Oh, Where Have You Been: A Chain of Influence from “Lord Randall” to Iron & Wine

For this post, we’re going to look at three songs which I think share a pretty direct lineage. I encourage you to give all three tracks a listen if you don’t know them already. (And if you do know them, give ’em another listen anyway. They’re all good songs!) Some of the similarities and differences will likely be apparent even going in cold, while others I think become clearer after some discussion.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s start our deep dive.

I. “For it’s now that I’m dying…”

The first song is the early-modern English folk ballad “Lord Randall.” As with basically all folk ballads passed down through the oral tradition, there are many versions of the song that you can find. I’ve gone with Jean Ritchie’s recording because I’m fond of her voice, but what I’m about to say applies to pretty much any version of the song that you might come across.

“Lord Randall” tells the woeful tale of its title character. Our young man has been in “the wild wood” with his true love, who made him “eels boiled in broth” for dinner. This dinner appears to have had an ominous effect, because his bloodhounds “swelled and they died,” and upon returning home his mother deduces that he’s been poisoned. In his final breaths, Lord Randall wills his possessions to his parents, while to his true love: “I’ll leave her hellfire,” for she is the killer. It’s an old-fashioned murder ballad, and one that turns on a mystery to boot.

To get a good handle on the song’s form, let’s take a look at the first stanza.

“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?
Oh, where have you been, my handsome young man?”
“I’ve been to the wild wood. Mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary with hunting, and I fain would lie down.”

On a skeletal level, “Lord Randall” uses a loose variation of long meter, where each line of the quatrain has four strong stresses (“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?”) I say “loose,” because the third and fourth lines of each stanza arguably have five stresses each, but as Ritchie sings them the middle-most accents (“Mother” and “and,” respectively) don’t get the same emphasis as the others. Also of note: “Lord Randall” doesn’t rhyme, but rather uses consonance to link the ends of each line sonically. The constantly changing vowels may sound awkward to modern ears, but I’d argue that the lack of perfect rhymes fits the tragic subject matter.

One might also note that “Lord Randall” is dramatic in nature, by which I mean it presents itself as a dialogue between two characters. Each stanza begins with Lord Randall’s mother asking a question about her son’s recent journey, and ends with Lord Randall’s response and a plea that he’s tired and “fain would lie down.” In this song, much of the conflict is driven by an imbalance of information: the mother is in the dark, and her son is reluctant to tell her the whole truth.

A final noteworthy aspect about the song’s structure is its heavy use of refrains. The second halves of both of the mother’s lines are repeated in each stanza (“Lord Randall my son,” “my handsome young man”), as is most of the son’s dialogue with some variations. This heavy repetition makes the song’s dialogue highly stylized, if not ritualistic, but it also gives the song’s narrative an interesting progression. Even though the mystery continues to unfold in the listener’s ear, it simultaneously keeps turning back to previously stated niceties. The story is both linear and cyclical.

In terms of the narrative, what I find most compelling about “Lord Randall” is the gradual change in the title character’s attitude from start to finish. It’s easy to read the son’s responses to the mother’s questions as attempts to end the conversation. “Let’s stop talking,” he seems to say, “I want to go to bed.” Once the fact of his dying comes out, though, he stops trying to shut down the dialogue. Instead, he starts speaking performatively, his words assigning goods and fates upon his relations. At the moment of his death, he finally takes action.

II. “I’m a-goin’ back out…”

Let’s jump now from early-modern England to the mid-20th-century United States. Released in 1963 as part of the seminal album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” occupies a unique position in Dylan’s early discography. The song is a mixture of Dylan’s three primary impulses from this period: the socially-conscious songs that made him famous, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”; the impressionistic, more personal lyrics he would start fully exploring on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964); and, our main focus here, the canon of English-language folk songs that drew Dylan to the Greenwich Village scene in the first place.

As we did with “Lord Randall,” let’s take a look at the opening stanza to get a sense of the form:

“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?”
“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains.
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways.
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests.
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.
I’ve been ten thousands miles in the mouth of a graveyard.
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

The influence of “Lord Randall” should be apparent. Just like the earlier folk song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a piece of dramatic poetry, between an unidentified parent and their “blue-eyed son” who has been out in the world and experienced a great deal. The parent’s dialogue in particular calls to mind “Lord Randall,” with the repetition of “Oh, where have you been” and the affectionate terms for their child.

When the blue-eyed son starts speaking, though, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” starts to deviate from its model. While Dylan’s song maintains the loose, four beat rhythm, it does not bother with the strict consonance of its predecessor; in fact, it forgoes similar end sounds entirely. Instead, the song’s organizing principle is parallel syntax: each line begins with the same construction of “I’ve + [verb]” (except in the final stanza, which includes “Where…” statements as well). More so than popular song, the piece resembles free verse poetry in the vein of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. It’s an unconventional choice, but that syntactic repetition still gives the piece a strong sense of musicality.

Further, as you’ve no doubt noticed, the son’s dialogue in each stanza is far more expansive and variable than it is in “Lord Randall.” In the folk song, the son always speaks two lines at a time, and if you factor out the refrains his responses are quite curt: “I’ve been to the wild wood,” “I dined with my true love,” etc. By contrast, the son in Dylan’s song is someone given to rambling. Not counting the closing refrain (more on which later), the son’s parts in each stanza range from 5 to 12 lines. The strictures of the folk song literally cannot contain this character’s speech.

And just what does the blue-eyed song have to say? Well, as is often the case with Dylan’s lyrics, there isn’t really a coherent literal scenario. This is no murder ballad, with a clear and causal narrative. Instead, the poem is organized around a series of associative leaps. It’s not a travelogue, but a creatively arranged list of impressions. Still, one can often see links between one image and the next. The first stanza, for instance, uses number as a jumping-off point (“twelve misty mountains,” “six crooked highways,” “seven sad forests”), while in the second stanza the “black branch with blood” precedes hammers “a-bleedin’.” As with much of Dylan’s work, the point is not to pin down one true meaning, but rather to play around with what has been suggested.

Still, the song does end on one clear note: the speaker has to keep telling their story. There is some bleak event on the horizon, that “hard rain” the speaker keeps returning to in the closing refrains. What that hard rain signifies is, of course, not stated, but whatever it is, it calls for a response. Thus, in that last stanza, the conversation shifts from the past to the future. “Oh, what’ll you do now?” the parent asks, and the son says he’s “a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.” He will return to the world, as grim as it is, and deliver his message:

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.

Like “Lord Randall,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” ends on an active note for the speaker, in this case, laying out a plan for the future. But the tones seem quite different. There’s no resignation present here, no reluctant acceptance of death. The son does not give into that hard rain, does not say he “fain would lie down.” Instead, it ends with optimism, so much so that the verse even indulges in some concluding slant rhyme couplets. Dylan has taken the raw materials of “Lord Randall,” and used them to tell a totally different story.

III. “I dreamt of that sound…”

The link between “Lord Randall” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is pretty : the latter directly lifts the structure of the former. The link between “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and our final song for today, on the other hand, is more speculative on my part. A quick Google search tells me that I’m not the first to make this connection, but it’s entirely possible that the similarities here unconscious rather than intentional.

