The Damien Tavis Toman Memorial Society

Announcing Death's Triumph Since 2004

SONGS OF LOVE AND SUICIDE – An Original Video Album by Damien Tavis Toman

Songs of Love and Suicide cover

In the last decade, Damien Tavis Toman has publicly released something in the area of 30 conventional audio albums under his own name and a number of pseudonyms.  Songs of Love and Suicide marks a highly significant turn of the page.  After a long period of silence following the elegantly produced album In Love with Death, Mr. Toman began in September 2015 to send me one live video after another of him performing new compositions unlike any he had written before, all of a stripped-down pop nature, and connected by the themes elucidated in the title I have given to this collection.  By the end of October I had amassed  nearly twenty of these performances and was in a serious quandary as to what I should do with them.  After some thought, I arrived at the rather novel notion of compiling them into a video album, something between a full-length record and a private living room concert.  The present volume is the result of that epiphany.  While the original versions of these recordings are available individually on Archive.org, this album has been edited to comprise a fully-fleshed work of musical-cinematic art, bridging the decades between the folk revolution of the 50s and 60s and the present anything-goes digital era.  Having obtained Mr. Toman’s blessing to undertake the project, I permitted myself the liberty of providing it with a personal introduction, explaining something of the origins of the long and strange relationship between this fascinating artist and myself.  Naturally I recommend that you watch it straight through from beginning to end, just as you would when listening to any other conceptual album.  There is variety enough here to please anyone and everyone–tragedy, irony, humor, social commentary, and personal reflection, all presented with the greatest possible intimacy.  If you enjoy these songs half as much as I do, I will consider my labors consummately rewarded.

-V.G. Epstein, Nov. 2015

“The Patron Saint of Pretentious Halfwits” – the New Book by Damien Tavis Toman

We are pleased to announce that Damien Tavis Toman has released a new collection which includes, in addition to previously unpublished confessional material, a substantial amount of FICTION–consisting mostly of ghost-stories penned over the last five years.  Indeed, The Patron Saint of Pretentious Halfwits: Tales, Reflections, and Nightmares is a book filled with ghosts.  Haunting its two hundred pages one will find not only spooks of the more traditional order, but phantoms of faith, specters of regret, restless shades of longing, and–as the characteristically self-deprecating title suggests–more than a few wraiths of wit and whimsy.  Download your own copy of The Patron Saint of Pretentious Halfwits today from the Damien Tavis Toman collection at the Internet Archive.

https://ia902505.us.archive.org/BookReader/BookReaderImages.php?zip=/8/items/ThePatronSaintofPretentiousHalfwits/ThePatronSaintofPretentiousHalfwits_jp2.zip&file=ThePatronSaintofPretentiousHalfwits_jp2/ThePatronSaintofPretentiousHalfwits_0000.jp2&scale=4&rotate=0

End Times EP – now available for download

End Times EP – now available for download

It was March of 2012, and Damien Tavis Toman was preparing to put the last of his resources into recording what he knew would be the last album he would ever make: a worshipful tribute to death that would, for reasons known only to the artist himself, be completed but never released.  Before embarking on this apocalyptic project, however, Damien made six impromptu studio demos of songs that he had recently written and never intended to record.  Lost until now, it is these rare and intimate glimpses into an artist’s last creative surge that make up the End Times EP.  Appropriate to the era in which they were composed, each of these songs is about an ending: the end of love, the end of hope, the end of life, the end of friendship.  Raggedly epitomizing the Memorial Society’s motto, Nihil in Perpetuum Durat (“Nothing Lasts Forever”), End Times shows Damien Tavis Toman at the end of his rope and, arguably, at the top of his form.

