Thursday, July 30, 2009

Intentionality + My Morning Jacket

And so, as a teacher and a student of literature, I tend to assume intentionality when I read. That is, if I read something on page 200 of a novel that seems like it connects to something from page 3, or if an image toward the end of a book dovetails perfectly with a question that gets raised earlier in the book, or if a particular verb in a poem works exceptionally with a specific idea that the poem seems to explore, I assume that the author intended exactly such connections.

Thus, I assume it's no accident, no coincidence, that Borges has the narrator of "The Babylon Lottery" specify, of all things, a mask factory.

Likewise, I assume it's no accident that in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the boy not only has a nightmare of a penguin that moves without winding, without anything to move its mechanical insides, but also that a gang of marauders, of road agents, are likewise described in very mechanical terms. Not that the boy's nightmare is explicitly about evil roving gangs, or that the penguin is (god forbid) a symbol of such gangs, but that the sum of an image of something moving without purpose, without intent, without any motivation at all and an image of Definite Evil winds up (as you might guess, or as might be obvious) being greater than either individual image. If that makes sense. What, after all, could be more frightening to most humans than the notion that we're all moving / existing / living without purpose, without reason? (Isn't Ahab's greatest fear that he might punch through the mask, punch through the wall, and find that there is nothing, absolutely nothing behind it?

Likewise, I assume it's no accident how often words and images associated with blindness arise in the opening of Joyce's "Araby."

And films, too. I have to assume that even Steven Spielberg was thinking when he inserted that shot of the truck's tailpipe kicking out exhaust five minutes into E.T.

But I don't tend, except in isolated cases, to give the same benefit of the doubt, if that's what it is, to music. Or, not to lyrics, anyway. Sure, if something is explicitly put together as a "concept album," then it kind of begs that sort of attention. Or, if an artist goes out of his way to use the same words or names or images (like Van Morrison's use of "Cypress Avenue" as a setting), I might go looking. And, certainly, I'll find myself assuming musical / chordal associations between songs on an album. But not that often. And not in the same way as I do with books or poems. So, when I was running earlier today and My Morning Jacket's "Anytime" shuffled up and I heard Jim James sing, "Words only got in the way / But then I found another way to communicate," I wanted to assume a connection between that claim and the fact that the opening song on the album (Z, maybe a top ten entry for the last decade, for whatever that's worth) has a "Wordless Chorus." But, ultimately, I had the exact reaction that I try to push my students away from when reading: must have been an accident. A happy one. Maybe even a meaningful one, but an accident nonetheless.

1 comment:

Nobis said...

I reckon that's why Ahab hates/loves the whale in the first place. Tis a reason to exist, a goal, a "special purpose," as Navin R. Johnson would put it.

And time flies, mi amigo. It really is time to start the best albums of the decade debates. Wow. Oh Y2K, I hardly knew ye.

See you manana (that first n oughta have a tilde above it, you know, but I don't really care to figure out how to put one there), el hombre de magico blanco!