Ponder this to get near­er to noth­ing

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When I wrote the 50 Things About Me entry a little while ago, I star­ted creat­ing a playl­ist of 50 favour­ite songs. It got unwieldy and didn’t flow well though, so I gave up. Instead I’ll write a little bit every so often about songs from the list.

The Van Pelt are not famous or well-known outside a small niche. The sing­er­/song-writer  Chris Leo’s broth­er Ted Leo is much more well-known, and bass play­er Toko Yasuda has had success over the years play­ing with Enon, Blonde Redhead and St Vincent, but they never hit the big time. Instead they released two quietly treas­ured albums in the mid-90s (Sultans of Senti­ment and Steal­ing From Our Favour­ite Thieves) and then disban­ded- they’ve released a collec­tion of sessions that were inten­ded for a third album (Imagin­ary Third) and done the odd reunion tour (I was lucky enough to catch one in London-it was a very special even­ing) but I’m guess­ing only a small selec­tion of my read­ers will know them.

They can be loosely classed in the post-hard­core genre, but they used the sound to create some­thing with space, sparse­ness and a sort of philo­soph­ic­al intens­ity as well as emotion­al. I guess you could compare them to Modest Mouse but less frantic, or Slint but less sear­ing.

The song refer­ences the Zen Buddhist story of Nansen killing a cat- from sweepingzen.com 

“One day at Nansen’s temple in old China, the monks of the east­ern and west­ern halls were arguing over a cat. Maybe they were arguing about which resid­ence the cat gets to live in. The east­ern people wanted it with them, or the west­ern people wanted it with them, or neither of them actu­ally wanted it, since the cat deman­ded a lot of atten­tion and during zazen it would curl up on their laps which disturbed their concen­tra­tion. Or maybe they were just arguing about wheth­er the cat had buddha nature or not, or debat­ing what is a cat anyway? Zen monks can come up with an argu­ment about anything! You’d think they would have better things to do in a Zen temple than argue over cats, but that’s what they were doing on this partic­u­lar occa­sion. And when Nansen, their teach­er, saw this he held up the cat and said, “If you can express some­thing, it won’t be killed.” The group had no reply so Nansen cut the cat in two.

Later in the day, Nansen’s great disciple Chaochou, who liked to talk about dogs, came back to the temple. Nanchuan brought up the incid­ent and asked for his response. Chaochou imme­di­ately took off his sandals, put them on his head and left. Nanchuan said, “If you had been here you could have saved that cat.” Chaochou brought forth a true expres­sion and his teach­er seems to have approved it”.

One inter­pret­a­tion of the story it that it’s supposed to illus­trate the dangers of being too detached, too enlightened, unable to actu­ally engage with the world, too attached to rhet­or­ic and theory rather than action. Anoth­er inter­pret­a­tion is the oppos­ite- that you need to detach cause and effect and action on the world, and stop trying to analyse and intel­lec­tu­al­ise to achieve true enlight­en­ment.

Chris Leo was brought up Cath­ol­ic, and rejec­ted it, but he doesn’t seem to have taken to Zen Buddhism or detach­ing from the world at an intel­lec­tu­al distance either. Ponder this to get near­er to Noth­ing. Noth­ing stinks. I guess I can relate. It’s easy to be an observ­er until you wonder if you exist, but it prob­ably doesn’t do you any good.

Here are the lyrics:
There it is, plain and simple.
It destroyed itself without any of my slander.
This is the lunacy by which we kneel.
This is the doublespeak by which we kill.
This is the iner­tia that keeps tradi­tion feared.
This is the absurdity by which we walk bare­foot with shoes on our heads.
Ponder this to get near­er to Noth­ing.
On top of the world, think about it, there’s Noth­ing.
An unseasoned meal, mono­tone spir­its, routine homily.
Noth­ing has never been clear­er.
So kill a cat to keep logic at bay, then eat my body’s finest and fell me how it tastes.
Is it Noth­ing too?
Does it stink like Noth­ing?
Does it pois­on like Noth­ing?
(copy­right Chris Leo)

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