The Future – a Memorialist Perspective

In anticipation — as with the science fiction anthology mentioned two posts ago — of the class that I am preparing to teach, I have just taken up (and as quickly laid down, as it is very short) economist Robert Heilbroner’s Visions of the Future — a four-part essay expounding his sweeping impression of the evolution of humanity’s concept of “progress.”  This term, Heilbroner explains, is of quite recent  coinage, having carried nothing of its present meaning before the optimistic first days of industrialized capitalistic society, when it came to bear the imputation “that the present is in some fashion superior to the past, and, by extension, that the future will be superior to the present” (p. 43).  Since that epoch, which Heilbroner calls “Yesterday,” our collective optimism has been gradually degraded into a fatalistic mistrust of those technologies and ideologies which, while retaining their domination of the present system, have left us apprehensive of a future that promises to have little place or use for the majority of humanity.  He ultimately concludes that in order for humanity to have a future at all — at least one of any appreciable duration — three conditions must infallibly be met: first, the reversal of all damage done to the planet, and its preservation from further plunder; second, the abolition of war and the warlike propensity in man, along with the total dismantling of all national governments; and third, a general and uniform understanding of what he calls “human nature,” which will prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past.  One turns the final leaf of the book with the sense that, not only must Heilbroner be quite correct in his conclusions, but that — the aforenamed prerequisites being hilariously unattainable — humanity as a race must shortly resign itself to its doom.  In a paradox that makes sense once you stop thinking about it, we can clearly see that two inevitabilities loom grimly before us: that people will never change, but that society can always get worse.

What Heilbroner does not recognize (or, in any case, does not acknowledge) about his theory, is that in a strange and difficult-to-discern way, the present pessimistic and apprehensive humanity represents a full-circle return to its ancient condition — what he calls “the distant past” — when the best humanity seemed willing to hope for was that the world, miserable as it was for the majority of its inhabitants, would remain more or less the same until the gods saw fit to destroy it.  The apocalyptic outlook secretly harbored (though only clandestinely discussed) by you, me, and everyone we know, looks dimly ahead only a few paces to a world gone crazy and a world gone dark.  It is not exactly the “eternal present” experienced by our ancient progenitors, but it is a “future” so brief and deplorable as to scarcely stand up to the name.  The present is a holding cell and the future is a gibbet.  It may therefore be concluded that humanity has, for all intents and purposes, no future at all.  Capitalism, the atomic bomb of economic ingenuity, has condemned us, and condemned us inexorably.

I have also, in my spare moments, been making my way through Robert Tressel’s didactic novel The Ragged-trousered Philanthropists (1914), in which the principle protagonist, a house-painter named Frank Owen, more than once contemplates the murder of his wife and child, followed by his own suicide, as the only feasible escape from a life of intolerable struggle and privation:

Then he remembered [his wife] Nora. Although she was always brave, and never complained, he knew that her life was one of almost incessant physical suffering; and as for himself he was tired and sick of it all. He had been working like a slave all his life and there was nothing to show for it — there never would be anything to show for it. He thought of the man who had killed his wife and children. The jury had returned the usual verdict, ‘Temporary Insanity’. It never seemed to occur to these people that the truth was that to continue to suffer hopelessly like this was evidence of permanent insanity.

As any economist will have to admit, capitalism is a system instituted and sustained upon the indispensable condition of perpetual growth — a physical and logistical impossibility.  When it ceases to grow, it ceases to be capitalism, and it dies, and it takes everyone in the system (which is everyone on earth) with it.  This is the best we have to look forward to as a species and as a civilization: a unidirectional fate of ever-increasing and ever-accelerating horrors, terminating in the inescapable collapse of everything that makes what we risibly refer to as “our lives” possible.  We all know this, and yet we choose the death we don’t know over the death we could choose for ourselves now.  I am as guilty as the rest, as guilty as the worst.  I have a daughter.  I stay in the world because, having put her into it, I have lost my right to take myself out of it.  How silly!  Even if we will each not necessarily see the other one dead, we must nevertheless watch each other one die.

Frank Owen’s dilemma is not a question of morality, but of temporality.  There is no legitimate difference between murdering your wife and children with your own hands, and watching them be murdered by a lunatic society that functions as a homophagiac abattoir.  It can be done all at once, out of love, or little by little, out of criminal indifference, but it must be done all the same.