With that disclaimer out of the way: let’s move up to January 2011. It’s my senior year of high school, and I’ve been conversant in Bob Dylan’s music for about two years. Sam Beam (better known as Iron & Wine), a singer I’ve just become familiar with, has released his fourth studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean. The lead-off track, “Walking Far from Home,” is an emotional power-bomb of song—one that still gives me chills—but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard something like it before. A few listens later, and it hits me: it’s a rewriting of “Rain.”

Like Dylan’s song, “Walking Far from Home” strings together an associative list of images detailing a journey out in the world, with heavy use of parallel syntax to organize things. The speaker has seen everything from “children in a river” whose “lips were still dry” to “a bird fall[ing] like a hammer from the sky.” Once again, there’s no clear narrative here, but rather a series of impressions building to a climax.

Yet for all the similarities in content, there are some significant differences in structure. Take a look at the opening stanza here:

I was walking far from home,
Where the names were not burned along the wall.
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small.

First off, for the first time in our discussion we have perfect rhyme in a stanza, with “wall” and “small” helping to form an ABXB rhyme scheme. This already sets it apart from both “Lord Randall” (consonance) and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (unrhymed). Second, while it’s possible to squeeze or expand lines into the four-beat pattern of its predecessors, that involves stressing words against the manner in which they’re sung. It’s a rhythm perhaps reminiscent of the ballad, but not committed to it. Third, the use of refrains only survives in the “echoing” final lines of each stanza, so the effect of cycling through a linear story has mostly been cut.

But the most significant structural change can only become obvious when the song is viewed in totality: there’s no dialogue. The speaker is the only one, well, speaking in the piece, and they’re not even implied to be addressing anyone in particular; there is a “you,” but the relationship between speaker and addressee is left vague. In that regard, Iron & Wine goes further than Dylan in making the “Lord Randall” narrative ambiguous. Not only is the content of their speech rendered impressionistic, as it is in Dylan’s song, but also the circumstances of their speech are left unstated.

I think this move, turning the dialogue of the previous two songs into an internal monologue, helps to explain the shift in how this song ends. The speaker in “Walking Far from Home” doesn’t conclude with a performative utterance like Lord Randall, nor does he resolve himself to a future course of action like the blue-eyed son. Instead, he uses the final verse to suggest that he’s come to a personal revelation because of his travels: he “saw a wet road form a circle / And it came like a call, came like a call / From the Lord.” What was once a movement toward external-facing action has now become the spark for inward-facing change.

IV. “Join me in song…”

To wrap this all up: why should we care about any of this? What difference does it make if we can trace contemporary indie music all the way back to early-modern folk songs? Isn’t this all just academic, all just trivia?

Well, partially. I did start writing this because I merely found it interesting. But I do think these songs offer us a lesson in how to use past works for inspiration. You’ve likely heard the expression, “Everything’s a remix,” that is, all art is a reworking of something that came before it. I think that’s true in the broad strokes, but it can miss the most important part of remixing: making what’s old into something new.

We can see that in these three songs. A 17th-century balladeer’s tale of murderous betrayal and motherly affection helped Bob Dylan to write a impressionistic call to action in politically stressful times. In turn, that song may have sparked Iron & Wine to write about an intimate form of salvation along a similar journey. These songs are, ultimately, in conversation with each other. But “in conversation with” does not mean “repeating.” There is little “remaking” here, and much more “making new.”

So, if you find yourself in a writing rut, you can look to a past work, figure out what makes it tick, and then write your own version of it. Just don’t be afraid to go unexpected places with it.

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Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece and would like to hear me yammer on some more about Bob Dylan, I wrote another blog post last year about the use of masculine and feminine rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” that you might find interesting.

Play the Hits, But Play Them Slant: On Steven Hyden’s “Twilight of the Gods”

I used to read a lot of Steven Hyden columns when I was in high school and undergrad. I’d look forward every month to him and Genevieve Koski debating the merits of various Hot 100 songs for The A.V. Club’s “This Was Pop” feature, and I immensely enjoyed some of the essay series he authored, such as Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation? (The A.V. Club, 2010) and The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll (Grantland, 2013). The way Hyden gracefully ties together basic rock history with his personal experiences, growing up in small-town Wisconsin and developing a fascination with classic rock, always appealed to me. After all, I felt I could relate to that story. I, too, was from a kid from the boondocks who became infatuated with the culture of the recent past.

However, I stopped keeping up with his work after Grantland, where he was a staff writer, ceased publication in 2015, and so I wasn’t aware that Hyden was still writing until I came across Brooke’s review of Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (Dey Street, 2018). Seeing that review triggered some warm memories for me, and I immediately put the book on my to-read list.

HydenStill, I went into Twilight of the Gods with an uncertain feeling, not because I didn’t know what to expect, but because I was fairly sure that I did. How much of the book, I thought to myself, would be brand new (or at least, new-to-me) insights and arguments, and how much would be reworded or repeated versions of past columns, ones that I had already read for free? That’s really something one must keep in mind when reading any book by a columnist: the possibility that you’ve literally read this all before.

Reprinting older material in a new format is, I want to stress, not necessarily a bad impulse. A contemporary short story collection may consist entirely of pieces first published in The New Yorker, but having a single volume of stories is certainly less cumbersome than tracking down a dozen random back issues of a magazine. And the ways an author orders and revises those stories may illuminate certain themes or connections among them that reading the stories in isolation would never reveal. Twilight of the Gods, I felt the need to remind myself, could do much the same for Hyden’s music writing.

With that as preamble, I’m going to ask two questions of this book. First: to what extent is Twilight of the Gods a rehashing of Hyden’s previous work? Second: in what ways does Hyden repackage that material, and do those methods improve the experience of reading it?

Question 1: What Have We Seen Before?

According to the book’s copyright page, four of its nineteen chapters contain direct reprintings of previously published material: three from The A.V. Club and one from Uproxx (which comes from that period after I’d lost touch with Hyden). That was actually less than I’d expected, and I only noticed one of them during my read-through: the chapter entitled “Keep On Loving You,” on 1970s and 1980s “corporate rock,” which reuses a large portion of his essay on REO Speedwagon’s 1981 album Hi Infidelity. I might use this as evidence that Hyden has good taste in his own work, as I’d rank that article among the best pieces he’s written. If Twilight of the Gods accomplished nothing else, I would still be glad that it helped preserve a solid piece of writing.

Of course, a writer can repeat themselves without doing so verbatim. Some sections are technically new pieces of writing but bare striking resemblances to earlier works. A good example is the Aerosmith section of the drugged-out rocker chapter, “Draw the Line,” which reads like a slightly condensed version of the band’s part in The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll. The two versions hit all the same beats: Aerosmith starts as a band famous for their party-ready music and their drugged-fueled creative process, who fall off for several years before they embrace sobriety and professional songwriters and attain even greater commercial success, serving as an exemplar of society’s changing attitudes towards drug use and artistry. Both versions even go out of their way to mention how getting Aerosmith concert tickets is a plot point in Dazed and Confused. The expression of the ideas differs, but the substance is mostly the same.

