In 2011, a number of British companies joined forces to release a documentary about the tragic true-life death of a rather normal person, Joyce Carol Vincent. Entitled Dreams of a Life, the film explored the events—many of them speculative and sometimes verging on gossipy—leading up to the discovery of Vincent’s body, decomposed over three years on the coach in her apartment. Presumed to have died around the end of 2003, her TV was still playing and unopened Christmas presents surrounded her when three people legally broke into apartment to check on her in 2006.
The story itself captivated the British imagination. Born in 1965, Vincent had been professional, vivacious, and the youngest of five daughters. How she had gone three years dead with no one checking on her—including her landlord, her siblings, and the utility companies—is one of the most intriguing aspects of the story.
Frankly, the film as film is rather weak, even if the story and the subject matter are stunning and terrifying. So many talking heads appear throughout Dreams of a Life—most of whom are unidentified and given no context but allowed to speak whatever theory they want—that the tragedy of the loss of Vincent becomes merely a catalyst for lots and lots of people to speculate about what actually happened. Unfortunately, Dreams of a Life becomes something of a bad and very long news report, all told by the “man on the street” who, in reality, know nothing but believe everything.
Ultimately, though, beyond the superficial aspect of the interviews, the film asks how any person could be so utterly lost in our modern, urban society that she goes missing for three years with almost no attention from any family member, neighbor, or even business in the larger society.
When musician Steven Wilson saw the film, he, too, became intrigued by the very loss of a human soul, the loss of a life, and the loss of a unique person. In an interview with American journalist, Stephen Humphries, Wilson explained the role of the film:
“There was something very symbolic about the story of Joyce Carol Vincent,” says Wilson in a phone interview. “This was a young woman living in the heart of the city who chose to erase herself, to disappear. If you really want to disappear, you wouldn’t go to live in a small village in the country, you would go live in the heart of the city. You would go and live in the midst of millions of other people. If you do that, you will disappear.”
To be fair, many of Wilson’s albums over the past two decades have dealt just with such alienation from society, but they have usually done so by looking at how certain behaviors lead one to become alienated. The story of Joyce Carol Vincent is not so clear cut. In many ways, it is not just about a person exiling herself from society, but also about a society—by its sins of omission—exiling her as well.
In creating his own sixty-seven minute concept album, Wilson chose to give his character a happier ending that the real-life analogue. Still, the events of Wilson’s fictional life are horrific, as anyone who has lost a child knows all too deeply and all too permanently.
In the most powerful track of the album, “Routine,” our protagonist deals with the loss of her entire family. Though the words are mundane when taken piece by piece, when taken as a whole, they are sublime.
What do I do with all the children’s clothes?
Such tiny things that still smell of them
And the footprints in the hallway
On to my knees, scrub them away
The life and lost love of her deceased family haunts every aspect of her being. How to cope, but to keep moving, how to become almost heart and soul-dead seem the only sure way to survive the debilitations of loss and survivor’s guilt.
Hand.Cannot.Erase. considers a number of moods and emotions tied to loss and the desire of the depressed self to disappear from all around her. At around fifty-five minutes into the album, however, memories of love reawaken the protagonist. In particular, it is the love of her ancestors that enlivens her again, filling her with some kind of calling and purpose.
Come back if you want to
Come back if you want to
A garden wall
A mother’s call
A love is born
And after all the sleep that falls on me
“Ancestral” flows immediately into “Happy Returns,” the title revealing the protagonist’s happy if somewhat reluctant and reticent return to real life. “Hey brother, I feel like I’m living in parentheses.” Whatever regrets, however, the listener knows the lead character had made it back from her depression and her own exile. Unlike the real life story of Joyce Carol Vincent, Wilson’s hero re-emerges from the shades, broken but ready to find some healing, however slight it might be, yet preferable to eternal darkness and the annihilation of the self in the abyss.
Art, But Then Some
Taking his own excellent and expertly treated art to the next level, Wilson also released a book accompany the album. Roughly the same dimensions as a vinyl LP, but as thick as a coffee table book, the book, Hand.Cannot.Erase. details the life of his protagonist in ways his music simply cannot. Beautifully illustrated throughout, the book gives the reader something unique: various media that allow us to fall into the world of the heroine. Not only do we experience her world through photography, but we also get to look at her birth certificate; her diary; the sleeve notes of a mixed-tape; a postcard; newspaper clippings; sketchings; and, most importantly, a note to her brother, declaring her re-emergence in the world. These are not simply parts of the book, but removable and tangible media.
When I was a child, I used to spend hours looking at the gatefold sleeves of Yes’s live triple album, Yessongs. Not only did I love the music, but I cherished and obsessed over the fantasy paintings by Roger Dean. Floating islands, organic star ships, and alien fish came together in a rather forceful and fantastic way.
With the release of Hand.Cannot.Erase.–the title strongly hinting at the ultimate optimism of the story–Wilson has taken the release of an album to an entirely new level. Not only can we enjoy the music, aurally, but Wilson has given us a life to study with our ears, our eyes, and our hands. Even more importantly, we can connect to the life of his fictional character at the level of the mind, the heart, and the soul.
Whatever else it did, good or bad, the Protestant Reformation separated the image from the word at a most fundamental and almost irredeemable level. Over the last 499 years, western culture has striven mightily to bring the two back together in an incarnational fashion. When image and word become one, as John Paul II said in 1996, we can rediscover the refashioning of the human person, broken but destined for sanctity.
Perhaps one of the greatest and most telling ironies of the modern world is that a self-professed English atheist has re-discovered one of the most beautiful manifestations of human dignity yet conceived. Through music, image, and word, we find a lost person, a person alienated from society by her own actions as well as by those taken by other members of society. Unlike the real and tragic Joyce Carol Vincent, Steven Wilson’s heroine experiences love and loss, but, as she drowns in her own wallowing depression, she comes up for air and finds meaning again—slowly—through her relations, ancestral and current.
If this isn’t the essence of a Catholic Humanism, nothing is.
Here in Wilson’s high art, we find the absolute best of humanism. Now, we just need to remind those who love humanism that it is only properly understood and completed when it is modified by that all important word: Catholic.