Friday, March 20, 2009

Look Underneath the Floorboards...

"Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.

For this people's heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it." -- Matthew 13: 10-17

Believe it or not from the opening quote, this is actually a semi-sequel to my last post. It was rather late when I wrote it, so I published it unfinished just to get it out there. Because of the advanced hour, I think I failed to adequately communicate one of my main points about Paul Simon and Sufjan Stevens, which is their propensity for, to use the Kierkegaardian term, "indirect communication".

Let me step back a moment. One of Kierkegaard's obsessions is how one communicates about faith; he believes it to be impossible to do so directly. In the speaking of words about faith, something essential to the faith is lost. Therefore one must communicate indirectly through means such as irony and paradox. Though frustrating, these means help others by forcing them to appropriate faith for themselves.

Now, one does not have to wholeheartedly agree with Kierkegaard in order to recognize the value of indirect communication. Jesus used it often; without having done a tally, I would venture to say that a majority of what he says in the Gospels is indirect, whether through parables of merely intentionally veiled sayings. I remember Dr. McMahon, in his lecture on the Prodigal Son, mentioning that one of the purposes of the parables was to act as a catalyst for inward reflection -- to see oneself inside the parable.

We Americans have a distaste for irony and paradox. Our pragmatism pushes forward -- if words don't solve a problem, what's the point in wasting your breath? That is perhaps one reason we cling to science and technology, which give us a place to hang our hat; they promise straightforward answers which require little reflection (whether that twin headed beast actually delivers on that promise is more of an open question than some might imagine -- but that is a post for another day). Put another way, we love answers but despise questions.

So what does all of this have to do with Simon and Stevens, ostensibly the foci of this post? Well, part of what I tried to communicate last post (perhaps so indirectly as to be a bit too obscure) was that they were both masters of communicating about the lives of people not through lists or chronology, but through abstract word pictures, metaphors which succinctly capture what a human life is like.

Tonight I wish to expand on that a bit, because there is a double layer of indirect communication which often takes place in these songs (oh wouldn't Soren be proud!). At the same time as they use abstract pictures to convey the lives of people, Simon and Stevens also use those lives as illustrations of abstract concepts -- what a reflection! Let me give examples...

Paul Simon's song "Train in the Distance" has always been a favorite of mine off of his criminally underrated album Hearts and Bones (his lowest selling album, but in the top three of my favorites). On the surface it is a simple narrative: boy meets (married) girl, they fall in love and have a son, they start fighting and drift apart. It is filled with wonderful images (e.g. "She was beautiful as Southern skies the night he met her") which describe the process of two people falling in and out of love. But in reality the song is about more than just telling a story. It is about the restless longing which drives people ever onward, and sometimes drives them apart from what would really satisfy. This is best shown through the line which appears from verse to verse: "Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance; everybody thinks it's true". What a beautiful, mysterious phrase. The train sounds its whistle, sweet and appealing from far away. Certainly it must continue to bear down on us, rooted inevitably to its track. Yet we ourselves are moving it along its terrible course; we fulfill our own predictions through the chug-chugging of our desires.

Sufjan Stevens is perhaps best known for his announced intention to write an album for each of the 50 states. Some see this as a tiresome gimmick, but what they fail to realize is that Stevens is gifted enough to make the idea work. What he is ultimately interested in is not cataloging the idiosyncracies of each member of the union (and thank goodness; I can only imagine the thrilling masterpiece that would be "North Dakota"), but using whatever concepts he chooses as platforms for his musings. Most of the tracks on his album Illinois work both as a description of things unique to Illinois and as meditation on some theme, often spiritual.

"John Wayne Gacy, Jr." is a startling track, unlike any other of which I can think. Relatively stripped down for a Stevens song, it is a tender acoustic number about everyone's favorite touchy-feely subject, a man who raped and killed teenage boys. What is so unnerving about the song is the tenderness which Stevens affords to Gacy. He details John Wayne's childhood traumas and treats his subject with remarkable sympathy. In the end his intention becomes clear: the song is a meditation on the hidden depths of sin in people's lives. Just like John Wayne hid the bodies underneath his floorboards, and hid behind a clown's facepaint, so Sufjan hides every day from those around him. The secret evils of the heart are buried deep, and we would rather no one stumble across them.

Two songs about an uncomfortable subject, the hidden destructiveness of sin. In Simon's song, the heart is a locomotive, charging ever forward to its wayward goals. For Stevens, the heart is a serial killer which hides its victims in shame. Hard words to hear, but that is the critical point. For indirect communication will always drive some away with its hard words -- indeed, that is the point! But without the offense there cannot be true faith, true greatness. The buffoon of much of Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments is the bumbling Assistant Professor, who is ripe with self confidence but low on actual greatness. He pontificates but never really creates; he is to be pitied above all others. This is essentially because he believes things can be known and communicated directly, out in the open; that things are easy to understand. This man, when he bumps up against the paradox of indirect communication, has no idea what to do. Jesus described himself as both the cornerstone but also the rock of offense, the stone of stumbling! Either you will balk at the paradox or embrace it.

One final point: I think that indirect communication is one hallmark of great poetry. It is not enough to simply record events; the role of the poet is to translate them into imaginative language. This is why Simon and Stevens are among the most poetic of songwriters; they transcend the song form and acheive real poetic value. Anyone can speak directly about life, but it takes a poet to tell you in veiled ways.


Ash said...

many of the posts in my blog do not actually mean what they look like they mean. it's my way of writing about what I can't say directly. hardly (if ever) anybody ever sees the underlying meaning, and it's okay with me, because at least I still got to write about it.

Karl Johnson said...

Oh, it is so nice to hear someone talk about this veiled approach to songwriting! I remember having a conversation with someone (who shall remain nameless) who couldn't understand why a poem wouldn't always be completely clear and understandable on the surface.

Rufus Wainwright is also a MASTER of these sorts of word pictures. You've heard me perform 11:11, I think. It is just so rich in its imagery and I couldn't even really explain why I am so drawn to it.

The Erstwhile Philistine said...

Ash: one of the things I enjoy most about your blog is getting to guess what is going on. Even though I doubt I am right very often, it is quite a fun exercise.

Karl: I would like to hear more R.W. You should hook me up, along with Myths and Hymns.