Beyond arguments and insights, Hyden has a habit of reusing anecdotes outside their original context. For example, that Hi Infidelity article mentioned above opens with a bit about Hyden’s mother excitedly confusing R.E.M. with REO Speedwagon, but that doesn’t appear in the corporate rock chapter. Instead, it’s included as an aside-within-an-aside in the chapter about live albums, “Hello There (Live at Budokan).” The book is peppered with moments like that: brief flashes which would only draw attention if, like me, you had no life seven years ago and reread Hyden’s columns like they were about to go sour.

From all the above, I’d say that, to someone familiar with Hyden’s previous work, Twilight of the Gods will definitely sound familiar, but the experience of reading it won’t be completely redundant. Whether that’s enough to make the book worth a read is up to you—and if you’ve never read Hyden, I suspect it’s wholly irrelevant.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the more interesting question.

Question 2: How Has It Been Repackaged?

Let’s start this section off with the macro-level, and get the book’s major misstep out of the way. Hyden structures these otherwise loosely-connected essays around Joseph Campbell’s notion of the monomyth, or hero’s journey. The book is broken up into four parts, each of which is named for a section of the hero’s journey, from the start of their quest to their moment of transcendence. In practical terms, this means that each section’s essays roughly touch on the same theme: one section will talk about the roots of the classic rock, another about the decadence and corruption associated with it, another with the format’s decline in popularity, etc.

For the record, I tend to find the popular usage of Campbell to be rather tedious in the best of times, but in the case of Twilight of the Gods it actively weakens the book by asking the reader to look for a progression that doesn’t exist. Hyden knows that explaining classic rock is too messy a subject to fit into this sort of straitjacket, and for all the personal moments in the book, they’re not focused enough for the collection to be a work of self-revelation. It is true that Hyden often wants to highlight the quasi-spiritual aspects of being a classic rock fan, saying he was drawn to “the mythology of it, which satisfied the part of my psyche that demanded connection to a vast, awe-inspiring reality.” But there would simpler ways of conveying that notion than halfheartedly gesturing towards some hero’s journey.

I think Hyden would have done better to keep the connective tissue linking the essays to a minimum, because his quiet callbacks to earlier pieces can be pretty powerful. The best example is from “Keep On Loving You,” right as he closes out the REO Speedwagon section, where he refers back to earlier essays about his teenage passion for the classic rock staples in a moment of empathy with his mother:

My mom would never describe Hi Infidelity in these terms, but I think REO Speedwagon for her represented a more down-to-earth version of the rock mythos. As a kid, I was attracted to larger-than-life rock stars with exaggerated personas rooted in decadent mysticism. I longed to go on a misty mountain hop and venture all the way to the dark side of the moon. But my mother was too experienced to buy into those silly, pie-in-the-sky fantasies. What she longed for was more mundane but in a way no less fanciful—a decent guy who was earnest about love. That’s why Hi Infidelity made her heart sing. Her notes might have been off-key, but they were true.

Importantly, this closing paragraph is not part of the original piece of Hi Infidelity. It’s the sort of insight that Hyden probably had previously come to, but which didn’t fit in with that first conception of the piece. In the context of a broader account of classic rock, though, Hyden has a justification for making that link between mother and son in the text itself.

Even within individual essays, Hyden finds ways to refine points he has previously mulled over, finding new significance for them in the context of classic rock’s complete story. The most explicit instance is in “So Bad,” in which Hyden directly quotes his essay on the “five-albums test.” In a long parenthetical to that essay, he also defines the concept of a “good ‘bad’ album,” an album from a genius-level artist which is interesting precisely because of it’s relative badness. (As a long time fan of Neil Young, I am overly acquainted with this sort of record.)

Twilight of the Gods isn’t the first time that Hyden has returned to the “good ‘bad’ album” concept; he ran with it a bit further when discussing The Rolling Stones’ 1981 album Tattoo You. But in both those earlier articles, one can sense Hyden feels stymied. He has this idea about “good ‘bad’ albums,” but hasn’t yet figured out why anyone should care about it. (Indeed, the Tattoo You piece starts with Hyden expressing surprise that no one had latched onto the idea in the comments for the five-albums test article.) It’s not until he gets to this book, this personal history of classic rock, that he finds the importance behind this pet concept of his: it’s central to being a younger fan of older music:

It’s the only way to discover “new” music if you’re into classic rock—you must dig into the albums that people tell you that you won’t like, and you must listen to them many, many times until you find a way to like them. Because you will inevitably tire of Pet Sounds, and when that happens you will come around to Love You and marvel over the daffy synth sounds in “Johnny Carson,” and speculate over whether Brian Wilson’s state of mind makes this song an intentional classic or an act of unintentional “outsider art” brilliance. Over time, you might even convince yourself that Love You is better than Pet Soundsbut, really, it’s just that liking Love You is more interesting, because music critics haven’t told you how to feel about it for fifty years. Love You doesn’t contain better music than Pet Sounds, but it does offer more in the way of discovery and surprises.

As a writer, this is the sort of thing I wish every big project would give me. Putting together a collection should not merely be a means of presenting previously written material. It should be a means of figuring out what I wanted to write in the first-place, couldn’t figure out until now. That Hyden is able to do so in Twilight of the Gods makes me both envious and hopeful.

On the whole, Twilight of the Gods isn’t a revelation for someone who has previously read Hyden’s work, but, lackluster superstructure aside, it’s a chance to see Hyden’s writing as the best version of itself, a place to see thoughts which were still works-in-progress or presented incompletely as the tight statements on music they were meant to be. It’s like listening to a bunch of Fleetwood Mac demos, and then hearing their polished versions on Rumours. They may ultimately be the same songs, but the compiling and revising has made them sparkle just a bit more.

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Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this and want to read more pieces which straddle the line between review and analysis, you might like to read my thoughts on A Journey Through Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscomb.

On Paratext: An Essay Near Knowing

Note: This post is an imitation of the style of essay found in Brian Blanchfield’s book Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat, 2016).

On Paratext

Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source

The first context in which I heard the word “paratext” spoken aloud was, of all things, a speedrun. For his contribution to Summer Games Done Quick 2018, FoldableHuman (a.k.a. Dan Olson) played through the notoriously bad survival-horror game Amy. Whereas most speedrunners, based on the limited sample of such runs I’ve watched, focus their commentary on the mechanical aspects of playing the game quickly, FoldableHuman made his run a presentation on the narrative and thematic aspects of the work. Notably, during a tedious-to-play-through segment of Chapter 3, he took the time to discuss how the game’s title character, a young girl who the player-character must shepherd through a sudden zombie apocalypse, is coded as being on the autism spectrum. Amy’s autism is not explicitly mentioned in the game itself, though her in-game behavior may suggest it. Rather, one finds evidence in the game’s paratext.

Paratext—that which is around the text, above and beyond it—refers to the collection of ancillary texts which frames the main text, which attracts and transitions the audience into it. Sometimes the paratext is attached to the text itself, as in the title of a poem, or a video game’s packaging. Other times it’s disconnected, obscure, even private: an advertisement, say, or the artist’s personal correspondence. In the case of the Amy speedrun, FoldableHuman cites the existence of marketing materials and interviews with the developers as evidence that the title character should be understood as being on the autism spectrum. As such, it is fair to criticize the game for how it depicts people in that community—its paratext invites that discussion.

