The Heart of the Matter (part 2)

My last post ended up focusing on the need to understand the nature of the problem of pornography, but what I’m really trying to get at is seeing how people are shaped by the ideas they encounter and absorb, how this is particularly true of children, and how this generality might be applied to the concrete situations parents find themselves in when confronted with the need to make decisions regarding their children’s involvement in pop culture, with its attendant mores.

I take it for granted that everything we encounter in life, including everything we encounter in pop culture – from the pornography I mentioned, to music, movies, news product, sporting spectacles, etc. – is pregnant with ideas. That’s really not saying much more than that everything has meaning (a radical enough idea these days). I suppose I am pointing to that which is beyond the competence of empiricism to grasp; to what the poet would see in something, even if the scientist were oblivious to it.

Since I’m concerning myself primarily with pop culture, I will use an illustration drawn from it: Almost 35 years ago, the Haight-Ashbury (San Francisco) rock band Jefferson Starship published a song called Ride the Tiger which included the following verse, near the end:

It’s like a tear in the hand of a Western man,
he’ll tell you about salt covered in water.
But a tear, to an Oriental man,
he’ll tell you about sadness and sorrow,
or the love of a man and a woman.

Have a listen: [audio:]

Had this verse come from an Oriental man, I suppose it should have been taken as an insult. But coming from Westerners, it’s just another example of the self-loathing that afflicts liberal society. Either way, it’s a rather silly sentiment: overblown, and lacking any indication of meaningful interaction with either of these cultures. All the same, as clumsy as it is, it makes an important point – and one that is readily discernible.

No, it has nothing intelligent to say about Western and Oriental cultures, but it does say something important about different ways of approaching understanding, reiterating what I said above regarding the limits of empiricism. The dichotomy it posits could actually be pretty reasonably (if much less lyrically) restated as one between modern secularism and traditional society, but if the band had peered within traditional Western culture looking for the deeper meaning beyond the sterile, clinical superficiality of chemical analysis, they would have encountered historical Christianity, which would have forcefully challenged many of the assumptions of their own superficial antitraditionalism – it’s so much less demanding to get romantic over a past that has no claim on you…

So, even in this brief illustration, we can see how several layers of meaning emerge from the encounter with this song – and we’re only scratching the surface of it: examining a short lyrical excerpt, while completely ignoring the aesthetic elements of harmony, melody, and rhythm. Still, its meaning can be usefully analyzed.

Primarily, there is the meaning intended by the lyricist – which has both explicit and implicit levels. Implicitly, we are being told that things (e.g. tears) carry within themselves meaning that point far beyond themselves, through representation of and association with other things (the details of which we don’t need to delve into). This is profoundly true, and is the important phenomenon called transcendence, which is very much the point I’m trying to make in this post – though I am more interested in showing how it is true of things like songs than of things like tears.

Explicitly, we are being told that Western man is shallow, and incapable of seeing the transcendent meanings embedded in things, but that Oriental man can see them. This claim is not true, although it must be admitted that Western man has been intellectually pursuing this very reductionism, which denies (and hence is oblivious to) the transcendent. Nonetheless, that project, while very popular in the academy, has not (yet) overwhelmed the West. Meanwhile, the Oriental societies that have modernized are at least as bad off as the West in this regard.

Beyond the meaning intended by the lyricist, we can also understand quite a bit about the lyricist himself: by understanding what was intended to be said, what was implied, what was assumed, and how much resemblance any of this bears to reality – as well as how it fits into its historical context. This understanding is contingent upon our ability – and willingness – to think critically about what is being conveyed.

This leads us to the subjective element in the encounter. Regardless of how well we may or may not grasp the author’s intent, we will bring to it our own set of understandings of associations and representations. We will encounter it within the context of our own experiences, and the piece may end up taking on it’s own quite personal transcendent meaning in our lives, depending on how it shapes new associations for us.

My immediate reaction to this particular verse, at this point in my life, is to roll my eyes at the romanticism of it, because I have become sensitive, in my own search for truth, to a much deeper and more complex core to Western culture than is suggested in this caricature. I’m also aware that the tendency toward empirical reductionism, to the extent that it is an influence in Western culture, is driven, in part, by a progressivist worldview that both delights in frivolous novelty, and disparages traditional values (and traditionalism per se). But this progressivism, which produces such culpably sterile empiricism, is also very much at the heart of the rock music culture from which this band seeks to express its criticism of it.

This is why they think they find wisdom in their romanticized view of Oriental culture, and are so enamored of it. It possesses progressivism’s requisite novelty, and allows them to embrace a premodern or traditional perspective without acknowledging it as part of a heritage having an ancestral claim on them – it allows them to embrace it from the position of a consumer, who buys it because he likes it. If, instead, they had plumbed the depth of their own cultural heritage, and seen that their fathers were ready to bequeath them a similar, and even superior, wisdom, their self-righteous rebellious adolescent routine would have come apart at the seams rather quickly.

However, I first encountered this song as probably a 14 year-old, in 1974, not as a grown man experienced (at least peripherally) in the contemporary battles of the culture wars. I was, first of all, quite captivated by the rollicking buoyancy of the music, the infectious backbeat, the crisp work of a guitarist I’d never heard before… I was more than willing to put up with almost any level of lyrical banality. I was certainly not prepared to think critically about the kinds of ideas being transmitted – it was just a cool song.

I can’t really say how much influence the verse in question had on the formation of my early understanding of the nature and character of Western culture. It probably somewhat reinforced pre-existing prejudices against traditional wisdom, but I can’t say for sure. I do know that I was never swayed to the opinion that Oriental culture held some kind of existentially superior position to the West, through a sort of quasi-mystical access to a deeper meaning or state of being, access that had been bureaucratized out of the grasp of entrenched Westerners – and that was not an unpopular opinion, most notably in the form of the Transcendental Meditation fobbed off on young hippie “mystics” by the soon-to-be-billionaire Hindu Yogi who used the Beatles as his shill.

But I was only skeptical, not wise. I might have fallen for it, had I sensed something in it for me. One thing I can say for sure: the image of the tear that can be intellectually reduced to chemistry, or allowed to witness poetically to certain truths about the unfolding of human history, has stuck with me for all these years. It is a resource I can call upon, warts and all, to help explain the transcendent value of ordinary things. It turns out it was more than just a cool song: it was, for better or worse, a tortured worldview seeking souls to abide in. We simply can’t consume without, in some way, becoming.

We always begin our encounter with a piece of music – and its encounter with us – with the objective presentation of the artist. Even when music is intentionally presented so as to have no explicit meaning, it retains implicit meaning from its creator, and before any digestion can begin to take place on our part, it is that objective meaning that we consume (assuming we can tolerate it to begin with!).

Needless to say, it is not all of equal worth, and a lack of discrimination on our part will surely lead to consuming some foul fare. It’s too simplistic to say that all that matters is what we do with it once we’ve consumed it; what “it” is, is determinative for what we can do with it. We are what we eat.