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.


Post a Comment

<< Home