Since watching that speedrun, the word “paratext” has been on my tongue a great deal. There are two reasons for this, I suspect. The first is that I find “paratext” to be a fun word, a word which at the same time evokes the fantastical and the mundane. On the one hand, it calls to mind such words as “paranormal” and “parapsychology,” terms which suggests worlds and ways of knowing beyond everyday experience. After all, one must often dig beyond the naked text to find the paratext. On the other hand, paratext has a certain “parenthetical” quality to it. A phrase enclosed by parentheses is implied to be digressive, expendable, interesting as trivia but not essential to the main argument. The oddity (the paradox?) of parentheses is that, by their visual appearance, they call attention to what they’re supposed to close off. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, but if covers were pointless would publishers bother including them?

The second is that I want to write an imitation of the style of essay found in Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Among the devices which Blanchfield uses frequently, especially at the beginning of essays, is meditating on a word, discussing its etymology and drawing out its implications. I feel that to write a successful Blanchfield imitation, I need a suitable word, and “paratext” is the best that I’ve come up with. It’s semi-obscure, and even better, I think that acknowledging paratext would have some thematic resonance with Blanchfield’s book.

To start with the title, that omnipresent example of paratext, the book is called Proxies and subtitled Essays Near Knowing, both of which suggest something that can only be approached indirectly, or partially. “This book will be exploratory,” the title tells us, and we may see the paratext surrounding it as a guidebook, a map, for that exploration. Moving to the book as a physical object, we find a rather minimalist display: the title and the author’s name in white text, printed on a black field. No cover image, no exciting typeface—this is a book where language, and by that I mean pure language, has primacy over the visual, or the visual rendered through text. (I’ve been tempted to include some visuals in this blog post—a picture of the book, an embed of the archived Amy speedrun—but to do so, I believe, would violate the spirit of Blanchfield’s work.)

Turning Proxies over to the back cover, we find the kind of paratext I most associate with poetry collections and literary prose: the blurb. Blurbs from critics or established writers are a standard part of book marketing, but my preferred genres raise the blurb to a vacuous artform. The literary blurb attempts to canonize a given book through sheer grandiosity, as though every collection were the First Folio and every friend and former teacher tasked with writing one, Ben Jonson. My senior year of undergrad, I complained to my thesis advisor about the blurb-industrial complex, and as a result he lent me a copy of Nick Demske’s self-titled collection of quasi-sonnets, whose sole blurb is a generic commendatory letter from Paul Ryan, Desmke’s representative in Congress, on winning a poetry prize. I have to assume Ryan never read the book, though most blurbs are so generic, who’s to say that’s not the case from writers as well?

Personally, I’ve stopped reading the content of blurbs. I merely skip to the attribution line now, and use my knowledge of the blurb-writers’ own works as a proxy for what the text in question will be like. If Brenda Shaughnessy likes a book, my thought process goes, I might enjoy the book; if Graham Foust likes it, I should stay away. In the case of Proxies, Blanchfield received a blurb from Claudia Rankine, the poet behind Citizen: An American Lyric, which I first read for an informal book club while at Johns Hopkins; Maggie Nelson, whom I have heard of but have never read; and two others whose names were wholly foreign to me. Not the ideal line-up of writers for me to make a judgment, but Rankine’s name may have sold me on Proxies had I come to the text naively. Whereas the cover design draws my attention to the book’s language, Rankine’s endorsement primes me for a book of social engagement, one which will be sympathetic to or in the voice of marginalized groups.

Further down the back cover, one finds the name of the publisher: Nightboat Books. For a giant publishing house, the presence of the name means very little to the reader; it’s hard to say what exactly the HarperCollins brand means. For small presses, though, there’s more often a distinct house “style.” In the case of Nightboat, the name signifies a level of formal inventiveness and academic density. I’ve had a mixed history with Nightboat’s catalog. On the one hand, I greatly admired Jill Magi’s Labor, which combined poetry with prose narratives and instruction manuals to comment on the contemporary state of the academic worker. It was a book I pulled at random from the Hopkins library stacks, and I’ve considered finding it to be among my happiest accidents. On the other hand, I found Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue to be needlessly opaque, a work whose whole text reads more like paratext. I read it for the same book club for which I read Citizen, and I contributed nothing to that particular discussion. I’m certain that had I done so, it would have come out as little more than frustrated rage.

At certain moments, in hindsight, I suspect my hostile reaction to Kapil’s work was grounded less in aesthetics than in my own insecurities. I was the youngest member of our cohort at Johns Hopkins, the one person who came straight from undergrad, and I feared at the book club that I was also the person least versed in contemporary developments in poetics. While I had read some late 20th- and 21st-century poetry in writing workshops, almost all the poetry I had studied in a critical context was early modern: Chaucer, the Renaissance dramatists. Kapil’s book demanded a fundamentally different background to understand it, perhaps, and it is so much easier for readers to blame the book than themselves.

Nightboat tends to publish authors who the Johns Hopkins English Department would invite to give poetry readings. I was a student in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, whose taste in poetry is traditional, canonical, formalist. The English Department, on the other hand, prefers that which is contemporary, subversive, experimental. At least, so go the stereotypes. I’m told that there is a rivalry, if not outright hostility, between the two departments, although just about every interaction I had with the English department, faculty and students both, was at least cordial and oftentimes friendly. Indeed, I knew one of the English doctoral candidates from my time at Carnegie Mellon. (To a certain, the grad students in both departments had to get along, as we shared a common workspace.)

It was at one of the English Department poetry readings that I first became aware of Proxies. In effect, if not in fact, this was the primary paratext that brought me to Blanchfield’s work. It was a Friday in late October 2016, right after our readings class for the week had let out. (Indeed, my colleagues and I had to hustle downstairs and down the hall to make in on time, because our class ran long.) The room was pretty packed compared to the other readings in the series, and in my opinion the crowd’s presence was more than justified. Blanchfield’s presentation was engaging, but natural, never self-consciously performative. His choice of essay to read showcased the breadth of his powers as a writer, offering something to audience members of all aesthetic stripes. I dare say it was the best reading I saw while at Hopkins, certainly the best out of the English Department.

In one crucial sense, though, the reading was a disappointment. The event was advertised as being a poetry reading—even reading the text comes with paratext—but it seems the people in charge of booking writers for the series neglected to tell Blanchfield that. He did what writers are wont to do at such events: read from the book he was trying to promote. To the extent that was his goal, it worked. In the parlance of the book blogging world, Proxies immediately went onto my TBR afterwards. Had I been a fan of his verse, I may well have been put out by that turn of events. But then again, if what is delivered is engaging, who cares about the packaging? Paratext is merely suggestion, not a contract, right?

