer asks them, both then and now, where they live. They answer, “If you only knew what the answer’s worth… Been searching every corner of the earth.” Even then there was no home; there was just “the search.” And only the eternal will satisfy.
- Chad Marine is the singer/songwriter of The Wonderful Mountain.