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

Monday, August 12, 2013

Harriet Smith's Lack of Education Hasn't Hurt HER None: JD Salinger, GB Shaw, Paul Simon & Jane Austen's Character on the Rise

Over the weekend, as my wife and I were driving to dinner and listening to the local radio station that plays (Sixties and Seventies) oldies, we both took particular pleasure in listening to Paul Simon's song "Kodachrome". It gave my wife a chance to display her skill at singing harmony to a great melodic chorus, and it gave me a chance to savor once again one of my favorite Paul Simon lyrics, most of all this memorable opening stanza:

When I think back on all the crap
I learned in high school
It's a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn't hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

I have listened to that song maybe 150 times since Simon first recorded it, but it never occurred to me till the other night that he had drawn inspiration for the voice of the alienated, sarcastic persona of those lyrics from an even more famous speaker of a strikingly similar alienated and sarcastic opening line:

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

What a rich irony! Here we have Paul Simon, in what presents as an ungrammatical, anti-intellectual rant in his opening line, actually winking broadly at what is arguably the most famous opening line in all of 20th Century literature, that of Catcher in the Rye!  Simon is having his artistic cake and eating it too, emulating Salinger on multiple levels ("David Copperfield kind of crap" actually tells us, right off the bat, that David Copperfield is an important literary source for Holden Caulfield himself). Simon conceals his literary erudition in plain sight beneath a sneering "uneducated" vernacular veneer, and as a result pretty much nobody has recognized his literary gamesmanship for 40 years.

How cool is all of that!? I already ranked Paul Simon in the very top rank as a songwriter, but this raised him a few more notches in my estimation. And it never dawned on me, even two days ago after spotting the allusion to Salinger, that Simon would shortly rise another few notches still!

Let me explain---this morning when I was browsing in Emma for an unrelated purpose, it came as a complete surprise to me when I stumbled across yet another layer in Paul Simon's layer cake of understated ironic allusions, which was, as my Subject Line suggests, Austenesque!

Surely my taking note of the pitch perfect irony and erudition of those lyrics, which sensitized my neurons to hear in them an allusion to yet another great work of literature with which I am (and most of you are) deeply acquainted. What had previously been invisible to me in Emma, Chapter 4, is a line spoken by Harriet Smith when Emma lectures Harriet about bad education and bad influence, and Harriet immediately bows to Emma's wisdom (or so it seems, at least to Emma and, even today, to many readers of the novel):

"You understand the force of influence pretty well, Harriet; but I would have you so firmly established in good society, as to be independent even of Hartfield and Miss Woodhouse. I want to see you permanently well connected, and to that end it will be advisable to have as few odd acquaintance as may be; and, therefore, I say that if you should still be in this country when Mr. Martin marries, I wish you may not be drawn in by your intimacy with the sisters, to be acquainted with the wife, who will probably be some mere farmer's daughter, without education."
"To be sure. Yes. Not that I think Mr. Martin would ever marry any body but what had had some education—and been very well brought up. However, I do not mean to set up my opinion against yours—and I am sure I shall not wish for the acquaintance of his wife. I shall always have a great regard for the Miss Martins, especially Elizabeth, and should be very sorry to give them up, for they are quite as well educated as me. But if he marries a very ignorant, vulgar woman, certainly I had better not visit her, if I can help it."  END QUOTE

"...Not that I think Mr. Martin would ever marry any body BUT WHAT HAD had some education...."  -- many readers smile and shake their heads ruefully at "poor Harriet"'s atrocious grammar, and admire how Jane Austen subtly conveys to us Harriet's woeful lack of education, without beating us over the head with some heavy-handed narrative explanation.  And some well-read readers perhaps speculate at this point that George Bernard Shaw might have had this passage in Emma in mind when he conceived the characters of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins for his Pygmalion, whose relationship is so memorably connected to grammar---and they'd be right as the rain that falls in Spain on that point.