My purpose in saying these things is not to induce either disgust or despair.  The Memorial Society possesses few social agendas and no political ones, and indeed, we are not concerned in the least with humanity as a mass.  Our whole focus is on the individual — the individual who must find the death that is his own.  I cannot propose a way out of the self-devouring sausage-grinder that is global capitalism, because I don’t think there is one — though we can resist it and revile it and repudiate it all the way down the processing line, and we can hate it for what it has done to our world, and our souls, and what it must inevitably do to our children.  The Memorialist perspective is not pessimistic, because its only concern is with death, which is not only the one truly good thing, but the one thing that is absolutely certain: and so, being certain of the Good and its attainment, we are content in knowing the purpose of suffering, and possessing the solution to it for ourselves.  Neither is the Memorialist perspective realistic.  We exist in a society which, being capitalistic, can only be called vertiginously surreal — fundamentally erroneous — suffused in every respect with insoluble self-contradictions — and which, regardless of any decision we make for ourselves, has already consciously concluded upon its own suicide, and races to it with more maniacal effervescence with every bank and factory it builds, and every bank and factory it tears down.

“THE future” is immaterial — tempted though we must be to contemplate it in general terms.  As Heilbroner states, “By enabling us to see our lives as part of a great collective journeying toward some destination, however indistinct, the works of the worldly philosophers offer some kind of consolation for the all too clearly foreseeable destination of each member of the collectivity, which is death” (6). By living in such a way as to always have death immediately before us, and therefore to have life and its fussy, boorish concerns already largely behind us, we Memorialists can face any future placidly, saving our contumely for the existential condition that has made living and suffering unavoidable, if only up to a self-determined point.  It is not THE dead that we memorialize, but OUR OWN deaths.  It is not THE future that captivates us and occupies our waking hours, but OUR OWN future, which, being death, we cannot help but love. 
 

 

 

Confessions of an Aspiring Hypocrite

It’s been something around a year since I last sat down with the serious intention of composing a new song, and almost two years since I completed what I knew would be my last album–my enduring reservations regarding which have still not allowed me to release it.  I have, in the meantime, thoroughly ceased to think of myself as either a songwriter or a musician–however much the dozens of albums cataloged under my name may seem to contradict that sensibility.  I am at best an ex-songwriter, an ex-musician; these are aspects of myself and my legacy that have, as it were, been already laid in my grave in anticipation of the rest of me joining them.

Feeling as I do about this now ghostly and unfamiliar former identity of mine, I have had little occasion in the past year to take up my guitar and revisit any of the hundreds of songs which once seemed woven into me like arteries–always waiting, always pulsing to be opened.  It hurts and bewilders me now to sing them, as it hurts and bewilders me to look at a photograph of myself standing beside my ex-wife.  Nor can I seek diversion or expression through reciting the songs of others, for the simple reason that I don’t know any, and have never troubled myself to learn–being always too occupied with writing my own; always seeking in my own creations what I felt to be lacking or absent in the creations of others.  My self-assigned mission from the outset of my songwriting career was not to emulate the songwriters that I most admired, but to be as original and idiosyncratic as possible in a field that gave me astonishingly few examples worthy of either admiration or emulation.  This rather isolationist perspective of my work made the bond between myself and my songs only more vital, more desperate, thereby making the realization that my muses had at last deserted me all the more heart-crushing and unthinkable.  Imagine a Descartian experiment in which one wakes up and finds that he has disappeared–that he is nothing.  He raises his hand and sees no hand; he peers down at his feet and sees no feet.  And yet when he races to the mirror, his reflection is entire and unchanged: visible, but intangible, out of reach, illusory.  With the elopement of my muses, this has been the metaphor of my existence.  I am nothing–but my songs, my recordings, continue to reflect me as if I am still there.

