Purple Plants and Self-Identity; Or, Romantic Intersubjectivity According to mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss

mewithoutYou‘s “Aubergine” at first listen, sounds like a stream-of-consciousness rambling-on about agriculture with no clear referent or purpose. And while it can be understood, and, I am sure, enjoyed as just this, when understood in what can only be called its intertextual dimension, its meaning, or at least one of its many meanings, comes into greater relief. (And it should be noted that I am not the first to explore this particular song.) First, here’s the song itself:

The first verse is a collection of gardening references which refer to an unspoken subject:

Sugar down the syrup in the Queen Anne’s lace
Shining in the light of nightshade
Cultivating unsophistication in my face
Trying to think of nothing to say
Grapes gone sour and the spinach went to seed
It was spindly and sick from the outset
Waiting for the hour with a wherewithal to leave
Patient as a dog for its master

Two things are striking here: the first is that each line suggests a negation, a lack, a diminishing: confusion, absence, sickness, and frustration are evoked throughout. The second is perhaps less obvious but even more important: there is no clear subject or agent to this narrative. We have a list of phrases, most of them gesturing towards plant life and gardening. But if these images are meant to tell us about something other than themselves, it’s not at all clear–what is it that is shining, what is cultivating unsophistication, what is sick and spindly? It could of course be the narrator of the scene, though this would just be an assumption without any direct evidence–and it should be noted that the first-person nominative (“I”) is completely lacking here–as indeed are any pronouns whatsoever except for a possessive “my” and the rather un-evocative “it”. The “my” doesn’t give much help, since it can’t be determined whether it is meant reflexively or not–is the speaker the subject of this line, or is he or she instead in the accusative or dative, passive before some other actor? Meanwhile, the opening line doesn’t even have the stable subject-verb-object structure that might give us a toehold on the stanza as a whole. But then the chorus might suggest a candidate:

Aubergine

Just this one word: “aubergine”. If you are familiar with this word at all (at least in American English), you probably know it as a specific shade of purple. What does this have to do with anything? Perhaps the next stanza will begin to fill things in?

Labrador was locked through the promontory rock
She called down, said “time is an illusion”
An inconsequential shift as the continents drift
But my confidence was crushed and I miss you regardless

The “labrador” here might link us to the last line of the previous stanza, which spoke of a dog waiting for its master–and indeed this dog is waiting in eternity beyond time. Is this dog meant to signify the one about whom the speaker has spoken all along? It doesn’t seem so, for two reasons: first, this dog “calls down”; it seems to be off-stage, as it were. It would seem that it is interjecting into the scene, making a point relevant to the narrative. Secondly, in the last line of this stanza, “I” finally arrives, and it comes accompanied by “you”.

So perhaps the subject of the first stanza was either the speaker or the one being addressed, after all. The delay in introducing these referential pronouns means that it’s hard to be sure. And then, this sentence introduced, we are returned to our one-word chorus:

Aubergine
Aubergine

Again, this shade of purple–what’s it doing here? It doesn’t seem that reflection on what came before will be of any help, so let’s carry on forward and see what we find. The next verse is, in the song itself, sung by a new–female–voice:

You can be your body but please don’t mind if I don’t fancy myself mine–you at 32 still tied to your poor mother’s apron strings!

So the “I” and “you” remain in focus, but considering the change in vocalist, it may well be that this I is the you of the previous verse–though, of course, we can’t be sure. In any event, now we have a more explicitly philosophical statement. Imagery and metaphor have stepped back to allow a straightforward assertion: this speaker announces that she won’t begrudge the first speaker (if indeed there are two speakers here) his identifying himself with his body if he so chooses, but she won’t accept such a condition on her own identity.

So–perhaps the subject of the first stanza is actually the body of the first speaker? This would certainly hold together–bodies get sick and fade away, and the agricultural imagery seems to lend itself easily to reflection on the transience of life. But then why do we have a second voice? If we are here grappling with, to use philosophical jargon, the mind-body problem, why do we have a second mind announcing itself as taking a different view?

We now arrive at the final stanza:

Sorrel in the gravel and the saffron robe
Sleeping like a shark in the cordgrass
Now I saw how far I travelled down the solipsistic road
I climbed out to ask for directions
There was not a pond in sight, here I’m gasping like a fish
In the desert with a basket full of eggplant
Who asked about the passage from the bible on my wrists
But I couldn’t catch my breath enough to answer

Here we return to metaphor and imagery; the male speaker seems to prefer this mode of communication to the direct assertions of the female speaker. That said, we do have further use of philosophical jargon: the speaker, identifying himself with Theravadin monks in their saffron robes, has traveled down the solipsistic road–ah hah! So, this song may not be about the mind-body problem at all, but rather about solipsism, making the second voice’s presence simultaneously more relevant but also more mysterious.

But the second speaker is also here, perhaps, referenced, though oddly now again in  a third-person narrative form: someone has asked him a question about a tattoo, and he finds himself unable to answer. Who asks him? An eggplant. An eggplant!? We are back to our agricultural images, but now the produce is talking. But I think this eggplant is the second speaker. Why would I think that? Well, we have to return to the chorus: “Aubergine” is another word for eggplant, so this talkative gourd is not a new character in the play, but the interlocutor with whom we’ve been wrestling all along. (Perhaps many of you already knew the full meaning of ‘aubergine’; when I first heard this song, I did not).

OK, you might say–but why is this interlocutor an eggplant? This seems an extraordinarily arbitrary way of symbolizing a fellow human being. Here is where the “intertextual” element necessarily comes into play.