But those who pity "poor Harriet" are failing to read the "writing on the wall" in Emma, as, I claim, Paul Simon well understood. The "writing on the wall" I am driving at, is that Paul Simon, in the first stanza of "Kodachrome",  not only alluded in an obvious way (obvious, that is, once you spot the connection) to The Catcher in the Rye, he also alluded very very subtly to Harriet Smith's response to Emma's lecture about the meaning of a real education in life!

Once you see Harriet as playing the "dumb blonde" with Emma, and as demonstrating, on the ground, the power of "street smarts" to easily defeat expensively acquired but useless accomplishments in the Game of Life, you realize that Harriet is having some very sophisticated fun here, in deliberately using bad grammar to prime the already powerful pump of Emma's snobbery and narcissism,  and thereby to keep Emma as a kind of puppet on a string, a string which Emma is blissfully unaware of.

The readers who, like Emma, smile ruefully at Harriet's bad grammar, are clueless, for exactly the reasons Paul Simon so poetically captures in his lyrics---Harriet's lack of formal education really hasn't hurt her none, quite the contrary. Harriet (like her LUCiferically clever "twins", LUCy Steele and Charlotte LUCas) has learned her lessons well in the School of Hard Knocks, and that's why Harriet can indeed read the writing on the wall of her sexist world.

Harriet, at age 18, has already figured out that the only way for an illegitimate girl lacking in formal education to grab any crumbs from the pie so greedily hoarded by the rich and powerful men of her world, is to use her street smarts to attach herself to, and to dupe, a rich heiress like Emma. In this way, Harriet, over the course of the novel, carefully maneuvers herself to a position where, by Chapter 47, she can actually take a  legitimate shot at landing the largest fish in the local pond-Mr. Knightley. And I suggest that Harriet would have reeled him in, had Knightley not turned out to be a whale. 

And it's in that encounter in Chapter 47 that we find the bookend to Harriet's "but what had"---- Harriet's suddenly remarkably adept & complex syntax when she abruptly sheds her ungrammatical mask and speaks English every bit as "educated" as Emma's, without dropping the syntactical ball even once!--Here, read this speech as if you didn't know who was speaking, and tell me if you agree with me that it sounds nothing like the Harriet Smith we have been reading during the first 46 chapters:

"I should not have thought it possible," she began, "that you could have misunderstood me! I know we agreed never to name him—but considering how infinitely superior he is to every body else, I should not have thought it possible that I could be supposed to mean any other person. Mr. Frank Churchill, indeed! I do not know who would ever look at him in the company of the other. I hope I have a better taste than to think of Mr. Frank Churchill, who is like nobody by his side. And that you should have been so mistaken, is amazing!—I am sure, but for believing that you entirely approved and meant to encourage me in my attachment, I should have considered it at first too great a presumption almost, to dare to think of him. At first, if you had not told me that more wonderful things had happened; that there had been matches of greater disparity (those were your very words); —I should not have dared to give way to—I should not have thought it possible—But if you, who had been always acquainted with him—"
"Harriet!" cried Emma, collecting herself resolutely—"Let us understand each other now, without the possibility of farther mistake. Are you speaking of—Mr. Knightley?"
"To be sure I am. I never could have an idea of any body else—and so I thought you knew. When we talked about him, it was as clear as possible."
"Not quite," returned Emma, with forced calmness, "for all that you then said, appeared to me to relate to a different person. I could almost assert that you had named Mr. Frank Churchill. I am sure the service Mr. Frank Churchill had rendered you, in protecting you from the gipsies, was spoken of."
"Oh! Miss Woodhouse, how you do forget!"
"My dear Harriet, I perfectly remember the substance of what I said on the occasion. I told you that I did not wonder at your attachment; that considering the service he had rendered you, it was extremely natural:—and you agreed to it, expressing yourself very warmly as to your sense of that service, and mentioning even what your sensations had been in seeing him come forward to your rescue.—The impression of it is strong on my memory."
"Oh, dear," cried Harriet, "now I recollect what you mean; but I was thinking of something very different at the time. It was not the gipsies—it was not Mr. Frank Churchill that I meant. No! (with some elevation) I was thinking of a much more precious circumstance—of Mr. Knightley's coming and asking me to dance, when Mr. Elton would not stand up with me; and when there was no other partner in the room. That was the kind action; that was the noble benevolence and generosity; that was the service which made me begin to feel how superior he was to every other being upon earth."
"Good God!" cried Emma, "this has been a most unfortunate—most deplorable mistake!—What is to be done?"
"You would not have encouraged me, then, if you had understood me? At least, however, I cannot be worse off than I should have been, if the other had been the person; and now—it is possible—"
She paused a few moments. Emma could not speak.
"I do not wonder, Miss Woodhouse," she resumed, "that you should feel a great difference between the two, as to me or as to any body. You must think one five hundred million times more above me than the other. But I hope, Miss Woodhouse, that supposing—that if—strange as it may appear—. But you know they were your own words, that more wonderful things had happened, matches of greater disparity had taken place than between Mr. Frank Churchill and me; and, therefore, it seems as if such a thing even as this, may have occurred before—and if I should be so fortunate, beyond expression, as to—if Mr. Knightley should really—if he does not mind the disparity, I hope, dear Miss Woodhouse, you will not set yourself against it, and try to put difficulties in the way. But you are too good for that, I am sure."
Harriet was standing at one of the windows. Emma turned round to look at her in consternation, and hastily said, "Have you any idea of Mr. Knightley's returning your affection?"
"Yes," replied Harriet modestly, but not fearfully—"I must say that I have."   END QUOTE

Unmasked--like the Duke in Measure for Measure when Lucio pulls off his disguise as a friar---Harriet is ten times more powerful a personage than Emma ever was.  No wonder that Emma emerges from this encounter plunged into despair, as she contemplates a life in which Emma herself is left single and utterly out in the cold of Hartfield society, while Harriet---beloved of Knightley and speaking the King's English, no less--sits at the center of the first circle. Harriet Smith, truly---as Jane Austen intended, and as George Bernard Shaw well understood--a character on the rise.

 In light of all of the above, it's little wonder that Paul Simon, in a 2008 interview, referred to the first line of "Kodachrome" as the "most interesting" line in the song---now you know several reasons why!

And I couldn't resist finishing with another stanza from "Kodachrome" which confirms that Paul Simon meant to allude to Emma in this song, in a variety of ways:

If you took all the girls I knew
When I was single
And brought them all together for one night
I know they'd never match
And everything looks worse in black and white

You give us those nice BRIGHT colors
You give us the GREENS of SUMMERS
Makes you think all the world's a SUNNY day, oh yeah!

Just think about it---Emma, the self-styled imaginist, famously testified to the merits of a sweet imagination to savor the greens of summer on a sunny day......

"The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood;—and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it. It was a SWEET view—SWEET to the eye and the mind. English VERDURE, English culture, English comfort, seen under a SUN BRIGHT, without being oppressive." 

....and would, had she lived in the era of color photography, perhaps have adopted as her motto "Everything looks worse in black and white".  But Paul Simon is being ironic, once again, because "black and white" does not merely refer to a type of photography, or even to the fading of memory over time---it also refers to Emma's unnuanced perception of her world--she sees Harriet Smith in "black and white", led down a garden path by Harriet's masterful role-playing,  and so it happens to be true, in that sense, that "everything" (that happens in Emma) "looks worse" (i.e., is perceived inaccurately) "in black and white".

And this, in subtle nuanced tone colors, is Paul Simon, a very sharp elf, who did honor to the great ironists, Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw & J.D. Salinger, and gave a tip of the hat to "poor Harriet" Smith.

If you want to know the truth.

Cheers, ARNIE

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