I confided to my oldest friend last night something that I have heretofore kept mostly secret.  Since 2007, when I recorded (among many other albums) Make ’em Scream and The Prodigal EP, I have indulged in a potentially unhealthy romance with old country gospel records, such as I have happened to come across in the back rooms of thrift stores and consignment shops.  My delight and ravishment with these recordings betrayed themselves shamelessly on the two aforementioned albums, but henceforth managed to keep themselves in abatement, until my final (unreleased) album, in which they figured centrally.  At the time of my recording that album, however, in the early months of 2012, I was a semi-orthodox devotee of Santa Muerte, and it was thus to “Holy Death,” and not to any member of the Christian Trinity that my lyrics on that album were devoted.  While being inspired by gospel songs, they were not, in themselves, gospel, and they did not benefit from the naive and vulnerable simplicity of the songs that Hank Williams and Gene Autry sang about the honest old Bible, and the little white chapel on the hill,  and the gentle, steadying hand of Jesus, etc.  I did my best to make Death, as personified by the “Bony Lady,” into a sympathetic figure of mercy and salvation, but in the American context and the English tongue, it translated merely as bitter, suicidal irony.  Such are the misgivings that have withheld me from making the effort public.

What I confessed to my friend was that, if ever anything were to induce me to pick up my guitar and venture again into the world of performing (if not composing–I couldn’t hope for so much), it would be the realization of my private scheme, long cherished but never spoken of, to immerse myself in learning those same old country gospel tunes that have so often brought me to tears and laid my heart bleeding before me.  I have imagined myself, in my fondest moments, playing before little crowds of earnestly swaying gray heads, in the fellowship halls of crumbling country churches, losing myself (and my nothingness) utterly in the valiant expression of a faith that I no longer profess, and that, in itself, can offer me no answers and no comfort.  And yet the songs bring me comfort, and that by itself is an answer to something.  I could see myself–as a singer and guitar-player–devoting myself to these songs that I love and that make me weep, though I am long past devoting myself to the constrained and adulterated Protestant faith that inspired them.

It may be to my credit, considering my Christian upbringing, that I am a reluctant hypocrite and an unwilling dissembler.  As much as I want to sing these songs, and to experience and convey the immensity of solace that they bring to me, it troubles me that I would be seeming–in performing them–to be conducting some manner of ministry.  More disturbing yet, is that the audiences demanded by such a repertoire would inevitably assume me to be a Christian like them, and I would be threatened with the impulse to obviate confusion and offense by falsely confirming this supposition.  I would be two times a “false witness”–first to the songs and their authors, and second to myself and the Memorialist beliefs that I am not only responsible for defending, but for defining.

Still, there must be a reason that I am so viscerally affected by these songs that I adore, despite my knowing intellectually that I can never again accept or return to the faith from which they’re sprung.  A reason beyond, it may be supposed, my deep nostalgic longing to be reconciled to the figure of Christ who was once so real to me, and whose legend and teachings remain so meaningful.  The unifying impulse that underlies nearly every country gospel song that I have ever heard is a sort of remorsefully penitent contemptus mundi, accompanied by a dreamy but fervent desire for heaven–that is, for death.  There are, certainly, more earth-bound lyrics, concerned with the sorrow of having sinned and the jubilation at being forgiven, but these come with the implicit understanding that redemption came with the death of Christ, and that one’s soul is ultimately only redeemable at the time of one’s death.  The love expressed in these songs is an otherworldly love, the joy an otherworldly joy, the grief an otherworldly grief: all of it points outward, away from life, beginning–as it were–at the point of life’s termination.  Their concerns, in this way, are the concerns of Memorialism–however averse our own doctrines may be to such injurious ideas as “heaven” and “eternal life.”  A Memorialist devotional song, such as I endeavored to devise for my unreleased final album, would not be materially different in tenor or intention from that of a traditional country gospel tune.  Its principle purpose would still be to exhort the listener to reverse his culturally-imposed perceptional polarities, so that he was living life in the context of death, rather than situating death in the context of life.

Someday soon, I think, I will exhume my guitar from its resting place, knock the rust from its strings, and try to find out whether I can do for “The Old Rugged Cross” what that song has done for me–and perhaps even see, after some practice and meditation, whether I can make it do the same for others.  I have said many times, in defending those religions in which I do not myself take credence, that I believe in belief.  What I believe is as much the result of my need for belief, and my belief in belief, as it is for any other believer of any other walk.  Though I am dedicated, through my writing, to proclaim Memorialism, I am just as dedicated to advancing the human capacity for faith, in all of its forms, that is our only weapon against scientific materialism and disillusioned amorality.  That, more than anything,  is why “that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me.”  On it hangs one of our best examples of a man who helped the world by giving up on it, and whose greatest triumph appeared, for all without eyes to see, a lamentable and unnecessary failure.

