A few days ago I began exploring how writers from Plato to Sebastian Brant to Katherine Anne Porter have written about a "Ship of Fools". This was inspired by my discovery that sixteen different songs with that exact title have been written and performed by major rock, punk, folk and pop artists between 1969 and today, and that several of these songs are remarkably good.
How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.
I stumbled upon our society's most fascinating enduring metaphor by chance. Clicking around on iTunes, I noticed that I owned six different songs called "Ship of Fools".
But these weren't six different versions of one song. "Ship of Fools" was not a classic cover song, like "Dancing in the Streets" or "Hallelujah". Rather, six different songs called "Ship of Fools" were written and performed between the 1960s and 1980s by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant.
Strangely, all six were good songs, which seemed to me as significant as the fact that all six had the same title. How often do six good songs show up in a row on a random playlist? What on earth, I wondered, was going on with this ship of fools? What was this meme about?
In about four months we're going to hear a few news blips about the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's final defeat at Waterloo, which went down on June 18, 1815. It's a good guess that the tone of these news blips will be apathetic and comical, that few attempts will be made at serious understanding or insight.
The lack of public interest in Napoleon represents a great fall in reputation for the French leader who was for his entire adult life the most famous and important person in the world. His reputation was once so gigantic that he remained the most famous and important person in the world long after his death in 1821. His cult of personality outlived him, and "Napoleonic" wars and revolutions would roil Europe and the Americas for at least another 100 years.
Opinions about Napoleon during this long era of emerging nationalism and revolution verged towards extremes: his memory was worshipped in rock-star fashion by progressives and Romantics, and he was vilified as a near-Satanic destroyer of civilization by conservatives and traditionalists. Napoleon was most beloved among aspiring citizens of emerging nations who yearned for liberation from ancient regimes. He was most despised in the countries that were his military enemies, particularly England and Russia. Perhaps it's because his name provoked such an unbearable level of divisiveness that he was eventually passed into history not as an important figure at all, but as a buffoon, a cartoon, a subject of delusion, the punchline to a forgettable joke.
GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND.
I saw Kathy Acker's name fly by in a tweet yesterday. Her name carries power for those who remember it. Alternative and transgressive literature blossoms in today's Internet-powered cultural scene, but there was a time (back when Ronald Reagan was President and a lot of things were lamer than they are today) when Kathy Acker was the only young punk writer in the world with any amount of fame. That was a lonely era for a serious indie voice of the streets, but Kathy Acker played her role with style and class.
She died of cancer in 1997, when she was only 50 years old and had a lot more writing to do. Looking back at her body of work today, it seems clear that empowerment was always her mission. Her literary role models were men -- William S. Burroughs, Charles Olsen, Jerome Rothenberg -- but her influence seems to be most strongly felt among woman writers who heard her call for empowerment via unapologetic self-expression. Her influence can be traced through many voices that have dared to be brash over the years, from Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill, Tama Janowitz and Maggie Estep to JT Leroy, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Porochista Khakpour, Paula Bomer. Every one of these controversial writers must have had to dig deep within to find the confidence to write without fear. They may not have followed Kathy Acker's direction, but they did walk in her trail.
Twenty-five centuries ago, a Hindu scholar named Panini produced an analysis of the Sanskrit language so remarkable that later language theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure would eventually cite it as the foundation of linguistics itself. Panini shows up in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a new book by novelist and computer programmer Vikram Chandra, who describes the ancient scholar's achievement thus:
His objects of study were both the spoken language of his time, and the language of the Vedas, already a thousand years before him. He systemized both of these variations by formulating 3,976 rules that -- over eight chapters -- allow the generation of Sanskrit words and sentences from roots, which are in turn derived from phonemes and morphemes ...
The rules are of four types: (1) rules that function as definitions; (2) metarules -- that is, rules that apply to other rules; (3) headings -- rules that form the bases for other rules; and (4) operational rules. Some rules are universal while others are context sensitive; the sequence of rule application is clearly defined. Some rules can override others. Rules can call other rules, recursively. The application of one rule to a linguistic form can cause the application of other rule, which may in turn trigger other rules, until no more rules are applicable. The operational rules "carry out four basic types of operations on strings: replacement, affixation, augmentation, and compounding."
