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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Take these broken wings and learn to fly and to read so free

I have recently gotten into Pandora (the website/app) bigtime, in a way that surprises me--but it's a surprise to me only because I had not till a few weeks ago grasped the "killer app" aspect of Pandora for me, which is that, via my IPhone, I can listen to music of any kind at any time, including plugging into my car radio.

Anyway, Pandora led me to realize sometime cool today that turns out to be not just about music. I was plugged into Pandora in my car, listening to Paul McCartney sing a live version of his Beatles song Blackbird, and as Macca sang “take these broken wings and learn to fly”, I suddenly made the connection to the Eighties song, with a completely different melody, which also had those identical words in part of its lyrics.

I quickly searched and brought up, on Pandora, that other song, which was by the two-hit wonder, Mr. Mister, and listened with wonder and amazement to the repetition of lyrics in their song.

For those of you not into pop music, here are the respective lyrics:

Mr. Mister: So take these broken wings and learn to fly again, learn to live so free…

McCartney: Take these broken wings and learn to fly….All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free

Now, don’t get me wrong, I know this is not an earthshaking discovery. There is no great mystery here, the obvious explanation is that the songwriters (John Ross Lang, Richard James Page & Steven Park George, as I just learned) for Mr. Mister intentionally transplanted (“sampled”) some of the most memorable lyrics from McCartney’s song into a very different musical setting.
So then, why am I mentioning it in a discussion group for Jane Austen? For a good reason, and I will explain now.

I must have listened to the Beatles song Blackbird several hundred times since I first heard it 43 years ago, and I must have heard those lyrics in the Mr. Mister song a hundred times or more, too, since I first heard it 26 years ago. But I never ever connected the two before today. And I am going to guess that very few people who have also heard both of these songs a lot over many years (and I bet there are many millions of such people) have made that connection.
And that’s my point, which is that sometimes obvious connections between two texts can hide in completely plain sight, disguised only by different context. And the brains of many music listeners like myself have compartmentalized those two identical lyrics, and have never connected the musical dots.

The interesting question for me is, what was different for me today that made me see the connection? Partly it was the excitement of the new adventure with Pandora, the liberating feeling that, no matter where I am in the world, as long as I have a signal on my IPhone, I can, within a minute, locate and then listen to _any_ song that comes to my mind, as long as I can recall the name of the performer and the title and/or some of the lyrics of the song. That put me in a mood for making connections.

But it’s more the result, I think, of the literary sleuthing I’ve been doing the past 9 years, where I’ve been training myself to see such connections in words. So when I heard Blackbird _this_ time, the song was the same, but I was different!

And I would suggest to you that this is the way--whether they are writing songs or novels—many “word artists” operate, too. They borrow words from other writers of words, and don’t do it because they are not creative enough to make up their own words, but because the earlier writer’s words had worked their way into the latter writer’s creative brain, and wound up taking a curtain call in a different “costume”.

Blackbird is the more poetic of the two songs. It seems to be about attaining freedom from the pain of the past. Broken Wings seems to be about repairing a damaged relationship. I am not particularly motivated at the moment to analyze that transformation between these songs, and to see whether there is something interesting in it.

But when I find such connections between the words of Jane Austen or Shakespeare, and the words of other writers, I am _very_ motivated to sift through these connections for meaning. And that is exactly, I realized shortly after my little musical adventure, what I did the other day with Eliot’s Waste Land and Emma (and NA). Never having read The Waste Land before 3 days ago, perhaps it was easier for me to spot the connection, because I had no context on the Eliot side of the ledger for those words. Whereas Eliot scholars have a huge amount of context for those words, without regard to Jane Austen.
So when Elissa suggested yesterday that the reappearance of “Highbury” “Richmond” and “lovely woman stoops to folly” in The Waste Land was so obvious that many others have seen it before me, I beg to differ. I would suggest very much to the contrary.

A very large number of scholarly articles have been written during the past century, analyzing the literary allusions that the very learned TS Eliot embedded in this relatively short poem, and I browsed through a number of them during the past few days. I will not bother to list all the different authors who preceded Eliot, whom he covertly honored in this poem, but it is not a short one, and it includes several all time literary immortals. So it would be very very surprising indeed if any scholar had seen the connection between The Waste Land and Emma and then did _not_ think it worthy of an article. Especially because, unlike Dante and Shakespeare, whom many Eliot scholars have analyzed as important allusive sources for Eliot, from what I can see only _nobody_ among Eliot scholars seems to see _any_ connection between Eliot and Austen, let alone this particular connection.

And this might seem odder still that no one has seen any Austen-Eliot connections before, because pretty much all the literary scholars who have studied Eliot’s poem have also read at least some Jane Austen as well, and many of them have read a lot of Austen.

But that was my point with my little anecdote about “Blackbird” and “Broken Wings”---the _setting_ of these words in Eliot’s poem is so utterly different from the setting of these words in Emma and NA, that even those very familiar with _both_ works have never seen the connection.

And I conclude by pointing you all to the following article:

Eighteenth-Century Fiction Volume 17, Issue 1 2004 ppg 1-15 “ ’The setting always casts a different shade on it’: Allusion and Interpretation in Sense and Sensibility “ by Mark Blackwell

Blackwell’s title alludes to the scene in S&S where the color of the hair in the locket is made salient, and he uses that as a springboard for an insightful and original analysis of the decisive importance of perspective, in the processes of human perception and cognition. There is no question in my mind that JA was a connoisseur of literary settings casting a myriad of subtly different shades on words, both as a writer and as a reader.

As for the rest of us, my own example tells me that it is possible for ordinary readers “to learn to fly and to read so free.”

Cheers, ARNIE

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