The place where the concept of “paratext,” as I’ve been discussing it, feels most relevant to Proxies is also the place where I’m least certain the term applies: the introduction laying out the project. The conceit, or less charitably the gimmick, of Blanchfield’s book is that all the information presented in each essay is based solely on his memory. He makes no use of search engines to find facts; he doesn’t return to books to verify how he paraphrases their points. (To paraphrase, that is, to speak around what has been said.) Instead, he includes a lengthy section at the back of the book called “Correction,” where he corrects whatever mistakes he subsequently finds in the essays, for instance, how he attributes Plato’s mistrust of poets to Aristotle.

Is that introduction paratext? I’m not certain. An introduction does constitute part of a book’s front matter, alongside (para-) such elements as dedications, epigraphs, and the table of contents: all clear instances of paratext. But that page-and-a-half of preamble is so integral to understanding the essays as a collection that deeming it above, beyond or around the main text doesn’t capture its significance. Or is the correction section the truly integral part of the text, and the introduction merely the explanatory link between the essays and the corrections? I’m alas a poet, and one not especially fluent in literary theory. I’m not qualified to discuss these topics. I have just used the format of Blanchfield’s essays to give myself permission to do so.

In fairness, I’d argue that’s also what Blanchfield’s essays do for the author himself. From their titles, their paratext, one might assume his essays are technical and detached. They have names like “On Propositionizing,” “On Abstraction,” “On the Leave.” And, true, many start out that way. But those high-minded concepts are really entry points, permission, to discuss more intimate matters. “On Frottage,” the piece he read at Johns Hopkins, begins with an exploration of queer sexual terminology before transitioning to his life as a gay man in 1990s New York, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. “On Peripersonal Space,” my pick for the collection’s best essay, uses the title concept as a metaphor for Blanchfield’s formerly tight, now strained relationship with his mother.

I’ve done nothing quite so bold or naked here, though I believe thinking through this piece has allowed me to reflect on my time at Johns Hopkins. I find myself at a transitional point in my professional life, and I’m still unsure of how to process everything that has happened in the past few years. (Certainly “On Dossiers” has scared me off of pursuing academia, at least in the near term.) Perhaps I have latched onto paratext over text because it represents the point before commitment, the last experience before actual experience. It is the perfect element for someone who is only “near knowing” at time of composition.

Correction.

In FoldableHuman’s Amy commentary, he does not use the exact word “paratext,” but rather its adjectival form: “There is no direct reference to autism in the game, but there are paratextual references to it. It was used in interviews, in promotional materials for the game. The developers did highlight this aspect of it.”

In addition to the title, subtitle, and author’s name, the front cover of Proxies also includes, in small print and curly brackets, the phrase “a reckoning.” Neither the other paratextual elements nor Nightboat’s website indicate that this phrase is an additional subtitle. Rather, it appears to serve a similar function as the phrase “Poems” or “A Novel”—identifying the genre of a work while suggesting it possesses an aura of literary quality, the sort of paratext that brings not the reader, but a particular kind of reader, to the text.

According to Goodreads, I first placed Proxies on my to-read shelf on October 7, 2016, which would hardly qualify as “late” in the month.

Displacing Anxiety: Thoughts on Jill Bialosky’s “Driving Lesson”

Whenever I’m reading a poetry collection and I come across a piece that immediately captures my imagination, I like to flip to the acknowledgments page and see where that poem was originally published. Sometimes it’s out of idle curiosity, sometimes it’s because I’m looking for promising places to submit my own work, and sometimes it’s just to see if I can send someone a link to the poem without having to find a copy machine. Most often, the source is one of the usual suspects: Poetry, AGNI, The Kenyon Review. Every once in a while, though, the acknowledgements page gives an unexpected answer.

Such a surprise came to me while I was reading Jill Bialosky’s The Players (Knopf, 2015), as I learned that my favorite poem in the collection, “Driving Lesson,” was originally published in, of all places, The Chronicle of Higher Education, under the similar but more intimate title of “Teaching My Son to Drive.”

I’m not certain how the piece was originally published, but I was able to find the text of that earlier version of the poem on the Chronicle website. In what is an otherwise wholly digressive moment in her essay “Poetry and Suicide” (which, fair warning, discusses exactly that), Lisa Russ Spaar highlights “the ways in which Bialosky gives the antic world agency and displaces onto the careening trees, racing squirrels, and wild thrashers all of the mother’s anxiety about her son’s rite of passage.” On the whole, I find Spaar’s connection between the topic of suicide (which, in fairness, has touched Bialosky’s life greatly) and the argument of the poem to be rather tenuous. But that notion of displacing anxiety does, I think, fit nicely with how the poem handles ambiguous language.

Reading the poem, we understand that the speaker, a mother confronting the fact that her teenage son is growing more independent and that there is nothing she can do to prevent it, is projecting her dread onto the world around her. When she looks down at the speedometer and tells the reader, “I want him to slow down” (line 20), we understand that the speaker means two things simultaneously. First, on a literal level: she wants her son, who’s learning how to drive, to ease up on the gas. Second, on a metaphorical level: she wants her son, who’s approaching adulthood, to stop growing up.

That latter desire is, of course, impossible to satisfy; time simply doesn’t work like that. By using the external material of the speedometer as a point of reference, as a object onto which she can displace her anxiety, the speaker pulls off a nifty substitution: an impossible desire gives way to an attainable one. Her son cannot slow down the passage of time, but he can slow down the car. Perhaps, one may speculate, that would be good enough for the mother in these circumstances.

In terms of the how speaker displaces anxiety, the speedometer example is easy to pick out because the two elements of the process, the feeling and the object, come in quick succession. More interesting, however, are the places where those two elements are displaced from each other within the text of the poem. To read “Driving Lesson” involves coming across quasi-universal statements along the lines, “I want him to slow down,” without having their immediate context. There’s a consistent ambiguity at work here; the reader must keep asking themselves, “How am I supposed to take this?”

Let’s take two examples to get the idea. Consider the passage in which the speaker observes some horses as they drive past:

Horse farm on the side of the street
where we encounter a field
of young English riders with crops
preparing to mount the hurdles.
It won’t be easy. (9-13)

At first glance, this looks a lot like the speedometer example later on in the poem. After all, it certainly “won’t be easy” for the riders to leap over the hurdles. But, well, this poem isn’t called “Horse Riding Lesson.” It seems overly digressive for the speaker, who’s already using the driving lesson as a metaphor for her son growing up, to start likening her situation to the riders they happen upon. Furthermore, the riders’ situation actually seems dissimilar to the speaker’s, as their task is entirely physical, not emotional. While the horse imagery may suggest the line, “It won’t be easy,” through associative logic, what the image accomplishes is to displace the sentiment from the situation that occasioned it, namely, the driving lesson. Rendered more abstract, the thought becomes more bearable.

Let’s close things here by looking to the poem’s conclusion, which this time invokes the memory of a nature image rather than the image itself:

When I turn to look
I see the pensive boy in the backseat
strapped in his seat belt
watching two red squirrels run up a tree
and back down. (29-33)

It’s this finish that fully won me over to the poem. In terms of displacing anxiety, the speaker does so across so many dimensions. First, as in the previous examples, the speaker turns from the uncomfortable truth that her son is growing up to the youthful imagery of the frantic squirrels. But there’s so much more to this one, for the image is further displaced in terms of perspective (the son is the one watching the squirrels, not the speaker), time (he’s a “pensive boy,” not a teenager), and space (he’s in the backseat, not behind the wheel). The speaker has all but created a alternate reality of eternal motherhood within this moment.