This is interesting on its own, but a reader who shares Vikram Chandra's familiarity with technology will probably notice how much fun Vikram Chandra is having here with words that have become standard computer programming jargon: "rules" and "metarules", "override", "recursion", "trigger", "operations on strings". The problems that concerned Panini as he read the Rig Veda in 400 BCE are apparently the same problems that concern software developers around the world today.
There are some days when only a very old poem will do. Sometimes a 2600-year-old poem. Here are a few selections from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work. -- Levi
The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world
That which has no substance
Enters into that which has no openings
From this I know the benefits of unattached actions
The teaching without words
The benefits of actions without attachment
Are rarely matched in the world
As Mike Leigh's majestic new movie Mr. Turner begins, the famous British artist J. M. W. Turner's father buys pigments for his son in a dusty London shop. The vast psychedelic arrays of glass jars filled with powders of viridian, chrome, cobalt, barium and ultramarine seem as magical as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter or the Cheese Shop in Monty Python. The pure pleasure of this visual moment is a happy indication that Mike Leigh intends to luxuriate in the beauty of 19th Century England as joyously as he did in Topsy-Turvy, his previous biographical epic, and for Mike Leigh fans this is very good news.
It's a telling fact that as I settled in to watch a movie starring the great actor Timothy Spall as the influential British painter J. M. W. Turner, the artist I was mostly thinking about was Mike Leigh. He is one of my favorite living film directors, but he mostly turns out sensitive modest-budget films about regular people in contemporary settings (I wrote about one of these, Happy Go Lucky, last year). He is known for a low-key natural style, but when he delves into grand history (as he did in Topsy-Turvy, in which Gilbert and Sullivan debut The Mikado at the Savoy) he spares no expense on sets, costumes and period detail. I can think of no other historical film director who achieves such a convincing sensation of realism. When Mr. Turner strolls the riverfront at Margate, we can practically feel the refreshing spray on our cheeks.
A strange kind of anxiety can occur when attending a concert by an artist like Bob Dylan. I was struck by a sense of this anxiety as I stepped into Constitution Hall in Washington DC last night. I began to worry that it would impact my enjoyment of the show.
This can happen. A few years ago I attended an amazing Ralph Stanley show in a smoky nightclub in Virginia. All night long, I felt so overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting there staring at one of the very inventors of modern bluegrass style, the small craggy old man calmly shredding his banjo strings in front of my eyes, that I forgot to tap my feet.
I think of this sensation as a form of anxiety because it's a self-disturbance, an unwanted reaction. When I have the privilege to hear a musical genius in person, I want to simply sit there and enjoy the music. I want my brain to be quiet while the sound waves soak in. Instead, I sit there pondering the significance to musical history. This happened to me in an especially bad way in 2006 where I luckily found myself at the famous Jay-Z concert in New Jersey where Nas came out to end his beef with Jay, and to share the mic with him on "Dead Presidents".
I was already very pumped at this point in the show, especially since Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, P Diddy, T.I., Freeway, Young Jeezy and Kanye had already been on stage -- so when Nas showed up, what did I do? I pulled out my phone and texted Caryn, and since this was 2006 and I wasn’t very handy with texting yet, this ended up taking a while, which distracted me from living in the moment itself. (Caryn later told me that she never saw the text anyway, as she had already gone to sleep).
If you only know the (great) movie version of Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind, you might think Atlanta was burned in a day. But a city as big as Atlanta can't be burned down that easily. It took General Sherman's army nearly three months, from September 1864 to November, to reduce the entire city and railroad center to ashes. The first of the three months was exactly 150 years ago.
150 years ago: the conflagration blazes around us. Of course, the clever journalist turned fiction writer Margaret Mitchell was not there for the original burning. It would take several generations before the young lady began typing her manuscript from a quaint room on Peachtree Street, imagining Scarlett O'Hara moving in to Aunt Pittypat's house on the same uptown corner.
If you're on the east coast of the USA these days, you might catch a painted bus called Furthur running up and down the seaboard. This colorful vehicle is named after the original Furthur that took novelist Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Ken Babbs and the rest of the Merry Pranksters across the country on a famous road trip 50 years ago. I caught up with Zane Kesey and the giant rolling metaphor he designed for his father when they finally rolled into Brooklyn, New York last month.