Inaugural reflections on Science Fiction

Conceiving that the theme of a composition class I will be teaching this coming semester will have something to do with the future, I assigned as the principle text a ponderous anthology of science fiction stories, which I am presently making my way through.  Outside of the odd paperback novel read and forgotten in youth, this is my first significant exposure to a genre which I have hitherto been content to ignore.  Had I not required my students to buy the anthology (the Wesleyan, if you are curious) I would have been content, after reading as much as I have of it, to resume my oblivion.

My reasons for disliking science fiction are still not perfectly clear to me.  I find myself bored by the stories not because they are not in their way exciting, but because I find little in them that excites me in particular–nothing that either corresponds to or illuminates my experience of existence.  It is, so far, mostly a matter of taste: a disinclination formed of the same inborn biases as prevent me from enjoying most Victorian parlor dramas, books about animals, westerns, and a thousand such preferential distinctions. 

My distrust of the science fiction, however partial, seems defensible when looked at acutely.  Writing–since its earliest contrivance–has been used by man as a tool of posterity: a way of making record.  For this reason our earliest stories–the foundational myths and legends that make up our original literature–invariably find their setting in the distant, sometimes immemorial past.  The most natural tense in which to write fiction is the past tense, because this is the most natural way to tell a story, which is something that one has either experienced oneself or is transmitting from the experience of another.  Even the prophetic voice, as found in the Bible, is more often than not telling of things that will happen, or are presently happening, as if they have happened already.  The reason for it being so seems clear enough: the future tense, having necessarily the sound of speculation, is naturally more difficult to trust.

Beyond any personal cavil I may have, then, against such tedious topics as technology, extraterrestrials, and so on, my suspicion of science fiction seems also rooted in my instinctive regard for hearing of what has happened rather than what will happen.  I am more likely to bear a science fiction story patiently if I can see that the conditions of the world being described are such as would reasonably evolve from the conditions of the world as it is now.  There is a lesson in such stories, and it derives more from observations of the past than it does from roaming fantasies of the future.  Mere imagination is not enough.  It must relate to something if it is to have coherency.  An occupying fleet of inscrutable space-creatures is useful only if, as in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, it manages to instruct us somewhat upon our own limitations, or to cast a light upon our hubris, or to remind us of the cyclical fragility of civilizations.  Even then, it is only performing the duty of history in a gaudier fashion, out of which the lesson will be harder to extrapolate, because impossible to observe.  The ultimate lesson of The War of the Worlds may be that we would do well to keep a well-stocked arsenal of atomic bombs in case of alien invasion; the lesson of history is that the atomic bomb has made us alien to ourselves.

What I have found with much of the science fiction I have so far encountered is that the man is missing.  There is a great deal of wonderful technology, and vast distances being traveled, and great world-shaking cataclysms that exterminate millions in a twinkling–but the man, the inmost owner of thought and experience–is gone: either overlooked in favor of enlarging upon the greater circumstance, or driven out of his senses by his participation therein.  It is a genre, I have found, concerned most often with generalities, in which the individual life and death are obscured by the movement of centuries and the eradicating arm of unintelligible catastrophe.  Man, when present, is usually deprived of all potency, already skewered and wriggling before the open jaws of fate.

Each of us has only one future, and that is our own death.  In that moment, whether we are on earth or another planet, whether we are attended by doctors or drones, whether we are dying alone or in the company of our whole race, is of no consequence.  The utopian dream of science fiction is that death will become an obsolete notion–that man will overcome it as he has every other material inconvenience.  Perhaps its best use is to explore the implications of such a deplorable fantasy, which is today–in reality–the delirious impetus behind every new technological development–i.e., to outrace mortality.  In the process, we are making ourselves not the conquerors of time, but its vassals:  a condition made more intolerable each minute we remain alive.

 

WINTER DEVOTIONS

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Winter Devotions, a collection of Damien Tavis Toman’s poetry composed between 2009 and 2013, is now available to view and download at the Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/WinterDevotionsByDamienTavisToman