Furthermore, the syntax of the final sentence manages to effectively displace the meaning of the poem. Look at that last line: “and back down.” The phrase “back down” can be taken two ways. In this context, the obvious way is as a parallel to “up a tree”: they run “up a tree / and back down [the tree].” They return to the start in the same way the speaker has mentally returned to an earlier state in her relationship with her son. But “back down” can also act as a verb phrase, meaning a kind of surrender—in this case, to the inevitable passage of time. That second meaning completes the speaker’s arc towards understanding and, as it happens, would fit the syntax of the sentence: if we add in the elided pronoun, then the phrase “and [I] back down” has a parallel structure with the preceding verb phrase, “I see.” “I see / … / and I back down.” The speaker understands the facts of life, however reluctant she may be to accept them.

As an exercise, read through Bialosky’s poem a few times and see if you can find any further moments of the sort of displacement that Spaar and I have discussed. Let me know your thoughts on the poem in the comments.

If you want to read more analyses of contemporary poetry, you might take a look at this post I wrote last year about the syntactical fireworks in Edward Mullany’s collection If I Falter at the Gallows.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”: An Analysis

Percy Bysshe ShelleyThis month’s poem analysis is a first for the blog: a reader suggestion! In the comments section for my post on Charlotte Smith’s “Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex” (which you can read here), Elizabeth of Serial Outlet recommended that I take a look at an English class staple: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” About four months later, and here we are!

I’ve put off diving into this particular poem for two reasons. First, having just covered a sonnet by a Romantic-era poet when I got the suggestion, I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself right out of the gate as someone stuck in that style and time period. Second, and more importantly, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the task. Of all the poem’s I’ve given the close reading treatment, “Ozymandias” is by the far the most famous. People who haven’t read a poem in decades remember this one from high school. As such, while I let the poem stew in my mind, I felt some pressure to do the work justice, to contribute something of value to the conversation surrounding it.

Granted, the way this essay is headed, that pressure may have been misplaced. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Ozymandias

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

At first glance, this looks like a straightforward account of hubris. The statue of Ozymandias (i.e., Ramesses II of ancient Egypt) boasts of the pharaoh’s grand works, all of which now lie in ruin. Even the highest among us are not immune to the ravages of time; we all are bound to erode into “lone and level sands” (line 14). A simple message, albeit very grandly stated. But I think the poem has more on its mind than that, and it might help to start with how the poem’s account is presented.

Let’s begin by taking the text of the poem as a self-contained unit, like we’ve found it on an ancient sheet of papyrus with no context to guide us. The first word of the poem, “I,” presents us with the voice of some unknown first-person speaker, suggesting that what follows is some personal testament. Having implicitly introduced themselves, the speaker then begins narrating their experience, of how they “met a traveler from an antique land” (line 1). This sounds like the set-up for a story, but this already is the end of the story-present narrative.

In the second line, the poem then shifts into the voice of the traveler, as the first-person speaker relates their description of the sculpture—a description which comprises the remainder of the poem. There is some ambiguity as to whether the description is a direct quotation or a paraphrase, as it lacks the quotation marks which will later bound the inscription, but even in the latter case the speaker’s own voice would be sublimated to the traveler’s original account.

This account then continues uninterrupted up through line 9, at which point the traveler inserts a signal phrase, drawing attention to the coming second shift in perspective: “And on the pedestal these words appear”. It is here that the ruins speak, issuing their challenge to all who behold them. Once the inscription is recited, the poem shifts back into the voice of the traveler, who carries the poem to its conclusion.

But arguably, we are not done breaking down the rhetorical nesting here. On a meta level, we know that the poem is work of one particular author, Shelley, who per traditional analysis of poetry is a separate entity from the first-person speaker. On a diegetic level, we know that the statue of Ozymandias has an artist, who gave the the statue its inscription. And on a speculative level, Ozymandias is unlikely to have made the statue himself; he may have commissioned it, or the artist may adopted the pharaoh’s persona for the inscription.

So to summarize, here’s how deeply this 14-line poem embeds its story:

  1. It is the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who in writing it…
  2. …adopts the voice of a lyrical, first-person speaker, who then…
  3. …tells the audience an account he that heard from the traveler, who in turn…
  4. …quotes a statue’s inscription, which…
  5. …was the product of an unknown artist, who finally…
  6. …adopts or quotes the voice of Ozymandias.

That’s six levels of abstraction that Shelley’s poem presents the reader with. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a long way to go just point out the hubris of world leaders. So why bother with all that embedding?

You’ll notice that two of the voices involved in the poem are those of artists: Shelley (the flesh-and-blood person) and whoever sculpted the statue of the Ozymandias. If there’s one group of people that spend more time thinking about their legacies than do pharaohs, then it’s artists. A common sentiment that one finds in poetry about art is the notion that art grants one a kind of immortality. Even after one dies, the thinking goes, their works will outlast them and carry their spirit through the ages.

As “Ozymandias” reminds us, however, this notion borders on wishful thinking. We don’t know the artist behind the sculpture here, and we had to engage in some diegetic speculation to realize that such a person even existed. And their work’s existence is just as tenuous. Now reduced to “vast and trunkless legs of stone” (line 2), “a shattered visage” (line 4), and a pedestal, the statue is only a few steps removed from complete destruction. This is hardly a unique phenomenon: Paintings are lost and damaged, cathedrals crumble from neglect, and sculptures of kings wither in the elements.

One might think that poetry, which is not so tied to the fragile physical world, would be better suited for immortality than the plastic arts. We cannot commit a sculpture to memory, but we can do so with a poem. And this possibility is where I find “Ozymandias” most intriguing.

As mentioned in my throat-clearing introduction above, “Ozymandias” is a sonnet, albeit one with an unconventional rhyme scheme (ababacdcedefef). More so than any other form of poetry, sonnets often concern themselves with the possibility of immortality through art. This is especially true when it comes to romantic love, as the speaker will often promise the object of their affections, whose beauty will naturally fade with time, the chance to live forever in their poetry. A good example, which I will quote in full because of some similarities with “Ozymandias” in terms of imagery, is Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti LXXV (archaic spellings preserved):

Amoretti LXXV

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washèd it away:
Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
Vayne man, sayd she, that doest in vaine assay,
A mortall thing so to immortalize,
For I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
And eek my name bee wypèd out lykewize.”
Not so, (quod I) let baser things devize
To dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the hevens wryte your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.”

Spenser’s sonnet is a compelling digression here, because while the poet’s optimism gets the last word, the brief glimpse of the physical world that we’re presented with seems to support the beloved’s skeptical position. If we see how the ocean keeps wrecking the poet’s inscription on the sand, who is to say that a fire or a bookworm might not do the same to an inscription in parchment?