“Aubergine” is the sixth track on the album Ten Stories, released in 2012. Three years earlier, It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright was released. Its sixth track, “Bullet to Binary (pt. 2)” may shed some light on our original text:

The opening of the song references, unsurprisingly, the original “Bullet to Binary” (from A–>B Life, released in 2002) but let’s not follow too many threads at once here. The second stanza is the one most relevant to our current quandary:

Lettuce grows, lettuce grows in neatly sectioned beds and rows, but one day asked the Gardener to be moved to where the Eggplant goes.
The reason being, I must confess, I adore her shining, purple dress!
As the Eggplant listened in, she wasn’t offended but she wasn’t impressed.
The Potato called from underground: You’ve got it all turned upside-down.
Does the Rain that’s sent each spring anew to fall on her not fall on you?
You project on her your inward scenes, she’s a blank, external movie screen.
But the One who looks out from your eyes looks through hers and looks through mine.

Again with the agricultural imagery! It’s not hard to see a trend here. And not just a trend, but an explicit parallel–here, three years earlier, is our eggplant. And, let’s not miss this, this eggplant is definitely a she: the lettuce adores her purple dress. So this very well may be our eggplant from “Aubergine”, and if so the relationship between the first and second speakers from that song seems to be–or at least have been–at least implicitly sexual. It is her purple exterior, after all, that the lettuce so admires.

But then the potato calls “from underground”–again we have a third speaker breaking into the scene, like our eternal Labrador from before (is it perhaps going too much out on a limb to see Dostoevsky looming here?) The tuber lambastes the foolish greenery for his superficial affections. But note the reasoning here; the potato doesn’t seem to have a problem with physical attraction as such, or even sexual activity. Rather, the potato mocks the lettuce for thinking that the eggplant has any separate identity to begin with.

So, now the theme of solipsism is clearly rooted in this cross-album reflection. The eggplant is merely a “blank, external movie screen” upon which the lettuce projects some modification of his own identity, and his desires. At this moment of the lyric, before the final line of this stanza, one might suggest that the conclusion will be a confirmation of solipsism; this penultimate line has completely trashed the separate identity of the other person.

But in fact, this is what does not happen. Instead, both the speaker (lettuce) and the beloved (eggplant) are both relativized before “the One”–some Other “looks out” from his, her, and even the potato’s eyes. We have here not solipsism, but something more like a monistic pantheism: each individual human is actually just an instantiation of the One True Self (though one might want to link this to the “Gardener” from the second line–however, this begins to put massive strain on the metaphors in play, so for now I will leave this be).

But if “Aubergine”, a song released after “Bullet to Binary (pt. 2)”, has returned to the theme of the second speaker, the you, of this previous song, then it would seem that this mystical conclusion was not final for Aaron Weiss, the vocalist of mewithoutYou. Three years after announcing the unity of himself and the object of his affection, he still seems entranced and transfixed precisely by her otherness and distance–indeed, she rebukes him for holding a view of self (that one just is one’s body) that seems in conflict with the conclusion reached in the 2009 song.

So: what do we make of all of this? I am less interested in trying to arrive at what he meant (insert stock critique of access to authorial intent here), and more interested in tracking the development of the thoughts and feelings that seem, on a close reading, to have motivated all of this. And to that end, I will conclude by only muddying the waters further with a reference to “Bullet to Binary”, a song released, as mentioned above, seven years before its “second part”, and which seems to give the clearest account of what germ sprouted all of this romantic and philosophical anxiety:

First off, the two songs are sewn together not only by their titles, but by having identical openings:

Let us die, let us die!
And, dying, we reply…

Beyond this, though, the original 2002 song has no agricultural imagery, but is far more direct in its romantic lamentations:

When you laugh you’ll feel my breath there
filling up your lungs. And when you cry,
those aren’t your tears but I’m there
falling down your cheek.
and when you say you love him, taste me
I’m like poison on your tongue-
But when you’re tired, if you’re quiet,
you’ll hear me singing you to sleep.
So our aubergine-eggplant seems to have rebuffed the speaker in the distant past, and not only, perhaps, broken his heart, but also triggered a whole lot of philosophical and theological wondering. Whether the eggplant stands in for a specific woman or womankind in general is not at all clear here (though Aaron’s claim–in “Fox’s Dream of th Log Flume” from Ten Stories–to not have kissed anyone in 14 years might suggest the former).
All of this suggests a fraught attitude towards romance which is caught up in anxiety over self-identity as well–in loving, perhaps Weiss is saying, we find our selves displaced. If the love is reciprocated, then perhaps all is well; what is gained is far greater than the identity abandoned. But, if not–well, perhaps it can’t easily be retrieved.
That said, perhaps this loss of self-identity, though painful, is a great boon–perhaps what is lost is only an illusion in the first place, and the beloved who does not return the love is actually offering a great gift–liberation from an imagined selfhood. At this point, of course, I am moving beyond the lyrics themselves and speculating. One could engage in theological speculation here as well, especially considering the final line of the second stanza of “Bullet to Binary (pt. 2)” suggesting, as was seen above, perhaps a monistic pantheism.
My goal here is not, as I said, to suggest any “right” reading of the lyrics, but to try and showcase how close reflection can reveal significance in a host of things–this kind of thought isn’t just a dry exercise, but can, I think, when undertaken by anyone with some discipline and care, be vital and even therapeutic.
(I hope in the future to analyze more mewithoutYou lyrics with specific attention to Weiss’ theology. If you found this interesting and would like more, leave a comment saying as much!)

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