29 July 2013

Page One

A story is told: During World War II, an elderly, ruffled German wandered the bombed-out streets of Berlin frantically scanning the front pages of every newspaper that was on sale at every kiosk that remained still open. One curious proprietor watched the man with some interest and asked the man what exactly he was looking for. “The death notices.” “Oh,” the proprietor said with just a slight tone of disdain of disdain, “the death notices are never printed on page one.” And the man looked up and said with some assertiveness, “Oh, the death notice I’m looking for will be on Page one all right.”
It wasn’t on the front page but  . . . I looked at the obituary page today in The New York Times and I am saddened. J.J. Cale died this past Friday. His music has given to my life great joy. And as the musicians such as J.J. Cale who helped create the world in which I have lived die, I become older under greater protest. There is in my voice that of my parents who despaired that their world that was better than that of their parents (but was it really?) was being replaced by an inferior way of life.
This next obituary did appear on the first page of the newspapers last week: on July 18 Willie Louis died. In 1955, as Willie Reed, he testified against Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam at the sham trial for the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till to which the two low-lifes had proudly confessed. In 1955 Reed was an eighteen year old boy whose testimony against these men braved the threat of revenge that would be executed on him for his account of witnessing the kidnapping of Till in the early morning hours of 28 August, 1955 from his uncle’s house in the Jim Crow South of Mississippi. Reed required protection during the trial’s duration and he was spirited to Chicago after the trial where he lived out the rest of his life. His wife says that he suffered nightmares through his life as a result of that experience and that for eight years after the event Willie Reed didn’t even mention its occurrence to her. It was decades before he would speak of the trial or the murder.
The account of Reed’s death deserved to be front-page news. Here was reported the life of a man whose bravery placed in vivid contrast the revolting revelations of Anthony Weiner’s obscene texting—how stupid can one man be and still think to run for public office;, or the news concerning the sexual harassment accusations against Mayor Bob Filner of San Diego. And these latter scandals almost pale when I place them next to the obscene pronouncements emanating from the Republican party fools masquerading as leaders. Who is more deserving of respect and the front page: a person barely out of childhood who stood up against a history of contemptible degenerates whose only boast consists of the claim that under the cover of night and hoods they terrified helpless honest people and tortured and murdered a fourteen year old boy; or a cowardly and rather stupid group of mostly men who desire to write their names in the snow with their urine?
Oh, but you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears! 

20 July 2013

Wise Beyond Her Years

I guess I’ve been thinking about a certain phrase that I’ve heard applied to Laura Marling, a folk-oriented singer from England of whose work I am somewhat fond. In some of the press I’ve read she has been referred to as expressing a wisdom beyond her years. I’ve been wondering what that phrase, “wise beyond her years” might mean. On the surface there is something obvious about the description: Marling displays a certain knowledge that the reviewer/critic has achieved in his/her life even though Marling is years younger. Marling knows things at her age that the wise critic has learned in her/his longer life and greater experience. The critic says, “Marling knows things that I didn’t know at her age but that I’ve since learned. Therefore,” the critic concludes, “since I didn’t now then what I know now, and since Marling knows now what I now know even though she is younger than I, she is wise beyond her years.” In complimenting Marling, the critic applauds himself as well. Aren’t we both clever, the critic remarks in a moment of self-congratulation!
Dylan had reversed this equation years ago. In “My Back Pages” he sang:
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
Dylan identifies here the knowledge of youth as that which might more traditionally be identified as a conservativism of old age. It is a type of knowledge that divides the world in Manichean fashion into absolute polar opposites: good and bad, black and white, right and wrong. Since his youth, Dylan declares, he has learned that such classifications lack validity, and the inflexible critical positions he once assumed have now become less clear and his value judgments less secure. The absolute categories to which he once adhered have become too muddled.  In another context, in “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” a song written when he was yet in his early twenties, he sings of that time in his youth when:
As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split
There is in the song an awareness expressed that the romantic innocence of absolute certainty has no future, that its loss is sad, even tragic, but that its loss is inevitable. “We thought we could sit forever in fun/But our chances really were a million to one!” The possession of such innocence and certainty is priceless--“Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat, I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that” but that innocence and conviction can not be long held.  Nothing gold can stay.
Tolstoy addresses this position in War and Peace. In Volume III, Part Three, Chapter 2 Tolstoy addresses the Battle of Borodino during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. The narrator (not necessarily Tolstoy, of course) disputes the notion that battle plans are drawn up by commanders in the quiet of their tents and then executed according to plan. “A commander in chief always finds himself in the middle of a shifting series of events, and in such a way that he is never able at any moment to ponder all the meaning of the ongoing event. Imperceptibly, moment by moment, an event is carved into its meaning, and at every moment of this consistent, ceaseless carving of the event, a commander in chief finds himself in the center of a most complex play of intrigues, cares, dependency, power, projects, advice, threats, deceptions, finds himself constantly in the necessity of responding to the countless number of questions put to him, which always contradict each other.” One of Tolstoy’s points is that armchair generals and historians construct their analyses in the absence of any of this complexity and therefore, inevitably err in their oversimplified conclusions. There is too much complexity to conclude anything with any great degree of sureness.
As in battle, so in life. Interestingly, Tolstoy’s novel almost nothing turns out the way it had originally been intended. In our crude modern times we address this phenomenon as “Shit happens,” but in fact for Tolstoy (and Dylan, I suppose) this shit is in fact, life and life only. Life is too complex to ascribe an effect to any specific cause: in hindsight a pattern can be attributed to events, but that pattern cannot begin to approximate the complexity and ambiguity of life. Pierre recognizes this in Volume II, Part V, Chapter 1. Seeking answers he searches in the books: “He read, he read everything that came to hand . . .” But regardless of what he read he awoke in the morning, and “all the old questions seemed as insoluble and frightening as ever.” In such a state Pierre would grab for another book. And Pierre comes to understand that his reading—all activity finally—is an attempt to avoid the realization that “Nothing is trivial or important, it’s all the same.” The function of life is to behave so as to avoid this realization.
And so I return to the idea of Laura Marling’s wisdom beyond her years. Unless it consists of an awareness that what she knows now absolutely is false; or that she already knows that all true knowledge is of our ignorance, then her wisdom beyond her years (as the critic describes) consists in the critic’s confirmation of her own wisdom. However old s/he may be.