I get the sense that Shelley’s poem would side with Spenser’s beloved on the matter, as it too presents us with a world too fragile for much to persevere. One might suggest that the oral tradition will protect the work from decay. After all, the statue in some sense has survived the six levels of abstraction outlined above. But what, exactly, has survived that process? Certainly not the empire-building magnificence the statue was meant to project. And if Shelley were to recite this poem to us in conversation, which part would we ultimately take away and tell to others: the whole text, the traveler’s account, or the inscription? Even that which survives is prone to mutation through repeated tellings.

“Ozymandias” is not the only sonnet uncertain about the form’s traditional stance on immortality through art—Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXV (“[Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea]”) is also uneasy on the matter—but I can’t think of many others which make such a depressing case with such verve.

And we must conclude with the unavoidable irony: this poem, which is about what doesn’t survive through the centuries, has in fact survived for two centuries. So far. Knock on wood.

There’s my take. But what are all your thoughts on the poem? If, like Elizabeth, you have a suggestion for a future deep dive, then let me know in the comments!

If you enjoyed this close reading of a poem, perhaps you would also like to read my thoughts on prose. I recently looked at the use of dark humor in George Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia, which you can read here.

The Dark Comedy of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”

Until recently, if you had asked to me summarize the mood of George Orwell’s writings in one word, that word would be “terrifying.” In his two best-known works, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949),  Orwell’s depictions of totalitarian regimes are so plainly stated, with his prose possessing the bare minimum of ornament, that each spirit-crushing event in those novels comes across as inevitable. One leaves those books with a dull pain all around the heart, even if it’s accompanied by the urge to resist the coming catastrophe.

Homage to CataloniaRecently, though, I’ve started to revise that assessment, now that I’ve read through what is probably his third best-known book: Homage to Catalonia.

First published in the United Kingdom in 1938 and in the United States in 1952, Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s personal account of his time spent fighting against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Given the dire subject matter, I assumed that the mood of the work would match that of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. And indeed, Homage to Catalonia often leaves me despondent and feeling brutalized by the progress of history.

But it also shows, somehow, that Orwell is also quite adept at dark comedy.

I don’t want to say that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are entirely devoid of humor. The former in particular has some nice comical moments—I mean, it is a satire, after all. In particular, I’m thinking of Squealer’s justifications for the privileges the pigs seize for themselves, which read as though he’s crossed Pravda with Pangloss. But that humor takes place on the level of language; there’s not much humor on the level of situation. And, one may ask, how can there be? Those situations are rather deathly.

Yet in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell finds exactly that: scenarios which, by their sheer absurdity, get the reader to chuckle, though perhaps with a deep, doubtful sigh right afterward. I first noticed this fairly early on, near the end of Chapter III, where Orwell recounts a few instances where, by carelessness or miscommunication, he and his comrades almost die from friendly fire. Each near-miss merits a muted trumpet in the mind’s ear. The last sentence of the chapter neatly summarizing things: “In this war everyone always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible” (p. 37).

Now, in a war narrative, the presence of dark comedy is not exactly a revelation; the literature of war is riddled with spots of black humor, with the jokes soldiers tell as temporary relief from the strain of duty. What makes Homage to Catalonia interesting, I think, is how it uses that humor for more than just comic relief or satiric commentary. These moments of dark comedy are pivotal to understanding Orwell’s personal journey in the book.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from near the midpoint of the work, just before the turning point of Orwell’s fortunes. In Chapter VII (or Chapter VI in later editions which turned Chapter V into Appendix I), Orwell recounts a significant military operation he participated in, a mission to attack and raid a Fascist redoubt as part of the effort to capture the city of Huesca. After Orwell’s party manages to break through, Orwell spots a “shadowy figure,” one of the Fascists, and gives chase:

I started after him, prodding my bayonet ineffectually into the darkness. As I rounded the corner of the hut I saw a man—I don’t know whether or not it was the same man I had seen before—fleeing up the communication-trench that led to the other Fascist position. I must have been very close to him, for I could see him clearly. He was bareheaded and seemed to have nothing on except a blanket which he was clutching round his shoulders. If I had fired I could have blown him to pieces. But for fear of shooting one another we had been ordered to use only bayonets once we were inside the parapet, and in any case I never even thought of firing. Instead, my mind leapt backwards twenty years, to our boxing instructor at school, showing me in vivid pantomime how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles. I gripped my rifle by the small of the butt and lunged at the man’s back. He was just out my reach. Another lunge: still out of reach. And for a little distance we proceeded like this, he rushing up the trench and I after him on the ground above, prodding at his shoulder-blades and never quite getting there—a comic memory for me to look back upon, though I suppose it seemed less comic to him. (p. 92)

First, let’s consider this passage in isolation. Even if you don’t find this scene especially humorous, one can still see the elements of solid farce here: Orwell bumbling about with his bayonet, the possibility of mistaken identity, and the fact that the man Orwell is chasing “seemed to have nothing on except a blanket.” And the chase itself, with the two men running on different levels as Orwell keeps coming oh-so-close to stabbing his target, wouldn’t feel out of place is a silent slapstick movie. Throw on the understatement at the very end of the paragraph—no kidding “it seemed less comic” to fleeing Fascist—and the result is a sustained moment of comic relief. It’s the sort of anecdote one could whip out at a party without causing much consternation in the audience.

Within the context of the narrative as a whole, though, the humor of this passage is less relieving than it is deflating. On multiple occasions leading up to this sequence, Orwell states that one of his desires in fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War is to kill a Fascist. In Chapter IV, after he realizes that in his first three weeks in Catalonia he’s fired a grand total of three shots, he remarks: “They say it takes a thousand bullets to kill a man, and at this rate it would be twenty years before I killed my first Fascist” (p. 41). He’s less contemplative there than impatient, an impatience that reappears near the end of Chapter V/Appendix I: “When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist—after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct—and I had killed nobody yet, had hardly had the chance to do so” (p.70).

So here finally comes Orwell’s chance to do his part in the anti-Fascist cause: no more waiting around in the trenches, no more risking enemy fire just to gather firewood. He’s part of an assault on a Fascist redoubt, he finds an enemy combatant ripe for the gutting…and it’s a guy who appears to be fleeing from him half-naked. I obviously can’t know how exactly Orwell envisioned his first chance to kill a Fascist, but I’m fairly certain that running around like a farmer chasing a fox off his property with a pitchfork was not part of the fantasy.

But that implication of the passage is merely disappointing. There’s another aspect to it that strikes me foreboding, perhaps even tragic. Up to this point, I haven’t touched on that peculiar flashback Orwell has before he begins his thrusting campaign in earnest, the one where he remembers his boxing teacher telling war stories. On first read-through, I wasn’t sure what to make of that little diversion, but after thinking through the context some more, I think I have an angle on it.

First, there’s something trivializing about that flashback. At the moment Orwell has a chance to capture some military glory, his thoughts turn not to, say, the heroes of ancient mythologies, or to some iconography from war propaganda, but rather to a memory of schooling. Instead of going high and noble, he turns low and common. Further, the flashback represents how most people encounter combat: in abstractions, either secondhand through testimony (the war story), or in ritualized, rule-bound contests (the boxing lesson).

