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
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."
"...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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
My SWEET IMAGINATION
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
....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"
If you want to know the truth.
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