Second, the boxing instructor’s war story, while framed as a personal triumph, comes in the context of ultimate failure. The instructor tells (or rather, pantomimes) of “how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles,” referring to the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-1916, which was a notable exercise in futility for the Allied forces in World War I. They spent almost a year attempting to seize control of the Dardanelles, the strategically-important strait connecting the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara, en route to capturing the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, before giving up after having gained virtually no ground following the landing at Gallipoli. One can see a parallel between Orwell’s situation and the instructor’s: while the raid on the Fascist redoubt is a minor success, the greater anti-Fascist cause will prove a bloody calamity.

Bringing up the Gallipoli campaign also highlights the tragicomic irony of war. As Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected” (p.7). The Gallipoli campaign was supposed to be easy—aren’t all such operations?—as the battle would be waged against Ottoman forces that UK leadership believed were wildly inferior to British might. The result was a costly, diseased-ridden quagmire. By the same token, Orwell enters the Spanish Civil War with such simple purpose: he’s going to kill a Fascist and help defeat Fascism. Only after living with the conflict for some time, after enduring the bitter cold nights and the injuries of war and the Communist Party’s sabotage of the anti-Fascist effort, does Orwell learn the complexity beneath that simple purpose.

It is not for nothing that Chapter VIII, a summary reflection following the successful raid on the Fascist redoubt, ends with the bleak sentiment: “And after that the trouble began” (p. 107). In the subsequent chapters, Orwell will live through the street-war for the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona, the suppression of the P.O.U.M. and the mass arrests of its members, and a bullet through his throat that almost robs him of the ability to speak.

Yet for how bleak this all sounds—and is—the mere presence of dark comedy in Homage to Catalonia suggests one final thing about Orwell’s work here: there is still room for hope. This isn’t Nineteen Eighty-Four, where one suspects Newspeak is a language incapable of intentional comedy as well as political dissent. That Orwell can find humor in such dire circumstances feels like a testament to human freedom. Indeed, while Orwell grows disillusioned with the Communist Party as an institution, his time spent in the P.O.U.M. camp makes his “desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before” (p. 105). Even when the fight is hopeless, a cause may still be worth pursuing.

If you enjoyed this look into the literature of war, you may also be interested in my analysis of Thomas Moore’s Irish melody, “The Minstrel Boy.”

Murder Mysteries and Relaxation

I don’t watch very much in the way of television, so I don’t know what it says about my taste that Father Brown is one of my favorite shows. Inspired by the detective stories of G. K. Chesterton, Father Brown follows the adventures of the parish priest of the fictional English town of Kembleford (played by Mark Williams). As someone who spends much of his day inside a confessional booth, Father Brown is well-versed what drives people to commit heinous crimes, and he uses that insight—along with some genre-requisite sleuthing—to crack the case and, hopefully, save the guilty party’s soul.

This being a detective show, Father Brown has meddled in a fair number of police investigations. As of 2018, there have been 70 episodes of Father Brown. That’s 70 crimes for the priest to solve, which is an absurdly high number for a village in the English countryside. And the majority of those crimes are murders, which means that on a “homicides per capita” basis, the Cotswolds of this universe might as well be a war zone.

Now, it’s a common joke among mystery fans that, if all the murders on these British detective shows happened in real life, the countryside would be completely depopulated within the year. That the premise for a show like Father Brown in ridiculous is neither a new observation nor an interesting one. Rather, I’m more interested in my emotional response to all this murder.

A murder mystery can elicit all sorts of emotions from the audience. For one thing, the whodunit arouses one’s curiosity—even the name of the genre is a question. For another, there’s some vicarious thrill-seeking in following the detective as they track down the killer, aware of the peril they potentially face. There’s even an element of escapist voyeurism to murder mysteries, as they tend to involve aristocratic families in very fancy houses. All these are reasonable sounding guesses for what I might get out of Father Brown, but none of them hit the mark. No, I just find the show relaxing. This demands the follow-up question: how can a murder plot be relaxing?

The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this. My mother, to name just one example, will binge through reruns of Criminal Minds or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when she’s home sick from work, or she’s just finished unpacking and is tired from the trip. Why would my mother and I, when looking for a show to unwind to, pick, out of all possible subjects, murder?

A big reason, I suspect, relates to the form of a murder mystery. An episode of a show like Father Brown or Criminal Minds is a self-contained entity: it starts with a crime, ends with an arrest, no loose ends or hooks for the next episode. There’s no feeling of confusion going in or unsatisfied curiosity going out. These episodes will also follow a fairly set formula for getting from crime-to-arrest: a cold open showing or setting the stage for the crime, the detective or cops arriving on scene, the ups and downs of the investigation, the reveal, etc. If you watch one of these shows when it’s first broadcast, you can practically set your watch based on where you are in the narrative. That predictability may sound boring, but I think of it as more like the progression of rhymes in a sonnet: comforting in how it chimes.

Still, that only explains the appeal of formula television, not murder mysteries specifically. The same principles would apply to a medical procedural or a multi-camera domestic sitcom. What gives a murder show its particular soothing charm?

Brianna Rennix offers up a possible answer to that question. In a recent essay for Current Affairs, Rennix, who also finds murder mysteries relaxing, suggests that the appeal of a show like Poirot (her detective show of choice) lies in how it presents the act and effects of a murder:

[T]he Genteel Murder Mystery is about taking something horrific and making it charming, cushioning it in several layers of gauze, blunting all its sharp edges. It’s about shielding ourselves psychologically from a spectrum of human experience that, if we were fully conscious of it, would probably poison whatever sense of hope or pleasure we derive from our luckier experiences.

In Rennix’s view, when the audience for a Genteel Murder Mystery watches these sanitized depictions of murder, they can come to see the fact of murder as “an anodyne triviality,” which is much easier to deal with than, say, the six o’clock news. Why not unleash untold suffering upon the fictional Kembleford if it makes living in the actual world more bearable?

I like Rennix’s essay quite a bit, and I think that this “anodyne triviality” angle has some legs to it. One potential problem, though, is that it might be too generalizable to other genres of television. For example, might we say that a medical procedural does the same thing to life-threatening ailments that whodunits do to murder, making a certain “spectrum of human experience” more palatable? If there are people who turn to medical procedurals rather whodunits to relax, then I’m not sure Rennix has identified something inherent to murder mysteries, but rather to a particular style of storytelling.

We might be running up against a problem in philosophy known as the paradox of tragedy: why is it that we often derive from pleasure from representations of things we would find displeasurable is real life? It can be difficult to come up with a solution to the paradox of tragedy that isn’t applicable to art in general (e.g., we can draw pleasure from the skillful narrative craft of a tragedy, but that’s true of all stories and not just tragedies). A few years ago, Philosophy Tube made a video about this paradox as it applies to the horror genre, which frames the debate in an approachable way.

We’re not going to resolve the paradox in a casual blog post, so I’m going to leave this one open to you. Do you find murder mysteries and the like relaxing, and if so, why do you think that is? Let me know in the comments!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another post about Father Brown that I need to get around to writing.

If you liked this post, you might also like this older piece I wrote about the ethical experience questions I had while playing the idle game classic, A Dark Room.